Saturday, 12 June 2010

Hands On Surprise

I surprised myself this afternoon. It's been a long time since I put in any serious time hanging out on a Saturday afternoon in a camera shop just trying stuff out. I used to do this regularly -- I suppose it was a continuation by other means of teenage loitering, trying out guitars I could never afford, or simply flipping LP album covers (an extremely satisfying but harmless activity that has gone from the world). I was on good terms with the staff in the shop where I bought all my cameras and lenses, and most weeks brought in at least two or three colour 120 films for "dev and contact" and bought fresh stock, so there was never any sense that I was wasting their time. As a regular customer, I got a good discount on anything I bought, too.

With the advent of digital, all that seemed to change. Camera shops simply couldn't stock a representative range of the deluge of new models, or cope with the rapid turnover rate. They seemed to be increasingly dependent on whatever deals the company reps would offer. My favourite shop, for example, suddenly and mysteriously stopped carrying Olympus cameras. No-one would ever say why. People gradually stopped bringing in films for processing. Second-hand film cameras and lenses lost their attractions. Darkroom equipment vanished from the shelves. They also couldn't compete with the prices on the Web. With no weekly films to process, I gradually stopped visiting. My favourite shop eventually changed hands, and new staff appeared, with whom I had never spent an idle hour discussing camera movements or agitation techniques, or squinting down the street through exotic lenses neither of us could ever afford.

But this afternoon I decided I actually wanted to handle a Panasonic GF-1 and an Olympus EPL1 in order to compare their electronic viewfinders. I had an itch to scratch. You can't do that on the Web. You can read all the reviews you like, but picking things up can be a revelation -- both positive and negative. So, there I was again in a camera shop, watching an assistant unlock the glass-fronted cabinets to fetch out a selection of hi-tech jewellery to place in front of me on the felt mats lying on the glass-topped counter.

And the surprise was this. I didn't particularly like either of the electronic viewfinders -- way too small, in the case of the Panasonic, and too garishly unreal in the case of the Olympus. Worth knowing. But that cunning assistant had my measure. He then showed me an Olympus EP1 with the 17mm pancake lens and the clip-on optical viewfinder, and I was smitten. It was just right. It felt like a proper camera. Metal, solid, and elegantly purposeful. And the whole kit has been reduced to a very low price indeed, practically half the original price when this little groundbreaker first appeared just 12 months ago -- I suppose the last few are being cleared in advance of the EP2, and the absence of an electronic viewfinder plus the odd negative comment about the quality of that cute little 17mm "pancake" lens has made this combo the least sought after. I think it's a case of grab one while you can: I'm certainly going to.


Mauro said...

I was looking instead to the Panasonic G2 that, for me, fits better my conservative idea of a reflex. Did not you have a look at it ? I'd like some comment on to the EVF. The only unfortunate thing is that it does not have build in stabilization since I would not plan to use it on a tripod. Is the EVF for the EPL1 the same as the one for the EP2 ?

Mike C. said...

No, it was the "hands on" thing again -- when I looked at the G1 when it came out it was simply too large and too like a DSLR for my taste. I picked one up and thought, "No, what's the point?" Whereas I picked up the EP1 with the optical viewfinder, and thought, "Yes, I want one of these!"

Yes, the Olympus EVF is the same one -- you'd have to try it for yourself, but I just didn't like what I saw. It's nice and large, but indoors the fluorescent lights caused an interference pattern, and outdoors the subtlety of light, shade and colour was disrupted -- somehow the pleasure of looking was removed. But looking straight through the simple optical VF of the 17mm was pure pleasure!

N.B. I have a new secret weapon which I'll blog about sometime -- the "Clearviewer" adds an optical / electronic viewfinder to any camera!