The Rashomon Effect and My Small-Camera Choice

Published June 10, 2012

Monty Python’s Quest for the Small Camera Grail

Way back in the day, when the first mirrorless cameras were released, I was on them like white on rice. I desperately wanted to love, well, any of them: The Sigma DP-1, Panasonic G1, Olympus E-P1, Leica X-1, and more all passed through my hands. Many people loved having a small camera that delivered high image quality. I loved that idea, too, but I didn’t love those first cameras because of what they couldn’t do. They couldn’t shoot high ISO. There weren’t many lenses. Autofocus times reminded me of loading pages on dial-up internet connections. But I at the time (way back in 2009) that I thought this was the future of consumer imaging. I predicted that by their third generation, mirrorless cameras would eventually take over the intro-level SLR slot.

Two full years has passed. Second-generation technology and many more lenses were released. And this year a LOT of new, smaller cameras came out. Many were now third generation for their companies. Others were from new companies with new ideas. So I paid a lot more attention as the cameras rolled out this time. I even influenced the-keeper-of-the-purse to buy into several new smaller camera lines. (Which largely consisted of me promising that these would be different than all those X-1, X-100, and DP-1 bodies that never rented).

This time, I was going to have a lot of options to choose from. And this wasn’t just me forming an opinion for Lensrentals; it was time for me to buy a new personal camera. Like every other Lensrentals employee I can take equipment home when it’s available. But in the summer months, what I want often isn’t available when I want it. Last week Tim and I were circling a single Olympus OM-D E-M5 like a couple of buzzards looking at fresh roadkill. Tim played the “I have to write the take on it so I need to have it this weekend” card. Four other people were drawing straws for the only Canon 70-200 f/2.8 left on the shelf. So I planned on two purchases this summer: a new SLR (next blog post for that) and a new small camera.

With that in mind, as every new small camera has been released I’ve tested it, taken it home for a weekend’s shooting, in some cases even taken it apart, or Imatested the available lenses for it. I was going to decide which small camera was The Best and tell you all about why this was so. But the more I tested the current systems, the more I decided I wouldn’t have anything to tell anyone about which mirrorless camera THEY should get. The more I looked into these cameras, the more I concluded that the Rashomon Effect was going to be far more important than any tables and lists I could make about camera features and flaws.

The Rashomon Effect

The Rashomon Effect is named from a superb 1950’s movie in which 4 characters all witness the same event, yet each has very different, but equally plausible, opinions about what happened. The phenomenon is very real and studied in fields such as psychology and criminology. There are a lot of reasons why people have such different opinions when given the same facts. Most of the difference is because the observers are different – they have varied backgrounds, knowledge, and expectations.

I’ll give you an example. When asked what the best restaurant in my area is, I have an immediate answer, there’s one that I simply love and we go there every week. The food is good, the service is quick, and it’s casual enough that we don’t need to get dressed up. I told some of my friends about it and their opinions were totally different. My first friend said he liked the food and service, but it was really overpriced for a casual place. The second thought the food was average at best and he wouldn’t go back. The third took a date there and thought it was rushed and crowded.

Now if restaurant discussions were online photography forums, the four of us would have a 90-post thread where each of us called the other three idiots who didn’t have any eating skills. But since we are real people having real discussions, it quickly became apparent why we had such different opinions. I generally eat breakfast and lunch at my desk, and won’t go out to dinner if it’s going to take more than an hour because I do my writing after work and on weekends. I hate to dress up for any occasion, and when we do go out we have a 10 year old to entertain and despite an iPad and GameBoy he’s not going to sit through a 4 course meal. My favorite restaurant’s fast service and casual atmosphere were all great things, and the food was superb when compared to my usual Pizza Hut cuisine.

But my first friend is just starting a family. Money is tight and when he and his wife get to go out, it’s a big deal involving a baby sitter. Pricey, quick, and casual just doesn’t make it for him for their rare date night. My second friend is a gourmet and eats out at least 3 or 4 nights a week. What is great food to me was boring and plain to him. For my third friend, the lack of ambiance was a killer – his priorities were about the eventual outcome of his date, not about getting good food quickly.

