Monday, 28 September 2015

Compact cameras in 2015 - who needs one anymore?

In this modern day and age where everyone carries around a digital camera slapped to the back of a smartphone, who in their right mind would still want to buy a compact camera? With smartphone camera sensors equaling the size of compact camera sensors yet being smaller and more pocketable, one might argue what the point is of compact cameras nowadays.

The title of this article may make you think otherwise: I am indeed positive about compact cameras. Honestly, it took me a while to realize the niche. Up until now, for quality shots I had my Nikon D5100, whereas for quick and easy snaps I always carried my smartphone. Having tried to get the most out of my phone's camera however, I realized we're not quite there yet in terms of image quality. Smartphone cameras seem to be getting as good as their size allows, but some things simply need more space. Think of aperture blades and zoom lenses for example. Not just that, but a key factor in improving image quality is increasing sensor size. The larger the sensor is, the more light is able to fall on the sensor, so the better the theoretical low light performance is. As the intro of this article states, some compact cameras have sensors the same size as a smartphone camera sensor (mainly 1/2.3"). However, most competent compact cameras have sensor sizes much larger than this with the best ones reaching sizes of 1" [useful chart], the popular Sony RX100 series being perfect examples. I decided to give it a shot, trying to see how useful a compact camera can be, next to a decent smartphone camera and a Nikon D5100.

The Fujifilm XF1: My very first personal compact camera.

Notice in the image above how most of the image is dark whereas the bright lens is properly exposed. I shot this image with my smartphone (a Sony Xperia Z1), and although I'm pleasantly surprised by how this image turned out, the dynamic range of the phone leaves a lot to be desired. If I hadn't adjusted the exposure compensation for this shot, the lens would have been overexposed leaving the text on the front unreadable. I'm hoping that the larger sensor of the Fujifilm will lead to a better dynamic range, and so far it seems good. I bought the Fujifilm mostly as an impulse purchase, but I've wanted to try out compact cameras for a while. I went into town with my new camera last weekend, and here are some of my thoughts about it:

  • Being used to shooting smartphone images, the quality is so much better, seriously. Image noise is much less under the same circumstances. White balance is pretty much perfect. Dynamic range is way better. Lens flare is essentially no issue. Shutter speeds can go much lower because of great optical image stabilization (handheld 1/8th of a second is no problem). Note that you won't be getting DSLR-like depth of field because of a smaller sensor, thus having a larger crop factor. I'll talk more about crop factors in an upcoming article, but for now just remember that a smaller sensor means a larger crop factor, and the larger for example the aperture should be to get the same results, the same depth of field.
  • The size is just perfect. It fits just fine in any pocket (guy's jeans, at least) and with smartphones being thin but huge slabs nowadays, it doesn't feel much worse in a pocket. Trust me, I've carried a Nexus 7 (2012) and a Playstation Vita in my pockets (separately, in case this isn't obvious) so I think I've carried plenty in my pocket to safely say that a compact camera this size is just fine to carry around on a daily basis. Now the only issue for me in this regard is the 'yet another device' aspect. I don't have an infinite number of pockets, unfortunately.
  • They're cheap for what they do. I bought mine second hand for €100 off a store. Now if you compare this to the added price of a smartphone to have a similar kind of camera, you're looking at multiple times that. I'm thinking Panasonic Lumix CM1. A phone I really badly want. Looking at the internals, you could compare this roughly to a Oneplus One with a smaller display and battery. That one goes for about €250. For the CM1 however, you will have to pay a hefty premium for its camera: it's around €850 (both prices in The Netherlands as of writing). If you would buy the Oneplus One and a compact camera similar to mine, you will have saved about €500 and then you got yourself a camera with optical zoom and a xenon flash too.
  • It is fully featured, and it's the smallest form factor as such. I hate to break it to you, but from a photographer's perspective, every single cameraphone lacks something. Most easily, barely any smartphone has a xenon flash anymore. Although not always necessary, it can help low light shots tremendously, compared to an LED light (which I refuse to call a 'flash' by the way, it's just a light). Apart from that, often full manual controls are lacking such as manual shutter speeds. RAW capture is not always available for poorly exposed shots nor is image stabilization, and you'd be lucky if your phone has decent stereo microphones. Luckily, more and more smartphones are featuring these exact things, but there's one thing no manufacturer has gotten just right: the camera interface and its settings. I would love to see a smartphone with ISO settings that feature both exact values, as well as ranges. I often use the option of setting the ISO to auto but in the range of 100 to 400, so that it picks 100 when there's plenty of light, but in low light I wouldn't want the ISO to automatically go up above 400 to preserve detail. On my phone I constantly have to keep track of the exact ISO value which makes the experience somewhat cumbersome. And where are the settings for the amount of noise reduction, the dynamic range et cetera? Smartphone manual modes still have a lot to improve.

I'm rambling on about how compact cameras are better than smartphone cameras which, I know, is pretty obvious by itself. However, some people may be wondering why anyone would still want to get a compact camera when smartphone cameras have evolved this quickly. I found the niche, and I dare to say it's not over yet for compact cameras for a long while to come. Couples who recently became parents may feel like an expensive smartphone's camera will suffice for their baby photos, but they probably won't be getting any stellar results. I wouldn't recommend buying a heavy DSLR: I now only carry mine when I know beforehand that I'm going out to take high quality shots, it's too large to carry around without a purpose. So here is the niche: compact cameras are perfect for someone who wants to take high quality shots but doesn't see a point in carrying around a large camera. Even cheap and older compact cameras are still much better than the most expensive smartphone cameras nowadays. Mind you, my Fujifilm XF1 was released in 2012. Being an impulse purchase, I'm sure there are better priced compact cameras with a better image quality too.

In my eyes, compact cameras will maintain popularity among plenty of people, be it parents, photography enthusiasts or just about anyone who isn't satisfied with a smartphone camera. The only thing that would really shake up this market - which I still hope to happen - is when more manufacturers would try to make a compact cameraphone like the previously mentioned Panasonic Lumix CM1. Right now, this cameraphone has a hefty pricetag because of its exclusivity. I can only hope that manufacturers will start making smartphones which aren't plain slabs of touchscreen and a tiny basic camera at the back... I'm glad we're already seeing some change from the usual slab!

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