Stories from the field: Packing the Olympus cameras and lenses but ending up with the Panasonic fz 1000 in my hands for the morning. Why? How did it go?

A shot from the Blanton Museum. It has nothing to do with the content of the post 
but I'm not able to use the images from the job we shot, yet. This is a placeholder.
It was shot with the camera we are discussing; the Panasonic fz 1000. 

I was booked on an assignment last Friday morning. It was at the headquarters of a radiology practice that has over 100 doctors, and lots of locations around Austin and central Texas. They are a wonderful client and we have provided photographic services and video to them for nearly 20 years. 

The assignment was in conjunction with a video project they were also doing. They straightened up the offices, asked the employees to dress well, and let everyone know that a photographer and a videographer would be in the building, and while the videographer would mostly be interviewing three or four people and taking "B-roll" shot, the photographer would be ambling all over the building making shots of happy employees, working or just smiling into the camera.  I would be moving quickly and trying to capture a wide cross section of employees so there would be very little time for involved lighting. We would literally be asking for individual permission to photograph, quickly posing and interacting with each subject and then snapped anywhere from three to five quick shots of them. 

I didn't want or need a full frame camera for this adventure, after all, the biggest use of the images would be the top half of a magazine page sized print ad, and most of the images would end up being used on the web. Since we'd be carrying everything from cube to cube and from office to office it just made sense to travel as light as possible.  With this in mind I packed up the two Olympus EM5.2 cameras and a nice assortment of lenses; intending to lean heavily on the 12-35mm f2.8 Panasonic lens  with the longer Sigma 60mm f2.8 thrown in for good measure. When I arrived at my destination in north Austin I grabbed the bag of cameras, a battery-powered LED panel and a small light stand.

Once I was in the building the client and I lined out our plan for the morning. I started by shooting some portraits in a long hallway. I tried several different focal lengths on the EM5.2 but for some reason I just wasn't feeling the love. Too short, too long, too something. And the cameras seemed to be fighting me when it came to color balance. The blend of fluorescent ceiling fixtures and encroaching, exterior daylight seemed to conspire to make every face a thick, tangy yellow. There are some days when certain cameras (cameras that in other venues have given me good service) just get bitchy with me and we don't click together. This was one of those days. I kept telling myself that I was shooting raw and I could correct these faults in post production but that line of thought started making me dread the idea of post production.

Early on we had a natural break in the shoot as we waited for someone to arrive. They were a bit late. I took advantage of the time to run out to the car and grab the new Panasonic fz 1000 out of the backpack it's currently living in and quickly set it up for a kind of run and gun mode. Auto WB, Auto ISO with the top ISO set to 1600. Aperture priority mode. Raw. I hate to say it because I really like my Olympus cameras, but, the Panasonic just started nailing the color balance and exposure from the minute I turned on the camera. I turned off the Olympus cameras and stuck em in their bag.

A lot of the day was spent wandering around with the VP of marketing. We'd go into a phone support or scheduling area and make quick portrait after quick portrait. No real set up. Not much more than me smiling, introducing myself and asking the person in front of me if was okay for me to take their photograph. A couple people declined but nearly 60 others thought the whole process would be just dandy.

While I had heard and read many times that the Panasonic battery was a power lightweight that would give only about 300-350 shots I ended up the morning with about 650 shots and a bar left on the battery indicator. While that's not impressive when compared to DSLR battery performance what it means to me is that two batteries with a third in reserve will take me through a long and involved day of shooting.

The camera performed well in terms of focus acquisition. Again, it's better than the Olympus cameras at finding and locking on to focus quickly. The DFD focusing feature seems to live up to the advertising. The lens range came in handy when I went outside to photograph people conferencing over coffee on the company's expansive deck. I stood way back (fewer fake smiles that way) and took advantage of the long focal length compression. Even at the longer focal lengths the I.S. did its job and I didn't see much of the degradation that the more anal camera reviews had cued me to expect.

The client and I covered a lot of ground before lunch and we were happy with the coverage. But would I be equally happy with the final results?

I got home, had lunch with Studio Dog, and after the walk we took, which she insisted was for my health, I got down to the questionable pleasures of post processing in the non-deconstructed version of Lightroom CC.

