You may (or may not) have noticed I take many of the photographs accompanying these daily digital musings (ironically, though, not today's). As a roving reporter, I often am called upon to shoot shots of the technology I cover. For this purpose, I purchased a Nikon D300, a professional-style, critically acclaimed D-SLR.
In my hands, however, the D300 is like killing a fly with an anvil. I'm pretty good at composition – I usually get the whole subject in the frame, I don't cut off hands, heads or feet , and the subject is usually in focus. And of course I look really professional, which is pretty important in my line. But I confess – I don't know an f-stop from a subway stop, depth of field from left field, or aperture from furniture. And I've had expert lessons – Nikon was nice enough to let me sit in on one of their Nikon School sessions (highly recommended), and Monika Graff, the professional photographer wife of a poker pal of mine, spent an afternoon attempting to school me.
And none of it has stuck. Not their fault; I'm pretty technically adept, but for some reason this photography stuff just won't stick. So I keep the D300 in a mode Monika set for me that would cover most of my shooting situations and hope for the best. But I'm finding the D300 is too heavy to schlep around for me to just use it as a point-and-shoot camera.
Do you wish you could take better photos but want either a D-SLR that was point-and-shoot light, or a D-SLR that held your hand as you held the camera? I do.
Ask and ye shall receive.
The littlest D-SLR (that's not a D-SLR)
To satisfy the lighter D-SLR desire, Olympus and Kodak developed the Four Thirds standard in 2003, which standardized interchangeable lenses and bodies (cameras without the lens) around a third smaller than those of traditional full-size D-SLR lenses and bodies.
Then, in late 2008, came a further shrinking, Micro Four Thirds, developed by Olympus and Panasonic. Micro Four Thirds cameras eliminate the D-SLR's mirror box, which reflects the image coming through the lens to the optical viewfinder – serious D-SLR users typically eschew use the inexact "live view" LCD screen, which often lacks metering information, to frame their photos. So, technically, Micro Four Thirds cameras are not D-SLRs. (If you want additional technical details on both these formats, visit the official Four Thirds/Micro Four Thirds site.)
Micro Four Thirds (MFT from now on) is a tweener/compromise camera. With smaller lenses and no mirror box, MFT bodies are not much bigger than point-and-shoot cameras. The primary drawback to this shrinkage is an image sensor closer in size to those found on a point-and-shoot camera, which means MFTs typically don't do as well in lower light situations as D-SLRs. MFTs allow for more manual control than point-and-shoot models, but not as much control as full-size D-SLRs. Similarly, MFT photos, while generally superior in detail to point-and-shoot results, are not as detailed as photos taken by D-SLRs, which have far larger sensors.
Smaller cameras mean smaller prices as well – MFTs range between $500 and $1,000.
Who's the smallest of them all?
If you're going to go MFT small, the smallest is the new Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GF2, which can be bought body-only for $500 and with a 14-42mm lens for $600 (GF2K).
Spec-wise, it has 12.1 megapixels (MP), shoots 1080p video, and has a 3-inch touch screen LCD just like the majority of today's digital cameras.
How small is small? GF2's body is 19 percent smaller than Panasonic's original GF1 MFT model and, at 9.35 ounces, seven percent lighter. More specifically, the GF2 measures 4.44 x 2.67 x 1.29 inches; Panasonic's mid-line $230 point-and-shoot LUMIX DMC-FH27 measures 3.9 x 2.2 x 1.1 in and weighs a third of a pound. A typical D-SLR will weigh more than twice as much as the GF2 and, of course, is around four times the size.
The GF2 is not only smallest interchangeable lens camera available, but it's also the first that can be converted to a 3D still camera with an optional 3D lens ($250).
How good is the GF2? Don't know – not that many people have gotten their hands on it. Both the reviews I found – here and here – pretty much agree that its touch-screen LCD control makes it as easy to use as a point-and-shoot and is a great way for novices to step-up to a better camera. Considering my own need for a lighter camera that takes good pictures without a lot of f-stop/aperture fiddling, I'm seriously considering it.
A teaching D-SLR
For photo sticklers, an MFT may not offer enough manual flexibility. You want more control – if only you understood what all those knobs and buttons do.
Canon has heard you. Earlier this week, the company announced two new 18 MP Rebels – the EOS T3 ($600 with an 18-55mm lens) and the EOS T3i ($800, body only) – with something it calls EOS Feature Guide.
Feature Guide is just what it sounds like; you get detailed descriptions of camera settings on the 3-inch LCD screen, along with recommendations of when and how to these settings (one example is the illustration above).
Even though the Rebels are D-SLRs, which means they're designed to have their settings set, they both include extensive "smart" automatic and scene modes just like a point-and-shoot, adding an additional level of simplicity for us SLR simpletons, an accommodation to our amateur shutterbug status not often found in D-SLRs.
The T3i has one more D-SLR-unique feature – the 3-inch LCD slips out and swivels around to let you shoot from a variety of positions.
How good a camera are the new Rebels? No one's seen them yet – you won't be able to buy them until next month – so watch the camera review sites – Popular Photography, CNET, dpreview.com, digitalcamerareview.com, et al. But Canon's Rebels have always been great entry-level D-SLRs, and there's no reason to believe these two new models won't follow that tradition.
But, these Rebels still have heavy bodies, which leads me back to the Panasonic GF2.
Anyone want to buy a slightly used Nikon D300 with an 18-200mm lens?