Thursday, May 21, 2009

Finding a Good Low-light, Wide-Angle Compact Digital Camera

I've owned and used various digital DSLRs from Canon. I've also owned and used various lenses--both zooms and primes--in various photography situations, both professionally and recreationally.

One felt need that periodically but persistently emerges for me is having a smallish camera I can easily bring with me when I go on short excursions with my family--places like a playground, ice cream stand, the mall, etc--that doesn't hang out in front of me on a neck strap proclaiming me to be a "camera geek"...and hitting my kids in the head everytime I turn toward them (they're young and short)!

At the same time, this smallish camera has to take photos in all sorts of suboptimal lighting conditions and produce image files that I can enlarge to make good quality 10x15 and 12x18 prints--or even use as stock--if I happen to capture some great off-the-cuff images. (75% or more of the photos I take are candids.)

The common vision among photographers is imagining oneself being Henri Cartier-Bresson with a Leica, finding and taking impromptu shots that end up being works of art! Well, even a Leica M series camera--both film and digital--weighs over a pound. And even though they may be more compact than a SLR or DSLR, they're still larger than the digital "compacts" and "ultra-compacts" you see around these days.

The problem with these compact digital cameras is they usually have one or more of the following weaknesses:
  1. Too much digital image noise at and/or above 200 ISO
  2. Can't focus in low-light
  3. Have small maximum apertures (you're lucky to get an aperture as large as f/3.5 at the wide end of the focal length range)
  4. Can't save images in an unprocessed raw image format
  5. Seldom go wider than about a 35mm (full-frame equivalent) focal length angle of view
  6. Poor lens and/or image quality compared to DSLRs
  7. Limited manual/creative controls
A couple of years ago, I bought a Canon PowerShot S60 to fill this gap. It's a 5 megapixel camera which, by today's standards, is pretty low-resolution. However, it has a lot of nice features that many digital compacts don't:
  1. You can record images in raw format
  2. It focusses pretty well in low light (with the help of an AF assist light)
  3. Goes as wide as 28mm full-frame equivalent focal length
  4. Has a relatively large maximum aperture at 28mm of f/2.8
  5. Pretty good optics and image quality
  6. Good manual/creative controls
While I got some images I probably wouldn't have gotten otherwise (i.e., situations when I wouldn't have taken a DSLR, so I wouldn't have had *any* camera available), the S60 comes up short in three areas:
  1. Digital noise: even at 200 ISO it starts to get pretty horrendous
  2. That maximum aperture reduces very quickly as you zoom...all the way down to f/5.3 at the other end of the zoom range
  3. 5 megapixels doesn't cut it anymore for anything other than web images or small prints
The combination of #1 and #2 made it necessary to take flash photos in most low light situations. This was my biggest disappointment with the camera.

Well, I started looking around again for a good compact camera. The three that currently seem to stand out in terms of low-light performance and image quality are the: 1) Sigma DP2, 2) Leica D-Lux 4, and 3) Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3.

The big selling point for the Sigma DP2 seems to be the size of its sensor; it's similar to putting the sensor from a 1.6 crop factor Canon DSLR into a compact camera. With this larger sensor comes better dynamic range, detail resolution, and low noise performance. The DP2 comes with a relatively large maximum aperture of f/2.8; but the lens is fixed at one focal length: 41mm (full-frame equivalent).

I was pretty impressed by the sample photos I've seen online from the DP2; they looked smoother and looked to have better detail than the images from the other two cameras. Also, this camera seems to have *very* nice bokeh (background blur).

