Monday, December 28, 2009

The Endless (and Futile?) Search for the Ideal Compact Digital Camera

I've bought and tried out a number of compact digital "point-and-shoot" cameras for taking photos of my children. Many of these photos take place indoors (especially during the winter) and many of them require fast auto-focusing in order to take the photo *before* my kids move or alternatively *while* they are moving; they seldom stay in one place for long!

I recently acquired the Canon S90, which has made vast improvements in low light performance. I had the Canon S60 whose images were unusably noisy at 400 ISO. With the S90, even the 3200 ISO images (if properly exposed) can be used to make small prints or reasonable web images! Another improvement: the S90 is much more pocketable than the S60; you really can get the S90 into a shirt or pant pocket, whereas the S60 needs a coat or jacket pocket. One last improvement: the largest maximum aperture of the S90 at the wide end (28mm) of the zoom range is f/2; the S60 only opened up to f/2.8 at 28mm.

However, that's where the improvements end, at least in terms of what's important to me. The lens quality and auto-focusing speed of the S90 seem no better than the S60.

I miss a *lot* of shots with these cameras that I routinely get with any of my digital SLR cameras because the former don't focus fast enough and can't focus on a moving target. Also, the lens quality and sensor size yield images that I would see if I were using the cheapest, crappiest third party lenses on my digital SLRs--really uninspiring.

I owned the Panasonic Lumix LX3 for a few months this past summer. Compared to the S90, the autofocus speed and lens quality on the LX3 were better, but the low light images on the S90 are much cleaner (i.e., less digital noise). One of the reasons I sold the LX3 was that it wasn't very compact...significantly less so than the S90.

Again, however, the auto-focus speed and image quality on the LX3 were nowhere near those of my digital SLRs...even my old 20D.

In a word, I'm disappointed in the S90's performance as I was in the LX3's. I'm inclined, instead, to either carry my old Canon 20D around more, even though it's obviously not as compact. Or get a cell phone with a better camera.

I currently have a Blackberry, and the camera on it is terrible...much worse than even the S60, for sure! I've heard all the buzz about the great camera on the iPhone (even though it's only 3 megapixels) and, I'll just say, I'm tempted! But I just bought the Blackberry and feel like I can't switch to a new cell phone just yet.

In any case, it's quite clear to me that I'm a SLR guy. To me, much of the magic in photography comes from capturing moments that exist for a split second in dynamic, changing situations.

The only exception to the "SLR rule" for me is using compact 35mm film cameras with high-quality fixed focal length lenses. They're not great for dark indoor shots (unless you don't mind flash photos) and not as flexible as digital (e.g., digital allows changing the ISO setting from shot to shot), but I find the results I get from using film and a high-quality lens makes it a worthwhile endeavor; many of my favorite shots of my family last summer were taken with film cameras! And a much higher percentage of my film shots were "keepers" compared to my digital captures. At the very least, the different look and feel of film photos compared to digital photos makes it worthwhile addition to my collection of family photos each year just because of the aesthetic variety it provides.

What's the purpose of this post? Mostly, I think, it's to tell photographers (including myself) who are endlessly searching for a pocketable, digital, point-and-shoot camera that can rival the performance and image quality of a digital SLR that it's a time-wasting "holy grail" that you'd/I'd be better off side-stepping in favor of either: 1) making peace with carrying around a digital SLR more often and making it as convenient as possible, or 2) going back to some 35mm film photography because the payoff can be so gratifying.

Sure, I'm aware of the in-between offerings of interchangeable lens, four-thirds sensor, digital cameras from Olympus and Panasonic; but they're just a compromise; their sensors are bigger than the digital point-and-shoot compacts, but smaller than even the APS-C size digital SLR sensors; and though their "form factor" is smaller than a digital SLR, they're still not as pocketable as a point-and-shoot compact. And none of them--including the upcoming Leica X1 (which actually has a APS-C size sensor)--can autofocus as fast as a digital SLR, period.

So, stop searching and get out there with your SLRs and 35mm film cameras and take some pictures!...:-)

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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