Quest for the Ultimate Compact Camera

Note: 10/27/13: This article is WAY out of date, 5+ years being the equivalent of several generations in the digital camera world. When I wrote this article back in 2008 there were very few options for high quality compact cameras. In the last 5 years the camera industry has made great progress in the direction of high quality sensors in small cameras – particularly with mirrorless cameras – and the offerings are just getting better and better each year. While I’m still waiting for the ULTIMATE compact camera, there are so many great options now that articles like this are almost irrelevant now. So, while this article has practically no useful information anymore, I’ll keep it up here just as a slice of history, to show how far things have progressed since 2008!

Sigma DP1, Ricoh GX100, Fujifilm F30

For the most part compact cameras are built as point-and-shoot cameras for regular day to day snapshots; however, recently some camera manufacturers have been developing compact cameras that have features geared towards more serious photographers. The appeal of compact cameras is of course that they are compact and lightweight, and if they could be developed to include advanced features along with professional image quality, the result would be a very useful photographic tool indeed.

Over the last several years I’ve been searching, and waiting, for the ultimate compact digital camera. As you may know, my primary camera is a 4×5 large format film camera. Almost all of my serious fine print photos and are made with this beast, but I also like to carry along a supplemental digital compact camera for quick snapshots, action shots, and sometimes macro shots. When I’m backpacking, all my 4×5 gear is packed up in my backpack, but the compact camera fits in a little case on my chest strap – easily accessible for quick shots while hiking.

I am now using my third digital compact camera in as many years, and I will briefly review each one in this article. The sample photos have been processed in Photoshop – they are not direct from camera. Though I may have adjusted brightness/colors/contrast to a minimal degree, I have not done any sharpening or chromatic aberration fixes. The fullsize jpeg images have been optimized for the web, so there might be slight compression artifacts, but it should be negligable.

On to the reviews!

 

FUJIFILM F30

This little camera recieved great reviews, and was well known for its superior high(er) ISO capabilities compared to all other compacts. This is a point-and-shoot in the best sense of the phrase; very easy to use, and the images look great right out of the camera, with nice bright saturated colors. Closeup photos from the F30 look really good, with rich colors and smooth tonality. However, the camera has a little more trouble with broad landscape shots, where purple/yellow fringing can become a big problem. The F30 images look nice and detailed at their native resolutions, but for some reason the images do not enlarge very well; I think this has something to do with the SuperCCD pixel configuration but I’m not sure. Regardless of the cause, the details of the images have a sort of jaggedy resolution characteristic that does not respond well to upsizing.

This is a great point-and-shoot which I would highly recommend to the average snapshooter, especially for someone who does not want to have to work on their images in Photoshop. I have made nice detailed prints from the F30 at sizes up to 12″ x 16″.

Sample photos from the Fujifilm F30. Click to view fullsize versions.

Fujifilm F30 Sample Photo Fujifilm F30 Sample Photo
 

RICOH GX100

This camera is a gem, from a relatively unknown camera company. I must say this is my favorite digital camera I’ve ever used. I get the sense that the camera makers put a lot of thought into this one. The big plusses are its wideangle zoom lens, incredible macro capabilities, full manual controls, RAW dng files, and the overall excellent user interface. The big minus is its sensor (more on this in a second).

First the lens: it has a zoom range that is very similar to the range of lenses I have for my 4×5 camera, which is handy for testing/planning potential compositions for my 4×5. The wideangle is nice and wide, probably one of the widest available on any compact camera. The lens is sharp throughout it’s entire zoom range, with very low distortion.

The macro capabilities are insane, and a big reason why I will probably keep this camera for a long time. You can focus within one centimeter! I’ve never really gotten into macro photography before, so having this capability has really expanded my idea of what’s possible with photography. While it’s not quite a true macro in the sense of a professional dedicated macro SLR lens, it offers something a little different. Since you can focus so close to the subject, you can get really unique compositions with a sense of foreground and background on the macro scale. Very cool, and loads of fun.

The universal dng RAW file output is another example of how Ricoh has really thought things through. This camera is targeted for more serious photographers, who appreciate having the superior RAW file capability, along with full manual controls. I like shooting aperature-priority and I can do this with the GX100. I can also put it on full manual, with manual focussing set to infinity, for long evening or night exposures.

The excellent user interface is something that’s hard to explain; you just have to use this camera to appreciate how well thought out it is. For instance I can program two different custom camera setting spaces, which are on the control dial (along with the usual M-manual, A-aperture priority, or P-automatic settings). So I have one setting set for shooting RAW, and one set for shooting JPEG. I can quickly switch between the two settings by simply rotating the control dial, without having to go into the camera settings menu. Very very useful.

For all the huge pluses this camera offers, there is the one major drawback: the sensor and therefore the image quality. This camera has a 10mp compact sensor, meaning that those 10 megapixels are crammed into a tiny space, which inevitably leads to noise artifacts. This a common problem with all high megapixel compacts, and you can find plenty of exhausting articles on the topic online. Anyhow, this sensor (and its excellent lens) certainly delivers sharp, high resolution images that you would expect from a 10mp camera; however along with it comes a whole lot of noise – which ends up looking like old-school film grain on the images. Some people actally like this grainy quality, but as a large-format photographer, I prefer my silky smooth colors. Related to this issue is the sensor’s troubles with high ISO shooting (can’t really do it) and therefore it has a hard time in high-dynamic-range lighting situations such as sunrise/sunsets.

I’ve made some beautiful prints up to 18″ x 24″ from this camera. But because of the noise issues, it can’t be relied upon as a do-it-all camera. If the GX100 had a better sensor it could be the best compact camera ever made. But, just the macro capabilities alone are worth bringing this camera along.

Sample photos from the Richoh GX100. Click to view fullsize versions.

Ricoh GX100 Sample Photo Ricoh GX100 Sample Photo
 

SIGMA DP1

Updated: 4/10/08

This long awaited camera is the first and only compact camera with an SLR-sized sensor inside of it (APS-C sized, or about 12x the size of most compacts’ sensors). Sigma is the only company to yet attempt this, and because of the engineering difficulties involved it took several years for the little DP1 to actually hit the market. Of course I couldn’t resist buying one as soon as possible. I’ve only had this camera for a couple weeks, and have only used it in wintery settings, so my experience with it is admittedly not well-rounded yet. I’ll update this section later, or perhaps add a separate review at some point.

In contrast to the Ricoh GX100, this camera’s weaknesses are its limited features (no zoom lens, no macro, quirky interface), while its stongpoint is its incredible image quality.

The DP1 utilizes the evolutionary Foveon sensor. This is a fundamentally different style of sensor than the traditional Bayer type sensors found in just about all other cameras. You can read up on the Foveon technology here. The bottom line from a users perspective is that when you view the images on the computer at 100%, the detail is tack sharp. (Every other digital sensor out there shows slight blurriness when the images are viewed at 100%, and are tack sharp only when the images are viewed at 50% or 66% size.) Also, the images from the DP1 enlarge extremely well, and I believe I will be able to produce excellent 20″ x 30″ prints from them. Indeed, I am very much impressed with the image quality, which is definitely in a whole different league alongside professional dSLRs.

Another big plus with the Foveon sensor is that it seems to handle highlights very well, at least compared to the other compacts. When processing RAW files, you can pull back the exposure to restore what initially appear to be blown highlights, so it’s pretty forgiving with overexposure.

The DP1 has a fixed length wideangle lens (no zoom). It’s not as wide as the lens on the Ricoh GX100; I wish it were a little wider, but I think it will work ok for me. I’m already used to using prime lenses with my 4×5, so I should be able to adapt to this one pretty quickly. It’s got the traditional SLR 2×3 image aspect ratio, which is a bummer in my opinion; I prefer the squarer formats of 4×5 or 3×4. But, not a big deal.

The DP1 has some quirks and limitations. First off is the already notorious “green corners” issue, where some images have a magenta cast in the center, and a green cast around the corners. Oddly enough, this effect is most apparent when shooting with AUTO white balance; using other preset white balance settings reduces the effect, but still not completely. (UPDATE: Sigma is releasing a new firmware version that will supposedly resolve this issue). Secondly, I’ve noticed that I have to jack up the exposure compensation to get nice bright images with the histogram towards the right. Third: the DP1 can shoot a speedy 3-frame continuous burst; however, disappointingly, you have to shoot all three in one burst – you can’t shoot one, wait just a second, another, etc. Fourth: although the camera has a really nice manual focus dial with live LCD zoom-in feature to check focus detail, you can only focus on the center spot, which is not necessarily where you always want to focus. It would be much nicer (if not expected) to be able to choose from about five or so different focus points, like you can with SLRs. And finally, there’s no macro capabilities, which is no surprise but it would be nice.

