Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Truth Behind The Migration


I didn't expect the comments I got on my previous post, it seems there a lot of people interested in the change, some people thought full frame was a bust, that it doesn't differ from crop sensors, some thought that I finally saw the light and will move to Nikon, and others are interested in learning from my experience in order to avoid my mistakes.

To all, here I tell the full details of the story, the morals, and my advice to recent camera owners, it will be long, I will try to ingest some pictures to make it less painful, and for the impatient, please jump for the summary at the end of the post.

A FEW IMPORTANT DISCLAIMERS FIRST

  • I am not a working photographer, I don't earn any money from photography or this blog, I learned photography first and foremost to capture the beautiful moments in the lifes of my family, so the majority of my photography are portraits and candids, I am certainly interested in other types of photography, but they carry less importance. I like to describe myself as a pretty advanced amateur or hobbyist.
  • I am brand-neutral, I believe all cameras can do wonders in the hands of professional users, be it Canon, Fuji, Nikon, Olympus, Sony, etc...
  • I appreciate every single bit of Canon equipment I have ever used, I have not sold my equipment because of any issues with my equipment, they all performed exceptionally well, and sometimes even exceeded my expectations. If I was a working photographer, I would not hesitate to buy a similar system again.
  • Because someone asked, full frame is indeed different, the look and the DoF control are unmatched by smaller sensor cameras, and the noise performance is just brilliant. So anyone thinking I have realized that full frame is a mirage, please don't, I know I'm going to miss it.
  • Finally, I am not going to tell you what camera to buy, or what to do with your DSLR, I am just telling my story so that others can learn from my mistakes and avoid them, all the cameras, lenses and accessories are bought by my hard earned money, I am not advertising for any brand or any certain camera system, you'll have to find out what works for you.




THE STORY

Now that that's out of the way, here's what happened, as regular readers already know, my first digital camera I have bought from my own money was a Sony T10 P&S, I used it solely to capture the first 15 months or so while my older daughter was growing-up. Up until now, looking back at these pictures makes me regret not getting into photography earlier, everytime I look, I see ugly colors & white balance, lots of wide-angle close-up portraits, lots of direct flash pictures, the whole nine yards of pure P&S mistakes. Back then I remember Gizmodo's article and high praise of the revolutionary Canon S90, finally a pocketable point and shoot for the more quality-conscious photographers, I did a lot of research and ended up buying the same-sensored Canon G11 and getting started for the first time into the world of aperture, shutter speed, ISO, off camera lighting, tutorials, blogs, everything, that was mid 2009.

I started advancing really quickly, my daughter started crawling and walking, and I got frustrated with the slow, hit & miss AF of the G11, and after around 10 months of ownership, the G11 was sold, and bought a Canon 550D along with the holy cheap-but-rather-excellent trinity (18-55 IS, 50 f/1.8 & 55-250 IS). A few more months, and I was addicted to the sharpness of the 50 prime that I didn't really want to use the 18-55 anymore, and I also wanted a wider (50mm equivalent) prime, so I bought the 15-85, the 35mm f/2 and the 60mm macro. I sold the 50 f/1.8. Around that time I already had a 430EX and 580EX speedlites and a few light modifiers.

Fast forward 10 months after buying the 550D. I wanted a body with a better grip and remote flash control, the 60D prices were falling down, and the earthquake that hit Japan increased the request on used Canon bodies in Egypt, I was travelling to Malaysia, and I decided to shop from there, I sold my Canon 550D along with the 18-55 kit lens for almost what I bought it for, and bought the 60D and a new 580EX II speedlite from Malaysia. I was very happy with the 60D and my current crop of excellent performing lenses, the 15-85 for wide and all-round shooting, the 35 f/2 for most of my shooting, the 60mm macro for portraits and close-ups, and the 55-250 for telephoto work and compressed portraits. Later I added the 85 f/1.8 which became my background-eraser lens, and favorite portrait lens.


So good so far, here is when things starts drifting away slowly without me noticing, I started looking at the incremental upgrade costs, and pretending I didn't see the total equipment costs. Up until that point, I could justify the equipment I had and not feel too much regret buying my gear, maybe I would lose either the 60 macro or the 85 1.8. However, if you look at the main reason I started learning and investing in photography, it was to shoot my kids and different family moments, I don't sell photos or prints, I don't do commercial work, I don't even print the photos, I usually share them on the iPad (more convinent and cheaper than prints), but I enjoy the process of photography itself, some say that the camera one uses should be transparent, it should allow him to do art and get the vision in his head without interrupting his art-making process, not me, I enjoy the process of taking photos just as well as I enjoy making good photos, but maybe that's because I'm an engineer.

