Saturday, 12 September 2009

Which is the best digital compact camera?

One of the problems with a digital SLR is that it is a fairly large piece of equipment, and you need to lug a camera bag of reasonable size. Taking a DSLR with you is always a deliberate decision, and you do it only when you are certain that you will be taking pictures.

I also find that I am self conscious taking out in public a large DSLR with potentially large zoom lens sticking out; it just attracts attention.

The great thing about the compact cameras is that they are small and can be carried around without too much effort. It also seems less conspicuous to take out a compact camera. Ultimately a camera that is likely to be used more often is also likely to produce better (as in aesthetically) pictures.

I have been looking for a digital compact that is small and pocket-able as a backup to my DSLR; and also as a camera that I can always have with me, even when I go to work. I ultimately settled for a Ricoh GR Digital 3, and this is the story of how this came about.

I spent a fair amount of time researching various models before buying the GRD 3. The cameras that interested me were Panasonic GF1/LX3, Canon G10/G11/S90, Leica X1, Olympus EP1, Sigma DP1/DP2, and Ricoh GR Digital 3. All of these are high end compact cameras. I did not look at the lower end models as I wanted something that had the best possible image quality while being compact.

It would have been nice if I had tried them all out, but not having access to the cameras, I based my selection on published reviews, and a careful assessment of the features that matter to me. Here are my thoughts about what I liked or disliked about each one of them.

Panasonic GF1
  • My initial reaction was that this was the ideal small camera, sufficiently high quality, and yet compact.
  • But on more consideration, I realized that although it is small compared to the DSLR it is still too large to be considered pocket-able. Therefore it didn't really meet my requirement for a truly pocket-able camera.
  • I am unsure about the quality of the new pancake lens and generally speaking , the approach being taken by Panasonic with regards to lenses. They seems to rely too much on correcting aberrations through software.
  • The GF1 is almost a replacement for the DSLR and is a system camera in its own right. It seems to be a better choice for people who haven't invested in a DSLR yet. When you add interchangeable lenses, its size advantage compared to DSLRs is diminished quite a bit, and it becomes more a matter of personal taste.
Panasonic LX3
  • This was the chief contender for being a pocket-able competitor to the GRD 3. I liked the idea of a zoom lens, and the LX3 has a relatively fast lens.
  • It is also significantly cheaper than the GRD 3.
  • Plus has HD video capability - not that this interests me very much but it is good to have the option.
  • The high ISO performance is also reported to be good, although dxomark puts the G10 above the LX3 in this department.
  • What really put me off was that Panasonic claimed that the Leica lens had much less distortion than other lenses; this is a blatant lie, as it is now well known that the lens suffers from distortion and this is corrected in software. How can you trust a vendor that makes such a false claim?
  • The LX3 is also not as compact as the GRD 3, especially because of the protruding lens.
  • Has been out for a while and may be due for replacement soon.
  • I would have liked to check out the manual focus capability - given that this is reportedly quite usable on GF1, it may also be good on the LX3.
Olympus EP1
  • Reports of very poor AF out me off. Also the pancake lens is not fast enough.
  • Most of what I have said about the GF1 also applies to this one.
Canon G10/G11
  • I tried the G10 at a shop. Build quality seemed great.
  • The zoom is slow and the AF is slow as well. G11 has the same zoom; hopefully they have improved AF performance.
  • I like the fact that the lens retracts in the body, which means that although the body is relatively large, this may be more pocket-able than LX3. Need a side by side comparison to be sure.
  • According to dxomark, high ISO performance is better than LX3.
  • The slow lens and the slow AF put me off. Also, the manual focus mode is useless as the zoomed image is a joke.
Canon S90
  • Seems perfect on paper, but lens is too slow at the long end.
  • Looking at the specs, I have the impression that the lens quality will not match that of the G11. And the G11 itself doesn't have the perfect lens.
Leica X1
  • This one is way too expensive for what it is. For the same price one can get a used M8. I can't see why anyone would buy this camera; I think Leica should have retained the M8 as a cheaper alternative to M9, rather than introducing this camera.
  • LCD appears to be very low resolution, so MF will be useless.
  • Leica claims to build this but specs seem close to that of GF1. I do hope that the AF is good, because if it isn't, then this will be a total waste of money.
  • Only for Leicaphiles who want anything branded Leica. I own and love Leica stuff, but am not blindly in love.
Sigma DP1/DP2
  • Reports of very poor AF put me off.
  • Image quality is reportedly smashing at low ISOs.
  • The fixed lens is quite slow - Sigma should put in a faster lens given that foveon sensor is not the best in low light performance. But I guess this would have made the size bigger.
  • Sigma do not appear to have a very good reputation when it comes to quality control.
Ricoh GRD 3
  • The main attractions were the lens, the relatively good high ISO performance, and the size.
  • The lens seems of high quality - no coma, sharp to the edges (comparatively speaking), very little color fringing or chromatic aberration. The fact that part of it moves aside when it is retracted bothers me - I hope the assembly and the mechanism is precise enough to provide the performance that Ricoh claims.
  • Smallest of the lot, closest to being pocketable.
  • What bothered me most was the lack of a zoom. But then the size wouldn't be what it is, and the quality of the lens would be compromised.
  • The lens is fast, which should help in low light shooting.
  • I think it is too expensive, but couldn't wait for the prices to drop
Well, these were my thoughts before I made the purchase. Now I am going to find out whether I made the right choice!

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