Just as the Rashomon Effect made my opinion about restaurants completely different from theirs, it was probably going to make my opinion about small cameras completely different from yours. So instead of telling you which small camera is The Best, I’ll just tell you about my own decision making process in choosing the one that was right for me. The truth is most of the current mirrorless cameras are really quite good, though, and what was right for me may well not be the best choice for you.

What I Wanted in a Small Camera

On my small camera wish list I have four absolute priorities. Small is my first priority (my definition of small is “fit’s in my wife’s purse”). It also must absolutely have a viewfinder. I live in the South; the sun can glare out any LCD screen made, leaving me shooting blind if there’s no viewfinder. My third priority is it must have a range of available focal lengths. I loved the Fuji X100, but over time realized I couldn’t stand having only one focal length available. My final absolute priority has to do with my inability to focus a rangefinder camera. Because I have eye problems, I just can’t do it.

My absolute criteria, then, ruled out the Leica M9 and X-2, Fuji X100, Panasonic GF-3, Sigma DP-2x, and Nikon J1. The Fuji X-Pro 1, Panasonic GH-2, and Canon G1X weren’t completely ruled out, but all where a bit bigger than I hoped for, so they certainly had a strike against them. The G1X does have a viewfinder, but it’s awful so I ruled it out because of its combination of large size and bad viewfinder. All of the above are pretty good cameras. They just don’t fit my particular requirements.

Next it was time to move on to my preferences. My strongest preference was a good autofocus system with native-mount, autofocus lenses. At the same time, I would like to shoot some manual focus lenses M mount lenses on an adapter if the camera had an excellent MF assist system. (I preferred a peaking filter like the Sony NEX cameras, but would consider a good focus magnification system on a clear, high-resolution EFV.) While not absolute rule-outs, this criterion dropped the Fuji X Pro-1 on my list. (I realize there’s a rule that every camera product made from 2010 forward has to have an X in the name, but I’m not sure of the wisdom of naming a mirrorless camera “ex-pro”. Is that who they expect to shoot it? Old photographers who used to be pros?)

You’re probably screaming “what about image quality?” about now. That’s one area where the Rashomon Effect is probably going to differentiate me from most people. I know that 95% of the time the images from my small camera go nowhere other than online jpgs or my wife’s Facebook page. When I do print, though, I print large (16″ x 20″ and up). The sensors in the Sony NEX, Fuji X-1 Pro, Samsung NX20, and the 16-megapixel m4/3 cameras could certainly make 16″ x 20″ prints at near 300 DPI. There was certainly some question as to whether the lenses you put in front of all of those resolved well enough to make that print as sharp as I would like, which is part of my motivation for testing Micro 4/3 and Sony E mount lenses lately. So I felt image quality would be more about the lenses than the bodies.

There was an easy winner to the lens part of my selection process: the micro 4/3 group has by far the best selection of good lenses in native mount. It’s not close. There are finally some good E mount prime lenses, but Panasonic has countered that by announcing f/2.8 fixed-aperture zooms.  Both NEX and m4/3 offer me the option of shooting Leica, Zeiss, and Voigtlander M mount lenses on adapters, which is a nice plus for me. Sony’s peaking filter makes manual focus a dream, but the NEX 7 has issues with some of the wide-angle lenses, which complicates things a bit.

One other part, though, was a problem. I shoot medium telephoto images – 35mm equivalent of 150-300mm. That range is a huge weakness for all mirrorless systems right now. I know some of you will disagree with my assessment of m4/3 and Sony telephoto lenses. Which brings us back to the Rashomon Effect. In this case, maybe I’m the gourmet diner who finds the food just not good enough. I’ve shot with excellent telephoto lenses and to me Panasonic 100-300, Olympus 75-300, Sony 18-200 and 55-210, etc. are just barely adequate. And no, I have no desire to put a 3-pound lens on an adapter and attach it to my pocket camera. If I’m going to take a big lens with me, then I might as well take a big-boy camera, too.

