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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Always-With-You Camera

by Paul Butzi
Browsing the posts on T.O.P. from the last two weeks, I’ve been fascinated by the posts abuut small digital cameras like the Canon IXUS and the Fuji F30. I’m particularly struck by Fazal Majid’s comments, which mirror my own views: I want a digital camera that does what my lovely little Contax T3 does.

Two years ago, I took a family vacation, and the only camera I took was the Contax T3; my daughter took her Canon A75. With a couple of CF cards, my daughter photographed like crazy and didn’t have much muss or fuss; I used the T3 with wild abandon and had to hassle with getting my film hand inspected or x-rayed, etc. After that, I decided that the next vacation I’d take a digital camera instead of the Contax. This time, I took my somewhat aged Canon A95. My entire photo kit (camera, a spare set of lithium AA’s, a case filled with CF cards) was delightfully small. I missed my T3, which is an old and trusted friend, but the A95 acquitted itself well.

To me, the current crop of small digicams falls down on several points, though.

First, there’s the viewfinder. The viewfinder on the T3 is awfully darn good; crisp and bright, with brightlines marking the edge of the frame. You can see beyond the edge of the frame, a la the Leica M6. By comparison, the viewfinders on all the compact digital cameras I’ve used are hopeless, small and squinty and dark, with no parallax correction and with no real indication of where the frame edge is (often, they show only 80% or so of the frame), and with appallingly small exit pupils and horrible eye relief.

Second, there’s the lens. My little Contax T3 has a fixed focal length, 35mm ƒ/2.8 Carl Zeiss Sonnar. When I first got the T3, I was stunned at the quality of the photographs I got with it; the lens is really good. We can argue about the merits of non-zoom lens, but frankly I don’t feel a pinch with the T3, and I’d happily settle for a fixed focal length lens in a digital compact camera, provided I got a lens of the same quality as on the T3. It’s fairly flare resistant, it’s low in distortion, it’s reasonably fast, and it provides a really pleasant rendering of most subjects.

Finally, we come to the crippling fact about digital cameras. In my T3, I can load whatever film I like. I’ve exposed countless rolls of Kodak TMY in that Contax, and been delighted with the tradeoff of grain, speed, and the tonality. I’ve loaded it with various versions of color film, too, switching from one color film to another as improvements came out and improved the grain/speed tradeoff. If by chance an amazing wonderfilm is released tomorrow, I can buy some and put it into the T3, and away I go. In contrast, when you buy a digital camera, you buy a lifetime supply of film (the sensor in the camera) and no amount of wishing will change it. As the sensors improve, this becomes less and less of an issue, but I note that after I viewed the photos made with the Fuji F30, I’m interested enough to go out and take a look at one. The noise characteristics look like quite an improvement over my A95.

Finally, there’s the jpg thing. I know that the majority of users will use the camera in jpg mode, but please—give me raw images, preferably in DNG format so that I can use a decent raw converter instead of the brain-dead software provided by the manufacturer.

Fix those problems in a package the size of my Contax T3 and throw in image stabilization, and I’m there with my credit card, ready to buy.

Posted by PAUL BUTZI


Blogger Acliff said...

There is a camera which is fairly close to your ideal: the Ricoh Caplio GR Digital. It has a 28mm f2.4 (although of course dof will be different to your T3), it uses DNG, although it doesn't have a viewfinder built in, there is one made to fit the flash hotshoe(another benefit), up to iso1600 (albeit not as good as the dizzying heights of the Fuji f30), extremely fast operation, compact, rugged and extremely good ergonomics. The things it lacks are optical stabilisation, super high ISO performance and a large RAW buffer (although it having raw and a buffer at all is to be commended)

The dream is if there was a collaboration between Fuji for its sensors, Ricoh for their backward thinking, and OS... The thought of iso3200, antishake and a fast lens (ala what I'm used to with my KM7D) in a compact digicam makes me drool.

A review for the GR Digital here:

6:51 PM  
Blogger terry chay said...