The first thing I noticed was that no matter whether I'd shot with just the fluorescent lighting or if I had added in some front fill from the LED panel, the camera did a fantastic job of nailing white balance and, by extension, skin tones. The second thing I noticed was the lack of blown highlights and featureless shadow areas. But the thing that caused me to stop in my tracks and start pixel peeping was the lack of noise at ISO 1600. At 100% you can see a monochromatic pattern of noise in lower mid-tones and shadows but since there are no patches of mottled color the effect is more than just acceptable. It's film-like. On Saturday one of my friends who works professionally as a video producer came over to borrow a couple of lenses. He's extremely noise averse and already has the new Sony A7S2 in his hands. He stared at the Panasonic image on the screen and then clicked to the exif information just to be sure I wasn't messing around with the facts. He was amazed. I was amazed.

And the wonderful thing about the noise profiles at 800 and 1600 is that the fine details of the images are still sharply rendered and defined. This little camera had smacked that job right out of the ball park!!

Which led me into a philosophical discussion of sorts with my video counterpart. Had technology reached a point where, other than niceties like XLR connectors and S-Log3 and handling, consumer cameras were flattening the barriers to entry by putting high performance into cameras that cost a fraction of what it had cost to do certain types of work only a few years ago? Is the A7S2 within a gnat's eyelash of the performance of something like a Canon C300 or A Red camera? On so many parameters the Panasonic fz 1000, a $750 camera, was outperforming almost all the previous generations of all digital still cameras up to about the introduction of the new generation of Sony sensors in the Nikon, Pentax, Olympus and other cameras (around 2012).

Was it only ingrained, professional user prejudice that was keeping people from pressing the newer, cheaper cameras into service in projects? And the same in video?

For the most part I would say yes. The one place where the differentiation is easy to see is in the one parameter of focus ramping and depth of field. It is basic physics. A full frame camera with a fast lens will allow the artistic choice of quickly dropping backgrounds (and foregrounds) out of focus. With a longer, faster lens the backgrounds can be blown entirely out of focus. It's a nice effect and one I like to use in my personal portraits but it's hardly mandatory on all jobs, especially in documentary jobs and events. But also jobs or projects where overall context is a concern.

Are we mostly holding on to the older, bigger, more expensive tech out of reflex and habit?

I am deep in thought today about my relationship to all the gear I've been shooting with. The Nikons prove their value to me in portrait shooting situations. Part of my prevailing style is to shoot with wider apertures on longer lenses and to play with the out of focus tonalities of backgrounds. But not all of my work falls into this camp. I've spent years and years shooting all kinds of events, both social and business. I'll be doing so again on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday of this week.

On Thurs. I'll be shooting portraits in my usual style and have already selected the Nikon D750, along with the 85mm and 105mm lenses for that part of the job. But the rest of the time I'll be standing back, documenting client and customer interaction, making images of business meetings, attending dinners and catching candid images at the Formula One race --- images of the clients and customers, not necessarily of the cars.... We'll also be shooting a concert in a downtown venue. One evening we'll be doing a walking tour of restaurants on Rainey Street. These are almost all situations which seem perfect for an all in one, high performance solution that's highly portable. A week ago I had made up my mind to use the Olympus cameras for these various functions but now I'm not at all sure and am leaning toward the fz 1000.

How serious am I about using the new camera? Serious enough to head out to Precision Camera to buy a second one. Why? No professional should show up for a job without a rational backup camera. And the best back up camera is one that is identical to the first. Same batteries, same flash, same menus and the same handling. It's this a dicey decision? Naw. If the camera can make help me make beautiful portraits, by available light, in small office cubicles I should be able to do just about anything else with it too.

The past exerts a tyrannical hold on us. It keeps us in a certain stasis that may not be beneficial. Belinda and I remind ourselves when we are out on morning walks that our tendency, when charging for work, is to hew to what we've always done. But that doesn't take inflation and increased skill sets into consideration properly. We always remind ourselves to change with the times. Twenty years ago it was heretical for corporate photographers to accept credit cards, now it is mainstream. Small flashes replace big flashes. Internet replaces print. And smaller, more capable cameras can replace a dozen or more pounds of last generation gear when the final deliverable product is taken into consideration.

At a certain point, if the work supports the decision, it makes good sense to continually downsize the gear that you'll have to carry and conserve for eight or ten hour days at a time. And if you can buy a camera that does all this for what you would have paid for one prime lens for your heavyweight system, then how does it not make sense?

This particular blog post, I think, is aimed at working professionals. If you aren't doing photos for money you can use and carry whatever you want whenever you want to. We, on the other hand, have felt I think culturally constrained to use what has always amounted to "herd approved" gear for the bulk of our work, even when it doesn't serve a rational purpose. The upheaval of the past few years may change all that; especially if the quality of the images in their final use doesn't take a hit.

And it's not just that the fz 1000 is some magical tool, I could feel just as comfortable with the Sony RX10.2, and for most uses even the Sony RX100.4 or the Panasonic LX100. They are quick and functional. In conjunction with flash and ISO 200 they match what we've always gotten from cameras--- all the way back to the film age.

Need narrow depth of field for everything you shoot? Then you need a large sensor camera. For everything else? Now it's your call.


amolitor said...

I think that is a very wise essay.

It is really the professional who needs to be in the van, testing and using the latest technology. This is competitive. And yet, the professional tends to want to hang back and stick with what works. It paid the bills last year, why gamble with something new, untried?

That's a luxury only the amateurs and artists (and wannabees like me) can afford.

I think the pace is likely to accelerate, at least for a while, in there next few years. Which is gonna make your job harder but more interesting!

Wally said...

Agree comletely. Newer Smaller Better works great. Wife and I just returnd from a vacation in New England. casual cameras in no particular order were smartphones and Sony RX100Ii for the wife, for me its. Panny GX 7 with 2 lenses and a Sigma Merrill DP 2 for landscape work. A MFT or 1 inch sensor renders images as good as my first serious DSLR a Nikon D80! Travel Tripod helped too. Once again two Nikon DSLR' s and a host of DX lenses stayed home.

Ken said...

"Are we mostly holding on to the older, bigger, more expensive tech out of reflex and habit?" I think this statement says it all. I've been struggling with this concept personally too. I have an RX10 and Typ 109 (LX100) but still holding on to my Fuji X system cameras with multiple lenses, etc.

Why? I've strived for simplicity, to free myself of the constraints of dragging around "too much" gear. That was the intent with Fuji. But then I got sucked back into G.A.S. with the lenses and bodies. That's how the RX10, and later the Typ 109, came to be with me. An effort to simplify, but I haven't been able to let go of the system cameras....yet. I think that's the key word, yet.

I now only shoot for myself, but in past for clients and, yet, I still hold to that mentality of "I must have X, Y and Z" to be satisfied. I fight it tooth and nail to accept that the RX10 and Typ 109 can give me what I "really need" in 90-95% of the situations I'm in an do so very well.

"I didn't want or need a full frame camera for this adventure, after all, the biggest use of the images would be the top half of a magazine page sized print ad, and most of the images would end up being used on the web. Since we'd be carrying everything from cube to cube and from office to office it just made sense to travel as light as possible." Yes, yes and yes!

What are my uses? Personal use now. Maybe some larger prints to 24x36 here and there, but mostly 16x20 and smaller with a majority in the 11x14" range. For that, a FF or even an APS-C is not really required anymore. Looking at the ultimate output of images is key to get over this "fear" for not having "the best available". But why? At some point, I feel some of the gear we are inclined to buy, for our intended purposes, is like a car. We can get the job done with a Honda Accord or Honda CRV (RX10, FZ1000) and do it VERY well. But, yet, we are bound by the past to think that we must get it done is a Mercedes E or S class and a Range Rover instead. But why, really, why? Those times have past and it's a struggle to get over those thoughts.

Smart Phones have all but replaced the p&s for the average consumer. I think what we are witnessing is something similar, although in the early stages, of a revolution in higher end photography to a certain extent. There will always be a place for a system camera and more options with higher res and bigger and better pixels, but for most photographers, there will be a tipping point where this new breed of cameras will be all we need. My 2 cents.

Thanks for sharing! It's nice to know I'm not the only one with those thought and not the only one who has found some joy in using simpler tools that are "lower end" but do an excellent job overall!

Don Karner said...

Darn it Kirk. Now I have to rethink everything. (Not that I wasn't already doing some of that). Thanks for a wonderfully written post. I must say that your blog posts are really too literate for the internet. Thanks for sharing them.

Dave Jenkins said...

Kirk, are you saying that the image quality of the FZ1000 is as good as the EM-5.2?

Kirk Tuck said...

Hi Dave, Under controlled conditions the EM5.2 shines. It's better in terms of noise at 1600 and 3200 but for most things the Panasonic is very close and the convenience of that lens sure tips me in that direction when I want one thing to keep track of. The Olympus Jpegs are a little thicker and richer but I can get close to the same overall look in post.

Not dumping the Nikons or the Olympus cameras. Not at all. But the Panasonic is a sweet camera for a lot of stuff....

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. I'd point out, though, that the Panasonic GX8 is actually a bit smaller than the FZ1000 and still has the interchangeable lenses. Don't know whether it has the same color balance engine, though, that helped you with the mixed lighting. I'd really like a single camera with the qualities of the FZ1000 that I could use when I didn't want to take the GX8s or the Nikons with me, but the problem is always the lens. A camera like that is simply hard to pack in a carry-on, because it's big in all three dimensions, and you can't stick it in a jacket pocket. With the Olympus and Panasonic m4/3 cameras, you can pack the lens parallel to the body, instead of sticking out of it, or put the body in one jacket pocket and the lens in another, until you need it. If you're traveling by car, or on foot, or always carry a camera around your neck, it's not a problem with either one. I'd also point out that your problem here was not with a physical camera per se, but with the software solutions built into it -- if the Olympus had better light management software, then you'd be better off shooting that. Still, the single-camera solution is pretty tempting. This post could cost me some money...

John Camp

Dave said...

Is Panny's auto-ISO in manual mode still disabled? Last time I owned one the ISO was totally manual in M. That turned me off, but the FZ1000 is a 4K bargain and as you've stated my current RX10.1 gives me 90-95% of what I need. I added an RX100IV and now I'm addicted to the mobility.

Michael Matthews said...

But how is it for nano-acuity?

Only half-kidding. Do those 20 million itty-bitty pixels jammed onto a one inch sensor provide the same clarity and edge contrast one might find in a Nikon D80's 10 million? (That is, before it developed a chronic focus problem and was abandoned in favor of M4/3rds.)

I only need to print up to 18 X 12. But I'd like to be able to see uncompromised, bright, hard lines when the subject provides them.

This is getting to be too tempting.

Carlo Santin said...

So this comes from someone who just today received in the mail a Nikon D300 that I picked up rather cheap. I am sorry I didnt pick one up sooner. It fits my hand like it was made for me and only me. Wonderful viewfinder. Initial images with a couple of different primes are terrific. It can take my collection of MF Nikon primes...Im happy. I can use it as a commander for my Nikon flash, happy again.

I own and use a Sony RX100 m1. I have no issues with the image quality and the capability of the camera, but it is damn small. I keep it in my pocket as my always with me camera but I fumble a lot with the buttons and dials. That would be my only complaint with the camera. Well, it also takes forever to power down and I hate walking around with it with the lens barrel extended when its on.

I tried to love a few different M43 cameras...OMD EM10, EM1...same issue there. Too damn small. Power up too damn long.

My point is that I am much more concerned these days with responsiveness and haptics than megapixels and ïmage quality. I want a camera that feels good and is always ready to shoot, a simple camera that I dont have to fight or fumble with. The new Sony RX100 IV seems unbelievably complicated, way too much going on in that little body so I passed on it. The D300 isnt exaclty simple, but I can get my head around it. I dont mind the size, slung over my shoulder its no big deal and I have no intention of slapping a 2.8 zoom on it.

The new cameras are great, sure, but I think there are a lot of older ones that are going to be left by the wayside. Iĺl be there to snap them up, cheap bugger that I am.

Mark Davidson said...

Yup and yup.
I have been VERY happy with the files of my FZ1000. I have been shooting events with it for sometime now and continue to be astonished by its speed and quality.

I have always argued with JPG shooters that if you have to open a JPG in PS to adjust it, you have already lost the putative speed advantages of JPG.
I am a very dedicated RAW shooter and I shoot RAW and JPG with the Panasonic and I have started delivering OOC JPG stop my clients.
While the RAWs are excellent the JPGs need nothing and thus save me an enormous amount of time.

I do have a big Canon inventory for my commercial and architectural work but this camera beats it to death in event work.

You forgot to mention one of my favorite features: LEAF SHUTTER! I use my FZ outside in bright desert sun at ISO 125 with a Yongnuo set at about 1/4 power. I use aperture priority at f6.3 and can fill spectacularly at 15-20 feet! The EVF is on a 1 sec playback which allows me a quick check to adjust aperture but keeps me shooting quickly.

Also that LS is super quiet as you no doubt appreciate.

sr71blackbird said...

Hi Kirk you nailed on the head..... great article, Have a nice day mate

Wylie Shaw

Bob Travaglione said...

I have been shooting with the Panasonic G7 with the Panasonic 14-140mm upgraded kit lens combo for $997. (This price ends on Oct 24) I have been making some pictures with this camera along with the lightweight LX100 and a GX7 with the Olympus 17mm f/1.8 lens. All in all, for a total price for everything under $2400, I have found a comfort zone to grab one of these every day when I walk out the door in the morning. I went with the Panasonic over the Olympus because I never felt comfortable with the Olympus menus. After 40 years of making pictures, these are amazing times to be photographing in! Your Portraits always inspire me to slow down and look more deeply at people. Thanks for your ideas and opinions.