Still A Digital Refusenik
January 4, 2010
I have another blog called Silverbased.org, where I talk about the pleasures of film photography. I do understand the convenience of digital images; but for a variety of aesthetic and practical reasons I’ve spent a few years buying up vintage film gear instead, and rather enjoying it.
But the embarrassing truth is, I’ve been spending a lot of time obsessing about digital cameras lately—feverishly reading the review and rumors sites. Will I buy one? We’re not quite there yet, but perhaps getting closer.
I shoot with available light where possible (and I particularly loathe on-camera flash). My minimum requirement is for a camera which can shoot at ISO 800 without apologies. I have little interest in zooms; it’s far more important for me to have a lens faster than f/2.0. I refuse to pay real money for a camera much bulkier and heavier than my well-used Olympus OM-2 film bodies. Pricewise, my pain threshold is probably about $800 for the body plus one suitable fast lens.
Conventional wisdom is that anyone who is a serious manly-man about digital photography shoots raw; then toils perfecting the conversion settings of each shot. To me, this is nonsense. The whole point of digital cameras is convenience; the out-of-camera JPEGs need to be excellent and immediately usable.
Unfortunately, there never has been, and there still is not, a camera that meets all these seemingly-unexceptional criteria.
An obvious camera for me to look at is the Panasonic Lumix GF1. Its 20mm f/1.7 pancake option is tremendously appealing, and the body size is quite acceptable. I’m also intrigued by the option to stick weird older film lenses onto the body via adapters. But I’m lukewarm about the native 3:4 aspect ratio. There is a 2:3 crop option, but this makes the effective sensor size even smaller.
More seriously, I have not been that impressed with the GF1 low-light samples I’ve seen. The JPEGs seem to have a lot of “wormy” artifacts; and the $900 price tag seems out of line for the capabilities, compared to mainstream DSLRs.
Meanwhile, the Pentax K-x has been getting some praise lately, with dpreview.com saying, “its high ISO JPEGs are possibly the best of all current DSLRs with an APS-C size sensor.” (And the samples appear to show a perfectly usable ISO 1600.) It is also one of the smaller true DSLRs on the market—although compromised by a blobby handgrip, which somehow all we retro 35mm shooters mysteriously survive without.
Reviewers praise the K-x’s $550 street price as a very strong value versus Canon & Nikon’s “upper entry level” models. However this price includes the kit zoom (the K-x does not seem to be available as a body only), which has the typical worthless f/3.5-5.6 max aperture. Hence, the cost of an additional lens becomes mandatory.
Pentax has a rather quirky assortment of APS-specific prime lenses, which I appreciate in principle. But inexplicably, there’s no “thrifty 50” (f/1.8 at a sub-$200 price) as competing brands offer. Also inexplicably missing is any f/2.0 or better lens in the 25-35mm range—the focal lengths that translate to “normal” coverage on the smaller APS-C sensor. Your sole option there is Sigma’s 30mm f/1.4—admittedly an intriguing lens, aside from its $440 pricetag, and dimensions that dwarf fast normals from the film era.
The rumor mill has been speculating that further Micro Four-Thirds bodies will emerge from Panasonic and Olympus soon, sometime before spring. Right now the GF1 is getting pretty close, but the cost-to-high-ISO-quality ratio hasn’t quite arrived.
So, I guess I need to wait a few months longer, to see if µ4/3 can deliver a breakthrough. Failing that, I’ll take a hard look at the K-x, and maybe suck it up to buy one of the soulless plastic-lump DSLRs I’ve mocked for so long.
I have no regrets about waiting so long. When Canon introduced the first sub-$1000 DSLR, it was a mere six years ago. And you can bet virtually all of those original Digital Rebels been retired by now. In that same period I probably spent less money scooping up dozens of entertaining film cameras at bargain prices. But maybe soon…