Magazine Article


Reader Mail: Upgrading from a Film SLR to a DSLR
Digital Deal

(Photo by Martin Taylor, courtesy of Wikipedia's Olympus OM-2 page.)

The end of a season, of a year, or of an era always tends to mix hindsight with the view of things ahead. Okay, here's an historical landmark--how did we get here, and what's it say about where we're going? In the case of global economics, business management practices, the exercise of common sense or faith in gut instinct, the landmark is precariously placed, and maybe we'd rather not know how we got here. We can be sure that the folks who brought us here will declare their own versions, and they'll believe every word of it too.

In other areas of examination, however, the scene in the rearview mirror is as ennobling as the scene through the windshield is hopeful. I'm speaking about cameras, of course.

It's been no secret in the pages of PTN that cameras today offer a vast range of new features that make picture-taking more diverse, versatile, controllable, technically correct, beautiful, and easy to accomplish, all at prices lower than people paid for cameras 10 years ago. That's obvious, you say? Why restate it in a trade magazine, you ask? The answer is, because it's not always obvious--there are a lot of newcomers to the industry who just don't get it: where we've been aims us where we're going.

Even if they did get it, it deserves reiteration. You and I, we're middlemen. We're the ones with a product on one hand, a market on the other, and the need to explain the relevance of both. While you and I have been working hard, the people who fumbled the purse strings poured themselves another, then sought higher ground. Left behind were the folks with the product and the market and a sudden new mission: restore the faith of one in the other.

If you had a small egg in your savings account, would you spend it on a camera if you thought the maker of that camera were as reliable as, say, your broker?

So it's worth reminding ourselves, as well as our market, that some things are better than ever. Go buy new camera. Take lots of pictures. Record the world you see, so that others, later, can see it too.

The continuity of camera development was brought-up by a reader, who sent-in a note regarding our recent review of the Olympus Evolt E-520 camera. He's influenced by the past, and also interested in the future--while holding a keen sense of the world around him, and how to respond. I enjoy answering questions like this, because it permits expansion into details that had been skipped before. We always have to guess what our market wants to hear until, of course, they tell us in so many words.

"I have been since 1978 and still am," writes Steven L. Mizelle, "an OM-1/OM-2 user! I have a couple of moderate priced digital cameras and have been trying to decide if I should add a higher end digital.

"I love my [Olympus] OMs--never a repair on either!

"1) I'd appreciate your personal view on the [Olympus] E-520 vs. the equivalent Canon and Nikon models;

"2) Will my old OM lenses work on the E-520?;

"3) Can you give me a layman's understanding of the 4/3 system?;

This is simply a personal email and any knowledge I gain will be used solely in my purchase decision.


"PS--I am a former (30 year) Kodaker. When I left in 2004 I was the worldwide marketing manager for Kodak consumer films.

"Thanks for your service to the Industry!"

A. Always glad to hear from a wayback, in-the-good-old-days Kodak guy. It's no simple trick to compare a camera like the E-520 with Canon or Nikon rivals, partly because I'm not always sure which model Canon or Nikon to compare against--it's an apples vs. bananas thing (or, maybe in this age, an Apple vs. Windows thing). Do we base comparisons on price, megapixels, aggregate features, etc., or wha--?

Depending on how you shuffle and deal those cards, the E-520 could compete with the Canon Rebel XSi at a lower price, or the XTi at the same price; the Nikon D40 at a lower price, or the Nikon D60 and D80 at higher prices (all under $1k). All but Canon's XSi (12MP) are 10-megapixel models, and the superiority of control layouts, menu designs, how many frames per second, and other common features are highly subjective decisions.

That said, the E-520 has one very useful feature that we'll probably never find in Canon or Nikon cameras, which is in-body image-stabilization via an oscillating imager. Canon and Nikon seem pretty dedicated to image-stabilized lenses. Although the price for this feature in those lenses nowadays is less than it once was, it's still something you pay for in every lens you buy. The in-camera IS automatically applies to all lenses you can put on the camera, no extra charge.

The E-520 has face-recognition, which I believe its closest rivals do not. It has a Live View monitor that the two Nikons do not. Nikon cameras are only beginning to get past the feature-sets of the year 2003, so I'd say that in this instance they're pretty much out of the running. The rivalry would be more between the E-520 and the Canons. And one of the distinguishing features--there is the Canon' possession of 3:2 format, as opposed to Olympus' Four Thirds.

All DSLRs except the Olympii shoot a 3:2 frame. All other digicams shoot a 4:3 frame (except those beginning to appear with native 16:9 frames). The difference between Four Thirds and 4:3 is that the latter is a format, the former is a standard. The imager is larger than the 4:3 chips in most others of that format, and the standard goes on to specify a specific lens mount, and a doctrine of communication between the camera and the lens (not unique to Four Thirds, but one of its abiding principles--all lenses in Four Thirds trade information with the camera body, not all lenses for 3:2 cameras do). Olympus has released (free) firmware upgrades for lenses and cameras both, individually, whenever they thought they were on to something better.

Four Thirds lenses come in a vast array, with a considerable emphasis on super wide-angle zooms, so the system is optically quite sophisticated. Probably the single biggest issue in choosing Four Thirds vs. 3:2 is, which format better suits the kinds of things you shoot? 3:2 is more panoramic, 4:3 is more square. Can you predict which will frame your typical compositions most perfectly, most frequently? I can't, and half my Four Thirds pix get cropped to a 3:2 format. Likewise, half my 3:2 pix get cropped to 4:3. If you're shooting strictly for full-screen monitor display, TV or computer, 4:3 is their format, so maybe there's grounds for a choice. Otherwise, as far as I'm concerned, it's six of one and half a dozen of the other.

It's unlikely that you can use your OM lenses on an E-520. The mount is different. Conceivably there might be adapters between the two mounts, but the old lenses wouldn't be able to chat with the bodies. If you go Four Thirds, figure to acquire new glass.

I don't really have a strong preference for any one camera, which is a good thing. As a reviewer I get my hands on them all (or most, anyway) and as a working photojournalist operating in rapidly changing documentary environments, I need different feature sets at various times even on a single shoot. I never carry fewer than two cameras at any moment, and for the past few years, I've tended toward three--each usually fitted with a lens of a different focal length range (very-wide, wide-to-medium tele, super-tele). Things happen fast in my workplace (New York Harbor and its counterparts), at a considerable variety of ranges and sizes, and I can swap cameras a lot quicker than lenses. Thousands of pictures later, I can't say I favor one make or format over another, it all depends on the shoot.

So, my guiding lights are probably a little different from most peoples', and it's not my place to impose values. I do think the E-520 is a little more advanced than its closest Canon and Nikon rivals, but how important that is depends on what you shoot.

[Ed. note: We hope this helps in Steven's decision making; and in helping you qualify your customers to the right cameras for their needs.]