As far as reviews go (including mine), the DP1 finds itself in an awkward position because its remarkable image quality inevitably leads to comparisons with quality dSLRs, which are stiff competition indeed. While it’s certainly fair to compare image quality with dSLRs, the DP1 is a COMPACT, so don’t expect it to perform as responsively as an SLR. The fact that this camera is even being compared to dSLRs at all shows what a giant leap forward it is from other compact cameras.

With the promise of professional image quality in a compact camera comes the tempting possibility of leaving the 4×5 at home for some long-distance lightweight backpacking treks. I’ve already been kicking around some ideas for some 75-100 mile treks this summer. I will certainly keep shooting the 4×5 on normal backpacking trips, but I am excited to broaden my backpacking experiences. For the last four years or so, my backpacking has been largely centered around photography, and I have the urge to get back to the roots with more journey-based treks. This little camera may enable me to do this!

Sample photos from the Sigma DP1. Click to view fullsize versions.

Sigma DP1 Sample Photo Sigma DP1 Sample Photo
 

CONCLUSION

The Sigma DP1 is still not the ideal compact camera, but it is a groundbreaking camera that has finally brought the fuzzy dream of a professional compact camera into the realm of real possiblities. Hopefully the success of this camera will inspire other camera makers to follow Sigma’s lead. In my opinion, the perfect compact camera would be a Ricoh GX100 with a Sigma/Foveon sensor inside of it. Once this “holy grail” is made, I would consider my quest for the ultimate compact camera complete! Until then, I think I will be quite content with the DP1. I might even bring along my GX100 too, just for the macro fun of it.

 

P.S.

A few people have asked why I haven’t included the Canon G9. This camera was never an option for me because its widest focal length of 35mm is simply not wide enough for my style of shooting. And lugging around a huge wideangle converter that is bigger than the camera itself kind of defeats the whole purpose. The G9 has an awesome zoom though, so if you’re into shooting long, this would be a good camera to consider.

 

UPDATES

8/22/08: I’ve temporarily abandoned my quest for the ultimate compact camera, and have eaten my own words about digital SLRs. I sold the DP1 and have been shooting an Olympus E-420, the smallest dSLR on the market. Read why I sold the DP1 here.

One exciting recent development is Olympus’s announcement of their upcoming “Micro Four Thirds” lens mount, which theoretically will enable them to produce even more compact SLRs and lenses. I am hoping that their target market with these will be the serious/professional photographer who wants top-notch quality and performance in an ever smaller and lighter package.

8/25/08: In September, another potential candidate for the Ultimate Compact Camera title will hit the shelves – the Panasonic LX3. The LX3 has similar specs as the Ricoh GX100, but after reading this informative initial review on DPreview.com, it looks as if the LX3 will offer a faster lens and faster operation, better image quality, and a fun 16:9 pano format option.

8/29/10: For the last 6 months or so, I’ve been shooting occasionally with a Panasonic GF1 with 20mm prime “pancake” lens. This camera is among the first generation of “Micro Four Thirds” cameras, along with the Olympus E-P1. The main concept of these cameras is that they are nearly compact-camera size, but with interchangeable lenses and relatively large and high quality image sensors. In other words, like really small SLRs.

After reading many reviews, I chose the GF1 over the E-P1 for two reasons: 1) reportedly faster and more accurate autofocusing, and 2) the very highly regarded quality of the Panasonic 20mm pancake lens (as opposed to the mediocre reviews of Oly’s 17mm version).

I should also say that my purpose for buying this camera was and is primarily for skiing/snowboarding action photography. I used it extensively this last season in Jackson Hole, and have found it to be excellent for my shooting style. I am almost always snowboarding alongside my partners, in backcountry terrain, and I have to stop during the descents to quickly pull out the camera and take continuous rapid-fire shots as my partner zooms by me. In this case, the fairly fast and continuous frame rate of the GF1 is an obvious advantage, but another huge advantage in this scenario is the fixed 20mm lens length (40mm equivalent). The lens length seems to offer a perfect range of workable distance to the subject – tight enough to usually capture some detailed human action, but wide enough to also capture some of the surrounding terrain. Also, always having the same fixed lens length enables me to act more instinctually – I generally know what distances will work, so I can quickly make a decision on where to stop and which way to shoot, all while anticipating where the skier will go relative to me. And of course the small size means that I can store the camera in my jacket’s chest pocket, quickly accessible.

