I ended the last article on this note:
By far the most effective camera-for-when-you-don’t-want-to-carry-a-camera is a compact of some description; ideally one that’s small enough you don’t notice it, but is fast and responsive enough to react when you see something, and preferably be operable one-handed. I don’t want to feel like I’m carrying a camera. Of the dozens of these things I’ve owned, precisely none of them have fit the bill completely.
What we want – translated into something more concrete, looks like this:
- It’s got to fit into a pocket or a bag without demanding its own or being obtrusive. Obviously we can relax the demands for something that’s trouser-pocketable given space constraints.
- A good lens: something with a usable zoom range, and fast maximum aperture – the LX7’s lens is the benchmark here.
- A sensor that’s large enough to give us decent ISO 1600, usable 3200.
- Image stabilisation, or an optical finder. Preferably, both.
- Responsiveness in operation – focusing, writing, menus, review/ zooming.
- Easy access to the critical controls: exposure compensation, metering mode, and focusing mode/ area. (Aperture control is useless on compacts anyway since depth of field is enormous.)
- Buffered raw shooting; it doesn’t have to be blazing fast, but say 3-4fps for 5 frames is usually sufficient.
- Customization of the things that need setting once – auto ISO behaviour, noise reduction, blinking highlights, file naming, info displays and shortcut buttons etc.
- Decent battery life.
- Decent near focus limits.
- A spot meter.
- No compromises to review modes, by which I mean you zoom the actual file and can compare two files easily – either side by side or switching between them; easily accessible protect modes etc.
- Call me shallow, but I’d like it to have a clean design and the right tactile qualities, too.
On that basis, you’d imagine that I’d have the Sony RX100 since it fulfills almost all of those criteria. I did for a while, then a few things about it niggled me to the point that I wasn’t using it anymore, so I sold it. My pathalogical need to carry a camera with me all the time means I’m in the market for a replacement; I have to remind myself that this kind of spec is actually not easy to find at any size. I still don’t know which one of these I’m most willing to compromise on; I suppose it’s size since I’ll land up carrying one of the DSLRs and a 24-120/4 VR if I need versatility. But it’s still not compact, and the mere fact that I’m carrying it turns photography from something that I’ll do if the opportunity arises into the reason for my being there, which can compromise the actual objectives of my excursion.
Let’s take a look at the choices that make up my shortlist – assume I’m aiming for pocket carry, which excludes any of the larger compacts or large-sensor fixed cameras; you really have to use these with a neck strap or live in a very cold country (so you have a jacket with enormous pockets) – the tropics limit you to a belt pouch at most.
Pros: Best sensor and image quality of the bunch; fast and responsive autofocus; f1.8 maximum aperture; buffered 14-bit RAW shooting; impressive video output; relatively compact
Cons: f1.8 maximum aperture is only at the wide end of the lens (it quickly reaches f4.9) and furthermore it needs to be stopped down to have good corner performance; optical stabilizer is nearly useless; near focus limit is laughable; front control dial is useless for changing discrete exposure values because it lacks tactile feedback; no shoe for optical finder; slippery and not so easy to hold securely
Panasonic LX7/ Leica D-Lux 6
Pros: Standout lens – 24-90/1.4-2.3 that delivers excellent performance at all apertures; true multi-aspect ratio sensor; EVF port; buffered RAW shooting; excellent near-focus limits and optical performance; very effective image stabilization
Cons: The sensor could be better, and in some aspect ratios is limited to just 7MP; high ISO performance is so-so; lens very slow to zoom; aperture dial on lens is pointless and just adds to the bulk of the camera; a bit too thick to be pocketable; review images look terrible on LCD; focusing is slow enough to be frustrating at times
Ricoh GR-Digital IV
Pros: Highly responsive and customizable UI; ability to zone focus override; phase detect sensor and expected speed; excellent fast lens (28/1.9) usable at all apertures; good near focus limits; thin enough to fit into just about any pocket; hotshoe for optical finder; great tactile quality
Cons: Sometimes you need more than 28mm; sensor could be better
Ricoh GR-Digital V
Pros: 16MP APS-C sensor with no AA filter; highly responsive and customizable UI; ability to zone focus override; pretty fast focusing (claimed); decent lens; more pocketable than Coolpix A, not as pocketable as GR-D IV; hotshoe for optical finder; great tactile quality
Cons: Sometimes you need more than 28mm; price, though a good $400 cheaper than the A.
Nikon Coolpix A
Pros: That sensor: 16MP APS-C; outstandingly good image quality; excellent lens – not that fast (f2.8) but compensated by the sensor; just about pocketable; buffered RAW; good UI; great build-feel
Cons: No VR; high price; sometimes you need more than 28mm; not the fastest at focusing; price.
Fuji Finepix XF1
Pros: Outstanding JPEG output quality; decent lens but slow at the long end (25-100/1.8-4.9); clever collapsing design gives us both compact stored size and a mechanical zoom ring; largeish 2/3″ type sensor; reasonably fast focusing; passable image stabiliser.
Cons: RAW files are utterly terrible – nowhere near as good as the JPEGs; slow aperture at the long end; somewhat odd UI logic in places; the lens can be a bit fiddly; build quality feels cheap in places
Fuji Finepix X20
Pros: Decent JPEGs; good fast lens with IS; a very, very enjoyable camera to shoot with; high tactile quality; decent optical finder with shooting information display.
Cons: Subpar image quality at anything other than base ISO; avoid DR200/400 modes due to noise; it isn’t really pocketable – nearly the same size as an OM-D with 14-42 pancake zoom.
Clearly, everything is a compromise. You’d think it isn’t that difficult to make something which fits the bill simply because it’d sell well enough that the R&D investment would be worthwhile; however, it really seems that none of the people designing compacts these days are actually photographers. Instead of getting simplified menus and adequate manual controls, we must have mode dials which are mostly full of positions that are never used, gimmicky features like ‘pet beauty smile retouch mode’ and exposure compensation that requires a secret button sequence to access.
Why are all the companies stuck in the mindset that small must be for idiots and people who get converted from the spec sheet alone (marketing: ‘more of everything – megapixels, scene modes, fps – is better!’) and that anybody ‘serious’ must have a large, overly complicated and bulky compact? Even then, we’re still crippled by the marketeers: two command dials is no longer enough, three is now the benchmark. Some of these ‘compacts’ are larger than system cameras – the Nikon P7700 and Canon G15, for instance, are almost the same size as an OM-D body. I’d rather put a pancake zoom (the Panasonic 14-42 X is pretty good, actually – just a little slow in aperture) pay the slight size penalty and take the much larger sensor and every other benefit that camera offers.
Sony and Panasonic are the only two companies to come close, but both drop the ball in ways that could easily be fixed. Frustratingly, it feels like I’m looking for Goldilocks here: just like the fairytale, she doesn’t exist in reality. A moderate speed, 3-4x zoom on a 1″ or APS-C sensor would be perfect – it seems we can have one or the other, not both (and yes, I am aware that lenses for larger sensors need to be physically larger, too). Or maybe they just want to sell us one more iteration before we get what we want. Perhaps I should just give up and settle for the Coolpix A or GRD V; still, there are times when you just want to use a narrower perspective. If I’ve missed a possible contender, please leave a comment; hopefully it could be the one…MT
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