My 2 cents about the recent best compact cameras

You want a small camera but you know what you are doing and demand the best: great image quality, great controls, total management of ISO/aperture/speed. The cameras makers like you, no doubt we are a kind of cash cow for them. New cameras are released every quarter and you have the choice: Fuji X-10, Canon S100, Canon G1-X, Sony RX100, Samsung EX2F, Panasonic LX-7  and I am sure I may miss one or two more.

The Fuji and the Samsung are quite stable when it comes to the zoom aperture, from f/1.4 to f/2.8. But for the others, it is highly variable. From a f/1.8 or f/2.8 to f/4.9 if not f/5.9. I understand why, but it does not make sense to me: like many enthusiasts or Pro,I am not used shooting with lens over f/4 if not f/2.8 or even f/1.4 and between f/1.4 and f/5.9 there are over 3 EV (three stops), which is really a lot. That’s the price for a bigger sensor. it may be a marketing clue, but for a photographer, it is more than an issue, it is a non sense. The Fuji and the Samsung look to me far more consistent. I prefer to sacrifice a little bit of image quality which is nowadays outstanding by the way with so many sensors, than using aperture I am not used to in terms of EV and depth of field, and which ruins the advantage of a bigger sensor (disclaimer: I have a Canon S100, a great little jewel, but with a stupid zoom at f/5.9 to its maximum).

The Fuji X-10 is actually a compromise to the X-1 Pro: not really pocketable, a great camera not so small and with some true limitations (an OVF better than many, but not sufficient either). The G1-X is too big too. It seems to be a compromise to Canon new mirrorless cameras.

About Controls

Controls are usually OK but not terrific. they are rarely if never 3 dials for the 3 main controls (ISO, aperture, speed) and the body’s controls are hardly customizable, whereas there are no two skilled photographers having the same controls requirements. Cameras makers still think too much “product” whereas they should think “plateform” for any high end camera, compact or DSLR or mirrorless.

Surprisingly, most of the bloggers and journalists insist on the image quality rather than the consistency of the body to a given user’s profile and don’t focus well at how critical the controls can be in a shooting. Either because they are too much geeks, or because that’s their readers which are too much geeks. But I may say they could educate us better!

The Panasonic LX-7 seems to be an exception: a missed oppotunity. They really worked well at improving the controls, but the job look unfinished to me. No flip-out display, a somewhat chunky camera, tiny and not customizable buttons, only 2 dials, and one does not seem to be customizable. Panasonic LX has failed so far to bring outstanding controls on their great bodies, they seem to confirm, sadly, this tradition.

The bottom line

High end compact cameras are great as a second camera for skilled DSLR owners. They cannot compete for lenses’ focal above typically 75-80 mm (FX equivalent), which is the minimum for a portrait focal but should not opened above f/2.8 too. I have owned compacts starting at 28 mm or 24 mm and believe me the 4 mm are a real difference. Such cameras should always start at 24 mm (FX equivalent). Controls are paramount and should include 3 dials customizable + typically at least 2 Fn buttons also customizable. They should be truly pocketable (e.g. like the S100) and it is OK if they can shoot only at say 800 ISO JPG / 1600 RAW, I mean it is not their primary role to excel at very high iso, as long as they are still good within this range. A flip-out display is a must, that’s a clear requirement. There are much more requirements but they are usually fulfilled yet. The Samsung EX2F looks to me to be the best match so far. Let’s see what the tests will say… and whether or not the public will agree with me! If so, the (stupid) race for “the bigger sensor in the smaller body and too bad if the zoom is at f/5.9” will at last be over.

Updated in October 2012: unfortunately, the ring around the lens is just ergonomic, and not a control ring like in the Canon S100 and the Sony DSC RX100. The handling appears to be not so good too. So I can’t find any winner! Canon S100/110 is really great but suffers from a stupid f/5.9 telezoon. Same issue for the bigger and better Sony DSC RX100. Both don’t have the great flip-out display of the Samsung.

I am certainly not a Samsung fan boy, but again this company understands what a user case means and seems to focus more at that than either Sony who believe still in marketing gadgets, or Nikon and Canon, my preferred brands, who look so obsolete so often or at least not capable to sacrifice their cash cow for a long term vision.

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An off-beat apology of small sensors

Every month, a new camera is released and their is a real inflation of bigger and bigger sensors: mirrorless sensors at APS-C’s size are now more or less the norm whereas it used to be the micro 4/3 a few years ago. The rumour says a new Nikon D600 low cost full frame will be released in 2012. Sony released a competitor of the Canon S100 (expert compact camera very small) with of course a bigger sensor. Canon refused to release like the others a mirrorless, just to release a bigger new G compact camera, the G1-X.

