The Ultimate Cruiser Camera

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Inspired by overwhelming popular demand…Oh, OK, because five people asked, and mostly because I love writing about cameras, which I haven’t done in over a year, here is my latest thinking on the very best, the ultimate, camera for voyagers. (And, for those not interested in the ultimate with the price to match, I have some thoughts about alternatives.)

But before we open the envelope, with appropriate music ending in a crescendo of cymbals, and send you off to do a serious mischief to your credit card balances, a little build up.

Telling The Story

To me, one of the greatest pleasures of voyaging is striving to tell the story of our cruises, the places we go and the people we meet, through photographs. I have written at length about that process here, but the key tip I can give you and the most important thing you can do to be a successful voyaging photographer is to carry a camera with you at all times.

That one criteria transcends all others. Truly, the best camera is the one you have in your hand when life happens, whether it be a huge professional DSLR with a backpack full of great lenses or the camera in your phone.

But I can also tell you, from bitter experience, that unless you are a professional photographer, with nothing else to do, it is unlikely you will be carrying your big camera when really great shots happen. Why? Because big DSLRs are just too darn heavy and cumbersome to carry when you are doing anything else and most of the time when you are voyaging, you will be doing other things—it’s an amazingly busy lifestyle.

Big iron in use. How often are you going to carry a camera like this…come on, really? It’s the size and weight of two bricks, and that’s without the lenses.

What If?

But what if you could have a professional level camera body with the two classic professional’s fast F2.8 zooms (24-70mm and 70-200)* in a small shoulder bag that was light enough to carry all day (photo at start of post)? And what if that system was actually more responsive, faster, more flexible, and just all round better and more fun to use than the big iron that the pros carry?

What if that body felt just perfect in the hand, with buttons that have just the perfect resistance and dials that turn when you want them to and not when you don’t? And what if the snick of the shutter was just, well, sublime?

What if that camera had the best image stabilization in the business; so good that it renders the tripod just about obsolete? And what if that image stabilization was in-body, rather than in-lens, so that every lens you own is stabilized? And what if that, coupled with the fast lenses and great low light sensor, gave you a camera that can near see in the dark?

And what is that image stabilization was so good that you could shoot video on a moving train (check the last clip, I was getting better with practice) or boat, and get a result near as steady as that provided by a professional level gyro stabilizer costing thousands?

And what if that camera had all the buttons you need, that can all be programmed to do whatever you want them to do, in the way you want them to do it, to the point you can shoot everything from fast action to HDR (high dynamic range) to thoughtful portraits to street photography, without ever opening a menu or even taking your eye from the viewfinder?

And what if that camera had a viewfinder so clear that you forget it’s electronic and a field of view that matches the biggest pro rigs from Nikon and Canon, but does things they can’t do, like warning you in real time, before you press the shutter, that you are about to clip the highlights or block the shadows and exactly where in the shot that will happen?

What if, when you want a change from shooting with those pro zooms, you could put on a 40mm*, for street, or a 90mm*, for portrait, fast prime lens and have a rig that gives you the same feel and gestalt as the finest viewfinder cameras?

One of my favorite “street” photos from this year. Actually taken with the immediate predecessor to the camera I’m writing about, but the point is the same.
I love the contrast of the brightly dressed children walking by the, I suspect, exclusive confines of the Halifax Club. We were just running errands in Halifax when I saw this shot setting up about 30 seconds before it came together.
There is not a chance that I would have been carrying my big DSLR on that rainy day and, in that case, this shot would have been lost and gone forever.

What if the image quality was just, well, awesome, with Jpegs out of the camera that need little or no tweaking and deep RAW files that can take, and respond to, all the massaging and optimizing you want?

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Oh yeah, and what if that camera and those zoom lenses were weather proofed and splash proofed to pro standards, so you can get those great action shots on the boat without worrying?

And what if all this goodness was approximately half the price of the kind of full frame camera and pro-level glass I used to shoot with?

The Envelope, Please

Well, now you can have all that. That camera, which I have been shooting with for six weeks, is the Olympus O-MD E-M1 (since replaced by the Olympus O-MD E-M1 Mark II), and it is quite simply the best and most fun camera I have ever used.

