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.

Lighter Squad

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…

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11 Responses to “Still A Digital Refusenik”

  1. Erich Says:

    Don’t – just wait until what you want arrives. I’m happy with the GF1’s compromises currently, and the two dSLRs I had before it were left at home too often because of their bulk. They’re very “self-conscious” cameras, meaning I always felt self-conscious that I had a huge camera around my neck. At that point, why not have a big medium format camera.

    Anyway, with the way things are going, I’d bet the market will have a Vox-approved camera by the end of 2010.

    • petavoxel Says:

      Hey E! Yep, I started writing about digital cameras here because it appears there’s finally some momentum towards a more reasonable size/quality trade-off. I do like the GF1 for size and wacky lens-adapting options. I’m just a little twitchy about noise, since I really love available-light shooting.

  2. Matt Needham Says:

    “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.”

    Convenience was the point of George Eastman’s invention too. Originally film camera and roll film prices included processing. The idea was who would bother to do it on their own when it was cheap and convenient to send it to a lab? Well, as many photographers found out there were many advantages to doing it themselves.
    Jpeg vs raw is just camera manufacturer provided processing software vs the photographer’s choice of processing software. It’s just a choice of tools. Jpeg is like one hour developing and printing: cheap, fast, and convenient. Raw is like customizing the processing and printing in the darkroom: more time and effort, but if you know what you are doing the difference in image quality is obvious.

    A big advantage to raw processing is that it is processing by inspection, while jpeg is processing by prediction. When I was shooting 4×5 many of us envied the darkroom gurus who had the balls to develop by inspection. Now we’re told it’s cheating to use our eyeballs when we are creating visual art. I’ve always suspected that’s why painters laugh at us. We create images blind and in the dark. 🙂

    • petavoxel Says:

      Thanks for a thoughtful defense of RAW. I certainly don’t question that it gives more control—particularly in contrasty light, which otherwise can be hard to manage.

      But the option of automation is always useful. Most photographers long ago made their piece with autofocus and autoexposure (if only to provide them a starting point).

      It really comes down to whether the technology (in this case, in-camera JPEGs) has evolved to a level of sophistication where you can put your trust into it.

  3. jayKayEss Says:

    The Pentax K-7 is a great match with vintage glass, I love mine.

    • petavoxel Says:

      The K-7 sounds like a fine camera. Although the irony is that the cheaper, lower-Mp K-x tests better at high ISOs, just because each pixel is larger.

      Of course the K-7 wins on having a better, pentaprism viewfinder, among many other features.

  4. Miserere Says:

    Although the irony is that the cheaper, lower-Mp K-x tests better at high ISOs, just because each pixel is larger.

    This is not true for two reasons:

    1) While per-pixel noise is greater in smaller pixels, per-image-unit-area noise isn’t measurably greater. This is a myth that’s pervaded the internet and refuses to go away.

    2) The sensor on the K-x is made by Sony, whose sensors Pentax have worked with for many years and have always extracted the highest IQ from. Sony have also been making APS-C sensors for close to a decade and know what they’re doing. The sensor in the K-7 is made by Samsung, who only recently started manufacturing APS-C sensors (this is their second) and they don’t work quite as well as the Sonies. The new K-5 will have a Sony sensor, which has made Pentaxians very happy.

  5. Miserere Says:

    On the subject of awaiting a digital camera, I fully understand how you feel. I’ve been shooting DSLRs for a while now but haven’t bought a new camera in 3 years because nobody has manufactured what I want.

    I mainly concentrate on street shooting and so want a small inconspicuous camera that can take small primes and provide good high ISO IQ (those pesky buildings and the shadows they cast!). Right now I would make do with the Samsung NX10 if it had more advanced firmware and a larger buffer. Hell, I’m so desperate for a small street cam I’d take just the firmware improvement! 😀

    I’m hoping Pentax puts out a MILC of their own that’s similar to the NX10 (which feels very much like a Pentax).

    Oh, and while the NX10 might be similar in width and height to a small DSLR, it’s much slimmer, and this makes a huge difference, not just for portability, but when it comes to designing small primes. There’s a reason full-frame M mount primes are smaller and faster than their APS-C DSLR equivalents: Registration distance!

    • petavoxel Says:

      You’re looking at my earliest post here, and some of my thinking has evolved since then. I concluded that a Pentax K-x was a pretty good use of USD $500, so I now own one. I do agree with you that the shorter registration distance of EVILs will eventually win the day if we want innovative, fast lenses. EVFs are already “almost” good enough; in one more generation I expect we’ll be there.

      • Miserere Says:

        Ah, you did fall for the K-x then. I’m hanging on to my K10D, but I’m thinking I won’t buy another DSLR any time soon–my next camera will be mirrorless.


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