The Ideal Cruiser Camera, Recommended System

JHHGH1-1050498 In the last article I listed the capabilities that my ideal cruiser camera would have. In this one I’m going to recommend some cameras that have those capabilities.

Camera Categories

Up until about two years ago, most digital cameras came in two broad categories:

  • Point and shoots (P&S), which were small, often pocket sized, had a single zoom lens that was not changeable, poor image quality, and really awful ergonomics, particularly if you wanted to control settings like aperture manually.
  • Digital single lens reflexes (DSLR), which were large and heavy, could use a whole family of interchangeable lenses, had good, and sometimes great, image quality and good ergonomics.

Broadly speaking, happy snappy tourists used the former and serious photographers, amateur or professional, the latter.

A Revolution

But then came mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras with relatively large sensors, and the ideal cruiser camera was born, at least for me.

Suddenly I had a camera that was only a little bigger than a point and shoot that met my selection criteria without even breaking a sweat.

And that in turn has made me a better photographer, simply because I have a camera with me more often and so I’m taking more photographs in more situations than before. It’s that simple.

How Much Smaller?

People often miss the size advantage of mirrorless cameras because they only compare the body size to the smallest of the DSLRs, but that’s not where the killer advantage lies. When camera designers got rid of the mirror box they were able to move the back of the lens closer to the sensor and that in turn allowed them to design lenses of the same effective focal length, for a given sensor size, that are a fraction of the size of those for DSLRs.

For example, the picture that opens this post shows my 100-400 mm image stabilized telephoto for my DSLR next to my lens with almost exactly the same capabilities for my mirrorless system.

(OK, you experts, I’m fudging a bit, in that the big lens is for a full frame camera and APS DSLR lenses are smaller. But there are smaller mirrorless lenses with the same focal length too, so it’s a fair comparison.)

Bottom line, my mirrorless system can give me everything in my requirements at less than one quarter of the weight and size of my DSLR system.

This means that I can carry my mirrorless wherever I go, either the full system in a small fanny pack, or a body and two lenses in my coat or pants pockets, rather than the full backpack that my DSLR system requires.

Not only that, but think about the storage difference on a cruising boat where space is always at a premium: part of one small locker for the mirrorless, as against the entire foot of a quarter-berth that is given over to my DSLR system on Morgan’s Cloud.

Disadvantages of Mirrorless

There really is only one disadvantage of mirrorless cameras: no optical through-the-lens viewfinder. But wait, almost all these cameras have electronic view finders (EVF), either built in or as add-ons that mount on the external flash shoe. Yes, they take a bit of getting used to, but they are really no impediment to taking good photographs. In fact EVFs even have some advantages since they:

  • Show the full field of view that will be captured. Most DSLRs (except very expensive professional ones) only show 90 to 95 percent of what will be captured.
  • Can be set to show a histogram to fine tune exposure.
  • Can be set to show a quick view of the shot you just made. (Particularly useful for making sure that you did not over expose and blow the highlights, which is death to most photographs.)

Go Mirrorless

I’m going to make some specific model recommendations in a moment, but my key recommendation for any cruiser that wants to make photographs, rather than snapshots, is to buy a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, regardless of whether or not you settle on the ones I recommend.

Having said that, if you just want a pocket camera that will do a good job but have no interest in changing lenses, then I still recommend the Olympus XZ-1. You can even get an add-on electronic view finder.

And The Winner(s) Are

Drum roll, may I have the envelop please…

image For the buyer that values compact size over all else and wants to be able to carry the camera in a pocket, the Panasonic LUMIX® GX1with the kit 14-42 mm (28-84 mm equivalent) Premium X Series Power Zoom Lens and the add-on external electronic view finder.

image For the buyer that is happy to carry the camera in a small bag or on a strap, the Panasonic LUMIX® G3K with the 14-42 mm kit lens.