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The E-M1 with the simply stunning Olympus 24-80* F2.8 fast zoom attached.

Not the best small camera. Not the best digital camera. Not the best mirrorless camera. The best damned camera I have ever used…period…full stop…end of story. As soon as we get back to Base Camp, all my pro-level Canon gear goes on eBay. Goodbye…my aging back won’t miss you.

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The E-M1 masquerading as a street shooter’s fine viewfinder with the Panasonic 40mm F1.7 prime attached. In this configuration, with the rubber lens hood collapsed, the whole rig will fit in a winter coat pocket.

Trade Offs

So, what are the tradeoffs for leaving the full frame world, I hear you ask? There have to be some, right? Yes, there is, but just one: If you want to make top quality fine art prints that are larger than about 30″ on the long side, you need to stay with full frame because you need that big sensor. For the rest of us, small cameras have arrived and are now better than their big brothers.

Oh, one other thing. The E-M1 is supremely configurable but that makes the process of getting it to behave the way you want it to complicated and time consuming. I spent three full evenings with the manual and the camera, figuring it all out. The good news is that once you have the camera set up, the only time you need to go into the menus is to format a card. But if you’re the kind of person that does not like reading manuals and messing with technology, you might be happier with the fine mirrorless offerings from Fuji. Not as feature rich and fast as the E-M1, and without the in-body image stabilization, but still really nice cameras.

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My full lens and flash kit, less the 40mm, which was what I took the shot with. Everything, the whole works, including filters, cleaning kit, chargers (2) and flash modifiers, fits in two small bags like the one at the top of the post, instead of filling most of a quarter-berth, like my old full frame kit did.

Not Cheap

I should also say that this is a pro level camera with lenses and prices to match. Yes, it’s half the cost of the equivalent full frame gear and lenses, but that doesn’t alter the fact that you could buy a new mainsail for a 40-foot boat for what a full kit like mine cost.

Alternatives

In short, there is not a lot of point in spending this kind of money unless you are really serious about your photography, particularly with the fine quality point and shoots that are around. Heck, you could do a good job telling the story of your voyage with the camera in most phones these days. I’m blown away by what I get out of our iPhone 4s, and that’s by no means the top of the phone camera heap. In fact, the two shots of the E-M1 were taken with our iPhone.

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This shot was taken with our iPhone 4s by a passing skier. It has had a little help from me and Lightroom, but even so, I’m blown away by the quality.
And yes, we know that being dressed exactly alike is really dorky—you should hear my daughter on the subject. But, you see, we both hate to shop, so when we find something that works, like this Gortex gear from MEC, we simply buy two.
We prefer to think of it as efficient, rather than dorky…OK, efficient and dorky. And anyway, we are wearing different underwear, you will, I’m sure, be glad to hear.

Also, for those of you that want to go up a notch from a point and shoot, but don’t want to blow a wad on the EM-1, the two cameras I mentioned in this post can now be had on clearance, or second-hand on eBay, for a song, and will do a great job for you.

My Lenses

A great camera is nothing with out great lenses, these are the lenses I have settled on:

As you can see, I love great glass and the faster the better. And these lenses are as good or better than Canon’s finest L series glass.

The kit above covers 95% of my needs. I will probably add an ultra-wide zoom, mainly for boat interiors, and a much longer telephoto for wildlife, before we head north again, but that’s it. And I fully expect to be shooting with this kit for years to come, which, after all, is the ultimate economy.

Having said that, on lenses you can save a bundle too, as well as quite a bit of weight and size, by going with slower zooms like this one that I owned for a while and found surprisingly good.

What About APS-C?

Those of you who are into cameras will have noticed a glaring omission in this piece: not a word about single lens reflex cameras that use reduced size sensors (APS-C)—by far the majority of enthusiast cameras sold today, at least in Europe and North America, though mirrorless is king in Japan.

That omission is no accident. For me, APS-C cameras are no longer of interest and, in fact, have not been for some years because, although an APS-C based system is at least twice the weight and size of a mirrorless system, it does not provide any practical increase in image quality. If I’m going to carry a big system I want a big jump in sensor size, otherwise it’s just not worth it. So to me it’s either full-frame or mirrorless; and now, with the E-M1, it’s mirrorless all the way.

