Let's face it -- real photographers use DSLRs. They're big and beautiful, fast operating, produce high quality images, have bright groundglass finders and oooh, interchangeable lenses. Just the thought of it makes me drool. I could have one of these sexy beasts if I really wanted one, but I've chosen small cameras like the DMC-FZ150 instead. What's up with that?
Many years ago, when I first started taking pictures, I could choose from a whole range of cameras. I chose 35mm. Yes, the quality would be higher if I chose a camera with a larger format, but I was willing to make the trade-off to get the advantages offered by the smaller cameras. The smaller size made the camera unobtrusive. That, plus interchangeable lenses, high speed film, and fast lenses let me shoot anywhere.
Fast forward to today, and there are similar choices among digital cameras. For my use, I can choose between the so-called "bridge" cameras like the FZ150, with its small sensor and non-interchangeable lens, or a full-fledged DSLR, with the advantages I've listed. It was a real compromise. I settled for lower image quality in favor of simplicity and small size, just as I had when I chose 35mm cameras many years ago. But still it bothered me, having to settle for less.
That was before the FZ150. This is the closest to a DSLR of any digital camera that I've owned. Let's look at the features and see how the two camera types compare.
Let's start at the most important factor. DSLRs, with their larger image sensors, produce superior images, especially at the higher ISO settings. And that's still true. You can't change the laws of physics that govern these things. But there will come a day when small-sensor cameras will be capable of producing images that are, for all intents and purposes, just as usable as those from DSLRs. The FZ150 comes very close to this goal. (Take a look at the detail from the picture at the top of this page. It's roughly equivalent to a 30" x 40" print.)
I was pleasantly surprised at just how good the images from the FZ150 are. Not just sharp, but with an overall look that I hadn't seen for digital cameras I'd previously used. Colors are great, and the overall tonal range is beautiful as well. There is plenty of detail in the shadows, and more can easily be coaxed out during post processing. But the most amazing part is just how good the images are at the higher ISO settings. Normally, I wouldn't use a camera like this at ISO settings above 200, but the FZ150 shines at 800 and 1600.
What about speed? DSLRs supposedly are faster focusing and can knock off multiple pictures per second. It looks like the FZ150 can match this as well. Maybe it's the CMOS image sensor, which is much faster than the usual CCDs that these cameras use. The FZ150 can capture 12 pictures per second at its highest quality setting, easily matching a DSLR, which will be limited because of its moving mirror and shutter. If you're willing to settle for a slightly smaller 3.5 megapixel image, the FZ150 can knock out a blazing 60 frames per second.
Most DSLR users look down their noses at the electronic viewfinder (EVF) found in cameras like the FZ150, swearing their optical groundglass viewers are brighter and easier to use. Here's a secret: Even the worst EVF is better than a groundglass. Why's that? No matter how bright and sharp a groundglass is, you get no real preview of the final image in terms of exposure, white balance, etc. It's showing you what the lens sees. The electronic viewfinder, on the other hand, shows what the sensor sees. Much closer to the final image. Electronic viewfinders can also give a brief glimpse of the captured image after each shot, so you can see if there's something you missed, or that requires fixing.
What about interchangeable lenses? When I began photography, there were no zoom lenses. If you wanted a different focal length, you put a different lens on your camera. When I was shooting at NBC, I had at least three cameras with three different lenses -- a 35mm, a 50mm, and a 100mm or 200mm. This arrangement let me switch viewpoints quickly, but otherwise a real pain. There wouldn't be affordable zoom lenses for at another twenty years. And zoom lenses as good as prime lenses were even further off.
The FZ150's lens has an equivalent focal length of 25mm to 600mm. That's a 24X ratio. Pretty impressive, and even more so because it's sharp over this whole range. How many lenses would it take for a modern DSLR to have the same range? Remember that 600mm is 24 inches. A 600mm lens on a full-frame DSLR wouldn't fit into the average gadget bag.
But the real reason I don't want a camera with interchangeable lenses is this: every time you see something you want to photograph, you have to decide which of your wonderful lenses to put on the camera. Switching lenses is a pain, and a chance to drop one or get some dirt inside your camera. So, for the interchangeable lens shooter, photo opportunities will be lost, either because of the time wasted in changing lenses, or because it's too much trouble. I have just one permanently attached lens, and if it can be shot within the FZ150's 24X range, I'm all set.
And now let's talk about cost. A DSLR with lenses to match the range of the FZ150 could cost several thousand dollars at a minimum. Plus, you need a lot of support accessories as well as a large gadget bag to carry it all around in. I'm guessing the weight would be at least six pounds, minimum.
By contrast the FZ150 weights about 20 ounces, has a street price of about $400, and will fit in a tiny shoulder bag. Plus, with a smaller, quieter camera, you'll blend into the crowd and attract less attention.
But wait, there's more. The FZ150 has a beautiful flip-out LCD with an extra-wide viewing angle. The FZ150 can also shoot video, something that's lacking in the lower end DSLRs. I'm not a video person, so I can' give the gory details, but it would be hard to match the FZ150's 24X zoom range in any other video camera.
Want some more reasons to buy an FZ150 instead of a DSLR? At about $400 a pop, you can always buy the latest model. And you won't have to worry if your current lenses will still work on the new one.
Oh, and one more thing. You can operate the FZ150 with one hand, leaving the other to do something useful like hold a drink.
I've made my choice, what about you?
Stay tuned for more.