Why I Like The Panasonics

  • A large selection of purpose-built-for-system lenses from three different manufacturers: Panasonic, Olympus and Leica.
  • The best ergonomics in the mirrorless class. (In my opinion—these things are very subjective.)
  • Availability of the only collapsible interchangeable zoom lens that will make either camera truly pocketable and renders the GX1 little bigger than a good point and shoot.

If I were starting out with this class of camera, I would probably choose the G3K for its fully articulated back screen and integrated EVF over its slightly (when you add an EVF) smaller sibling. Also, the G3K is substantially less expensive, even though it has the same sensor.

However, since I already have a GH1 (a predecessor to the G3K) I’m salivating over the GX1 as a replacement for my current pocket camera, the Olympus XZ-1, since it will give me a much larger sensor, and therefore better image quality and low light performance, with very little size increase.

I’m really excited about having two of these Panasonic mirrorless bodies because:

  • They share lenses.
  • When street shooting, I can carry both bodies fitted with fast prime lenses, one normal, one long. This is about as close as someone without a significant personal fortune can get to the Leica range-finder street shooting gestalt. (To do the same with two Leica M9s would cost you well over US$25,000.)
  • When doing general travel photography, I can carry both bodies with zooms attached and cover wide angle to telephoto without changing a lens, or wrecking my aging back.
  • Since both bodies are made by the same company and have roughly the same interface, it will be much easier for me to get my chops (really fast and competent) with them, rather than switching back and forth between a Panasonic and an Olympus, as I do now.

By the way, if you care (I don’t), both cameras are very capable video cameras as well.

Don’t Wait

  • If you don’t have a good camera now, a mirrorless is the place to start. If you get really keen, you can always add a DSLR later, but I’m guessing that less than ten percent of cruisers actually need a DSLR.
  • If you have a DSLR and have thought to yourself, let’s say, ten times this year, “wow, what a great shot, pity I didn’t have my camera with me”, you need a mirrorless.

And Don’t Forget

Great photographs are like great golf swings: the secret is above the grip. Read on through this book for help with that.

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Magne Hjelle

It’s not hard at all to agree with your points here. I have an Pentax K-7, and the reason for buing that DSLR-camera is that its very weather-resistant. I have used it across Atlantic, in North Sea in strong gale. I had a lot of splashes of seawater on it, but I only have to, without worrying, use a damp clothe and wipe it. Its still function after 4 years with “abuse”… It is important that also lenses are marked with WR (=weather resistant).
The K-7 also captures video of good quality!
Anohter K7-owner and sailors movie:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GS4Ivsk3y58

Dave Benjamin

I am on my second Lumix and very happy with the Panasonic/Leica collaboration. It’s captured some incredible sailing moments but also done well in my pursuit of wildlife photography.

Some wildlife examples can be found here – https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.254482488475.141553.743388475&type=1&l=b4dd49f5e4

The G and GX1 are at the top of the list for me. 2011 was a good year for us so I think I’ll be moving up to one of these models soon.

Brian Lockett

Excellent camera articles. Among the point-and-shoots, we are impressed with the Canon S100, currently unavailable because of flooding in Thailand that affected Canon suppliers.

Colin

Brian

I’d definitely agree with your choice. Beyond an array of DSLR’s I have an S90, Lou has an S95, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the S100, which has a better sensor and a wider and longer lens to add to the rugged portability of the previous models. I just hope it will work with the Canon underwater housing I have for the S90 (but I’ll bet it doesn’t).

Once they’re on the market the price will soon get discounted, and then I’ll get one.

Best wishes

Colin

Colin

Hi John

You’re right – the S100 doesn’t have a viewfinder, but personally I don’t miss that, because I use the camera in such a different manner to my ‘normal’ DSLR set-up.

To me the beauty of these cameras is their portability and amazing picture performance at close to mid range. I don’t even try to use it for landscape or wildlife, unless confronted with an elephant playing the trumpet or something equally note worthy. As such, it’s very much point and shoot for me, where the screen functions just fine.