I do realize that I just wrote off most of the bigger cameras that you, our readers, own. But before you get mad, please keep in mind that cameras are very individual pieces of kit, so if you like APS-C, that’s fine, each to their own. Also, if your present camera is working for you, there is absolutely no reason to change, as Matt Marsh, AAC Technical Correspondent, who is an APS user, explains here, unless getting a smaller and lighter system is important to you.

More Reading

If you want to learn more about the whole mirrorless thing, and why I think that small cameras are just better than big cameras for travel photography, this post will help.

Comments

Do you have a camera that works well for you while cruising? Please share your experience in the comments.

 * Focal lengths in the text so annotated are 35mm equivalent, double that of these micro 4/3 lenses.
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richard dykiel

Darn John I was waiting for your article but then we snapped for Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200. What attracted me was the 1-lens configuration and the lens is a Leica. Don’t know how the pictures compare with your olympus…. That’ll teach me to be patient….

Dave Benjamin

Another vote for the Panasonic FZ-200….I’ve been very happy with mine and it’s the third Panasonic zoom for me. I really enjoy doing wildlife photography and the FZ-200 has already captured some images that I would have had to have a hugely expensive lens to get with my DSLR.

Erik de Jong

Awesome piece again John!
We are currently in the market for good camera, and this might just be the one. I have been trying to make up my mind for the last 4 or 5 months, but have not been able to do so as of yet.

I will add this one to the list of possible options.

Erik de Jong

That sounds promising and is definitely a big plus!
All the camera’s I’ve worked with so far started to have troubles when temperature drops below -5C to -8C.
The best one that I’ve had for low temperatures was actually a $50 Canon Powershot A350, but that one comes with a lot of other disadvantages.

Erik de Jong

In addition to that, how does this camera handle when wearing gloves?

James B Hallett

Hey – your hats don’t match?? Nice report John.

James

Bill Balme

Dammit John, last year you convinced me to buy a Lumix GX1 – now I’m out of date! 🙁 (Nice report though!)
The one thing I didn’t realize when going with the smaller format is that while the effective focal length is double that of a 35mm, the depth of field is twice that of the 35mm – it’s difficult to blurr out the background when you want to highlight a close up subject – hence I suppose your move towards really fast (and expensive) lenses…
I love the small camera, and I do take it everywhere. I miss a really nice wide angle lens however…

Bill

Francis Livingston

Hi John – I ofter hear and read about people complaining about shallow depth of field – or lack thereof – in still photography – when really the bigger issue is deep depth of field – shallow depth of field can always be done easily in post – (layer mask – soft brush – Gaussian Blur Filter) – plus one has the advantages of big apertures – higher shutter speeds and/or lower ISO’s – working in ones favour while trying to attain it – increasing depth of field beyond what is possible optically – especially with telephoto lenses – can only be done through the technique of Focus Stacking which has no tolerance for camera or subject motion and is somewhat labor intensive as well – both pre and post – as a photographer I find I spend much more time and energy ensuring that everything I want sharp in my photo is sharp – what most see as a weakness is – as far as I am concerned a strength – in still photography – video – not so much.

Matt

But… but… how are you supposed to look professional without a big beige 600mm bazooka of a lens?

Oh. You can get a simple little adapter ring to attach a Micro 4/3 body to an F- or EF-mount optic from the Two Big Guys. And that 600mm monster lens now acts like a 1200mm.

Well, that answers that….

Simon Wirth

Hei John
If you ever get the chance to make a picture of the OMD attached (or even seemingly attached) to a big lense I’d just love to see that.
Would be a hell of a “wtf?!?” factor, and would most certainly gain a place as a screensaver on my work PC!

Great article, thank you, even if I now feel completly out of date!
Regards Simon

Colin Speedie

Hi John

fascinating the way technology has moved on.

I completely agree with your point about leaving the DSLR at home, as we hardly ever use our pro kit now, unless we’re out at sea.

In nearly all of the places we’ve been in the last few years, a big SLR around your neck might just as well be a sandwich board that says ‘mug me’, so we tend to just use our point and shoot cameras.

Of which, I’d like to commend the Canon G16 that Lou has – what a fantastic camera it is.

