Follow up ………

2008, Photography

My post ‘A raw rant‘ generated quite some traffic the last few days and let me make clear that I didn’t post it to start a new debate on RAW versus jpeg. And look, I don’t mind editing my photographs either. In fact, I think it is great fun to edit my photographs. So I will try to explain my feelings towards preferring jpegs for my general photography.

I use only one camera for my photography, the Ricoh GX200. I regard the camera as an huge improvement. handling wise. coming from the GX100, but I much preferred the image quality of the GX100. Since I use one camera for all types of photography I try to make it work for all disciplines. In RAW mode, good lightning, and working at base ISO the camera produces great looking files. In combination with the huge depth of field of these cameras that works really well for landscape photography in my opinion.

Low light
Ricoh GX200, f2.7, 1/60 sec, ISO 100, manual mode

But see, I don’t only like landscapes. I also like street photography for instance and I often work in not so perfect light conditions. Cameras with small sensors suffer from more noise, less dynamic range, and decreasing colors at higher ISO’s. Some think these are flaws, I see this as habits of the medium, the facts of life.

Recent serious compact cameras have gained much speed. Faster RAW writing times, continuous shooting modes and improved in-camera handling. But these RAW files can be large (17 MB for the GX200 for instance). These large files not only slow the camera down, but also the editing. Not much fun when you want to review and edit a lot of photographs. With applications like Adobe Lightroom and Apple Aperture things have improved and it has become more intuitive to process RAW files. While I liked the way Lightroom processed the RAW files from my GX100, I dislike it how it handles the DNG files from the GX200. Sometimes Capture One works better, the other times Raw Therapee. Too many choices, too many different results. And despite shooting RAW more often I was more than happy with the jpegs.

Ricoh GX200, f2.7, 1/16 sec, ISO 200, manual mode

So here below I will explain how I make my compact camera work for me. I have tried several things in the past and I will likely be doing so in the near future. Recently I stumbled upon a great article about the Leica Digilux 2 on the website of Danish professional photographer Thorsten Overgaard. In that lengthly article he describes how he uses the Digilux 2 for his work and gain maximum performance from the camera. And best of all, he told me he still uses this 5 megapixel camera from 2004 for professional assignments. Even Peter van Agtmael uses the Digilux 2, instead of a Leica M8 which he disgusted (thank you for mentioning David Paul Carr). And remember wedding photographer Laurence Kim from the US who reviewed the Panasonic LX3 on his blog. He says: ‘As a professional photographer, I’ve never even considered using these “dummy modes” before. My thought was to just always shoot raw and then tweak the image in post to get it the way I want it. But you know what? These jpegs look so good straight out of the camera that I think I’ll stick with jpeg on this puppy, even after Adobe supports the LX3 raw files. Technology has evolved so why fight it?‘ So remember, it is not a rant. I just want to give some information on how you could use small sensor cameras in less than ideal situations. And Thorsten’s tips & tricks for the Digilux 2 certainly also applies for many serious compact cameras in my opinion.

Low light
Ricoh GX200, f3.0, 1/2 sec, ISO 100, manual mode

My tips & tricks
Whenever we read reviews or personal impressions of small sensor cameras, we always read that these camera are hardly usable at high ISO’s. Extensive noise, loss of details, and desaturating colors are often heard reasons. And because they all are pretty much true, why then use high ISO on these cameras? So keep it at base ISO, preferably at ISO 100 or at a maximum of ISO 200. Now this will result in longer exposures. So try to speed things up. First, select jpeg. The saving times are much shorter. Work with the camera in manual mode for more accurate exposing. Make the lens and sensor work for you and since small sensors give huge depth of field select the maximum lens opening. You still get plenty sharpness while getting the fastest shutter speed as possible.

Low light
Ricoh GX200, f2.7, 1/4 sec, ISO 100, manual mode

Fast shutter speeds at low ISO in dim light are pretty relative, but Thorsten Overgaard mentions another tip to get sharp photographs in low light. Shoot series instead of single photographs. Use the continuous or burst mode on your camera. When you do so the first shot of the series will likely have motion blur, but there is a good chance that the next shots are completely sharp and still. You will notice that you will be able to go to shutter speeds of 1/8 or even 1/4 seconds. These series of shots will be captured in only a second. Even a Sigma DP1 will be able to take 3 shots in a second and many mention that camera as being very slow. And Alex Majoli was able to use Olympus compact cameras on assignments in burst mode too. Though many will probably have read that story here and here.

Of course there are situations where it makes sense to shoot RAW in my opinion. For additional details, best dynamic range, getting the most out of a file and intended to be printed at large. But I think there are enough situations too where you won’t need the extra data. These photographs will still print fine at A4 or even A3 in my opinion.

All photographs by Wouter Brandsma

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.