I almost decided to get it. What stopped me?
  1. Even though the larger sensor seems to yield better quality images in good light, the advantage goes away--or is greatly reduced--in low light
  2. By all accounts I've seen, the focussing--especially in low light--is significantly better with the other two cameras
  3. Focal length is fixed at 41mm. I actually think this a relatively good focal length to be fixed at if you have to pick one. But sometimes 28mm and 24mm can be so handy!
  4. The maximum resolution of the images that come out of the DP2 are 2640 x 1760 pixels (about 4.6 megapixels). Even though it has been shown repeatedly that these images can be successfully up-sized to much larger than this, I don't like the idea of having to up-size most of the images I take to make them useful for my applications.
  5. This review of the DP1, which has the same sensor as the DP2
So, then I focussed more carefully on the other two cameras: the Leica and the Panasonic. First, let's look at a few specifications, which are virtually identical between the two cameras:
  • 10.1 megapixels
  • 24-60mm (35mm film equivalent) Leica branded lens
  • max aperture: f/2.0 - f/2.8
  • ISO range: 80 - 6400
  • Focus modes (Normal,Macro,Quick AF,Continuous AF,Manual Focus,One Shot AF,AF Area Select,AF Tracking )
  • AF Assist Light
  • Metering (Intelligent Multiple,Center Weighted,Spot)
  • Output formats: JPEG, RAW
  • Image stabilization
  • More specs (Panasonic Lumix LX3, Leica D-Lux 4)
From these few specs, I think you can see these are not your average compact digital cameras. They've got DSLR-level features and are well set up for wide-angle, low-light photography.

I found that the Leica was retailing for around $700 (May 2009); the Sigma was going for about $650. What about the Panasonic? Around $500. I'll come back to the issue of price a little later.

Well, it turns out there's all sorts of speculation on the web regarding the differences between the Leica D-Lux 4 and Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3. Some say it's the exact same camera with slightly different "packaging". Some say the differences are quite evident.

I did searches at both Google and Yahoo to find people who had access to both cameras and were taking comparison test images. Here are a few links if you're interested:
Here's what I decided: they are very close. Sometimes I think I see an advantage for the Leica. But then I think they're *so* close, a small tweak in the processing of the images (e.g., color, contrast, clarity, sharpening) and I could make either one look better than the other. Also, some of the differences could be attributable to the person taking the photos or slightly different settings or manufacturing tolerances, etcetera.

Now I, like other photographers, am sometimes swayed by "image"; I'm talking about the status related type here. This may seem a shallow consideration; however, showing up with a camera with the name "Leica" on it may engender more confidence in my client than showing up with a camera with the name "BumSplag" on it. Also, if I ever go to sell the camera, other photographers would probably be willing to pay me more for a "Leica" than a "BumSplag".

Since I will still primarily be using my DSLRs for professional photo gigs, I'm not so concerned with the brand name displayed on this camera. This camera is my more casual travel camera. Besides...even the Panasonic says "Leica" along the front edge of the lens! And anyone concerned about resale value of a digital camera when the digital camera manufacturers are putting out newer and "better" digital cameras every month is--in my opinion--a little off-base!

So, I'm opting for the $200 cheaper Panasonic. But wait...there's more!

It turns out that the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 comes in both black and silver. The black version looks much more like the Leica D-Lux 4. I assume--I don't know this for a fact--that this similarity to the Leica is why the black version sells for more than the silver version?! I saw the black version of the LX3 selling for $30 more than the silver version at B&H. I guess the black version is more hip....and more Leica-like!

Anyway, as I write this blog post, it's actually difficult to find LX3s in stock right now. So, both the silver and black versions are going for a premium right now (more than $500).

Well, let me leave you with a tip: I found a silver version of the DMC-LX3 at Dell Computers for $429.99. It's unclear to me whether it's actually in stock (i.e., it doesn't say it's *out* of stock). But for that price, I can afford to wait a little for my uncool silver "Leica-like" compact to arrive...;-).

Addendum 1: it turns out they're actually back-ordered at Dell. I canceled my order and bought a lightly used one from eBay. At this time (6/8/09), eBay is probably your best bet for finding one of these right now...!)

Addendum 2: A new camera from Olympus will start shipping in July (2009) that is definitely competitive in this category of cameras: the Olympus E-P1.

Michael Grace-Martin is a professional wedding, portrait, event, stock, and fine art photographer based in Upstate New York. He is also the author of this blog. All images and text are (c) Michael Grace-Martin Photography. His main website is:

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