Saturday, June 19, 2010


Recently I was sifting through some photos on my computer, and finally decided to upload some of the better shots for the world to see.

These were taken with one of two cameras: a Canon camcorder (the bird photos and some of the lower-res shots) and an Olympus Point and Shoot. I should point out that at this point in time, I'm not particularly satisfied with this set of equipment...

Originally I had written a very long history lesson here about the cameras I've used over the years and my photography habits, even though I really haven't had that many of them. But I'll spare you the details of that for now, though I may still post this some day after being driven mad by trying to fix a "bug from hell".

So, why am I not really satisfied with either of the cameras I've used to take the photos uploaded?

A not-so-careful look at the pictures should confirm that neither camera has particularly impressive image quality. The camcorder, being a non-specialised and older device (though very useful for its original purpose) was the primary camera for a few years after some of the older cameras were retired, suffers from a bit of a noise problem and also low resolution, especially in this day and age. Meanwhile, the Olympus PnS, despite its higher resolution and newer status, primarily suffers from having a tendency to take long exposures in all but really bright situations (with little ability to override this easily), resulting in a high rate of semi to extremely blurred captures, giving it an overall lower keeper rate than the camcorder. While I don't demand absolute pixel perfection in ultra-high resolution, to the point of having 20-30 mb files cluttering my HD as professionals would, I do expect to have images large enough for viewing on common monitors + allowing for some zooming to look at some details without bad noise (especially when working with higher ISO's indoors).

Also, neither camera is particularly good or reliable under low-light conditions, though the camcorder has brownie points in this area for rarely if ever choosing a long exposure, which is good when most shots end up handheld, and also for not having an on-camera flash that it uses as a crutch (to cover its deficiencies, like the PnS) in these conditions. IMO, on-camera flash really doesn't help much most of the time and results in one of
1) irreparable pitch-black underexposures, with a few foreground items illuminated instead (due to short effective range of the flash),
2) everything within the effective range bathed in ghastly blue-white light, with all detail and natural colours lost, not to mention anything shiny showing nothing but really strong highlights (making it useless when photographing cups/silverware and not having enough light with all the lights on),
3) subjects being blinded (probably a reason why I dislike direct flash full stop, since that would happen whenever anyone took a photo of me in the past), distracted ("oh look, bright flash of light in the corner of my eye"), or subjects looking like blind stoners (i.e. me, whenever the flash on the PnS is used. I suspect there's something with its timing that does that - perhaps a really bad preflash timing?)...
as well as draining batteries really fast (3-5 shots with flash, as opposed to 50+ without) with long cycling times between exposures. Although during my recent research on various photography + camera-related issues in the past few months I've come across some interesting "bounced" flash techniques which look to produce some results that look quite decent (without the "flash" look in any way), I'm still skeptical of the use of flash at all if it can be avoided to mitigate all of the problems mentioned.

Also, there have been occasional times when their focal length ranges were just not conductive enough to what I wanted to do. The camcorder has a fairly decent 10x optical zoom range, which has often been satisfactory, though I really only used it at either extreme most of the time (tending towards the telephoto end a bit more). However, at times, the wide end is a bit narrow (especially for interior shots), and a bit more reach on the telephoto side would always be nice (especially in the all-to-common situations when moving closer is not an option). The PnS is much more limited though, with a 5x range that really leaves a bit to be desired, especially for longer shots. Then again, it's much less usable at full extension than the camcorder was at a much greater focal length. And finally, both aren't too flash when trying to do any macro-type shots (i.e. small object, close details or filling the frame) - my natural instinct is to get in close, which doesn't work well due to the minimal focusing distances being too long to get focus; and I've also tried zooming in from a distance, though the perspective ends up not as dynamic as I'd like.

But perhaps more critically, I've found both cameras to be a pretty darned pain to use: ergonomically, speed-wise, and in terms of general handling.

