21 July 2009

Compact Digital Cameras: This Is Progress? (Part 4)

Manufacturers and pundits tend to distinguish between consumer and prosumer compact cameras, but there is no hard consensus on where to draw the line. I'll make it simple. I draw the line at $400. Above that and, any more, you are into DSLR territory in terms of cost. Anyone willing to pay as much for a compact as a DSLR definitely rates the title prosumer.

That settled, clearly there are some prosumer compacts that take great photos. Some are superzoom style, meaning they are just smallish SLRs in form as well as price. They are therefore sometimes called "bridge cameras." Of these, I like very much the Fujifilm S100FS ($530 street). It has a large 2/3" Super CCD sensor and 28-400mm lens that makes it a very good all-arounder.

It is debatable whether a superzoom camera is a compact, since it certainly won't fit in even a cargo-pant pocket. But there are also a few superlative prosumer pocketable compacts. For example, the Panasonic LX3 has a larger 1/6.3" sensor carrying a relatively modest 10.1mp, and the image quality is very good. It is housed quite compactly and paired with a fast and very wide 24-60mm (equiv.) f2.8-3.0 lens. The telephoto range is a bit short, and it is not cheap ($550 and up, street), but still, as one reviewer notes: “The LX3 is an example of a species so endangered that we were beginning to worry it had become extinct - a compact camera that photographers can get excited about.”

Panasonic LX3

The big problem in the compact segment is of course sensor sizes and pixel counts. I've just mentioned two cameras that use larger than average sensors. But most pricey prosumer cameras just use the same tiny, noisy sensors as models downmarket. That's right, same image quality as cheaper models. Price does not often buy you better images in compacts.

But I think this trend will turn around, at least a little. The most encouraging rumor to me is that the next Canon G-series camera will have a full DSLR-sized (APS-C) CMOS sensor, paired with a very modest, but doubtless fast and sharp 24-70mm zoom. It should therefore be a big one-up on the Panasonic LX3. It will also cost north of $600, certainly, but I get excited even about great cameras I can't afford.

But what about consumer cameras? The ones we can afford? (Part 5)

Update: Fujifilm is updating their S100FS to a new model, the S200EXR, which will have (you guessed it!) a smaller sensor with more megapixels. Oh Fuji, will you never learn?

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