The pocket digicam

I haven’t written about photography in a while. This is probably a bad sign for my soul because it means I haven’t been shooting much lately.

I am in the market for a new digital camera and was wondering if you could recommend a worthy one. I’m far from a pro, so a basic point and shoot of awesome quality, reasonable price, and lightweight for 100 lb. weaklings would work just fine for me. Someone said I should get a Sony Cybershot. Any recommendations?

I’m always getting e-mails and IMs like this. Because I carry around an expensive camera, people assume I have an opinion. It’s been years since I’ve actually written about this and I don’t even shoot this sort of camera anymore. So what advice to give?

Find the class first

Almost all digital cameras are very good, so instead of brands, consider size first. The smaller the size, the worse the low light performance/versatility but the more likely you are to carry it. I currently own a bunch of “1”s, a “3”, and a “4” which is so old I never shoot it. Most serious photographers I know own a “1” and a “4”, or a “2.” I buy only “4”s for people.

Here are the categories in terms of decreasing size:

  1. Cameras with removeable/swappable lenses. Yes they are small enough for your arms! For example: Pentax K-2000, Olympus E-520, Nikon D60, and Canon XSi. There are also older models of all these to be had at reasonable prices.
  2. bridge cameras.” They are only slightly smaller than the above, but they contain an all in one lens and a smaller sensor thus larger zoom range. Panasonic makes the most popular one in this category, but every vendor has these. the old “Sony Cybershot”s were these, but they now use the “Cybershot” brand name on (4) also. Because of the declining prices of an SLR, I no longer recommend these, even though I started serious photography on this camera.
  3. “pro” compact camera – The distinguishing feature between these and (4) is cost and size. These things are PINOs only pocketable in the “are-you-happy-to-see-me?”-sense. The overall construction and quality will be much better. For size reference, check out the Canon G or the Panasonic Lumix LX or Nikon P line. (The cheapest cameras used to be (and still are) bigger (“3”-sized) but at these prices, this is a waste of money.)
  4. ultracompact “pocketables” – the Canon SD series is the reference size, anything bigger deserves to be called (3). If on a budget, I recommend you buy a camera in this size and in a style to match your taste.

(It looks like a lot of things have changed in the last four years! Whole categories have nearly disappeared and others have converged on a few designs and the quality has gone up across the board as cameras have gotten even smaller and better.)

Start small

Size is a good place to start. I think 1 and 2 are too large for my needs. Probably categories 3 or 4. I currently have a Canon that has poor color quality and a sluggish shutter speed.

I used to think I was just a really bad photographer (which is objectively true). But then, I started using my cousin’s camera (don’t remember the brand, but it was pretty compact) and I realized that I could take decent pictures with a good camera.

The best of the class

On the (3) line the best cameras are the:

  • Panasonic Lumix LX3. Simply the best lens for its size. Even though the sensor is one of the largest around, Panasonic’s image processing precludes it from having good low-light functionality. A T.O.P. Ten and I agree.
    Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 (slant)
  • Canon G10 – there are lot of user modifications and user control on this camera (it still has an optical viewfinder). It’s a good all-around camera and if was as fast as my Leica, I’d probably own one. Here is my discussion of an older model. This was also a T.O.P. Ten.
    Canon G10 (front view)
  • Sigma DP2 – great for street photography. The unique thing about the DP2 is that it has a sensor as large as on a digital SLR—the infamous Mike Johnston “DMD”. If you don’t understand the advantages of this in terms of low light performance and depth of field, then this camera isn’t for you. Personally, I’ll never get be patient to wait for the barrel to extend or a zoom to move, but I shoot SLRs and rangefinders.
    Sigma DP2
  • Panasonic ZS3 which succeeds the TZ5 . This is a compact super zoom: a big beefy zoom in a tiny body making it the best compact camera for tourists/travel. The ZS3 also records HD video in AVCHD format, if you like making short iMovies. 🙂
    Panasonic Lumix DMC-DS3r slant
  • Ricoh GX200. A retro camera with zoom. This is the zoom version of their GR line which is popular with natural-light, black and white photographers.
    Ricoh GX200 features
  • Nikon P6000 – I was never sold on this line since it always seemed slightly inferior to the Canon G series. Still it works well with Nikon SLR accessories (flash, et. al.) and is as customizeable as the G10.
    Nikon Coolpix P6000 3/4 view

If any of these have a hotshoe for flash, I recommend buying a flash for them, it’ll make a huge difference indoors.

The (real) pocketables

In the (4) line. Nearly every camera is good so it’s more a matter of style. Here are some standouts:

