At Northern Voice, one of the best sessions was the Photo Camp; the only problem was that, at ninety minutes, it was way too short. I did a little presentation on the state of the high-end-compact market (summarized below), but as usually happens at an Unconference, I learned more than I taught.
There was a lot of talk on workflow, something that is increasingly becoming an issue for your average digicam hobbyist. In particular, Roland Tanglao gave a presentation on Adobe Lightroom, and Adobe ought to put that boy on commission, because I bet fifty people are going to buy it. That would include me.
Big thanks to Kris Krug for pulling it together.
[Note to anyone who’s ended up here via search: This was posted in February 2007, and its contents are probably limited in usefulness to a few months following that date.]
Compacts · As I wrote recently in Camera Blues, my my workhorse Canon S70 is dying, and I’m thinking about replacing it. There were a ton of smart comments there and I ended up gathering up enough information to want to share it.
I think it’s terribly important, if you care about pictures at all, to always have a camera at hand. You can agonize forever about composition and white balance and post-processing, but the single most important factor in getting a good picture is having a camera when the good-picture opportunity occurs. For most of us, in particular those who aren’t professionals, an SLR is just too big and too heavy to want to carry it around all the time; my nice Pentax DSLR comes out with me when I have pictures in mind; but most of my best pictures are taken at other times. So some kind of pocket camera is really essential.
There are really two options in a pocket camera: you go small or you go ambitious. For example, Lauren uses a Canon SD400, it’s amazingly small and looks like a jewel; and it takes good pictures. Why would you want anything else? The high-end compacts are bigger and bulkier and might not even work as a pocket cam for a smaller person dressed for a warmer climate (the SD400 would work anywhere but a nudist colony).
The high-end cameras do have some advantages. To compensate for the extra pocket strain, they’re often kind of butchy-looking, often in black rather than silver. This gives your photographic subjects the feeling that this is An Important Picture.
But I digress. With a high-end model, you can expect it to shoot a wider angle, to have a bigger zoom range, and to have fine control over lots of settings, usually via buttons on the outside rather than going through a menu. A side-effect is that the back and sides of these models are richly festooned with buttons.
And historically, high-end compacts have supported shooting in RAW. The current generation seems to be backing away from this; speculation is that they’re worried about cannibalizing sales of DSLRs. This seems silly, since there’s a high overlap between the owners of high-end compacts and DSLRs.
As I discuss these cameras, the observant will notice that a lot of the pointers are into Digital Photography Review (DPR); this is hard to avoid because they have stats on every camera known to humankind, and detailed reviews of a high proportion. I tend to put quite a bit of weight on their reviews, because they are free with criticism when they find problems.
The Past · I’ve been carrying the Canon S70 since late 2004; at that time, it coupled the widest-available angle in a pocket cam with unusually long zoom, as much manual control as you wanted, and could shoot RAW.
It’s met my needs; unless I can get the zoom fixed, this will probably be the last time it’s featured on ongoing. Sunset at SFO.
The Future · Searching for a replacement has not been entirely satisfying.
First, as I noted, the camera builders have been subtracting RAW support. It escapes me how subtracting features from a high-tech consumer product can ever be a good idea. Second, a few of them are still in the grip of the more-megapixels-is-better mania. It’s hard to blame them, given that that’s always the number that gets featured in the Best Buy flyers; but still, at this moment in early 2007, in the compact form factor, a 7MP camera is less apt to have noise and distortion problems than a 10MP model.
On the other hand, there is one very compelling new feature in the digicam world: anti-shake. In practical terms, this considerably expands the range of conditions you can shoot in without using a flash, and you’ll get some shots you just wouldn’t have, before.
Having said all that, let’s look at some of the options.
Canon S80 · Since I’ve been happy with the S70, its successor would be a logical choice. Trouble is, it’s two years old now (has Canon dropped this line of cameras?), doesn’t do RAW, and doesn’t have anti-shake. So I think it’s not that interesting.
Canon G7 · I had missed the G7 in my initial sweep, because for some reason I didn’t think it was a compact, but one of the Photo Camp attendees pulled hers out for us to look at. Anti-shake yes, RAW no. DPR thinks it fell short, but I think I’ll have to take a closer look.
Canon A710 IS · This one isn’t actually in the “high-end” category, but it was recommended by a few of the commenters on my Camera Blues piece. As I poke around the Internet, I have to say that there’s a lot to like about the A710 IS. It does anti-shake but not RAW, it’s light, it’s flexible, it’s cheap, it’s only 7 MP. Check out jgraham’s pictures over at Flickr; he/she is getting excellent results with this camera.
If none of the ostensibly high-end cameras are going to make me happy, I suspect that this puppy would take me most of the way there and save money too.
Panasonic LX2 · Formally known as the Lumix LX2; there’s a lot to like about this, on paper. It’s got a Leica lens, a 16:9 aspect ratio, antishake, and shoots RAW. Unfortunately, DPR thinks (and is pretty convincing on the subject) that they muffed the job of squeezing in the 10MP, so there are serious noise issues. Sigh.
Pentax A20 · I have a big soft spot for Pentax, it’s what my Dad always carried and our DSLR is a Pentax.
The A20 is kind of in the same territory as the A710; anti-shake but no RAW, a little less expensive, very decent specs. I’ll have to have a closer look.
All the cameras mentioned thus far have been out for a while, you can go to your friendly local camera store and buy one. It turns out that we’re only weeks away from PMA 2007, the world’s biggest camera trade-fair, so the new-product announcements are coming thick and fast. Here are a few that look interesting.
Sigma DP1 · This is a weird one, as you might expect; Sigma is mostly in the lens business, and their cameras tend to be idiosyncratic. Among other things, they use the Foveon sensor, which is radically different from the model used in almost all other Digicams. Think of this as the camera equivalent of Mazda’s rotary engine.
There’s not that much known about the DP1; It does exist on the company’s website, but without much detail. It does shoot RAW, but I don’t see anything about antishake. Here’s the weird thing: it’s not a zoom. It has a fixed lens said to be to 28mm-equivalent. Assuming it’s not vaporware, I’m going to have a close look at this; I appreciate people who have the courage to point in a direction different from that the mainstream market is facing.
Pentax A30 · This look like an update to the A20 mentioned above. Antishake yes, RAW no, sigh. In fact, the A30 differs only in having a larger CCD (which is good), and in being black.
The features and specs and design all look decent to me. I poked around the Nikon site and there was lots of publicity, all silent on the subject of whether it will shoot RAW. Maybe the ball is still in play and some moronic Strategic Product Manager in the DSLR group is trying to get that feature subtracted. One of the commenters at Engadget said “Yes, it will have RAW” which is probably not conclusive.
The site is total Flash hell so I can’t actually point to the camera (uh, Nikon marketing, get a clue), but if you start here you can get there.
Conclusion · Maybe I’ll have to learn to live without RAW. Aside from that, nothing yet. I’ll be shopping and I’ll report back.