But as you say, for anything serious, you have to have a viewfinder – my Canon DSLR’s both have excellent screens, and I have never once used them for composing a shot – just for reviewing.

Best wishes

Colin

Jerry Levy

Two big issues with your recommendation:

1) it’s too pricey for a lot of cruisers, myself included.

2. it’s not waterproof.

Surely, an “ideal” camera for cruisers should be waterproof (and shockproof, etc.)?

Both Olympus and Fuji sell quite inexpensive point-and-shoot waterproof cameras. Are they “ideal”? No. But, I’m willing to tolerate a lot for these two advantages. You might be too if/when your camera gets a dunking.

Jerry Levy

I decided to upgrade and bought the GX1 after all.
There were two problems I eventually had with the Fuju XP10: the shutter speed was annoyingly slow and hence I missed a lot of good shots because of that and it wasn’t good at all in variable light conditions. On land I’ve been taking a lot of pics lately and so far the Lumix has been all I expected. However, to address one of the concerns I expressed above, I bought the kit without the _power_ zoom lens and haven’t purchased the optional rangefinder. That brought the package into line with what I was willing to pay.
I still will have a use for the Fuji’s, though: it is a great comfort in the dinghy, the cockpit, or on beaches to have a waterproof, etc. camera.
What lenses do you have for your Lumix camera and how often do you find you use each?

Jerry Levy

btw, have you noticed that the prices for the GX1 and G3 have come way down in recent months? They can now be bought new for $250 each. My guess is this means that this means that Panasonic will soon be making available upgrades – at a much higher cost, of course. For right now, though, they are bargains. I’m tempted to buy a G3 so I can then carry two cameras with different lenses attached.

Jim Ferguson

Like Magne, I also have a Pentax K-7 and I have shot pictures in the rain and spray without ever having a problem. I think it’s a great boat camera and I am most satisfied with with its performance. I do think the small high quality mirrorless, would be much better when sailing in the the third-world and riding on chicken buses with a decadent $2000 pendent hanging around your neck.

Colin

Hi Jim and John

I’d just like to support that view – wandering round in many poor countries with a big DSLR around your neck can be asking for trouble – it’s a real drawback.

But it can also alter peoples behaviour, and their response when you ask if you can take their picture, something that I find happens far less with a small camera like the S90. Another plus for small format!

Best wishes

Colin

RDE

Might I suggest the Fugifilm Finepix F300EXR that I have to somebody looking for the ultimate pocket camera? Definitely not waterproof, but 24x360mm zoom, 12mp, multiple sensor modes, and doesn’t break the bank or stand out on the street in Managua.

Matt Marsh

I used one of those small super-zooms (an Olympus C750) for about eight years, and I’ve played with a few others. That 4-megapixel Olympus made half of the 8×10 prints that hang in my living room. The best cameras in this class can do just about anything- except for fast sports, or low light situations where you need ISO 800+.

There is some real junk gear in this class too, so of course do your research before forking over the cash.

I’m nearly sold on the Micro 4/3 mirrorless systems and would certainly recommend them to someone who feels a pocket camera or a small super-zoom is holding them back in low light.

Personally, I picked Nikon’s DX SLR system, but you really need to feel held back by your old equipment if you’re going to commit to the cost, weight and long-term vendor lock-in of DSLRs. If you’ll only use the kit lens and on-camera flash, never expand your system, and (most importantly) not put the effort into teaching yourself how to make genuine art with it, you’ll be far happier with a mirrorless or a good compact super-zoom than with a heavy, complex DSLR.

Matt Marsh

One more thought on super-zooms: Actually measure the lens. My old Olympus has a 37 mm first element and a 63 mm maximum focal length. That suggests f/1.7 but it was artificially limited to f/2.8-3.7. In other words, they gave it a much larger lens than it needed, then stopped that big lens down so that its optical imperfections wouldn’t show up. I think that approach makes a lot of sense when building long (10x) zooms.

