June 13th, 2007  |  Published in pictures and photography  |  1 Comment

I bought my first digital camera about seven years ago. It was a Canon Powershot S10 that shot at 2 megapixels, felt like a brick and had no concept of how to handle the combination of direct sunlight, red clothing and human skin tones. I got some shots out of it that I was pretty happy with, and it was pretty fun to play around with, but a lot of the time I felt like I was struggling with its inflexibility. Sometimes its firmware just wasn’t up to something, and it’d get pretty frustrating to use. Its zoom was pretty limited, too: just a 2x.

So several years ago I had a reaction to that and picked up a film SLR … a Minolta Maxxum 5. I liked how crisp the camera’s response was, loved getting back the satisfying thunk of the shutter, and really loved the flexibility I had with lenses. I was pretty spoiled by my time with the S10, though … it was a hassle to scan negatives, pay for development and deal with the delayed gratification or inability to run through experiments quickly.

So just before Ben was born I picked up a Canon Powershot G5. That was a pretty easy camera to be happy with for a while, especially while Ben was a fairly static subject. It had good optics, some real flexibility (it felt more like a nice rangefinder than a simple point-n-shoot), and it took a few lens adapters that boosted its paltry 4x zoom. It also shot in RAW, which is a feature Canon has taken out of the Powershot line altogether in what appears to be a move to squeeze people willing to drop $600 MSRP for a point and shoot into the $750 Digital Rebel series, where they can begin the process of learning how unhappy they’ll be with a kit lens and pop-up flash.

The G5s big problem was how slow it was. Painfully slow. Sometimes a full second from lining up the shot to the camera recording it. For the bulk and its poor speed, it was pretty limiting. It required a lot of patience in anything other than ideal lighting. I also wasn’t a fan of the proprietary battery. I’d still say, though, that it’s the best digital point-n-shoot I’ve owned.

I traded the G5 for a Powershot S2 IS. The S2 is a pretty sweet superzoom. Fast, nice video mode, big (12x) zoom. I liked it a lot. It took AA batteries (so it was easy to power in a crunch, and cheap to power with an investment in some decent rechargeable NiMH AA’s). The biggest objection I had was that the lens was a hair slow for available light shooting (though shake reduction mitigated some of that) and the optics weren’t very sharp. Not bad, but they reflected the tradeoffs a general purpose megazoom is going to have to make. Not very flexible, either, when compared to the G5. Limited image controls.

When the flash broke on the S2, it was cheaper to try another camera out, though, so I upgraded to the 8 megapixel A530. It’s very flexible, does o.k. in low light with a steady hand, and produces sharp pictures that are easy to work with. My big complaints with it are that the controls for the autofocus/autoexposure point are clumsy and hard to manipulate, and unlike the S2’s EVF you get a crappy viewfinder or learn to live life shooting from the preview screen (which is, at least, foldout).

What I’ve been waiting for for years has been a digital SLR I could get into at about the price I paid for that Powershot G5 and stock with lenses. I came close to getting a Digital Rebel when the S2 flash broke, but backed off at the last minute because the price wasn’t quite where I wanted it, and because Nikon and Pentax both entered some new products that looked interesting (the D40 from Nikon and the K100d from Pentax).

Going dSLR

Going into vacation this year, though, I wanted to go ahead and upgrade. I found a good deal on a Pentax K100d kit with a hefty rebate and both an 18-55 kit lens and a 50-200mm zoom. I augmented that with a 50mm/1.4 prime and I’m thrilled.

The big selling points for the K100d:

  • Reasonable price for a camera with a good pedigree and decent kit lens.

  • In-camera shake reduction plus backward compatibility with most of Pentax’s lens collection. Other camera makers tend to put shake reduction in the lens. It’s a worthwhile feature to have, especially when you’re not a big fan of the popup flash that comes with most entry-level cameras.

  • Uses AA batteries, not a proprietary rechargeable or expensive lithium non-rechargeable. I’ve got a set of rechargeable Energizer AA’s, and I shot with them for two days before hitting about 25 percent charge. I’ve got a backup set of Energizer lithiums (rated for around 400 shots) in case the rechargeables ever drain on me.

