A fun assignment and a tale of three cameras: The Sony a99, the Panasonic GH3 and the Pentax K01

I had the good fortune to be hired to take images for the "Thinkery." The Thinkery is the new name for our newly relocated Children's Museum, here in Austin, Texas. The assignment called for me to head over to the museum this past Saturday and take photographs of kids, parents, staff and everyone else trying out the new museum and all the new exhibits and interactive features. It was a "friends and family" experience meant to serve as a shake out or test run for the official opening in early December.  I was to work as discreetly and minimally as possible and that meant no tripod and no light stands.

At first I decided to go entirely minimal and take only the new Panasonic GH3's along with a small collection of lenses that included: the 25mm Summilux, the new kit lens (18-55mm) the longer entry level zoom (the 45-150mm) and a few fast Olympus Pen FT lenses. At the last moment I hedged my bets by bringing along the Sony a99 fitted with the 85mm 1.4 Rokinon Cine lens and a few extra batteries. Then I figured, "Oh what the heck?" and I stuffed the yellow Pentax K01 along with its 40mm 2.8 pancake lens into the bag.

During the course of the day I took about 2500 images. Some were just motor drive sequences where I was trying to catch the peak of action or the best expression and some were gratuitous color studies. But I did use all three of the cameras under the same conditions and it went a long way toward me understanding the differences between the cameras; or at least the differences between three Jpeg engines.

The Sony a99 was a known commodity and it did its stuff correctly. It was the most cumbersome to use and I expected the image quality of the big, gnarly full frame sensor to squash the other cameras but the reality was that while there might have been less noise in the files all three cameras performed quite well and the images from all three were equally usable.

The GH3 is like a trim athlete that knows its regimen cold. It focused quickly, the lenses were uniformly sharp and the colors and metering uniformly pleasing. I saw very nice files and very nice skin tones under mixed lighting at ISOs all the way up to 3200 ISO. For a camera system purchased primarily as a video toolset I am happy to see that it's also a very usable still imaging system. Much nicer files than I remember getting when shooting stills with the GH2 several years ago. And the batteries lasted all day long!

Finally there is the case of the Pentax K01. The "clown car" of the camera collection around these parts. I used it in a cavalier way. I set the ISO to auto and let the camera roam from ISO 100 all the way up to ISO 6400. I set the mode dial to "P" and set the autofocus to face detections (till I got bored and started to play with focus peaking in manual focus...). In other words this was the camera of the three that got the least in the way of controls and mindful direction from me. I would see something I liked, bring the camera up to frame and then flail away with a volley of three or four quick exposures.

All three of the cameras were set to deliver the largest and less compressed Jpegs available on the menu. All three were processed in Apple's Aperture program in much the same way.

I was happily editing and there were no surprises until half way through the edit when the files under went a change. The colors got richer. The images got sharper and more detailed and the files got more robust to changes and processing.  I wondered if the dog had changed a setting in Aperture when I left the office for coffee so I double checked. Nope.

I had just gotten to the section of the folder that was filed with Pentax files. Even at ISO 3200 (and, under the right circumstances---a bit above...) the faces were free of noise but invested with detail. The files had a different look and feel than the files from the other two cameras. The images of one and two year olds just glowed! And I remember how freeing it felt not to totally control my camera when I was taking those particular shots.

My friend, Paul, reminded me not to read too much into the files. He reminded me that I was mostly just comparing the different ways the cameras rendered Jpegs. But given that all of my favorite files from the day came from a camera and lens combination that cost me about $200 used gave me pause. Lots of pause. Had I spent the last 26 years doing this whole photography thing incorrectly?

Should I have eschewed the technical tunnel vision from the get go and just concentrated on being in the moment and trusting to the machine? Or did someone build a machine for taking pictures that works best for me and I just now found it? Or maybe it was just one of those days but it did make me give more thought to the idea of just what is creativity and what is mastery?