Pocket Pixel Power

The Quest for Big Image Quality in a Portable Package

By Dan Burkholder Back to

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Even the most seasoned pro or devoted amateur occasionally longs for a small, light camera that yields great image quality.At times, a DSLR is a physical burden, a social inconvenience, or simply too much camera around your neck.Vacations and other carry-everywhere opportunities cry out for smaller cameras that fit in your pocket yet provide image quality rivaling that of their larger and heavier digital siblings.

For photo enthusiasts, a run-of-the-mill point-and-shoot simply won’t do. They want an easily transported camera that holds its own for tasks like capturing family outings or settling down to serious landscape photography; the only catch is, it has to weigh a tiny fraction of the DSLR they carry for heavy- duty photography. Finally, this pocket camera has to deliver files capable of producing great 16×20-inch prints.

I have a long and intimate history with small cameras. Their fluid handling and low weight have a magnetic appeal that no larger camera can duplicate. Back in the days of film, I had a passionate affair with the stunning Con- tax Tvs, a titanium-clad beauty whose finely crafted looks were only surpassed by her superb 28–56mm Zeiss Sonar lens. Jumpahead10yearstothepresent, and I’m finding, once again, that I’m searching for that tiny wonder— albeit in digital terms this time around—that yields big print quality while keeping the photo baggage to a minimum. With that combined goal of portability and high image quality in mind, let’s examine some of the options.

Rules of engagement

A perfect in-camera JPEG is a thing of beauty, both in aesthetic terms and salability. But Raw files have the edge in terms of flexibility (no white balance concerns at time of exposure) and malleability (increased bit depth means we can post-process with reduced banding and artifacts). As you’ve probably guessed, I’ve limited the choices to the few small cameras that let you capture Raw files as well as the faster JPEGs. True, Raw shooters face longer processing times with software. But the return on that time investment is much appreciated when the original scene is captured in less than ideal light or contrast.

Size matters. We’re talking pocket- sized cameras—not necessarily shirt pocket, but the camera shouldn’t make your jacket pocket look like you’re outfitted to feed the zoo’s pachyderms either. To this end, I limited the cameras to those weighing less than one pound and having a thickness (with lens collapsed) of less than 2 inches. Yes, this did eliminate some fine, larger contenders, but that’s what standards do. The very nice Fujifilm FinePix S8000 fd and Olympus SP-560 UZ are certainly worthy of consideration if your size and weight criteria are a couple belt notches more generous than those I chose.

When more than one small camera in a manufacturer’s line qualified (Ricoh offers several diminutive Raw shooters), I selected what I felt was the most versatile of the lot; that usually meant more resolution or more advanced features than the non-selected siblings.

Things like aperture priority and manual focus capability are taken for granted in this class of small wonders. You wouldn’t want a DSLR with only program auto-exposure or limited focus options; the same goes for your pocket version.

After lots of consideration, talking with colleagues, and reading photo Web sites, the final contenders were the Canon G9, the Leica D-Lux 3 (and Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2, virtually the same camera), and the Ricoh GX100. These three premium cameras can satisfy the most demanding user, though they differ widely in features and capabilities. Figure 3 charts how optics and other attributes com- pare in this elite group of pocket Raw shooters.

Playing with a pocket camera

With a nod to landscape photography, I was particularly interested in those cameras that both shot Raw and sported a wide-angle lens. When I say that “life begins at 35” you can bet I’m referring to focal length and not age. Figure 3 also shows the zoom range for each camera and notes whether an auxiliary lens is available to make for an even wider angle of view. The champ in this small field of cameras is the GX100. The stock lens is a sharp, 24–72mm (35mm equivalent); a reasonably sized auxiliary lens takes it to 19mm. The Canon suffered somewhat in the wide category; its built-in lens (an otherwise excellent 35–210 zoom) can cramp your style when trying to frame expansive vistas within the confines of its 35mm focal length (see Figure 4). Yes, Canon does offer an auxiliary lens for the G9, but it weighs almost as much as the camera itself and only takes the handy G9 to 27mm (35mm equivalent).

By comparison, shooting landscapes with a Ricoh GX100 was a constant joy. Other than a relatively slow Raw write time (compared to the speed-demon Canon G9) the GX100’s 24mm lens— sharp from center to corner—is a better landscape-shooters’ choice. The Leica and Panasonic models sport a sharp— and ever-so-prestigious—28mm Leica lens, but you are treated to that 28mm angle of view only when shooting in the camera’s unique 9:16 aspect ratio. Those favoring more traditional print shapes lose some of the camera’s wide-angle view (and lose megapixels too) when they crop to 3×4, 6×9, or 8×10 sizes.

Infrared and HDR

A small camera need not cramp your style: If your pocket camera has filter threads, you’re ready to shoot infrared without the hassle of jury-rigging filters or gels in front of the lens. In this stable of cameras, the GX100 is the only one that provides threads, though you must invest about $40 for the HN2 adaptor and hood. (This same adaptor is needed for the auxiliary wide lens on the GX100.) Figures 6 and 7 show how the Ricoh, equipped with a Hoya R72 infrared filter, performed as a high- dynamic-range (HDR) shooter with an infrared twist.

