[REVIEW—OLYMPUS E-PL7]

Price: $787
Retro styling, modern performance

THE LOW-DOWN: This newest addition to the retro styled Pen series of 16mp compact interchangeable lens cameras comes as a kit with the 14-42mm retractable lens. The LCD aspect ratio has been changed to 3:2 and an added control dial will appeal to those who like to be in charge. The LCD is touch sensitive and the Super Control Panel places all camera settings ready for selection by a finger touch. The LCD can fold into a forward facing position for selfies. The accessory port is used for the flash, included in the kit, or for an optional electronic viewfinder or macro light set. Focus peaking is provided for manual focus assistance. An electronic shutter setting eliminates the problem of  shutter shock blur. The camera can be controlled with a smartphone, via WiFi and the Olympus app.

LIKE: All the Pen cameras, from the E-P1 onwards, have been a joy to behold and a pleasure to use. Olympus jpegs are consistently excellent and RAW is better. The supplied Olympus Viewer software is excellent and may be all that anyone needs for RAW conversion and editing. The Australian price is the same as the US price. 

DISLIKE: You can’t use the optional viewfinder and a flash at the same time – they both use the same accessory port.

VERDICT: We are passionate (biased?) about compact system cameras – not just from Olympus but also from Sony, Samsung, Nikon, Panasonic and Fujifilm. Olympus and Panasonic, in collaboration, were the first to demonstrate the merits of the smaller, smarter camera form and they have continued to  improve their products. The only caution we would offer to anyone considering the E-PL7 is that the Olympus OMD E-M10 is only $20 dearer and comes with a built-in EVF. 

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[KEEP THE NOISE DOWN]

We are ultra-sensitive to noise, both the earhole and the eyeball variety. We don’t like noisy restaurants and we abhor little black and random coloured specs in our photos. We’ve given up on restaurants, but we have had an epiphany of sorts with noisy pictures. It is called DxO Optics Pro.

Serious photographers record the RAW image and attend to unwanted noise in the computer using any one of a number of noise reducing processors to do the job by inspection and trial and error, moving sliders this way and that until a clean enough image is produced. At least that is how we did it with limited success until last February when we became acquainted with DxO Optics Pro 9. This program examines the picture at pixel level and distinguishes between the good pixels – the fine detail – and the bad – the noise. It’s ability distinguish and to clean is almost miraculous.

This month DxO released the latest version of Optics Pro, version 10. (www.dxo.com) There are changes, improvements and a significant drop in price. The basic Essential version is USD129 and the Elite version is USD199. There are upgrades from version 9 and a 31 day fully functional trial version.

DxO claim a one stop improvement in noise reduction which we had difficulty seeing until we reached a stratospheric 25600 ISO, at which point 10 was definitely better than 9. This is not really a criticism because 9 already does such an astonishing job of cleaning up the noisiest images.

In 9 it was obligatory to purchase the more expensive Elite version for use with any full frame camera. This is no longer the case. The big difference between the two versions is in the noise reduction engine. Elite has the ultra effective Prime function while Essential has the basic High Quality setting. High Quality will do an adequate job up to 1600 ISO, after which Prime shines.

What makes Optics Pro 10 stand out from other programs is its degree of automation. It is not necessary to remove noise by inspection and trial and error. Optics Pro knows all about the characteristics of your camera/lens combination and uses that information to apply exposure compensation, colour correction and sundry lens aberrations instantly. Everything can be manually tweaked but the need for correction is remarkably rare.

One interesting new feature that has the feel of a work in progress is the “Clear View” haze removing function. (Only in Elite) It doesn’t quite do what it promises but it is a needed process that no doubt will be improved in future releases.

Now, let’s crank up the ISO and boldly go into new low light experiences.

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[REVIEW—PANASONIC LUMIX DMC-GM5]

 

Panasonic GM5

Price: $1099
Small, stylish and capable

THE LOW-DOWN: This update on the GM1, the smallest micro four thirds model in the Panasonic range, has a 16mp sensor, like its predecessor, but has been made more user-friendly with revisions to control butons and dials. The retractable 12-32mm kit lens gives a film equivalent range of 24—64mm. The LCD is higher resolution and an electronic viewfinder – very small but useful – has been added. The in-built flash is no more and its place has been taken with a hotshoe and external flash included in the box. The GM5 is slightly larger overall than the GM1, but that makes it a little easier to handle. It also, in our opinion, makes the camera more attractive. The magnesium alloy body is skinned in a leather (faux?) finish – the red looks tres chic.

LIKE: Image quality is fine, with excellent jpeg processing. RAW was difficult to assess as the camera comes with the Silkypix converter and neither DxO nor Adobe has yet included the camera in their converters. Video is good.

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DISLIKE: The price is steep for a camera of this type. The Olympus OMD E-M10, a camera with better specifications if not as cute, costs about $200 less.

VERDICT: This is a brilliant little camera. It won’t fit in a shirt or jeans pocket but it takes up little space in a bag. The electronic viewfinder and add-on flash have elevated the GM5 to serious camera status rather than just a fashion accessory. The only serious omission from the feature set is a swivelling LCD. The Samsung NX Mini is a comparable camera, albeit with a smaller 1” sensor, at less than half the price and it comes with Adobe Lightroom. Check them both out before deciding.

Sample03a

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[SHUTTER DIPLOMACY]

img_camera01 Last week a photographer we know was telling us why he prefers his trusty Canon DSLR to his new Fujifilm X-T1. He likes the X-T1 but reckons that its electronic viewfinder is no match for the traditional mirror and prism finder on the Canon. He feels more involved with the subject with glass than he does with the tiny television in the Fujifilm.

The X-T1 has a very high resolution EVF and has some features that the mirror/prism can never match. For one thing you get instant feedback whenever you make an exposure adjustment. But more than that you get a lot more camera information in the electronic viewfinder than you do with glass. And Fuji have cleverly created an electronic version of the split image rangefinder that we remember with fondness from our film SLRs of yore. What’s not to like?

Ten years ago we encountered our first EVF and wrote that it would never fly. We agreed with a wag who said “Electronic viewfinders are designed by video game players for other video game players”. They were crude devices with coarse screens and they were laggy, slow to refresh and, worst of all, they slowed the camera response so much that by the time the shutter fired the subject was already over the horizon.

Today we love EVFs. Screen resolution has improved. Screen refresh rates are higher. A camera with an EVF is just as responsive as a DSLR. And removing the mirror and prism has resulted in a new category of camera – the compact interchangeable lens cameras, made by just about every manufacturer except Canon.

With an EVF we can have the same view and information in the viewfinder as we have on the LCD on the camera back. With a traditional DSLR you switch to “live view” and then struggle with focus and the blackout of the eye level viewfinder. With an EVF the camera detects an eye close to the viewfinder and automatically switches between eye level or arm’s length viewing.

When it comes to manual focus the EVF in the latest compact system cameras is superior. You get both focus peaking (in-focus edges highlighted) and image enlargement in the viewfinder. Most (perhaps all) recent CSCs automatically enlarge a small section of the image to aid focus – a function also available in live view on a DSLR, but not in the viewfinder.

The EVF cannot match the clear reality of glass and it does, indeed, make the subject look like a second-hand representation on a TV screen, but we can live with that in exchange for the other wonderful features of the EVF.

We apologise for being so wrong in 2005!

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