Sunday, April 20, 2008

Compact Camera Considerations

So I went to a friend's wedding last weekend and pretty good it was too. I took my little IXUS 800 and took something in the region of 200 pictures or the build up, the ceremony and the debauched celebrations afterwards before drunkenly leaving it in the hotel bar for some scally to walk off with. Gutted. Don't give a stuff about the camera itself (2 years old, worth about £50 now) but I'm quite sickened that even if someone fancies walking off with the camera they couldn't just take the memory card out and leave it somewhere. Buggers. Also I don't know how they propose charging it without the charger...

Anyways, I'm not going to dwell. What I need to do is get a new camera. Normally I'd just go and get a new Canon, one with a lot more flexibility and manual control, and the candidate for that is the Powershot G9. It's fairly ugly as cameras go, but has 6x zoom (35mm-210mm), 1/1.7" CCD sensor, can shoot in RAW, has all the creative modes common on SLRs and an aperture of F2.8-4.8. It comes with decent reviews, as you would expect of Canon, and the image quality is good, but as Digital Photography Review puts it "a small, noisy sensor is a small noisy sensor no matter what kind of tank you build around it or how many 'professional' features you build into the body."

There is another option, but it comes at a price, both in features and financially, and that's the new Sigma DP1. I've been interested in this camera since I heard Sigma were working on it. They took a few years to perfect it and bring it to market but by all accounts the results in terms of image quality are stunning. It uses a Foveon sensor, one of only 2 cameras (both Sigma) on the market to do so. I'm not going to go into the detail of Foveon versus Bayer sensors here, that's what Wikipedia is for, but Bayer filter sensors have long been known to have limitations compared to the way traditional film works. The Foveon sensor was designed to overcome this and I'll leave it up to you to decide whether they were successful. To my un-artschooled eye I reckon they did an awesome job because the images I've seen from the DP1 are out of this world. Take a look at this one from Carl Rytterfalk (a great photography blog that I'm going to keep up with):

Now what's the chances of getting a picture like this, with the shallow depth of field, nice bokeh, dramatic colours and dynamic range normally associated with a full size SLR using a standard compact Nikon and Canon camera? It's possible with the DP1 because it uses an SLR-sized sensor - 7 times bigger than the G9's. Browsing through DP1-tagged images on Flickr was also truely inspiring.

But here's the problem. Lens is good at 28mm effective focal length, aperture is ok at F4 - the DoF above is possible because of the larger sensor and I don't think would be possible even with the F2.8 of the Canon G9 - but there's no zoom, apparently it's rather slow (but this can be mitigated with a few settings) and at around £600 it's double the price of the G9. I imagine I'd be rather precious of it at this price and probably wouldn't be lending it to friends to run off and take a few snaps with.

However, the image quality is stunning and I would finally own a compact camera usable in low light (see here for some ISO 800 shots). I'm truly stuck as to which to go for. Ideally I'd go for both as it seems I've got two different uses for this - great quality shots from when I don't want to lug around an SLR and candid friends/events/holiday snaps. It's tricky. What do you reckon?


Tim said...

I dunno, both of those cameras are a bit huge for my tastes, and £600 is a stupid price for a compact camera that isn't a Leica. I've found the GX-100 pretty good, and that was only £250. The original Ricoh GR1 can be had on ebay for just over £100 and that truly is compact. Plus you'd never have to worry about dynamic range or sensor noise.

Will said...


Canon G9 - 106.4 x 71.9 x 42.5mm, weight 320g
Sigma DP1 - 113.3 x 59.5 x 50.3mm weight 250g
Ricoh GX100 - 111.6 × 58.0 × 25.0 mm weight 250g

The Ricoh's thinner, but only a fraction smaller in other dimensions. Not enough to get excited about.

I looked at the Leica but hear it's not all that. I'm not going to go for something just because of a name.

You always have to worry about dynamic range and sensor noise on small sensors, fact of life. The lens is only half the story with digital. This from DPReview on the GR1 - "High noise levels at all ISO settings, noise visible even at ISO 64". I guess the question is, what are you willing to put up with?

Tim said...

Thing is, the DP1 is a big and shapeless brick. The GX100 is more pocketable, and the thickest part is due to the zoom lens. It also has a proper rubberised grip so it's comfortable to hold and use. The DP1 doesn't. I think you'd be mad to buy a DP1- it's really untested technology. If the big sensor is that important, wait for some of the big boys to bring out their answers to it.

I meant the film GR1, not the first GR Digital.

Will said...

I've decided, I'm going for a G9, but not right away as I'm going to try to get more comfortable taking my 40D out and about.

I think I need to switch to RAW+JPEG though as all the post-processing takes ages sometimes and isn't always needed.

Tim said...

The G9 is a good camera, but it's too big to fit in your pocket and as a result you won't take it anywhere you wouldn't take an SLR.

I think I might have got this instead of the GX100 if I were buying one now, purely cos it's more pocketable: