My New Two Camera Olympus Pen Setup
Introducing my new two camera Olympus Pen setup. For a couple of years, I’ve been looking for a smaller camera alternative to my current DSLR, the Canon 7D. I’ve used a couple of different cameras and did a bunch of research to come up with this setup. At first I used the Sony TX5. While I originally bought if for a beach trip, this tiny waterproof point and shoot has great image quality and a take anywhere size. And, while the image quality is very good for a small point and shoot, I ultimately wanted something better. Then, I got into the Sony NEX-5. After much research, this was the first mirrorless, EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens) camera I purchased. I’ve used it extensively and blogged a lot about the camera over the year. If you read my detailed review of the Sony, you know that I’ve had great success with the camera but there were a couple of things that weren’t ideal for me. I continue to use the camera but almost on a lark, this past summer, I found an inexpensive Olympus E-PL1 kit that change my equipment direction which culminated in this new setup.
I admit that I tend to analyze stuff, a lot. It’s in my nature and I have to admit that I enjoy the process. I don’t intensively concentrate on finding the solution per say. Rather, I think about the problem and I keep it in the back of my head. As I come up with a thought, read something on the web or hear something from a friend, I stuff those little nuggets of information somewhere in my brain. Eventually, those nuggets start combining and attach themselves to the problem. It’s almost like white blood cells swarming together to fight a foreign invader — I start getting possible solutions or directions to solve the issue. The problem that’s got me analyzing all this data is “What do I use when I wanted to take highest quality images but with the smallest possible camera?'” DSLRs are excellent general purpose devices that do almost everything well in photography but what If I were to narrow down my requirements so I could “make do” with a device that is more targeted. My desired smaller camera will not have to do action or sports. I did not need extreme telephoto zooms. It didn’t have to be built like a tank or be weather sealed, but the camera didn’t need to be tiny either — it didn’t need to be pocketable. I was perfectly willing to carry this camera in a small bag. I just didn’t want the bulk of the DSLR at times. I’ve been thinking about this issue for a while now. Along the way, I’ve read some great stuff on the web that has influenced my direction. First up is that whole, your camera doesn’t matter it’s the photographer mantra that is so popular on the web. Many have spoken and written about this and within certain parameters, I certainly agree. When I see spectacular images like this from Wilson Tsoi, taken with a low-end Canon PowerShot A80, I feel invigorated to take the small camera challenge myself. Then there is this excellent writeup by professional Danish photographer Thorsten Overgaard. He is a Leica shooter but loves his old, lower end Leica Digilux 2 which was introduced in 2004. I just love his understated images and they are also a source of inspiration for me. Over the years, I have a better understanding of what I like to photograph. I have gravitated towards street photography, candid images of people and city life. I’m taking up the challenge of finding interesting observations in mundane places and documenting them. Sure, its fun to go to some spectacular place to take beautiful scenery but can I make interesting images in the everyday places that I’ve been to many times. I like shooting a lot in lower light conditions, either indoors or in the evening or night. And finally, I’ve really like the quality and simplicity that prime, non zooming, lenses give me. These external inspirations as well as my internal interests have molded together to form the input to the new camera system that I’m looking for.
So how did I end up with this two camera Olympus system when there are so many excellent cameras out there? I talked about the two Sony cameras I’ve personally used. There are great new cameras by Nikon, Panasonic, Fujifilm as well as the famous Leica. I admit that I’m a fairly frugal person. Above all else, price performance is an important consideration. Sure, I appreciate Leica’s legendary image quality and incredible fit and finish but I really can’t justify the $10,000 and up price tag. The $1,200 Fujifilm X100 is an enticing camera and I’ll have to confess that I’ve spent many a night researching and dreaming about the camera. It’s on the upper end of what I was willing to spend but it has some spectacular capabilities . I’ve played with a friend’s X100 and thought about it a lot. I had my inexpensive Olympus E-PL1 with a kit lens at the time but I was willing to switch to the X100 if it made sense. Ultimately, I decided to get the Panasonic Lumix 20mm f1.7 lens for my Olympus instead. This lens gives the Olympus a similar angle of view as the Fuji X100, 40mm vs 35mm. And while the Fujifilm has a larger and better low light sensor, I came to the conclusion that the built-in image stabilization of the Olympus generally compensates for the Olympus 4/3 sensor for my type of photography. Based on my friend’s feedback, the Lumix 20mm f1.7 appears to be sharper wide open (at the f1.7 aperture) than the Fujifilm’s f2.0 lens wide open. Indeed, I usually shoot with this lens at f1.7 and at ISO 800 with image stabilization and I can make photographs in most places that I care to. I also believe that focusing with the Olympus is superior to the Fujifiim, especially in low light. The X100 has some strengths over the EPL-1 though, in particularly I love how the Fuji balances flash exposure with ambient light — this is definitely one of the E-PL1’s weaker areas. Panasonic makes some great cameras also in the micro 4/3 format. They seem to be superior for video but I prefer the Olympus color and exposure and the Panasonic cameras lack that all important in-body image stabilization. I can’t overstate how important image stabilization (IS) is for the type of shooting that I do. Sure, IS does not freeze action, but it allows me to get higher quality images for static scenes, so much so that I often get superior results with my small Olympus compared to my big Canon 7D. There are other things I like about the camera and I talk about the good and the bad in my detailed Olympus E-PL1 review. Finally, there is the new Nikon 1 system. There is a lot to like about the new camera but right now there are two things holding me back. First, they don’t have any large aperture prime lenses, I’m sure that this will be remedied in the near future. The camera lacks in body IS which probably means that their future prime lens will also lack IS. This is a concern but we will see what the future brings.
