In part one, we deconstructed the essence of photography, and identified the critical qualities required for a good general-purpose camera. What about the candidates?
On this basis, we have a few potential candidates, in alphabetical order with specs and particular standout qualities:
- Canon G15 – 12MP, 1/1.7″, 28-140/1.8-2.8 – optical finder, zoom range, external controls
- Canon S110 – 12MP, 1/1.7″, 24-120/2.0-5.9 (!) – compactness
- Fuji FinePix X10 – 12MP, 2/3″, 28-112/2.0-2.8 – mechanical zoom, optical finder
- Fuji FinePix XF1 – 12MP, 2/3″, 25-100/1.8-4.9 – mechanical zoom, compactness, JPEG quality
- Leica D-Lux 6 – 10MP variable-aspect, 1/1.7″, 24-90/1.4(!)-2.3 – variable aspect ratios, lens speed, macro, extended warranty and Lightroom (over the LX7)
- Nikon P7700 – 12MP, 1/1.7″, 28-200/2.0-4.0 – telephoto reach, external controls
- Olympus XZ2 – 12MP, 1/1.7″, 28-112/1.8-2.5 – a safe middle of the road choice
- Panasonic LX7 – 10MP variable-aspect, 1/1.7″, 24-90/1.4(!)-2.3 – variable aspect ratios, lens speed, macro
- Sony RX100 – 20MP (!), 1″, 28-100/1.8-4.9 – low light use/ resolution/ dynamic range/ overall image quality, speed, video
- The Ricoh GR-Digital IV is a possible too, if you don’t mind a fixed 28mm lens – 10MP, 1/1.7″, 28/1.9 – steath, compactness, street/ hyperfocal photography, configurability
Of these, I think the G15, X10, XZ2 and P7700 are probably on the large side of what you might want to carry, that said, they are loaded with external controls, and the most tactile of the group. The smaller cameras are more button-and-menu-driven, though they all have control dials whose functions can be assigned to your preferences. The X10 and XF1 are the only two cameras here with physical zoom rings; a neat touch that improves responsiveness (especially since the rings are linked to power-on). Almost all of them are based around the same sensor, and offer fast lenses at the wide end; the LX7 and DL6 are really fast (f1.4); others are consistently fast throughout. The more compact cameras (S110, XF1, RX100) trade off lens speed at the long end.
If you’re expecting me to pick a winner, you’re going to be disappointed. All are similar enough and offer sufficient control, image quality and responsiveness that any one will do for the majority of situations. Yet, they are also different enough in control philosophy and particular feature speciality that if you particularly need any one of these features, your choice may be skewed. If not, pick the one that feels best to you, the one your brand loyalty dictates, the one whose design you prefer – whatever. It doesn’t matter. You just need to like the camera enough to use it, and it should be intuitive enough that you will actually do so. Lower end cameras will work just fine, too – I’ve had great results with the ultracompact Canon SD780 IS and superzoom Panasonic TZ3.
Let’s get something straight upfront though: there are things you can do, and things you can’t. It’s important to know what falls into each category so you a) don’t waste your time attempting to shoot in a particular way then being disappointed by the results, and b) can play to the strengths of your equipment.
- Compressed perspectives
- Getting everything in focus/ hyperfocal photography
- Low key photography (in low light)
- Moderate to high contrast images
- Long exposures, with a relatively lightweight tripod, or IS system: the leaf shutters used in compacts have almost zero vibration, and hand shake can be eliminated almost entirely when paired with the self timer.
- Odd points of view, when used with a swivel screen
Don’t waste your time:
- Getting any sort of shallow depth of field. Only close up, with a distant background, maximum aperture and whatever lets you focus the closest. Otherwise, forget it.
- Tracking moving objects
- Very low light
- Manual focus – why bother?