Best wishes

Colin

Chris Bone

I spend 6 months of the year at sea and currently use the Olympus-TG2, rugged and high spec for something so portable. I take a lot of people pics on our projects, no one likes a big SLR in their face!

Colin Speedie

Hi Chris

I agree – big SLR’s intimidate people, and (at least) makes them wary, resulting in a very different mood than the photographer sought to capture.

I use a little Canon S110, and like your Olympus, it’s perfect for carrying everywhere, and takes great, natural images.

Having the rugged waterproof body of your Olympus is a great advantage though, and next time I change I think I’ll go down that route.

Best wishes

Colin

Chris Bone

Hi Colin, there is only one minor issue. If there are quick temperature changes of the camera the lense has fogged a few times Warming the camera just by holding it usually fixes it in a couple of minutes.

Scott Flanders

Girl camera. Full frame rules.

Ray Verlage

Sold my big Canon 2 years ago for Oly OMD E-M5. No regrets! Image stabilization and water resistance is ideal for bouy racing photography at dusk in evening thermals in MT. Auto focus is fast and never misses. Lenses are amazing. I have 12mm f2, 25mm f1.4, & 60mm f2.8. Waiting for fast long zoom. Just do it!

Enno

Hi John
I got my E-M1 about as long as you and I-m pretty satisfied with it. However I’m not going to sell my D700. I see them more like complementary. They do different things.
– The E-M1 has definitely worse low light performance. ( surprise?)
– The autofocus is not as accurate.
– The battery capacity is insufficient.
– Flash not exactly user friendly.
BUT
– Small and light. My SLR never felt so heavy.
– Splash proof.
– Very good “normal light” performance.
– Image stabilizer.
– Lots of nice to have goodies (like video)
This makes the E.-M1 an almost perfect sailing camera. I prefer the D700 fore landscape photography, if I just got it with me.
Does anybody have experiences just how splashproof the E-M1 is? I would like to rinse it down after contact with saltwater but just don’t dare. Olympus says something like IP02 which is nothing and not very helpful.
Enno

Ed Kelly

John, Absolutely loved your camera review and recommendations! I concur with your advice to always have a camera nearby. Love your recommendation. One bit of advice some of us would like from a photo pro like yourself is if you have found a place with best combination of prices and trustworthy service?

When we were in Gibraltar we found it to be a tax free shoppers bonanza. We went camera upgrading and found one of the Sony NEX models that have the larger sensor and had been raved about by David Pogue when he was with the NY Times. We have loved it more than any camera we ever carried.

We left our boat in London to fly back to get Meds in USA but have been wowed by others shots from the Go Pro cameras …including scuba shots and cruising shots from atop boat poles! We now are thinking of getting one to carry back for totally wet photography. Thanks again for your work, John.
Ed Kelly, wandering the freezing USA off from Angel Louise in London

Enno

Hi John
Time will show how much I am going to use my D700 in time to come. I know of professional photographers that almost entirely switched over to mirrorless, so you might well be right.
Concerning the autofocus: This might also be a user error. I’m very much used to the Nikon autofocus and the OMD’s just does not work exactly the same way.
In my opinion it will be most interesting to see how well the waterproofing works. It seems very difficult to get real information about that.

Marc Dacey

So I guees my Pentax K1000 is right out? I miss Ilford HP5 and that distinctive graniness you could get with some push processing.

Yeah, it’s been some time since I took more than point-and-shoot stuff.

Chris Bone

Hi everyone, I note a few comments in this discussion about upgrading and wonder what happens to all the out of date cameras. OceansWatch is helping people in developing countries by setting up Resource Centres, where folks can go to learn and use shared resources. One of the resources that people would love is digital cameras. These will be kept in the Resource Centre and loaned out to people to take pics of their kids, for the schools or for conservation use. If you have a working digital camera that you would like to donate to a good cause please email me gro.hctawsnaeco@sirhc

Dave

Thanks for the review John. Your point about always having a camera available is one of the most important ones in my opinion. How many times have I left without my D-7100 behind because of the weight/size issue. I want to see and handle one in person, but I suspect like you, a lot of equipment will be listed on eBay shortly!
Dave

Onno ten Brinke

I always think that photography is similar to my other love, playing the guitar. People have different styles and use different gear, but for myself I also have several cameras and set-ups for different applications. Just like I have acoustic, electric, steelstrung, nylonstrung and many more guitars…

Being an enthousiastic wildlife photographer (and filmer as well), I have lots of kit, and I love my Canons and their big lenses. For city photography I always carried a body, good flash unit, and two – three lenses.

