By Chad Wadsworth
Let me start with an admission - I am obsessed with the combination of small camera size, high quality and low price. I have a feeling that I am not alone as witnessed by the NEX, Panasonic GF3 and the smaller Olympus E-P models. In-fact, the Olympus E-PL3 samples heavily from the NEX formula with a compact size, tilt LCD and minimal physical controls. The trend is clearly towards higher image quality in a smaller package. But which of these new packages gives the best image quality for the lowest cost? I’m not sure if I can answer that question but have discovered one low cost combo that has surprisingly dished out more fun per dollar than should be allowed.
When the Sony NEX system launched it set a new standard for a large sensor, small camera body with interchangeable lenses - but some seasoned photographers initially stayed away due to controls that catered to the novice and a poor selection of auto focus system lenses. Personally, the NEX wasn’t even on my radar. But after a firmware update vastly improved access to exposure controls and a respected friend raved about how great it was to view and focus on the gorgeous Sony LCD, similar to how one would use a classic film Twin Lens Reflex camera at waist level, I bit.
While suffering the interminable wait of the X100 launch, I decided to give the NEX a try and purchased a NEX 3 (body only) on eBay for $300. A friend let me borrow an M adapter so that I could use the Voigtlander and Minolta Rokkor lenses I already own. The results were, to my eye, amazing for such a small combination and this quickly became my go to setup for fun, casual shooting.
But when factoring in the original cost of the lenses, the combination was still too much money for my ultimate goal of best bang for the buck – not everyone has a stash of legacy glass so I was looking for a low cost auto focus lens or manual focus lens and adapter that was commercially available to anyone. Then, I spotted the SLR Magic 35mm 1.7 C mount lens on various forums, and for $43 on eBay, hit the “Buy It Now” button on what appeared to be an SLR Magic knockoff called “Fotasy”.
When the lens (with included adapter) arrived I had rock bottom expectations. I knew what I was getting into – the equivalent of a digital Holga with mushy edges and heavy vignetting for that dreamy toy camera look that lately can be found in some in-camera presets or as a filter in editing software. What I ended up seeing in the initial images was certainly some of what I expected but also a pleasant surprise at the center sharpness and overall signature of the lens. Out of camera, the lens renders a scene that looks better than any of those “Toy Camera” effects that the software solutions provide. Stopped down, the vignetting becomes less extreme and the lens takes on a wholly different character. It is not a look for everyone but for me offers the extreme low-cost, large sensor, small camera trinity.
For someone on a tight budget, the results you can pull out of this $343 combination are truly remarkable as long as you concede that the lens has its faults and make no excuses for them. There is something liberating about shooting with this budget setup – I’m not worried about bumping or scratching the components and it is small enough to go just about anywhere – including (carefully) in the water at beaches and lakes. I’ve even taken the NEX, alongside my 5D 35mm L kit, into the photo pit during a recent concert at the new Austin City Limits Live venue and due to the fun factor, ended up using the NEX exclusively.
Focusing is something you have to work at but after just a bit of practice I am finding it easy, enjoyable even, to focus manually at waist level. I also find that subjects tend to ignore you much more if you work in this manner as opposed to raising the camera to eye level, resulting in the opportunity to capture great candids.
And if you are a novice or have poor eyesight and are wary of manual focusing on an LCD screen, especially in daylight, Sony might have the solution for you. As of Firmware v4, a new feature called Peaking has been added to the camera functionality. Peaking has been around for quite a while but it has been used traditionally for focusing on video cameras. Sony has applied this technology to still shots with good results. Basically, the camera will display a thin colored or white outline to any subject that it determines through contrast detection to be in focus. It works well when lenses are stopped down to f/4 or higher, allowing you to very quickly achieve accurate focus. For wider apertures, the feature is hit or miss but it will also work in the zoomed MF assist mode, where it is usually right on.
Beyond the Peaking feature, the experience of simply composing and focusing on the amazing Sony LCD screen is something that needs to be mentioned. With the tilt screen, the shooter has the ability to hold the camera close to their body at waist level in a very stable position while viewing what is essentially comparable to a traditional ground glass viewfinder on a medium format camera. There is something special about viewing a scene on a large, bright screen and the NEX LCD is one of the best on the market. On the ‘Sunny” setting, it is bright enough to use at the beach and it can even be configured to view in B/W (with Peaking enabled, this combination makes for a high contrast, easy to focus solution). Furthermore, shoot in RAW and gain the ability to view in B/W on the LCD but edit in color.
No doubt that this setup is not the end all in the quest for small camera/high IQ/low cost, but for now, it has won a spot near the top of my camera bag and I highly recommend it to anyone who is either looking for a low cost solution or who would like to take a step back from pixel peeping and enjoy a care free, creative shooting experience.
Chad Wadsworth is a photographer based in Austin,TX. His live music and band portraiture has been published in SPIN Magazine, Rolling Stone and Blender. He also shoots editorial work for various Texas and national monthlies. You can get a sneak peak at his soon to be published new website at Chad Wadsworth or at Show Performance Photography. -Amin
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