Gear review: Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO lens

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Olympus recently released its second PRO level lens: the Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO zoom lens

12-26-2014

Note: This review is written as a casual review based on user experiences. I don’t intend to provide a calibrated, scientific description of this lens.

In 2014, Olympus came through on their promise to bring a second PRO-version zoom lens to market. After the heralded debut of the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO lens late in 2013, the natural companion lens, the 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO zoom lens began shipping in November.

This 40-150mm zoom lens (hereafter called the “40-150”) has all the engineering and design aspects of its older sibling. Made with polished black metal and high-grade plastics, the 40-150 feels solid and well-balanced in hand. The zoom and focus rings are dampened and turn smoothly without play. The focus ring features the manual focus clutch that’s also seen on the 12-40 lens – with a simple snap backwards the lens shifts into manual focus mode and reveals a distance scale. The manual focus ring has stops at both ends and the focus throw is a bit short. Push the focus ring forward to return to auto focus mode.

The lens remains at one physical length while focusing and zooming; both functions are internal movements and do not extend the length of the lens.

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The earlier 40-150mm R f/4-5.6 lens (left) in less than half the size and weight of the new 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO lens (right).

Weather sealing is part of the design, providing splashproof, dustproof and freezeproof protection.

The included (Yes!) lens hood has a very unique design to it. Rather than deal with the usual clumsy method of twisting, removing, turning around and remounting the lens shade, the shade on the 40-150 stays attached and simply retracts backward until the front of the shade is even with the front of the lens. The lens shade can be removed completely, if desired. This is a very simple and convenient way to store a lens shade.

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Mounted on an Olympus E-M1, the lens hood has been removed. The tripod collar mount on the lens is in use here.
Lensshadeout
The lens hood is attached and extended in this image.
Lensshadeback
When retracted, the front of the lens hood aligns with the front of the lens. Very clever design feature.

Wouldn’t it be great if Olympus offered a retro-fit lens shade like this for the 12-40mm PRO lens?

The maximum aperture of this lens is a constant f/2.8 and the 40-150mm range provides a 35mm equivalent field of view of 80-300mm. Coupled with the Olympus in-body image stabilization, this lens is comparable to the ubiquitous “70-200 f/2.8 IS/VR” lens genre that is popular among DSLR crowds. One distinction of this Olympus version is the relatively smaller size and weight compared to the full frame tribes. The Olympus 40-150 weighs just under 2 pounds (with the tripod collar included) and measures about 6 1/4″ in length and 3″ diameter. The filter size is 72mm. This lens is definitely larger than other Micro 4/3 lenses and approaches the limits of satisfying the “small/light” aspect that attracts many users to M4/3 systems.

The 40-150 lens is constructed of 16 elements in 10 groups, with one aspherical ED lens, and two aspherical lenses.

In use, the lens complements the Olympus OMD E-M1 body nicely. When attached to the E-M5 or E-M10 body, the lens dominates the presence of the camera in the hands. Adding an accessory grip to either of these bodies will provide a more secure way to hold onto the rig. I don’t have any of the Olympus PEN cameras, but I expect this lens would overpower those smaller bodies.

The auto focus is extremely fast and silent. So fast, I needed to perform a couple of deliberate focusing moves to confirm that it was actually operating. I had previously upgraded the E-M1 firmware to version 2.2; this version reportedly supports improved auto-focusing for the 40-150 lens. It was a bit of a surprise to see how closely this lens can focus on a subject. The lens specs list this distance at 27.5 inches and this allows for some near-macro effects. (The 12-40mm PRO lens also features a very close focus range, apparently another family trait.)

Image quality of the 40-150 lens is excellent, even at wide-open. The image acceptably holds its sharpness into the corners of the frame. When used for portraiture at a wide aperture, the out of focus areas in the background look smooth and soft. With the smaller M4/3 sensor, the depth of field at the widest aperture is not razor thin; it shows a bit more sharpness than a larger sensor would display.

