Embracing the next digital camera revolution
While I like the button placement and the retro look of the E-PL2 better than the E-PL3, the newer camera does extend its ISO speed from 6400 to 12800. Obviously, neither setting is especially useful, but the E-PL3 performs better at a few stops down. Autofocus speed is also greatly improved, and the menu interface is better. I have not had the opportunity to play with Panasonic's offerings in the real world, but having owned two Lumix cameras over the years, I bet they're very nice.
Overall, I prefer the Olympus E-PL3, but just barely. And still, no matter what MSRP says, if you can find the older E-PL2 at the bargain that I did, only real photography aficionados will appreciate these differences. Amazingly, neither camera uses an accelerometer, so if you shoot vertical photos, you'll have to rotate them in your photo software later. That gets very annoying very quickly.
This is the fun part. While the camera body certainly matters, in the end, it's just a box for capturing data. What really makes the difference is the lens, and unlike in the world of point-and-shoot cameras, you're not restricted to what's attached to the body.
There are more expensive ones out there, but the 14-42mm kit lens that comes with the PEN cameras is perfectly acceptable and quite small in its locked state, but it's not especially exciting. It's not very fast, either, at F/3.5 on the wide end and it gets slower as you zoom, so while it's fine for walking around in the daylight, you should consider some of the amazing alternatives in available prime lenses.
In this department, you can go cheap – very cheap – or very expensive. I'll talk about both.
The modern prime lenses that are designed for the Micro Four Thirds format are obviously autofocus and are fixed to a specific focal length. I bought the Panasonic Lumix 14mm F/2.5 "pancake" lens, which is impossibly thin. For reasons I don't fully understand, 14mm in Micro Four Thirds equates to 28mm in the 35mm world, so this is a reasonably wide angle, all purpose, very sharp lens that takes great photos. I got mine on eBay, new, for $180. The gold standard in pancake lenses in the Lumix 20mm F/1.7 which sells for about $360.
The Olympus 45mm F1.8 lens that was sent to me is a thing of beauty. It's quite magnifying, so it's good for portraits or objects that aren't exactly in your face. But because it opens to such a wide aperture, it performs amazingly in low light and isolates the subject by blurring the background easily while giving gorgeous "bokeh," the quality of the out-of-focus areas of the picture. It's not cheap at about $400 on Amazon, but it might be the last lens you ever buy.
There is an ever faster lens, the $550 Panasonic Leica Summilux lens, which is a 25mm F1.4 lens, and photographers speak of this as the best lens they've ever used, but I haven't seen it in person. Sigma also makes two lesser expensive lenses, as well as one specialty glass company that produce products so high-end they're not worth discussing in a consumer review.
Both Panasonic and Olympus continue to expand their lineup, too, to include more primes, zooms, telephotos and superzoom lenses.
But what first intrigued me about this format was the ability to attach "legacy" lenses to these cameras. Until now, perfectly functional vintage film lenses were pretty much useless, but with a $25 adapter, you can bring them back to life.
For example, the '70s era Zuiko 50mm F1.4 lens I bought on eBay goes for around $80, and it shoots beautiful, creamy bokeh-filled photos ... but it's completely manual focus. And, at that aperture setting, without using a viewfinder, it's very hard to get something that's moving in focus. Obviously, when shooting in digital, you can bracket your shots, tweaking the focus until you get it right. But this inexpensive lens isn't especially versatile or practical in many situations.
You can also buy some very interesting, cheap specialty lenses to attach to Micro Four Thirds cameras. I picked up a plastic Holga "toy" lens on sites like eBay for $25, which gives that Instagram effect to your photos without any post-processing. I also bought a Chinese F1.4 closed-circuit camera lens for about the same price. It shoots tack-sharp in the middle of the frame, while the outer portions produce swirly bokeh and crazy lens vignetting. And finally, Wanderlust sent me a demo of their $39 pinhole camera lens, which is a photographic experiment of its own. The opportunities for this format are limitless.
Of course, excluding these more esoteric or vintage lenses, you can just buy any of them and set your camera to full auto. You'll take great photos, but it's not that much fun, either.
What I really like about this format is that the barriers to entry for professional quality photography are so incredibly low. And, if I take the lens off, I can put the camera in one pants pockets and the lens in the other. While it's not the slimmest camera in the world, it's a fraction of the size of a DSLR.
Of course, the proof is in the photos, and I'm still learning. But when I visited Door County for my annual summer travel story, I brought along my photographer friend, Eron Laber, who owns Front Room Photography. It's typical for him to shoot the photos for this story, but this time I made him use my camera. You can see the results here.
So, after all these years, I don't hate my digital camera anymore. Actually, I love it. I'm holding on to my tiny Canon S95, just for those times when I need something that's perfectly pocketable. But the E-PL3, and to a lesser extent the E-PL2, have become my go-to equipment.
Taking great photos is fun. Using a revolutionary piece of equipment to do it, to me, is even better. I may never complain about my camera again.
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For those of you who think photo journalism is dead here I beg to differ. While there are not as many photographers at the Journal Sentinel as there used to be those that are still there practice their craft at a very high level. There are also a number of other photographers in the Milwaukee area that are very good photo journalists and documentary photographers. Pick up a paper, look at jsonline or cruise the many local websites.
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