What makes a good camera

or what I’ve learnt from my Olympus E-P5

olympus PEN camera and lenses

Just before christmas, I got hold of the awesome Olympus E-P5, my first “proper” camera with an eye to take my photography to the next level from my smartphone snaps. I’ve now had the camera for about 3 weeks and I’ve learnt a lot with in that time and I thought I’d pass on a few thoughts, ideas, and recommendations that I’ve learnt from owning my first good camera. [Of course, all opinions expressed below are very subjective and if you disagree feel free to say so].

I can make a good camera look bad

And that’s bad as in not good just to be clear. To defend smartphones, they do an alright job of making your photos always look okay. Sure you won’t get that amazing creamy background blur or the most incredible sunset, but you’ll get alright camera settings almost every time. A more pro camera will let you be stupid and ruin a perfectly good photo.

I’ve taken my fair share of pitch black, completely white, just blurry, lifeless and plain rubbish photos with this camera…of course the other side is I’ve manage to get some awesome shots that I simply couldn’t with a regular camera.

Portability is a big deal

One of the factors that made me really look at mirrorless cameras instead of DSLRs is their portability. The difference in size might not seem much but it can play a bigger role than you think. My Olympus E-P5 can reasonably comfortably fit in my pocket when it has the 20mm panasonic pancake lens on (it’s a pretty good lens too!), a DSLR with a 40mm (which would be the same as my lens due to the sensor size) wouldn’t stand a chance! I’d have to carry it round my neck or in a bag.

The impact of this is that I take my camera with me all the time where as I know I wouldn’t with a DSLR (I know this as my brother and friend have one and didn’t take it with them when I did despite loving photography as much as me if not more). This has meant I’ve capture more moments than I would have, had I got a bigger camera and that’s a big deal, especially if you aren’t looking for a professional camera (but still top quality).

Even if you think the camera is a small size, the lens size is a big(ger) factor, they will stick out more from the body and add a lot more bulk.

Having good lenses are important

I remember my brother making some noise about this when he bought his camera but I didn’t really take much notice. The truth is that a good camera with an okay lenses will only be okay. An okay camera with a great lens will look great (yes there exceptions and it’s better to go down the middle).

There are lots of details about what makes a good lens but generally the lenses which come with the camera aren’t that great. When you get a camera you should really make sure that you can get some good lenses to go with it. This probably means primes (not zoom lenses).

Primes are cheaper and generally better quality. Plus you have feet for zooming and you have to think more about your photos) with a high f stop (which means a small number like f/1.8) and at different focal lengths (the mm number). If you can find a series of lenses with are around 2 or lower and aren’t too expensive, then you are on to a winner.

Having said that, I find myself using my 20mm lens (the closest distance) the most as it is so small and pocketable. I use my 45mm (great for portraits) quite a bit, but still considerably less than the 20mm.

Smaller sensors are okay

My camera is a “micro four thirds” what that means is the sensor is much smaller than a “Full frame” (the same size as 35mm film was). The result of this is my 20mm lens is the same as a 40mm lens on a Full frame camera, but it also means that the sensor quality is not as good as a full frame sensor. There are lots of reasons for this but basically the golden rule of photography is “light is important”, a larger sensor get’s more light on it, this helps it to take a better picture.

Having said that, the picture quality on my camera is definitely good enough. Professionals use it for wedding or live event photography and get paid for that. I think that’s a good enough sign that it hits the mark. Sure, if you do a side by side comparison with a full frame sensor it will show a difference but when is that really going to happen. Add in the larger lenses you need for a full frame camera (which reduce portability) and I find the cost benefit to be worth it.

[I should note that I’m sure there are certain types of photography where you really do need the best image quality and biggest sensor you can get. I believe wildlife is one of them and possible sports but they’re not my main focus]

A Good viewfinder is important

A viewfinder is really important for helping you to frame your shot. This is actually the biggest black mark against the olympus PEN series. They don’t have a built in viewfinder but have a tiltable LCD screen on the back which lets you frame your shots. It’s like a smartphone screen in many ways, especially as you can simply touch the point you want to focus on and it will focus there (you can even take a shot if you want). This also means that it can be hard to view on a sunny day.

After all those good points, I’d love a built in viewfinder. I’m lucky as I got the attachable viewfinder in with mine but if you look at the price difference between the version with and the version without the viewfinder, it’s a lot. Panasonic and Fujifilm also make small cameras like the PEN series and include viewfinders (Fujifilm even have optical ones as well as digital ones). I’d really recommend getting a camera with a viewfinder rather than without.

Always get help in learning how to use it

I knew I wanted to learn how to use my camera properly and learn fast. I had come across Kyle Shultz via my internet wanderings and his site is great for learning the ins and outs of photography. Honestly, he may have been the final prompt I needed to get a pro camera rather than just using my smartphone but he has a whole host of tips that are relevant to people who take pictures with their smartphones too. He focuses a lot on the composition and lighting of a photo which too many people forget about as they cry out for help on how to make photos go blurry.

There are also some great videos on Youtube as there always are for anything.

Discretion is cool (or feeling invisible)

With the compactness and subtle design of the PEN series, I feel quite invisible. It’s doesn’t make you look like you are an obvious tourist or a pro photographer (read wannabe pro photographer) but just someone with a camera (a pretty sexy looking one if I do say so). Plus with no huge lens sticking out you can just wander around discreetly and snap a couple of pictures, great for “street photography” or just grabbing a candid photo at a party or gathering. This is also great if you feel self-conscious or worried about getting into trouble taking photos.

I (probably) wouldn’t recommend you buy my camera

Well I might actually but I suspect there is a better one out there for you. The Olympus OM-D Em–10 is very much like the E-P5 but it has a viewfinder built in (and is cheaper!), the Fuji x100T has a really cool optical and digital viewfinder and a slightly larger sensor making it better for lowlight…but it has only one (awesome) lens which you can’t swap (and is quite pricy too). Sony also have some nice compacts but their lenses don’t look quite as good as the other options…yet.

So to sum up,

Budget

Olympus EM-10 [us] [uk]

or Fuji x-pro1 with 2 lenses! crazy cheap. [us] [uk]

Super simple but pricy

Fuji X100t [us] [uk]

Slightly cheaper X100S [us] [uk]

Sony

Sony A5100 [us] [uk]

Mine

Olympus E-P5 [us] [uk]

Thing to droll over

Leica M [us] [uk]

Please note, the links above are amazon affiliate links. That means that if you buy something from them, it costs you the same but I get a tiny amount of money for referring you. I don't recommend them to make money (I doubt I will) but these are cameras I would recommend anyway.

I'm an English as a foreign language teacher, currently based in Krakow, Poland who also writes for Churchm.ag and loves helping people.

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