Compact camera limitations

2008, Photography

There is a distinctive demand among serious photographers for a high quality compact camera. Small sized, fast, and easy handling camera with raw capability, good optics, and good image quality. Many serious compact cameras do bring some of these features, but no camera comes with everything.

My camera for instance, the Ricoh GX200, has probably the best camera handling in the business together with the GR Digital 2. Excellent raw capability, is fast, and has a very good lens. The image quality is really good at base ISO (64) and ISO 100. It can be good at ISO 200, but don’t underexpose, and becomes less usable at ISO 400 and higher with more noise and considerable loss of detail. Now, the GX200 is not the only camera suffering from the limitations of the sensor. It becomes apparent that the Canon PowerShot G10 has the same caveat. It makes fun to photograph with a great handling camera, but in the end it is still the photograph that matters to me.

Image quality wise the Sigma DP1 is in a different competition. It is yet the only compact camera packed with an APS-C sized sensor, but at the cost of speed and handling. The lens starts at f4 and raw writing times takes longer then on the recently released serious compacts. Nevertheless the lens is very sharp, and the DP1 is also the only compact camera were you can play with shallow depth of field without the macro mode.

Although I personally don’t think Panasonic made the most intuitive user interface, their Lumix DMC-LX3 is probably the best current serious compact camera on the market. Instead of adding more pixels on a sensor, they didn’t increase the numbers. They improved the software engine of the camera that results in some of the finest jpegs from any small sensor camera, especially at higher ISO’s. But at what price? A limited choice of raw processors, more barrel and CA distortion (though cleverly handled by the in-camera software and Silkypix raw processor). But talking about price, it is probably also the cheapest high quality compact camera too in most parts of the world. Unless the Ricoh GX200 is well available in your country.

But what too expect from the near future? I think it is harder to predict future plans since the financial crisis. Many had hoped that more camera manufacturers would follow Sigma developing a compact camera with a larger sensor. This however would result in very high costs in the research and development, and that seems less likely today. At photokina, Ricoh stated to me that they want to improve the image quality of their GR Digital and GX cameras. I am not sure how, but I think the Panasonic method seems most likely. Less pixels, faster lens and better software engine. Sigma introduced the DP2 with a 40mm lens and faster processing at photokina, but with an uncertain release date for 2009.

Less compact, but still more compact then a dSLR is the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1. Together with the kit lens it is not quite compact, but together with a M-mount wide angle lens it sure is (see it with a C-V 15mm here). And what about the expected Olympus m4/3 camera? The G1 is not at all cheap, and you can get better dSLR cameras for less. The Olympus camera will probably be in the same price range too.

Many, including me, had high expectations about the introductions of many serious compact cameras this year. In the end it was still much of the same though. We might still have to deal with many of the current limitations in the next few years. But these cameras will probably produce increasingly better jpegs with better denoising and dynamic range. But the raw files will make their flaws more noticeable too.

It is still good to know that a manufacturer tries to listen to its customers. Upcoming Sunday there will be a Ricoh meet up in London and some of the Ricoh Europe folks will be there too. See more information here at Ricoh Forum.

Now, the above will be fine when it still fits your style, capabilities, and creativity. In my opinion you shouldn’t buy a camera, because it will make better pictures. Finally, the camera is still just a box capturing light in a fashion you want it too. Make sure you master your camera and the photographs. And live with the thought that you know what you can do with your camera, instead of thinking what you can’t do with it. Take or make photographs, whatever, as long as you have fun.

21 thoughts on “Compact camera limitations

  1. Hi, hope to catch you guys this Sat at Borough Market. I have a GRD 2 and love the build and handling. The image quality is good enough for the type of images I shoot but not for large prints detailed prints. I personally think the resolution is akin to ISO 200 negative. Despite this, like you all, I long for a dp1 spec Ricoh is: quality and speed, including the build. Let’s see what the Ricoh boys can come up with. Perhaps they already have something up their sleeves..!

  2. Hi Steven Lee. I unfortunately won’t be there at the meet up this Saturday. But some great folks will be (see RicohForum for more information). You will be able to discuss current cameras with some people from Ricoh Europe, and drop some of your wishes.

    I have printed GX200 photos at A2-size, and though these are not as highly detailed as prints from cameras with larger sensors, I am still amazed how these photos from my camera work well at large prints.

