Archive for January, 2012

Photo gear for 2012

Tuesday, 24th January 2012; 8:37 pm

I’ve upgraded my photo equipment a bit this year. It’s been kind of a one-step-back-two-steps-forward thing.

The camera I brought on last year’s ride was actually a little bit of a downgrade from the year before. My newest camera (an Olympus SP570) had been ripped off, so I was faced with the decision of whether to replace it, or go back to my older Olympus SP500, which I’d kept as a backup. My itinerary for 2011 didn’t feature the same kind of photo ops as the lakeshore rides of the previous two years’ rides, and money’s been a bit tight, so I just used the older camera.

Well, I’ve saved a little money, the ride I’m planning for this year is a bit more photogenic, and it’s been another year for camera tech to evolve. It’s time to buy a new one.

I’m rather picky about my cameras. I bought a few of them when I was a teenager, until I found a 35mm film camera I was happy with: the Pentax ME Super. If it weren’t for the advantages of digital cameras, I’d probably still be using it. But as digital cameras have improved, I’ve tried to find one that duplicates the features of the ME Super. That’s impossible (in part because the ME Super could still be used even when the battery was dead), but digitals are getting closer. Still, there are few things I demand.

The first essential feature is either interchangeable lenses and/or optical zoom (like my film camera had). “Digital zoom” is a lie, and a single fixed-focal lens is just too limiting. Even my first pocket digital had a 3X optical zoom, the equivalent of a 30-90mm with 35mm film. The SP500 was designed for more serious photographers: it has a 10X zoom (equivalent to 36-360mm), and the SP570 had a 20X zoom (26–520mm), tantalizingly close to the standard set by my film kit, which included 24mm and 500mm lenses. (28mm was always the standard “wide” lens in the film era, but I always found that just a little cramped when taking landscapes.)

The second must-have feature for me is manual focus. Autofocus cameras always sucked in the film era, and I never understood the appeal. My first digital camera (like almost all of them), was autofocus-only, and I found it frustrating. I’d try taking a picture of a flower off-center a little with a field in the background… and only the background would be focused. Grrrr. The SP500 had a feature that sold me on it: a manual focus option. It’s an awkward system, controlled by two inconveniently placed buttons, and it’s badly handicapped by the low-res viewfinder. But it worked. The SP570 improved on that (and convinced me to upgrade) by using a ring around the lens to control zoom and manual focus instead of buttons. It was still done by little motors, so the zoom and focus lagged, but it was more like an SLR.

OK, so why not… a digital SLR? Three reasons: the price, the size, and the price. Just a DSLR camera body with a 3X zoom lens costs several hundred bucks. Equipping it with lenses comparable to my old film kit would add even more. (Did I mention that money is tight?) Also, DSLRs are kinda big, especially with the additional lenses. So the last couple cameras I’ve bought, and the one I went shopping for this time, were “bridge” cameras, that incorporate features normally found in DSLRs into a camera with a non-interchangeable lens and a digital viewfinder.

I’ve liked the Olympus cameras, but this time the winner of my search was the Fujifilm Finepix HS20 EXR. As far as I can tell, it’s the most SLR-like digital camera today that isn’t an SLR. The lens zooms from 24-720mm (30X)… a bit ridiculous, to be honest, and it affects image quality, but I’ll take it. I finally have a digital that matches the wide angle of my old film gear. This machine improves upon the manual-focus/zoom ring of the last camera by including one ring for each. The zoom ring is nice and big…. and actually mechanically zooms the lens! It’s a little stiff at the far end of the range, but it responds directly and instantly to every twist of the ring. The manual focus is still servo-driven, and also suffers from a digital viewfinder that isn’t as sharp as an SLR’s focus screen, but since the only way to get around that is to invest in a DSLR…. I’ll settle for it. Especially since I managed to find a used one for under $300.

The bad news is that when I say that the HS20 is a lot like a DSLR, that also applies to the size and weight. It dwarfs either of the Olympus bridge cameras, especially the older 10X one, and especially with the zoom extended. If it had been up to me to design it, I would’ve gone with a more modest 24-480mm zoom range and kept the package smaller. But this is the combination of features that’s available; there is no camera that matches perfectly what I’d like. It’s an exercise in compromise, but I think I’m going to like it.