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Searching for the ultimate digital compact
We search for the perfect, carry-everywhere, high end digicam
(by urban75 for Digital Lifestyles, Dec 2008)
Way back in the pre-digital age, our favourite carry-everywhere camera was the Olympus XA, a wonderful lightweight (225g) and compact 35mm camera, measuring just 102 W x 64.5 H x 40 D mm and providing a superbly portable alternative to our Olympus OM2 SLR system.
This pocket-sized wonder packed aperture-priority exposure controls, rangefinder focusing, an optional flash accessory and a fast 35mm lens with 10 sec-1/500 sec shutter speeds.
Apertures could be set from f/2.8 to f/22 by a sliding switch on the front, with the viewfinder displaying the selected shutter speed and focus confirmation by means of an overlaid secondary image. The lens barrel also displayed distance markings, so it was possible to pre-focus without using the viewfinder, making it a great camera for street shooting.
With user-selected film speeds from ASA 25-800, a +1.5 stop backlighting exposure compensation switch and a fixed flash that automatically set to f/4 at 1/30 sec, there was plenty of opportunities for photographers to override the auto settings and get creative with a near-silent electronic shutter adding to the stealth factor.
For years it was our faithful companion, with its clever clamshell design surviving several knocks and spills, and the 2x SR44 Silver Oxide Cells lasting for, well, nearly an eternity. And quite possibly beyond.
Despite is diminutive proportions and tiny wee lens, the quality of the photos was very good indeed - in fact some of the best photos we'd ever taken were snapped on this humble little camera.
Moving to digital compact cameras
Lured away from the world of 35mm compacts by the ease, speed and - most of all - the relative cheapness of shooting digitally, we've been busy filling up memory cards since 1999, but we've never found anything to match the pocketability and usability of the Olympus XA.
Our first few digital cameras saw us thrilled by the cunning swiveling lens of the early Sony Cybershot F55/F55E/F717 cameras, which offered funky new shooting angles and a sneaky way to take candid shots.
New models promising bagfuls of extra megapixels and more advanced exposure controls meant we upgraded cameras often, indulgently paying for shiny new cameras with print sales helping finance our photographic fixes (even the early digital cameras could produce sellable A4 prints).
We spent a fair bit of time with the traditionally styled Sony V3 (great image quality but a little on the chunky side), several Fujifilm models (F10, F11 etc), all of which offered great low light shooting but at the expense of a dumbed-down UI, a Canon Ixus or two (we really couldn't get on with the interface despite their lovably small size) and the Lumix LX1 (fabulous look and feel, awful low light performance), before finding something that seemed to offer the same kind of enthusiast-led feature set as the XA.
That camera was the Ricoh GR, which, like the XA, offered a fixed, wide angle lens in a compact package.
We instantly fell in love with its simple, plain, old school looks - no sea of garish chrome here - and felt right at home with the dual control wheels offering SLR-like handling of exposure and focus settings. The nippy start up and optional optical viewfinder was appreciated, and we had no complaints about the image quality and handling - yet a couple of things still grated.
The most annoying thing was the need for the camera's lens to extend whenever you wanted to take a picture, losing precious seconds when a photo opportunity suddenly arose, with the associated whirring noise often attracting unwanted attention.
Although the bolt-on optical viewfinder presented a very bright and crisp image, it offered no exposure/focus information, so we constantly had to look down at the LCD screen when shooting in tricky conditions. Fortunately, there were enough manual controls on hand to let us set up a pre-focused 'street shooting' mode for quickfire shooting which proved very effective, although nothing can beat a proper optical 'finder.
The Ricoh GR remains a fabulous camera and you can see some examples of the kind of high quality images that can be created with the camera here: Flickr Ricoh GR photo pool
We're still using the GR but our current main digital compact has become the Ricoh GX100, which offered the same SLR-like manual controls as the GR, with the addition of a handy super wideangle 24mm-72mm zoom.
A cunning attachable electronic viewfinder went some way to solving the problem of presenting exposure information while shooting through the viewfinder, although the image was rather crude compared to an optical viewfinder.
It's still a gloriously versatile camera, offering a great range of pro-minded features like user-customisable menus, image stabilisation and RAW shooting, and we've been delighted with both the handling and output.
The GX100 was recently superceded by the Ricoh GX200 - check out our full review here - but with only a few relatively minor upgrades on offer, we couldn't justify shelling out for the new version, even if we would certainly recommend it to new users.
The latest digicam hotties
Looking around at the current crop of high end digital compacts, both the Canon G10 and the Panasonic Lumix LX3 have been picking up good user reviews.
The Canon G10 is the 3rd generation of the rather chunky body style first seen with the G7, and the latest release adds a 28mm wide angle lens, improved grip and the usual excellent control layout and handling with a frankly bonkers 14.7MP sensor wedged inside.
It's a mighty fine camera for photo enthusiasts and we *love* the traditional ISO dial but you'd need MC Hammer's wardrobe to fit the thing into your pocket - it's a monster alright, so not for us.
The Panasonic LX3 looks a much more tempting package to our eyes, offering a ton of top notch features in a far more compact body, with the company sensibly steering clear of the 'pack in more pixels' race, offering 10MP on a custom sensor.
The lens is the real standout here - a sensationally fast f2.0-f2.8 24mm-60mm wide angle job, backed by Panasonic's great joystick control system and a hot shoe supporting flash sync up to 1/2000.
The camera can produce some truly stellar results too; check out the stunning examples in this Panasonic LX3 review
Nikon's intriguing new Coolpix P6000 also looks an interesting proposition, with a 13.5MP sensor, 28-112mm lens (at a slower f2.7 - 5.9), loads of high end features and even built in GPS for geotagging and a built in LAN port for swift image transfer (we're not sure how practically useful the geotagging stuff would actually be, mind).
Although all of these cameras offer performance to at least match the Ricoh RX200, they all suffer from having relatively tiny sensors squeezed inside - which translates into more noise in low light situations.
Although we're itching to replace our long serving Ricoh GX100, none of the current crop would really offer enough of a substantial upgrade to justify the extra dosh (although it has to be said that the Lumix LX3 is continuing to create some serious palpitations in our wallet department).
Sigma's beefy sensor
A camera that seemed to promise the perfect way forward when it was announced last year was the Sigma DP1.
This fella had the clean, simple looks of the Ricoh GR with the same fixed 28mm lens but crucially packed a full size SLR sensor inside.
Despite class leading picture quality, the Sigma was annoyingly riddled with frustrating gotchas including slow focusing, painfully tardy shutter lag and a troublesome interface. The Sigma DP2 has recently been announced as its successor, but reviews are still to filter through.
Desperately seeking a street shooting star
Despite the mighty fine qualities of the above cameras - they're all capable of outstanding results - none of them have managed to provide the mix of features we need for our perfect street shooting digicam star.
What we're looking for is a camera that gets our mojo working with a large sensor, non-whirring-out lens (preferably interchangeable so we can upgrade later), fast start up time, large LCD screen and a bright viewfinder offering exposure information in a compact, unobtrusive and reasonably tough package. Preferably with a flip out Live View LCD screen.
Could this be heaven?
It's not exactly what we're looking for - yet - but Panasonic's Micro Four Thirds system looks like it could be on track to offer something very close to what we've been lusting for.
Described as 'without doubt the most exciting digital photography announcement this year' by dpreview.com, the Micro Four Thirds standard uses a large SLR-sized sensor (18 x 13.5 mm) while reducing body size down substantially by replacing the reflex mirror of SLRs with a Live View monitor, viewed through a LCD monitor or an EVF.
The first camera to use the system, the Panasonic Lumix G1, served up a compelling mix of features in a very compact, SLR-like package including a 12.1 megapixel Live MOS Sensor, Optical image stabilisation, intelligent ISO, AF tracking, face detection and intelligent scene selector with Venus Engine HD image processing and a Supersonic Wave Filter dust reduction system - packed into a camera body measuring just 124 x 84 x 45 mm.
Early reports say that the camera handles well and that - crucially - the electronic viewfinder offers high quality viewing, which is even good enough for macro shooting.
That all sounds pretty damn good to us, and if the package performs as well as it looks, we may well consider dumping our current fantastic but devilishly bulky Nikon D300 SLR gear for a Micro Four Thirds camera in the future.
Mini-me SLRs are one thing of course, but this article is all about looking for the perfect digital compact and it looks like the new standard may well finally come up with the goods.
Olympus recently announced that it intends to build a compact Micro Four Thirds compact camera, with a prototype photo revealing an old-school styles snapper in development.
If Olympus do indeed pull a camera like this out of the bag and it comes with full manual options, then they may well have solved our fifteen year quest for the perfect digital compact - which would be rather fitting seeing as they're the company that made the XA we loved so much in the first place!
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