It is a well known fact, the bigger the sensor, the better the quality. A better quality for either portrait photography (Colour depth), landscapes or actions shots (read DxO Mark for more information). So it seems to be a no brainer: take the bigger sensor available and shoot. That’s cannot be more simple no? Actually, that’s not so black and white. Let me be more specific:

Don’t follow the herd

First, one should notice that when the sensors’ sizes are inflating, so are prices too (Canon G1-X and Sony new camera DSC-RX100 are much more expensive than Canon G12, the precedent G camera and Canon S100, the most obvious Sony competitor).

Even more important, small body does not go so well with bigger sensor even if some manufacturers did miracles (Sony and the NEX cameras, Sony again with the DSC-RX100, and Canon with the G1-X). Conversely, some mirrorless with small sensor (Nikon 1) can be chunky compare with other cameras with bigger sensors. But I mean, if you want to make it small and light, small sensors have more potential.

More important, the depth of field (DOF) is always much significant with small sensors, it is actually quite dramatic. For many photographers, that’s a pain because many, like me, like to play with the shallow DOF. But in many occasions, a great DOF can make some of your pictures really better. Some photographers can make excellent pictures with small sensors, taking advantage of their huge DOF.

I have already explained why small sensors can suffice in many occasions. Nowadays, small sensors are so good in normal light conditions, you many not need a bigger one. AF speed, controls ergonomics, view finder are still often a pain, but that’s not a sensor’s size issue.

The final word: controls and ergonomics suck, not sensors

Don’t be a pigeon, don’t pay too much for something you don’t need. More important, take advantage of small sensors specificities. Learn the limits of your camera, and you will know which one you really need. It may be one expensive with a bigger sensor, or not, but as usual, don’t believe the marketing guy.

I may recommend manufacturers to rather focus at controls ergonomics which most of the time really suck. We don’t need bigger sensors with more pixels, we need cameras easy to use with direct access to the main controls we need so that we may focus on taking picture rather that “where is the damned option” or “How do I change this”. The issue is not trivial, and manufacturers are very conservative when it comes to ergonomics. I am no Apple fan boy, but who will be the Steve Jobs of cameras?

A genuine test of the underwater WP-DC43 Case for Camera Canon S100

I have bought the Canon S100 as a second camera (a Nikon DSLR is my main camera) and I like the idea to protect it to depths of up to 40m with the optional WP-DC43 waterproof case.

Indeed, whereas you can find a lot of underwater point-and-shoot cameras, none so far can shoot raw, and their sensors, even for the best (Panasonic DMC-TS4), are no match to the S100. Conversely, the cameras with better sensor usually propose underwater case at a price far higher, and are usually much bigger and heavier.

So the S100 + WP-DC43 looked to me like a nice compromise: not cheap but not too expensive for a full manual-raw camera with a great (small) sensor, a small and light body, and very capable of taking great pictures.

Whereas I have not yet dived with both, I have made my first tests, and I have been struggling finding online reviews from users. So these are my first impressions, which are, so far, the only genuine ones as far as I know:

I like: many details are making it “almost” professional: light diffuser for the flash (works quite well if you are not in macro mode and remember that the S100 flash is not exactly the best for its class), you can use a tripod. It’s easy to put the S100 inside the case and to remove it. The leash works quite well too. Last and of course not least: easy to handle, controls and buttons can be used with gloves, it’s really easy to use it in the case. It is even somewhere easier than without!

Issues: you cannot use any longer the rear wheel! You can still use the front one however. So basically, the S100 is not as seamless to use manually as without the case, but you can still have full control. It is an issue you can live with, but that’s a real one. Further more, there is no cap for the front window of the case, that’s really too bad. And there is no bag either for the case itself. One made in neoprene would have made sense. The light diffuser’s leash cannot be attached to the body without some additional small carabiner (not included of course). The buoyancy of the case and the camera altogether is really positive, you really need to add some weight to make it neutral. Of course it is written nowhere in the S100 mini-website (or show me where please), but you can purchase the weights (Canon WWDC1, image on the left), actually you really need them for diving.

Image quality for underwater pictures: remember, the S100 can shoot RAW, has some very nice low light capabilities and can open at f/2.0 at 24 mm, but cannot be synchronized with additional flash but the small one embedded. Please also note than the sensor is still quite small even if bigger than most of the point and shoot. Therefore, the depth of field is really significant, often too much. Conversely, in macro mode, that’s making the shooting straightforward compare with APS-C or FX sensors.

 
An extreme shot, close to some dangerous wildlife, WB auto, no flash, low light.

Conclusion: the S100 and its underwater case are not cheap, but they are a very decent option to take serious underwater pictures, for the fraction of the price of a DSLR and its 40 meters depth underwater case. However, they are issues and limitations, which could not be negligible for some, but which I believe to acceptable, even if regrettable for most of them.