JeffH
I used the lens for an editorial assignment the day after it arrived. ISO 100, 1/125, f/3.5 @100mm
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ISO200, f/2.8 1/1600 @150mm, handheld about 3′ away from flower
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100% crop from above image.
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ISO400, 1/1250, f/2.8 @82mm
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ISO400, 1/1600, f/4.5 @150mm handheld
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100% crop from above image.
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ISO100, 3.2 seconds, f/11, @70mm on tripod

Overall, the Olympus 40-150mm PRO lens delivers as promised. When paired with the 12-40mm PRO lens, a photographer can have a constant f/2.8 maximum aperture spanning across an effective field of view of 24-300mm.

Many comments on discussions forums raise the question, “With these two lenses, how much will you use your fast prime lenses?”

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Olympus 25mm lens: the new Normal

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The Olympus 25mm f/1.8 lens is the new Normal lens.

 

09-25-2014

When I bought my first single lens reflex (SLR) camera in 1974, it came with a 50mm lens. This lens was often referred to as a “normal” lens because its focal length closely mimics the field of view of the human eye. Lenses with a focal length shorter than 35mm were considered “wide angle” lenses and those with focal lengths longer than 100mm were known as “telephoto” lenses. Zoom lenses were rare, expensive and considered to be inferior quality because of the additional glass elements.

I should also mention this was at a time well before an auto-focus lens was considered viable.

During this same time, Olympus introduced its OM-1 SLR 35mm film camera. This camera was primarily touted for its compact size.

Fast forward to the 21st century and we still try to reconcile the technology of film cameras with digital photography. With the advent of crop-sensor digital SLR cameras, the concept of lens focal length gets more confusing, requiring some quick multiplication with “crop factors” like 1.5 (Nikon) or 1.6 (Canon). As an example, a 50mm lens on a full frame camera is considered a normal lens, but that same lens mounted on a crop-sensor camera would result in a field of view more like a 75-80mm lens.

Adding to the crop-sensor arena, the Micro Four Thirds (M4/3) format was introduced in 2008. The M4/3 sensor is approximately one-half the diagonal measurement of a full frame sensor. Conveniently for the math-challenged, the crop-factor is 2, meaning a 50mm lens would have the field of view of a 100mm lens on a full frame camera.

Olympus entered the M4/3 market with a line of Pen cameras and in 2012 released its OMD E-M5 DSLR camera. This camera has retro designs that harken back to the original OM-1 camera, including the more compact body size. Recently Olympus completed the retro package when it introduced the 25mm f/1.8 lens for M4/3. This 25mm lens is my  new Normal lens.

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The Olympus OM1 (left) and the OMD E-M5 DSLR (right) share a similar design style.

When the E-M5 and 25mm lens are positioned next to the original OM-1 with 50mm lens, it is apparent how retro the E-M5 is. It is also interesting to note how small the OM-1 really was; it is only slightly larger than the E-M5.

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Head to head – the OM-1 camera was a small camera for its time, and is only slightly larger than the current E-M5.

The Olympus 25mm lens is small and light. It balances well when mounted on the E-M5 camera body. With a maximum aperture of f/1.8, it offers some very good low light capabilities. The construction of the lens is very solid. When using manual focus, the focus ring in well-dampened and smooth.

I put the lens on my silver E-M5 camera and headed out for a walk. I immediately felt like I was 17 again, the my brand-spanking-new fancy pants camera. The “normal” field of view was vaguely familiar, having many years of many different lenses since then to cloud my memory.

The lens focuses very quickly and quietly. Even at its widest aperture, the image area from edge to edge is sharp. The depth of field is not as shallow as its ancestors, due to the smaller sensor size. However, the 25mm lens does a great job at softening the background when used in the right conditions.

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The Olympus 50mm lens on an E-M5 body. The metal lens hood doubles as a filter adapter, stepping up from 46mm to 52mm filter size.
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I took a walk through a vintage mall. It seemed like the perfect location to take some retro-themed photos.
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A former fruit-packing facility has been converted into an artist’s haven.

 

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Plenty of soft-focus available at f/1.8.
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This person died 97 years before JFK.
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The normal field of view.
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Making room for new development.
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A new US Bank building stands above Capitol Mall.
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Bird’s eye view.

P2180009– + –

 

2013 – Looking back over the last 12 months

Sunset
The sun sets on another year. (Lincoln countryside)

12-27-2013

This has been a great year, one filled with changes, growth and plenty of fun.

