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Saturday, May 12, 2007

How To Choose a Digital Point-and-Shoot

Mulling over the topics of the past several days, I thought I would revisit for the digital era my thoughtful, carefully considered advice about buying a point-and-shoot. A "point-and-shoot," a.k.a. "Ph.D. [push here, dummy] camera," is a miniaturized camera with a flash and a zoom lens built in, small enough to fit in a purse or pocket. Choices of digital ones have proliferated in recent years to the point that buying one has become a task that looks almost insurmountable at the outset. But you're in luck! You can take advantage of my thorough familiarity with the market, my years of experience as a photographer, and my subtle understanding of photographic technique and camera technology.

I won't keep you in suspense. Here's the upshot: they're all shit. And I don't mean "shit" as a pseudo-hip way of registering a connoisseur's disapproval of the demotic or an enthusiast's disdain for the democratic. I mean that despite their cunning little shiny bodies and technologically marvelous innards, as cameras they're little stinking turdlets of fresh, steaming excrement. Yageddit? Poo. Stool. Just north of camera phones. And when I say they're all shit, I don't mean most of them are shit. Eighty percent of them are horrible, outrageous, awful, a swindle on the public and a fraud perpetrated on their purchasers. And the other twenty percent are really bad. Bah-dum-pah.

These disreputable little excuses for cameras can kill the ardor of any budding enthusiast or extinguish the desire to learn in any noob or neophyte. They exist to prevent accomplishment, stymie satisfaction, and permanently obfuscate the acquisition of relevant knowledge. You can hardly be a photographer with a point-and-shoot (the occasional exception proves the rule), and you cannot learn photography with a point-and-shoot, and if a point-and-shoot is your only experience of photographing, you will most probably neither want to learn more about photography nor be a photographer anyway.

Point-and-shoots came about as a category in the 1980s because consumers wanted to buy cameras like any other small appliance, such as, say, hair dryers or electric toothbrushes. They were meant to be so small that they could be carried effortlessly, and so simple that even people missing a section of prefrontal cortex the size of a scoop of ice cream could use them. Moreover, they were meant to function entirely behind a veil of ignorable-ness, meaning that they would not communicate to the user what they were doing or how they were doing it, and could not be induced to do anything differently in any case. Nowadays, they have completely lost that virtue of simplicity, while at the same time retaining all of their formidable and varied drawbacks and acquiring nothing in the way of compensating virtues. But they are even smaller, so that if you'd like to carry a camera that's frustrating to use and often doesn't take good pictures, at least you don't notice the weight.

Accordingly, the best advice I can offer with regard to choosing a digital point-and-shoot is: don't waste your time. I am not speaking colloquially—I don't mean you should forego the activity altogether. No. I'm saying if you spend long hours reading reviews, comparing features, gathering opinions, and agonizing over slight advantages and disadvantages, weighing pros and cons, you will be losing precious minutes and hours of your time on Earth that you will never get back. It doesn't matter if you have three choices, or thirty, or three hundred: if every option is crap, then the option you choose is going to be crap, and that's that. Therefore, the best course of action is to not worry about it. No matter which point-and-shoot you choose, it's still going to be a point-and-shoot. So go to any big-box store where they have rows and rows of point-and-shoots on display, spend five minutes (ten or fifteen if you're a gentleman or lady of leisure), and pick one because you like its look, color, size, or feel. Take the advice of the teenager with the colored logo-embroidered shirt on if that reassures you, go by name recognition, or pick one blindfolded. Regardless, at fifteen minutes you're comfortably into the region of diminishing returns. Effort beyond that is wasted. Pick one. Go home.

Once you get your new camera home, then spend some time. Spend an hour or two carefully and thoroughly reading the instruction manual, all the way through. Try everything. Concentrate on really learning how the camera operates. Work out how to hold your new camera horizontally and vertically, which settings you prefer, which settings are in effect on turn-on, and how you personally are going to use the camera. Go over it enough times so that you feel you've got it mastered. This effort is far, far more predictive of eventual satisfaction with your purchase than is the make and model of the particular camera you have purchased. Good photographers can actually learn to use point-and-shoots reasonably effectively, and you can, too. But only if you try.

Finally, you're going to be frustrated. Why? Because digital point-and-shoots are lousy cameras. The lesson here is simple, too: deal with it. Don't worry about the fact that your camera is often fiddley to use, only semi-capable in some circumstances and near-incompetent in others, and that it completely defeats your intentions from time to time. If you allow this to trouble you, again, you will be wasting worry on the inevitable. Better to chalk it up to death, taxes, and digicams. Don't think for two seconds that because your camera is lousy, it means you should have bought a different lousy camera—because any other point-and-shoot would frustrate you too. Don't think that if you had just gotten a Brand Y instead of a Brand Z your pictures would look better. They probably wouldn't. And even if they would look just a little better in some ways and in some situations, they'd look just a little worse in others.

Mind you, I'm not trying to talk you out of buying a digital point-and-shoot. I'm just advising you how to get the most satisfaction and the least frustration out of that purchase. To summarize:

• Don't agonize over the choice. Pick one and stop worrying.
• Take the time you would have spent obsessively shopping and spend it mastering the camera you did buy.
• When (not if) you get frustrated while photographing with one of the little beasties, don't let it get you down. They're all imperfect. Just shrug and say "oh well" and move on.


Featured Comment by JanneM: "I had a couple of P&S digital cameras for a couple of years, realized their limitations, and picked up a Canon 350D. After a year and a half, I realized that camera (and the system), while fine, wasn't really perfect for me and so I sold it to a friend to buy a Pentax K10D. The sale went pretty quickly, though, and the K10D got delayed, so I found myself without a camera for about a month and a half.

"Well, except for the 1.1 megapixel camera in my phone. Which I proceeded to use. Now, that kind of camera makes even Mike's lousy P&S look like large-format view cameras by comparison; I had no idea it was possible to actually have so low-contrast, smeary image quality on a camera. As a comparison, my first P&S had the same resolution, but because it was a dedicated camera (and because the price was hefty at the time) the actual image quality was far better.

"But surprisingly, I had a great time with my phonecam. It was amazingly frustrating at first, but once I started to learn its limitations and think within them, I found I could get some half-decent images out of it. Not many, true, and even my best attempts still took heroic amounts of postprocessing to get anywhere, but still, it wasn't always hopeless.

"And it reminded me that for a hobby, the amount of fun is not necessarily connected to the quality of your tools (look at Lomo users, where the relationship is if anything inverse). My 'keeper' average may be in the single percentages, but I had at least as much fun trying to think my way around the severe limitations of the phone cam as I have using my DSLR with far less effort."

Featured Comment by Stephen: "Mike, I understand your points on philosophical grounds, but disagree on empricial grounds. My late-lamented little Canon Powershot S45 took wonderful images when used with skill and when shot in RAW mode. Maybe because I spent 23 years learning the craft of photoggraphy shooting Olympus OM-1's and manual focus OM lenses before I bought my first digital camera (as late as 2002), but I got wonderful images from the little S45...images that I have printed large format on my Epson 2200 that were beautiful prints.

"Unfortunately, my little Canon died this year, probably because it was in my CamelBak when I took one too many headers over the bars mountain biking at Mammoth. Alas, it now rests in peace. But, the key point is that it was with me all those glorious rides at Mammoth, which an SLR or larger camera would not have been. It's pretty tough to get images ripping down singletrack with a DSLR, but you can with a P&S. I ride motorcycles too, and a P&S is just the ticket to always have a camera in the tankbag ready for a photography

"Here's a snapshot I took last year while out on a bicycle ride with friends...I whipped out the S45 and snagged this while waiting for my friends to catch up.

"My biggest gripe lately is that the camera mfrs have taken RAW out of almost all of the P&S cameras, unless you want to drop $600 for a Leica D-LUX3. That has really irritated me.

"Like you, I really wish a camera mfr. would get real and make a compact camera with a proper optical viewfinder and a large CMOS sensor mated to a really good lens, like the one on my Contax T3."


Blogger Guy Batey said...

Fantastic. The best advice on P&S's ever. Particularly the advice on learning to push the envelope of whatever camera you've bought, rather than obsessing between brands.

1:16 PM  
Blogger ADias said...

I agree with most of what you say. I think that a P&S is nice to have, but it's tough to find a good one. I do not care for sensor size - 4-6 Mpixels is plenty. I need though one with an optical viewfinder (not just the useless back LCD) and a zoom with a 28mm (35mm equivalent) on the low end. I have not find one yet with both.

2:29 PM  
Blogger David said...

"Oh, but little point and shoots are capable of producing acceptable images" her said, "witness the Nikon P2 and this shot".

It is not recorded whether they agreed

Woman examing lottery ticket

2:42 PM  
Blogger erlik said...

I had a film point and shoot once. A single-length lens (won't dignify it with the name of "prime"), fixed-focus Vivitar. Bought it for $35 in New York specifically for the rest of the trip to the States.

I had the film and photos developed when I got back home, used the camera once more on a another trip a couple of years later and didn't even had the film developed. I have no idea where the camera is now.

That's about the same way I feel about digital P&S cameras - have no idea what they are and how they perform. Yes, I agree, they are all the same.

But I think you're forgetting one thing. A vast majority of people have absolutely no inclination to read the manual and even less to pick a DSLR. Things us DSLR owners are agonizing about - is this sharp enough, what about the CA, what about the DOF, what about the dynamic range, noise, high ISO, low ISO... - are of no concern for that vast majority of people. If they didn't photograph their own thumb or if the faces in the photo are clearly recognizable, they are satisfied. That's the group targetted with P&S cameras.

They don't want to know the details behind the picture taking. For them, it's magic. But they still want the final knowledge. Of course, without the process of learning. They want shortcuts.

That's the reason why the manufacturers come up with face recognition, with digital "flash," in-camera straightening and every other gimmick and electronic doodad they can think of. For those who don't want to learn.

So I think you're preaching to the choir here. Of course, I still want to hear it. :-)

That said, I would still recommend Olympus 770 SW to those who want a P&S. :-) The camera can take a great amount of physical abuse and can be used in a great big variety of circumstances. What better for those who need a pocket camera to take everywhere?

2:45 PM  
Blogger Spevas said...

Is there a Pulitzer Prize for Blogging? Possibly the best essay on photography I have ever read. If only the P&S manufacturers would read it.

2:50 PM  
Blogger Ernest Theisen said...

Excellent advise on both the selecting and using digital P&S. My wife wanted a digital camera to carry in her purse mostly for photographing grand kids and friends. She loved using film point and shoot cameras. I like Canon cameras so I bought her a PowerShot S400, 4 megapixel. It is small and cute. It is always very dangerous for me to try to teach her anything. It is a great way to get into a long argument. So I charged the battery sat her down with the book and told her to read the book and take pictures. That lasted about 15 minutes. It went back in the box and disappeared for months. But now we get a new grandson! Out comes the camera and she says “just show me how to make pictures with this thing the easy way and don’t tell me to read that damm book” So I set it on ASA 400, automatic everything. Ten minutes later she is using it and loving it. For a while she was frustrated about the shutter lag,but the pre-focus trick worked as you described. E

3:01 PM  
Blogger Matthew Robertson said...

I'll weasel out of providing much of my own comment by saying that I absolutely agree with most of what the article says, but with the caveat that often it doesn't matter. When I use my little Oly 770SW, it's doing a job that none of my other cameras can. No, it's not natural, intuitive, or even sensible most of the time. But what should I expect from a camera that comes with a built-in alarm clock? It even happens to be a handy feature.

Just yesterday, I dusted off my Sony F828, which is a pretty serious camera. All I wanted was a couple of shots of my dogs, who were visiting my apartment for the last time. (Because I'm moving, nothing morbid.) I had forgotten what it was like to use: a great design, but a lousy camera. It was frustrating and couldn't compare to my SLRs in any way. Of course, it cost less than a couple of my lenses -- priced individually, not together -- but this was still a high-end digicam only a few years ago. I had been keeping it in case my habibi wants to take up photography, and as a backup to my backup, but now I'm seriously reconsidering its value even for that.

I remember reading that as differences become less pronounced, people often respond by increasing their perceived significance. (Are the lenses of any SLR system really not going to get the job done?) The way manufacturers build and market, and the way review sites respond, certainly bears this out.

3:33 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Or buy an E-Bay Ricoh GR1 and sacrifice the convenience of digital for a camera that does what it's told whilst also fitting in your pocket.

Charlotte Burnett

3:33 PM  
Blogger Hugh Look said...

I think you might be right as far as the technical aspect of photography goes, but I don't think P&S are by any means useless for learning vision and composition in particular. I've seen some very good pictures from people without formal training in technique who nevertheless were really good photographers because they had a wonderful lens - behind their eyes. My own goes everywhere with me, times I would never be able to lug a DSLR, and I can't say I notice any drop in the quality of my imagination when I'm using it.

3:38 PM  
Blogger Erk Schmerk said...

You know, I wish someone had pointed this out to me years ago. I’ve wasted hours surfing forums, reading reviews… all because I wanted a small, unobtrusive camera

This is a spot-on analysis. Things that I wish I knew before:
• Use a DSLR for learning – the concepts can apply to a P&S, but you really can’t effectively go the other way;
• No doubt about it – wasting your time reading reviews is precious time lost.

It’s like you’re reading my mind. Get out of my mind!

4:05 PM  
Blogger doonster said...

That has just brought a broad smile to my face (too wide for smilies).

I hope your entry DSLR advice will include the line "forget that it's got a JPEG mode entirely".

4:09 PM  
Blogger Dwight Jones said...

I kept looking for the red SA for "satire alert". Actually, your assessment is right on for people who do a lot of shooting indoors or in low light.

There are two situations where I'm really happy with a Ricoh GRD. One is outdoors in reasonable light. The other is when I want to document something at work and I'm too busy to go get the good camera. These situations make up about 90% of my shooting. When I do shoot indoors, it's usually a situation where a I don't need perfectly grainless enlargements.

4:40 PM  
Blogger Herman said...

There are respected photographers who use the Holga
and pin-hole cameras. It's not the camera that counts, but what you do with it.

5:25 PM  
Blogger Nic said...

Meh, excuses. A P&S may not suit your needs, but that doesn't make them crap. Just learn how your camera works, what it can or can't do, and exploit the benefits and work around the limitations.

This comes to mind:


5:40 PM  
Blogger Steve R said...

I am in the process of conducting a little point and shoot experiment. I like point and shoots, if for no other reason than having a small camera in your pocket all the time is better than not having a camera with you. The manufactures have still not made one that has the ability to take good flashless photos in low light and good outdoor photos in high contrast light.

So, I have gone to a 2 digicam solution, just like the old days when I had one camera loaded with color film and one with black and white. I am using a Fuji F30 for low available light work and a Panasonic TZ3 (which has a really lovely Leica designed 28-280 equiv lens with optical image stabalization) for the walk around daylight camera. They are so small that both can be kept in one pocket if I wanted to. I realize that this is probablye excessive, but it is a fun exercise nonetheless.

My other main alternative is to mount a Canon EF 24/2.8 lens on the Rebel XT which then gives me a fairly compact 38 mm equiv walk around camera with excellent controls and high ISO performance. Too big for the jacket pocket, however.

5:41 PM  
Blogger Call me Maniac said...

Mike, I completely agree with spevas. This is a great piece. I totally agree with you, and I wish so many people who ask my advice on what cute little camera to get would just read this advice. Some people. All they want is "cute" and "small so I can keep it with me without it being a pain in the ass." They don't really care about taking pictures. The innards should be cut out of them so you can store lipstick, toothpicks, and a few birth-control pills.

