Sunday, May 12, 2013

Compact cameras

I'm a firm believer in having a compact camera, despite also have a camera system with two bodies and five lenses as well as a usable camera in the smartphone. The reason for this is that an easily accessible compact camera is a lot faster to use than a system camera or smartphone. As an example, all the pictures from the MTB-Turku spring camp were taken "on the run" without affecting the riding speed of the group, and with a camera slower to use I would only have gotten a few pics from the short breaks. This type of photography also defines what kind of compact camera is suitable for me: It has to be small enough to fit into a larger pocket or the "gas tank" bag of the bike as well as operable with one hand, including getting it in and out of the pocket/bag while riding. This means that the largest pocket cameras are not small enough, but the biggest limit is that the lens cap has to be automatic, in one way or another. And the possibility to do time lapses is also needed, either through built-in functionality or a interval remote.

The best compact camera currently is probably the Sony RX1. With its full-frame sensor and 3000 € price it is a camera for very specific needs, and it does not have an automatic lens cap. Returning down to earth and more normal prices, we have the Sony RX100 as the current king of the hill. It is a little too expensive for my use and budget, though. The image quality should be excellent, but its 28-100 mm equivalent f1.8-4.9 lens has a quite small aperture in the tele end. Despite the rather large sensor, this limits the possible DOF control. It does have an automatic lens cap.

Another interesting camera is the  Panasonic LX7. It has a good lens, 24-90 mm equivalent f1.4-2.3, which should enable at least some control of the DOF. Is it possible to get an automatic lens cap for it?

I have a Canon S90 since three years. It is a good compact camera and has held up to a lot of abuse. The latest incarnation, the S110, is still an interesting alternative, but the RX1 and LX7 cameras beat it in almost all aspects. The 24-120 mm equivalent f2.0-5.9 has an unnecessary small aperture in the tele end, preventing any softening of the background in most cases.

The Olympus XZ-2 has the same excellent lens as the popular XZ-1. The 28-112 mm equivalent f1.8 to 2.5 allows at least some control of the DOF. An automatic lens cap is available.

The above cameras are the ones I've been at least a little interested in. For a more complete round-up, see here or here.

Some time ago the kids started to want a camera to play with. My three year old Canon S90 still works well, but I started to look into getting another camera for myself and giving the S90 to the kids. I didn't want to pay too much, though, but I do have a brief experience with a cheaper compact before I bought the S90. I returned the camera after a taking some test pictures. It had 14 MP, but the picture quality was worse than that of my previous 7 MP camera and I ended up with the S90, which I have been satisfied with. From what I've seen, the cheap compact cameras are not much better than a good smartphone camera.

I regularly checked if the Canon S100 would be on sale after the S110 came out, but didn't find one for a reasonable price. Instead I noticed that my local Rajala camera shop sold the Olympus XZ-1 for just 199 € and after some googling I bought it.

After using the XZ-1 for a month I'm quite satisfied with it. The sensor level image quality is neither worse nor better than the of the Canon S90, but the lens is significantly better. Both have 10 MP, which mostly is quite sufficient. If the picture otherwise is technically in order, you can make a pretty big print from 10 MP. The XZ-1 also has a built-in three stop ND filter, making it possible to use a large aperture also in good light. There is no built-in timelapse software, but a cheap interval remote works fine. The Canon S90 got timelapse functionality with the CHDK. I would prefer a built-in electronic viewfinder in addition to the back display, but only the Fujifilm cameras have that. I do have the Olympus VF-2 electronic viewfinder, which fits the XZ-1, but being a separate item, I might not use it much. The camera came with an ordinary lens cap with an attachment strap, that falls off when the camera is started. That doesn't still allow you to put away the camera with one hand, so I got the optional automatic lens cap that is attached to the filter thread.

The main advantage of the XZ-1 compared to the S90 is that you can actually soften the background at least a little, which I think is quite usable. The bokeh isn't the smoothest, though, which sometimes is visible and sometimes not.

You won't get the same short DOF as cameras with bigger sensors, though. An m43 camera with a good lens, like the 45/1.8 here, gives more possibilites and going up to APS-C or fullframe sensors it gets even easier.

Another feature I like a lot is the super macro setting. This is something I've never had before. It focuses, with full autofocus, down to 1 cm from the lens. The S90 didn't focus this close even in manual focus, which was a pain to use.

The large aperture is useful even in this macro mode: Compare the previous picture with this one, which is taken with a smaller aperture.

There are of course downsides. Every camera is a compromise and it is hard to get image quality, size and an affordable price in one package. The XZ-1 is a good enough solution for my purpose, but there are some drawbacks:
- The video is not good enough for me, but I do have another very good camera for that purpose.
- The camera could do the shutdown routines in a different order. Currently it empties the buffers to the memory card before it retracts the lens, while I would prefer it to retract the lens first. This is of importance in group rides when you need to be very fast.
- The mode dial on the top is too loose. I use only the aperture priority mode, but the dial doesn't always stay there. I might try some tape with it.
- It is bigger than the S90 and does not fit into a jeans pocket.
- The image quality degenerates quickly on ISO values higher than 400. A camera like the Sony RX100 probably has a two stop advantage here, though the faster lens of the XZ-1 levels the field a little.

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