My Long Journey to Find the Best Camera(s) for Personal Use

Like many parents I take a lot of photographs of my family, when I am on vacation, or when I go to one of my daughters' school events.  Many times my iPhone 6 becomes my camera of choice because it is the only camera I have with me.  

I HATE the saying "the best camera is the one you have with you."  It isn't the best camera, it is the only camera ... BIG DIFFERENCE.  Many times the only camera delivers very poor results because of poor lighting, the wrong lens focal length, or poor autofocus, etc..

So I began a search to find a camera that was small enough that I wouldn't mind taking it with me and powerful enough to take quality images. 

Let me say up front, I am professional photographer and I shoot with the Nikon D4, Nikon D750, and the Nikon D810.  These cameras are the BEST on the planet, but they, when coupled with their big lenses,  weigh a ton, and are big and bulky.  Not a big deal when I am shooting professionally, but when I am on vacation, going to my daughter's recital, or at a friend's wedding, I don't want one of these monster cameras over my shoulder. 

I purchased the FUJI X-100 when it was introduced in 2010.  The images were beautiful.  I thought I had found my personal use camera.  But the autofocus was so slow that I was missing shots.  I sold it after about a year.  

In 2012 I bought the Olympus OM-D E-M5. The Olympus OM-D E-M5 is a nice camera.  It has fast autofocus, it is lightweight, it has a very good selection of lenses to choose from, and the image quality is better than a point and shoot, but not quite as good as the Fuji X100.  in early 2013 I bought the FUJI X100S, it has improved autofocus compared to the X100 and the image quality is even better.  I took both cameras with me on vacation to Seattle back in 2013.  One day I used the X100S and the next I used the E-M5.  Both cameras produced very nice images, but the FUJI X100S images were special.  

The Olympus OM-D EM1, The Nikon D4, and the Fuji XT-1 with their 50MM Equivalent lenses. 

The Olympus OM-D EM1, The Nikon D4, and the Fuji XT-1 with their 50MM Equivalent lenses. 

In late 2013 Olympus announced the Olympus OM-D E-M1.  Olympus improved the autofocus, handling, and image quality of the OM-D E-M5.  I bought it.  It is a great camera.  But the image quality was still not the equal to the FUJI X100S especailly in low light / high ISO situations.  

In February 2014 Fuji introduces the FUJI X-T1.  The same sensor as the X100S, but with a camera body that provides faster autofocus and interchangeable lenses wrapped in a beautifully designed camera body.   

I recently sold my Olympus OM-D E-M1.  I found myself reaching for the Fuji X100s or XT-1 over the Olympus. It was collecting dust and I couldn't justify keeping it.  

On the Fuji side I have the 18-55MM F2.8 - F4.0 zoom lens.  This is a very sharp zoom lens and is has images stabilization.  I also bought the Fuji 35MM F1.4 (50mm equivalent) lens, a super sharp lens.  I have  the Fuji 10MM - 24MM F4.0 lens.  On a few occasion I have used my Fuji X-T1 with the 10-24MM lens in lieau of my big, heavy Nikon 14-28MM F2.8 lens on professional jobs when lighting is good enough.  The other nice thing about the Fuji is the tilt screen LCD.  When you want to take the high or low shots, the tilt screen comes in handy.  I just added to my collection the Fuji 55-200MM F3.5 to F4.8 image stabilized lens. 

My current stable of personal use cameras:  Fuji X100S, Canon S110, and the Fuji XT-1

My current stable of personal use cameras:  Fuji X100S, Canon S110, and the Fuji XT-1

There are times when I want a pocketable camera and the Fujis are too big, and the iPhone 6 is just not good enough.  For those times I have a Canon S110. IT FITS IN YOUR PANTS POCKET.   It shoots RAW, it has a fast F2.0 lens at the wide end that zooms from 24MM to 120MM, it has a touch screen, has a built in lens cap and it takes decent pictures in good light.  When you don't want to carry a camera around your neck, this is the camera.  Canon has since introduced the Canon S120 which provides a slightly faster lens than the Canon S110.

