August 2012 Competition: Compact Challenge Results!


The point of August’s challenge was to remove several of the commonly-overused crutches for most photographers: depth of field, extreme perspectives, and producing useable images in low light thanks to modern killer sensors. Point and shoots are in a way, a devolution to a much simpler kind of photography that focuses almost solely on composition, exposure, and to a lesser extent, perspective. You simply don’t have the same toolkit as you would with a larger sensor. The upshot of this is that if you can consistently make an image that works with a compact, you can do it with something larger: it’s the composition that stands out as being strong, over everything else. Similarly, if you have no problems representing your subject in 8-9 stops of dynamic range, you should be able to do even better with 12, 13 or even 14. With that in mind, the contest was limited to small sensors only.

All in, we got 70 entries – I think there was a degree of saturation after the last challenge, or perhaps this one was uncomfortable and unfamiliar territory for many photographers. Nevertheless, a decent showing. Thank you also for those who submitted multiple entries. This means a total of US$350 received, with a first prize pool of $175 and one of my Photoshop Workflow DVDs to the winner and $70 to the honorable mention.

Without further ado, let’s move on to the finalists – in no particular order. For each shot, I’ll go through what works, what doesn’t, and how it could be improved.

Runar Nielsen – Small shoes (Fuji X10)

Runar Nilsen

Nice use of chiaroscuro and a strong single light source to give the subject both depth and texture; there’s good vertical balance to the image too. The technical qualities – tonality, exposure, sharpness – are also excellent. However, the weak point of the shot is empty space – I feel there’s a lot of blank foreground front-left that feels like it’s not really contributing to the shot. There’s also some color dissonance here – the shoes have a feel of something old, weathered and vintage; best represented by warm tones; this doesn’t jive with the cool tone of the background. One final possible improvement: a little highlight kicker on the back of the shoes to define the back edge against the background. A separate light would do it, or alternatively a strategic reflector. See my upcoming series on lighting…

Samsudin Mohd Ali – Looking down on the big boys looking up (Leica D-Lux 4)

samsudin mohd ali

There’s a degree of consistent chaos to the subjects here that I like – nobody has their lenses aimed in quite the same direction, but yet the shot makes you wonder what it is they’re looking at. There’s nice tonality to this image; despite the obviously bright day (note shadows) and restrictions of small sensors, whites and blacks are managed well. What doesn’t work is the huge empty space in the sky. I would have either excluded most of the sky and focused on the people, perhaps holding the camera higher above my head to get a slightly top-down perspective, or try to include whatever it is they were photographing (if at all possible).

Jesse Estes – Send off (Canon Powershot SD550)


I think what struck me about this image was that it had the feel of a Salgado in color. It has that particular textural look and feel created by mostly backlit subjects, dodging and burning and some atmospheric haze; I think the subject didn’t do any harm either. There may be a little too much of this, though; the deep shadow areas never really hit black. What I don’t know is whether it works better horizontally or vertically – I feel perhaps including some more of the window and  the foreground woman might feel more balanced, especially if there was a little dark space left around the edge to form a natural frame to the image. There’s also a part of me that just can’t help wondering what it would look like as a B&W, though the tonal palette here does give the scene life.

Larry Gebhardt – Light at the courthouse (Panasonic LX5)

Larry Gebhardt1

This image is a good example of one of the strengths of small sensor cameras: the ability to create abstraction through combining very compressed perspectives with high depth of field. This is rarely possible at close distances with a larger sensor, because the apertures required become unfeasible. Nice tones, nice metering, and a clear subject which is well-isolated by natural frames. What isn’t so strong here is balance: the whole right side and top-right corner is empty and dark, and lacks the texture of the left side. I would crop this one to end just before the shadow starts on the right for a much stronger composition.

Robert Symonds – untitled (Canon S95)

robert symonds

I don’t know for sure what this subject is (I presume it’s a vintage hood ornament) but I do know that I like the fluidity and texture of it, and the way it contrasts against the blue and white; once again, the technical aspects of the image are perfect, but what’s missing is balance. It feels as though there’s too much white in the bottom half, though if you start playing around with crops, you find that any less looks top-heavy. The solution is rotation. The subject here is a bit like a snow-covered mountain against the sky; you need to have an ‘up’ side and a ‘down’ side to the slope – without it, the mind is a bit confused because it can’t place a sense of scale to the object. So, the conclusion here is a bit of rotation of the camera anticlockwise, and a little more subject on the right – bingo.

Carlos Paturzo – untitled (Canon G10)


Compression of perspectives is used here to good effect also. This image is all about texture; the ripples in the water are well-defined and sharp, yet abstract enough to be impressionistic. I think if the water was calmer, I would go with inverting the image to make the reflection appear as reality instead; however, this is the best orientation given the current subject. The problem area for me is the top right corner – which is a bit of a shame, because this is where  most of the subject definition happens. There’s a huge hotspot on the hull of the boat, which means losing some of the texture of the reflections in the hull; I find this visually very distracting. The only solution would have been to underexpose some more and bring it up again in postprocessing, at the expense of some shadow noise – which I can already see creeping into the foreground.

