compact camera

Wouter Brandsma

Wouter Brandsma

Wouter Brandsma lives in the Netherlands, is a Ricoh compact camera fanatic and is an excellent photographer.

He’s one of the finest photographers of of the many I follow and he does all of his brilliant work with compact Ricoh cameras. There is no doubt that Wouter could make great images with any camera but I find it fascinating that a photographer of his caliber chooses these cameras, which by the way are’t all that popular except they do have a cult following among serious street photographers and photojournalists.

Serious compact cameras

I have three camera systems: Canon EOS 5D with some nice lenses, Canon PowerShot S100, and an iPhone 4S. The Canon 5D is the most capable camera but also the biggest, heaviest, and most difficult to have with me all the time. The iPhone is the smallest, easiest to have with me all the time but it’s the least capable camera.

As many reading this know, the iPhone has been eating into the point and shoot camera market enough so that people like my wife don’t carry and use a “real” camera anymore, they simply take pictures with their iPhones or other smartphones. While I think this is great and I use my iPhone’s camera often, as a photographer I want more control than a smartphone can offer so I still have a need for a small, point and shoot camera to live between my iPhone and my DSLR.

For the past few years I’ve been using the Canon PowerShot S90, S95, and now S100 more than my other cameras because these cameras can make excellent images and are small enough to have with me all the time. That said, there are many other cameras in the growing “smaller than a DSLR” category these days and in addition to considering upgrading my 5D to a 5D Mark III, I’m also considering other cameras in the small, “serious compact” category. There is no perfect camera that will please everyone but I’m getting a better idea of what I want in a camera in this category. I like Canon’s ergonomics, both hardware and software and while I’m not absolutely stuck on Canon brand equipment, to me it’s like sticking with Apple even as other makers come out with better stuff.

In earlier versions of this post, I listed numerous cameras in the micro 4/3 category and some of Fujifilm’s new X series cameras as well as Canon’s new EOS M but decided that all of these cameras are in a different category than the one I’m interested in: they’re more expensive, more complex, and more capable and are really a middle ground between point and shoot and DSLR and they’re closer to DSLR; many people are now choosing these cameras instead of DSLRs.

I think the solution for me, at least for now, is to continue with a DSLR and lenses for studio and higher end photo shoots and continue experimenting with higher end point and shoot cameras with fixed lenses (lenses that are permanently attached to the camera, either zoom or prime).

What I have now is the Canon PowerShot S100. It’s very small (maybe too small), sports a 24-120mm f/2.0-5.9 lens, has a modern and decent (although small) sensor and image processing system and has excellent hardware and software ergonomics. Yes, it has had some production problems with stuck zoom lenses on some copies (fixed in a recall by Canon) but it’s an extremely capable little camera and I continue to learn new uses for it. Still, it lacks some things that I find appealing on other cameras.

The Canon PowerShot G12 is a great camera and I don’t mind its size relative to the S100 but its lens only opens up to 28mm which is common in smaller cameras, it’s largest aperture at 28mm is f/2.8, and it’s got an older sensor and processor in it than the S100. There will be a next generation camera in this series and I’m hoping it inherits some of the S100’s capabilities: newer image processor and sensor, 24mm f/2 lens on the wide side. I like the ergonomics of this camera although it’s viewfinder is so bad Canon should just eliminate it, it’s useless.

The Canon PowerShot G1 X camera is a slightly larger G12 with a large, APC-C sized sensor. It too lacks the fast, wide angle lens of the S100 and somehow they forgot to give it decent macro capabilities. Put its sensor in a G12/S100 hybrid and I’m in.

The Sony Cyber-shot RX100 is probably the hottest point and shoot camera on the market right now. David Pogue gave it an incredible review and for good reason: it packs a very large 20MP sensor into a pocket camera and has a very good Zeiss lens. The lens only opens wide to 29mm which is a bummer for me. If it opened up to 24mm I think I’d be tempted to buy one. It’s also twice as expensive as the Canon S100 although the image quality from the big sensor might make the price go down easier.

The Ricoh GR Digital IV is actually the closest I’ve come to my ideal camera that’s not made by Canon. If it had a 24mm lens instead of a 28 I’d have one. I bought one from B&H and returned it after two weeks because I found I really missed the drama created by the extra 4mm of wide on the S100’s 24mm lens.

This Ricoh has a very nice, simple user interface, it’s lens is a 28mm prime (no zoom) and that’s fine with me and while it’s not quite as small as the S100 it’s small enough to fit in a pocket. I think if my friend Gary Sharp got his hands on this camera it would be his favorite of all time. I may have to try one again some day.

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 came out recently and I haven’t had a chance to try it yet. It may very well be the best of the lot and it does sport a 24-90mm f/1.4 to f/2.3 lens. I’m not crazy about Panasonic’s ergonomics and I don’t like the fact that this camera’s lens must be capped (it has a lens cap) but it looks great otherwise. If it sported a bigger sensor…

The Fujifilm X10 is a camera I’ve not tried but it does belong in this category: fixed lens compact camera. I did try the Fujifilm X100 and wasn’t crazy about its software ergonomics although I was swayed by its loyal users who continue to make exceptional images with it. It’s considerably more expensive than typical smaller cameras and it’s bigger…. But, the X10 is small and capable and I rejected it by association. Best to get some hands-on experience with it at B&H before concluding a thing. 28mm on the wide end but still, worth a look.

I’ve no doubt left out a lot of cameras here but you get the picture, there is still a market for high end point and shoot cameras, maybe more than ever. As more casual photographers use their smartphones it will eliminate the lower end of the point and shoot market leaving the more serious photographers and hopefully companies will continue to push these “serious compacts” into new territory.

Canon PowerShot S100

Looks like Canon is about to come out with a new compact point and shoot which will replace the S95 which replaced the S90: Canon S100: The New Pocket Powerhouse Point-and-Shoot.

Here’s Canon’s “official” page on it: PowerShot S100.

Here’s DP Review’s Canon Powershot S100 Preview.

As yet we’ve only been able to handle an early pre-production S100 briefly, but initial impressions are positive enough. It’s as fast and responsive as we’d expect from a Canon Powershot, and the handgrip, despite its minimal size, goes some way to addressing one of the criticisms of its predecessor. The rearranged control layout means you can now initiate movie recording in any exposure mode, without sacrificing any particularly important external control over other functions.

Of course everything will depend on the image quality obtained from the new lens and sensor, and as yet we simply can’t comment on that in any sensible way. Canon is making some pretty confident claims in this regard, calling the S100 the best Powershot yet with 1/4 of the S95’s image noise at ISO 1600 (in its JPEG output, of course). So we’re very much looking forward to getting our hands on a finalized camera to see how this works out in practice – naturally we’ll bring you sample images as soon as we possibly can.

The most important updates for me are:

– Canon CMOS sensor (S90 and S95 use CCD)
– Slightly higher resolution (12 MP vs 10 for S90 and 95)
– Better ISO range: 80-6400
– New image processor (Digic V)
– 24-120mm, F2.0-5.9, (S90 and S95 have 28mm on the wide end)

Looks like they’ve moved the ring function button from top deck to the back which is great. I hit it by mistake on the S95 from time to time when turning the camera on and off. Nice improvement.

There are more new features as well but given the way I used my S90 and now use my S95 the best new feature for me is the 24mm end of the zoom lens. This will make landscape and other types of photography much more interesting from this camera. And, the fact that Canon has kept the aperture at f/2 even at 24mm is a wonderful thing. Of course, 24mm may introduce distortion where 28mm did not. Time will tell.

I’ve enjoyed these small cameras tremendously for travel and even though I’m using my iPhone quite a bit there’s nothing like a “real” camera with exposure controls and a decent sensor and lens for making better images.

This camera is no Fuji X100 but given the new sensor it will be interesting to see if it gives potential X100 buyers pause. Not that there’s not room for both of these cameras, there is, and I could easily see having both myself.

Mountain Laurel on Guilder Pond

Mountain Laurel on Guilder Pond

Mt. Everett, Massachusetts. I took my wife Anne on a walk around Guilder Pond on the shoulder of Mt. Everett before the mountain laurel went by. I took my Canon 5D and a few lenses because the walk was short. Glad I did, the flowers were in perfect bloom and the light was great.

The tension between ease of use, low weight, and speed on a hike and wanting to get better images is meaningful. I usually hike with a Canon S90 and it suits me.

I don’t like to take much time to shoot when on a serious hike and when on a serious shoot I like to take all the time I want to get a single image. So, maybe best to keep the two kinds of tools separate. I’m not looking for a single camera that will do it all, but I’d consider something like the Fuji X100 if I thought it wouldn’t get in the way of fast hiking.

It remains an interesting conundrum and one that I’m enjoying considering as I continue to hike with my S90 and occasionally bring the 5D on short photo walks when no one will mind me taking my time in shooting.

Big sensors, shrinking cameras

Big Sensors, Shrinking Cameras

David Pogue reviews the Canon Powershot S90 and the Panasonic Lumix GF1. Pogue is always a great reviewer because he knows which technical details to include and which to leave out for most consumers.

I’ve been shooting my hikes with the Canon SD1200 IS which is an amazingly good small camera that costs a little over $150. But, this camera can’t handle scenes where the sky and ground are too far apart in tone without either over exposing the sky or under exposing the ground. This is typical of cheaper cameras and better cameras can handle this kind of dynamic range problem more easily.

I’ve been reading about the Canon G11, S90, Panasonic LX3, GF1, Ricoh models and others for a while now. As I understand things, the Canon G11 and S90 are about the same camera in different clothing and I find the G11’s larger controls easier to use than the S90s which are bordering on too small for me to easily see without glasses.

The Panasonic GF1 is the obvious winner with the biggest sensor, and best image quality by a longshot. But, that comes at a price of higher cost, larger size and a bit more complexity.

For me, this hiking camera has to be able to fit in a small pouch that I attach to the shoulder strap of my pack and be readily accessible from there for quick snapshots on hikes. My bottom line is to document hikes without getting in the way of the other hikers so I don’t want to futz with controls or setups that would usually take me some time with my DSLR.

Here’s some more discussion of these cameras by reviewers with more a more technical viewpoint:

Luminous Landscape: Canon PowerShot G11
Luminous Landscape: Canon PowerShot S90
Luminous Landscape: Panasonic Lumix GF1
DP Review: Panasonic Lumix GF1