Johan Depoortere

Is AV output either Ntsc or Pal according to country where camera is purchased or is there a setting that allows you to choose?

Matt Marsh

Every digital camera I’ve seen, anywhere, lets you choose PAL/NTSC in the menus. (But you shouldn’t be using the yellow RCA jack to show photos anyway, tsk tsk 😉 )

Victor Raymond

John et al,
Although I am a Canon man myself with the EOS 1-DS and 24x36mm sensor I often prefer the little Canon SX130 with the 12:1 zoom and 12.1 megapixel image. We certainly don’t baby it and it has held up remarkably well in cockpit. The fact that it can be slipped into a pocket permits it to be a constant companion. The larger Canon SLR is for “serious” work which I am not often in the mood for.

On the other hand I have always admired the Lumix line and am glad to hear they are gaining respect by serious photographers. It was very brave of a Japanese firm to break ranks and use German optics even though it was not the first time in history.

I agree with you about sensor size, light weight and compactness as well as good optics. Your photos certainly attest to the fact that this is a winning combination.

richard

the single most valuable use point for me with any camera is in fact the grip, or, more appropriately, the lack of grip…place the camera in the subdominant hand to point the camera and use the dominant hand to gently stabilize it and work the shutter…using both hands to grip the camera, as most of us are wont to do, creates subliminal mental and physical tension leading to poor photos and unrecognized reduced use…this single technique alone makes photography immediately much more pleasurable regardless of the camera…richard in tampa bay (m/v cavu’s skipper)

richard

actually should be in the left hand as the shutter is normally on the right side of the camera

Donal

John,

One thing not mentioned that is critical for me: instant exposure to capture the decisive moment (a la Cartier-Bresson).

I have been both a photojournalist and ad photographer (including Bayliner Marine) and for me photography best captures a moment in time (even as a still life). I haven’t checked out the latest cameras as you recommend, would love to know if they work with instant capture (not wait for the AF to mess around, then another delay as the lens adjusts and then eventually decides to snap the picture just AFTER the important moment. Of course, you also have to be able to SEE the decisive moment and without a good finder, this is near impossible.

Another issue is the ability to work with off camera strobes. I’ve learned to do complicated industrial set ups with several Nikon strobes plus available light. If you wish to make money, this could be important, depending on your subject interest.

If you really want a high end (I do) and want to invest (I don’t), there is the Leica digital range finder based on the M-series. I still have two film bodies (M2 and M6) and several lenses that will work on the new $9000 digital body (average $2K each) But oh, so nice to carry around. And oh so incredible optics and full frame capture.

Most print publications demand 40 meg files and preferable more. When I was editing a magazine, it was so hard to see nice pix come in that couldn’t be printed much bigger than one inch square.

My years as a photographer made me conclude that if I am ever reincarnated it will probably be as a pack animal.

richard

donal, just curious…how is bayliner to work for ? i have an ’08 discovery 246…i like the boat (a little high maint, performance not bad), but i have had more than a reasonable amount of problems with the mercruiser engine, bravo iii i/o…thanks

Jan

Hi John!
I currently have a Canon XSi with the two “kit” lens, 18-55mm and 55-250mm. Unfortunately, I recently dropped the small lens and broke the autofocus … so now I’m learning to use manual focus, not entirely a bad thing. I also have an older Canon A720IS with a waterproof case that I love – only 8 megapixel, but it’s always taken good photos (for me, not your level). 🙂

I have been lusting after the 100-400mm Canon lens that you have in the photo. But, as you know, it’s $1,600+ dollars.

Then I read your post with the Lumix option. But the lens that you show in the photo comparison with the 100-400mm lens looks like it only goes to 300mm. My 250mm lens doesn’t come close to doing what I’d like for wildlife photography, so I’m doubtful the 300mm would work for me.