What I Decided

First and foremost, I decided I’d been wrong two years ago when I said, “the third generation of mirrorless cameras will largely replace starter SLRs”. We’re close, and I still believe this to be inevitable, but not quite there yet. Largely that’s because the lens selection isn’t quite there yet, even though it’s getting better quickly. I still feel the takeover is inevitable, though.

Early in my decision making process I ruled out a couple of cameras. I really liked the Fuji X-Pro, its lenses, and its roadmap. But the AF system isn’t what I hoped for, and it looks like it may be the X-Pro II before that gets fixed. Given its higher price, the X-Pro would have to be better than the competition for me to consider it. It isn’t, so I didn’t and the X-Pro was eliminated.  Everything I’ve read about the Pentax K-01 says it’s excellent, too, but we don’t stock Pentax so I didn’t try it either.

I was very impressed with the Samsung NX20. I expect everyone will steal their integrated Wi-Fi setup. It’s the first one I’ve ever been able to use consistently. Samsung has a decent lens selection and a large, 20 Mpix sensor that is quite good. Finally, it has a really good EVF and a high quality LCD. The more I use this little guy the more I like it. The biggest hold off, for me, is the lack of high quality adapters for Leica lenses (only a matter of time, I know, but I’m impatient). That would be an issue for very few people, though, and this camera probably deserves more consideration than it generally gets.

Of the Micro 4/3 cameras, the Olympus OM-D was my favorite. It’s full featured, the autofocus is amazing fast and accurate, it fit’s my hands comfortably, and just does everything efficiently and well. I will add, though, if I shot video, I may have gone with the Panasonic GH-2, even though it’s larger size was not appealing to me. Finally, if money were the primary consideration, I’d say the Panasonic G3 is an amazing bargain for $500.

Of the NEX cameras, whether I went with the NEX 7 or the NEX 5n would have been a coin flip. Cost (when you add the EVF to the 5n) is similar. I always likes me some extra megapixels, but there a lot of reports suggest that the 5n actually does some things better than the 7. The tilting LCD screen is a real positive to me, too.

I’d really prefer the APS-C sensor size, all other things being equal, and I love the peaking filter, but in the end I chose the Olympus OM-D over the Sony NEX. The images are still good enough to make a large print, and when I want to play narrow-depth-of-field I’ll be shooting an SLR. Despite no peaking filer, I found both the viewfinder and LCD on the Olympus let me manually focus with good accuracy. I really liked the camera, but not for any “it’s clearly better” reasons. I just found it intuitive and easy to use.

The biggest reason for my choice, though, is one that I suspect will apply to very few people other than me (and therefore my choice will be a good example of the Rashomon Effect). I discovered that I could get really good telephoto images on either the m4/3 or NEX systems by shooting Leica 90mm f/2.8 and 135mm f/3.4 Telyt lenses. The images were far better than I could get with any of the native-mount telephoto lenses and the lenses themselves are quite small, which is important to me when working with a small camera. The Olympus provides in-camera image stabilization with these lenses, allowing me to shoot them hand-held even if the light isn’t great. That was one of the major reasons for my choice.


Leica 90mm on Olympus OM-D


So for me, the choice of which mirrorless camera ended up being quite simple. If someone else had done all of the same evaluations that I did, they probably would have made a different choice. We all have different shooting styles and different priorities. If I didn’t shoot telephoto, if I had a single favorite focal length that I did most of my shooting at, if I was moving up from a point and shoot rather than down from an SLR, any of several other cameras would have met my needs.

Roger Cicala


June, 2012

Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Lensrentals.com. Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

Posted in Equipment
  • Arthur Meursault

    I miss intelligent writing with references to Kurosawa films. Where is Roger and what did you do to him?

  • ELK

    John H:
    Excellent comment for this perfect article!

  • RE: Greg’s question on the Lumix 20/1.7 autofocus – Sometimes the problem with blogs/reviews is that everyone comments on the same differences between lenses. Yes it has slower AF than other native m4/3 lenses like the Lumix 14/2.5 or PL 25/1.4 but it’s still more than acceptable for many situations. I would suggest trying it out for yourself before giving up on it – great IQ in a small package, and holds its value on the used market if you decide to sell.