Andrew Marerro – Bridge (Apple iPhone 4S)

Andrew Marrero 1

Though the image doesn’t really give any landmark cues as to where it was shot, it screams ‘old New York’ to me – I think it’s the strong lighting and B&W treatment. Only the modern cars in the foreground give away the time period. I would have said the right side looks empty, but the shadow itself is the subject, and that portion of the frame still feels balanced. The only place where it doesn’t is at the top left and right corners. With strongly geometric subjects like this one, it’s important to take care that there are no obviously imbalanced areas – look at the white gap top left and top right where the verticals meet the horizontal trusses Also, the curve that runs across the top edge of the fame make it feel as though the horizontal alignment of the shot is off – even though it isn’t. The solution would be to dodge the curved portion at the right and left, to visually separate that part of the subject from the main, symmetric subject and have it serve as a natural frame. Otherwise, this is a well-executed shot that could probably only be improved by say a horse and carriage team in the right-hand foreground. 🙂

Boris Giltburg – Saker Falcon (Canon G12)

Boris Giltburg (3)

Wildlife and compacts don’t go together. Most of the time, the lenses are either not long enough, not bright enough, or image quality is just downright horrible. Even though I’m guessing this was a tame bird, it probably wasn’t an easy shot to pull off; the strength of this image is in the fact that I look through the photo and see the subject – it’s almost like a posed portrait of a person rather than a bird. One thing you have to be very, very careful with is metering – natural feathers etc reflect light to the extreme, and can often be two or more stops brighter than you’d expect. In this case, I’d say take a leaf out of Majoli’s book and meter for the highlights; let the shadows fall wherever they may. I can’t say I’m a fan of the toning, either – I think it’d be a stronger shot with either accurate color, or pure B&W.

Robert Yong Lee – Solstice #11 (Apple iPhone 4S)

Robert Lee

Last month’s winner has produced another one of those painterly images that appeals to me – here comes the personal bias – it’s well-balanced, mostly well-exposed, and makes a subject of texture itself. What I don’t like about it is how dominant the dark window and window box are; they take visual prominence over the shadow of the tree. This is as processing issue: shadow recovery and a little more contrast about the center would improve this image by several notches. Note that there are no blown highlights, so there’s still a bit more dynamic range that could have been brought into play at the time of capture.

Fritz Niemann – Blue night (Canon S100)

Fritz Niemann

Last but not least, Fritz’s image is one that captures the energy of the scene. This was a technically difficult shot for two reasons: firstly, compacts blown the blue channel very quickly (note the piece of plastic with the huge hotspot) and secondly, it was probably very dark – I’m guessing there’s a reason why it appears that almost nothing in the scene was static, even things that should probably be fixed. These are both the strong and weak points of the image: the hue shift due to the blue channel overexposure produces an interesting, otherworldly atmosphere, but also hot spots that are hugely distracting because they draw the eye in and keep it there. Images with movement should have a visual anchor – a static point – somewhere in the frame to cue the mind that there’s life here, not camera shake. Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear visual anchor here anywhere.

I’m sure after reading all of these critiques, you’re probably thinking that none of the images made the cut; far from it. The finalists were all of a very high standard, but we’re all perfectionists, otherwise we wouldn’t be here reading this, right? In the grand scheme of things, these are excellent images. The suggestions are there to make them outstanding.

It’s now time to decide the winner. Cue drumroll. First prize goes to Jesse Estes with Send Off; you win $175 and a Photoshop Workflow DVD. The honorable mention goes to Andrew Marerro, with Bridge – your prize is $70. I’ll be sending both of you email in a short while to sort out your prizes. Congratulations to both of the winners!

In the meantime, we’ll be taking a break from competitions for this month – to be honest, I’m too busy to take care of the administration – but what you can do is please leave as message at the end of this post with suggestions for themes or topics for the next one – don’t worry, we’ll be back with another round soon. Thanks again everybody for taking part! MT


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  1. Thanks Ming for the nice critique, and I’m happy to be getting your DVD! I only recently discovered your work/blog while searching for some info on the D800. I instantly became a fan of your street photography in particular; love the nice subtle skin tones, and wonderful processing all around. This contest is an excellent idea, and I will be doing my part to spread the word in the future!

  2. Congratulations to all the “Honorable Mentions” and of course the winners. Some lovely shots…I do really like Jesse’s, conveys a very strong mood beautifully. Boris’s Falcon is beautiful. Sorry for not submitting, been a bit hectic for the last few weeks, not much time for shooting, and couldn’t decide on any of my existing Canon Powershot images to use (and most of those are from before I started photography “properly” and only had the Powershot – not necessarily representative of where I am at today).

  3. Interesting to see what other people are doing with their compact cameras and to also read (study) your critiques.

    As a suggestion for future comps, perhaps have a general “best shot” for compacts every second month and alternate with a specific topic for any type of camera.

