Quality

I was amused to see Leica announce recently that they would not be issuing any micro four-thirds lenses. In a recent Popsci blog, Leica’s VP marketing is quoted as saying:

“One reason why we’ve decided not to move into Micro Four Thirds is that we have looked at the sensor size and realized that it cannot produce the image quality that we need. Therefore we decided to stick with the full format in addition to APS-C. It’s all about the ratios”

Interesting. Really? So why is Leica selling rebranded Panasonic cameras at the bottom end?

So let’s see what a real micro four thirds Panasonic, my new GF-1 with fixed 20mm lens, can do against the top of the line Canon, the 1Ds Mark III with a prime 50mm lens. Crazy comparison, eh? Who’d be crazy enough to shoot the same object with a highest-end SLR versus a point and shoot?

Me.

I just shot my most patient model in the studio, lit by a couple of Bowens strobes.

  • Both cameras set to manual, 100 ISO, f/9, 1/125th second (as measured with the light meter). One shot focus, focus point on the eye.
  • 1Ds Mark III: 50mm f/1.4 lens on this full-frame 23 Mpixel camera
  • The 12 Mpixel GF1 was fitted with a 20mm f/1.7 lens. Because the sensor is four times smaller than a negative, this is equivalent to 40mm “real” length.

So the shots:

Full shot, Canon:

Canon 1Ds Mark III, 50mm f/1.4 lens

Canon 1Ds Mark III, 50mm f/1.4 lens

Full shot: Panasonic:

Panasonic GF1, 20mm f/1.7 lens

Detail, Canon:

Canon 1Ds Mark III, 50mm f/1.4 lens (detail)

Canon 1Ds Mark III, 50mm f/1.4 lens (detail)

Detail, Panasonic:

Panasonic GF1, 20mm f/1.7 lens (detail)

Panasonic GF1, 20mm f/1.7 lens (detail)

In all cases, click to see a larger picture.

These were RAW images that have been read into Lightroom and edited slightly for white balance and exposure. No sharpening or noise reduction was done.

What does this show me? Yes, I suppose at higher ISOs I’ll see more of a difference, but at these low ISO settings, any megapixel count over ten is “enough”, and the difference in the case of such a controlled shot is minimal.

Certainly, this does not in my opinion warrant the comments by Leica.

While I am not about to hang up my DSLRs, I am impressed by the small camera’s ability to produce professional work.

So to Uncle Fred (and you are not Uncle Fred, or you would not be reading this):

  • It’s not about the equipment;
  • It’s about the picture.

There! Let’s start thinking more about the image than about how we make it.

Snaps

One great thing about having a small, small camera with a great lens and a larger sensor is that you can use it all the time. I don’t often take snapshots, but why not?

Michael Willems, by Michael Willems

Michael Willems, by Michael Willems

Daniel, forgetting to look his almost-sixteen-obligatory-grumpy-self:

Daniel, by Michael Willems

Daniel, by Michael Willems

GF1 self portrait

A self portrait I took a few minutes ago:

Michael Willems, photo by Michael Willems

Michael Willems, photo by Michael Willems

I shot this with the Panasonic GF1:

  • Camera on manual, f/4.0, 1/60th second, 200 ISO
  • Using multiple-point autofocus
  • Pocketwizard on the camera
  • Pocketwizard on a 430EX flash, connected with Flashzebra cable
  • Flash set to manual, 1/32nd power
  • Honl Photo Traveller 8 softbox on the (handheld) flash

To lower the noise (“increase the signal to noise ratio”, for engineers) I exposed to the right (i.e. I exposed high, but without actually overexposing anything) and then pulled back a stop in Lightroom.

The 20mm lens (yes you can use 40mm, for that is what it is, for portraits) gives me that wonderful sharpness. Click and view full size to see how sharp it is.

The Honl softbox gives it that nice soft look and the unique round catchlights.

And I have said it before: for creative photography, lighting a subject is as much about what you do not light than about what you do light.

Postscript: And here’s one more: son Jason just now (similarly lit, also shot with the GF1)

Jason Willems, photo Michael Willems

Jason, shot with GF1/430EX

Panasonic GF-1 notes

So now that I have used the Panasonic GF-1 for a few days, a few quick notes. This is part of a new category on the blog: “Michael’s Quick Judgment“.

Executive summary: I love it, and it will be a very cool addition to my toolbox.

Cool, and sexy:

But that is not enough to spend money. So why would I actually buy a small camera?

Well, for one, because it is lighter and smaller than an SLR. My other cameras (a Canon 1D Mark IV, a 1Ds Mark III, and a 7D) are all very considerably heavier and bigger.

Second, it is easy to take street photos with a small point and shoot. And you can always carry it.

And it is allowed where “pros” are not (London’s Trafalgar Square, Oakville Place Mall, and many other places where “professional” cameras are frowned upon.

So there are places where it fits in, in spite of not being an SLR.

But until recently, small cameras weren’t quite good enough. The small sensor created a lot of image noise at any ISO greater than 100. No longer. With large sensors like the one in this “Micro Four Thirds” spec camera, this is becoming practical.

I came late to the party. These cameras have existed at least since last year. But I like to be a settler, not a pioneer, and as said, David Honl’s Leica two weeks ago in Las Vegas really inspired me. I was carrying a big SLR; Dave had a point and shoot. And got essentially the same shots.

