It's a new year. I'm playing with a new camera. No. Really.

Why?  What was I thinking?

If you've read my blog for a while you know a few things about my camera habits.  I'm generally spending my days in a state of confliction.  I think the future of cameras and imaging lies in the smaller sensor cameras like the micro four thirds and cameras like the Nikon V1, and even smaller chipped cameras like the Fuji X10.  I also think the proliferation of electronic viewfinders (EVFs) is welcome and inevitable.  The conflict comes from my endless trail of legacy cameras and thought processes that, like little anchors, keep me from fully embracing what I see as the future of photography.  I am also rooted in its "glorious" past.

I love the look of a portrait done with a medium format camera and a medium/short telephoto but I know from experience that the quality is just an echo of the look I used to get when I would shoot portraits with a Zeiss 240mm f5.6 Planar on my 4x5 inch Linhof camera.  Those images were sublime.  And, recently I've come to like the look of the Zeiss 85mm 1.4 ZE lens on my Canon 5Dmk2 or the older but no less elegant 1DS mk2.  But those images are an even fainter echo of my original film standard.  But time and tastes move forward.  And I'm pretty convinced that I can learn to love the look of the Olympus 60mm f1.5 on a micro four thirds camera.  It's an adjustment but I've been adjusting downward since the start of my career.  And so has most of the market.

So, some days I shoot things with the old Hasselblad and some days I shoot with the Canons and sometimes I'm convinced that the smallest of my cameras is sufficient.  If you are wired like me you have my heartfelt condolences...

For the last three years I've been exploring just how much can be done with the smaller gauge cameras and I've come to find that you can actually do a lot.  The images look good and the introduction of faster lenses is giving us back some of the DOF control for which we longed.  The small cameras have come a long way in a very short time and show no signs of slowing down.  My favorite "flavor" has been the Olympus Pen line.  I collected their ancient film ancestors, the Pen FT series, from the 1980's on and I use the older, manual focus lenses interchangeably with the new optics being brought to market by Olympus and Panasonic.  And, with the release of the EP3, I was a very satisfied customer.  If you haven't handled an EP3 you might want to play with one.  It's a cool camera and it's small, light and svelte (but no, you can't fit it in the pocket of your jeans) and the files are solid and well finished.

But you've probably been reading about Olympus in various financial publications or in news aggregation sites on the web.  They've been having some self-inflicted legal/ethical problems lately in their executive suite and the fall out might affect the stability or even the life of the company in general and the camera division, specifically.  If you have an investment,  emotionally, financially or artistically in the use of Olympus Pen cameras this thought has surely crossed your mind:  "If Olympus craters what happens to my investment in all the cool glass?  What's my future roadmap for new bodies?  How will I be able to keep using the format I've come to enjoy?

I rejoiced, in 2009, when Olympus launched the EP2 because in many was it was the camera I'd been looking for through the years. In a way it was my dream camera.  I could program it to shoot in the square format I'd come to love in my medium format days.  I could use an eye level viewfinder with an EVF that showed my chosen aspect ratio.  The lens flange to sensor distance made the use of my older, Pen FT lenses easy and even allowed me to use Leica and Nikon lenses on the camera.  It's small, light and beautifully designed.  What was there not to like?  The EP3 was even better.  The whipped creme on the whole confection was the well implemented VF-2 EVF.  It was very satisfying to see the effects of filters, exposure settings and fine tuning in the eye level monitor as I shot.  I would have used the cameras for everything if not for a few oversites in design vis-a-vis professional, commercial use.  For example:  Would it really have been so hard to include a PC sync port separate from the hot shoe?  If that had been done I could shoot with my studio flashes and still be able to compose at eye level.  Would it have broken the design bank to add an external microphone socket instead of bringing the signal through the hot shoe plug in?  If they had done that I could use high quality external microphones in my video projects and still compose and follow action (especially in bright sun) with my EVF.

But, over time, I made peace with these shortcomings and learned to enjoy shooting with the cameras.  I bought back up bodies.  I bought batteries and lenses, started settling into the system (in tandem with my bigger Canons) and then.....the financial revelations and scandal rocked the company.

Once the news spread across the web I started thinking about alternatives.  I wasn't worried so much about the lenses because of the ability to use so many legacy lenses.  When it came to the dedicated lenses I didn't blink either because they so rarely fail.  My real concern was/is bodies.  I didn't want to find myself with a drawer full of wonderful, small lenses and nothing fun on which to put them.

Of course, the logical destination for all my market research was Panasonic, a partner in the m4:3rds consortium.  Panasonic is a giant in the electronics industry and dwarfs Olympus in resources and financial strength.  

I started looking around and was immediately drawn to the GH2.  In many ways it is the complementary adjunct to the slender and stripped down EP-2 and 3.  I see it as a chunky but reliable tool that brings more flexibility and depth to the overall system.  
My first use of the camera was this morning at Barton Springs Pool.  A giant, spring fed pool in the center of Austin.  It's a tradition to start the year off with a jump into the 60-something degree water.  Today the air temp was 45(f), some years it's in the 20's.  People still come and jump.

I walked around to the far side of the pool so I could photograph my friends doing their big, simultaneous, group jump.  This is a stone stairway on the NE corner of the pool.

Air mattresses and floats are only allowed at the east end of the pool.  The lifeguard stands have been there without change since I moved to Austin 37 years ago...

Random Jumpers.  I was getting used to the timing of the GH2 and the reach of the lens.

My friend, Ed, leading the charge off the diving board.  Afterwards we go to his house for homemade waffles and great coffee.  Not much shutter lag...

