Dec 302018

As 2018 draws to a close, I am in Hawaii with my family wrapping up with a few days of much needed vacation. In the past, every time I went on vacation, I had a camera bag with me. I am not a good photographer by any stretch of imagination, but I am definitely a camera geek and I have a fair amount of inside knowledge into the camera world having worked in it for a good number of years. I still maintain an interchangeable camera system (Micro-4/3) and also use an older Nikon DSLR that I pilfered from my brother. However, like most people these days, I take most of my pictures with a cell phone. This was the first vacation I have taken where I left my system camera at home. There are two reasons for that. One is that I have two fairly small children, so I have enough stuff to carry around. My enthusiasm for carrying an extra (camera) bag is a bit low. It is not like I can get the kids to pose anyway. Definitely not long enough to set-up a tripod. Another and probably more important reason is that my new Pixel 3 cell phone takes pretty remarkable pictures. Its built in HDR mode makes for stunning dynamic range. Night Sight mode does well in low light. Portrait mode does a decent job of blurring the background and a wide angle selfie camera on the front is responsive enough to capture my whole family. Primary camera is responsive enough to capture my kids when they are sitting still for a few microseconds.

Pixel 3 using Night Sight mode

Every time I take a picture, I get a very respectable JPEG and an HDR Raw that I can later dump into Skylum 3 (I just cancelled my Adobe Lightroom subscription) for some extra editing. Basically, as far as I am concerned, computational photography has arrived.

Do not get me wrong, the pictures I get from my Pixel 3 are not as good as the ones I was able to take with Leica Q (which I probably shouldn’t have sold), but they are good enough.

Pixel 3. Cook Bay.

Now, I am fibbing a little. I sorta have an interchangeable lens system for my cell phone since I use Moment’s excellent add-on lenses.

Moment Amazon Page

I use a Moment case with telephoto lens fairly frequently, but I also have some mileage with their similarly excellent wide angle lens. Effectively that gives my phone camera an equivalent focal length of 18mm with tthe wide angle lens, native 28mm and 60mm with telephoto lens. However, since google started offering super-resolved digital zoom, I get pretty good performance at a good range of intermediary settings as well. Moment lenses are tiny, so I can shove them into my pocket and barely know they are there.

To re-iterate, if you are looking for ultimate image quality with seamless control of the depth of field and perspective, get a proper camera with proper set of lenses. Lugging all that stuff around will save you some money on weight lifting equipment. In my case, I do not need one for 90% of my photographic needs.

With that in mind, I figured I should examine the situations where I do still need to take a standalone camera with me. Of course, there will be situations where I will take a proper camera with simply because I like to take pictures

The first and most obvious is harsh environment use. We did some of that during this vacation and I did not prepare quite adequately for it. In retrospect, I should have bought a proper low light capable ruggedized and waterproof camera. Notice, I said “low light capable”. That limits the field considerably. There are plenty of waterproof and ruggedized cameras out there (like Olympus TG series) that are quite decent if you have enough light. If you need a camera for your ski vacation or to take pictures in a well lit pool, one of these will work fine. If you are more interested in video than stills, you can also consider various action cams like the latest GoPro. I gave one some serious thought, but my basic problem is handling. These are really designed to be mounted on something (helmet, bike, small gymbal) rather than be handheld. I have a camera with such a form factor (Z-Cam E1) and it is really not ideal for handheld use without some additional hardware that makes it a lot more expensive and quite a bit bulkier. However, it is a much large image sensor than any action cam and it takes the same interchangeable lenses I use with my regular Micro-4/3 camera. It was recently replaced with a much better Z-Cam E2 which is more than double the price. Neither of these cameras is easy to use, but if you are willing to put in some work, you can get good results.

During our stay in Hawaii, we went on a night snorkle to see manta rays. I do not own a proper underwater camera, so I bought an underwater housing for my DXO One camera. It has been discontinued, unfortunately, but it takes good pictures and uses a large-ish 1″ image sensor. The basic problem with using it underwater is that I can not change shooting modes, like switching between stills and video without opening the waterproof case. It gave me OK results and was much better than nothing, but I really missed having a proper camera.

That is something I will need to investigate a bit further, but unless you are willing to shove your system camera into a waterproof housing, your options are slim. There is the DC2000 from SeaLife which use the same sensor as my DXO One, but it seems to have focus issues. That leaves me looking at the two year old and very expensive Leica X-U. I have looked at it before and balked at the price, but now I wonder if I should just bite the bullet.

The X-U is a couple of years old now, but it takes good pictures and average looking videos. However, the lens on it is very sharp and it is good in low light. As far as price goes, if I get a waterproof case for one of my system cameras, the total price will get into Leica territory as well and the whole package will get a lot bigger. Another factor to consider is that Leica X-U is small enough and ruggedized enough to be use for general purpose outdoors photography where I would not be able to take a proper system camera with me, like skiing.

Another use case where I still need a standalone camera is anything requiring long reach. Once you get beyond 100mm equivalent, even with add-on lenses, a cell phone does not really do it any more. Perhaps that will be resolved in the future with some folded optics, but not quite yet and that is where I still use my Micro-4/3 camera with an inexpensive telephoto zoom and a F/1.8 prime where I need a little more reach in low light.

With all that, as I said, this was my first vacation without a dedicated camera and I really enjoyed the convenience.

Pixel 3. Cook Bay.
 Posted by at 9:23 am