So what went wrong? Mic Ty started talking about the full-frame dream, I did my best to convince him it's not worth the hassle and that he can already get what he wants with his D300s, but the damage was done, the seed has been planted, and we never got rid of the idea from our heads, add to that i was following around 60 photography blogs and sites, and seeing everyone touting how great full frame is, and looking at pictures with amazingly shallow depth of field (compared to the crop sensor I had), suddenly I decided to switch to full frame, call it gear acquisition syndrome, call it haste, call it irrational, call it competition and not wanting to be left behind (Mic told me he'd sell his own crop Nikon and buy a full frame, and I wanted to do the same), and I won't blame you, it was really not well thought, and I followed my desires and the new gear lust. How bad was it?

I have already owned the 60D for 10 months when I took that decision, I sold all my crop sensor equipment, and only kept the 35 f/2 and the 85 f/1.8 to try them out on the new full frame camera, I bought a 5D Mark II reluctantly because I knew it was a step backwards from the 60D regarding some features like focusing, wireless flash control and tilting screen, and more importantly I have been waiting for the new 5D replacement, but when it was announced, I knew I wouldn't be able to afford it. Anyway, I ended up selling the 35 and 85 lenses and bought a really nice setup, 24-105L, 50 f/1.4, 100L Macro and 200L f/2.8. I also replaced the 430EX with a YN-560II flash, and the 580EX with the very expensive 600EX-RT (another stupid move).

I was really happy with my equipment, it was a really different world depth of field and noise-performance wise, but for some reason I couldn't get the 5D Mark III out of my head, all those amazing reviews and high praises for it never made it any easier for me. See a pattern? I was too engrossed in equipment lust, that I only looked at the incremental upgrade costs, I never really stood back and look at the complete picture, I was not willing to give up the quality and the DoF control I had with the full frame, I always wanted more, better, faster. I'd read a review or see a shot and then lust after this lens or that whatever, just to get a similar shot, but will this shot make my life better? Does it deserve this amount of expenditure? Will I ever want to take that shot again?


One thing that started bugging me was the size, the Lowepro Toploader 55AW that used to carry my 60D with two lenses and a 580EX flash was only able to take the the 5D2 and the 100 macro. Look at the picture above, that's a 550D with my 60mm Macro and lens hood, versus the 5D2 and the 100L Macro with the lens hood. I had to buy better and more expensive bags. Weight was another issue, with all the incremental increases over time, I was shocked at how heavy my equipment weighed when I compared it to the smaller crop sensor bodies. The logical decision is to downsize, yes? No!

This time I'd call it stupidity, one day I decided that I was fed up with the 5D2's focusing system, and that I deserved a 5D3, there was a good offer for the 5D3 selling for slightly less than $3000, so I hastily sold the 5D2 and got the 5D3 in the same day, the 5D2 spent around 6 months with me, and I thought it would be the odd duck with the least ownership period, and that the 5D3 would live forever.

I was thrilled with the 5D3, it was brilliant, and that's even not enough praise, it was completely transparent during the image making process, it took images so quick and wanted to move on to others, it did high ISO like a champ, it was (at minimum) one stop better than the 5D2 at ISOs above 1600, it was magical, but I lost some of the fun I had during the image making process, it was so good that getting a bad result or an out of focus shot a rare occurrence, but that was never the reason for selling it.


THE REALIZATION

One day during a team building trip a few weeks ago, I was sitting on the beach, phone in hand, and the Vanguard Heralder with the 5D3 and 24-105 on my lap, and I started to envy my colleagues running around and having all sorts of fun on the beach, while I sat there guarding my expensive camera gear, and not to mention the size and the weight I had to lug around. I didn't trust the room service, so I never left my camera bag at the hotel room, I had to lug it around everywhere. A few weeks earlier, I decided I'd buy a small compact camera for situations like this, but I didn't want to compromise image quality and wanted it to have a viewfinder, and of course it shouldn't be expensive since it would just be a complimentary camera.

Back to the beach, with all of these thoughts in my head, I opened an excel sheet on my phone, I wrote down the prices of the current camera gear I currently had, and the prices of a quite similar micro four thirds system based around the OM-D EM-5 (for some reason I couldn't take this camera out of my head, and Roger Cicala didn't make it any easier), don't really know why I decided to do that, maybe I imagined my self with a really small camera that I was able to take around everywhere with no fear, anyway that's what I did, and the result was a shocking eye-opener for me.

You can already see the full picture because I told the story in one-shot, but it took me years to reach this point, I was genuinely amazed at the savings I could achieve by switching to m4/3. The result was that I could sell my Canon gear (body, lenses, flashes, bags, accessories, etc...) for around $8000, and buy a new system that could do 80% of what my current system can do, while saving around $4500, gasp! Did I really go that far? The realization hit me so hard, I was quite upset for the rest of the trip, and I was more aware how much is at risk if I dropped my camera or if it was stolen from me (which happened to one of the friends earlier).



THE DECISION

From that moment, I kept checking the whole internet for OM-D system reviews, you name it, blog posts, equipment reviews, forums, flickr galleries, all weird sorts of sites. I spent a few weeks trying to measure how much image quality and camera performance I would lose, but this time I did factor in my initial and almost sole reason for taking photos at the first place, which is better family photos (touche), but that's the reality, and I also wanted to enjoy the process of taking photos again, I didn't want to buy something that made photography as easy as the 5D3 did, I wanted to be more involved, like thinking more about the backgrounds since I won't obliterate them OOF anyway, trying harder in lower light, since I won't be able to just bump the ISO and use a powerful flash. This makes getting good results more satisfying, but of course if I was a paid photographer, I'd want the best performing equipment that I can afford, that's why I am fortunate I am my un-paid family photographer.

