I don´t always shoot digital, but when I do...
November 10, 2013 10:51 AM   Subscribe

In my personal view of photography and life in general, the "convenience" that, for me, is the only advantage that digital cameras have over film (specially if we talk about medium format film), was never something I cared about. However I may have to start caring about it, at least part of the time. The thing is, I have no idea of what camera to get, so I would like some advice.

When reading this and writing your reply, please keep in mind that for most of my cameras, the only electricity involved when using them is the one my brains sends to the muscles in my finger to push the shutter release button/lever.

I´m not a professional photographer.
The reasons why I take photos always allowed me the time I needed to develop the film, and get the prints to look just the way I want. I´ve never had clients expecting to see an album ready two days after an event.

But now, I´m almost done with my training as a community doula, and to get my certification I will soon do my practices with families with very low income (I´ll still work with families from those environments after being certified, here or somewhere else, as you´ll see later in my post). Doulas often times end up taking photos for the families, and I would like to give them something better than what a camera phone can do (while I firmly believe in the saying "it´s the indian that matters, not the arrow", I think any archer would appreciate if the arrow at least wasn´t U shaped).
So, here come the first two requirements I have for this camera. A wide lens (preferably fixed focal length), and good automatic or semiautomatic modes so I can shoot in close quarters, and without having to think a lot about the exposure since I will have be doing lots of other things at the same time, and my attention will need to be focused elsewhere. Talking about focus, good and fast auto focus would probably come in handy too, if I can get used to it.

Also, I´ve been restructuring some priorities in my life, thinking about when I want to do certain things, and in a few months I shall put my life in a backpack and start walking. I have the means to travel (cheaply) for a very long time, and I intend to do it, mostly in Latinamerica, but who knows where life will lead me (dual nationality gives me quite a lot of freedom of movement and work). I need to pack as light as I can, and I will be going to some places where film of any type at all will be hard or impossible to get, so bringing any of my film cameras and a bunch of film would be out of the question (and I will run out of it eventually even if I fill my backpack with it).
I do a lot of street photography, but I will also have great opportunities to shoot nature and landscapes. In these situations I´d like to have absolute control, so the camera should have a manual mode (preferably easy to operate without having to go through endless menus), including manual focus (as I may not ever get used to autofocus).
So I would need also a normal lens.
Sometimes I won´t have access to big photography shops or any shops at all, so batteries that can be recharged via USB (plugged to a portable solar panel charger I´m about to buy) would be extremely useful.

I´d be shooting in a variety of lighting conditions, so both lenses should be fast and the sensor should perform well in high ISOs (allowing me to do street photography at night).
On both situations, pocketability is a must, so I´m looking for a rangefinder (I think you call them mirrorless these days, as they don´t always have rangefinders anymore). I know those tend to have smaller sensors, but I´d like one that can still get decent image quality (I don´t plan to make wall-sized prints anytime soon).
You can´t take me out of the darkroom and straight to JPEG. I need RAW.
Not sure if this needs to be mentioned after all I´ve said, but I want something with a viewfinder, not just live-view.

Oh, and my budget. At first it was $500, but after some googling I think it´s more realistic if I raise it to about twice as that. Certainly I can´t spend more than $1500 on this (so no M9 for me).
Being able to buy it here in Uruguay would be a plus, but my brother is coming from Los Ángeles for the holidays, so I could have it shipped to him.

Special bonus points with a cherry on top if I could still squeeze in a long tele lens in that budget. Less pocketable, I know, but I wouldn´t use it all the time. I would like to be able to bring one with me, but if I can´t it´s not a deal breaker.

So, to sum up what I´m looking for:

- Rangefinder/mirrorless.
- Decent sharpness for screen viewing and prints up to 30x45cm.
- Decent performance at high ISOs.
- Fast, fixed focal length lenses, one normal, one wide (equivalent to 50mm and about 24mm for a 35mm camera).
- Manual exposure control, but also good automatic or Av modes.
- RAW.
- Rechargeable battery, preferably via USB.
- Under $1500.

