22 July 2009

Compact Digital Cameras: This Is Progress? (Part 5)

I am prepared to embrace the truth about consumer compact cameras. No current camera in this category will produce images comparable to a DSLR. Most are not even close. That is a serious problem for me, but it may not be a problem for most people.

Most people, I think, still take photos to make prints, mostly 4x6s. They may look at photos on screen, maybe even mostly on screen, but still they are concerned primarily about making good prints of key photos. For that, most consumer compacts do just fine. Most of these users will not see any difference between a 4x6 from the cheapest Kodak compact and the most expensive Nikon DSLR. Blessed are they.

Not me. I’m a “pixel peeper,” someone with a fetish for pixel-level fidelity. I look at photos exclusively on big LCD monitors where every flaw is revealed. And I also believe that on-screen viewing is the near-exclusive future of photography. As Trey Ratcliff says: “I believe that the future of ‘looking’ at photography will be online. Monitors will continue to get bigger, resolutions will get bigger, and bandwidth will get faster. Imagine a day several years in the future, when people have giant art flatscreens in their house, and your high-fidelity photos will be filling them with incredible walk-up detail.”

Right now the choice for me is either a DSLR, with the expense, weight, risk of theft, anxiety for damage, etc., that entails, in pursuit of great images, or pick up a consumer compact I can use and abuse without concern and be content with its limitations. I’m going the latter route. And frankly, it’s what I can afford right now.

But I'm not all that sour about it. The latest compact cameras have several features that really are worth upgrading for. Leaving image quality aside, I'll note three:

1. Sensor-based shake reduction or (better) lens-based optical image stabilization (OIS) is very important. It will sharpen up your photos and give you one or two extra f-stops of exposure. This is a huge deal for compacts since you really have to use them at low ISO settings for good image quality. But, not all makers and cameras are equal with their shake reduction/OIS. Read the reviews.

2. Better LED screens. Not just bigger, but better in terms of resolution, color fidelity, and viewability in sunlight and at off-angles. Big screens suck your batteries dry, so I'm fine with 2.5". But it better be 230k and usable in daylight. One of my biggest gripes with my old Canon G3 is its terrible low-res 1.8" LCD. You just cannot effectively check capture quality on it.

3. Good scene modes with automatic selection. Most snapshot cameras have loads of different scene modes. Some are gimmicky (food mode?) and others are very useful (backlight correction). The new ability for cameras to automatically select the right mode is great in theory. No more need to switch to macro mode for close-ups. But I'll be interested to see for myself how accurately it works in practice. Anyhow, for snapshotters, this is brilliant.

Next: Conclusion (finally!)

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