I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want…

By , November 19, 2009 1:43 pm

… And no, it is not a Spice Girls reunion, what I would really like is a decent compact camera.

I know, there are loads on the market, but none of them ticks my boxes. Perhaps I should explain first that I am not an equipment freak. On the contrary, I dislike cameras as a rule, as they tend to get in the way of a perfectly good photograph, none more so than compacts.

Every other week there will be a review in one of the trade magazines of the latest offering touted as being something for the working pro to slip in his or her pocket, the most recent being the Panasonic GF1 reviewed in the British Journal of Photography. And when those reviews come out I read them with interest, simply because I hope something will come along that comes close to my ideal. But it never does, and sorry Panasonic, the GF1 didn’t do it for me either.

This has got me thinking. Maybe the problem is with me. Maybe my demands and expectations are unreasonable. Maybe I should just accept what I am offered and get on with it. But the more I pondered it, the more I have come to the conclusion that actually what I want is so simple that it is just being overlooked by the manufacturers’ R&D people.

So, I have hit on a solution: an open letter to all the R&D people explaining what I want. Now I am a realist. On its own this will be about as effective as trying to warm the Gulf Stream with an immersion heater. But if enough of my colleagues support the request, you never know… stranger things have happened. So here goes:

Dear Camera Manufacturer R&D Department,

I am looking for a digital compact camera, and none of the current offerings meets my requirements. Would it be possible to create something with the following specs (my rationale is given in brackets after each one)?

Yours faithfully,

Michael Cockerham

  • A high quality fixed lens, equivalent to about 35mm focal length on a 35mm full frame camera, with a maximum aperture of f2 or greater. (I do not need a zoom as I have legs which have always served me well for getting closer to or further away from the subject. Besides, while the quality of zooms on SLRs is unquestionably very high, I have yet to be convinced that the same can be said of compact camera zooms, so I would rather that the effort be put into some decent glass on a fixed focal length. Also, having only one focal length tends to focus my mind more creatively and improve the quality of my imagery anyway.)
  • A simple dial on the top plate to select one of four modes: M(anual), A(perture priority), S(hutter priority), P(rogram). (I am a photographer – not an equipment junky – so I do not need hundreds of incomprehensible modes with pictograms that make no sense to me. I actually understand that 1/125 at f8 at ISO 400 is exactly the same exposure as 1/30 at f11 at ISO 200 – which reminds me, put a collar on the mode dial to enable selection of the ISO equivalency, like the kind that used to exist on film cameras 30 years ago.)
  • A shutter release button, which is firm and requires some pressure to trigger. (Nothing to say about that really, just don’t want a hair trigger! But it is worth mentioning that I also do not want any discernable shutter lag.)
  • A reasonable grip for largish hands, with a thumb dial to control the shutter speed, and a finger dial to control the aperture. (I like to be in control, and frankly having to push various combinations of buttons to change the two fundamental controls of any camera is not – contrary to what the Facebook generation might have you believe – instinctive.)
  • A view finder. (Let me repeat that for emphasis and in caps, and underlined, and emboldened and in a different colour and italicised: A VIEWFINDER. A camera is supposed to be an extension of my eye – or even my mind’s eye – it is not supposed to be an extension of my arms when used at full extension! How the hell can I be discreet and in tune with my subject if I am moving around looking like a high tech version of the night of the living dead?)
  • Two file options: RAW and top quality jpeg. (If it was up to me, it would just be RAW, but I am prepared to concede that some people do like to use the JPEG format straight out of the camera. What I do not need is options to change the number of pixels used, or the compression, or any of those options that are supposed to mimic film types but never work. Like I said, I am a photographer and I can do all of that stuff myself on a computer very quickly and to a higher standard after I have downloaded the pictures, so why clutter up the camera with a whole load of options I am just never, ever going to use?).
  • An 8 megapixel sensor of a sufficient size that the images can be used commercially if necessary. (I have been saying for years that it is not all about pixel counts, and now you manufacturers are starting to admit it. So 8 megapixels are more than enough. In fact, I will happily settle for fewer pixels if it means that you can deliver me something that offers really usable images at upto at least ISO1000).
  • A simple reliable exposure meter to power the auto modes – something as reliable as the meter in my old Nikon F3 would be nice. (I don’t really want a load of meter modes, that’s not what this camera is supposed to be about, and as soon as you introduce more than one you need another button or dial to control them. Call me old fashioned, but manual and a light meter works well for me. Do it long enough and you don’t even need the light meter anyway, you just know).
  • A small LCD display on the top plate that tells me the shutter speed and aperture selected, how many frames I have taken and have left, and a readout of the remaining battery power. (I don’t need to know anything else, because you haven’t cluttered the camera up with a whole load of gizmos aimed at, well, someone that is not a photographer. While we are on the subject of batteries, something with a bit of life to it would be nice).
  • It actually needs to be compact but well built. (Given all the stuff I have requested that you leave out, that should not pose a huge problem – excuse the pun).

