Monday, 4 August 2014

The photographic rock and a hard place

My old compact taking a lovely photo in optimum conditions

It is not often that my wife demands that I buy a camera, but this exactly what was being requested when I got home one day.

"I can't use your bloody camera" she said as I came through the door (the word "bloody" was not actually used, merely implied). "Get me something simple that I can use".

On the day in question she had tried to use my DSLR to take some photo's of the kids playing in the garden and failed miserable. That is not to say my wife is a technophobe, far from it. But even a basic DSLR is a complex bit of kit and can be a bit overwhelming even for the best of us. To makes it worse, I shun the automatic modes, meaning it can be in all sort of states after I use it. This is fine for me since I know how to do camera ju-jitsu (most of the time), but it makes it difficult for anyone else to use.

My wife then explained that she had had enough  and wanted a camera with just two buttons, A shutter and a on/off switch.

Today the collective  term for these sort of camera's is a mobile phone. However my wife is wedded to her Motorola Razr phone (she has formed the opinion that all touch screen devices hate her, and after watching her try to program the car GPS, I have to admit she may have a point). Now in terms of pure industrial design , I have to admit the Razr has few peers, but as a camera it is only one step up from a roll of film in a pinhole camera.

Anyway,to be honest, the idea of buying more camera equipment is never an unattractive one. I had been considering getting a compact camera for a while. While I love my DSLR and try to take it everywhere, it's size can be a problem. A number of times I have been sent on business trips, and have been tempted to pack my camera. However when trying to keep your luggage down to one carry on suitcase, it often comes down to a choice of packing the camera or taking the work laptop. A camera that I could just slip into my jacket pocket is an attractive option.

So I started doing some research on what cameras are available. First I came up with a set of requirements
  1. It needed to be small
  2. It needed to be easy to use
  3. It should cost less than £200
  4. Both me and my wife would be happy to use it.

A quick review of Amazon assured me that meeting requirements 1 to 3 would be possible. However 4 would be a problem. I know realise that using a DSLR had spoiled me to the point that I needed the camera to be a DSLR in compact form. For the sort of money I was willing to spend, that just was not going to happen.

Not that there are no great compacts out there. But I doubt my wife would be willing to let me spend 2 grand on a  Sony Cyber-shot RX1.Even the Sony RX100 at £300 was a bit on the steep side for a camera which would probably spend the majority time on the shelf.

So I need to think again about what exactly I required from a compact.

Before I moved on to using a  DSLR I owned a Panasonic TZ3 compact camera and I still consider it as my training camera, where learnt the basics of photography before buying more expensive kit. As a compact it was pretty good for the time. It had a wide zoom range, good image stabilization and  a number of useful modes. It took me a number of years to outgrow it and some of the shots were great.

In sunlight I had no complaints about it. The problems began when I tried to take photos in less than optimum conditions. As the sun went down, it started to struggle. Indoors? well,  I might as well give up. The final straw was at a wedding, trying to take a shot of the happy couple on a dark dance floor and ending up with just dark shapes or blurred images (Not helped  by my phobia about using flashes in public places.)

My old Panasonic trying it's best in less than optimum conditions.
So what I really want is a compact camera that was as happy in low light as in bright sunlight.

The need for taking pictures in low light is not that unusual. Often with kids you end up trying to take photo's on dull evening, at the limits of the photographic zoom at some award evening or school concert. A good low light camera is essential in these situations if you are not going to end up with a blur representing your child.

The first problem is working out how good a camera is in low light, since most reviews don't really show this. However it is clear that at minimum we need a camera with a backside illuminated CMOS sensor and a bright lens. For that reason I was initially drawn to the Panasonic LX7 which has a huge 1.4 maximum aperture Leica lens. But at £289 it is outside my reach (plus a bit on the expensive side considering it's age).

The more I researched however, the less I got. This points to a problem in modern cameras. Because manufacturers realised that the number of cameras sold is directly proportional to the number of pixels they can advertise on the box, they have been cramming more and more of them onto small sensors. These work great in good light, but in low light conditions, noise becomes a bigger and bigger issue.

Then the next thing they do is strap on a stonking great 20x zoom. In theory this looks great because it allows you to get closer to your subject without physically moving. But in practice it means even less light is getting to your sensor, meaning either grainer images or more blurred subjects. I would generally happily sacrifice the majority of the zoom capability, if it gave me a couple of more f-stops.

What the manufacturers try and do is hide this fact with the electronics wizardry. But however good your image stabilisation is, it won't produce a crisp image when the shutter speed is to slow and your subject is moving. The camera processors try there best to clean up noise, but at some point the process starts to detract, not enhance the picture.

What manufacturers seem reluctant to do is put better glass on the camera. This is understandable since, unlike electronics, making a great lens is more of an art than a science. This in turn makes it expensive. Compacts make a big thing about have a Leica or a Zeiss lens on front. But even the best manufacturers can not overcome the physics of trying to cram too much glass into to small a housing.

I've had this debate a number of times about which is more important in a camera, glass or electronics. In my opinion, glass wins every time. Without good glass, it does not matter how good the sensor is. If you don't believe me, just ask these guys.

As a fast lens also needs a big sensor to do it's justice I'm always going to struggle finding a camera in the price point I am interested in.

However not everything is lost. My research did throw up one tempting subject, the Olympus STYLUS XZ-10. At f/1.8 the lens is not as big as the LX7, but compared to the majority of compacts that is a pretty good size. The reviews have not been totally kind, but that maybe because it was being compared to other high end compacts. Now it can be got for £120, it feels a steal.

The main problem is that I don't think this is the kind of point and shoot my wife was thinking of.

So my dilemma. Do I go and get a compact which I will have to grind my teeth every time I use it or buy something more complex and teach my wife to be a better photographer?

Who would of thought buying a camera would be so difficult?

No comments:

Post a Comment