But now that we have our first big cruising adventure planned, I was looking for a different solution. First, I’d like something waterproof, as I intend to do shots of the boat under sail and I am looking for new perspectives, and also for snorkeling and such. Second, the gear gets knocked about a bit so something sturdy would be good. Third, I do want to have full photographic control if at all possible. Fourth – optical quality is a factor and changeable lenses would be good. Fifth – it needs to be compact, ready to hand, and fit in your coat pocket if at all possible.

So this week I bought the new Nikon AW1, which matches all of my constraints. It is a waterproof version of the Nikon 1 system cameras. First impressions are very good – it feels very solid and the few test pics I took were good.

Downsides? Well there are only two waterprooflenses available so far, so you are limited from about 30mm – 75mm (equivalent of a 35mm system). Changing your settings is a lot more complicated than on an SLR (although changing shutterspeed/aperture is easy). And obviously the flash is limited. I’m not sure the flash is useable underwater – need to find that out.

I will report back when I’ve spent some time with it over the summer. But I think it’s a pretty nifty thing for about $700 including your main lens.

Oh – and just to make it clear if you are considering this camera:

The 1 system lenses are NOT waterproof! You need the special AW lenses for the 1 system if you are to use it underwater.

Onno

Onno ten Brinke

Oh, and I wanted to say John – what an awesome trip you have planned for September!! If we were not already planning to cruise Sardinia, I’d be on it like a shot! Do you have any plans for a repeat next year?

Eric Schlesinger

Dear AA,
I would like to suggest the Pentax k 30/50 as a much cheaper alternative to the Olympus. It is weatherproof, with weatherproof lenses. An APC size body, good 16 mp sensor, a great penta prism view finder, twin control dials, and small body for APC. I got two lenses, 18-55, & 55-300, and camera for
$900. Very pleased with it after 4 months and 2000 photos.
Cheers, Eric

Derek Mitchell

Ciao John….
Interesting article – I do a lot of traveling in my retirement years, although regretfully not under sail these days.
I appreciated your comment – “fits in two small bags like the one at the top of the post, instead of filling most of a quarter-berth, like my old full frame kit did.” I used to cary around the equivalent of not 2 bricks but a concrete block: 2 Nikon bodies, assorted lenses, a tripod (with shoulder strap!) and for those B&W shots – a YashicaMat 2 1/4.
Older and wiser… (and frankly having taken note of your earlier post about bulky reflex cameras!) now I pack a single Lumix FZ150. This camera has no doubt been replace by yet another model, but regardless the points remain. Why Lumix? Because they make quality lenses (and cameras) under license by Leica, and with a 24X zoom (25-600mm) and @ f2.8 with thru the lens viewing that is very hard to beat. One camera, no extra lenses. (Forget the “fits in two small bags bit …!”). And for those hard to get, hand held, 600mm zoom night shots the ‘candle light’ mode is quite extraordinary. If you want a camera that fits in your pocket Lumix will do that too – just bought one for my wife – although without through the lens viewing and fully articulated screen. (And if you really want the ‘Leica’ name instead of ‘Lumix’ you can purchase the same camera with a ‘Leica’ nameplate about double the price!) To be sure, my old favourite Nikon and others now have similar offerings (some with 1000mm+ lenses!) but for me the FZ150 has been great – and so easy to pack for flying, the car or for cruising. Bottom line is – if you are looking for a new camera – do the reviews, and look beyond the bulky, big name reflex / interchangeable lens offerings – the only space/weight they will save is in your wallet!

John

If you could only buy one lense for this camera, which one would it be?

Steven Schapera

John thanks for the excellent advice. I have recently moved across to the Fuji X Pro 1 and it is as if I have rediscovered photography. Gone with all the heavy Nikon gear aquired over 30 years. I am excited to try the new Fuji XT 1, which is also water and freeze resistant, and must wait a year or so for the new water resistant lenses that will follow – I love the Fuji glass and the way the company supports its customers with firmware updates.