    And considering the price. I have seen the DP1 already for the price of a GRD2 in the Dutch retail.

  3. Well, I would like to encourage you to pull the trigger and (re) consider the DP1?

    Last night I was playing with the by Carl Rytterfalk recommended iso boost, keep iso400 (clean on a dp1), underexpose by two full stops and process in monochrome! Add manual focus and there is no lag…

    Find his results on his latest blog posts…

    Also, generally, the black and white conversions work really well, with the dynamic range you already experienced.


  4. Searching for photo’s from a Ricoh GX camera I’ve found your photoblog and are enjoying it every time I go there!
    I have still to decide which of the camera’s you described I will buy. By reading a lot of reviews and looking a lot of nice pics I actually have got a lot of knowledge. I have noticed the same advantages and disadvantages of the cameras as you described. Which of these camera’s do you recommend me to buy?


  5. Hi Frank, That sure is a difficult question. When you are Dutch, and your name suggests so, the GX200 is currently the cheaper camera. 😉 You can get one with the EVF for € 401,51 at for instance. The GX200 has absolutely the better camera handling in my opinion, but I think the LX3 will deliver the better image quality. No saved settings, no step zoom, no easy function buttons though.

    To get an impression of the differences between the above described cameras, check this post. At base ISO both the GX200 and LX3 produce great results, at ISO 100 the differences are minor too, but the differences become more apparent at ISO 200 and higher in favor of the LX3.

    Cheers and good luck,

  6. Hey Wouter, thanks for your recommendation. I didn’t know! By the way you can buy a Sigma DP1 on ebay for €430 at the moment plus shipping costs €446.



  7. > A limited choice of raw processors

    as of now (Win platform) :

    1) Rawtherapee and all open-source/closed source based on dcraw, that are updated to the latest version of dcraw

    2) Adobe Camera Raw 5.2

    3) SilkyPix

    4) C1 (CaptureOne) w/ the hack = replace the name of the camera in .RW2 file
    using some hex editor :

    a) @ 0x246 = 0x4C 0x45 0x49 0x43 0x41 0x00 (= replace “Panaso” with “LEICA” and 0x00)

    b) @ 0x250 = 0x44 0x2D 0x4C 0x55 0x58 0x20 0x34 (= replace “DMC-LX3” with “D-LUX 4”)

    5) anything that supports linear DNG produced by Adobe DNG converter (LightRoom should be able, until v2.2 will be released by Adobe, that will open .RW2 natively)

    MIA :

    Bibble and I am not sure about DxO

  8. Here in the States, and in my own opinion, there seems to be less interest in the higher end compacts (like your Ricoh, the G10, etc.). Instead the trend seems to be an ever expanding lineup of entry level dSLRs and more of the super zoom variety (think Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ28, Sony Cybershot DSC-H10, etc.).

    I’m wondering if the four/thirds cameras will make any headway here because of the glut of entry level dSLRs (which tend to be pretty small in size anyway) and the apparent growing popularity of super zooms.

  9. @Frank: Within a year the prices are dropping considerably for the DP1. It becomes an attractive camera indeed.

    @John and James: As long as we all don’t forget that last paragraph 🙂

    @deejjjaaaa: For the Mac platform you’ve forgot to mention Raw Developer. DxO added support for the Canon G9 just October so it seems unlikely that there will be support for the LX3 or D-Lux4 any soon. And Bibble 5 is still not released.

    @Mark: LOL, size matters in the US 😉

  10. Wouter, your advice is spot on. Too many people obsess about what they can’t do with their camera instead of learning how to get the most out of what their camera can do.
    In the end it is more important to get a camera that works for you and you like using, only then will you get the best out of it. Your pictures are proof of how much you can get out of a small sensor camera if you know how to use it.

    All cameras you mentioned can give great results in the right hands but at the end of the day you have to choose what works best for you. I think next year will see some very interesting cameras so for now it’s better to just wait and take pictures with the camera you have.

  11. You are quite correct Wouter……I truly find the smaller cameras (including entry level dSLRs like the Canon 400) to be uncomfortable to use. None of the controls fall readily to hand or finger… fingers just seem to get in the way……..

    I didn’t want the Canon 40D, but I needed it when I tried holding and using the smaller cameras.

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