  • Greg

    Oh, and that’s MZ 9-18, not MA 9-18.

  • Greg

    I am very interested in buying the Lumix 20mm 1.7 with the OM-D for street photography, but mostly because of the high MTF and lower profile (more discreet), but not because of the “fast lens.” Mostly, I am having some concerns with blog comments about this lens having a slow AF, and therefore not well suited to street photography (in addition to banding at high ISO and sometimes hanging up the camera). Please note, I used to do a lot of “old-school” street photography using OM1/OM2 w 35mm F2.0 and 24mm F2.0 lenses, with the only reason for the fast lenses being that they allowed for a brighter viewfinder image and therefore more critical focusing. I never shot the images “wide open”, preferring instead to use F4.0/F5.6 to maintain best optics and better resultant images. Maybe it’s me, and tell me if I am wrong, what with my previously being a master optician in the precision optics trade and having an MA in Art/Photography, but also just now getting into digital photography, isn’t much of all this talk about “fast lenses” and “bokeh” just a little obsessive, with most all images having still having the best quality at at F4.0/F5.6/F8.0, even in low light? I mean, really, if you want “bokeh”, then dude, use a longer focal length! And if it’s about the optics, then go for the giant lenses that cost an arm and a leg. I assure you, those giant lenses rarely perform better than their slower counterparts stopped down to F4.0. Of course, then there is the cost, not because the lens is technically better, but because demand is lower and therefore the manufacturer has to sell them at a higher price. OK, so I am making some assumptions here, that now that there are digital viewfinders and AF, that the previous “old-school” need for fast lenses, re manual focusing/composition, are less necessary (as long a “bokeh” isn’t important). So, enough of my rattle, and down to why I am hesitant. I actually did purchase both the MA 9-18 and the MZ 12-50 because they have very good characteristics as to my minimum requirements re “F Stop needs”. The reviews for these lenses appeared as though they would llkely be “Good” at the equivalent 20mm focal length, and supposedly the AF on both are FAST. However, it appears their optics can’t hold a candle to the MTF on the Lumix 20mm 1.7. So back to my hesitance to buy the Lumix 20 1.7 lens. Is it really all that slow in AF? And what about the other problems, re “hanging up” and “banding at high ISOs”? Sorry about the long-winded explanation. Your comments as to all the above, especially about the AF will be greatly appreciated. Of course, if you would like to make comments about the Lumix 14mm F2.5 I would appreciate them as well.

  • Andy

    My rental OM-D EM-5 arrived today. I’m too old to be screaming “OMG,” but oh my God, what a camera. I’ve taken several shots with the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 prime. This thing is amazing. It may replace my Nikon D7000. I’d have rented the 12-35mm too, but I gather from Roger’s blog that he’s still glued to it.

  • Roger Cicala

    I’ve never tried the fisheye conversion, but I really do like the two pancake primes you mentioned. They’re both excellent. And the 9-18 is really quite good, but personally I want more aperture.

  • Greg

    Sorry, make that the dmw-gwc1, which would take the Panny 20mm 1.7 to a 22mm. More moderate, less “fun-house”

  • Greg

    Thanks Roger,

    Unfortunately, I am not sure I can afford the price tag for the 12 to 35, nor am I inclined toward a “heavy lens” I travel a lot for my work and want to keep things compact. Any other suggestions? I might just pop for a couple of primes, the Panny 14mm 2.5 and 20mm 1.7. Also, I am not usually inclined to buy conversion lenses, but as I am looking for portability, any thoughts about the DMC GFX-1 fisheye conversion lens for the 14mm 2.5?

  • Roger Cicala

    HI Greg,

    Well, check out my latest post: I ended up with the Panasonic 12-35 f/2.8 as my standard range zoom. I really do like the 9-18 and take it out a lot, despite it’s being so aperture impaired. The Panasonic 7-14 is my preference at the wide end, it’s excellent, although a bit bulky.