The year started with relocation – Laura and I moved to Lincoln, California. While Lincoln is not far from Sacramento, it has a very different feel. With a population of 44,000 people, Lincoln offers a quieter and slower-paced lifestyle. Local businesses are very friendly and comfortable. People regularly say “Hello” on the sidewalks and I’ve seen numerous examples of the community coming together to help a neighbor who may struggling with one of life’s challenges.

Downtown
Downtown Lincoln has a small-town feel.
Benches
The benches offer a place to sit and visit with neighbors.
Library
A local resident parks his classic car in front of the Carnegie Library building.

One of the hurdles of moving was establishing my photo business in our new location. After living in Sacramento for almost 50 years, I knew it would be important to make new connections in Lincoln. Joining the local Chamber of Commerce and Art League were the first steps; both of these organizations were very welcoming and open to new members. We immediately met some friendly and supportive people and began making connections to others.

Before we moved to Lincoln, I tried to research information about Lincoln and noticed a dearth of information about the town, its traditions and events. I realized there was likely an unmet need for local news, so I launched “LIFE in Lincoln,” a feature-news website. I figured this would be a great way to learn more about the town and gain some exposure to the locals at the same time. I asked around about interesting events and people, interviewed them and took their photos and posted stories. I was a bit surprised at the response. In 2013, LIFE in Lincoln had 3,575 unique visitors and 7,410 pageviews. I consider that a big accomplishment for the first year.

In addition to the exposure provided by the site, I had the greater pleasure of learning more about the people of Lincoln. Some examples:

Fortunately, the move to Lincoln did not disrupt my current photography business in Sacramento. I had the pleasure of working some new clients in 2013, including KB Homes, Range of Light, Motel 6 and Hill Physicians. I also enjoyed shooting again for many regular clients, some of whom have been working with me for several years.

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The 4th of July parade in downtown Lincoln.
Fireworks
Fireworks fill the sky over the crowd at the local park.

After teaching photo classes at the Learning Exchange for four years, I decided it was time to pass it on to someone else. I’ve meet over 1,000 students in these classes and teaching has been very rewarding. The additional miles of driving began to wear on me, plus I’m really compelled to begin teaching photo classes in Lincoln.

Some personal projects also kept me busy this year. I helped a friend convert a few hundred 35mm color slides to digital files. These were photos he took as a young man in the service in the 60’s. It was fun to hear his reactions when he saw the images of old friends and family members. Some of these images looked better after digital enhancement than they did as the original slides. I also had the honor of hanging some of my photographic art in art shows and coffee shops. With all the digital viewing methods available, sometimes a framed print is still the most enjoyable to look at.

In the category of photo gear, this was also a year of changes. I downsized, both in the quantity of equipment and the footprint as well. I noticed a growing accumulation of camera gear and decided I needed to lighten my load. I sold off most of it and in doing so, I’ve also moved over to a new system of cameras. These cameras offer excellent image quality in a smaller and lighter design. I’m really enjoying the freedom and fun in shooting with less clutter, both in my hands and in my head.

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New camera (left) is smaller and lighter than the former gear (right).

I’m looking forward to 2014 – every year is better than the last. Happy New Year!

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Sports photos – how much gear is enough?

Steve Nash plays with a "professional" basketball.

04-02-2013  (Click on photos to see a larger view.)

I’ve been shooting quite a few sporting events lately. Actually, it was action photography that got me started in photography, um, 39 years ago. Motorcycle racing, to be more specific.

 

Kenny Roberts, circa 1975 (The continuous shooting rate was as fast as I could crank the lever.)

Sports photography requires specialized photo gear if you want to improve your chances of getting something good. Some of the basic requirements are:

  • – Fast shutter speeds to minimize unwanted motion blur
  • – Enough lens magnification to fill the frame with action that is usually happening at some distance away
  • – Rapid continuous shooting rates to give you more choices
  • – Decent low light/high ISO image quality
  • – Usually more than one camera body/lens combination for a variety of viewpoints

Sports photography also requires some specialized techniques:

What my histogram has taught me about our political problems

 

Yosemite Valley, in all its splendor, a beautiful landscape.