Can you let me know your opinion on what you would do? Get the Lumix system as a secondary or add the 100-400mm Canon? Just curious. THANKS! Jan

Jan

Thanks John! I am intrigued with your analysis about the Lumix/mirrorless systems and I may see if I can find one in a camera store locally and go play. I am definitely looking forward to your next post — I’m not convinced I want to get out yet, I just started learning … but … even the smaller XSi attracts more attention than my old Olympus UltraZooms – I changed because the Canon photos were much crisper and had more color. If there’s happy medium with the Lumix system …. hmmm….

Scott

John, just FYI, I recently bought a Lumix G3 based largely on your recommendation. I really, really like it.

Thanks for the good advice!

Jacques Landry

Hi John.

You’re right on!

I use to carry around a Canon dSLR with a collection of lenses and, although it produced very nice photographs, it was large and heavy, but even worse it was saying “look at me, I am a rich tourist with a big expensive camera” ! So I tended to leave it home or in the boat and missed so many wonderful opportunities. Then came “decent” point and shoot cameras, and I used a small Lumix ZS3 most of the time for the last few years. Not as good as a large dSLR, but not bad at all, and quite “discrete”!

However, I am also into underwater photography, and the ZS3 with an underwater case did OK, just OK, and I wanted more.

For less that 1/3 of the price of an underwater body for my dSLR I got myself … a Panasonic Lumix GX1, the very small G X Vario 14-42mm lens and a superb Nauticam housing with all the ports, arms and gizmos to do wide angle and macro (wet lenses). Yes, all of that for about 3K$(CAN).

All the underwater photography websites and magazines are raving about the Micro 4/3 because they are smaller (less drag, lighter) and do a superb job. So above or below the water, that’s the way to go !

And YES my Canon dSLR is for sale, as the GX1 does a lot better than a 4 years old dSLR (even shutter lag is shorter!) and the Panasonic lenses are superb. Did several tests over the last few weeks, and WOW if the only word to describe it.

And as you say, no need to cut pixels in half or compare features : it’s the global idea that a mirroless camera is the way to go, whatever the brand or the model. I chose Panasonic because of the lenses, and the very sexy Nauticam aluminum underwater body. But I have to agree, the fishes will now say “look at that rich tourist with his fancy underwater camera”!

Just hope they won’t tell this to anyone on land!

paul

Another vote for the panasonic lumix line. I’m an avid backcountry camper. If you’re going to do it right, you live by the addage “ounces = lbs” and you become very weight conscious. I own a panasonic lumiz FZ-35 and often travel with a professional photographer friend who always credit’s the camera (never the operator lol).

The FZ35 is in the mega zoom class. No interchangeble lens. Before you hit digital zooms (which degrade image clarity) it offers a 27mm-486mm. I can’t say enough about this camera……and for less than $400!

After traveling with my friend a lot, I’ve learned once you’ve maximized the qualities of a less feature rich camera, there’s not a lot of added benefit for the less than pro photographer.

The only reason I would replace this camera is to delve into HDR (bracketed/stacked multiple exposures) which I think generates absolutely wonderfully exposed images.

Here’s a review of the FZ-35 http://www.dpreview.com/news/2009/7/27/panafz38

Regards,

paul

(i couldn’t get the EDIT feature to work) I forgot to mention that I bought a neoprin case for it and then brought it to a shoe repair place to have them stich two loops. When I’m wearing my backpack or my camelback, I slide the chest strap through the loops. It keeps the camera at chest height away from knees when hiking and makes it super quick to access and return to the case. Very convenient.

Dick Stevenson

Hi John and all,
Writing in hope that you can say whether the above camera recommendations still hold. It has been a while since these recommendations and I hope you have some thoughts ready-at-hand. We are looking for a new compact camera as ours has got a scratch on the lens. and extending our kit to now include a body with interchangeable lenses.
Thanks, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy