In case you didn’t already notice, I barely took any pictures in 2006. There were a bunch of reasons, most of which squarely came down to a combination of mild depression and acute laziness, but there were a few technical factors inhibiting my photography.
Plain and simple, our camera wasn’t working too well, and still isn’t. Since 2003 Samir and I have been using an Olympus C-4000z, a 4 megapixel, 3x optical zoom that is the size and shape of the average potato and takes 10 seconds or so to start up and take a picture with.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fantastic camera and I wouldn’t trade it for a dozen Canons. The image quality is phenomenal and while I’ve read a dozen reviews talking about how the images are too contrasty (and I partly agree), there’s a certain look to Olympus digital camera results that I just like.
Now, of course, we come to the problems. The first one is that the batteries are wonky. We use two sets of four AA NiMh batteries for the thing, different brands and ratings, but over the years they’ve become depleted to the point where they barely hold any charge, and anything they do hold leaks away within a few hours. I’m not sure if it’s the old simple battery charger we were using or some kind of fault of the camera, so I’m reluctant to plonk down on a new set until I know for sure. Despite this we’ve come to understand the quirks of the unwell batteries and can squeeze two full cards worth of photos into a session through judicious use of the screen and zoom.
This brings me to the second problem, which is that two 128MB SmartMedia cards (which aren’t available here anymore) don’t hold that many full-quality pictures. Sure, 140 pics is still a lot more than a film camera, but on an average day out even that number can be limiting. I like to use the freedom that digital cameras give me to take many pictures of the same thing — sometimes dozens — then choose the best one later. The image limit takes me back to the days of 36 shot films with the developing and printing expenses. I like to plan my shots, but I don’t like to obsess over choosing one over the other at the shoot itself.
The third and most frustrating problem is that the navigation buttons on the camera don’t work anymore. We’ve been talking about giving the thing in for repairs for months, but usually some kind of weekend trip or other photo-op comes along to tempt us and our camera away. It also is neither the fastest nor the most compact piece of equipment to carry around on a day-to-day basis.
All of these factors, plus the increasing strain of two passionate photographers with just one camera between them (the last trip to India was frustrating enough with the battery issues) made one thing clear:
We needed to get a new camera!
Back in 2003, when we decided to plonk down good money for our first digicam, Samir did the hunting. I hadn’t actively handled a camera since the mid nineties when we each had 10$, plastic lens focus-free 35mms. I learned pretty-much everything I know on that old lavender-coloured thing and still have tons of old photos (some of them are even taken from the even-cheaper and older 110 film camera I had when I was six). None of the shots are as experimental as the ones I take now but they were a lot of fun to take (development and film costs etc. meant that photos were precious, but we still took a roll a month, much more than most people, and certainly most 10-year-olds).
Samir had researched and fished around for all subsequent cameras, and was the primary user of them too (I was busy, addicted to my PlayStation): the all-singing, all-dancing Samsung 35mm, the Ricoh compact and the strange and beautiful Praktica MTL5 with a Zenit lens, our first and so far only SLR. We love to research stuff. It’s a wonder we get any work done…
…Oh yeah, right, we don’t.
He spent the better part of his free time in August 2003 looking for just the right camera, and finally we decided on the C-4000z and went out to look for it. Just wandering around the shops and looking for stuff in our price range was and is not a fruitful endeavour, which I’ll expand on later.
Getting used to a digital camera after using a film camera all my life was frustrating, at first. I wasn’t prepared for the enormous amount of lag between pressing the button and the taking of the shot. Where previously I’d just run my thumb over the dial quickly to advance the film — a two second operation if I was nimble, and a one second job using the Praktica’s trigger-like film advance — the digicam would take a more glacial approach and spend 5 seconds showing me the picture, then writing it to the card, and prepping for the next one.
This is why I got into macro photography: I could use the screen to focus exactly on the part I wanted, frame things without having to worry about a discrepancy between viewfinder and lens, and hey, I could take my time — my subject wasn’t going anywhere!
As time progressed and I learnt the ins and outs of the camera, I did get a better hang of taking outdoors and relatively fast-moving shots, but a quick scan of digital camera sites over the past few years revealed that resolutions had improved; more is now squeezed into a truly pocketable form factor; higher ISO settings (faster ‘film’) and anti-shake technologies are now available in consumer-level compacts so taking night shots is easier; and my main quibble — the lag between shutter release press and actual shot — is vastly reduced.
While most people would move up and buy a bigger camera for their second purchase, a digital SLR usually, I chose to go for a compact because I needed something small, quick and versatile for everyday use. I don’t want to end up lugging a massive SLR to the mall.
Having a good compact camera for everyday use is an important thing for a hobbyist and professional photographer. Contrary to popular belief we don’t all like to roam around with bulging equipment, and the smaller the camera the less likely it is to warrant attention from security guards in public places (this is especially important if, like me, you are an unshaven brown man). It isn’t a replacement for a large pro or ‘prosumer’ camera, but it is a necessity if you want to take pictures while living your everday life.
The Consequences of Compact
Most compact cameras are overpriced crap. A hundred years from now when we have Quantum Processor Virtual Reality Smellovision cameras, the compact ones will also probably be overpriced crap.
Photography, the use of light to form an image on a medium, has so far been based on the lens (and for the forseeable future, it will be). The rule of thumb is that the more light you can put through the lens and onto the medium, the clearer the image will be. This is why SLRs are so big: the lenses are huge. We can infer, then, that the tiny lens in your old compact camera is not letting all that much light in, so it doesn’t have as much to deal with.
I’m not even factoring in things like zoom lenses and their mechanisms, electronics, film and film advancement mechanics, meters and flash bulbs and batteries and all the other stuff that needs to be engineered to fit into a size that is about as big as two decks of playing cards. Getting all those things tiny enough and working properly means that often image quality is sacrificed; things aren’t fine-tuned as well because they just can’t be at that size and budget; and after all, 99% of those cameras are going to go out and take crappy pictures of people who are either drunk, sunburnt or some at some stage inbetween.
Are they really going to notice that high-contrast areas of the picture have purple lines around them, that their Rudolph-red nose at the centre has a millimetre level of pinching and distortion? Probably not, and they usually have enough money to spend on cameras to cover all the costs of squeezing those parts into that sleek, compact body (which they will lose after said drunken picture is taken, anyway).
Like I said, most consumer cameras are overpriced crap.
Photography, thankfully, has long been a popular hobby, and there are magazines and websites and awards given by those magazines and websites to cameras that aren’t crap. People like seeing the words ‘Award-Winning’ on the box of something, and so they might spend 20-30% more on an award-winning product than just whatever the guy at the photo shop pimps them.
Most people also know at least one person who’s ‘into photography’ so they’re the ones these people will go to for advice when choosing a good camera — a compact one — and this friend will go along with them to the photo shop like a concerned parent and grill the minimum-wage guy behind the counter on things like ISO levels and macro modes, none of which the eventual owner of the camera may use, but if you’re going to pay good money for something it might as well not be complete crap.
The odd thing is, digital cameras work in a way that actually makes it easier for a compact camera to not be crap. Unlike film cameras where physics demands that the lens has to be big enough to make a full-sized picture on that type of film (so 120mm cameras are large, and the old 110 films needed smaller lenses), in a digital camera the image is captured on a very tiny CCD. If you made a CCD the size of a 35mm film it would cost a bundle and be of a resolution that only museums and pornographers might have any interest in, so manufacturers now don’t need to be limited by the size of the film medium. Lenses, therefore, get smaller. Even a regular digital camera’s lens is smaller than a 35mm camera’s, and compacts are smaller still.
The thing I told you about bigger lenses putting more light through still holds true though. Digital SLRs, despite the smaller size of a CCD, still have full-size lenses, and while this does result in things like image noise, they do produce better results than compacts. Olympus have come up with a smaller SLR format to better suit CCD sizes, the Four Thirds Format, which apparently is all shiny and cool with 14 megapixel SLRs that are no bigger than my current regular digital camera.
Unfortunately, since cameras like these are still bigger than compacts and the engineers have more freedom to make them good, they all cost a whole lot of money. I don’t want to end up lugging a $5,000 camera to the mall.
In the quest to make a camera that has a high megapixel count and supermodel slimness, camera manufacturers also remove a whole bunch of features that anybody who is ‘into photography’ like myself wouldn’t dream of living without. Viewfinders go out the window. ‘Professional’ user modes such as Aperture and Shutter priority modes are omitted. I once saw a (film) compact from Kodak where you couldn’t turn the flash off — ever. It cost five times as much as I paid for the old plastic-lens one ten years ago! Nobody really notices this kind of stuff, because the majority of compacts are bought by people who think the ability to put flowery vignette frames around pictures of their cats is a must-have feature.