Do you really need a better camera? Episode 4: everyday life

I am comparing a DSLR and a compact, both modern and famous for their excellent quality images (Nikon D7000, Canon S100), in order to evaluate when we really need to get one or the other, or both together. Sometimes, I am also comparing the pictures with those taken by a smartphone (Samsung Galaxy SII).  I am also doing this as I have noticed this kind of comparison is seldom done. Most of the time, people are comparing cameras of the same kind but don’t ask themselves whether they really need this category of camera. Previously, I have noticed that outdoor/landscapes shots during the day may not really require the big and fat DSLR. I mean I have been surprised by the performances of modern tiny sensors as soon as there is enough light. However, I have also noticed that for Macro, the DSLR was still much better.

So now let’s come to a very basic kind of pictures: portraits done inside. Everybody is taking some, of friends, family, … I have chose to shoot at the end of the afternoon, my little baby, either when she was playing, or in the arms of her mother but with back to the light. These two kind of pictures are actually technically quite challenging for the cameras, and this time, again, thanks God, the DSLR is again much better, as expected:

The very compact camera cannot be fast at 120mm equivalent (f/5.9). I had to shoot at 1600 ISO, and the speed was from far too slow (1/8 s). The stabilization does not help so much as a baby is not always standing still.

With a modern DSLR and a fast zoom (70-200 VRII f/2.8), everything works as expected, thanks God. This gear (body + zoom) is 8 times more expensive and 10 times heavier than the compact!

With back light, the light evaluation was not as good with the compact than with the DSLR. Further more, I had to shoot at 3200 ISO and whereas the speed was almost fast enough, the back light underexposed it so much I had to post-process the RAW to get an acceptable picture. But the noise is pretty much unacceptable! Last and not least, you can compare the depth of field (DOF). f/5.9 and a small sensor is making more or less any picture with too often too much  DOF.

With the DSLR, the picture is not perfect. The back light made the picture under exposed too but the post processing of the RAW file is providing a much more acceptable results. The speed (1/125 s) was what I wanted (I respected the rule 1/f equivalent FX) and the DOF is much more adequate too.

Comparing the grain of both cameras, after applying some noise reduction during the post process, the difference is not obvious, which mean that you should more take care of the dynamic of the sensor than just the MP (which is a little bit a surprise to me by the way). That said, difference between the two sensors is not that big (12 MP and 16 MP):

(Canon S100, crop 1:1)

(Nikon D7000, crop 1:1)

Conclusion:

To make a long story short, there is still room to improve compact cameras for what they are supposed to be good at: family pictures. Whereas not liked by many photographers, and whereas I am still waiting for a Nikon mirrorless which I could use, you can understand the “raison d’être” of the Nikon 1 bodies: a fast autofocus and a much better sensor than compact can provide decent family pictures, which a high end compact camera like the S100 still cannot do really so often.

Do you really need a better camera? Episode 3: macro

So I am continuing my genuine tests between the best pockable compact (Canon S100) and a good DX DSLR (Nikon D7000). Basically, the idea is to understand much better when to use the tiny camera and when the big guy is really demanded:

During the last two episodes, here and here, I have been quite naughty with the great D7000. But as a matter of fact, for still daylight pictures, the small S100 is just a match whatever you are using with the DSLR.

So to go a little bit further, this time I tried to compare macro’s performance of the two beasts. I am using the Nikkor 105mm VR f/2.8 + D7000 versus the small S100.

This time, the clear winner (Yeah, good to spend so much money and carry such an heavy camera) is the DSLR! I took pictures with the S100 at 24 mm equivalent and 120 mm equivalent at the closest range possible.

Apart from a much longer distance to the subject, the macro lens of the DSLR can provide a 1:1 picture, which really makes a difference.

On a side note, the DOF is really bigger with the small sensor of the S100. Both an advantage (Easier to focuse well a picture) and a constraint (some, like me, are enjoying a reduced DOF).

So, to summarize, a compact camera can make some decent close range shots, but cannot compete anywhere with a DSLR… If you know compact cameras which can, please let me know!

Do you really need a better camera: Episode 2 – Landscapes (again)

In the episode 1, I have been surprised to have excellent pictures from a compact camera (Canon S100) compare with an excellent DSLR (Nikon D7000). Of course, I did not push them to their limits, that was not the point. I just wanted to check how a light and small high-end compact could replace efficiently a DSLR either as a second camera or for shooting which don’t required the performances of a DSLR in low light or fast autofocus. So just to be sure, I did additional tests, first at 24 mm (equivalent full frame) with three cameras: a Galaxy SII, the S100 and the D7000. Then with just the last two of them at 50 mm and 120 mm. The 35mm f/1.8 (equivalent 52 mm) of the D7000 has the reputation to be quite sharp and for the 120 mm, I used a 70-200 VRII f/2.8, not a cheap lens! I would assume much better results with the DSLR + great lenses compare with the high-end compact. But again, the tests are saying something different.