    I’m also interested to see how you are going with your Sony RX100 – assuming you are still shooting with it. I recently moved from a Canon S95 to the Sony; there’s a lot to like about the Sony but I still haven’t sorted out exposure.

    • Indeed – I think once you get over the different interface and limitations, as a photographer you revert to a state of pure composition – and that’s when you start to make images that really work. You find work with the larger formats improves, too.

      As for the RX100 – I don’t have time to learn how to second-guess its matrix meter either, so I’m shooting centerweight and compensating. Familiar territory for an M shooter. Still trying to figure out what the best raw conversion process is via ACR though, it doesn’t seem like there’s much of an improvement on already (very good) out of camera JPEGs.

      • RX100: I quickly gave up on matrix metering (but perhaps I should give it another go?) and tried spot-metering for several hundred images. Don’t like that either, so center-weight with exp comp will be my next approach. I only have CS3 so I use the Sony IDC to convert the raw files to a 16 bit TIFF (after reducing contrast and NR = off). Within CS3 I use Topaz Denoise 5 for NR.

        I’ve read a number of other reviews and none report an issue with exposure metering; it seems to be on par with other compacts / cameras.

        • I don’t seem to have these problems with my GRDIII or DL-5, though. I can use their matrix meter and not even think about it too much.

          The Sony IDC isn’t much better than just using a JPEG. Try the latest version of the DNG Converter (free) which makes a DNG that works with ACR4 for CS3.

  4. I just love the winner!! And I think it was clearly the best, no doubt.

  5. Thanks once again, Ming, for your efforts and for your sharp critiques. And again, I am pleasantly surprised to have my work included among such accomplished images.

    I feel that this image has more potential than I’ve brought out so far, so your thoughts were very welcome. Though this version was squeezed as much as I dared squeeze an iPhone file (exposure pushed, highlights recovered), perhaps it could withstand some localized processing and curve tweaking as well. I like your suggestion; perhaps a brighter window and box, in combination with darker low shadows (mitigated by some mild cropping at left and right), would make a better picture while preserving the mood.

  6. Carlos Paturzo says:

    Thank´s Ming for the chance and thanks for your valuable comments. Perhaps a nice theme could be “The Abstract”. A great job of all fellow photographers. 🙂

  7. Congrats to Jesse, indeed an excellent shot! Again a nice selection of photographs, looking forward to the next challenge.

  8. Would be interesting if the compact cameras that were used for the Top-10 were listed as well….

  9. Ernie Van Veen says:

    I love the winning photo. Thanks for running these competitions, Ming. It would be nice to see a few more people take part, even if, like me, you know you can’t win, you might one day get surprised with a top ten pick, and the challenges are always a chance for improvement. But for now I’ll have to suffice with telling my wife I made the top 70 this time. Can I suggest ‘transport’ for the next one? (Of course, if it was ‘sunsets’ there would probably a thousand entries… 😉

    • No problem. Let’s see what suggestions come in over the next month; I really hope we get more entries – the first time was great, but the second time had a much higher overall standard of quality. So I’d say things are on the up 🙂

  10. I just totally had a Mike Wazowski moment (for you, Monsters Inc fans) – when he’s supposed to appear in a TV ad, and then ends up being covered by the company logo, and nobody knows if they should offer condolences or what – and he looks completely crestfallen and says, “I can’t believe it……” but then suddenly brightens-up and says, “…. I was on TV!!!” So I was like, “I can’t believe it……..” “……. I was in the final ten!!!” 🙂 Just kidding, of course, it’s my first time ever making the finals, and I feel absolutely honored to be in such company. Big congrats to the winners! If there was another place to be awarded, I’d give it to Robert Yong Lee – love his photo.

    Thanks a lot, Ming! Both for choosing the photo and for your critique. It was a tame bird indeed, and I tried to recreate a Studio Harcourt feel with the PP, hence the posed portrait look. Critique taken, will fiddle with the photo some more. If you have a second, could you help us settle a small cropping dispute about it here (

    • Haha – thank you for participating, Boris. Both of your images were in my shortlist, but I thought the falcon was definitely the more unusual one.

      To be honest, I don’t think I like either crop that much – I’d go with less space on the left, and more feet (but you can’t un-crop stuff outside the frame, of course).

      • Ha, I’ve got lots of space to uncrop – this is two-thirds of the original frame.
        So, as I said, will fiddle with it – thanks once again.
        (One small thing – could you perhaps correct my family name? it’s Giltburg rather than Giltberg)

  11. Congratulations, everyone! All excellent images but I do love the falcon portrait – fantastic.

  12. Landscapes is the obvious next choice! 🙂

    Good shots all around. The one of the bird was my favourite. Seems impossible a compact could do that. Lovely.


  1. […] lens for a trip and shooting with compact cameras professionally. The August competition was the compact challenge which required participants to shoot solely with a fixed-lens, small-sensor point-and-shoot camera. […]

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