Deconstructed photography, part two: compact camera masterclass

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Imprint. Iphone 4

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

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Church reflection, Melaka. RX100

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.

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May arches. RX100

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.

– Stealth
– 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

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Two old ladies framed, Melaka. RX100

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.

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Tranquility. RX100

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.

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A night out. RX100

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.

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Tokyo nights. RX100

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.

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Duplicity. RX100

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.

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Crossing. RX100

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.

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In front but not driving. RX100

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?

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Imagined patterns.

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.


Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Deconstructed photography, part one: identifying the essentials

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None of the images in this article have any clues as to the camera used, but I feel that they’re strong images nevertheless; if you’re curious you can click through to the image’s flickr hosting page and scroll down to the bottom right; EXIF data is there. Try to ask yourself first though: are there any giveaways that mean it could only have been shot with one particular format or piece of equipment?

This is the first article in a two-part series about photography today, with the ultimate objective – as always – of making a great image, but this time taking full advantage of all the technology at our disposal. After spending some time with medium format in a quest to get another one of those creative spurts brought on by a major change in equipment, I’ve pretty much made a complete U turn and am contemplating a Nikon P7700 instead. Allow me to explain; excuse the somewhat roundabout logic, but I think it will make sense once we reach the end.

We need to backtrack a bit to take into account some fundamental viewer psychology. In the increasingly huge sea of images that are being produced today, what stands out are those that look different from the rest. And for the most part, that difference is obtained by turning something up to 11, rather than nailing the fundamentals of what makes an outstanding image. Commonly seen ‘techniques’ include: oversaturation, HDR, fake cross-processing-hipstagram-effects, over-contrasty black and white conversions, ultrawide perspectives, supertele perspectives, walls of nothing but bokeh…I think you can see where this list is going. In short: if one aspect of the image has to shout to cover the deficiencies of the other portions, then this cannot be a good image in the first place because it fundamentally has those has deficiencies to begin with.

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Yet the very reason why these types of images stand out will erode as there are more of them in circulation: they will no longer look different from the rest of the pack. This brings us back to a focus on the fundamental things that make an image work; I’ve said this so many times I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody decides to engrave it on my tombstone (or perhaps I should get a tattoo of it) – light, subject, composition; then, the idea. The idea can come first and override the other three if it’s strong enough, or it can be the underlying reason for their execution. Images with all four properties will endure time and transcend the medium: a strong image in this way will still be arresting whether it was shot with an iPhone or a medium format back.

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In that case, why isn’t it the focus of every aspiring photographer to nail the fundamental structure of an image before worrying about the number of pixels or number of stops of dynamic range it has, or the maximum speed of their lens? Simply because it’s much more difficult to do so. On the other hand, photographic technology has some so far in recent times that there are few reasons why we should continue to bother with the technicalities of it all, so long as you know how to control the fundamental parameters that affect the audience’s perception of the image: in a way, it’s taking the Apple design approach to photography. We identify the fundamentals, throw away what isn’t important, and spend a lot more time focusing on what does matter. But at the same time, we avoid things that can be gimmicky or difficult to execute with the aim of providing the average photographer with a nice set of fundamental skills that will serve in the majority of situations.

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Although I suspect most photographers already shoot this way – aim, focus, compose to varying degrees of precision and consideration, perhaps compensate exposure, then shoot – a lot of them hide behind the pretence of a lot of complex-looking settings and adjustments that are seldom used outside fully automatic mode, and more often than not just confuse and get in the way when an accidental button press delivers behaviour other than expected.

What I’m saying is that perhaps we should consider the possibility that for the vast majority of situations, it’s not a bad idea to acknowledge and embrace that. Why do I need to manually set my exposure if the camera’s meter can get it right? Why does it matter what white balance is or the exact Kelvin temperature of a scene if the camera’s automatic white balance can cope? Why do we need to pick the focus point if most of the time, the camera is right, and the rest of the time, extended depth of field covers the errors? Why spend time processing RAW files individually if the JPEGs are excellent, or even better?* Let technology do the work, and forget about all of those settings that don’t matter – don’t even bother including them. Why should there be an option for dynamic range 100%, 200% and 400% when clearly we want 400% for 99% of situations? We shouldn’t even need custom functions if the camera behaves in a sensible and consistent manner.

*See my recent Fuji FinePix XF1 review.

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Since it’s unlikely that I’ll ever be approached by a camera maker and offered both a blank sheet of paper and some deep funds, we’ll have to make do with what we’ve got. And in the marketing-driven world of photographic products, we actually have to go to either extreme of the product spectrum to find what we’re looking for: a camera which has solid, reliable automatic functions, no frills, and the basics like exposure compensation and spot metering. It would be nice to have a range of perspectives easily to hand too, though for novices perhaps it’s safer to go with a fixed lens and forgo the temptation to compose with the zoom. Add a good sensor, speed and responsiveness into the mix, and we’re done. I used to be hung up about having an optical viewfinder for stability and visual nuance, but that’s changed with improvements in stabilisation systems, and even more so with increased LCD resolutions more accurately displaying focus at the sensor plane and the added flexibility to shoot from other vantages where the camera doesn’t have to be at your eye. Depth of field control is a nice to have, but not critical; it’s just another way to isolate your subject – but there are many ways of doing that, and it’s not the most pictorially powerful anyway. Too many people rely on extreme bokeh to make an image that looks different; we don’t need super-fast lenses for common applications anymore now that even small sensors are capable of delivering good results at ISO 1600**. Finally, being a pack mule for your equipment isn’t fun: the less we can get away with carrying, the better.

**In the early days of photography, photographers struggled to get more depth of field rather than less – perhaps it was a case of art imitating life (perception), art (photography) imitating art (painting). Yes, we have that additional tool, but don’t overuse it: there is such a thing as too little depth of field. Note that this is different from good/ bad quality of bokeh; another axis of variables, if you will.