If you are a regular consumer and you walk up to your photo guy saying your camera doesn’t take good photos, he’s just going to try and sell you the newest, shiniest thing that has its own set of ‘helpful’ automatic modes, or if you look rich enough he’ll try to sell you an SLR. There are an alarming number of people I see walking around malls toting Canon D5s and taking pictures that are as shit if not more than most compacts. Must be something to do with the big, big lenses, I think.
The Quest For Digital Excellence
It started, as it usually does, when we were called in to consult on the purchase of a compact camera for a friend. I had been keeping aside some money for a compact, but nothing that was really affordable (sub $200) seemed very good, and nothing very good was affordable. I was still willing to spend up to $300 for a good compact, and while looking around the shops for the friend’s camera I was also keeping an eye on things that looked good for me.
The friend ended up with a Kyocera 5 megapixel, not a bad camera and certainly for the $150 price it was a good buy, but lacking in all those essential prosumer features such as manual settings and high ISO. I looked at a bunch of stuff in the $300 dollar range and noticed the same thing Samir and I had encountered four years ago during our last camera scout:
Dubai prices are ridiculous. It didn’t matter how old a camera was or how primitive, price seemed to be determined by how high the megapixel count was and what the brand was (Nikons and Canons being the highest price). We turned then, to our old friend the internet, and there it was only confirmed: cameras in the market here were ridiculously overpriced. Still, we needed one, so we set about doing some research based on what, to me, is the major factor in choosing a digital camera: Image Quality.
Lucky us who live in the 21st century, for while in the film era people would have to buy magazines and listen to reviews, with digital you can just go to a camera review site and download full-resolution, unaltered sample pictures taken by the camera you’re interested in. Over the next couple of weeks two sites in particular were almost ingested by us: Steves’s Digicams and DP Review.
Steve’s has a nice list of ‘Best Cameras’ and their reviews are very in-depth. Like most American sites I’ve read, however, they seem to favour Canons and Nikons a lot. They also take some really average-looking sample photos, usually of the same things. This is a good thing, because it shows you how a camera will behave in the hands of a completely unartistic photographer — showing you the typical unartistic results one can expect from the camera — and the same subjects duplicated across dozens of cameras means you can compare and contrast two models almost directly.
DP Review seems to be more European, and the sample images they take are downright gorgeous. Really, I don’t think those guys can take a bad picture with any camera. I do think (but I’m not sure) that their photos are altered; something about the perfect contrast and saturation on the samples doesn’t quite gel with my experience of any digital camera’s standard output. DP Review is the place to go to see the best results one can expect from the camera.
You’d think that all this wealth of information would be confusing, and it is, but once you spend enough time doing it you tend to notice things both in Steve’s average photos and DPR’s exquisite ones. Subtle details and quirks of camera start to show up, and based on these you can steer towards the ones you like more.
One of the first ones I looked at was the Pentax Optio M20, one of the ‘best cameras’ on Steve’s but despite their recommendation I didn’t like the sample pictures one bit. It also didn’t have any kind of manual settings or image stabilisation. That was out.
I didn’t like Canons or Samsungs either. I can see why a lot of people — especially reviewers — would recommend them, but it is a personal choice. They have a very even, ‘digital’ look to them, perfectly fine if you’re a texture artist or enjoy spending a lot of time in an image manipulation program, but I’m more interested in something with its own character — a ‘camera’ rather than a ‘recording device’ if you know what I mean.
One camera that did have character though, was the Leica M8. Despite the fact that its image sensor is so sensitive it turns ultra-violet light into hues in the image, I’d still buy one because it’s a Leica and it doesn’t just take pictures, it takes Leica Pictures.
Unfortunately it costs $4795. Yes, that’s nearly five thousand dollars. Still, if I had the money…
But wait! Leica does provide lenses for Panasonic’s Lumix cameras, and there were a whole bunch of those in the market, such as the FX07, which Cory Doctorow on Boing Boing recently declared (in typical Doctorow fashion) “The Perfect Compact Camera”(!) but Leica-shmeica: it’s overpriced, and doesn’t have any manual controls whatsoever.
It also has a Lithium Ion battery pack, which is not a bad thing, but I prefer cameras that accept stanard AA batteries. While I always carry a spare set of charged NiMhs with the camera, it is a comfort knowing that the camera is that much more usable on long trips because in a pinch you can walk into any convenience store and pick up a pair of batteries that will last you a few shots at least. Again, it’s a personal thing, but a camera is a very personal purchase.
The Fuji Finepix F30 caught my eye because of the fantastic performance at ridiculous ISO settings like 3200, but that was a little too expensive.
I turned, next, to Sony’s Cybershots. I remember six months ago another friend had bought a P200, and at the time I was quite impressed with what it was for the price. A little hunting showed that the P range were the ultra-compact, non-viewfinder, LiOn battery pack ones, and the W range was similar but had regular batteries. The image quality, while not as unique as the Olympus I had used so far, was still impressive, with little purple fringing (a purple line on high-contrast areas). The fact that the exact models I was looking for were no longer available in the market but that choice on the back burner. Also I wasn’t completely in love with the image quality; it looked ‘too digital’ for my taste.
It’s All About Image
Dozens of cameras went by and were rejected because of price, lack of features, noisy photos or just plain gut reaction. A lot of them had very aggressive noise reduction, an in-camera, non-adjustable feature that smoothens out skin tones and highly detailed areas so that they look better. Every digital camera big and small does this, but in most I found that it was unsatisfactory, turning skin into pasty smears and hair into clumpy messes. Not something most people would notice if viewing their images in a “fit to screen” mode, but it does show up when looking at it in the actual resolution. For anyone who wishes to manipulate their images later in Photoshop or The GIMP, the more detail the better — there are much better noise filters available in computer software, and you have more control over it..
Frustrated, I looked once more at Olympus compacts. Some of them had very bad video recording capabilities or the lenses weren’t very good. One that I almost decided on — the Mju/Stylus 750 — had a horrible fuzzines on the outer edges of the pictures, the consequences of trying to squeeze a 5x optical zoom into an ultraslim case. Also Olympuses use xD picture card media, which is supposedly slower than SD and also more expensive.
Somewhere late in the game, I decided to just stop looking at the cameras with an analytical eye, and just go to DP review and look for something that had pictures that wowed me. The Nikons have a fantastic film-like look, and if they weren’t horribly overpriced here (the S10 which I was considering was over $400 because it had a 10x zoom), I might own one today. The surprise contender, however, was the Kodak c875.
So far I hadn’t considered Kodak because one look at the back of their cameras and the prominent “share” button had told me that they were very regular consumer oriented. I was wary of being unable to just dump the photos from the camera, without using some kind of proprietary software. I’m the kind who doesn’t ever use Windows Picture and Fax viewer (the program most pictures open in by default) because when you rotate the image it directly, permanently changes the file. It’s always best to just keep the thing as it came out of the camera because in compacts you’re dealing with JPEG compressed images, and the more you mess with them and re-save them the more likely you are to get a loss of quality in the finer details.
Nevertheless, the photos were very impressive. Also it was an 8 megapixel camera with a 5x optical zoom and an adequate amount of manual controls. While it didn’t have an optical viewfinder, the macro wasn’t all that great (10cm minimum distance, versus 2cm on my Olympus), and it wasn’t as slim and pocketable as the others, something about it just seemed right.
I looked around town and either found it overpriced or not available at all. It seems that the high megapixel and zoom put it in league with higher-end cameras. Currently the average compact is a 7 megapixel 3x zoom so anything above it is automatically priced higher no matter what its price in the international market.
Keeping those international prices in mind I even hunted around the internet, but there it turned out that with all the shipping fees it would work out to as much as I would pay here, and at least if I bought it here I’d get local service and warranties. It was getting to a point where I had to choose between the lesser of two overpriced shops, and that is when I went to the supermarket.
Supermarkets are strange places. If you have a local one you go to often you tend to overlook all the bits you aren’t usually interested in; the dry cleaner; the little knick-knack store; the Kodak photo shop. Samir is a lot more observant than I, however, which is why, at the checkout counter one day, he noted that in addition to taking passport-size photos and printing film, the little hole in the wall also sold digital cameras. Turns out they had the c875 for a lot less than the other stores, and around the same price as it would have cost me to order it off the net. Plus, it came with a battery charger, four batteries and a 512MB SD card.
You don’t usually find a better deal at an official dealer in these parts, mostly because large hypermarkets buy in bulk numbers and can afford to have a slimmer proft margin. Small stores you can bargain in, but this usually brings them down to the listed price in a hypermarket. But here it was, a great deal on a good camera next to the checkout at a supermarket.
And that is how I got my new camera.