Which Compact Digital Camera?

Over the last few days I have had two separate people ask me about what I would recommend in terms of a compact digital camera. It just so happens that this somewhat coincides with me taking the plunge and finally replacing my dear old Canon G9 compact camera which stopped working after a fall about 6 months ago. Therefore, what follows is a run-down of what I considered (for about 4 months) when researching cameras.

To summarise this massive blog post, for someone who wants a no-fuss compact camera with good manual controls, then I would seriously look at the Nikon P300, Panasonic LX5, or Sony HX9v.

I considered 4 cameras as definite contenders for what I wanted the camera for: the Olympus XZ-1, the Nikon P300, the Panasonic LX 5, and the Panasonic Lumix GF1. Important features for me were compact-ness, good quality video, a fast lens (a lens which allowed good photography in dark situations), and the ability to get nice depth of field (that sexy effect where the subject is focused, and the background is all blurry), and also the ability to add conversion lenses (like fisheye lenses and other ultra-wide angle lenses).

When I chose the Canon G9 way back in 2007, I chose it more or less because it was the top of the line Canon compact camera and, I could add relatively cheap conversion lenses for shots of me on my longboard or bike.

35km downhill from Santai, Xinjiang Province, China The monks of the Arou Buddhist Temple in Arou, Qinghai Province, China

Reflections near Chaowu, Anhui Province, China

Therefore, this time around I was also looking at the top of the line compact cameras, in order to get the best performance in a small package. This also meant that I was also looking at paying a decent price for the camera (up to about US$400). The reason I didn’t consider the current generation of the Canon G-series (the G12), was because of the poor video performance (http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/CanonG12/page9.asp).

In the end, I bought a second hand Panasonic Lumix GF1, and I will explain the reasons for that at the end, but first, here are the considerations I made regarding the other three options:

Good Quality Video
First of all, let me define good quality video. I was looking for 1) the possibility of high frame rate recording (60fps), 2) high quality high definition video (at least 720p). I figured that 60fps would give me options for nice slow motion editing, more so than 30 frames per second (which is what seems to be the standard at present for compact cameras with decent video options). But then of course video quality is not all about frames per second. The degree to which the video is compressed is also a factor in how good the video looks on screen. Most high end compact cameras record at about 17Mbps, which is just fine, really. But if increasing the bit rate (decreasing the compression) was possible, then that would be an advantage. In terms of frames per second, the Nikon P300 came out trumps. It can record in 720p HD mode at 60fps, which I thought was pretty cool. The bit rate is also at a respectable 17Mbps. I did read one review which did not rate the autofocus very highly, but all in all it looks like a decent camera from a video quality point of view. The Olympus XZ-1 in video mode shoots at 30fps, and also records at 17Mbps, but there are plenty of reviews out there which suggest there is much room for improvement in terms of autofocus (the camera keeps trying to re-focus) and manual controls in video mode (that is, there are none). The Panasonic LX5, while it does not shoot at true 60fps (it has a 60fps setting, but it is actually shooting at 30fps, and just doubling each frame), allows manual control in video mode, and looks like a very capable camera (albeit quite bulky, as is the Olympus).

Conversion Lenses
Conversion lenses are lenses which fit over the stock lens of a compact camera. That is, on fancy SLR cameras, you interchange the lenses, physically removing the lens each time you want to change lenses. On some high end compact cameras, you can “sheath” the existing lens inside another lens, for either super wide angle shots, fisheye lens shots, or super long telephoto shots. The ultimate factor which put me off the Nikon P300 was the fact that it doesn’t take conversion lenses. I like to be able to have the option to add super wide angle lenses, and even though the Nikon P300’s 24mm equivalent lens is very wide as it is, I wanted to go even wider (as per the shots above). The Olympus XZ-1 and Panasonic LX5 do take conversion lenses, but due to the Olympus XZ-1’s bad video reviews, the Panasonic LX5 was definitely the winner here.

The clear winner here out of the Nikon P300, Olympus XZ-1, and the Panasonic LX5 is the Nikon P300. You do really get an amazing camera in a very small package (comparatively). You wouldn’t really want to put either the Panasonic LX5 or Olympus XZ-1 in your pocket, but you’d probably get away with it with the Nikon P300.

Depth of Field
When I tried out the Olympus XZ-1 in a store here in Sapporo, I was amazed at the depth of field (the camera was also very fast at starting up, by the way; more than the others). dpreview.com consider it one of the better performing compact cameras when it comes to depth of field and I could see why (see here for the review: http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/OlympusXZ1/).

Fast Lens
Generally, the smaller the f-value, the nicer the background blurring is. Also, the smaller the f-value is, the more light passes through the lens. Which means that you get better pictures/video at night time or indoors with low light. The Olympus XZ-1 has a very ‘fast’ lens; the lens is f1.8. The Nikon P300 also has an f1.8 lens, but the reason that the Olympus XZ-1 outperforms here is because it also has a larger sensor than the Nikon P300 (why the sensor matters, I’m not quite sure…more area for recording pixels?). In any case, The Panasonic LX5’s lens has an f-value of f2.0, which is pretty fast, and has the same size sensor as the XZ-1.