There are other fit-and-finish things I like about it. It feels substantial without being too big or bulky. The controls are easily accessible, so it was easy to learn to feel my way through adjustments with the camera up to my eye. Adjusting the autofocus zone is really easy. It has a preview mode that works either in the viewfinder as a traditional film SLR, or in the preview screen as a static exposure. I wasn’t sure of the value of that at first, but lining up a few shots on a gorillapod that was clinging to a rail taught me the value of being able to peer around to the preview screen instead of lining up through the viewfinder now and then. It also has a nice automatic post-shot preview that offers the opportunity to chimp for up to five seconds and optionally discard the photo on the spot.

The two things I’m not the happiest with are resolution (it’s a six megapixel camera) and some of the “beginner-friendly” stuff floating around in there. Its default shooting mode, for instance, involves a bright and contrasty image tone setting. It also has some gimmicky in-camera editing controls (sepia tone, a “softening filter,” and a horrific “slim” filter that squeezes or widens the picture to “slenderize” subjects).

Six megapixels is plenty for an 8×10 or even an 11×14 print, so I can’t complain too much. Especially comparing the results I was getting out of the 8 megapixel A630 in terms of noise. The thumbnail of the full-size details opens to a useful comparison of the k100d and the A630. That’s not completely fair because I was pushing the A640 to its max ISO to get the shot. But the point is that I don’t have to push the Pentax above 200 ISO, 400 ISO max, to get a much cleaner shot in similar lighting conditions. The wide open aperture on the Pentax shot contributed to some softness. Considering that it fired at a shutter speed of 1/90 at f1.4 at 400 ISO, and the Canon fired at 1/20, f3.2, 800 ISO, however, you can see that pixel counting is only part of the picture. I could have shut the Pentax lens down a stop or two and still had a well-exposed picture with better focus of both subjects. I know which of those two shots would make the better print. Here’s a link, by the way, to the picture that A630 sample came from. It’s reduced to about a third of its original size, but you can see that the issue with the noise still stands.

Anyhow, the beginner friendly stuff is also simple to toggle off (you can drop the pop-y image tone for a neutral/natural setting unless you’re shooting in one of its specialty settings like “landscape,” “moving subject,” or “portrait,”) or just ignore (the in-camera editing filters). Frankly, I’m not so conversant in SLR shooting that I can think of what I’d replace those things with, so it’s not that bad. I don’t think a tradeoff has been made so much as Pentax has bolted some stuff on that makes it easy to sell the camera as a high-end point-n-shoot you can print from directly without needing to edit in Photoshop or iPhoto or whatever.

Glass, glass, glass

Ben and CherieThe thing that makes the camera, though, isn’t so much the body itself as the Pentax SMCP-FA 50mm f/1.4 prime I bought for it. While the kit lens Pentax supplies is fine for general purpose moderate wide angle/zoom/macro shooting, the 50mm prime is ideal for available light indoor shooting. That picture at the top was taken with it, and the camera/lens barely broke a sweat: 200 ISO, f2, 1/50.

The picture of Ben with Cherie was shot at ISO 400, f1.4, 1/90. I regret not giving up a shutter stop or two, because Cherie’s a bit out of focus and I missed her lightpoints as a result, but I couldn’t be happier with the general sharpness and tones, the relatively low noise, and being able to ignore the flash for that sort of impromptu portrait. Most of the pictures I take around the house are in that sort of setting, and the lens is perfect for that.

So anyhow, that’s that. I’ve been waiting for a dSLR to strike me for a few years now, and one finally has. I’m glad to be collecting lenses for it because I know that if I outgrow the body at some point (man was the k10d tempting) I’ll still have good glass. I’ve still got a lot of room to grow, though, so I know I’m going to be content for the foreseeable future.

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  1. dot unplanned » PowerShot G9 Announced says:

    August 20th, 2007 at 12:02 pm (#)

    […] Cameras I have loved […]

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