I tried the Sony RX100, it produces nicer images, but is a bit bulkier and not as usable. I have owned a couple of Sony cameras and I just don't like their user interface.   I also tried the Canon G7X. It has a larger sensor, a tilt screen and is a bit larger and heavier than the Canon S110, but still pocketable.  I just thought the images were soft so I returned it.  The other thing I like about the Canon S110 is that the images are only 12 megapixels vs. 20 megapixels for the Sony RX100 line and the Canon G7X. More pixels mean smaller pixels, more noise and bigger files.  Quality, not quantity, is the key when it comes to pixels.  The one inch sensors in the Canon G7X and the Sony RX100 line are almost three times as large as the Canon S110/S120 but the pixel size is only 59% larger. 

The Canon S110 fits in a relatively tight jean pocket!!!

The Canon S110 fits in a relatively tight jean pocket!!!

If I had to pick one camera for personal use it would probably be the Fuji XT-1 because it delivers beautiful images, a wide selection of lenses, in a reasonable size and weight.  For those times I don't want to carry any camera, I always have my iPhone (better than nothing). 

Olympus OM-D E-M5 ... It is not the Best Camera, but it is good enough

Is the Olympus OM-D E-M5 good enough to be my camera system for personal / family photography?  

I have a Canon S100 point and shoot camera that I use when I need to be able to put my camera in my pant pocket, but the quality of the images, even at its base 80 ISO, just aren't that good.  My professional DSLRs, Nikon D4, Nikon D800E, and the Nikon D3S are the best cameras on the planet, but they are heavy and cumbersome when on vacation or when I'm taking a few photos for personal use at Christmas or birthday party.  

So I decided to test my OMD on the streets of Washington, DC.  I don't consider myself a "Street Photographer,", but I thought I would take my Olympus OM-D E-M5 out for a test drive.  So I took the Metro down to around the Tidal Basin where I thought the tourists, hoping to see the Cherry Blossoms, would be out in force.  The Cherry Blossoms are late this year because of the cold weather, so there weren't as many tourists as normal, but there still was quite a few.  I wasn't quite sure what I was going to take pictures of. The first thing you notice is the tourists are taking photos with iPhones, point and shoot camera, SLRs, and a surprising number of people using iPads as their primary camera.  Family members stand there all proud as they get their photo taken in front of the monuments. 

I started at the Jefferson Memorial and walked around to the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial.  I then walked over to the Washington Monument (which is being repaired) and then over to the White House. 

I used two lenses, the Panasonic 25MM F1.4, and the Panasonic 100MM-300MM.  I typically shoot with wide-angle lenses, but I wanted to change it up and shoot with a long telephoto lens.  The 100-300 becomes a 200-600 (35MM equivalent lens) on the OMD.  I found myself having to constantly back up vs. getting closer as I normally do with my wide-angle lenses.  I found the 100-300 to be surprisingly sharp.  I had one strange thing happen that I am not sure is a result of the lens or the OMD Sensor.  If you look at the columns of the Lincoln Memorial you can see how jagged they are.  I shot JPG + RAW and they were both the same (I was thinking maybe that Lightroom was having a problem decoding the RAW).  This was shot at about 188MM.

Other than that, the Olympus and my two Panasonic lenses performed well.  Almost all of the photographs were shot at the camera's base ISO of 200, so I didn't stress the low ISO capabilities of this camera, expect for a few shots in the Metro which were shot at ISO 4000.

The lightness of the Olympus OM-D is so nice.  I walked about four miles over a three hour period and the camera and lenses were barley noticeable.  So is the excellent image quality that comes from a DSLR like my Nikon D800E and the associated size and weight worth the bother for personal use vs. taking something like the Olympus OMD which is super light and convenient.  If I want to put the camera in my coat pocket (not pants) I can put my Panasonic 14MM F2.5 pancake lens on my OMD.  It is a bit bulky, but it fits.  Try that with a DSLR.  The lenses that are being developed by Panasonic and Olympus for the Micro Four Thirds platform is very impressive.  

THE VERDICT:  We are planning a family vacation to Seattle this summer.  There should be some great photo opportunities.  I have decided to take my OMD and leave the Nikon DSLRs at home.  It is funny that I don't even notice the weight and size of my Nikon D4 with lenses like the Nikon 70-200 F2.8 when I am on the job as a professional photographer, but when I am on vacation or taking photos for personal use, it makes a big difference.  Don't get me wrong, the OMD is no match for the Nikon D4 or D800E for image quality, autofocus speed and accuracy, and dynamic range, but for personal use it is close enough.  I am a big believer that as a professional photographer I should be using the best equipment money can buy to deliver to my clients the best quality images.  For personal use, I am the customer and I choose to compromise quality for convenience. 