That’s it. I actually do not want or need anything else. I know that you will find it impossible to stop yourself putting other gizmos in, and there are some proper photographers around that might want a couple of other things, so I will offer you a list of optional extras that you can include if you absolutely must (along with my reasons for not wanting them):

  • A screen for reviewing the images. (I know it is nice to check that you got your picture, but I made a living from using film for over ten years, and I knew then that I had the picture even though I didn’t see it until I processed the film. Not being able to see the picture instantly will remove the distraction and make me concentrate on my subject – you know, I actually think it might make me a better photographer. But there is another reason: it is more technology to pack in, more to pay for, more to go wrong, and I would rather you spent the money on the image processing engine, the lens, the sensor and the build quality. I also think that having to wait to get to a computer to see the pictures will bring back just a little of the magic that I miss from being bent double over a tray full of chemistry. Furthermore, call me a cynic, but you put a screen on and I guarantee you will try to introduce a whole bunch of menus and options that I don’t want (see above), not to mention a live view facility which will stop me buying it on principle).
  • A flash. (Not really a fan of on-camera flash, especially not on compacts, but I know that they can sometimes be helpful. A hotshoe with a small bolt on flash might be a better option though).

That’s it. Now to see what other photographers think.

20 Responses to “I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want…”

  1. David says:

    Isn’t this list very close to the admittedly overpriced but simple and solid Leica X1?

  2. Michael says:

    Close, but not nearly close enough. For starters the viewfinder is an optional extra, from Leica of all people! Maybe I am being a snob, but I doubt that when members of the Royal Academy go to Winsor and Newton for their art supplies they find that they can buy a stick with bristles as an optional extra. And as for overpriced…

  3. Paul says:

    Hiya Michael,

    I bought the panny LX3 – I agree no viewfinder but lovely F2 lens, decent RAW, extremely wide angle, etc etc etc

    Or how about the new Oly E-P2 with viewfinder & pancake lens??? Ok so it’ll cost you £1000 but thats what Christmas is for 😉

    Paul

  4. Michael says:

    I agree that the LX3 comes fairly close, but the lack of viewfinder is inexcuseable. Maybe I am just out of step, but it seems analagous to equipping an iPod with a pair of minature 5W speakers, and then deciding that on that basis a jack to connect headphones is redundant since we can just listen to it loud. Frankly, if I am out of step, I don’t care: to quote G B Shaw, the reasonable man adapts himself to suit the world; the unreasonable man persisits in trying to adapt the world to suit himself; therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man. Of course, by my own definition what I am asking for is a retrograde step!

    As for the EP-2, the GF1 is the EP-2 rebadged… so I refer you to my post.

  5. Paul says:

    Okay then,

    How about something a bit leftfield?…..Ricoh GXR?
    http://www.dpreview.com/previews/RicohGXR/

  6. Michael says:

    The GXR is an interesting development, but far from cheap. The body and a lens module will set you back about a grand, then add another five hundred for a flash and electronic viewfinder. Actually, no. Bad idea. Viewfinder is bolt on. What do I do if I want to use the flash at the same time?