Where the EP3 is a svelte and designed for eye appeal the GH2 is designed like a pudgy miniature DSLR.  But in several compelling ways it trumps the Olympus camera for sheer usability in a commercial arena.  The camera has a built in EVF that's at least as good as Olympus's VF2.  That leaves the hot shoe open for flash triggers, flashes and microphone feet.  A separate connector for an external stereo microphone means not having to make a choice between external microphone and EVF, as you must make when using a Pen camera.
I bought the camera with the 14-140mm lens.  It's the equivalent angle of view to a 28-280 on a full frame, 35mm camera.  This is the 14mm end.  It's pretty darn sharp, wide open.

This is the 140mm end of the lens from the same position as the image above.  It passes my sharpness tests, wide open.  Nice lens.  The hood comes with it.  
Suck on that, Canon. (not cranky, just making a point.)

The other big advantage of this Panasonic and its less expensive and complex sibling, the G3, is a new sensor that provides more resolution with less high ISO noise.  The GH2 uses 120 hz sampling in AF and processing and matches the EP3 for focusing speed and accuracy.  But, the camera is much bigger and bulkier.

After an hour or so of skimming reviews I went off to the camera store to play with one.  I liked the way it worked and I liked the way it focused so I bought one on the last day of 2011.  I bought it in black and I sprung for the 14-140mm lens because the review on SLRgear.com was compelling.

I've had the camera for about 26 hours and I think I will end up liking it very much.  It has a touch screen on the swivel LCD that's well implemented and easy to use.  It focuses about as fast as my Canon 5Dmk2 and all the files I've shot are good.  I like the lens and think it's fun to have a 10x zoom range.  In operation the camera has been rock solid. 
zoomed way out.  Very snappy focus in good light.

I'm not recommending that you go right out and buy yourself one.  Especially since I've heard rumors that a GH3 might be in offing. And I am optimistic that Olympus and its investors will work out their issues in a way that leaves the camera arm of the company healthy and innovative.  In the meantime it's nice to know that there are alternatives in the wings.  Many of you will profess to dislike the GH2 because it's bigger than the sexy Pens.  I agree.  But the Panasonic G3 is much smaller, less expensive, and uses an even better sensor so that could also be an option.   But I'll be doing some more reports as I have more experience with the machine.  I'm looking forward to doing video production with it as well.
Based on what I've seen so far you could do 90-95% of the images most commercial photographers need to do for money with this camera and lens.  Nice.
I'm a sucker for industrial stuff.  I've spent way too much time shooting annual reports.

 The shadow on the building didn't trick the light meter for even a second.  I never get tired of shooting the Frost Bank Tower.  It's a nice looking building.

While it's a bit harder to throw stuff out of focus with shorter focal length lenses it sure is nice to be able to keep lots of stuff in focus when you need to...

I would like to thank the W Hotel in Austin for giving me the opportunity to use 
one of their bathrooms, both for the call of nature and to test the image stabilization of the 
14-140mm lens.  This was shot at 0.8th of a second (as I understand it that's almost a full second) wide open.  And to make the test even more punishing it was right after leaving Caffe Medici and their wonderful, full strength, cappuccino.  I'll say that the IS works pretty darn well.

If you click on the photos they get bigGER.

As far as bulk and weight goes, it feels to me like the GH2 is right in the middle between one of my full sized Canons (think 5D2) and the Olympus EP3.

Always fun to start the year out with a new toy.  So far 2012 is exceeding my expectations.  I hope it's a great year for you and everyone else.

a program note:  The "no comments" initiative we embarked on in mid-December has yielded remarkable results.  The emotional comfort metrics are out of the ballpark.  We'll keep it in place just a bit longer until we get a good idea of how this year is panning out.  If you really need to comment you are always welcome on our Flickr forum:  http://www.flickr.com/groups/visualsciencelab


jeffharris said...

Nice article. Thanks!

I've had my GH2 for nearly a year and like it more and more. It's a lot of fun to use, puts out great image quality and really does grow on you!

I think you meant to say the GX1, not GX3 (or GF3). The GX3 has the same 16MP sensor as the G3.
The GH2 has an 18MP multi-asect ratio sensor. It's a very cool feature and allows me to shoot different aspect ratios and not lose resolution.

Anonymous said...

GX3 should read GX1

kirk tuck said...

No. GX3 should say "G3."

James Weekes said...

I have had the G3 for about three months and love the increased IQ. It has one really irritating feature, probably for cost cutting or keeping the camera small. Unlike the G2, it does not automatically switch from eye-level to screen. You have to push a button. But put the Oly. 45mm on it and you never take it away from your eye. It is a good time to love photography!

Anonymous said...

Be sure to add the latest(V11) firmware, it adds some nice things and improves auto focus.

Anonymous said...

What's your opinion of the camera-produced jpgs? I really dislike them, especially the colors (lots of magenta in the grays for example). The raws lightly processed in Lightroom are great though...

kirk tuck said...

I am not a "camera test site" and I currently have no opinion about the GH2 jpegs. I have only used the raw file format. Files shot in raw are very, very good.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I didn't mean to imply that you were a camera test site :) I'm just an amateur myself but (already having an Olympus Pen) I was used to posting/printing this kind of walk-around pictures from jpeg mainly, and was quite disappointed with what the panasonic produces. That's all and (after a year) I still really like everything else about the camera. Even the other kit lens (14-42mm) is a very usable piece of glass if anyone is wondering about the less expensive option.

kirk tuck said...

No Problem. Thanks for clarifying. I do like the camera... a lot.

Dickcon said...

Thanks Kirk, interesting article.

I have the 14-140 and 20mm 1.7 lenses and took them, together with my G1, to Beijing last year. That was all the kit I needed. The 14-140 is ideal as a walk around lens and the 20mm lens is a gem. It was also easier to comply with the airline's carry on baggage weight restrictions (5kg/11 lb's)!

A GH2 or G3 is on the shopping list...