08-23-2012

OK, this will be a stretch, but watch as I connect two seemingly random topics, my camera’s histogram and our country’s political landscape, into one post.

The other day I was explaining how a camera’s histogram works to a student, when I realized I could have also been describing the ways we view the world. Go figure.

For this idea to have any possible chance of making any sense, you first have to understand how a camera’s histogram works. A histogram is a statistical graph that illustrates the frequency that something occurs. In the case of a camera’s histogram, it maps out the number of pixels across a scale of brightness ranges from 0 to 255. Imagine you are the camera looking at an image. You examine the first pixel and give it a grayscale brightness value, with 0 representing total black and 255 representing total white. Every value in between is some sort of gray level, with a gradation from black to white. Very dark pixels would be scored a very low number, middle gray pixels would score somewhere in the middle (e.g. 128) and very light pixels would score a higher number, approaching 255. After scoring every pixel in an image, the histogram shows how they all scored. Each image has its own unique histogram. The histogram is a great tool to help a photographer accurately evaluate the exposure of images.

This is the histogram for the Yosemite image above. Lots of gray pixels between the black ones and the white ones.

So what does this have to do with politics? Well, hang with me here a little longer.

A histogram has one value for black (0) and one value for white (255). The other 254 values represent some form of gray. If we convert the gray pixels into only black or white pixels, we get very little of the whole picture.

I think our country’s biggest political problem is the massively divisive ways that issues and problems are described and debated in purely black and white terms. It’s like looking at a photo without any gray areas.

Without any gray areas, the landscape looks pretty stark. No details, no beauty.

Realistically, most of our country’s issues have lots of gray areas. Economic problems don’t start and stop with each presidency. These problems are highly complex and cannot be understood or solved if we oversimplify them and say they are caused by one person or one policy. For example, some of the California budget problems today can be traced back to decisions that were made several decades ago, along with many more made since then.

But here’s the point: if these problems have lots of gray areas, then the solutions must exist in those gray areas, too. In order to find those solutions, we have to leave the safety of our polar opposites and be willing to wander around the middle areas together with some curiosity and flexibility. If we describe the problem in black and white terms, we aren’t seeing the whole picture.

So if we could map out a histogram of our political views, how much gray area would show up? Or would it look as bad as the photo of Yosemite without much gray in it?

I realize this curiosity and flexibility is not easy to do. Much of our political identity is wrapped up in absolutes. But if we try it, I believe something else can happen along the way. As we begin to explore and accept the gray areas along with others, we may get to know each other a little better. We may find out that we all have a lot more in common than we think. But most importantly, I think our focus would shift away from yelling and name-calling and blaming each other, and without all that, we can get smarter. Because right now, I think our country looks pretty stupid. It takes gray matter to see the gray areas.

It all begins with each of us. We might even begin to treat each other with a little more respect. I can only begin to imagine the power of treating each other with a little more respect. Now there’s a concept.

But if we want to really solve these problems in our own lifetimes, we will need to let go of some of the hyperbole and get down to the real work of sorting it out and setting things straight.

And we can’t set things straight if we can’t see things straight.

– + –

I took a knife to a gunfight…and lived.

 

Raley Field, home of the Sacramento River Cats

07-28-2012

Figuratively speaking, of course.

I regularly shoot Sacramento River Cats baseball games for Sacramento Press. The River Cats are the MILB AAA team that feeds the Oakland A’s.

The baseball park is located at Raley Field in West Sacramento and the park has a little more than 11,000 seats, plus some lawn seating. It is a great and comfortable venue for watching baseball.

 

Pre-game ceremonies, shot with a Panasonic GH2 and Canon FD 50mm f/1.4 lens

My normal gear haul for shooting sports is two Canon 7D camera bodies and three or four lenses. The Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 (non-IS) lens is my standard sports lens, the other lenses are usually chosen when I am packing for the game, sometimes on impulse. One time, I took a telescope to a game, just for something different.

After adding extra batteries, a monopod and a water bottle, the gear pack usually weighs about 30 pounds. Fortunately I am able to set the pack on the ground most of the time I am at the game. I do like to shoot from different locations around the park, including from behind the back fence, so I do add up some mileage lugging this load around.

