Thursday, September 30, 2010

Compact digital cameras

*Why own a compact digital camera?
Even though I have taken the route of simplifying my DSLR outfit to the bare minimum I still own a compact digital camera as well. There are several reasons for this. The most important reason is for an emergency back-up in case the DSLR goes down. Another is there are times and places it is just not as practical to carry the larger camera, even if only the body and one lens. There is also a down-side to using a compact compared to a DSLR.

*Size, weight, carrying ease and visibility
Sometimes it is just much easier to carry only a compact camera. It might be a windy day on the beach with blowing sand and salt spray or it might be storming with blowing rain or snow. A compact camera can be carried in a pocket and is ready to shoot when pulled out and be quickly protected again. A DSLR is either exposed on a neck strap or in a much less accessible case. Replacement cost in case of damage from the elements is a factor, too. In some areas it might be much wiser not to make a show of carrying camera gear, even if just cheaper “amateur equipment, and becoming a possible target of thieves or hostility. Carrying just a compact camera is less conspicuous. It can be taken from a pocket and a photo taken without bringing it up to eye level and quickly removed from sight again. For “street” photography a compact can be carried hidden in one hand and frames exposed on the fly. A compact is also much quieter than a DSLR so observers don’t know when or if exposures are being made. It can be very liberating to wander around looking for images without a larger and heavier DSLR outfit hanging from the neck or attached to a tripod.

*Image quality
Image quality from compact digital cameras is not the equal of DSLR’s but steps can be taken to maximize that quality. The smaller cameras mostly suffer from a smaller sensor which means smaller individual pixels. Image quality suffers much more as ISO speeds increase than it does with larger sensors. As with a DSLR, always shoot at the lowest practical ISO to get the best image quality. Zoom lenses with very wide focal length ranges tend to suffer much more from linear distortion and aberrations at both the shortest and longest ends of the zoom range. Longer range zooms on compacts are always much slower, too, limiting the usefulness of the longer focal lengths unless a tripod is used.

*Desirable features
When selecting a compact camera I look for a good image stabilization/anti-shake function as a tripod or monopod will not usually be used. Either easily accessible manual exposure or exposure compensation is a must to correct for backlighting or other exposure difficulties. I prefer a zoom in the 4x to 6x range to minimize both image quality fall-off at the focal extremes and speed loss at the long end of the range. I much prefer a zoom range starting at 28mm equivalent or shorter for versatility. It is usually much easier to move closer to a subject than to try to back up through a wall to fit more into the frame. The ability to shoot RAW files is a huge plus but not an absolute deal-breaker. Fitting into a pocket rather than requiring a neck strap or case is high on my list and another reason for choosing a medium-range over a longer-range zoom. A hot-shoe for accessory flash when needed is another plus but also not a deal-breaker.

*What to expect
A good compact digital camera, which includes most of the models currently available, should provide more than adequate image quality for on-screen and web use and for prints up to 8”x10”. Most will start having image-quality issues at larger sizes including softness and noise(grain) as compared to similar shots from a DSLR with a larger sensor. Color and noise problems can be more obvious if RAW shooting is not possible. Using the quality-enhancing techniques outlined in the “Most basic equipment” series will minimize these problems when using compact cameras, too. Just don’t expect to use a compact at maximum focal length and ISO800 for 16”x20” prints for the dining room wall – you will be very disappointed with the results. For images to post on a web site or Flickr or to e-mail to friends or to make 4”x6” prints to show, no one will know what kind of camera was used.

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