What cameras that meet these requirements can you recommend?

posted by Fermin to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I think you are describing the Fuji X100S with almost every criteria with the exception of a changeable lens.
posted by Keith Talent at 11:35 AM on November 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Is the $1500 in toto or just for the camera? If just for the camera, no problem, but if camera plus two primes, it might be an issue, so take that into account.

I have and recommend the Panasonic GH3. Except for the charging through USB, I think this ticks off all your boxes. Importantly, it is smaller and lighter than ordinary DSLRs (it's an m4/3), so for travel, it's great, as well as for street photography and in sensitive social situations where a large DSLR might be out of place. About the battery: the good news is that it lasts an extremely long time (I've shot all day intensely and was unable to run it down), plus you can get a battery grip on ebay (non-EOM) and an extra battery for like $100 (although that would bulk it up a bit), so you can shoot basically forever on those two fully charged. Excellent quality all-around and takes brilliant video if you're into that at all (full disclosure: I bought the GH3 for the video).

On the lenses - I understand your preference for primes (hey, I used to make a living as a photog), but perhaps you should give zooms another look. Zooms these days are of a quality that you would be hard pressed to distinguish from primes at a given focal length, and are just so much more convenient, whether you're traveling, or doing event photography etc. Seriously, take a look at some galleries and see if you can tell the zooms apart from the primes. If you are doing super fancy stuff, yes, primes still have their place, but for most people, zooms are more than enough. If you do decide to go with a zoom, then for example the 14-45 f/3.5-5.6 is really a very nice lens (though remember, it's m4/3 so it would be a 28-90 equivalent of a 35mm full frame), not super-wide, but as a bonus it's stabilized, which can come in very handy, and it's only $300, or for an even better deal the 14-42 f/3.5-5.6 also stabilized, for like $160. And since you can get the GH3 body for under $1K (last week it was $800 at uniquephoto.com, but that deal was a fluke, gone now), that's within your $1500 limit. Of course, if you want to go primes, things can get tricky.

The other thing possibility is the Panny GX7. I have not personally played with it, but it's well reviewed by DPReview. You can get it with the kit 14-42 lens for just over $1K. It's even smaller than the GH3 and in a first for Panny, it has in-body stabilization (for photos), which is kind of a big deal, because that means any lens you buy is going to be stabilized - and the great advantage of the m4/3 format is that with suitable adapters, you can use primes in almost any mount (Nikon, Canon, Pentax, 4/3, etc.) as long as the lens has manual focus and aperture ring (there are adapters for automatic ones, but those cost a lot more). Native lenses for the m4/3 are really coming along, so there is room to grow, should you want to stick to the format.

Fantastic manual options and great auto as well, if you just want to cruise control for awhile.

In general, I'd take a look at the Panasonic m4/3 offerings (there are other interesting ones, other than the GH3 and GX7 I mentioned) - but I'm a Panny fanboy, so I may be slightly biased (though I always worked on Nikons back in the day). I like the menu layouts and the UI design in general, and the quality control is a cut above in my experience, compared to most including the Canikons.

Anyhow, there is a world of options these days, and I'm sure others will chime in with their recommendations.
posted by VikingSword at 12:41 PM on November 10, 2013

I don't really have any particular model recommendation for you, after trying to get by with a compact point and shoot on one trip (a Canon IXUS 230 HS, which is good for lowlight but not very good otherwise and I had a very low hit rate of good photos) I've decided to just travel with a Canon 60D, which is much too large for your requirements (and is also years old so I'm not going to be too heartbroken when it inevitably gets broken and needs replacing), but I will point you in a direction I've found very useful.

On Flickr there's a camera finder page, which you can use to see which cameras are most popular, but more importantly to view the best (most "interesting") photos taken with each model. Many of those photos are glitzy over processed wank, but it gives you a really good quick look into the sort of work you can achieve with a given model - if the "most interesting" photos for a camera you're thinking about are all garbage you can pretty safely dismiss it as a garbage camera and move on.

Here's the camera finder page for the Fuji X100S. I can't find the Panasonic GX7 or GH3 on the site - they probably go by different model names in different territories.