As I was packing for a game last week, I decided to pare down the load and travel lighter. I brought one Canon 7D body and the 70-200 lens. But for a majority of my shooting, I wanted to use the Panasonic GH2 camera with a few smaller lenses.

The GH2 is a micro four-thirds format camera which has a 16 MP sensor that is slightly smaller physically than the sensor on the 7D. The sensors in the GH2 and the 7D are pretty comparable according to some of the diagnostic websites, although the 7D does have an advantage in low light. More on that in a minute.

The entire Panasonic camera system is smaller than the Canons, so the reduction in weight (and pack space) is pretty significant. For example, a Canon 7D with a 70-200mm lens weighs in at 4.5 lbs. The GH2 with a 45-200mm lens weighs 1.25 lbs.

 

Panasonic GH2 setup (left) weighs almost 1/4 of the Canon (right)

Using the Panasonic setup did leave me with a few technical challenges. The Canon lens is two stops brighter than the Panasonic lens, so I knew I would be shooting the GH2 at a slower shutter speed. With action photography, freezing motion is a pretty big challenge. Frame rate is another. The Canon 7D will shoot at 8.5 frames per second, the GH2 lags a bit at 5 fps. And the 7D’s low light advantage would become more apparent as the evening progressed and the park shifted from daylight to stadium lights.

Side note: The GH2 has a super high speed frame rate – something like 40 frames per second. But this comes with a trade-off. In this mode, the sensor resolution drops to around 4 megapixels, and after shooting a burst of frames, the camera needs about 10-15 seconds to write the images to the card. And this is with a Class 10 card!

So how did it go? The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

I left the Canon gear in the pack until later in the evening when the light levels dropped. Shooting with the GH2 was a delight. The light weight made it much more pleasant to hold without tiring out my arms (and back and shoulders muscles). It was fun to stand in the photo pits along the baselines next to the photographers with the traditional “sewer-pipe” sports lenses. The technological disadvantages I mentioned above were not an issue since I adjusted my technique to compensate. (Imagine that)

 

Action moving toward the camera is easier to capture.

To compensate for the slower shutter speed, I shot more photos at the edges of the action. For example, instead of trying to freeze the batter swinging a bat, I included photos of him approaching the plate or looking at the umpire. I also shot some of the action that was moving toward or away from the camera rather than across the frame.

 

Approaching the plate...

To compensate for a slower continuous shooting rate on the GH2, (“only” 5 frames per second!) I paid more attention to timing my shots to align with the action. An extra benefit was having fewer images to cull through later when editing the photos for submission.

These are the same techniques I used when shooting sports with a film camera. At best I could push process Tri-X film to ASA/ISO 1600 to get an acceptable image. Anything higher than that was pretty much unusable. This limited shutter speeds to something crazy low, like 1/125 second.

 

Even under the park lights, the Panasonic GH2 keeps up with the action.

With film and processing costs at stake, I used to shoot fewer images, way fewer. I was more particular about which players I would cover, and what plays I would follow. And when the action would unfold, I would pay close attention to capture the one shot at the right instant. 8 frames per second seems like laziness at times. Just spray and pray.

Waiting for the right instant can be a great alternative to spraying and praying.

The Panasonic GH2 had a couple of advantages over the Canon 7D. Using the electronic viewfinder on the GH2 is a huge improvement over the 7D. I’ve gone on in previous posts about how much I love the EVF, so I won’t repeat myself here. Even with the slight black-out of the EVF when shooting sports, it’s terrific. The GH2 also has a great AutoFocus control, right where I need it. It’s located in the thumb placement on the back of the camera and I found I used it regularly to lock focus. The best part is it works like a toggle, so I can hit it to lock and then relax my thumb until I want to change focus, then hit it again. I’ve programmed the AF button on my 7D to also control auto focus, it just requires that I hold it down continuously.

Once the light levels dropped to the lowest point, I pulled out the Canon gear and used it during the last couple of innings. It certainly does handle the low light nicely, and I didn’t mind the extra weight of the rig, since I wasn’t using it all evening.

The Canon setup handles sports in low light very nicely.