So to start off, here is a shot I took during last Sunday’s Creative Urban Photography course in Oakville:

Knox Presbyterian Church in Oakville, by Michael Willems

Knox Presbyterian Church in Oakville

And a full size detail from that shot (click to see it at its actual size):

Knox Presbyterian Church in Oakville, by Michael Willems

Knox Presbyterian Church in Oakville (detail)

Now I noticed that Lightroom introduced a little noise there; noise I do not see in the original. Look at the sky. Odd, but a very small tweak of Lightroom’s excellent Noise Cancellation fixes that:

Knox Presbyterian Church in Oakville, by Michael Willems

Knox Presbyterian Church in Oakville (detail 2)

So let me summarize my feelings about this camera:

Likes:

  • The coolness, let’s face it. This camera is very cute, almost Leica-cute.
  • The great image quality. And that is what it is all about.
  • The large “micro four thirds” sensor.
  • That flat 20mm f/1.7 lens (equivalent to 40mm). They call them “Pancake” lenses because they are thin, and they do not come out when you turn on the camera.
  • The small form factor.
  • The ultra-sharp live-view LCD.
  • The flash hotshoe – for my pocketwizards.
  • A very convenient (and customizable) AE lock button.
  • RAW images.
  • Customizable Fn button.
  • Great manual focusing, when you choose to use it (turn the ring and the preview zooms in).
  • In general, the amazing camera customizability (including tweaking the LCD colours!). This is a camera for pros.
  • Super fast response speed: no shutter delay, like on cheap point-and-shoots.

Muuh… neither here nor there; “I can live with it”:

  • No viewfinder (an optional extra).
  • The tiny fragile flash.
  • No in-camera image stabilisation.
  • No continuous focus with the 20mm lens.
  • Video (but I do not use this camera for video: I have my SLRs).
  • Face recognition (including some stored individuals).
  • Scene modes (I don’t need them: laudably, you can disable them).
  • The way the custom modes work.

Minor dislikes:

  • The slippery, nigh-impossible to turn control wheel.
  • The click wheel: push to switch functions. Combined with “slippery” above this is a bad combo.
  • The “My Menu” that you cannot store the way you want it.

Overall: I am lovin’ it so far, and I have no doubt that this will continue. Amazingly, I am waking around with a small point and shoot.

The big sensor is smaller than an SLR’s, but large enough to give me great selective depth of field, and low noise at higher ISOs. The depth of field and the ability to use fast prime lenses are the main reasons I chose this camera over the excellent Canon G11.

I would normally not dream of shooting the police scanner on my desk in dim office light at 320 ISO and at f/1.7:

Scanner, by Michael Willems

Scanner at f/1.7, 320 ISO

But now I can. And do. Look at the images in yesterday’s post. And at this: the 20mm f/1.7’s lens has an amazing ability to produce those wonderful blurred backgrounds. Large aperture and close focusing ability (20cm) produce pictures like this:

Camera strap, by Michael Willems

Camera strap, GF1 with 20mm f/1.7 lens

Beautiful bokeh – but the amazing thing is that there is any bokeh at all in a small camera.

And then there is the ability to judge exposure before you take the shot, and to lock the fast-reacting spotmeter on a mid-grey object: very cool even for an experienced SLR shooter.

Megapixels, you ask? Not important. If it has more than six, it’s enough. Too many means more noise. This camera has 12, which is about the ideal number. ‘Nuff said.

Of course Nikon, Canon et al are also going to do “small cameras with big sensors”; and in any case, if I had a spare $8k I’d go with a Leica for fun, but this is almost as good and it’s here now, for a fraction of that cost.

Michael’s Quick Judgment: highly recommended, 8/10.

Postscript: see a few more GF1 shots in today’s blog posts, including some taken with an external flash and Pocketwizards.

A few more GF1 snaps

A few more snaps, taken just now, with the Panasonic GF1. Around the house using available light.

This shows me how international my life has been. A random selection of items in my house:

From the Netherlands, and from a time when flying was fun. On KLM, business class and first class passengers used to receive items of Delft Blue chinaware (the houses filled with liquor, which alas has all evaporated in these past 25-plus years):

Delft Blue, photo by Michael Willems with GL1 and 20mm f/1.7 lens

Delft Blue - GL1 with 20mm f/1.7 lens

Indonesia: this figurine takes on all the shame and bad feelings in the household, thus freeing the people who live in the home from them:

Shame! Photo Michael Willems with GL1 and 20mm f/1.7 lens

Shame! Indonesian figurine - GL1 and 20mm f/1.7 lens

Middle East: a chess set bought in Jerusalem:

Chess pieces - Photo Michael Willems with GL1 and 20mm f/1.7 lens

Chess pieces - GL1 and 20mm f/1.7 lens

England: Wedgwood from Harrods:

Wedgwood - Photo Michael Willems with GL1 and 20mm f/1.7 lens

Wedgwood - GL1 and 20mm f/1.7 lens

Libya: a primary drill bit I found in the desert:

Primary Drill Bit, Libya - Photo Michael Willems

Primary Drill Bit, Libya - Panasonic GF-1, 20mm f/1.7 lens

China: a souvenir

Soldier Souvenir, China - Photo Michael Willems

Soldier Souvenir, China - Panasonic GF1

Eastern Europe, a crystal glass:

Crystal glass, photo Michael Willems

Crystal glass, Panasonic GF1 with 20mm f/1.7 lens

Life is one great adventure.