After thorough research, and more re-evaluation, I decided to sell all my Canon gear (5D3 owned for less than 3 months), buy a m4/3 small system, and un-follow the thousand photography blogs in my RSS feed since they mostly ignite my gear lust. One benefit of my decision, is that there is no market in Egypt for the m4/3 cameras, so I wouldn't be able to buy new lenses easily, and I won't be able to sell my camera or lenses, I'd be stuck with them fo good, which I think is good for me.



THE PURCHASE

Now that you've read all of the above (or so I hope), you have every right to know what camera gear I decided to buy, and why.

One thing that ignited my interest in m4/3 is the DoF, yes, you read that right, take a look at Kirk Tuck's post on TOP here, with a FF camera, when you want to get a reasonable DoF to get both eyes of your subject in focus or get enough of a product you're shooting in sharp focus, you have to stop-down a lot, at the expense of lower shutter speeds and/or higher ISO, while on the other hand a smaller sensor used with a similar fast lens wide-open would give a larger DoF and a better impression of sharpness without resorting to low shutter speeds or high ISO. The negative would be when you need really thin shallow DoF, but you can't get everything you want now, would you?

So here's what I bought and why I chose it:

  • Olympus OM-D EM-5 (black) with the 12-50 kit lens, amazing camera, magnesium alloy body, EVF (think pre-chimping with histogram), wicked fast AF, in body IS, up to 9 fps, weather sealed, wireless flash control, small, tiltable LCD, better noise performance than the 7D and the D7000.
  • 12-50 kit lens (24-100 equivalent), got it because it's a bargain, and it will give me wide angle, weather sealing and macro at the same time.
  • Panasonic Leica 25mm f/1.4, for day-to-day use, fast aperture, excellent quality and my favorite 50mm equivalent focal length.
  • Olympus 45mm f/1.8, for tight portraits with a bit of background separation, very fast AF and very sharp wide-open.
  • Olympus 40-150mm telephoto (80-300 equivalent) this was an Amazon suggestion, for just $130 more than the camera kit price, I got this lens, a Transcend 32GB Class 10 SD card, Olympus messenger bag, travel tripod with bag, cleaning kit, wide and tele converters with cases, UV filters, filter holding bag, and I don't remember if there was something else, it was too good to pass.
  • FL600R flash, tiny TTL flash with a GN36 @ ISO 100, will be used mainly for bounce indoors, and I already have a couple of powerful YN-560 II flashes for setup shots. It also can act as a slave to the OM-D's flash.
  • Sony RX100, surprise, the best P&S in 2012 if not ever, amazing performance (thanks Sony for your amazing sensors in the OM-D and here) in a really tiny package, after much consideration and almost buying the Canon G15, I chose this one. There was a kit at Amazon (at no extra cost) that adds a Sony 32GB Class 10 SD card, a Sony carrying pouch, a cleaning kit and a few other useless items.
  • Thinktank Retrospective 5 bag, a small bag that can carry most of the gear listed above, and doesn't look like a camera bag screaming "come and steal me".
  • Lowepro Apex 100AW & 30AW, the first for carrying the OM-D with a single prime, and the other for the RX100.
  • 3rd party battery cahrgers + 2 spare batteries for both cameras.


Would you take a guess at the price of all of the above? Almost the same as the price of my 5D3 body alone, can you imagine that? And much smaller in size that I would be able to always have a camera with me, something that I wasn't able to do with the DSLRs.


THE MORAL OF THE STORY

If you came here directly without reading any of the above, you're out of luck, you missed the party, there was a lot of fun. But anyway, here are the lessons I have learned from my experience:

  • If you're not a working/paid photographer, you have to set your priorities and targets firmly, and you have to keep them in front of your eyes all the time.
  • Don't buy a piece of equipment because you want to be able to take a certain photo like this photography blog showed, think hard, would you take this picture again? Will it deserve the money paid on new gear?
  • Use what you already have and get the best out of it, until it dies.
  • Did you already get the best out of it and want to move to the next level? Don't, keep using your gear, you've already been happy with your gear and making great pictures, the next upgrade might cost 2x, but only enhance your pictures by 0.1x.
  • If you have the chance to buy well-used gear instead of brand new, please do, you'll save a lot of money when you decide to sell your equipment for whatever reason.
  • Are you sitting on piles of money that you don't know what to spend it on? Ignore this whole post and go buy as many cameras and lenses as you can.
  • The 5D Mark III is the best camera I have ever used, and I will really miss the FF and 200 f/2.8 look wide-open.

I hope I have answered all of the inquiries and questions I've got, and I hope this post helps other people to fall into the same mistakes I did.