6:08 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

You raise interesting points. Maybe these types of cameras are unacceptible as far as your requirements. There have been millions of satisfied photographers who haveo taken beautiful images with these devices. Their importance in helping people capture slides of life cannot be disregarded. There's no difference here than when people swore that the Graflex 4x5 was the only way to go as compared to those photogs who abandoned them for 35mm. Your words are like those from someone casting a discerning eye over those who don't drive a Lexus.

6:11 PM  
Blogger Marcin said...

Mike, if you say that all pocket cameras are the same, you might as well say the same about DSLRs. Same warped logic. So why bother giving us your advice on those?
BTW, browse photo sharing websites by camera makes and you will discover plenty of fantastic, creative pictures taken with what you call "shit". Food for thought.

6:55 PM  
Blogger Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Haha, Mike, I love your style. This all-out attack is funny.

And I totally agree.

On the other hand, oddly, I can also see the opposite viewpoint: P/S cameras are amazing.
I've taken some pictures I like with my Fuji F10 (forerunner of F30).

7:06 PM  
Blogger Ira Crummey said...

Essays like this are the reason I have followed your work for the last couple of years.

As for point and shoot cameras, I must agree, for the most part. We have owned a Kodak D200, fixed focus, fixed focal length, surprisingly short shutter lag (no AF to worry about) and a decent snapshot camera (this is not photography, this is just rudimentary documentation of one's life).
Next came a Fuji 2800Zoom, much better camera but often frustrating since there was no manual focus override. It was an excellent companion for my wife's business trips however because in good light it made an excellent "sightseer's camera" recording excellent detail and colour, but was small enough to fit in a small bag.

My old Pentax Optio 33L was the best p&s I have owned since it had negligable shutter lag when prefocused, it had an MF feature that actually worked and it produced decent image files.

I now use a DSLR, so does my wife. The closest thing to a p&s we now use is a Fuji S7000 (which, except for the EVF is almost as responsive as a DSLR). I keep the 2800Zoom handy for those times that you don't want to carry the "real" cameras. I would love to own a small camera that fits your "Decisive Moment Camera" description, so far Ricoh and Sigma seem to be getting close.

I won't hold my breath.


7:32 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

While I agree with your basic premise, I don't think most people are best served by low end DSLRs. Most people just aren't interested in photography ... they just want results. The industry has been pretty successful in delivering just this in today's P&S models. It's frightening though how many consider DSLRs to be higher-end P&S cameras. There's even resentment that they paid a lot more but aren't getting the results they expect with their new DSLR in autopilot mode. You can go blue in the face trying to explain the difference between matrix and CW exposure modes and when to use one over the other to these people. Worse, manufacturers are now dumbing down DSLRs to exactly meet this new need. I say let things be. Anyone with a passion for photography will eventually gravitate to something that gives them more control, be it film or digital.

8:01 PM  
Blogger kathleen fonseca said...

this was wonderful..i laughed much and often..i do think P&S cameras serve a useful function and there are some of us who picked one up and discovered nirvana. That happened to me when i bought my first Sony Cybershot 3.3MP camera. Seems like eons ago but that camera quite simply changed my life. And it was a workhorse too. The little blue engine that could. There have been other cameras that have passed between my hands since then and there will continue to be. Film, digital, 35mm, MF, 4x5, polas, holgas, rangefinders, auto, manual (yes, my coolness factor is zilch) but, like lovers, we all remember our first. Thank you, Sony!

8:09 PM  
Blogger Paul Leidl said...


Your "make no bones about it" essay on point and shoots made me wonder what happened to the so called "bridge cameras" e.g. Minolta A2-Sony F828-Olympus C8080.

I recall that Michael Reichmann used and liked at least two of the little beasts.

Some time back, Rob Galbraith posted an interesting essay by Eamon Hickey on Magnum photog Alex Majoli and his exclusive use of the Olympus C series for his documentary work in Africa, China and Iraq.

They seemed to fill a niche. The cameras are/were quiet and discreet and- speaking as an Olympus C8080 owner- produce pretty good files. Sure they are a bit "noisy" but who cares? A bit of grain never hurt anybody. Except- I suppose -if you are a landscape photographer.

8:30 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

You bet! I also really hate those miserable little dinky motor-cars with auto transmissions and four cylinder engines. Thank goodness for my V8 manual truck.

As previous posters have observed: "You forgot your satire alert."

Either that, or millions and millions of buyers, and thousands of marketing professionals are wrong.

More to the point, perhaps, and as others have remarked, a P@S is infinitely preferable to nothing at all - and I am not carrying my big Nikon everywhere.

8:32 PM  
Blogger michael said...

I agree with you, except for the Fuji F10. I always carry it with me, even to the mailbox.

Try it; its performance is jaw dropping.

10:25 PM  
Blogger Dr Hiding Pup said...

I helped a 70 year-old arthritic guy choose a camera the other day: it was great fun. We ignored the salesman and started looking for the following features packed into the same camera:

Image Stabilization
Right-hand grip
Big shutter button
SD card capability
AA batteries (bugbear)
Battery door lock (bugbear)
Under £200 (the value of the voucher I negotiated for him from the manager for his last digicam that was in warranty but beyond repair)

We ended up with a Canon A710 IS which said old guy is thrilled with, not because of picture quality, but because it has all of the above.

I can't decide whether my Olympus C-5050 is a p&s: if it is, it may be the only exception to the rule in the world...

11:10 PM  
Blogger Gregory Clements said...

Hi Mike,

Borrowing from Wolfgang Tillmans' book title 'If One Thing Matters, Everything Matters', then if one camera stinks, they all stink.

Sure, the shutter lag of the Canon P&S I use is a pain in the neck, but if I need fast response I'll use my DSLR. If I need motion I'll use a video camera. If I need sound I'll use my voice recorder. If I need depth of field and straight verticals I'll use a 5x4. If I need.......and so and so forth.

The very power of the P&S camera lies in its very ordinariness. The very fact that it is not something else (read 'bigger', read 'more professional looking', read 'look at me, I'm a photographer') allows for candidness and a greater degree of anonimity. Eyebrows go unraised and opportunities present themselves as a result.

On a technical note, the portraits that I have made with a Canon G6 P&S would have been very different had I made them with another camera that did not have swivel LCD to allow me to frame the subject without holding the camera up to my eye.

I agree that a P&S is not the most tactile of cameras to use and I am sure the 'pleasure of ownership' (if one is so inclined) is nowhere near as much as that of other cameras but, in the right hands, it is indeed a veritable lethal weapon.

It all comes back to using the right tools for the right job I suppose.



12:29 AM  
Blogger Ken Tanaka said...

By the time I saw this post late Saturday night it was already towing 20 replies; it hardly needs more baggage. But nevertheless I do feel strangely compelled to pass a bit of my own gas into this wind.

1. My goodness, Mike, such an absolute declaration! "They're all shit."? All? Well, there's no reward in debating such a position. I'll readily concede that there is indeed much to be desired in most of the p&s cameras I've used. I will say, however, that my current p&s has been excellent. It's very much a rival of my M8 for many applications. I'll not cite its make/model as that's beside my point.

2. Photo purists might find this thought icky but the fact is that the digital p&s camera has expanded and transformed photography beyond boundaries that anyone would have imagined 20 years ago. More people are taking more pictures than ever before, mostly with these little gadgets.

3. The overwhelming majority of p&s users have no aspirations to take great pictures or to become great photographers. They don't care about "photographic technique". They just want to take pictures of their families, their friends, their lives. They're more than happy simply to recognizably record these mundane subjects and to be able to share the images in an economical and handy manner. So to judge the run-of-the-mill $200 p&s against the standards of fine photographic instruments is neither fair to manufacturers (who understand this very well) nor apprpriate to the devices' common applications.

4. Nevertheless, your suggestion for p&s owners to make the time to really learn their cameras is dead-on. Most of the better p&s cameras can do much better jobs in hands that have mastered their features and limitations. Unfortunately (a) the ergonomics of these cameras generally stinks, and (b) very few people are willing to master these cameras ... or any other consumer electronics.

5. I agree that spending countless hours comparing feature lists of these cameras is mostly pointless; these cameras have more in common than in distinction. Spend some time with DPreview's reviews which are actually the most thorough and thoughtful anywhere. But spend more time at a store actually handling and using cameras. The camera that feels the most comfortable to hold and to operate will generally produce the best results, if only becuse you'll want to take it along more often.

12:45 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

I didn't say you can't make nice photographs with point-and-shoots. Of course you can.

I also wasn't talking about all small-sensor cameras. Just point-and-shoots.

Note that I didn't say people shouldn't use point-and-shoots, although maybe I confused some readers by mentioning entry-level DSLRs there at the end. (Maybe I'll remove that from the post.) I'm talking about taking an attitude towards point-and-shoots that lets you enjoy them more and be frustrated less.


12:52 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"I can't decide whether my Olympus C-5050 is a p&s"

Dr. Hiding Pup,
I would answer no to that question.


1:09 AM  
Blogger John said...

Maybe i'm not up on the definition of point and shoot. I would have thought it applied to anything shy of an SLR. I've actually been quite happy with the images that have come out of my little canon s50 and s80. In some ways these digicams (particularly the more recent model) are more forgiving than an slr and thus more likely to produce images that are at least acceptable. And of course there are situations where they are simply not up to the demands. I'm including a link to an picture I took with the s50 back in 2005.

It was taken at night, using a small flashlight to focus and the onboard flash to take the photo. I could never had done this with a camera that required looking through a view finder or with a camera thatwas much larger than the little s50.

While this is certainly no great example of photographic art note that the fish, the fly and water boatmen are all sharp and rendered in natural colors. My point is that despite their shortcomings digicams do have greater utility in some circumstances than more capable and complex photographic "tools".

2:14 AM  
Blogger erlik said...

> "I can't decide whether my
> Olympus C-5050 is a p&s"
> I would answer no to that question.

With aperture, shutter and manual mode? With a status LCD and RAW ability?

I'd say definitely not.

2:14 AM  
Blogger Rohan Phillips said...

You're wrong Mike. A P&S can take better photos than a Canon 5D.


