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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Buying Digital: Too Much Shopping!

by Ctein

I have a bunch of film cameras gathering dust. My standard carry-around camera is a Fujica GA645, a fully automatic medium-format point-and-shoot with manual overrides. I've a Canonet G-III 17 and an Olympus XA with flash that I haven't used in 10 years, and an Olympus Stylus Epic that I haven't used in four. They're not more convenient to use than the GA645 and the negatives are just too small to really make me happy. Why make photos if I don't get pleasure out of them?

So, they're off to eBay, along with some Wallace ExpoDiscs, etc. I'm gonna finally buy a low-end digital camera for its convenience, and researching this is giving me a serious headache. There are too many damn compromises unless one spends lots of money. I'm not going to spend over $400.

Is this the stuff that dreams are made of...or nightmares? The camera may prove to be the former, but buying is definitely the latter.

I'm a color negative, available light photographer. Low image noise in dim light and low contrast in any situation are important to me. I know a cheap digital camera isn't going to have the capture range of even slide film, let alone negative film. So I want either really low image contrast or RAW format. And I'd like some decent degree of sharpness, so that when I make 8x10 prints I don't feel the same way I did with my dinky 35mm negs.

I looked at the Fuji Finepix F30/F31. Fabulous low light performance and sharpness more like a 10 MP camera. But dpreview says daylight photos are very contrasty with clipped highlights and shadows, and no RAW to circumvent that. Forget it!

Next came the Olympus SP-550 UZ. RAW, image stabilization, and a big zoom (size matters). But the lens is lousy; an awfully fuzzy image for 7 MP. Low light quality is poor and there are weird performance issues. Feh.

Third time's the charm...maybe? The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8 looks plausible. Good lens and good sharpness, very good image stabilization and RAW quality, even usable RAW quality at high ISO's. But...

I can't seem to find any review sites that provide "characteristic curves" ("dynamic range," if you prefer) for different cameras. Pretty basic and important info, that. Give me a graph that plots exposure on the x axis and output value on the y axis. Is that too much to ask?

Headaches, really!

Posted by: CTEIN

37 Comments:

Blogger ADias said...

You'll be disappointed with the output of that digicam. You should look at a small EOS 400D or a D40/D50 with a prime or small zoom lens.

2:04 PM  
Blogger Billie said...

I'm looking for the same camera. So if you get more info or when you buy, keep us posted.

2:06 PM  
Blogger Bruce McL said...

I'm the opposite kind of photographer as you are. A casual digital photographer that was waiting impatiently for digital as long as 20 years ago.

I use Panasonic cameras, for their small size and image stabilization. But dynamic range is not their strong point. On many of their smaller cameras without manual controls it is routine to crank in -1/3 or -2/3 ev to avoid blowing out highlights. When that is done the images get very dark and need post processing to look decent.

Noise in low light is another weak point for Panasonic point and shoots. I don't know how much using RAW is going to help with that. You are still setting yourself up for a lot of post processing.

The good news is that the Panasonic cameras I use are very consistent. I expect the FZ8 will be as well. I use camera specific presets in Lightroom and they work very well.

2:15 PM  
Blogger dasmb said...

Also am looking for the same camera, although I've added the following criteria: a fast aperture, fast focus, fast zooming lens that's nice and shallow when closed (e.g. pocketable). 12x Superzooms are right out -- I've never seen one that had acceptable images at any point of their range, let alone every point in the range. I also need RAW.

A "small EOS 400D" is not an option. This is not a pocketable camera, nor is it under $400. Besides, that's my main rig!

Some of the Panasonic machines look nice, but I'm really thinking about the Canon G6 (the G7 produces inferior results and does not have RAW). Should be able to pick up a used or refurb pretty cheap somewhere...

4:04 PM  
Blogger Thorsten said...

My current favorite for the kind of purpose you describe is a Canon G6. It has a decent lens and it gives you good sharpness and dynamic range in RAW for ISO 50 and 100, which are in reality closer to ISO 80 and 160. ISO 200 and 400 are still usable in combination with a noise reduction program, but obviously you loose some dynamic range and sharpness there.

4:05 PM  
Blogger fivetonsflax said...

Funny, you don't look like a color negative to me ...

Since you care about dynamic range, mark my words: you're going to buy a DSLR, and that compact digicam is going to go the way of the Stylus Epic. I've been there and done that. Save your money.

4:45 PM  
Blogger DonovanCO said...

