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Can compact cameras be your friend?

David Clapp's reflections on state of the art compacts.

|  Digital Cameras
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Bluebell field taken by David Clapp
Ricoh GX200 - camera quality or just processing? Anything can be sharpened up to look good at this size - it's worth remembering that. A little Ortanising, good sharpening and you wouldn't know this camera from a medium format digital back or a camera phone.
With point and shoot cameras now seeming more compelling to DSLR photographers, many of us are considering carrying a ‘quality’ pocket camera as an alternative to the ‘bag of iron’. Whether it’s for recording compositions, ideas or just for plain fun, the sleek design and feature packed compact looks very tempting. Some have even hailed that with features such as RAW and super wide angle lenses becoming standard, the quality could even be agency worthy. With one camera in each leg pocket, I spent the last month undertaking a compact experience rather than yet another pixel peeping test. Would I find these cameras enriching my photography, with and without my DSLR?
The last compact I owned was 1.5Mp and that was in the late 90’s. Who could have imagined that within ten years such advancements would have been made. I took this pencil case size Samsung everywhere I went and I thoroughly enjoyed using it. Instantaneous and cost free, the benefits were very welcomed and I disgarded my film camera. I found that by recording my long distance hiking at the coast and moors, or my best mates midnight slurring over another unnecessary glass of homemade vinegary red, that there was an enjoyment in photography, both socially and creatively, long before I ever considered I would shoot for a living.

So ten digital years later what has changed? The answer is everything almost, including me - camera size, quality, operating systems, movie modes, responsiveness, focal length, but most of all my own mindset. On a quest for dynamic composition and my thirst for quality, wide angle lenses could only be quenched by full frame digital. Four years of frustrating foray in slide film  certainly got me hooked, so as all compacts started at a rather blinkered 35-40mm at the wide end I kept away. I coined a new phrase - ‘pointless and shoot’. Yet still watching from the wings, as new compact cameras harbour exciting features that I hold dear, such as wide angle lenses and RAW, I considered it time for another look.
The Cameras
Canon G10
 Canon G10 - it feels so wonderful and responsive with longer reach.
I was sent a Ricoh GX200 and a Canon G10 for review from Park Cameras and I have to admit I was very keen to get using them. With bright view finders, bold colours and sleek design, both ooze potential. They sure make you feel like you are going to take good pictures and I could imagine reaching for my wallet in a busy shop. With the G10 being significantly larger than the Ricoh, I was hoping that this little compact GX200 would be my favourite. Small, light and with a 24mm (35mm equivalent) lens, I could see myself reaching for this camera  over the more restrictive 28mm wide angle of the Canon. The Canon’s retro styling was a nice touch and although a little bulkier, the extra weight was hardly inhibiting.
I couldn’t help myself. First look at the RAW files and I was in for a big shock. The Ricoh was significantly worse than the Canon – noisier, flatter and uninspiring. In JPEG, both cameras were an improvement. Colours were more vibrant as the operation system took the helm, but here was the trade off – detail was lost, as onboard noise reduction kicked in and sharpening took hold. Smearing and smoothing are the Achilles heel of both cameras, but as my opinion of ‘sharp’ is coming from large sensors and top glass, it was important to initially try to cast this elitist snobbery aside and go looking for the enjoyment.
 Ricoh GX200 - smaller and slimmer, its a great looking camera with a 24mm lens, but troubled with noise issues.
Over the next few weeks, I tried to make myself get over this uninspiring situation and use the cameras creatively as if I didn’t own a digital SLR, but it never took hold. Just like the Ferrari kit car I used to own, despite its impeccable looks, there was something very lacking under the bonnet. All the shots I took seemed great at 2500px but the deeper I looked the worse things got. Days out with just a compact turned me back into a complete novice. Without my DSLR I was just lackadaisical, shooting erratic and uninspired pictures. As the quality would never be there, I completely discarded my creative eye. I would literally forget to use them, as though I didn’t even have a camera on me. Unfortunately they became as pointless as my 2Mp camera phone that has been in my pocket for the last three years and all I have is a photograph of my girlfriend eating a cream tea. It was happening all over again.
Agency Claims
Now one notion that always concerned me is online forum claims that some pro-photographers had submitted pictures to agencies from these 12Mp and higher compact cameras. The pre-order delierium and pre-release day dreaming, of pros romancing their compacts aloft mountain tops, relieved of the bag burden at last, or the dog walkers shooting stock, were surely fuelling advance sales. After submitting test shots to two separate agencies with the EXIF data stripped, both picked up on the inadequacies immediately. My main picture editor, Richard at OSF, gave an enlightening insight into other G10 submissions he's had other photographers try to ‘sneak in’ over the past year, explaining that: “if the subject is uncomplicated, like a flower head against a blue sky shot at low ISO with perfect exposure, then the G10 is near acceptable. For landscapes and other images that rely on fine detail, it’s considerably inadequate. We can never accept these cameras until the sensors become far bigger, or our reputation for high quality imagery would be severely compromised. All our images are meticulously checked at 100% and no compact camera images can withstand client demand. Micro-stock agencies such as IStockphoto that require lower size images for entirely different uses, would be more than happy to accept the images it produces.
Read this quote from Emil Martin, a respected technical forum poster on - “Anyone considering a P&S would do well to remember that the sensor is at least 16x smaller in area than FF. It is gathering 16x less light for the same exposure. Therefore properly exposed ISO100 on the P&S is like properly exposed ISO 1600 on FF, or worse. Anybody expecting better performance than that needs to think again; ain't gonna happen, not enough photons. Sorry.
Surprising to find that the G10 sensor is smaller than a full frame camera, I am sure many thought it was far larger. Still the pictures are very good in bright conditions.
No Peeping!
OK, I said I wouldn’t pixel peep, I am sorry too, but I just can’t get excited. I am not going to put comparisons alongside some DSLR images and point the finger. Many photographers who use DLSRs have side stepped my obvious hang up and are happy to let go of the quality argument and shoot away without comparison. They are enjoying the capturing process, the spontaneity and forgetting everything else for the love of photography, good on them. I just can’t let it go, I just can’t. After my Zeiss, Leica and Olympus Zuiko adaptations onto my Canon DSLRs, by unlocking the potential of the 21Mp sensor since last summer, just try and get me down off my geeky, hypercritical horse. It runs very much against the grain now and I am sorry to say. Buy a G10 and you're over halfway to a second-hand 5D, you could even get a 30D for less. I find it difficult to justify.
So here’s my compact conclusion in a ten bullet point nutshell. It’s not based upon a stand alone argument, but from a DSLR owner’s perspective. I'm still on the wings for now:
  1. They are magnetic, they convince you that you can’t help but take incredible images, almost willing you to spend your money, but they will disappoint if you like the quality and ISO flexibility of DSLRs.
  2. If you see them as a quality backup camera for a good DSLR, you will be happy to a certain extent. Make sure the exposure is absolutely spot on or you will introduce noise if you try to rescue the shadows/highlights in RAW software. There is little to no latitude unlike a DSLR.
  3. They seem to be far more pleasing at reduced resolution, when the image size is actually set to around 2500px on the longest side.
  4. Although I do feel the goal is closing in, they still remain somewhat unflexible at anything other than the base ISOs used in bright light.
  5. If you see them as fun cameras for socialising, shooting images on the way home from work, opportunistic phototgraphy with features similar to those you like using on a DLSR, then you will love them.
  6. No compact camera imagery can be used to submit to agencies other than micro stock agencies (they accept 1600 x 1200)
  7. Think of the cost - £400 buys you a lot of DSLR camera in second hand world. The brand new G10 is more expensive than a second hand 30D. Consider a Canon G3 perhaps if point and shoot photography is for you. It's also got the discontinued rotating screen and will cost 75% less second hand.
  8. If you want a camera to take location shots, keep the money and start using your phone – it’s also far more convenient.
  9. The love affair can end pretty quickly with compacts unless it’s your main camera. This is possibly one of the reasons why there are so many models on the market.
  10. Take a flashcard into a reputable shop and shoot outdoor test comparisons at base ISO in good bright light to help you decide whether it’s the format for you back home on the computer.
lexar logoTo see more of David's work visit his website: David Clapp.

David used Lexar memory for this article.

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marktyler 18 17
15 Jul 2009 1:42AM
I agree and can't help but wondering how much better things may be if Canon stuck an APS-C sized sensor in the G10
DRicherby 12 269 726 United Kingdom
2 Feb 2010 1:41PM
But it's not just a matter of `sticking in' a larger sensor! That larger sensor requires a much larger, heavier lens to provide a large enough image circle. The G10 weighs 350g and has a focal-length range of 28-140mm (35mm equivalent). Now compare that to Canon's 17-85mm EF-S lens, which is their APS-C line for DSLRs. That lens has a 35mm-equivalent focal-length range of 27-136mm, which is essentially identical to the G10's. But the lens alone weighs 475g, which is already about 40% heavier than the G10.

An APS-C version of the G10 would be much bigger and about twice as heavy. It would essentially be a DSLR without the advantage of being able to change the lenses.

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