2:45 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

OK Mike. I really can't let it go. Your blog is the top of my list of "daily-reads", so I'm mortified that you are prepared to put up this silly article as if it is actually serious! You do a disservice to present a personal affliction - whoops! I mean opinion as immutable fact.

You say:
Here's the upshot: they're all shit.
Because digital point-and-shoots are lousy cameras.
It doesn't matter if you have three choices, or thirty, or three hundred: if every option is crap, then the option you choose is going to be crap, and that's that.

Not much room for exception there, huh? You've personally used every one ever made? When do you get time to blog?

Then there's:
You can hardly be a photographer with a point-and-shoot (the occasional exception proves the rule)...
Huh? You wanna read that one through again?

Point-and-shoots came about as a category in the 1980s...
I used my Olympus 35RC (one of two I've owned) with great results as a schoolboy in the early 70's. It surely meets all the requirements of a P&S - save perhaps for the zoom lens. I much preferred it to my Leica IIIf for a multitude of reasons - superior image quality being foremost. Noise being another.

I've owned many P&S cameras. A Casio I had used a set of batteries per 20 shots - definite POS. All the Mavicas I've owned had shutter lags that would drive Job to drink - but they were otherwise excellent. I currently own a no-doubt POS: a Panasonic FZ30 which generates so much noise and CA that its shots look like French impressionist works. Another definite POS.

BUT! I also own another dozen or so P&S cameras that are excellent pieces of engineering. I used my tiny litle Pentax Optio to take these shots:
here, here, and here.
(No apologies for the occasional burnt highlights.)
Try getting your compact dSLR down behind the lathe, as I did, using one hand only, as I did to get these shots. Look at the macro DOF (a P&S feature), the image quality, the focus etc.etc.
I had my Nikon dSLR (love that camera) on the bench next to me, but chose to use the P&S because it worked better, one-handed, down behind the moving parts of the lathe, while my other hand was on the lathe controls.

And then finally:
Good photographers can actually learn to use point-and-shoots reasonably effectively, and you can, too. But only if you try.

Uh huh. Name for me any camera, from $10 disposable to 8x10 Linhof for which that statement doesn't apply.

Wassamatta, Mike? You particularly cranky today? Someone piss in your Cornflakes this morning?

Jeff in Sydney.

2:51 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

My point and shoot fulfils an important role, that is a small camera that slips into my pocket that can take good quality shots when used within certain parameters.

I had an unusual requirement when looking for it. The camera had to have good IR capability . Having hung around a few forums and seen a few examples of shots taken it was then off to the local discount electrical store. They had only one left of that particular model, it was on display they had lost the box and the software. Luckily the store manager was able to find a charger and he threw in a 1Gb card to clinch the deal at a substantially discounted price. I got home and made a filter holder using some ABS piping and set about shooting the next day. My first shot with the set up has just netted me a large sum of money in a photographic competition. Subsequent photos have been published in various magazines. As you can tell I'm a very happy camper.

4:32 AM  
Blogger jobo said...

Adias: Looks like the Canon PowerShot SD800 IS might fit your bill.

And I do agree with the approach, to figure out the features you want and then spend 5 minutes choosing the proper model.

4:53 AM  
Blogger razorblack said...

Well, I don't expect you to publish this comment, but I must say this one article really lowered T.O.P. in my eyes.

P&S have clear benefits (as well as problems, yes), and I would have expected you of all people to go beyond the immature DSLR fanboy explain-my-big-lens-spending-to- myself-and-my-pals mentality.

So, benefits: tilt-screen, lightness, compactness, ND filter, time-lapse, unobtrusiveness, and sharpness to match very expensive L lenses. Yes, good compacts have better sharpness than most consumer DSLR lenses. And that's just the ancient Canon G5 I'm thinking of.

What DSLR has that?

I have a compact, and I have a DSLR - and I know the value of each.

Sorry, thumbs way down on this one.

6:45 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I don't agree with the absolutist tone of the post, granting that it
may be a deliberate e'pater les bourgeois touch.

For one thing - exaggerating to convey the point - when the moment
comes, you may not happen to have handy your 8x10 Deardorff affixed to
its Majestic tripod.

The vogue for huge prints from 35mm size recording media is relatively
recent, but within the perfectly respectable and enjoyable print range
around 8x10, contemporary digital P&S cameras are capable of excellent
results. During the 60's, I took thousands of pictures with a couple of
Leicas (M3 and M4), mostly using TRI-X developed at ASA 800, and
developed and printed my own work. I was at that time around several
good photographers and printers (e.g., Walker Evans), and I know what a
good print looks like. I currently carry around a Fuji F31, and I can,
at the mentioned print sizes, often get results that are on a par with
what I was getting out of the Leicas. If I know in advance that I'll
need higher quality than the F31 can provide, because of possible
requirements of cropping, resolution, or optics, I'll use something
different (and a lot bigger and heavier).

Some F31 stuff at:

Burton Randol

9:04 AM  
Blogger S.LIU said...


Three years ago you used one of my pictures in your column. It was shot with a Nikon Coolpix 800, a top-of-the-line $600 two-MP digital P&S at that time. But that picture is not a point and shoot photo by any means.