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What does this mean in real terms? If you add everything up, for the majority of photographers, we’re looking at a prosumer compact, possibly with a larger sensor, possibly not. These cameras are designed to be automated; the manual controls are just put in mostly to appease the marketers and obsessive photographers who like to twiddle their aperture dials, oblivious of the fact that with a 20mm real focal length, there will be no visible difference in depth of field at f5.6 or f8 with a subject that’s 30m away, or that no matter what focusing mode you use, it’ll still be too slow to track action. I am not saying that all photographers should abandon control; if anything, the opposite. I certainly won’t be replacing my full-frame DSLR and lenses with a compact for client-critical work anytime soon, if ever. What I’m saying is that for casual photography, we should focus on mastering control of the elements that matter, which conveniently are also those that can easily be taken care of even with the most basic of cameras. For most uses, those are limited to a few critical things: light (exposure compensation), composition (perspective, positioning, focus) and subject (timing). The rest are secondary or specialised.

Compacts have some big advantages that often get overlooked:
– They’re small and discrete, easily portable and don’t attract attention;
– They cover focusing errors through extended depth of field;
– They might have limited dynamic range compared to larger sensor cameras, but that can actually be helpful from a pictorial/ artistic point of view by emphasizing contrast and differences in light;
– You can carry a lot of perspectives in a small size, without too many optical compromises – 28-200 isn’t unheard of, and I believe there’s a Canon that even covers 24-1200m (!!);
– They focus close, once again allowing perspectives that might not otherwise be possible;
– Extended depth of field + unusual perspectives = compositions not easily achievable with a larger sensored camera, e.g. highly compressed images with everything in focus
– They’re very easily positionable; lenses can be poked through holes in fences or walls, held high or low etc. – especially the swivel screen models
– Sensor and stabilizer technology has come a long way. With the D800E, I might need ISO 6400 to shoot at f8, 35mm and get enough shutter speed to handhold without shake; even with VR. Let’s assume the stabilizer advantage evens out. I could shoot at 17mm and f4 on the OM-D and have the same perspective and DOF, but I’d be using ISO 1600 for the same shutter speed; on say the Panasonic LX7, I could be at a larger aperture than f2 (unfortunately there isn’t one at this focal length) and two stops better again, at ISO 400. We’re looking at some form of equivalence here: sure, the D800E image will have more detail, but that won’t really come through in typical print or display sizes for the majority of photographers***. Perceptually, they’d look pretty similar at a 12×18″/ A3 print; I’d much rather carry the LX7, thanks.
– AF speed has come a long way – for static subjects, we’ve pretty much got as much speed as we need. For moving ones, until we get phase detection sites onto our compact sensors, they’re all equally useless and you’re going to have to find a DSLR.
– Buffer and usability isn’t really an issue anymore; it hasn’t been for compacts since about 2009. My Sony RX100 will shoot 20MP, 14-bit RAW + JPEG fine images at 10fps for 10 frames.
– Price: even the best of the compacts will cost significantly less than a midrange DSLR or mirrorless camera and a decent zoom. Again taking the example of the Sony RX100 – we’re looking at about US$700 +/-, which compares very favorably to even a Nikon D3200 and AFS 16-85/3.5-5.6 VR at approximately US$1,200 – and that doesn’t even come close to the Sony’s f1.8 wide end. And if you get bored of it, it’s not going to cost too much to trade it in for the latest and greatest. (New cameras can be a source of inspiration in themselves, but that’s another topic for another article.)

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You’ll note that I’ve excluded Micro Four Thirds and the other CSCs from this list, mainly because there are compact and good all-in-one lens solutions that make the cameras pocketable. If you don’t mind a bit more bulk and a prime lens, then these are great options too – for not much more size, you get a lot more image quality. But there’s no way you’re going to put even an E-PM2 and the smallest 14/2.5 prime lens into your pocket without risking arrest on public decency laws.

***We’re talking sufficiency here, not ultimate image quality.

Let’s boil this down a bit further: what do we really need in a compact?
– Responsiveness: everything from AF speed to menu operation and navigability, shot-to-shot speed, image review etc. Speed is the priority;
– Fast AF. I can’t emphasize this one enough;
– A fast lens: it’s much easier to make fast, decent zooms that cover a smaller image circle than a larger one; f2 or better on the wide end, and ideally something fairly close on the long end (though that will tend to be compromised as the lens’ reach increases);
– A decent range of perspectives: wide/moderate wide to moderate telephoto; enough to get a clear difference in perspective. Personally, 28-85 is fine for me, though I don’t have any complaints about a bit wider or a bit longer; compact sensors tend to be 4:3 rather than 3:2, and since the focal length posted follows the diagonal of the sensor, you’re going to need a bit more width to get the same horizontal field of view;
– A good LCD. Forget the optical finder, it’s going to be a tiny tunnel. I’d rather have a nice, bright, sharp 3″+ LCD. Bonus points for something with an antireflective coating that’s also visible in daylight, and a tilt/ swivel screen;
– RAW support, or outstanding JPEGs;
– A good image stabilisation system;
– Easily accessed exposure compensation, preferably on a separate dial;
– A sensible auto-ISO mode, ideally allowing setting of minimum shutter speed, if not linked to the focal length used;
– A solid meter, or spot metering, or preferably both;
– Fast image review, with a quick way to check critical focus;
– Finally, tactility matters. Something that feels nice to use will simply be used more often; it’s in the quality of the materials, the feel of the controls/ switches/ buttons/ knobs/ dials; the grippiness of the rubber; the solidity of the build.

In part two, we’ll consider the current candidates and field a bit of a compact camera masterclass.


Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved