The new Millennium Falcon of cameras. The EM-1.
I'm being silly this year and doing silly awards for cameras I think brought cool stuff to the table. I've already made a plug for my favorite economy priced camera, the Panasonic G6 but it's only going to appeal to the kind of practical people who make their own coffee at home and drive no nonsense cars for ten years at a time. It's a sensible choice. There are lots of other cameras this year that deserve some kind of mention for moving the game forward for their loyal band. In the Canon camp I think the full frame 6D camera is a great way to get into a professional system at a much lower cost than ever before. As a high ISO machine it's pretty much right there in the top ranks. And I'd say the same thing about the Nikon D610. It no longer seems to squirt industrial waste onto the sensor like the camera it replaces and that, coupled with great sensor performance, is a good thing. Even the Pentax K3 deserves some kudos for being a rock solid and very advanced last decade sort of camera.
But the reality is that there are two cameras that have captured the fascination of the camera cognoscenti and the battle between them for dominance is as unexpected as can be. After handling and researching both cameras I am even more fascinated by the logical results of an in-depth comparison. There is a clear winner if your objective is to find a camera that feels like a perfect artist's brush or a well broken in pair of running shoes. There is a different winner if you are in a race for bragging rights for maximum horsepower and maximum straight-line acceleration. But the Devil is in the hairpin turns...... (enough car analogies, it brings out the real car nuts and then things heat up quick....).
The two cameras I'm talking about are the two cameras that come from antithetical extremes of camera philosophies and yet the same company makes the sensors inside of both cameras. One is the highest res tool one can buy today in the FF format while the other is perceived as the lowest pixel count class of what might be considered as professional quality instruments. I mean cameras. I'm am, of course, writing about the Olympus OMD EM-1 and the Sony A7r.
On paper the Sony has everything but in reality it's all a compromise in terms of usability. The Olympus camera seems like a staid upgrade of a decent predecessor but one cobbled with a low pixel count, and much smaller, sensor. One is priced like a pro-tool while the other is priced just in the middle of the hobbyist-indulgence category. But in real world use the Olympus is a svelte, alluring seductive temptress that combines a tactile rightness with a wonderfully muted and understated shutter noise and action. It's EVF finder is probably the best in world and all in all the files are just what most photographers are looking for. Right and thick and ready to be used with little heroic effort. It's the charming kind of package that emulates what the introduction of the Leica M3 must have been like to image makers working in the 1950's. Quiet, quick and disciplined.
I first used one at a dinner with the president of Olympus USA while I was in New York and, like some insidious addictive drug once I got some on my skin I've been orbiting closer and closer to the camera with each passing cycle. In point of fact I had no interest in the camera before I used it in the flesh. None. And now I'm making lens buying decisions with the near certainty of that camera's acquisition in my overall plans.
My experience with the Sony A7r is quite the opposite. I learned about it ahead of the initial announcement and my excitement built by the day as my introduction to the camera at the Photo Expo show drew nearer. My first thoughts were that this camera would be a wonderful partner to the Sony a99 I already own while adding more resolution, sharpness and more lens flexibility at a much lower initial price. In fact, I had liquidated my cropped frame Sony cameras and lenses in anticipation. And then the day came. I was supposed to be in the Samsung booth but before the show started I walked over to the Sony pavilion and played with the product. It was then that my whole plan began to fall apart like wet cardboard box.
My first impression was the sheer noise and intensity of the shutter. Prescient I think since we are now finding that this Howitzer inspired shutter also causes a profound lack of sharpness with longer lenses at certain shutter speeds. The feel of the body was off. The focusing much slower than that of the $600 Panasonic G6 in an adjacent display area. But the whole impression was that Sony checked the boxes they thought the power users would want (horsepower) but forgot to engineer in any élan when it comes to tactile luxury. Both the A7 cameras feel somewhat like Russian cold war manufacturing discovered plastics. (edit: from time to time the blog has visitors from other forums. Many of them have reading issues with anything that is not written in a very literal fashion. I feel duty bound to add to the above that I have spent many hours with the A7 and A7r in addition to time spent at a trade show.... I also have ready access to both cameras for testing and re-testing. ed.)
Now, let's admit that there are a number of great divides in the cult of the camera world. There are the linear rationalists and on the other side of the tug-o-war rope are the artists. One group loves metrics and provable performance while the other loves the feel and the user experience. No question which side I come down on. A camera can have all the rational stuff under the hood and still be a totally loser to operate. That would be the a7r.
Bottom line? I just can't bear the thought of buying that camera. What do I gain? A few more megapixels over my a99? But do I even get that if the recoil of the Howitzer shutter smudges away all of the sensor gains? I get a Borg camera that is ready to assimilate all the lenses but in order to use it I must bow to fully manual implementations and still understand that fluid use may be a crap shoot.
The people who love that camera are the ones who are willing to put it on a thousand dollar Gitzo tripod and then weight down the whole assemblage with bean bags. Well, I don't know about you but I spend a lot of time shooting hand held and shooting on the very edge of what might be possible. Just not going to happen with the A7r. You'll need some time to get it to focus. You'll need some time to stabilize the system before initiation and you'll need a lot of time to work with the files to get the same color you can get out of the Olympus product used in an almost cavalier mode.
I won't belabor the whole point. I read a post on Luminous-Landscape.com by a respected fashion photographer who wanted to buy the A7r based on the hype and went into a store to try one. He ended up walking out with an EM-1 and I'm pretty sure I would too. In his estimation and based on three "real world" tests he ran the EM-1 didn't just handle better in a direct comparison, it also trounced the more expensive camera (discernibly) in image quality and it was far ahead on usability.
I've used a lot of cameras and I've come to believe that there are only a handful of good camera designers working out there. Yes, there are many, many camera engineers who can stuff a camera with features and generate impressive specs. Sadly, many times these cameras lack a haptic feel or ergonomic design sensibility to such a degree that I call them "soul-less." I don't really believe cameras have a soul in the traditional sense but you are certainly hard of feeling if you can't touch a camera and sense the aesthetic and genius of a good designer or step back at the dissonance of a camera that just feels (or sounds) wrong. Even within the same company.
My favorite example now is the tactile and handling differences between the Sony a99 and the A7. The former flows while the later punches the time clock and sits dead in your hand.
Olympus found their stride with the last two generations of the Pen (EP) cameras and now with both the EM-5 and the EM-1. All these cameras tend to disappear and merge with me when I use them which, in turn, means my mind is uncluttered by rational and linear thought and open to creative expression when I use them. The EM-1 even more so than its predecessor.
In fact, of all the cameras I've handled this year the only one that comes close to the handling+performance combination of the EM-1 is the same company's EP-5 with the finder. And believe me, I've handled and tested a bunch of cameras.
The only thing that keeps my from buying an EM-1 (besides the specter of putting a kid through four years of college starting next Fall) is the video performance. But with the GH3's firmly in place here at the VSL video production stages it seems like resistance to the camera is futile and that I will be assimilated.
That means it gets the VSL Five Star Award of the Year for a Camera I don't currently own (yet).
And I had such high hopes for the Sony. Just goes to show: Never let your prejudices impede your appraisals. Cameras are more than boxes full of specifications they are also expressions of industrial design and industrial art. You can't (comfortably) have one without the other.
Remember, you can download the free Kindle Reader app for just about any tablet or OS out there....
in other news: Belinda and I finished working on, The Lisbon Portfolio. The photo/action novel I started back in 2002. I humbly think it is the perfect Summer vacation read. And the perfect, "oh crap, I have to fly across the country" read. It's in a Kindle version right now at Amazon. The Lisbon Portfolio. Action. Adventure. Photography. See how our hero, Henry White, blows up a Range Rover with a Leica rangefinder.....