The Coolpix was my only camera at that time. Unfortunately it stopped working few months later because of the limited lifetime of typical consumer electronics. So I gave up on digital P&S and moved on through an interesting long list of reliable classical cameras: Holga, Nikon F, Olympus XA, Rolleiflex, Hasselblad, Crown Graphics, and Polaroid SX-70, name a few. Thanks the digital revolution I got most them for a price cheaper than the cheapest digital P&S.

However, for point and shoot purpose, i.e., straight snapshot for family moments, I also got an expensive Canon DSLR (30D).

I think P&S has two meanings. Operationally, it means little thought you taking a picture. A 4x5 can be a P&S if you don't think enough before triggering the cable release. Functionally, it means the ease to use and carry. Modern digital P&S achieved the second goal but for the first goal, they are no way close to those wonderful Sonar AF Polaroid cameras in the 70s and 80s. They always give you decent pictures when you want them. (Although without the zoom, you can get very close to get tight shot.)

That is why I reach for a Polaroid 660 instead of a Canon 30D when I see my baby doing something exiting.

9:12 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I took my Olympus C-5500 to a street fair yesterday, and I was wishing I'd brought my DSLR instead. Granted it's a 2+ year old model, but I gather things haven't improved much in $300 cameras in that time. I hate how s-l-o-w it is -- grabshots are a crap shoot, and I usually crap out -- and the noise from the small sensor. Good photos are possible with a stationary subject, but more often than not it leaves me frustrated.

I wish Olympus (or someone) would come out with the digital equivalent of the XA series - fixed wide-angle lens, great image quality, superb ergonomics, simple and FAST operation.

9:21 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

True, except for the Fuiji F series (F10, F11, F20, F30, F31fd, F40) they offer some amazing quality for their size and price.

10:23 AM  
Blogger Dr Hiding Pup said...

'"I can't decide whether my Olympus C-5050 is a p&s"

Dr. Hiding Pup,
I would answer no to that question.'

Oh, if that's the case, yeah, they're all crap, pretty much.

2:55 PM  
Blogger previous-phojus said...

A great article Mike. I'm a regular reader yet rarely post comments.

A friend of mine has the misconception that I keep up-to-date with the camera market and know all the current good ones. I haven't a clue and have told her that. Even so, she wants my advice on a P&S. Would I be cruel to show her your article?

3:32 PM  
Blogger 1001 noisy cameras said...

I think this article raises some very good points and by using exaggeration it tries to drive the point home. The cameras pictured in the article point to which point and shoots the author was talking about. [Speaking of P&S, every camera is a point and shoot, that's how you take pictures :)]

While the average consumer and casual user might as well just pick up whichever one the "Geek du jour" puts in their hands, these cameras still have their differences, and one can actually benefit by looking into them and going through the reviews. Things like image stabilization, wide angle or not, and "philosophical issues" such as [SD vs proprietory memory card] and [LiIon vs AA]. Another thing to note is the low noise advantage some of the F-series Fujis have. Also for those who frequently record movies there are some differences such as 30fps VGA vs 15fps QVGA or even some HD movies.

6:19 PM  
Blogger John Lehet said...

Not that I would for a minute stop lugging my two Nikon DSLR bodies with me wherever I go, but I have a little Nikon 7900 P&S that has done some good work and that sometimes goes into my briefcase or car. Before I converted the D70 to infrared a year ago, the little P&S on a tripod with a filter was my infrared camera. And it did some damn fine work, though it wasn't perfect and I lost a lot of IR shots. It also did good macro work, and in some cases the depth of field gives a better effect than the nice bokeh of the Nikkor 60 micro on the D200.

Then there's this thing called flickr, which has a lot of stupid cat shots, but also some fantastic photography. One photographer I know on there does work I'm jealous of, and all with a point and shoot digital. The exploding joy of good photography by casual people, just plain enjoying it, has exploded because of the digital p&s.

Which reminds me of my golden age of fun and creative photography, which was with my nikon 9xx cameras. I'd always been a Big Film snob, and photography was Serious. I have some nice big film shots, but I tortured myself for years tp get them.
In the late 90s and early 00s, I shot a lot with those coolpix 9xx cameras, and I loved it. I knew they were never going to make big fine art prints that would meet my standards. In those years I was too busy and too successful making money as a web designer to even think about taking time to try to sell prints, even if people asked me for them. I was too busy to shoot big film, that's for sure. I refined my eye, took more chances, and had more fun with photography than I did in any point in my life. It wasn't work, it was fun.

After that digital cameras got Serious, and so did I again. I'm once again making fine prints and working on selling them. It's fun, but not so carefree. It's work again.

As a Serious Photographer it's much more fun to use the D200 and have so much instant control and great resolution and nice big RAW files. As a dad with a kid, or a gardener with flowers, or just goofing around with friends, I had more fun in those point and shoot years at the turn of the century.

7:39 PM  
Blogger Tom K. said...

Read this and you will eat your words:

- Tom K.

10:51 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"Read this and you will eat your words"

We really need to define our terms. No way is an Olympus C-8080 a "point-and-shoot." It's just a small-sensor camera, but a very elaborate one. It doesn't even come close to my definition of a point-and-shoot.


8:34 AM  
Blogger 1001 noisy cameras said...

I think part of the reason we have different reactions is that the term "P&S" means different things to different people in different context(s).

Some people consider anything that is not a DSLR a "P&S". Others may consider "P&S" any camera without PSAM (or even RAW). Others are thinking more in film-era terms of P&S being a simple shiny silver camera for non-photographers who just want to click and not bother with anything else.

I don't really have a proposal for better terms, but I personally consider all cameras P&S since this is how you take pictures whether it's a $10 keychain-camera or a $30,000 medium format :)

2:12 PM  
Blogger John Lehet said...

I kept thinking about this today.

Yes, we need good tools to make good photographs, and great tools help make great photographs. But the thing is, I think it's a bit of a red herring to be very concerned and snobby about equipment.

If I had to make a list today of what it takes to be a good photographer, it would go something like this:

1) Be very awake.
2) Cultivate your eye; experience a lot of art.
3) Deepen your own intensity of experience, resonance with the world, and with all humanity.
4) Have a camera handy
5) Tune your life so that it facilitates having space to both experience deeply and to have time to stop and make photographs.
6) Know how to print -- in the darkroom or with photoshop -- to get your captured image to express the feeling latent in it.
7) Have the camera at hand be the best possible for your creative purposes, as honed above.
8) Know how to use the camera to get the effect you want.

Maybe 8 could move up the list. Many gear-head photographers, myself included, might tend to become preoccupied with point 7 at times. This is the easiest in the list, by far. That is a low bar. As we know, the bar is much higher than owning the best camera.

4:42 PM  
Blogger Andy Piper said...

I think this is a great post - agreed with many of the comments.

I have written a couple of times about choosing digital compacts (last February, and again a few days ago), but I have primarily concentrated on usage and features.

7:15 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Everyone has said everything (and more) that I've thought on both sides of this issue, but I can make a grammatical contribution regarding this quote:

"You can hardly be a photographer with a point-and-shoot (the occasional exception proves the rule)"

If you give it any thought at all, you'll realize that it's not possible for an exception to prove anything, so this is a meaningless expression that just keeps getting passed along from generation to generation.

Prove, in this case, has the nearly forgotten meaning of "test." You'll find this "test" element in the expressions "proving ground" and "the proof of the pudding is in the eating" (with thanks to Bill Bryson's Troublesome Words for these examples).

So an exception tests a rule. Those on the P&S side might say that a good photo from a P&S camera sorely tests this particular one.

1:37 AM  
Blogger Canopus said...

Reading this reminded me of my first experiences with a digital P&S. A friend had it free with his PC quite some years back. It had all of about 12 pixels, well OK probably a few more, could shoot in darkish environments, gave everything a blue sheen and the image was made up of interesting squares. Attempting to enhance the image etc. resulted in images that looked like cubic paintings which made us collapse with laughter. We had hours of fun with it until we decided to get some real dSLR cameras and then it ended up lost and forgotten somewhere among other forgotten gadgets. Must dig it out sometime for another laugh.

So P&S cameras are not completely useless, as long as you get one for free it's worth it as laughter is good therapy

9:33 AM  
Blogger Elinesca said...

Dear Mr. Online Photographer.
We're a small but happy online group of digital photographers. We're planning a show in the near future.

The trouble is, even with our spanking new SLR's - people still regard us as P & Shoot photographers.

We'd like to invite you to our online discussion forum - perhaps you can cast a light to the mystery for us.

12:41 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

Brilliant bit of writing, and so very true. Agree with everything you said.

As an experienced photographer myself, using a full frame DSLR and often shoot 4x5 film, every man and his dog at my place of work seem to think I can 'recommend' the 'best' digital compact for them.

From now on I will simply give them a link to your comments! This will free up my time no end so I can actually get some work done.

I love the whole web site. Thank-you!



3:36 AM  
Blogger Gildasd said...


I agree with the precept that all point and shoot cameras are not worth flexing the shutter finger.
But I own a Fuji E900 PS, because I can’t and won’t take my DSLR on my bike. This camera has quite a few things going for it (RAW, selectable spot focus point, spot metering, cleanish 800iso etc) and it cost me 250 Euros (about 1 million US $ at the current exchange rate) a year ago. It has taken more bumps than a hip hop dancer on acid, done everything with it short of using it as a blunt weapon. And taken some great pics, printed on 30 x 40cm on my Canon IX 4000…
This is the list of things that would make me spend 500 to 600 euros on this PS.
- Better sensor; 9 megasthingys is too much on this sensor… 6 to 8 is fine… Very clean 800iso – not more.
- Better lens; 28 – 105 f2.8/4 would be great (not the current 32 – 128 f2.8-5.6)…
- Better optical viewfinder, not Leica, but at least Olympus MJU from the 90’s class…
- An isty bit more weather proofing.
-Double the RAW buffer.
It would become a real little pocket monster that looks tourist, but can get pro results in the right hands. For my results with the E900, check out my blog;
All the best,


2:12 PM  
Blogger komail said...

i think it's the case of the best tool for the job. it depends what you're photographing what effect you want , what your trying to say, your style of photography. are youi an artist, an amateur a proffesional? i was i die hard 6x7 guy (plaubel and RZ) until i discovered digital. and i really got to know my cameras i used the exposure compensator, played with the white balance, and all those other wacky liottle distractions they manage to jam in there and i tell you for work and play it has its place - for sure. i didn't put the 6x7 into retirement and the digital experience has certainly made me look at things different with the 6x7's

2:40 PM  

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