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Camera Talk: Big Camera Performance, Small Frame

The most useful camera you have is the one you have on you. Unfortunately, as is often the case, my favorite camera just happens to be a somewhat large Digital Single Reflex Lens (DSLR), my Olympus E-Volt 510. It takes great pictures but at the expense of lugging around all my gear in a backpack. Therefore, when space is a factor, I’m forced to rely on my small pocket sized “point and shoot”(P&S) and I always come out a bit disappointed. Despite having a high mega pixel count, my P&S just can’t compete with my DSLR due to its physically smaller image sensor and inferior optics. Even if I pull off taking a great shot, I’m always wondering how much better it would have been with my big camera.

Just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about in term of image sensors, the picture on the left is a comparison of the various sensor sizes of some typical cameras. A normal P&S (of all brands such as Canon, Nikon, Sony, etc) will typically have a sensor along the lines of the small rectangles at the bottom left. Pretty darn small. This means that there is less light hitting the sensor at a given time, which equals less detail and lower image quality. An DSLR will have a sensor from 5 to 9 times larger. My Olympus DSLR has a sensor the size of the red box, whereas a Canon DSLR is the green box, Sony the yellow, etc. Olympus chose their sensor to be smaller and more square than other DSLRs for a number of distinct advantages at the expense of some fallbacks, but I won’t discuss this here. The main point is, yes, the image sensor of the DSLRs are a lot bigger than your normal P&S camera.

For my Kilimanjaro and Elbrus climbs, I lugged up my DSLR. I knew that it was a once and a lifetime opportunity and I wouldn’t risk messing up capturing the moment over camera gear. Both mountains proved to be a hassle (both in travel to location and the actual trek), but I went with it anyways and came out with some amazing pictures. On Kilimanjaro, I had my camera slung around my body so I could snap shots at a moments notice. This proved very risky as I almost smashed the camera on rocks on multiple occasions and actually dropped it once. Luckily my camera made it out of there in one piece. On Elbrus, I kept it within my daypack which, while providing more protection, made it less accessible and therefore I didn’t take as many pictures as I would have liked. For the upcoming Aconcagua trip, I decided to invest in an Olympus E-PL1,which would give me the accessibility of my P&S which maintaining the image quality I’ve come to know and love from my DSLR.

The E-PL1 part of a new family of cameras called mirror-less DSLRs. The concept was pioneered by Olympus and Panasonic but Sony as well as Samsung also have similar cameras on the market. With a normal DSLR, light enters through the lens, hits series of mirrors and eventually finds its way into the viewfinder. When you press the shutter, the main mirror lifts up and the light now hits the image sensor, capturing the shot. A mirror-less DSLR keeps the same large sensor but removes all the mirrors, thereby creating a smaller camera. While it seems simple enough, the smaller cameras required completely redesigned lenses and bodies to accommodate the smaller footprint while maintaining the ability to change lenses with, again, high image quality. The image on the right shows the difference between the normal DSLRs and the new mirror-less types.

As you can see in this comparison shot, my E-510 (left) dwarfs by new Olympus E-PL1 (right). While the E-PL1 is not a complete equal to my E-510, for example my E-510 is sporting a “faster” more capable lense, you’d be hard pressed to see the difference without doing some extreme zooming or “pixel peeping” as it’s called.

Also, the E-PL1 offers all the manual controls that its larger brother has, such as aperture (how much light can enter the lens, thereby controls background blurring) and shutter speed (how long the sensor is exposed for, controlling motion blur). All which is important when creating a great shot. I took the picture on the left with my E-PL1, balanced on top of a garbage can in Quebec City (bare in mind it’s compressed for the web and not full quality). For those interested and knows what I’m talking about, it was taken as follows: 14mm, 5 sec exposure, f8, ISO 200. As you can see, the E-PL1 does not disappoint and should serve me well high up on Aconcagua this winter.

So, if you’re looking for a more compact camera but with DSLR quality, look no further than the new mirror-less DSLRs. They are great now and are only getting better.

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