Because HDR requires shooting a bracketed series of images, you should pick a model that makes changing shutter speeds an easy process. (When shooting HDR, I keep my aperture constant and bracket via exposure time; this keeps the depth of field constant—usually a good thing when combining the series of exposures.) Before you go out shooting, test-drive changing shutter speeds to make sure the procedure doesn’t require heavy button presses that could move the camera and throw your bracketed series out of registration. Infrared photography brings its own set of challenges. The dark filters (like the Hoya R72) block most of the visible light and can lead to long exposures. Though we are blessed with great depth of field with these small-chip cameras (Figure 6 and Figure 7 were shot at ƒ/5.2), infrared exposures can be long, running a minute or more if you are striving to capture shadow detail. Bot- tom line: if you want to frolic in the HDR or infrared playground, pick a camera that is suited to the task.

Features that might matter

Here’s a short list of some other features to watch for when shopping. These are nitpickers for some, and critical issues for others:

• Threaded lens: makes for easy attachment of filters (such as infrared).

• Remote release: lets you fire the shutter without touching the camera.

• Separate Aperture and Shutter controls when in Manual Exposure mode: I had a camera that required pressing a button to alternate another control from aperture to shutter speed. It didn’t take long for that “feature” to drive me nuts.

• Size of auxiliary wide lens: Canon’s WC DC58B almost doubles the weight of the camera itself—a decided minus when traveling light.

• Neck-strap availability: This might sound like a minor point, but if you like to carry a camera around your neck, some models leave you on your own to find a suitable strap. Even then you might be dangling the camera on end thanks to the camera’s solo strap lug (yep, I’m talking about the Leica/Panasonic).

• Raw write times: Newer models like the Canon G9 write Raw files almost as fast as a DSLR; the Ricoh takes nearly 6 seconds. Gauge your patience here.

• Electronic or optical viewfinder: Shooting in bright sunlight can make most LCDs difficult to use for either composition or image review. Optical viewfinders are better than nothing (you’ll still have the LCD on the camera’s back of course) but provide no shooting information (such as focus point, aperture/shutter speed, and his- togram). The GX100 has the most elegant solution with a tilting electronic viewfinder (EVF) in addition to the rear LCD, making bright light or low-angle shooting a breeze. (Note: the GX100’s nifty EVF rings up at a $100 premium in the deluxe kit version from Ricoh.)

• Exposed flash versus pop-up flash: If you shoot where flash is a no-no, you get an extra degree of flash-ain’t- gonna-fire insurance with the Leica- Panasonic or Ricoh cameras. Pushing a button to raise the flash is an extra step but can be a saving grace for the socially polite in museums or theatres.

Shooting and printing issues

As nice as these pocket jewels are, any small-chip camera requires special attention to detail if you are serious about making large prints that hold up to inspection. A few pointers follow.

• Use the lowest optimal ISO your camera offers. Noise at higher ISOs is much more pronounced on small-chip cameras.

• Don’t stop down too far. Like most lenses, the sharpest aperture will likely fall one or two stops down from wide open. Tiny apertures degrade resolution owing to diffraction, so going below ƒ/6.3 is treading in dangerous territory—by ƒ/9 you are practically demanding softness.

• Use a tripod when possible. Trip the shutter with a remote release (if available) or use the self timer. Some cameras produce sharper images on a tripod with image stabilization turned off.

• Process your Raw files with extra care, particularly for noise reduction, interpolation, and sharpening. If you have to push the files to really large print sizes, consider third-party interpolation and sharpening software.

Camera conclusions

The Canon G9 is a solid camera (almost to a fault given its bulk) that could be your perfect pocket shooter if 35mm is your idea of a wide lens. Fast Raw write times mean you won’t be using JPEG very often. The Leica D-Lux 3/Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2 wins on the size and weight front, and they both pack that great Leica glass. The lack of a viewfinder could be a negative in bright light, and the lens is only wide (28mm) if you take advantage of the 9:16 aspect ratio.

That leaves the Ricoh GX100 (not coincidentally, what I use). If you can live with 5-second Raw write times, this little gem delivers terrific wide- angle shots with confidence. Its semi- funky looks, great lens, and unique features combine to make it the stand- out in this small herd of Raw-shooting pocket cameras. After using the Ricoh for a few weeks I finally weighed the GX100 and GorillaPod combo, only to discover that the entire package weighed in at under a pound. No wonder I was hiking farther into the woods with a smile on my face!


About the Author

Dan Burkholder
DBurkholder
Dan Burkholder has been teaching digital imaging workshops for 15 years at venues including The School of the Art Institute, Chicago; The Royal Photographic Society, Madrid, Spain; The International Center of Photography, New York; Mesilla Digital Imaging Workshops, Mesilla, NM and many others. Dan’s latest book, The Color of Loss (University of Texas Press, 2008), documents the flooded interiors of post-Katrina New Orleans and is the first coffee table book done entirely using HDR methods. His award-winning book, Making Digital Negatives for Contact Printing, has become a standard resource in the fineart photography community. Dan’s iPhone images can be seen at: www.iPhoneArtistry.com/.