A mirrorless camera from Sony with one of their great sensors is surely the way forward – that was my initial thought based on all the talk about the size advantages of such cameras. But here’s the thing – the Sony mirrorless cameras are in essence just like any DSLR but without the mirror, the lenses are to all intent and purposes the same size and weight as my Canon offerings, so yes you can save a few grams and centemeters on the camera body but in the overall scheme of things little is to be gained.
So what to do ?
With lens technology as it currently exists it is clear to me that the only way to loose a meaningful amount of bulk and weight is to step down to a system with a smaller sensor and therefore the advantages of a greater crop factor, a niche that is currently filled by the micro four thirds (m43) cameras produced by Olympus and Panasonic – m43 cameras have a 2x crop factor.
My research into m43 cameras lead me to believe that over recent years Olympus have tended to focus on stills photography whilst Panasonic was making a name for itself in the world of video with it’s GH5 being very popular with the YouTube franternaty. Given this it seamed likely that the best fit for me would be Olympus’ EM1 mkii.
However around the time I was doing my reasearch into the available cameras Panasonic somewhat fortuatously announced the launch of a new stills focussed camera the Lumix G9.
The G9 and EM1 mkii are in many senses very similar cameras each with just a few features that out-trump the other – but in use it strikes me that either would be a good option for someone moving to the m43 system but wanting to retain (and indeed add to) the capabilities of a DSLR.
In choosing any camera it is important to look at the wider system rather than just focusing on the camera body – in particular the availability of lenses. Now the thing about m43 lenses from Olympus and Panasonic is that whilst they are cross format in that Olympus lenses will work on Panasonic bodies and vice versa there is some loss of capability, particularly in respect of image stabilisation.
A review of all m43 lenses convinced me that there were two specific lenses that I would need to buy if I were to over to m43 – as it hapens both of these lenses are Panasonic Leica lenses – namely the 8-18mm and the 100-400mm.
The Panasonic Leica 100-400mm (200-800mm FF equiv) lens is unmatched in the m43 world – the longest lens that Olympus make is 300mm and it is a prime. As a wildlife photographer I have a strong preference for a zoom lens as it is frequently not possible to zoom with your feet (think being stuck in s safari vehicle) and furthermore a zoom just gives so much more freedom in composing interesting shots of animals in their environment rather than just the unbiquitous close-ups that tend to result from the use of a long prime lens – I know this from having used the Canon 100-400mm and 500mm lenses.
On the G9 camera the PL 100-400mm offers a dual stabilisation mode whereby the cameras in body stabilisation works with the lenses own stabilisation to offer circa 5-6 stops of stabilisation. What this means in practice is that rather than having to follow the 1/focal length rule for minimum shutter speed, ie. 1/800s at the long end you can use much slower shutter speeds even down to circa 1/25s – on an m43 camera where high iso performance will not be as good as a DSLR this is an important consideration. Furthermore the G9 uses as focus method that is proprietary to Panasonic and which only works to it’s best with certain panasonic lenses including the 100-400mm. earNow whilst it is true to say that the 100-400mm would work on the EM1 it appears to be the case from my research that it would not be operating at it’s best and in particulat would not be able to better from the “dual” image stabilisation.
The Panasonic Leica 8-18mm does have a matching lens in the Olympus line-up, the well respected 7-14mm, however the 8-18mm has one distinct advantage that it is making it the most popular m43 ultra-wide angle lens, its a simple advantage but for me a key one, it will take screw-on filters – the 7-14mm due to it’s bulbous front element will not. Now as a landscape photographer the ability to use my Lee ND grads and big stopper etc is absolutely essential, I simply would not uy a lens on which I could not use these filters.
By now I think it will have become clear, given my required choice of lenses at the wide and long focal lengths (between 18mm and 100mm both Olympus and Panasonic have good options), that the Panasonic G9 was probably going to win out over the EM1.
In order to finalise my choice I visted Park Cameras who, again rather fortuatously, had a G9 demo day ahead of its official release. This gave me the chance to handle both the G9 and the OM1. In the hand both are nice cameras but for me as someone stepping “down” in size from a full size DSLR the EM1 felt just a little too small and fiddly whereas the slightly bigger, all be it heavier, G9 has a more DSLR feel to it. The G9 also has a very DSLR like layout to its controls, including a top plate LCD which I find really useful – overall IMO the ergonomics of the G9 are much better than the EM1 and given my thoughts about lenses it was decision made and I placed a pre-order for the G9.