Photography tips: choosing a compact camera

By Bill Hatcher 2 April 2014
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Sometimes lugging a big SLR is not practical, so here’s what you should look for in a compact camera

THERE’S A REVOLUTION happening in the world of quality pocket digital cameras and I am digging it. I carry my SLR cameras most places I go and usually have no problem slinging one around my neck for any job.

But when it’s pure adventure fun and not an assignment, I like to balance my photography with being a participant and moving efficiently through the country. This is where a smaller compact camera fits the minimum baggage requirements limits perfectly. But, by the time I package my compact or small SLR for harsh environments, the padded bag or waterproof case makes the camera a cumbersome package.

The ideal micro adventure camera is a pocket camera. But until recently, these cameras suffered from a tiny sensor, producing poor image quality compared to the bigger SLRs. But that is quickly changing. Over the past few years, camera phone users and social media have driven the current photography boom. Camera companies have responded by racing to put smaller cameras into the hands of these photographers.

Compact cameras with SLR performance

The result is dozens of quality compact cameras, mirrorless cameras and now even pocket cameras with bigger sensors and sharp lenses that deliver SLR performance in a far smaller package. I assembled a wish list of features I wanted in my pocket camera. Most important is the lens, so I wanted a high quality, fast lens (2.8 or better) and I wanted a zoom lens going from wide (24mm) to portrait (105mm).

The sensor is equally important. It had to be big for low-light sensitivity; have low noise when using higher ISO; and have a resolution of about 15MP.

I wanted the ability to adjust aperture and exposure compensation quickly, a robust metal housing, a quick start-up and shut-down, tilt swivel LCD screen, fast frame rate, flash, a completely retractable lens (no lens cap, please) and 1080p video with lens stabiliser.

And it had to shoot RAW files. In the past year, several manufacturers released products that came close to meeting these criteria. My top choices (and I mention all the models I looked at because there will be upgrades soon) were the Sony RX100, Canon S110, Panasonic LX-7 and the Fuji XF1. I finally decided on the Sony because in tests and reviews it produced the best quality photos, with images so sharp and with such low noise up to ISO 400 that it’s being compared to entry-level SLR cameras.

The eyes of the Sony RX100 is a sharp Zeiss Sonnar f1.8 28-100 zoom lens and the heart and soul of the camera is an oversized low-noise sensor and a fast image processor. The only fault I can find with the camera after using it for half a year is this camera is truly small! It’s hard to hold the camera without pressing buttons you don’t want to engage. I have carried the RX100 on a variety of adventures, from mountain biking and rock climbing to pack rafting.

Using compact cameras for remote adventures

I shot the photo above on the last day of a rainy, three-day packraft trip down the wilderness section of the Colo River in NSW. The low-water trip involved many, many portages over and around rocky rapids and across sand bars. The biggest portage was the Kings rapid you see here. I went first and near the bottom of the rock garden I scrambled on top of a truck-sized block to photograph my boating partner as she negotiated the rocks.

This scene is a big, dramatic landscape and the tiny Sony with its sweet little Zeiss lens had no trouble capturing the drama of black rocks and white water, despite the falling rain and flat light. I spun the camera’s big aperture ring to f4, checked the shutter speed (1/100 sec) to make sure the image wouldn’t blur and began shooting.

The settings were ISO 200, at 30mm, shooting in RAW. The best part about making this and other photos on the trip is the camera was fast to use and required no space in my pack raft.

The little RX100 fits in a waterproof case a little bigger than the palm of my hand. Probably the only thing this camera is missing is Wi-Fi, longer battery life and a flip-out screen (although that would make it bigger). Now I am waiting to see how manufacturers respond to this crop of pro-featured pocket cameras. Given their success, I don’t think I’ll have to wait long.