An exciting time for camera technology

I’ve toyed with the idea of upgrading from our point and shoot for a few years, but this is the photo where I’d finally had enough:

Most people’s reaction is ‘SO CUUUUUUUUUUUUUUTE’.

Well, ok … yes they are.

But while they’re cute, when I look at this photo I also see a wonderful moment captured incredibly poorly.  And it’s not like I got unlucky with this one shot.  It’s the best of maybe 15 that I took.  And there are so many wonderful moments that I fail to get any decent pictures of.

It’s so hard to catch a moment when they’re all smiling properly, all looking at you, all with their eyes open.  And my camera is frequently too slow to catch those fast toddler movements sharply.  As you can see, it’s also very noisy at times (I think light was a little low here and I also had to crop fairly aggressively).

So I finally decided to look for a new camera in earnest – and not a point and shoot this time.  I have my phone for when I want a casual snap; if I’m going to go and “get my camera out”, it needs to be substantially better!

And that’s when I discovered that, at least in the ‘upgrading from point and shoot’ market segment, this is an amazing time to be buying.  Here’s what I’ve been looking at.

This is just one example (the Sony NEX-7) of the new generation of ‘mirrorless’ cameras.  The idea is to get rid of the SLR’s traditional moving mirror, replacing it with a fixed but translucent mirror that diverts just enough light for autofocus sensors, and also replacing the traditional optical viewfinder with an electronic version hooked up to the sensor.

In practical terms, this means autofocus can work continuously, allowing autofocus during video recording and also very high burst speeds (around 10fps is typical).  The quality of the electronic viewfinders is supposedly still below that of optical ones, but the tradeoff is that you can get very rich overlays of information as well as the ability to preview exactly what the camera is going to shoot.  The lack of moving mirror also allows these cameras to be smaller and lighter than they’d otherwise be.

The result is a series of cameras that are ridiculously feature-rich for their price.  I sense a real atmosphere of excitement in all the online photography gear communities, including plenty of serious photographers.  Here’s an excellent article about them from the awesome Trey Ratcliff:

You don’t name a category of technology by what it is not. I suppose we did use to call an “automobile” a “horseless buggy,” but now we look back on that quaint term and laugh. So, of course we will not call these cameras “mirrorless” for long.

The number of these cameras just coming out around now is incredible.  Sony’s range (both the NEX and the SLR-sized alphas) have been out a while but are only just becoming available after the flooding in Thailand.  Pentax have the K-01 on the way; it looks ugly to me but the backward compatibility with all their lenses is pretty cool.  Olympus have the OM-D coming soon.  Above my price range, there’s the Fuji X-Pro1.  And there are a few older models around from Nikon, Panasonic and Olympus.  I think Samsung have one too.  And I’ve probably forgotten some!

So I’m now looking forward to a month or two of waiting for these new models to come out, and possibly a few rumoured new ones too – all while exhaustively reading every review under the sun.  Because like any good geek, I love the evaluation phase of a new gadget almost as much as the purchase itself :)

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5 Responses to An exciting time for camera technology

  1. This is not a bad photo – you’d get better quality in a professional studio, but maybe not the spontaneity. Like computing, photography is about quality of the equipment and the knowledge of how to use it. Once on taking photos at Arbroath cliffs I was baffled at an apparent bending on the horizon, and as a Maths graduate even calculated if this were possible due to curvature of the Earth (sad!) – but no it was ‘barrel’ distortion. I still have Kodak 4MP DX7440 which cost about £135 in 2005, and is a competent camera, even the videos are quite functional. From a geek perspective there is a LOT to learn about photography, and when there is poor lighting or fast movement, knowledge of photography is a must. As with any technology, choosing is an almost professional task. Much of January for me was largely taken up choosing components for new PC build, and as last build was quite a few years back, everything was totally new to learn. The rock star of the stage of PC technology now is clearly SSD – 35 secs to boot Win7, 10 secs to boot Mac OS X Lion in VMWare, £262 for a 256GB Crucial M4 worth every penny. As geeks we always make a good choice in any technology decision! When it comes to old family photos though like your mum with the young grandkids etc, you see even the most basic camera will capture it, and it brings back the memories without necesarily having to spend a lot. Technology greatly facilitates photography, but great photos are also being in the right place at the right time and knowing how to make a quick adjustment. One thing that a lot of people don’t think about is tripod – I got full size one for £15, plus a small ‘Gorillpad’ tripod which with flexible legs can be placed in unusual places eg on a tree branch. I don’t know what its like with cameras these days but with some MP3 players the battery is built in, and non-removeable, so you can’t carry a spare charged battery along with you, eg if taking hundreds of shots on a day out somewhere. I don’t like this trend, the other day my podcast shut off half way through – it would be handy to have two batteries (as I still have with my old Kodak). Also when the batteries are getting older it becomes even more helpful.

  2. Neil says:

    Really looking forward to the Olympus OM-D, that looks amazing though at a rumoured £1100 maybe more than most can afford. Have you started researching the lenses yet?

    Also I hear reading something like this is worth just as much as a shiny new camera. ;-)

    • lukehalliwell says:

      Ouch – benefit of being here is $1100 which is more in my range :)

      I have been looking at lenses a lot, yes. Didn’t mention that here as I don’t feel qualified to approach passing comment on these cameras, but the lenses are obviously important. They’re the main weak point of the NEX system as it’s a new lens mount and there isn’t a huge choice, although they are trying to catch up. And it’s the strong point of that Pentax which is otherwise not that attractive. I don’t see myself spending being able to justify spending a huge amount on lenses on top of the camera so it would be nice to have something compatible with oldish lenses and maybe pick up some second-hand ones for fun.

  3. I have also been in the market for a small and fast camera for quite some time now. When I say fast, I mean high-iso and wide-aperture. f2.8, the lens they have on that Sony Nex-7 is pretty much what you can get for affordable cameras. But I want better than that. My Nikon D40, with a f1.8 lens, does a really good job for its £200 cost in second hand, thanks to its low-res high-sensitivity sensor. Here’s an example:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/gorkempacaci/4676597682/in/set-72157623176171786/
    I wish these small cameras come to a place they are fast enough for night-shots so we can comfortably buy them and put in our pockets :)

    • lukehalliwell says:

      You’re right about the kit lens on the NEX-7 … but remember they do have others. You can get a 50mm f1.8 for $300. But I agree the e-mount range is very small just now. Looks like these Sony sensors have better high-iso performance than your D40 as well ;)

      I think the “putting in your pocket” part is a problem though … even though the cameras are small, a lot of the lenses are not. Ultimately I wonder whether there’s any point to the smaller body.

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