One thing I haven’t discussed is the credibility factor. I’ll admit I was a little self-conscious about not slinging around a huge camera/lens combo. This is often the sign of a “serious” sports shooter. But those little fears dropped off quickly as I found myself enjoying the process of using smaller scale gear (and much smaller cost!)  and applying some brain power to get the results I wanted.

Next time? I’ll probably do the same thing.

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Canon (finally) enters the mirrorless camera world…

Canon's new EOS M mirrorless camera with new 22mm f/2 pancake lens

07-24-2012

… sort of ….

This week Canon announced its first mirrorless camera, the Canon EOS M.

Sadly, I’m underwhelmed. All I can do is sigh.

It seems that Canon had a great opportunity to build the perfect storm of cameras: compact, mirrorless, interchangeable lens design (check), high quality sensor (check), electronic eye-level viewfinder (umm, oops!). Two out of three isn’t enough. Instead, I predict the EOS M will see an initial surge of excitement with an anticipated sales spike just before the holidays, and then most likely, a rapid loss of interest as the short-changed design becomes apparent through use, frustration and comparison (with envy) to other mirrorless camera models. Pretty much the same path as the Nikon1 cameras have done.

Briefly, the EOS M features include:

– Compact camera body
– APS-C sensor, same size sensor as the Digital Rebel and #OD line (e.g. 60D)  (this is big improvement over any point/shoot camera sensor)
– 18 megapixels
– Touch-screen controls on LCD screen (a smooth transition for phone-camera users)
– Interchangeable lens mount (a new “M” mount, with an available adapter to use existing Canon EF and EF-S lenses)
– A couple of new “M” lenses
– A hybrid AutoFocus system

These are very good features for a compact camera. However, a couple of significant features are lacking on this camera:

– No eye-level viewfinder – the only way to point and shoot this camera is to hold it like a point and shoot camera – out in front of your face. This is not a stable way to hold a camera and is difficult to see the screen in bright outdoor light. This model does not even allow for an external electronic viewfinder to connect. I can’t imagine using this method to shoot an image with a large EF lens mounted on the little camera body.
– Very few on-body controls. The mode control dial is gone, replaced with a point and shoot style dial with three choices: Green-Auto, Shooting mode, Video mode.

A simplified user interface with very few on-body controls.

 

This design clearly points to a certain market – someone who wants better image quality than a point/shoot or camera phone, without all the hassle of controlling the camera. At the announced price of $799 with a 22mm f/2 pancake lens, (non-stabilized lens, no included flash) I’m hoping buyers do some shopping around. There are plenty of comparable camera/lens deals that offer much more in the way of usability and features. I doubt many people will choose this model among a feature-rich selection in this price range.

Several bloggers and commenters have suggested the EOS M is targeted at existing Canon DSLR owners who want a smaller camera. I find this an even less-likely market. I own several Canon DSLRs and if I want a smaller camera, I currently have two very useful choices: take a Canon Rebel (it’s small and light enough) or leave all the Canon stuff home and take a Panasonic M4/3 camera setup. Either of these options has plenty of advantages over the EOS M. The only advantage of the EOS M is its small size, but the lack of an eye-level viewfinder is a showstopper for me. Compared to a Panasonic G3, the EOS M is not much smaller. And for the record, neither of them are pocketable.

The Canon EOS M next to a Panasonic G3 - neither of them are pocketable.

 

I’m still hopeful that Canon will take an innovative leap and incorporate an electronic viewfinder (EVF) into their next Rebel DSLR model. This design would be the best of both worlds, as far as I’m concerned. The EVF, as part of a mirrorless design, would eliminate the moving parts associated with a mirror flopping around. It would also eliminate the focus variance between the focusing screen and the sensor.

The EVF allows the photographer to immediately view a shot without moving the camera from their eye. In my case, this movement also involves putting on reading glasses, chimping, then removing the glasses to shoot the next image. The EVF image can be clearly viewed in bright sunlight. More conveniently, the user could make all menu changes at eye-level as well. And with all the rage about video, an eye-level EVF would be ideal, just like the video cameras of the good old days. Imagine, no need for a loupe to shoot video.

I hope I’m wrong about my dismal prediction for this camera. It’s a selfish desire because if sales are strong, Canon will have the resources to get busy with the camera design I’m waiting for.

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