 Cherry Blossom Photography Olympus OM-D OMD Review


Cherry Blossom Photography Olympus OM-D OMD Review


Cherry Blossom Photography Olympus OM-D OMD Review

 

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Nikon D4, Nikon D3S, Nikon D800E, and the Olympus OM-D E-M5 in Action

I spent two days photographing the IDEA Personal Trainer Institute in Alexandria, VA.  I really enjoy shooting this event, but the lighting in the hotel meeting rooms is horrible. Some of the the sessions are presentations, but most of the sessions involve a large amount of movement and activity with trainers jumping, running, stretching, etc.

So here you are with poorly lit rooms and the need to stop action.  I get about 10 to 20 minutes per session and I have to move onto the next session.  There is no time to setup lighting, and in most cases there is no room to setup lighting and you can't risk a trainer tripping over a light stand.  About half the time I use my on camera flash with a CTO filter and bounce some light off the ceiling and walls to up the lighting about a stop in the room.  Most of the time I am shooting at ISO 3200 when I am using a flash in this manner, and if I don't use a flash I am between ISO 3200 and 12,800.

I brought four cameras: the Nikon D4, Nikon D3S, Nikon D800E, and the Olympus OM-D E-M5.  The D4 and D3S are the BEST low light camera on the planet and are my go to cameras to capture action in low light.  I have three prime lenses, the 24mm F1.4, the 50mm F1.4, and the 85mm F1.4.  I also use three zoom lenses, the 14-24mm F2.8, the 24-70mm F2.8, and the 70-200mm F2.8.  I wasn't sure how I would use the D800E. It has too many megapixels for what the client needs.  I take a few thousand photographs over these two days and I don't need a ton of 36MB files to process.  

I found myself using the Nikon D800E in DX crop mode with the Nikon 85mm F1.4 lens.  This gave me an effective 127mm lens at F1.4.  The D800E is about one stop less sensitive than the D3S or D4.  After a couple of days with a couple of heavy cameras around my neck, the D800E with an 85mm is a lot lighter than the D4 with my 70-200.  And the big benefits is that the DX RAW files are only 16mb vs 36mb.  The other thing I love about this combination is that the 51 focus points cover the entire frame.   I tend to put a focus point right on my subject's eye and this gives me the ability to frame my subject how I want and still have a focus point over the the eye. 

I also brought my Olympus OM-D EM-5 camera with three lenses: the Olympus 14 F2.5 pancake lens, the Panasonic 25mm F1.4 lens, and the Panasonic 100MM - 300MM lens.  I tried to use the Olympus for some of the low light, action situations but it wasn't up to it.  Because of the action I need great auto focus, though the Olympus is good, it can't focus like the Nikons when it comes to action photography.  I also need to be comfortable taking photos with an ISO of 3200 plus.  The Olympus is  a good two stops worse in low light than the Nikons.  I did find one thing that the Olympus did that the Nikons couldn't, I put the 100-300 on my Olympus which gave me an effective 200mm to 600mm range.  I found that the rooms in which there were just presentations were better lit, and little action (primarily just a speaker, and the attendees sitting at a table). I could pull out my Olympus with my effective 600MM lens I could get so close shooting from afar.  The other thing that was surprising is that when you marry the image stabilization of the Panasonic 100-300mm lens with the built-in images stabilization of the Olympus OM-D you can hand hold a 600mm lens at 1/125 with no problem.  

Here is a sample photo shot with my Olympus OM-D, 600mm, ISO 6400, 1/125, F5.6 - not bad considering:

 

I tried to take some action shots with the Olympus at ISO 6400 with no flash.  It was slightly underexposed and I got a very noisy image.

 

As expected, the Nikon D3S (and D4) were amazing in low light. The next image was shot at 1/250, with a Nikon 24mm F1.4 at F1.8 using ISO 6400, very clean!  

The next image was shot with a Nkon D4 at 1/250, with a Nikon 24-70mm F2.8 at F2.8 using ISO 9,000, very impressive!

And here is the Nikon D800E with my Nikon 85MM F1.4 shot at ISO 4000, F2.0, 1/320.  I shoot the Nikon D800E in DX crop mode, making my D800E about at 16MB camera vs the mega 36MB native full frame FX format.  It gives me better reach and a more usable file size.  Not as clean at the Nikon D4 or D3S, it is about a stop worse in terms of noise.