Saturday, June 28, 2008

My digital eyes (Pt 1)

In 2001, I paid RM 2300 (USD 600) for one of my first lessons on digital cameras and photography.

That lesson came in the form of the Minolta DiMAGE 304 (D304) digital camera. Again, as with my Olympus iS-100 (see previous post), this hasty purchase was also prompted by an urgent need for a camera. And what was the lesson I learnt?

Read the reviews, do your research first, before plonking your hard-earned cash into anything, dummy!

See, being a techfan and all, I was into specifications. If it says so in the brochures, it ought to be alright... right? Sadly, no.

Don't get me wrong. In its own right, the D304 is a very decent camera. A very capable lens, 3 megapixels, 4x optical zoom, solidly built aluminum body, surprising number of controls for both manual and automatic modes, and, for that price, images that leave one little to complain about. It also had a nice girth in the hands, lending you good stability.

So with so many nice things about the camera, exactly what is it that I'm moaning about then, you ask? Lets put it this way -- where its if battery consumption were likened to petrol efficiency in a car, this guy would put the Hummer to shame!

The camera came with a complementary set of 4 AA alkalines. Out of the box, the fresh AAs lasted me a good NINE (count 'em: 9) shots!!

Fortunately, I had also bought a set of rechargeable 1600mAh NiMH batteries. These guys took a painful 16 hours to charge. And they lasted how long in the camera? 30 - 40 shots (about 1hr plus)! I promptly ran out to buy an 1800 mAh, and eventually, a 2000 mAh set.

Not long after, I was happily on my way to Beijing, armed with these 3 fully-charged sets of batteries -- and with no charger. These 3 sets got me through 2 days! By the time I got back from the 5d-4n trip, I had used up 8 additional sets of hastily-bought alkalines, and had still lost too many opportunities to snap more pix. Bloody hell!

Much of the rest of the 4-year life of the camera was pretty much this routine: Charge plenty early. Bring the bag of batteries. Snap quickly, minimise preview. Hope the batteries last the outing. It mattered little that I had practically employed all known tricks for maximising the battery life. Sigh.

Oh yeah, and speaking of batteries -- have a thought about how you should be disposing them, ok? Help take care of Mother Earth, thanks!

Anyway, I finally had enough!

So I set out to get myself a new camera, with the following wish list:
  • 5 or 6 megapixels (yep, am embarrassed to admit that I too was then caught up in the megapixel hype without understanding the physics behind it)
  • Slim to the point its pocketable (remember the girth I'd mentioned above? It was getting to me)
  • MUST have decent battery life (CIPA equivalent of 200 or more shots)
  • Fast and responsive (reliable auto-focus especially in low-light conditions, and short lag)
  • Image stabilization, focus assist, a nice clear LCD, and a nice price to boot

After much research and indecision, I finally settled on the Panasonic DMC-FX9. Boy, was I really happy! At RM 1500 (USD 400), the FX9 was quite a bargain that largely met the above criteria, plus, had the added bonus of spotting a Leica-branded lens for extra bragging rights.

Gone were my battery problems. I could just leave the camera in the drawer (I know, I know, its not a good idea to leave the battery in the camera!!) and whip it out for a quick shoot, knowing with much confidence that there would always be enough juice for a few shots even at its weakest!

This is what I loved about the FX9:
  • The pictures are really something -- nice resolution, lively colours, crisp and clear shots
  • It is jacketed in a really smart combo of brushed and polished metal. Lovely, lovely!
  • It shoots fast! Switch it on and you're almost instantly (1-2 secs or so, at most) ready to go
  • 3 words - Mega OIS lens. Gives you a 2-stop advantage that really is helpful in low-light conditions.
  • Simple, responsive and non-fussy interface.
I had rediscovered the fun of just taking snaps with the FX9. Having it so small meant I could bring it with me wherever I went. Perhaps the only complaint in this respect was that its so... dinky... that some times, I missed the nice, reassuring steady weight of an SLR!

Now, almost 3 years and nearly 12,000 pictures later, the FX9 is still very much alive and well. It still takes good pictures, although some dust has managed to get into the lens -- and is now occasionally interfering with the pictures. Its time I sent it to Panasonic for some much-deserved TLC and got it back to a pristine condition.

As happy as I had been with the FX9, the limitations of the 3x optical zoom were starting to be more than just a bother. I was begining to miss the good old days of being able to reach 300mm with my SLR for those tight shots.

Think: shooting from too far away at school concerts and sports days; losing the spontaneity of the subject because you had walked too near; having your subject of interest as a mere spec in the photo.... and you'll understand what I mean.

So that started me looking for something with a couple hundred more MMs of reach in the lens. And that search was a really fun one!

Ps. New to digital photography? Want to catch up on some tech-speak and impress some geeks? Check out this excellent glossary from my favourite camera review site, DP Review.

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