  • Greg

    I very much appreciate your approach, because I am doing the same right now. Pretty much settled on the OMD, due to the technology and form factor, and well, I used to be a die-hard OM user. Oh, and I still have lot’s of OM equipment. My research tells me my Zuiko 50mm Macro f3.5,100mm f2.8, 200mm F4, 35mm Shift, and even the 75~150 F4 will work great. I even have the OM 2x Multiplier, OM extension tubes, OM bellows/dual cable release, about 5 T30 flashes (which can only be used in manual mode now, and a Tamron 90mm F2.5. However, my research has also told me that my beautiful Zuiko 24mm F2 and 35 F2 lenses will not work, which leaves me with a “gap” on the wide/standard range. Here’s the question . . . what did you do as to a moderate wide-to-tele zoom? How about wide angle lenses? Olympus seems to have produced only average “kit” lenses here, or extremely expensive fixed lenses? Did you go with with M. Zuiko 20-50 kit lens? I have heard it is a “moderate” performer, but really needs a good lens shade, which means I need to trade off the compactness for this lens. Also, is the 9~18mm M.Zuiko any good, or do I have to look to the 9-18 standard 4/3 version, or something else? I look forward to your reply.

  • Hello,
    I really enjoyed reading your piece and particularly appreciate the fact that you do not impose your opinion on everybody! I find this kind of “review” much more interesting than attempts to convince people of the superiority of one camera system versus the other.

  • Jon

    Really the “Effect”
    would be if you had all been at the same dinner and remembered the beginning, middle and end differently. Anyway I am a Sony NEX-7 fan.

  • Mark

    My approach was similar to yours, although in some cases I was less rational about which models to cut from the list due to my inability to try each one hands-on and thus having to decide with perceived pros / cons.

    The biggest difference is that my ‘small camera choice’ was actually part of the decision to replace my main camera instead of complementing it. Because I carry my camera everywhere, something smaller / lighter that doesn’t actually sacrifice IQ and (many) features appealed to me.

    While at no point a ‘normal’ dSLR was out of the question, I did finally settle for the Sony NEX-7. It has the image quality and the external controls I want. And the cool part, in my opinion, is that I can use it either as a very small camera or as a dSLR-sized camera, with ‘big boy lenses’ and the PDAF Sony adapter, whenever I want.

    But that is just me. 🙂

  • Damian

    Love my fujifilm natura black f1.9. It has everything you’re looking for except for the variable length lens.

  • John H

    Just think — if every so-called “serious” / enthusiast photographer in the market for a camera could approach the issue in as methodical and reasonable way as RC has done here there’d be soooo fewer fanboys and forum trolls online. You know the ones — the “I just sold my D3S to buy this Olympus m4/3rds because I needed a smaller camera to take high-ISO pictures of my kid sleeping for my Facebook page, but I’m pretty disappointed in how the Olympus is for birding photography in the rain. Think I will make the switch to Canon…”.

    The only shame is that you can’t deport these people to a place where there is no Internet access.

    Thanks for what is by all accounts a template for how to buy a camera.

  • Roger Cicala

    Hi Alek,

    I have what is called “a medial field cut” which basically means when I focus both eyes on something close to me my eyes have to turn inwards more than usual and I get double vision. Glasses take care of things 99% of the time. But, the fact that I’m sort of used to seeing double when looking closeup apparently has my brain trained to not be very accurate when lining up two images in a rangefinder – close to overlapping apparently looks the same as perfectly overlapping to me.

  • Roger Cicala

    Thank you, Jose. I should have checked into that. I did shoot it almost entirely with the pancake and was really impressed. The only other thing I’ve had to play with is the 18-55 kit lens, but I think I’d prefer the 20-55 because of the size. I have heard the 85 prime is spectacular, but I haven’t had the pleasure yet.

  • Jose

    Hi roger,
    as always, nice article. I just want to dissapoint you (sorry for that), because it is not really possible to mount Leica M lenses in the Samsung NX line. The flage distance does not allow for an adapter. You can mount m39 lenses tough. And there is a mount replacement for the NX cameras that allows you to use M lenses, but then you cannot use the native ones…
    Anyway, di you test the NX20 with the 30mm pancake? If not, please try it. it is amazing! and very cheap.