Ergonomically, the camcorder has allows a more stable grip, though the placement of the controls is really quite nasty. The shutter release requires bending up+back the index finger a bit to reach it, while the zoom wobbler is located right behind that. This arrangement really sucks when trying to take shots quickly, since it's hard to zoom in then quickly shoot again, since getting to the zoom requires extra effort+contortionism. At least this is made up for by having a viewfinder to pin the camera to the head for more stability, and also a flip-out + rotatable LCD for trickier situations. In contrast, the PnS (like all its compact brethren) make it really hard to figure out how you're supposed to hold them without pressing accidentally buttons, dropping it accidentally while trying to interact with it, or fouling the LCD panel with heat+grease. Due to the difficult grip, trying to activate the shutter release on top of the body requires a bit more effort, not to mention not being exactly that comfortable (unnatural finger position again). The zoom on this is equally bad to reach, though this time, using the thumb instead (since the index finger can't really get down there) after some juggling, and the resultant clunkiness of pressing the narrow rocker makes zooming a bit of a chore. Finally, due to the lack of a viewfinder, you're literally forced to always hold the camera away from your body, which really makes stability a lot worse (compounding the long exposure tendencies of the camera, leading to heaps of camera shake), not to mention looking like "a senior citizen with deteriorating vision trying to read the newspaper headlines" or someone "holding stinky diapers".

Speed-wise, both are quite terrible. This is not more noticeable than when trying to shoot moving subjects, which I've really come to get a kick out of doing, ever since the "Silvereyes" shoot included in the galleries, and is also IMO the best measure of how well designed a camera is for maximum usability. The first place where this is noticeable is the "shutter lag" (and probably autofocus lag included in there too to be fair) whenever the shutter release is pressed. This is really irritating, since the camera doesn't take the moment intended (or even one in the immediate vicinity), but probably 1/2-1 second later, when everything has changed/stuff has moved. Having tried various remedies (prefocus *ahem* *ahem*, which really didn't work too well on the cameras here due to difficulty in controlling the shutter release due to the design, and which was downright impossible on the PnS which would either not gain focus at all or would lose it immediately), there's not much more that can be said apart from a need for more responsive kit. Also, shot-to-shot times are quite bad on both, since they both use electronic displays which force you to wait till the post-shot review goes away (I've tried finding an option for disabling or reducing this delay, but these options didn't seem to exist) instead of being able to shot another shot quickly after. Finally, the massive startup times, ~5 seconds on both, during which time it takes 1-2 seconds for the camera to realise you're turning it on and display some welcome screen/life on its displays/leds, 2-3 seconds to zoom the lens out to where it needs to be, 2 seconds to focus (the camcorder's getting a bit worse at this from time to time as it gets older, refusing to focus at all some days), and maybe an extra second to finally show this on its LCD/EVF (electronic viewfinder), during which time many photographic opportunities have passed. This is especially a problem when turning off the cameras during long downtimes to save precious battery power.

In terms of general handling, the camcorder doesn't really offer many buttons/controls, though it does have some that are accessible from a menu system via the LCD flip out. This is both a blessing and a curse, since there aren't many things that need tweaking for general usage, but also are a pain whenever they need to be tweaked. Also, the shutter release is a bit tight, requiring a bit of effort sometimes to activate it. As in the rest of this comparison, the PnS fares a lot worse in this regard. Heaps of functionality is lumped onto multi-state menus that require many button presses to cycle through the entries, and/or access some handy settings to get some control (if possible at all) over the end result. However, the buttons that are there are all very small, and worse of all, require targeted effort to try and press them and register a response.

In short, these cameras are basically not adequate for most of the times I need them (though the PnS does satisfy a little niche in convenient to carry around for occasional random shots, if albeit with constant and unpredictable "empty battery" moments). While in the past, I would only take a few shots occasionally (old film-days habits, and also since it was just usually family birthday shots), these days when I do take photos of things I'm often a bit more fussy over how they're taken to try and capture them better. In some ways, I've often found (and been a bit disappointed) that I ended up with a lot fewer photos of memorable aspects of holidays in the past than I thought I'd taken, something which I've tried to change this year during my two vacations so far without getting bogged down by it.

Having researched quite a bit into cameras + photography techniques over the past few months in a bid to try and see if there's any more milage to be had from these cameras, I've come to the conclusion that it's time for a new camera: one that'll let me do things "as I want, when I want" more easily or at least without getting in the way as often.
Current target: Canon EOS 7D.
I was pondering about the popular Canon EOS 5D MKII, but the price tag was a bit higher than the budget for camera bodies / single piece of equipment I'm willing to consider at this point in time, not to mention the allure of better autofocus on the 7D. Nikon fanboys would probably want to beat me into submission now, but up till last year, had never really heard of Nikon before (that's the state of affairs in NZ... some Nikons, but very seldomly seen), have had more experience with Canons overall, and finally, I didn't really like the look of the layouts they have (grip in particular doesn't look that comfy, and on-off switch looks like it's one of those that's hard to use - requiring focused effort on small spot - and so close to the shutter release).

Looking forward to a spending spree after this exam season (hehehe)... I think it's about time to finally get some proper equipment...

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