Back in the good old days when the only choice we had was film I used to carry a Canon SLR with just one 50mm lens, largely as that was all I had and could afford. My legs did the job of today's zoom lenses moving closer to or further from the view. That did have some limitations as so often there was air between me and where I wanted to stand; walking on air was never my strong point. But generally the photography worked and the camera slipped quite easily into the rucksack. Jumping forward many years I developed a passion for creating large images of the Derbyshire Peak District gritstone edges and, given the technology available to me only a few years ago, the only real choice I had for images as large as I wanted them was to buy a high resolution digital SLR. That meant it was big and heavy, made more so by the equally expensive and high quality lenses, a big hefty tripod and various other paraphernalia. I have carried that lot for miles and miles up and down the Derbyshire peaks, Scottish mountains, parts of Norway and all manner of other places.
Going on a camera gear diet
Maybe, just maybe, that so called "exercise" played a contributing role in severe back trouble some two years ago. A slipped disc does focus one's mind on preventing it happening again and the first thing I did soon afterwards was have a serious think about reducing the amount of stuff I carried about. I went through the rucksack and was absolutely ruthless in emptying all the photography bits and pieces I carried "just in case". I went through my image library to determine which lenses I ever used. I went through that again and decided that all I would carry was one camera body with a standard zoom lens, a spare memory card and a polarising filter. The tripod would stay at home or in the car boot. The kit was still quite big and heavy, but going from a typical two or three lenses to just one made an enormous difference to the weight. I do still use the other stuff but it only comes out for specific photographic shoots, not a day's walking in the hills, and typically not too far from transport.
The result of that camera gear diet was a much lighter rucksack and absolutely no reduction in the quality of the images I was capturing. If anything, things improved, partly through practice but also by not fussing about with swapping lenses and filters. I just took the photograph instead. By moving away from thinking about equipment, I could concentrate more on the image. That made a huge difference.
An extreme diet
Technology, of course, advances at a furious rate and the range and variety of camera systems available today is enormous. Their shapes and sizes has changed, as has the cost. But also what I want from a camera systems has changed significantly. I still love making large prints. But I now use my images predominantly for web-based display (including here in iFootpath walking guides) and others use them in magazines and books. Generally speaking, a large full frame DSLR with big heavy lenses is not essential for images that can be used for these purposes, so I started using a much smaller "compact" camera, the Canon G9. This is a much smaller and lighter device that has everything built in. It doesn't have the enormous resolution of the big DSLR, but it's adequate for most uses. It's lens is not as sharp as the fancy Canon lenses, but again it's adequate. The use of the camera is not as fast or controllable as the SLR, but once again it's adequate. There's a theme emerging here.
I started by taking the G9 in addition to the DSLR, the DSLR starting in the bag and the G9 in my pocket. The idea was that if I wanted to create an image that would be printed large (that's A3 or above) I'd get the DSLR out of the bag and use that, but for "normal" images and snaps I'd use the G9. Whilst I found using the G9 a release, I could never really convince myself that the image quality I was getting was good enough for everything I wanted from it. Sure, images can be printed out at A3 and they can look great, but it was often harder than using the bigger camera. In good light and conditions, images from the G9 for normal viewing have little to distinguish them from other cameras, but when the lighting conditions are a bit more challenging, the larger sensor and lenses in the DSLR win every time.
Only once or twice did I go out with only the G9 or its successor the G10. I just couldn't pull myself away from the DSLR. As with most extreme diets, that one didn't last and I eventually stopped taking the G9 or G10 as I was, and remain, convinced that the DSLR makes better quality images for the uses I need it for. Those last few words are important for of course a high performance DSLR will produce images with better image quality than a compact camera, especially if you zoom into the image to examine the really fine detail. But I like prints or images displayed on my average monitor. That's the test I use. It's not scientific, I'm no "pixel peeper", so it's what works for me.
A diet pill?
Most camera manufacturers have introduced compact cameras with bells and whistles, features like face or smile detection and lots more. Most of this can and does work wonders for snapshots taken on holiday at the beach, during parties, family gatherings and more. Many of these features are generally completely useless for landscape views.
