Thursday, May 04, 2023

A new chapter in my photographic journey

Rin-Rin on the Panasonic S5 at ISO 320, Lumix 35mm at f/2.8

I started in photography back in the eighties. As an adjunct to writing newspaper reviews of concerts, I learned how to shoot and develop film. In this way the editor could assign only one person to the story, instead of needing both a reporter and a photographer. Back then we didn't care what brand of camera we used. I recall a Pentax and some 50mm lens... that's all! The only thing that mattered was "does the lens fit the body?"

Compare this with today's internet environment, where the smallest detail of every camera is subject to scrutiny. People abandon one system for another over what are often trivial concerns. YouTube is all about being "right". 

That's not my agenda here. Instead, the following overview of my camera systems is about gaining perspective. I now have a brand new purchase that I trust will offer me new opportunities. It's not about the flex; it's about the journey. 

A history of cameras and sensors

For a long time I didn't own a camera, not being able to afford something I saw as a luxury. But as the digital era matured, I returned to Pentax, mostly because of the quality of the lenses. Unlike Zeiss and Leica, here was amazing glass that I could actually afford! 

The Pentax DSLR cameras used the "cropped" APS-C sensor, which impacts in three main ways. First, the focal length multiplier (AKA "crop factor") of around 1.54 means that a 50mm lens gives the same field of view (FOV) on this sensor as a 77m (50 x 1.54) lens would on so-called "full frame" (the 35mm film standard). Hence, wider angle shots are harder to get, which was not a big problem for my style of photography.

Second, it is more difficult to get a small depth of field. It's been all the rage for some years now to have images with only one tiny sliver of content in focus. People endlessly debate the quality of the out-of-focus areas (the bokeh). Contrast this with the classic photographers and cinematographers of yore, who prized themselves on deep depth of field. But since I had plenty of fast glass (including two f/1.2 lenses), narrow DOF was easily achieved when I wanted it. 

Third, a larger sensor captures more total light, and so performs better in darker environments. This ability also depends on how many receptors are crammed into the sensor. There's a compromise here between the detailed imagery of high megapixel numbers and the smooth quality of having fewer receptors. 

Garden at ISO 100, Lumix 35mm at f/3.5. 

My Pentax K20D began to look like a dinosaur alongside the new, compact, mirrorless cameras. These newcomers offered a smoother workflow that I found appealing. Besides, I have chronic physical ailments that make a lighter system quite compelling. So I switched to an Olympus system based on the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) sensor and lens mount. This sensor is even smaller than APS-C, half the size of 35mm, hence having a factor of 2.0x. My two favourite lenses for this format have focal length 14mm and 45mm, which translates to a 35mm equivalent FOV of 28mm and 90mm. (I've never particularly liked the "normal" 50mm look. Wider or narrower works for me.)

My growing interest in cinematography gained a certain urgency once I started teaching digital video. I standardised our department labs on the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K, a camera which conveniently uses the MFT mount. All the lenses already owned could be pressed into service. Later, Blackmagic released two sequels to that camera, both offering 6K resolution. But they changed the lens mount to the Canon EF system which, quite honestly, doesn't interest me. 

In the last years I've been shooting band and artist photos, often in dark clubs. The limitations of the smaller sensor in my Olympus cameras became quite apparent, good though I was at working within constraints. Even for well-lit scenes, I have long craved the smoother image of a larger sensor. At the same time, I have wanted a cinema camera of my own. But Blackmagic were not forthcoming with a useful successor to the BMPCC4K. A camera good at both video and stills is termed a hybrid. So, which hybrid is best?

The answer is Sony

Most people answer this question with the word "Sony". The Sony FX30 is compact and offers a Super35 sensor, similar enough to APS-C and long a film standard. But key video features like control over shutter angle and false colours are notably missing. There's also no viewfinder (EVF) which eliminates this camera from contention. I don't want to be staring at a bright screen when shooting in a bar or concert hall. My style is about staying low-key so that other people can enjoy the event. 

The Sony A7 series have a full-frame sensor and do include an EVF but retain other disadvantages. The biggest problem is cost. For the following comparisons, I summed the price of a body plus three lenses: kit zoom, 35mm prime, and 85mm prime. 

The newest model Sony A7 IV is €2800. Sony's own EF lenses are quite reasonable, the bundle of three coming to €1500. Replacing the primes with the higher-quality Zeiss line means a jump in weight and bulk and a €900 premium. The total is either €4300 to €5200, depending on that lens decision.

War of Attrition
Nathan from War of Attrition, Lumix 85mm at f/1.8, ISO 2000.

For two years I've delayed a decision. The thought of a larger, heavier camera was difficult to countenance. The price was always too rich for my budget. 

The answer is not Sony

Then I discovered the Panasonic full-frame cameras that use the Leica L-mount. I was familiar with the more popular Panasonic Lumix GH line, but had been ignoring the line that includes the Lumix S1 and Lumix S5. Of these, the S1 and S1H can capture higher-quality video, but are significantly larger. The S5 seemed the better choice as an all-around hybrid camera, since it's smaller and compromises nothing on the photographic side.

More recently the Lumix S5 Mark II has been released, but the older model has been retained in the line-up, as a lower cost entry point. The S5 body has a list price of £1600 but there are great package deals available from retailers. My total cost with the three lens kit itemised above was €2200... half the price of the equivalent Sony system. But it has similar performance, similar video modes (maximum 30fps in 4K, but 60 fps in Super35 equivalent), and bonuses like the ability to set shutter angle. 

The Panasonic lenses are weather-sealed and optimised for video, with no focus breathing. The aperture of f/1.8 is fast enough for me. I wouldn't want the extra weight of a larger aperture anyway. One downside to digital lenses is the fly-by-wire focus system, where there is no direct coupling between the focus ring and the internal mechanism. However, Panasonic has an excellent system that allows you to change the logarithmic control to linear and even set the focus throw. Hence you can tune how much you need to turn the ring to get from one end of the focus range to the other. Clever!

What the newest Sony has over this (older) Panasonic model is better auto-focus and a higher resolution sensor. There are more lenses in the line-up, but as I don't plan on developing a large collection, that's a moot point.

Besides the compact size of my previous Olympus system, what I'm going to miss most is the tilting EVF. I love shooting with a viewfinder at 90 degrees, so I can look down at the camera held against my chest.

Going forward

It's a big deal for me to change camera systems. This outline has been half-written for some time, since the process of getting thoughts on paper helps me understand my process. 

By the way, my retailer was Foto Erhardt in Germany. Inexpensive shipping across Europe and easy to deal with, so long as Google Translate is at your side!

In the next days you can expect some test shots, as I become familiar with what the Lumix S5 offers. An initial period of technical inquiry helps me understand the constraints of the tools I am working with. I've found that sharing these exercises can help others. 

In the meantime, check out the photos I'll be uploading to Flickr. There will be a growing collection from my new camera. Of course this starts with a picture of Rin-Rin... actually the best one I've ever taken, since it really captures her spirit!


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