  • Fuji F200EXR – The best image in low or contrasty light for this body type. Nothing comes close.
    Fuji FinePix F-200EXR
  • Ricoh CX1 – this is really new so I can’t really comment on it’s feature set. Traditionally Ricohs had a very versatile “travel” zoom lens. This model adds an a better start up time, all metal construction, and a double-shot high dynamic range mode (a la Fuji F200EXR).
    Ricoh CX1 Design
  • The Casio EX-FC100. IMO, Casio has always had the nicest and fastest operating systems for compacts. Access to Pentax’s “sliding lens” patents and their own ceramic lens manufacturing allows them to make unique “credit card” sized models that are slightly thinner than others out there. But the only reason this camera deserves mention is it’s 1000fps video and 30fps image capture (for reference, my $5000 Nikon D3 doesn’t do video and shoots at 9fps). Not sure the utility of the camera, but it definitely deserves a nod.
    Casio Exilim High Speed: Digital Cameras
  • The entire Canon SD (series). From the top of the line SD 970IS to the candy-colored SD1200IS, and even old models (as long as they have “IS”. This is the most popular line and is also known is the digital “ELPH” from the APS film photography world where it garnered design awards and pretty much was a category killer as evidenced by being the the only camera in this class to get a T.O.P 10 this year. For good reason! I feel the Canon SDs have the best lens for its size and top notch image processing. They’re a bit overpriced for the value though. BTW, if you are looking for more zoom range for “travel”, consider Canon’s SX series.
    Canon PowerShot SD970 IS Digital ELPH
    PowerShot SD1200 IS Digital ELPH lineup
    Inspiration of ELPH
  • Sony Cybershot line – I don’t like the periscope lens, but if you like this body type, I feel Sony makes the  best. In a periscope lens, the lens is recessed vertically inside the body and the sensor focuses on a mirror on the top left of the camera. This allows the body to resemble a credit card (as opposed to an Altoids tin).
    DSC-T90/T | Bronze Cyber-shot® Digital Camera DSC-T90/T | Sony | Sony Style USA

If you are looking for something like the Canon SD, there are a lot of great options here, so it’s mostly one of (personal) style, for instance, I bought a white Casio S for my sister in law back when cameras didn’t come in any colors other than silver and black, but nowadays you can get a great camera in any color from any vendor like: like Sony or Nikon (flagship), or Panasonic. I think style is very important because the quality is already very good. Some people may feel that a body feels too “plasticy” or “cheap”—go with that feeling and avoid that camera.

Some things to look for

Other than that things to look for that aren’t obvious.

  • Start up time and shutter lag. This is a frustrating experience if it takes too long. Newer cameras have improved the latter, but I still mention this because shutter lag is still noticeable in low light situations. Almost all digital cameras do contrast-based focusing (instead of IR based like the old film point and shoots)—as lighting gets worse, so does shutter lag. 🙁
  • OPTICAL (or SENSOR SHIFT) based image stabilization (a must). As mentioned in the article, be careful to confirm that the image stabilization is mechanically instead of electronically based.
  • face recognition- I thought it was just a gimmick but it’s surprisingly useful.
  • smile/blink detection- Again super useful.

Things to ignore:

  • megapixel – anything over 6 is more than enough.
  • zoom “magnification”. Just look at the following table instead:
    “35mm equiv” focal length what it means
    24-28mm ultrawide angle (todays photojournalism)
    32-35mm wide angle (street photography)
    50mm-60mm “normal” (a nearly dead way of shooting)
    70-110mm “portrait” (in the 1800’s this was “normal”)
    120mm+ telephoto (for travel)

    All you care is how wide is wide, and the only time you need zoom is when you are traveling—and can’t move closer.

What about me?

Me? I’ve been waiting years to pull the trigger on this:


The Olympus Micro 4-3s camera. It has a removable lens and a 2x multiplier sensor. the removable of the reflex mirror means the lens quality for this will be excellent.

Back to Olympus after all these years…

Pigeon Point Near Sunset

Pigeon Point Near Sunset
Pigeon Point State Historic Park, San Mateo, California

Olympus C-2500L
(5 images) 1/400-1/200 sec @ f/5.6, iso 100, 9mm (36mm)

Parting shot

Just as I recommend that dSLR buyers get a wide-aperture normal lens, don’t buy a pocket camera without reading the manual, trying out all the features, and taking it around shooting a few memory cards worth in every condition on the first day.

I run by Golden Gate Bridge about once a week, often some tourist asks me to stop and take their picture in front of it. At parties and people ask me to snap their photo with their camera all the time. Often times, people ask how the photo I took came out so much better than they thought and the answer is, nearly always, their camera was set for the wrong condition. And, I don’t even own a modern pocket digicam any more.

Trust me, when you want to take “that shot” you won’t have time to set it to do anything you haven’t done a zillion times before.

(As always, I appreciate any comments, corrections, and suggestions for revisions. Click on the Amazon, B&H or Adorama links to give me some revenue juice before making a purchase. 😉 )

13 thoughts on “The pocket digicam

  1. DPReview tests Compact Super Zooms. I’m happy to report that the ZS3 mentioned in my article was the co-winner of this test. I’m not surprised since, with the TZ-series, Panasonic has been building these the second longest (after Ricoh which abandoned this market a couple years ago).

    I also added the Casio EX-FC100 to the article above, thanks to ubergizmo for reminding me of it’s existence with this $300 deal posting.

  2. This post is exactly what I was looking for! I just told Marie that I broke my digital camera last week and she sent me the link to this post.

    I was thinking Canon and your post reaffirmed that decision.

  3. TOP reviews the Sigma DP2 mentioned above. They compare it to the Canon G10 and the LX3 (both also mentioned above). Check out this WSJ review of the LX3 to understand why I separated cameras like teh G10 and LX3 from pocketables both by price and size:

    Also, since Andrei was replacing his Fuji (mentioned above) that fell in a lake in Iceland (he didn’t like the operating system of the Fujis) with a Canon SD, I found out that the top of the line Canon SD is the SD990 Here is a head-to-head comparison with the SD970 mentioned in the article above.

    990: has a larger sensor (2/3″ instead of 1/2″) and slightly more resolution (14mp vs 12mp), larger aperture lens, faster fps (1.2 vs 1), a very very useless optical viewfinder

    970: longer zoom and closer macro (because of the smaller sensor), does HD video, larger rear LCD with more pixels
    But here is a link to another comparison not on a spec sheet.

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