A few more enlightened manufacturers, or those who want to appeal to what is a more specialised and smaller market, have started to introduce other innovations that aim to improve image quality or simplicity and handling. Canon, Nikon, Ricoh, Panasonic and others have all introduced compact cameras in the last year or more that feature good or even great lenses, RAW image capabilities (a digital negative that we can process using the controls we want to use rather than rely on the camera) and manual controls for exposure and other settings. Such cameras are capable, with care, of equalling the image quality of some much more expensive gear. I have become rather enchanted with the Canon Powershot S90, a tiny camera that will fit into almost any pocket, but one which has the same sensor as the much larger G10, RAW capability, a pretty decent lens and great manual controls. I'm sure more scientific testing would show the G10 to be "better", but my approach says it's better than the G9 or G10 for what I want it for. Again, it will hardly replace the big DSLR, but for taking pictures when out walking and making web images or even prints up to A4 in size, it's rather sweet.
A modest diet
My quest has been to find a camera that combines excellent image quality, the ability to print large, produce great web images, flexibility, handles well, reproduces fine detail, does not weight a ton and one that I can trust. The big DSLR fits most of these except weight, which it fails on miserably. The G9/G10 fit many, but do not always print well at large sizes and handling and trust for me are not that brilliant. Others will argue about handling and trust, it's quite personal and very subjective. The S90 goes a bit further in handling, but still doesn't have the capability for large prints or the flexibility I want. On the face of it, such a camera or system doesn't actually exist.
However, and this is not that eureka moment! Not yet anyway. I have been working with the Panasonic Micro Four Thirds system for a few months and that I think comes pretty close to more of these than anything I've used before. I acquired a Panasonic GF1 and a couple of lenses a while ago and have been using is steadily since. There are plenty of reviews out there so I am not going to repeat any of that, but it is a rather different creature than the compacts or larger DSLRs. It has a half-size sensor to the full frame DSLR, so it's significantly larger than the compact sensors and consequently much more capable, less noisy and better image quality. This sensor size drives much more about the camera but a significant change is the viewfinder (or lack of). By using a live view on it's high resolution rear screen, the viewfinder assembly is gone. This reduces the size of the camera and lenses enormously. In size the GF1 is somewhere between a compact and the smaller DSLRs. Lenses are also much smaller and consequently much lighter. The Micro Four Thirds lenses are currently few in number, but the ones that exist today from Panasonic and Olympus are rather nice. They are not as high quality as some of the upmarket Canon, Nikon, Leica, Zeiss et al offerings, but hugely better than the "adequate" description I used above.
I have at last managed to find a system that fits much of my criteria. It's lighter carrying the GF1 and three lenses than the DSLR and one lens. The image quality is not far off and the lenses are sharp as pins. The sensor is "only" 12 million pixels, just over half that of my DSLR but still capable of very nice large prints up to A3 with ease. Handling is good and I trust the device. It's not as fast as the DSLR, but landscapes don't generally move very quickly and if they are moving quickly you're normally in serious trouble, so that is no major drawback. The weather sealing is nowhere near as good as my DSLR, so I wouldn't want to take it out in heavy rain or snow. But I don't take myself out much in those conditions either. In low light the noise is no better than many low-end DSLRs, which isn't bad at all and certainly better than the compacts and their tiny sensors. In summary, a hugely capable system that weighs so much less. I can easily live with the more than "adequate" capabilities in most circumstances for the massive decrease in weight.
I have now managed to leave the DSLR at home now on many occasions and still brought back images that tick my boxes, so on that basis the GF1 is a great success. I do use it without mucking about with different lenses although I possess three (which is several less than I have for the DSLR). One of them tends to stay on the camera for most of the day, one in a pocket and the other at home. I still carry the S90 as my anytime, anyplace camera, and the DSLR is really now becoming a specialist device and only allowed out on special occasions. It's not yet for sale, but might be soon if I can bring myself to part with a long time friend.
Nirvana? Not yet, but I suspect that the developments in this format will be very interesting in the next 12-24 months. There are rumours of Canon and Sony working on cameras in this format and I'm sure, if there's any truth in these, that there will some great developments and innovation, so worthy of keeping an eye on this.
Now, lets get back to walking and taking a few good pictures to illustrate that walk!
Update: June 2010
Having used the Panasonic system for a while now, taken hundreds of pictures, printed some and sold many for stock use I'm now convinced that a system like this is the way forward. So I've sold almost all of my Canon DSLR gear and lenses and bought a spare body and a couple more lenses. I still only ever carry two lenses with me, one on the camera and another in my pocket or bag.