While the GF1 is just about my perfect solution for ski/snowboard photography, I would not use it as an all-around landscape camera. This mainly has to do with the limitations of the lenses (why buy larger zoom lenses for this if the whole point is to go small and light?). Also, while the image resolution is excellent for a compact, it does pale in comparison to the outstanding resolution offered by the newest high end, full-frame dSLRs with their superior lenses. So for now I pretty much only use the GF1 for snowboarding and day hiking when I don’t expect to be doing serious landscape photography. Thus, the quest for the “Ultimate Compact Camera” continues…

14 thoughts on “Quest for the Ultimate Compact Camera

  1. Paul Beiser

    Wow, great review, Jack! I bet this review gets a lot of links pointing to it.

    btw, never say never :-), esp about DSLRs. Especially with the great stitching software out today, and the promise of more!

    Reply
  2. Larry

    Thanks, your review is very helpful. Do you have an opinion on how the Leica / Panasonic D Lux 3 would compare?

    Reply
  3. Jack Brauer Post author

    Hi Larry. Good question… I don’t know much about those particular cameras. It would be fun to try them all out, but for now I can only speak for the cameras I have experience with.

    Reply
  4. Paul Martin

    Nice review, Jack. I must admit I didn’t know much about Ricoh cameras at all, I will definitely have to look in to that one. At what iso do the noise isses become a problem?

    Paul

    Reply
  5. Jack Brauer Post author

    Thanks, Paul. With the Ricoh I never go higher than the base ISO 80. Even then the noise can occasionally be a slight problem. Usually it’s ok though. One thing to clarify is that the noise isn’t your typically horrible red/green digital static type of thing; it looks more like a sort of film grain. My guess is that the camera does a good job of processing that noise.

    Reply
  6. Kendall Gelner

    Something to be on the lookout for is a firmware update and SPP release around 4/11, to address the green corner issue and a few other things…

    Reply
  7. Michel

    Hi, great review. I had the GX100 for some time and I think you are quite right. If it had a sensor with better noise characteristics to about 800 ISO, it would definitely beat everything on the market. I am considering the Olympus E-420 as an alternative. Not quite as compact, but still very small and light and definitely better than any small sensor cam (except maybe the Sigma DP-1 which is probably worse at high Iso. And it has two compact kit lenses covering an impressive range from 14 to 150mm (equivalent to 28 to 300mm on 35mm Full frame) which are supposedly of great quality. Plus the nice pancake 25mm (50mm).

    Reply
  8. Andrew

    Hi Jack, Great review and matches my experience with the GX100 and DP1. These are both great for going light and maintaing a level of quality! This is the first I’ve seen of your photographs and I’ll definitely check them out!

    Reply
  9. toasterflyer

    Interesting website, and lovely images. Regarding your compact camera reviews, specificlly the Sigma DP1, an FYI Sigma has fixed the green corners with a firmware update. And Im sure Sigma will also offer a ISO50 in a future firmware update, this is just a guess on my part. I would think IQ is of utmost importance and I have to admit the Ricohs macro image is bad and noisy. Check http://www.rytterfalk.com for DP1 info and images.
    Good luck and keep on trekkin
    :-)

    Reply
  10. Richard P. Gunion

    Right now I have the Canon A640 10MP camera. The Canon was rated highly by DpReview but the Sigma DP-1 looks tempting. It is obvious that people really like this camera-few places have it in stock and if they do not for very long. Has anyone here tried the double raw size file from a DP-1 that produces a 10MP image? I heard that if you do that the tiff file is around 100MB. I would have to buy a lot of external drives or start backing up to DVD’s if I bought this camera. Many people are skeptical of Sigma choosing instead to buy from the big three instead, Nikon, Canon and Olympus. If Sigma wants a bigger piece of the pie, they have to stress quality and service.

    Reply
  11. snaff

    The GX100 macros are awesome! and not noisy at all. The 24mm wide zoom can’t be beat either and can even go down to 19mm with the optional conversion lens. I find this camera a joy to work with and VERY responsive. I got the impression when I handled the DPI to be inferior in build and very slow in low light with a poor LCD. A great camera if you have all the time in the world though!!
    Very fair review.

    Reply
  12. Luisa

    Hello, very useful reviews. I have had both the Ricoh and the Fuji F30 for a long time, and I agree totally with your opinions. But if Fujifilm would produce a camera with a 24mm lens, I would buy it. I like the Fuji sharpness with low lighting.

    Reply
  13. rajat surey

    I was looking for a Sony Nex 3, which has a APS-C sensor for DSLR image quality, but was confused whether the 3x optical zoom will be a hindrance for mountain photography. I needed a light weight for treks and this seems to fill the need on other counts.

    Reply

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