Gino Del Guercio

Dear John,
I’m a professional filmmaker and agree with your assessment. One vital point you neglected to mention (or maybe I just missed it) is the format of this camera. This is understandable because Olympus buries it in their website. This is the fairly new Micro four-thirds format. The reason this is important is because there are several other equally capable cameras that use this format that your readers might also consider. I personally own a Panasonic GH3. It’s less expansive than the Olympus and in my opinion, just as good. The GH3 is known as an outstanding video camera, and the new GH4 shoots 4K video, which until recently required a $100,000 video camera to shoot. Technology is certainly changing quickly. By the way, if you want to see a really cool lens in this format check out the Voightlander 25. It’s maximum aperture is .95, which is incredible. You can take pictures with just the light of a single match.

Jim G

Hi John,
Considering the EM 1 with the M. Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 pro and either the M. Zuiko 17mm f/1.8 or the Panny LUMIX G. 20mm f/1.7 that you list above. Are you happy with the 20mm lens and what made you choose it over the 17mm Olympus? Also, any other updates/thoughts on your overall system? Thanks .
Jim

Jim G

thanks John,
May just start with the zoom and shoot with it for a while and see what I’m missing. Appreciate the help, happy you still love the EM 1.

Roland

I do agree that the EM1 and the 12x40Pro lens is quite a very good combo.

Another lens that offers excellent perfomance is the Sigma 60/2.8. It is redicolus cheap and is razor Sharp.

Francis Livingston

Hi John – a fascinating thread which I have now read several times – for the past 7 years I have worked as an instructor for Henry’s School of Imaging – (aka Learning Lab) – during that time I watched the mirrorless catagory arrive and prosper – I agree that the Olympus OM-D system is top of the heap – (though the Fuji X system comes a close second and deserves a look) – as you have mentioned – Olympus’ image stabilization system has to be seen to be believed – the one weakness of the OM-D is their menu system which is way too much of a good thing – you mentioned earlier that you – an experienced pro – spend several evenings figuring menus settings out – pity the novice who doesn’t yet know what questions to ask much less what settings to choose.

I am hanging on to my full frame cameras and lenses because I am marketing big prints and that is about the only reason to do so – that – and the cardiovascular workout I get everytime I cart the stuff around.

Speaking of – when it comes to carting gear around I am a big fan of backpack style camera bags – I find that 10 to 15 pounds is all I can tolerate in a shoulder bag before things like necks and shoulders start hurting.

Another option – little discussed – for those who already have an APS-C sized sensor cameras and are not ready to toss them out are the so-called super zooms – when I finally made the transition into DSLR cameras – from film – the first lense I purchased was an 18-200 zoom – I didn’t have particularly high expectations for it but have been amazed – on more then one occasion – by just how good the results have been – to this day – if I just want to wander around with a camera on my shoulder – the D300 with the 18-200 is it.

Thanks for the great website – I feel truly fortunate to have discovered it

Greg Silver

I didn’t expect to see a camera review or photo tips when I signed on to this website. But I’m happy to respond to the camera thing. I am shooting now with an Olympus PEN PL1 that I’ve been happy to use for a few years – it’s the first serious digital camera I’ve purchased, the rest have been, frankly, novelties (although my iPhone 7 is friggin’ amazing). I got attached to Olympus when I studied photography (and other things) at NSCAD in the early 1970’s. I invested in an OM1 system as a student (against the grain with the 35mm Pentax and Nikon crowd) because this was a fully featured lightweight camera with incredible optics – and I stuck with it into my graphic design career, investing in more lenses and eventually an OM10 body too. I bought the digital Olympus Pen 40 years later because it would take all my original Zuiko/Olympus/Leica lenses. Olympus continues to make an excellent camera, with a very portable, durable and lightweight body and now with an interface that makes casual snaps possible with high quality optics and some interesting programming features. There are a number of technical innovations with their patent sensor technology – and it is all consistent with my original infatuation in regards to the very compact Olympus package. The downside with my particular Olympus PEN body is that it won’t take a humungous telephoto lens, but it is certainly good enough for about 99% of what I want it for, including a bit of video, in camera editing, and superior optics. Thanks for this article John.