I recently add the Olympus 45mm f1.8 lens to my kit. My initial test confirms that this is a spectacular lens and it gives me the capability to make images that are different from the 20mm f1.7. It creates a shallower depth of field and would also make an excellent portrait lens. I’ve shot quite a bit with just the 20mm and at times, I wish that I have more reach. There is only so much you can do when you zoom with your feet. The 45mm, which is equivalent to 90mm in 35mm terms, gives me that extra reach when it is needed. For a brief time, I actually considered getting the Fujifilm X10, which is the less expensive baby brother to the X100. It has a 28mm – 112mm equivalent fast f2.0 – f2.8 zoom. At $600 it more expensive than the $400 45mm Olympus lens but it would give me more flexibility. In the end I opted to go with the higher quality with the 45mm lens which will give me the range I want but in a somewhat less convenient package. Then, I noticed a deal at Cameta Camera that I found too to good to pass up. Cameta is where I originally purchased my E-PL1 kit and they had a spectacular deal. They had a factory refurbished body only E-PL1 for $179. They go in and out of stock on the refurbed units but the deal is still there as of this writing. You can check out their refurbished Olympus deals here. I figured If I get the second Olympus body, I can have the 45mm lens mounted full time on the new body and have the 20mm on my other. Ever see those photo journalists or wedding photographers that have two DSLRs with them, strapped to their body? They usually have a wide angle zoom on one body and a telephoto zoom on the other. Well, I guess my new two Olympus camera set up is the poor man’s version of this. I’ve taken this two camera setup several times now on my photo walks and its been working great. I get to use two identical bodies so the controls are exactly the same. I also get to quickly switch between a normal 40mm view and the 90mm telephoto view. On a recent conversation with Kirk Tuck, local professional photographer and blogger, he mentioned that the old Leica CL system shipped with two lenses, a 40mm and 90mm. Intrigued, I did some research. It turns out that back in 1973, Leica worked with Minolta to come out with the Leica CL. Here is some background on it, if you are interested. So my two lens setup with a 40mm and 90mm wasn’t a complete fluke. I guess it does make for a decent setup.
So is this the perfect system and am I completely covered? Well no but this setup should cover much of my daily needs. It would be nice to add a wide-angle to the package, like a 24mm. Olympus did recently release a really nice 12mm which is 24mm when you consider the crop factor. It’s a bit pricy at $800 so I won’t be getting it anytime soon. I have the Sony NEX-5 with the 16mm lens which is equivalent to 24mm on that system. So, when I want to shoot wide, I’ll use the NEX-5 in conjunction with the E-PL1. The major weakness I see in the current Olympus E-PL1 is the video. It’s only adequate but not especially great. Video is not a major component of my photography and I’m still looking for the elusive do all video and still image camera. The camera market is rapidly changing right now and until something remarkable comes out, I’m set with the current Olympus system. There are no more equipment excuses. I just need to go out there and continue to practice my photography.
Update July 25,2012: Since I originally wrote this post, the price for the Olympus E-PL1 has only gotten sweeter. The amazing thing is that the body only E-PL1 (without a lens) runs for $129, factory refurbished at Cameta Camera. Consider for this price you get the body, a battery, charger, strap, everything except a lens. If you are already a Olympus or Panasonic micro 4/3 shooter, you can use this camera with your existing lenses. I own multiple bodies and basically use them as functional lens caps. Instead of having to change lens on my camera body, I just have camera bodies attached to my favorite lenses. Sounds a bit crazy bit at $129, you can do this kind of thing. For $150 at Amazon, you can get a brand new body only configuration. So for a $20 difference you may prefer getting a brand new unit.
Here is a sample of my work using the Olympus E-PL1. I’ve posted them on my one-photo-per-day photo blog, mostlyfotos. There are a lot of images so click the << Previous Photo link to see more. You can also hover over the photos to see the exposure information.