My Recommendation for a Compact Camera (non-interchangable lens type)
Based on the above considerations, and because I love the option of using conversion lenses, I would have gone with the Panasonic LX5. If, however, conversion lens compatibility is not an issue, the Nikon p300 would be my recommendation (based entirely on reviews I have read, not extensive hands on usage). The Nikon P300 has the same size sensor as my old Canon G9, and I got some pretty decent photos out of that.

EDIT: The Sony HX9v also looks like an even better choice than the Nikon P300: Write-up here at DSLR New Shooter. Doesn’t have a super fast lens though…

Conclusion (what I ended up getting)
As I said at the beginning of this post, I actually ended up getting a second hand Panasonic Lumix GF1 (body only). This is kind of like an SLR camera, but has no viewfinder, and hence is much more compact than an SLR camera. It is what is called a ‘micro four-thirds’ camera, which means that the sensor size is about 2.5 larger than the Olympus XZ-1 and Panasonic LX5’s sensor, but is about 40% smaller than mid-range DSLR cameras. The ‘micro’ part more or less means that there is no optical viewfinder (more info here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Micro_Four_Thirds_system). In other words, I can use fancy lenses interchangeably, and get awesome depth of field, and all the other benefits of a larger sensor (whatever they are).

Along with the camera body, I bought a 1970’s manual focus Canon FD 50mm f.14 S.S.C. lens, which can be bought online for around US$50 to US$100, and used on the GF1 with an adapter. Buying second hand means a much cheaper package all round. NOTE: Due to the smaller size of the sensor on the GF1 (compared with bigger SLR cameras), a 50mm lens becomes 100mm, meaning that it ends up being somewhat of a very long lens!

Rojiura Surry Samurai, The Soup Curry Master, Toyohira-ku, Sapporo, Japan 2011 Yosakoi Soran Festival (YOSAKOIソーラン祭り) in Susukino, Sapporo, Japan

A soft red dice...you can chew on it

Also a very large part in getting this GF1 (rather than the more recent GF2, or this week announced GF3), apart from price, was that there is a sneaky hack out there which allows a user to increase the quality of the video the camera takes. Without going into too much detail, the camera essentially records at 720p, 30fps, at 17Mbps. This provides very nice video, but using the Ptool firmware hacking tool, it is possible to increase the bit rate to up to 100Mbps! This equals very fine details in video footage. You can also increase the resolution to 1080p, but apparently this does not really increase video quality all that much, so I am more focused on getting the best I can out of the 720p. The frame rate can also be changed to 24fps, but not to 60fps. Using the 50Mbps AVCHD Fast Action 3-Frame GOP Patch, I now have a very compact digital interchangeable lens camera which can take extremely high quality video. Below is a video I took before applying the hack, which just goes to show how good the video is at the stock settings (taken on the Motion JPEG setting).

Here is a video I put together of footage taken with the hack applied (in AVCHD, auto white balance, hand-held):

Was the Micro Four-Thirds Camera Worth it?
The problem with the interchangeable lens camera malarkey, is that while you can get some great quality shots, you have to lug around so much more gear. More lenses etc. If you want to travel ultra light weight, then this is the camera to have if you just have to have SLR quality. But if you just want an awesome point and shoot, then this is not worth it. Lenses cost money, camera bags cost money etc etc. That is what I have discovered. When I had my Canon G9, which produced some great photos (if I do say so myself), I could carry it in a small pouch on my belt, and add the cheap fisheye conversion lens (which generally was kept in a simple nylon bag) when I needed it. Simple and light and cheap and robust. Now, I find myself wanting that $800 fisheye zoom lens, and wanting that $400 standard zoom lens, and wanting that $500 portrait lens….

I am, however, stoked to have the micro four-thirds camera. I feel like this will open up all new avenues of expression and creativity. But to my friends who may not care about what the difference is between f’s and mm’s, I would say that the extra bulk and weight of big lenses (even on small camera bodies like even the new Panasonic GF3) is not worth it. Go for the Nikon P300 with its nice wide 24mm zoom lens, very compact size, decent video abilities. If a slightly larger camera size is OK, then go for the Panasonic LX5 for better performance. Or consider the Sony HX9v.

Is Video the Only Thing You Care About?
No. I love photos too. But the thing is, as far as I can see, it seems that in terms of photo-taking prowess, the cameras in this post only really have very small differences. That is to say, advances in sensor quality, lens quality, photo-taking prowess etc are now very small; quality is just that high. However, the next few years will see, as the last few years have seen, very big leaps in compact digital video technology. So, while still photography prowess is something to consider, for me, video capture technology is the exciting thing to be following.


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