At 24mm:

Two pictures taken with the S100 at f/2.0 and f/2.8:

Obviously, the Nikon D7000 does not really provide better image (you can click on the images to see them at their actual size). And again, the smartphone may be smart, but is nowhere a camera able to challenge the two others!

Crop images:

Galaxy SII

Canon S100 – 24 f/2.0

Canon S100 f/2.8

Nikon D7000+Tokina 11-16 at 16mm f/2.8

At f/2.8, the Canon can show much more details and better contrast but, again, I am finding the Tokina and the D7000 somewhat disappointing compare with their tiny and much cheaper competitor…

At 50 mm:

Crop images:

Canon S100 – 50 mm f/4.0

Nikon D7000 + Nikkor DX 35mm f/1.8 at f/4.0

OK the Nikon and the Nikkor will show more details but the difference is nowhere dramatic as we should have expected. We are comparing a fixed lens and a APS-C camera with a compact zoom!

At 120 mm:

Crop images:

Canon S100 at 120 mm f/5.9

Nikon D7000 + Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8 VRII at 120 mm f/2.8

Nikon D7000 + Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8 VRII at 120 mm f/5.6

At f/5.6, the difference is now significant, but certainly not at full aperture of the Nikon! I know, the AF of the small S100 and the DOF cannot be compared with an APS-C DSLR and a pro zoom but to make a long story short:

Conclusion
The S100 is a real option as a 2nd camera during a shooting in “normal conditions”, i.e. without low lights and the necessity to have a very fast AF. Of course, the DOF of two cameras are very different and one cannot make same pictures with both. I don’t believe – regarding DXO tests, that the S100 is the only camera able to perform this way. I just think that modern compact cameras can now really be excellent cameras for serious shooters, even if they may not look like pro cameras!

Do you really need a better camera? – Episode 1: landscapes

The cameras’ manufacturers like when we spend money on their new jewels. Of course we can satisfy our desire for consuming and we can just waste our money. It has the reputation to help against being depressive! Fair enough, but I have always been wondering whether technical improvements were so useful and conversely, I am always wondering which camera do I really need for a shooting?

I am genuinely testing very different cameras : a smartphone, a compact camera and a great DSLR with its sharpest ultra-wide zoon :

Samsung Galaxy 2 (cost and weight virtually nothing as embedded into a phone)
Canon S100 (370 €, 200 g)
Nikon D7000 + Tokina 11-16 f/2.8 (1’700 €, 1’300 g)

The idea is to illustrate thanks to different tests which advantage has each camera based on real life pictures. I don’t intend to make any scientific tests there, just to ponder the necessity of bringing with me a heavy camera (The D7000), or even the necessity to buy or not a compact given the improvements of smartphones’ cameras.

The first test will be very trivial : a landscape, on daylight, still subjects. So I could compare sharpness, contrast, colours, … but I decided to just focus at sharpness on this first test.

Similarly, I compare on purpose JPG and not RAW as I would expect the best camera to provide better JPG too. I have worked with A mode (Aperture priority), and wanted to keep the cameras at f/2,8. That’s indeed the fastest possibility of my Tokina 11-16 and again I would expect given the price, weight and size better results at full aperture with the best camera.

So to make a long story short, I was assuming that at this aperture, the Tokina 11-16 and the D7000 altogether – given the reputation they both have, should be much better than the Canon S100 (and of course of the cheap camera of a one-year-old smartphone!).

First the three pictures :




You may not see it on the web, but you can click on each picture to see them as full scale and on my screen (1900×1200), the Galaxy 2 picture has some visible noise, without making any crop. Given the easy shooting condition, I am disappointed. I am sure newest cameras’ smartphones may be better, but I am sticking to my conclusion : you can shoot with smartphone, but the gap is still immense compare with more serious cameras. Looks trivial, but I am now sure !

Then I cropped at 100 % the D7000 and the S100 :

S100 crop at 100%

D7000 crop at 100%

The D7000 and the Tokina are far from showing more details than the tiny S100, that’s more the other way around ! That was a surprise for me. I don’t want to say the D7000 don’t overcome the S100 in many ways but as a matter a fact, for landscapes done at daylight, I may challenge the reason to carry a so heavy camera ! Nowadays, high end compact cameras have really become extremely capable… OK I need more similar tests with landscapes, but again, on these shots, that’s definitively a real surprise.

Conclusion:

I know I cannot come to a conclusion with just one shot, I will do more tests of course, but so far I have to come the following conclusion: a modern compact camera is just great for taking daylight and still subjects, and DSLR are not always so useful then, at least DX DSLR. Last and not least, smartphones don’t seem to be able to challenge high end compact cameras so far.

If you have made similar tests, please let me know.