- Working with thick gloves in cold environments
For the most part, there are few limitations. Most of the troubling ones can be worked around; the depth of field control one I consider to be more a compositional thing the photographer needs to learn around rather than a limitation of the camera. More problematic is the inability to track moving objects; AF-C is my preferred setting for street photography and reportage scenarios because it counters the effect of subject motion. That said, if you’re using a compact, you could either prefocus at the desired spot and release as your subject passes it, you can pan, or you can rely on the extended depth of field for a given field of view to cover you. Any one of these three approaches will work just fine. In very low light situations, a mini-pod can save you; alternatively, there’s self-timer and IS. But by far the best method is simply to shoot a low key image, or embrace the grain.
There are only a few key settings for general photography, in my mind; all of the cameras on the list above will be able to cope.
Program mode. 99.9% of the time, you will be at a focal length/ aperture/ distance combination that means everything in your scene will be in focus anyway; aperture control is meaningless. I’d rather have the camera able to shift exposure automatically to prevent overexposure/ underexposure rather than miss a shot.
Auto ISO. If you set the right limits for maximum ISO (probably around 800-1600 for the smaller-sensored cameras, and 3200 for the RX100) and minimum shutter speed (not always an option), combined with P mode, you’ll avoid missing shots because of insufficient shutter speed or exposure – but at the same time, not have to use an ISO higher than strictly necessary to maintain image quality. Yes, it appears that we’re basically transferring control of exposure over to the camera – but unless you really need to freeze motion or add it (panning, soft water etc.) then I cannot actually think of a situation in which you need to set these parameters manually.
Spot or center-weighted meter. The main reason I’m not an advocate for matrix metering on compacts is that it both tends to be a bit unpredictable, as well simultaneously critical due to the limited dynamic range of small sensors. Nothing screams unnatural in an image more than a blown highlight with a harsh edge transition; taking control of your meter by understanding how it responds to certain situations will help immensely to avoid this. If you use the spot meter, then add between 1/2 and 1 stop to bring the highlights up to the point just before they clip; if you’re using centerweight, then make sure you have a good mix of tonal ranges within the central spot. In either case, the priority is to ensure that the subject is exposed correctly; it’s also almost always the place where you want to focus, so having a spot meter linked to the focus point and exposure lock with a half press of the shutter is ideal – fortunately, this is also almost always the way compact cameras are set up to behave by default.
Exposure compensation easily reached. Regardless of whether you’re using spot or center-weighted meter, you’re inevitably going to need to use exposure compensation at some point – all meters are thrown out by very bright or very dark objects. Better that you either have a dedicated command dial for this, or better yet, a physical dial with the increments permanently marked.
Single point AF. As much as I’d love to turn over focus selection to the camera, I find that far too often it doesn’t focus on what I want it to, or it picks faces when I don’t want it to, or it finds faces in random geometric arrangements. Whilst this technology has come a long way, it’s still not perfect and can’t determine distance accurately – so the subject picked is almost always the most contrasty one, not the nearest. Just use the center AF point for focusing and metering, then recompose once both are locked.
Prefocus. A common myth is that compacts have huge shutter lag: they don’t. If anything, they have less shutter lag than most DSLRs because there’s no mirror to get out of the way before the exposure. The confusion comes when people include focus acquisition time in the mix; this is not right because you can seldom compare situations in a consistent manner. Prefocus shutter release lag for say the Nikon D4 – arguably one of the fastest cameras out there – is 42ms. By comparison, the RX100′s prefocus lag is just 13ms – so short that it takes your finger longer to physically move to depress the button by that additional fraction. Prefocusing thus obviously reduces overall response time, meaning fewer missed shots. You have to shoot a bit differently with a compact and a moving subject: with a DSLR, I’ll use AF-C and track my subject until it hits the point I want relative to the rest of the composition, then release. With a compact, I’ll frame and prefocus first, wait statically with the final framing intact, then shoot when the subject hits the point I want.
Stabilizer on. Small cameras held at arms’ length (and not braced against one’s face) are not the most stable of shooting platforms; without a stabilizer, you’ll probably need 1/2x focal length – or higher with higher resolution cameras – to maintain a pixel-sharp image. You can probably claw back around 3 stops with the best of the stabilization systems, of which Panasonic is currently king. Make sure it’s set to the mode which is always active so you can frame more precisely, too – some cameras only activate the stabilizer when shooting to save power.