Before I decided to stick with my DSLR I got very far down the path of trying to choose a more compact travelling camera, and the Canon EOS M was probably my fave - though it had mixed (and some scathing because of early version focus performance) reviews, and uses an uncommon lens mount, but it has the benefit of using the same sensor my DSLR uses, as well as regularly being on sale for under $400 with a lens - right now a kit with (removable) flash, 18-55mm lens and body is $359 on B&H Photo. The 22mm prime is probably a better lens, and is available from the same site for under $200 (and you can get an adapter ring to use any Canon EF or EF-S lens).

If money was no object a friend of mine has a Sony RX1 which I've played with, and it is absolutely fantastic (but far too expensive).

FWIW, so you can understand if the things that are important to you are the same as are important to me, these are the sort of photos I take.
posted by The Monkey at 1:21 PM on November 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I AM a professional photographer. I've basically ditched all my Canon 1 and 5 series gear for the Fuji x100, X-Pro1 and X-E1. The images, lenses and high iso performance are amazing. Buy used to stick within your budget and don't look back! Feel free to email with specific questions and check out my flickr for recent shots.
posted by blaneyphoto at 3:12 PM on November 10, 2013

It sounds like you've got lenses already, so if you buy something like the Panasonic m4/3 you should be able to get an adapter and keep using your favourite lenses.
posted by lollusc at 5:16 PM on November 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

My perspective on photography is similar to yours: I was a pretty serious amateur who has had to relearn a lot in the digital age.

The Nikon One system does a lot of what you're looking for. They have several different bodies and 8? lenses available; you should be able to put together what you need within your budget.

The fixed 10mm/2.8 in this system is equivalent to about 27mm. It's even possible to buy adaptors (genuine Nikon OR cheap knock-offs) to use old Nikon F-mount lenses on the new system.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 5:42 PM on November 10, 2013

Response by poster: It´s 3 AM here and I just got back from work. I shall read your answers more in depth in the morning when my brain works.
Thanks for all the information. The Monkey, I´ll definitely will check that camera finder for all cameras I´m recommended, thanks a lot, it will be very useful.

Vikingsword, It´s $1500 total, in fact I´d like it to be less than that.
The thing I´m open to give up to stay in that budget or even less than $1000 is the wide lens (so the Fuji X100S does look very appealing, but is there something more affordable?).

I´ll inspect the GX7 in the morning. I can already disregard the GH3, I´m going to some places where I´d rather not have anything shaped like a DSLR on me.

Bob, isn´t the Nikon One a P&S? The Amazon Listing for the V1 seems to imply that, but I may be reading it wrong with the exhaustion I have.

Thanks again, guys. Read you in the morning.
posted by Fermin at 9:27 PM on November 10, 2013

Nthing the Fuji x100s. The first model, the x100, can be had used online for $500 or less. Maybe you want to buy that and see how you like it first.
posted by meadowlark lime at 10:44 AM on November 11, 2013

If you can get far enough under your budget, maybe consider throwing in a GoPro? They're $400ish, don't have that traditional SLR shape, have a fairly wide (non-interchangeable) lens, and they take great video/photos.

Plus, hi-def helmet cam doula video! (Too much?)
posted by nevercalm at 7:03 AM on November 12, 2013

Response by poster: nevercalm: "If you can get far enough under your budget, maybe consider throwing in a GoPro? They're $400ish, don't have that traditional SLR shape, have a fairly wide (non-interchangeable) lens, and they take great video/photos.

Plus, hi-def helmet cam doula video! (Too much?)


Taking your answer seriously, I want to be able to switch to manual controls.

But the hi-def helmet cam doula video, that´s definitely something I have to do if I find the right family! Do you know a pregnant sky-diver, mountain-climber or something like that?

Lollusc, it may be harder to get an adapter for the glass I have. Maybe for the OMs I could, but most of them would be too long on a m4/3 for what I´d like to do. Except for the 80mm, I don´t want to do the conversion now, but it´s be a huge tele.

I´m digging the Fuji X100S. The GX7 looks very interesting too, but for me the performance in low light weighs more than interchangeable lenses, at least now. With the one 35mm equivalent lens it has, the X100S seems like a digital version of my faithful Olympus 35 SP, that lately I´ve been taking to the streets a lot. This would be just a little wider and I can see myself being comfortable with that.
posted by Fermin at 11:28 AM on November 12, 2013

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