One Man's Quest for a Low Noise Camera

Like many other photographers, I’m on a quest for less noise, particularly in quiet, intimate, low light settings. But it’s not the ISO and the shadows that I’m concerned about, it’s the racket that a camera makes when shooting. You don’t notice that cameras can be loud, attention-drawing things until you get to a situation where discretion is advised and expected. Like a baptism or wedding or some other ceremony. If you take a picture with a loud camera in those situations, be prepared for a bunch of swivelheads to look at you disapprovingly. My style tends towards the looser candid/street/decisive moment, so noise is important to me, and I’ve got strong opinions on the cameras that I’ve used these last couple of years.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall...
Panasonic GH2, Pentax K-x
Panasonic GH1/GH2
Oh what a fantastic video camera you have made, Panasonic. And it takes some really nice stills too with it’s fancy multi-aspect sensor. You’re well-admired by many, myself included, but when I trip the shutter, it sounds like someone dropped a bunch of steak knives onto the floor. Actually, it’s more plasticky than that - 3 plastic clicks (one to close the shutter get out of live view and charge and sensor, one to trip the shutter, and the third to open the shutter again to return to live view) in rapid succession. Oh my, what a loud, Playskool-sounding shutter you have GH2. And you can’t blame the mirror, because you have none. That’s ok, because I’ve been using you mostly for video. For stills, not so much. GH2, it’s not you…it’s not you, it’s….ok, it is you and your crazy-loud shutter.

It's in the bag
Panasonic GF2, in natural habitat
Panasonic GF2
This camera, to be frank, was a disappointment. So small, so svelte, so sexy (especially with the 14mm pancake mounted on it), yet so loud. So freakishly loud. In decibels it’s probably no louder than the GH1 and GH2, but for such a slight thing to make such a racket was disconcerting, like a small dog with a big bark. I heard churchbells whenever I took a shot. It’s such a shame, as this little camera was a lot of fun; small enough to take everywhere, high enough quality to be happy with the results. If only it didn’t sound like Westminster Abbey on a Sunday. You get my drift?

Pentax K-x
Roses are red, violets are blue. Pentax K-xs are red too (some of them at least), and with a mighty swell 12 megapickel Sony sensor that punches way above its weight. But the shutter, oh the shutter. Not plasticky like the GH2, it sounds like an angry pair of scissors opening and closing rapidly. And not just a pair of house scissors with the plastic handles; we’re talking about an oversized pair of all metal scissors, sheers you might say, the kind you might find in an art store. Or butcher shop. The sound is sharp and metallic. I was at an exhibition tennis tournament with the K-x and whenever I rattled off a burst of shots, I swear the line judge looked up in my direction. Ok, that’s a lie, but it’s closer to the truth than you may think.

In many ways, the K-x is typical of DSLR shutters. They’re not loud enough to be heard in a noisy room, but turn down the decibels and they start sticking out like sore thumbs. Now start bunching them together in packs of ten or more and have them ever present in your life and now you know how Lindsay Lohan feels. At least in this regard.

Olympus OM-D EM-5 vs. Pentax K-05 in 3D
Olympus OM-D EM-5, Pentax K-5 (in 3-D)
Pentax K-5
Now we’re getting somewhere. Yes the K-5 is a DSLR, but it’s among (if not the) quietest ones out there. I’ve tripped the shutter a scant three feet away from someone and they didn’t hear a thing. As long as there is some ambient noise, the K-5 is all but silent. The sound is similar to the scissor-like K-x, but it’s a pair of house scissors with the plastic handle inside of a pillow opening and closing rapidly. There’s a metallic taste to it, but also cotton candy.

Live View though is another matter altogether. You compose with the mirror up and shutter open, but when you take a picture the following happens - the mirror drops, the shutter closes, the mirror lifts, the shutter opens, the shutter closes, the mirror drops, a hundred angels sing a chorus, the shutter opens, and then the mirror lifts to put you back in Live View. By my count, that’s about 700 discrete steps to take a single picture and it’s not so quiet anymore. Neither are the lenses that use mechanical screw drive AF.

But when you have a lens with a built-in AF motor and are snapping off a single shot, the K-5 is quite nice. I wouldn’t take a burst sequence in the Library of Congress, but Lindsay Lohan’s life would be so much better if the paparazzi all shot with Pentax K-5s.

Pentax K-01, as taken by it's bigger brother.
Pentax K-01
Pentax K-01
I thought the K-5 was really sweet, and then I got the K-01 and the bar was reset. This thing is quieter still. There’s no mirror to move out of the way and the shutter is bathed in Crisco Oil. You know the sound a baby makes when it farts? It’s nothing like that - I just wanted to make sure you’re still paying attention. But take a K-5, stuff it under a down blanket, and take a photo. That’s the K-01. It’s still got the scissor sound, but these are even smaller scissors, like the “safety” scissors they give to kids, closed and opened more slowly than the K-5. It’s particularly well suited to quieter situations. I was at a play in Manhattan and I wanted to snap some shots of my wife’s friend on stage. With the K-01 on my lap, I manually focused using focus peaking and took pictures. I don’t think the people next to me knew that I was taking photos.

Olympus OM-D
So here I was, all proud of my stealth K-01 (for the record, I DID NOT get it in yellow), and then my brother shows up with the OM-D E-M5. Boy is this thing quiet. Appreciably quieter than the K-01, and night and day when compared to the GH2. In fact, it’s like a GH2, in the next room. The deep black finish and the tilting rear LCD make this a real stealthy option. It is so appealing yet so out of my budget at the moment that I have resorted to calling it names (Pointdexter, pyramid-head, etc…) in order to make myself feel somehow angry at it and make the non-purchase a matter of principle. It’s working. So far.

It's in the Bag, US Open Edition
Pentax Q, Nikon 1 V1
Pentax Q
You ever hear an ant fart? No? Then you’re not close enough. That’s what the shutter on the Pentax Q sounds like when using one of the lenses with a leaf shutter. It’s not unlike the sound that the classic Olympus XA makes, like tapping the tip of a ballpoint pen against a wooden table. If you close your eyes you can almost see the tiny leaf shutter flutter imperceptibly when called into action. Or the business end of an ant. Your choice.

Nikon 1 V1
Now we’re getting somewhere - the future. Sure the V1 has a mechanical focal plane shutter and it’s quite a nice and quiet thing with a lightly damped percussive snap. But when you use the electronic shutter, it’s all but silent. The only sounds are of the photons hitting the sensor, landing softly within their cotton-lined wells. It’s actually too quiet; half the time you don’t know if you’ve taken the picture. This is particularly true in high speed shooting mode; you can actually reel of 60 full resolution (10 megapickels) photos in half a second and not hear a sound. No scissors. No farting ants. Just silence. It’s eery. And just the way that I like it. FWIW, the Pentax Q has an electronic shutter for it’s Toy Lenses. It’s cool, but more a cheap kludge than a key feature like in the V1.

But as much as I like the silence of the Nikon V1, I like my other cameras better. Now if only we could combine the shutter of the Nikon with the sensor of the Pentax K-5 with the focus peaking of the K-01, the stabilization of the Olympus OM-D with the video capabilities of the GH2 in something the size of the Pentax Q. Now that would be some camera!

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