Fuji’s current philosophy is that with their SuperCCD sensor with two photosites/pixel, it has enough dynamic range that you don’t need image stabilization.

I use the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX1. Like many of the newer cameras there is no viewfinder (you use the LCD instead).

The LCD is very high resolution and bright. It goes wide to 28mm (if 16:9), has optical stabilization and does RAW photography. The user interface is really nice if you are coming from 35mm photography.

On the minus side, like all Panasonics, noise is a factor so you’re going to have to add NeatImage or Noise Ninja as part of your workflow. You also can’t burst the RAW.

6:58 PM  
Blogger m. said...

Oddly enough, I have taken my A95 to China and Italy* lately. It's actually my primary camera now. For the money, it was an excellent camera--but I think you're in large part on target.

I've gotten somewhat around the view finder problem with a Hoodman. It fits over the LCD display and magnifies it so that you can use it as the view finder. The downside is that one edge tends slip down so that I have to adjust it pretty often. I'm also on my second, having lost the magnifier from the first one.

Oh, and is that the ceiling of the Pantheon? I never got a shot of that that I liked. Image stabilization (or a tripod) would have been a big help.

7:02 PM  
Blogger Albano Garcia said...

That's exactly what I asked in the F30 post: what compact digicams come eqquipped with RAW capability (the good quality at high iso of the F30 is obviously due to in-camera post-proccesing). I got an answer: very few, Panasonic LX-1, Ricoh GR-D. Fuji E-900 (almost discontinued) and a couple of Canons.
I use a Fuji S5000 digicam wich I love, and the main feature I like is the RAW option. There's no comparison between a jpg and a well-processed raw. I really don't want to settle for jpg-digicam quality. The only reason I would like to change it is for something more pocketable, but options are truly expensive.
You didn't mentioned an important factor: sensor size. Your roll of film was the same in the T3 or an SLR. The tiny sensor in current digicams is like minox film compared to a DSLR.
I guess we will have to wait a couple of years to get an APS-sensor digicam.
Sorry for the ranting,

7:47 PM  
Blogger Hiding Pup said...

Ricoh GR Digital? At least it does the fixed lens, bright viewfinder you ask for. Does it do RAW? I think it does that though I can't be sure.

What I'm really enjoying about post-processing is the way you can emulate your favourite films. TheImagingFactory's Black and White Converter plug-in for Photoshop is particularly good at this... Haven't managed to find anything that's equivalent in colour though. That said, there's a dynamic range plug-in called Velvia Vision that I deploy occasionally...

8:04 PM  
Blogger Thomas said...

Ahh, if only the camera manufaturers will listen to us, the forgotten ones... Right now, all compact digicams look and handle the same.
Give us a larger (APS) sensor, giving better high ISO. Good, fast prime lens. Optical stabilisation. RAW. Compact design. It shouldn't be that hard. We will pay.
And the brand that does this will stick out like a 'real' camera maker, instead of just another maker of electronic snapshot boxes.

9:04 PM  
Blogger Fazal Majid said...

I also have a Contax T and a T3 and would like a digital version with an APS-C sensor. No manufacturer seems to indulge me, so I've settled for the Fuji F30 for now. The F30 uses the SuperCCD HR sensor, by the way, not the extended-dynamic range SuperCCD SR with two photosites per pixel.

9:24 PM  
Blogger eolake said...

My main gripe is focus speed.

Here are large files from my Fuji F10.

10:32 PM  
Blogger eolake said...

I thought the Ricoh GR Digital was the thing, so I bought it. I am vaguely disappointed though: at twice the price and no zoom, image quality is still not better than the Fuji F10.

10:34 PM  
Blogger Ken Tanaka said...

FWIW, my own casual camera is a Canon Powershot S70. Some key points for me: a very good wide lens, optical viewfinder as well as lcd, basically the same exposure controls as you find on Canon's consumer dslrs (including full manual), and it can record RAW format files. (Unfortunately it's successor, the S80, cannot record RAW...bummer.) I've been extremely happy with this terrific little camera.