I would second bruce's points about Panasonic. My wife uses a FZ7 (no raw). I have it set for -1/3 exp. comp all the time. Outdoors when she uses it on mountain hikes it is very good. I process the jpegs with Silverfast DC/VLT and do nothing in Photoshop. But flash is weak and low light performance is not very good. Lens is very good, however. I tried the Fuji E900, but can not recommend it for available light photography. Manual controls are easier to use than the Panasonic, tho'.

5:21 PM  
Blogger imn said...

A Pentax K110D with kit lens can be had for $400 US. Might even be able to find a K100D for close to that. Low light noise is very good on these, and the in-body shake reduction on the K100D makes it into an amazingly useful available light camera with any lens mounted.

As far as convenience goes, my K100D with the 40mm pancake lens mounted fits into my jacket pocket.

5:22 PM  
Blogger Robin P said...

I used a GA645 for a while last year and while the big negs were very nice I was always troubled by the grinding noise of the lens extending and focusing. Now I'm going to stick to fully mechanical film cameras and keep the electronics to the times when its more convenient to shoot digital.
The digital pocket camera you seek is still a Holy Grail that can't be found - for reasons of dynamic range and small sensor noise.
The upcoming Sigma DP1 looks like a great idea but why oh why does it have to have a 28mm equivalent lens? 35mm equivalent (like the Fuji GA645) would be so much more universal, 28 is a "real" wide angle and demands too much consideration when composing an image.
Why not try a second hand Fuji E550? - 6MPixel with RAW and while mine occasionally disappoints I have to say that more often it gives surprisingly good results for a pocket camera.

Cheers, Robin

5:26 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

I have used several compact and advanced zoom digital over the years, always dreaming for a DSLR which I finally bought. Now I find myself wanting to get a compact digicam that I can slip in a pocket when Im not carry the DSLR, 3 lens and a tripod. My favorite advanced zoom was a Minolta A1. It was 5 megapixel, had sensor image stabilization, shot in raw format and had numerous controls to tweak images as well as an effective 28-200mm zoom.

5:32 PM  
Blogger UncloudedBeing said...

Trade-offs. They're a real PIA, aren't they?

I finally threw in the towel when my stack of 4x5 "point and shoot" gear was much bigger and heavier than my clothing stack on a recent trip to India. The Canon PowerShot A640 at $300 new was perfect. Why didn't I do this sooner?

For around home, it's still the Mamiya 7 or Rolleiflex "point and shoots" scanned through Nikon 8000 ED or one of my 4x5 and 8x10 cameras when the subject demands it.

5:40 PM  
Blogger erlik said...

You might want to look at the old Olympus 8080. Only up to 140mm. The image quality is excellent, though. But it's only pocketable by a pretty broad definition. You might as well buy E-410 DSLR, which is smaller and has a great sensor as well as better low light capabilities.

The catch is that E-410's double your money limit, unfortunately. You might as well bite the bullet and buy it. You know that a DSLR is a better solution for you. :-)

5:58 PM  
Blogger Steve Gillette said...

The highlight clipping on the Fuji F30 is remedied by spot metering near the highlights and setting the EV to -2/3. If the shadows head south, Shadow/Highlight adjustment in Photoshop will almost always pull back plenty of detail.

I shoot the cheaper (sub-$200 at Costco) F20 per the above, and love the results. I have been shooting street work for 35 years, this is the sweetest low-light digicam rig currently out there. You will be disappointed with noise on every other small-sensor camera, I fear...Good luck!

---Steve Gillette

Samples of F20 on my website:
http://www.stephengillette.com/

6:05 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

I'm not sure that I understand the request for characteristic curves. The Raw curve for essentially any digital sensor is a straight line. Double the light gives double the output number, up to whatever the maximum is. (Fuji's SuperCCD sensor might be an exception, but you already ruled that one out.)

A properly-executed JPEG conversion has a curve that matches the gamma curve for the output colorspace (usually sRGB, maybe Adobe RGB 1998). For example, in sRGB 18% gray should come out at 118, one stop brighter (36%) at 162, two stops brighter (72%) at 221, and 100% white at 255.

This JPEG curve is more interesting, because settings like "contrast" typically warp the JPEG conversion. Also, there's no guarantee that the gamma curve is correctly implemented by the camera in the first place. Canon seems to implement it incorrectly, for example… at least in some of its DSLRs.

6:08 PM  
Blogger Dr Hiding Pup said...

Sounds like what you really want is Mike's mythical DMD... Same here!

Meanwhile, my Olympus C-5050 is working beautifully, and, would you believe, I picked up an Olympus XA2 for £5 ($10) last week!

6:19 PM  
Blogger monarch said...

I gave up and went back to my canonet for casual carry-around.

7:16 PM  
Blogger arne said...

The other day I learned a very obvious lesson: The best camera is the one you have with you. We went on a rather wet and windy sailing trip and my friend dared to pull out his camera. The results very nice (in my opinion).
If I wanted to buy a digital p&s I would go with a water-proof camera, such as the oly stylus 770 sw.
-A

7:41 PM  
Blogger Tommy said...

I think the announced but not yet available Sigma DP-1 will be the answer for a lot of people. 28mm equivalent lens, APS-C sensor size, f/4 aperture. But I'm guessing it won't hit the $400 price point.

9:09 PM  
Blogger tsj said...

Ctein:
Get a Pentax DSLR, you can use your 67 lenses. They work quite well despite the commen wisdom that MF lenses aren't as sharp as 35mm. I recently posted some shots with a 67 500mm which can be seen here: http://www.photo.net/photodb/folder?folder_id=721854
The 300mm ED is quite remarkable, even wide open. It does seem a little oversized for the DS however.

9:22 PM  
Blogger phule said...

[[Is that too much to ask?]]

Of course it is. We're talking about consumer cameras that change every 6 months. What you're asking for is not only not needed, it's completely worthless for 99.9% of the people that will buy one.

What you need is a pocketable or nearly pocketable camera with manual controls. There are dozens out there all using the same Sony sensors and slightly tweaked processing algorithms. For my money I still think Canon has the best bang for the buck on all fronts, but the Fuji F30 is a very close second.

9:49 PM  
Blogger AlanL said...

Steve

I wonder if you have an experience with the F10 and can say whether the F20/30 really are a significant improvement? I've used an F10 for a couple of years and since the F20 is so cheap I'm considering upgrading- if indeed it is a noticeable upgrade.

On the other hand: a couple of years ago a semi-usable ISO800 digi was a big deal. Given the inherent noise limitations of small sensors, though, I do wonder now if Image Stabilisation might not be a better road to the same destination?

12:29 AM  
Blogger Randolph said...

I ended up with a Sony DSC-R1, which is a bit out of your price range and perhaps too big (and also out of manufacture), but has a "big" (DSLR-sized) sensor, good low-light sensitivity, real-time view, and a really interesting feature--you can use the lighted LCD finder at waist level or overhead. I think that's really cool, and it's something you don't get with any film camera. An idiosyncratic choice, but one I am so far (not all that long) very happy with. Or you could wait for the Sigma DP1, which promises to be the digital Leica. I think arne has a good point; digital cameras can do things that film cameras never could, or could only do with great difficulty--you might want to look in that direction.

Still got the Pentax 67, too.

12:43 AM  
Blogger doonster said...

Instead of a lengthy reply, I wrote my thoughts on the subject on my blog http://doonster.blogspot.com/2007/05/buying-digicam.html.

In practice, the small cameras aren't made or sold to the serious photog, and the man-in-the-street with a camera wants none of the stuff the serious photogs do.

3:49 AM  
Blogger John Banister said...

I have read on your website "I'm Ctein, and I'm not your average photographer." and have reached the conclusion that when you say "I'm gonna finally buy a low-end digital camera for its convenience" you mean something different than what I would mean if I said those words and that I don't understand what you do mean. Considering that a GA645 apparently is convenient to use, I don't understand how a low end digital camera is more convenient than a DSLR.

When I think about the self imposed price limit and the tone of your post, the thing that comes to mind is that this is the amount of money you don't mind spending on a camera you expect to replace in the future after technology has marched on somewhat. With this consideration in mind, and considering you likely want as much quality as possible, it seems more reasonable to me get a $400 camera body and a nice lens that you can use again with the next $400 body.

On page 17 of the dpreview.com review of the Panasonic DMC-L1 I see a graph in a section titled "ISO Sensitivity and Dynamic Range" does this sort of graph provide access to the type of information you desire?

6:35 AM  
Blogger joshua said...

Dude, just get the Fuji S6000, it's bigger than the F30 but has the same great sensor and raw format plus the 12x lens.

8:29 AM  
Blogger Stephen said...

I just bought an F31, and I echo Steve Gillette's comment. I find I am using about -2/3 a stop and exposing the meter for the highlights. I can pull 1/4 tones up pretty well in Lightroom. The low light performance of this camera is quite amazing, though. It's noise performance blows every other digital P&S into the weeds.

1:39 PM  
Blogger paul said...

uncloudedbeing mentioned the Canon A640; I'd like to second that motion.

I've been using four AA-cell PowerShots for a little more than two years. First an A95, which made astoundingly good images but was slow and unresponsive. I traded up to the A620 and have never been happier with ANY consumer purchase of any kind. I still haven't bought a DSLR because every time I borrow one, I simply can't get images that are significantly better than the A620 with the type of shooting I do.

Just last week I took a pro friend flying over the San Francisco and the Pacific coastline. His Pentax 67 MF film stuff was mind-blowing, but the initial shots I've seen from his D200 are in no way preferable to mine.

If you're not in a hurry (write times are very long), you can now even get RAW out of the PowerShots with the remarkable set of hacks available here: http://scratchpad.wikia.com/wiki/CHDK

It's fast, it's cheap, battery life is best described as "eternal" and with the swivel-LCD and small overall size, it's as close to an invisible camera as you're likely to find. I shoot street using the LCD as a waist-level finder; people think I'm checking my e-mail.

3:30 PM  
Blogger Clint said...

Unless super small is important, look at the Sony F717.

Big sensor, 5mp, low noise at ISO800, +/- 2 EV, f2 Zeiss T* lens. It's truly my favorite camera, even over my Rolleicord and D70.

I think only my Olympus Epic Stylus gets more frames and that's only because digital b/w still sucks huge.

4:46 PM  
Blogger adamei said...

I've been looking for something similar. Something pocketable, with at least 6MP, RAW, wider than 36mm (equiv), preferably some kind of real anti-shake and I really want a viewfinder.
I've been intrigued by a camera that's just come out abroad (Adorama has them here) - the Ricoh GX100. It's more expensive than you (or I) wanted and no word yet on image quality that I've seen. Also, it only zooms to about 72mm, whereas I'd really like double that - but worth checking out, I think.

7:50 PM  
Blogger Ctein said...

Dear folks,

I'm writing a generalized reply , because the response to this column was rather overwhelming, both in terms of interesting comments and cameras suggestions (I received at least a dozen private emails on top of what's been posted here). Anyway, thanks to everybody who suggested cameras.

For those wondering about a progress report, I wandered back to the Fuji f31 after it looked like nothing else small and cheap was going to produce remotely acceptable low-light behavior. But Joshua's pointer towards the S6500 was extremely useful. Since I'm fine with leisurely shooting and RAW is my preferred mode, I'm having the feeling that would give me all the benefits of the f31 and then some (it's not as compact, of course, but as a medium-format photographer, my definition of "compact" is a little aberrant).

Regarding "dynamic range" reports, for the folks who think reporting this would be a waste of time, I would first note that for your "snapshooter-on-the-street" almost all the technical data in the detailed reports is a waste of time. Your average duffer doesn't need to know nuances of white balance differences or minor differences in resolution or distortion; they just won't care. So let's eliminate all of that from the reviews, too. Even if it were true that dynamic range wasn't important to the duffer, that wouldn't be a reason for not reporting it when reporting all this other minutia.

But, I would assert, dynamic range IS important to the duffer when it is as bad as it is in the cheap cameras. Even your rank amateur can tell when a sunlit photo has solid black shadows and blown out highlights -- the classic, awful "I shot Kodachrome and had everyone standing facing the sun squinting towards the camera" look. people readily see the improvements that longer tonal range produces in a photograph. And, given that this is an area where the cameras perform worst, it's doubly important that buyers have the information they need to choose the best if they want to.

Thanks, John, for your pointer to the new test page on the Panasonic DMC-L1 I dpreview. That's actually more elaborate than I was asking for (and, I will admit, only fully of interest to a true geek like me) but it's exactly the class of information that should be reported. Now, it would be nice if dpreview starts providing dynamic range information for all their cameras instead of just the premium ones. Because the worse the camera is, the more important is to know just how bad it is.


pax / Ctein
[[ Please excuse any word-salad. ViaVoice in training! ]]
=========================================
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://www.ctein.com
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com
=========================================

8:33 PM  
Blogger Michael Digital said...

My Canon G3 died. Fortunately I was able to get a used one in excellent cindition on eBay for $125. This 4 megapixel camera produces excellent 13 x 19 inch prints. It has a very good dymanic range and has more features than most dslrs. Built in introvalometer. Manual focus , macro focus, Swivelable lcd screen...great for macro. Raw images at ISO 50 are amazingly good. Fits in a jacket pocket. More fun than my 20D or 30D. Keep it in the glove box in the auto, always ready and produces images good enough to have been entered in international salons that have won awards..

8:26 AM  
Blogger G said...

I can't tell how current this thread is, but I thought I'd put a vote up in favor of the Lumix FZ series; as per the original post, ...at least when price is an object, I think they're very good: I love my FZ7, accepting certain limitations, some of which the FZ8 has improved upon, (notably better LCD and EVF and the RAW capability.)

I think perfection is a lot to ask of something this small, at least for the money, but I don't find I get the 'noise' problem many lament so much, and even that can be cleaned up later, though it's not usually in shots I want to keep, anyway.

To me, it's not quite a pocket camera, especially because I keep the lovely hood and adapter on pretty much all the time, which makes sort of a teeny SLR-ish sort of package, but that does come off if I need it to. The lack of RAW on the FZ7 may come to bother me later, but not till I have the computing end squared away, anyway.

(I don't know about the competition's software, but I find the Lumix stuff is *great* if you have a perennially-overtaxed older computer. Working on that, but for now I think that that, and certain handy in-camera things like a pretty nice monochrome mode, make this a good option for those of us a little behind the curve on the technology. You *can* get nice results, and that's all I ask, really. )

For the money, (mine cost around 250 bucks cause of holiday sale prices) and the fact it still counts as 'Really nothing to carry' for me, with or without the F-1 I have for more 'serious' stuff anyway, I think the FZ series is great for what it is, and the 8 looks like they really gave some of the weaker points good attention.

For really-point-and-shooty littleness, and twice the price, people seem to like the Canon G7 (if that's the right model number: I mean the one that looks like a black Canonet with a slice of an SSC lens' mounting ring on the front.) ...but if you're going to be comparing these things to DSLRs, you may as well do what I'm doing and waiting till something acceptable meets your price range.

I mean, I'd love a 5d and associated stuff, but let's face it, the difference between that and what I have is a *lot* of rolls of film. :)

2:07 PM  
Blogger T said...

Fuji Fxx cameras and curves.

I had an F10, which was quite amazing in many respects, especially low noise at high isos and resolution, but I had to take two images at different exposures for high dynamic range subjects.

In addition to many added features and fixes, the F30 has a very different JPEG engine curve at the bottom end. Where the F10 clips at
both ends, the F30 compresses the shadow detail at the low end of the histogram.

As others have noted, this means thoughtful exposure together with PS Shadow/Highlight in 16 bit mode can allow amazing dynamic range from a single shot.It appears that someone at Fuji relaized that the really low noise made the shadow end worthwhile to save.

I've a few examples with roll-overs to show original vs. adjusted images in this little gallery. #1 is an unintentional underexposure and #2, 13 & 16 are intentional 'underexposures' to hold highlights.

http://galleries.moosemystic.net/Summita/

Moose

2:10 PM  
Blogger BMcW said...

I also want to thank Joshua for recommending the Fuji S6000. I have an F30 and love the sensor, but really want RAW, a histogram, a viewfinder, and a 28mm (equivalent). So I am ordering one from B&H tomorrow. Thanks for the discussion.

3:19 PM  
Blogger tenaitch said...

I suggest you look at a piece of software called ToneUp S3.
It allows you to create a custom curve that you upload to your camera, this will give you the tonal response you want.
For example I shoot with a curve hat replicates the behaviour of Fuji Reala neg film.
See the software then choose from the list of compatible cameras would be my advice.

3:49 AM  
Blogger Boris said...

I think the camera you're looking for, Ctein, does not exist. Not because you're asking too much or anything like that. It is simply because technology and market demand/offer mantra hadn't worked its magic yet.

Somehow I think that a fixed focal length with bigger sensor similar to announced offering from Sigma may satisfy you. However, Sigma is only f/4 lens and it is the first one. Let's hope that it won't be the last one as Sony R1 seems to be for the moment.

4:08 AM  
Blogger Ctein said...

OK folks, (next-to?) final report.

I did end up springing for the Fuji S6000. I'll have it by the end of the coming week. Total cost, including shipping and a gig card (after rebate) will be $325. I can live with that.

Speaking of which, to all the well-meaning people who suggested spending more money to get a camera I'd be happier with. Well, that wasn't the point. If I were gonna do that, I'd spend four times as much and get myself a D80 with a decent lens. And from everything I've seen of the D200's quality, I'd be very happy with the picture quality.

And then I'd have bought into a other big (relatively), expensive (relatively) camera system, which is NOT what I was looking for. I got those, already.

This may or may not be the last word. We'll see if I feel like reporting on my reactions to the camera after I get it. Mebbe; mebbe not.

Thanks again for everyone's help.

pax / Ctein

1:56 PM  

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