  • fiatlux

    Had similar requirements and came to a similar conclusion as you. I ended up buying a G3 kit at a bargain price as I could not really justify the expense of an E-M5 (this will be my third system, next to Nikon FX and Leica M…).

    I’m looking forward to swapping the standard 14-42 kit lens for an X version to make the G3 “pocketable”. I’ll miss the zoom ring but that’s the only way to make the kit fit in a coat pocket or replace my wife’s Coolpix 8400 in her camera bag. In the mean time, I’ll get the 14 and 20mm primes.

  • Benjamin Anderson

    I’ve decided the Olympus OM-D E-M5 is going to my pocket camera as well, the ability to get adapters for newer any other system out there makes it an awesome option. I’ve used the EF adapter to shoot with my Canon lenses, and the 85mm f/1.8 and the 135mm f/2, while being significantly bigger than the Leica M mount lenses, have produced some awesome shots with the glass I already have.

  • Nilesh

    Roger..very very relevant to me…I have almost exact same criteria. I have come to conclusion that Sony NEX 5n/7 would be it against OM-D because, crop factor and what it does to your lenses. I am 5DII and Zeiss person and manual focus does not bother me. One thing stops me though…arrival of NEX 5F (july?) and I am in not much rush as my canon system is more than I can do with it.

  • Jay Frew

    That was a good read Roger.

    “Way back in the day, when the first mirrorless cameras were released…” LOL.

    “Digital Camera Years”, like “Dog Years”, must run about 7/1 eh ;~)).

    Whenever I see a review of a small camera system, what usually stands-out for me is the long list of compromises the reviewer considers/accepts in the name of (a little) weight and volume savings (compared to a “regular” DSLR).

    In real-world use, a bag will be required for the OM-D, couple of Leica tele lenses and a few other equipment necessities.

    I count you amongst the blessed if your wife will let you put all that in her purse. I am certainly not in that demographic. If, by some miracle, my wife consented to such abuse of her purse, I would be the one carrying the thing ;~))

    I figure, if I need to carry a bag anyway…I may as well just suck-it-up, carry a few extra pounds (oh…booh hooh :~)), save a couple of Gs $$, and bring my trusty DSLR kit along as usual.

    That image of the rabbit is hare-sharp. Have fun with your new kit.

    Cheers! Jay

  • Great article.

    Through a similar reasoning (but with more emphasis on video), and thanks to your imatest numbers, I ended up buying a NEX-5N, to which I’ll adapt my vintage Leitz primes, plus a couple of cheap Sigma primes with AF (20mm f/2.8 and 30mm f/2.8).

  • If you don’t mind me asking Roger, you said “Because I have eye problems” … would be curious what the issue is. I was very surprised to read that because you do some amazing work in a “visual” field.

    P.S. Loved the baby rabbit picture. There has been an explosion of them in our neighborhood this year – I suspect somewhat correlated with the fact that we’ve seen very few foxes/coyotes – suspect that cycle will swing back next year.

  • Roger Cicala

    Hey Mac, it’s called Rain. The funny thing is several people who work here guessed what restaurant it was just by the varied opinions about it.

  • Mac

    Nice article, Roger, but you left out the most important detail: What’s the name of your favorite restaurant?

  • Neil

    Came to the same conclusion myself and acquired an OM-D for use with my Zeiss C Sonnar 50mm f1.5, Sonnar 85mm f2 and my Leica Tele-Elmar-M 135mm f4. The magnification in the OM-D’s viewfinder makes critical focusing really easy and the image quality is great as you might expect.

  • Alan

    For me, adapting lenses to the Micro Four Thirds format isn’t as practical for two reasons: No Peaking, and the 2x Crop Factor. It lends itself to small telephotos, but if you want anything in the normal or wide range, it’s gonna be slow. To me, the strength in the Micro Four Thirds system is in it’s native glass, and the NEX system is in it’s sensor size.

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