Lately, though, I've come to enjoy not constantly having a camera with me. Yes, gasp, I might (do) miss great opportunities...yes, that can be painful. But I've come to also enjoy just being alive and enjoying the moment ... not feeling that I must always bottle and store it.

1:34 AM  
Blogger Ade said...

Actually, the most annoying thing is turning a digicam on and waiting for the screen to initialise, lens to extend, focusing, metering, etc. Compare that to a decent film camera, where you just bring it up to your eye and press the shutter.

2:38 AM  
Blogger Neil said...

Has anyone here used the E900 Fuji? RAW and a viewfinder.

4:41 AM  
Blogger Peter said...

Frankly I blame this whole discussion on Epson. Why? Because all they need to do is simplify their RD-1, take out some of the costly parts of the camera, simplify the manufacturing, and go more mass produced.

This fictional "RD-100" plus a CV 35/2.5 or 28/3.5 would make a great, light combo and the RAW files are very good (as good, although not surpassing) any recent 6MP dSLR at ISO1600. Ok, so there's no bursting, but as you all know, all of photography is a compromise.

The camera parts are a Bessa R3x that retails for $540. The addition of the digital part does not need to equal the entire cost of a mid-range dSLR--if they paid more attention to controlling the cost of manufaturing.

I know R&D costs bucket loads of money and I commend their risk taking, but if they'd priced it better they could've still made the same back with lower per unit costs on higher volume.

That being said 9 (as of 13-Jul, 11:37 CET) comments does not a (mass) market make.

4:48 AM  
Blogger Stu said...

The Panasonic LX1 comes so close to fitting the bill -- I'd gladly have it at 6 megapixels sans noise rather than the nouse 8.4 it is now, but it's been a great always-with-me camera, and Lightroom processes the noise fairly well.

4:58 AM  
Blogger MarkT said...

I like my new GRD. It's great for monochrome even up to ISO 800 and has a nice sharp lens. The only bad thing is the slow write speed in RAW (about 10 seconds to write a DNG+JPEG). I have got acceptable mono prints at A3 size. I haven't played much with colour yet. There are also noise ninja profiles available for it.

I used to have a Fuji 9500 and sold it almost immediately. The GRD has much better image quality than the 9500 even though it has less megapixels (or probably because it has less megapixels on the same size sensor?).

Of course it can't compete with my 5D, but I don't want to lug my 5D around everywhere. The GRD hasn't been out of my pocket since I got it.

5:09 AM  
Blogger Monkeini said...

All I can say, Paul, is: ditto.

In my case the cameras I want digitally emulated are the Oly XA and the Konica Hexar AF.

Similar comments seem to arise regularly throughout the photography community. Surely it's a only a matter of time until a manufacturer listens?

5:50 AM  
Blogger Carsten Bockermann said...

>>In my case the cameras I want digitally emulated are the Oly XA and the Konica Hexar AF.

I really wonder why nobody did a digital Hexar AF as of yet. As a Sony R1 with its APS-C sensor is available for about 750 Euros here in Europe (with a fancy zoom lens I don't care about), I don't believe it's a matter of manufacturing cost. Maybe the number of potential buyers is really quite low.

Anyway, only 10 weeks to go until Photokina starts. Let's see what new cameras will be shown there.

6:09 AM  
Blogger John Brewton said...

Panasonic LX-1 (though I've been told it's discontinued, however the Leica version is supposedly still available $$$). I carry it with me everywhere and as backup for my D200. Fits in a large pocket, manual controls, no shutter noise (if you want), no sharpening needed in post production and very good color. Dislikes - produces RAW & JPEG together - cannot turn off JPEG part.

8:26 AM  
Blogger ENS said...

I agree with Paul's post and some of the others.

I have the F30. Great little camera. I have compared this to my Canon 20D at ISO 1600 and I am even more amazed at what this pocket camera can do.

I would like image stabilization, but ok, I can live without it for now. Good viewfinder would be nice, but hey, I can understand in a cheap digicam that it is not there. I really miss RAW and if I had it with the F30 I probably wouldn't be writing this post. So wait a minute now, add all these up and it's a lot to give up.

Fuji, Canon, Nikon, etc please listen. There are plenty of us out here that want the "extras" in these digicams. Advanced ametuers and professionals alike will buy them if you build it.

Fuji, you almost have a perfect little camera. Take the F30 and add RAW capability and you will win a lot more buyers. Throw in image stabilization and I don't think you can be beat by anyone. Add a reasonable viewfinder and you have a camera that will leave it's own mark on the digital camera scene So how about it? Oh, and why did you leave out the histogram...that one I don't get.

Don't get me wrong, I like this camera very much, just some nitpicks. But as I said, give me just RAW and I would be content for a while.

9:43 AM  
Blogger Acliff said...

I get the feeling that Fuji are practicing good business practice. Although it may be annoying to the consumer (namely us impatient people) they are unlikely to release a useable iso3200, raw, 28mm lens, fully manual, histogram, optical viewfinder, antishake camera anytime soon.

The camera industry runs on customer need and profit margins. If the need for features is no longer there, all companies will start losing profit, including Fuji after a stint of dominating the market.

10:52 AM  
Blogger Ian Rees said...

I second the Epson R-D1. It is so achingly close to perfection, it hurts. It would only take a few very minor tweaks to make it one of the most awesome cameras around. Basically: longer RF base, simplified controls (give it real, modern camera controls.. no need to give it faux-retro analog guages, etc.), simplify manufacturing, produce it in higher quantities/lower cost.. etc.

I, as well, am hoping for the R-D2 at Photokina.

10:55 AM  
Blogger Ian Rees said...

Fuji announced the F20 today, a slightly smaller and less expensive (but same sensor and performance) version of the F30. I think it's much more attractive. If only it came in black.

11:07 AM  
Blogger Peter said...

Actually that's quite a good point. As much as I like the F30 and it's brethren, the one thing that actually stopped me from pulling the trigger on that camera was the complete lack of any histogram. No live histogram is a step back of at least a year or two in usability, but a playback histogram is like the sine-qua-non of digital capture as far as I'm concerned. Oddly enough I can live with JPEG-only, because as long as you can have a histogram to check if you've blown the highlights it's not so bad.

11:16 AM  
Blogger kevin said...

maybe photokina will bring suprises but i have pretty much given up on the big manufacturers producing anything close to what i want in a digicam. i believe they will milk the dslr sales for all they are worth and when the number of units moved stagnates? maybe then we will see aps sensor digicams.

the sensor size is one of the things used to differentiate models.

i want a relatively compact camera, high image quality, great viewfinder, great lenses, simple operation, minimal bullshit factor. hmm... the answer seems to always come up the same: Leica Digital M. yeah, it's too bad about that price, but it seems worth it to me at this point.

12:44 PM  
Blogger John Roberts said...

I'll let you guys continue to stand watch, waiting for the ultimate digicam to be released. While you're waiting for perfection to arrive, I'll be out making photographs.

4:40 AM  
Blogger Mike Allen said...

I'm another GRD user and am very pleased. I have (and have used) many digital cameras, and this is unique. I'm not sure how my friend in the earlier post finds his images wanting, but the output from mine has been top-notch. The raw write-time is a pain, but right now this is the camera that fits the bill. Catch Sean Reid's review (and excellent samples).

3:16 PM  
Blogger Paul Butzi said...

Oh, and is that the ceiling of the Pantheon? I never got a shot of that that I liked. Image stabilization (or a tripod) would have been a big help.

Yes, it's the Pantheon.

This particular image was made by opening up hinged LCD display on the A95, rotating it 180 degrees (so it was visible from the front of the camera), and then setting the camera down on the floor and using the self timer. I think I propped the camera to the right angle by wadding up my baseball cap.

6:27 PM  

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