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.

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!