RAW (with exceptions). Other than the Fujis – whose JPEG files, especially with DR400 set – are amazing – there are gains to be made by shooting RAW and postprocessing for all of the above cameras. The gap is smaller for the Sony RX100, but still noticeable. Note that some cameras like the LX7 add in-camera processing to remove CA and distortion; whilst you might get more detail and dynamic range in RAW, you’re going to be trading off automated lens corrections.
Burst mode. I don’t spray away at 10fps on my RX100 all the time, but I do have it set to CL and 4fps in case I need to shoot a sequence of something interesting; it’s the same way I have my DSLRs and OM-D set up. In lower light, keeping your finger down can partially alleviate any camera shake caused by the depressing motion.
Flash off. Unless you’re triggering remote speedlights, are shooting social images in a dark place, or perhaps trying something with rear-sync, then avoid the small built-in unit. It’s just going to look horrible, not to mention lack power to fill in daylight beyond a meter or so.
Highlight warning in playback, with zoom-to-focus-point. I find this particular combination of review settings useful because it lets me quickly assess if I nailed the shot or not: is it critically sharp (magnification amount for this will differ from camera to camera)? Are there any overexposed areas? Critical underexposure? The latter is especially important when you have both only the LCD to use in daylight to evaluate images, as well as limited dynamic range.
Have a spare battery handy. Continuous live view drains batteries very quickly. Even the best of cameras will only manage perhaps 3 hours of continuous running time with the LCD on, which is probably about 200-250 images or thereabouts. If you are careful and turn the camera off between exposures and minimize your chimping, you might eke this out to about 5-600 shots; for me, this is bare minimum for a full day of shooting. A spare battery is therefore a must have, and allows you to keep going even when the main one is being charged.
I want to talk a bit about RAW, processing and sufficiency. Although I’ve been repeatedly revisiting the whole idea of postprocessing recently – first with film, then with medium format, and as a question in and of itself – I know I haven’t taken a position either way yet, but I don’t think not processing is an option for most compacts, with the exception of the Fuji X10 and XF1. This is because none of them have the native tonal qualities that are desirable in a photograph – namely smooth highlight and shadow transitions with reasonably punchy midtones – straight out of the camera. The files certainly have the potential to be that way, but they do require work post-capture; perhaps a bit more than a good file from a larger sensor camera. However, I wouldn’t be too worried about image quality: a good 12MP file that’s critically sharp at the pixel level will print just fine to A3 and perhaps one size beyond; needless to say it’s more than enough for web viewing. It’s often important to take a quick reality check in the pursuit of megapixels: when was the last time you printed larger than A3?
In the end though, it all comes back down to the pictures, and the ideas encapsulated and communicated therein. The camera is merely a box, a tool; why should it be over-promoted to seemingly also be the endgame? My personal journey for creative evolution has taken me in a different direction: an increased focus on the purity of the idea, and continued liberation from equipment requirements. I want something that can capture what I see in a variety of perspectives; something that is unobtrusive, stealthy and doesn’t attract attention; something that’s flexible enough for most situations I might randomly encounter, but doesn’t require a great commitment in bulk or weight, preferably I shouldn’t even know it’s there. I don’t mind if it imposes some limitations on the way I shoot or the way I meter; these might turn out to be good things which provide small creative nudges in the right direction. As good as Micro Four Thirds is, by the time you load up on a lens or two, you still know you’re carrying a camera – and I would still take the OM-D for serious personal work – but for experimentation, and the kind of ligthbulb moments of experimentation that happen when you’re not planning them, it seems that for now a serious compact or two is the way to go. And the best thing of all is that if (and probably when) I get bored of it, it’s not going to be too painful to swap it for a new one and start the process all over again. MT
The various cameras mentioned in this article are available here at their respective links from Amazon: Canon G15, Canon S110, Fuji FinePix X10, Fuji FinePix XF1, Leica D-Lux 6, Nikon P7700, Olympus XZ2, Panasonic LX7, Sony RX100, Ricoh GR-Digital IV.
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