    To be fair to Ricoh, the viewfinder problem that I keep harping on about would be impossible to achieve on the GXR platform, since you could not include the viewfinder in the lens module, and similarly you could not put it on the body, since it would need to change with each lens module.

    In essence, interesting though the GXR is, I think it overcomplicates the solution to a basic problem: how to create a high quality compact. To answer that, the manufacturers need to ask what a compact is supposed to do, and it seems to me that increasingly they are trying to create machines that are all things to all people. But they can’t, and that is not what a compact is supposed to be. I mean, if we are going to create features that are useful, how about a shift and tilt lens? What about ring flash? What about an infra red sensor setting? All of these things are technically possible (yes, there is an infra red digital camera based on the Nikon D100 if you are interested.)

    A compact camera should be small and light enough to want to carry it all the time; easy enough to use that it becomes instinctive; discreet enough to use that people pay you no heed when you point it in their direction; of high enough image quality that a great shot can be submitted to libraries; strong enough that given it is to be carried all day every day it doesn’t fail within a year; cheap enough that if it does fail you don’t feel robbed.

    Nothing currently available meets these criteria, but I am certain that if something was made that did, it would be a best seller.

    I have to admit to being surprised by the responses to my suggestion so far. I posted this on LightStalkers as well, and the most telling response was, “Fairy tales are no longer commercially viable”.

  7. Paul says:

    I think the problem is physics. You cannot have an APS-C sensor in a smaller body. Therefore, to keep the size small enough to be called a ‘compact’, sacrifices have to be made and the solution which it seems the manufacturers think is to lose the viewfinder.

    To quote Scotty, ‘ye canna change the laws of physics’
    (far more highbrow than George Bernard Shaw) 😉

    I deliberated long and hard about which compact to buy and in the end plumped for the LX3. It’s by no means perfect, and IQ is significantly inferior to even my prosumer level DSLR but if you’re using it for street photography (when using the viewfinder isnt usually appropriate anyway) and as long as you don’t want to blow the images up >A4, it’ll do.

    P

  8. Michael says:

    I disagree.

    To start with I just said it needs to be a reasonable size sensor (never mentioned APS-C or any other size), by which I mean not the kind of thing seen in either phones or bottom rung compacts. Olympus and Panasonic have proven that you can have a reasonable sensor in a small body and still have room to incorporate the flanges of an interchangeable lens. Furthermore, every film compact I ever owned (including the rather wonderful Yashica T3) used 35mm film… full frame. So you are right regards not being able to change the laws of physics, but none of the laws were being broken when Olympus introduced the XA in 1979, and they don’t need to be broken now.

    I know what you mean about viewfinders and street photography, and some of my own favourite images where taken without reference to a viewfinder. But watch some videos of Garry Winogrand, or Bruce Gilden, or Lee Friedlander or the great Henri Cartier-Bresson at work, and you will see that they managed to use the viewfinder for an enormous number of their iconic images, even in really intrusive situations that most mortals would shy well away from.

  9. Paul says:

    Ahh, you can’t compare film with digital (in terms of size) for image acquisition.

    Remember you wanted:
    1) HIGH QUALITY lens
    2) F2
    3) usable to ISO 1000

    That’s not going to happen with a sensor smaller than APS-C unless you don’t mind the in-camera noise reduction turning the image into something akin to smearing vaseline on your lens or unless you significantly reduce pixel density by dropping down the pixel count – and lets face it, although the manufacturers are slowly realising the pixel race game doesn’t fool serious photographers, they’re unlikely to drop pixel counts back to my wonderful Fuji F30’s 6MP.

    Re: streetphotography & use of viewfinder – all the masters you quoted are Yanks (obviously except for Bresson) – they clearly don’t mind just walking up to people and clicking in their faces. We’re British, we don’t do that sort of thing!

  10. Michael says:

    You can compare, but you have to allow for various critical factors. The most important of these is the issue of how to deal with the light at the corners of the sensor. Whereas film will react pefectly well to light striking at an oblique angle, pixels on the whole will not. On top of that, there can be a significant difference in the intensity of light at the edge of the imaging circle (hence the characteristic vignette that needs to be controlled when the signal is processed). That said manufacturers have developed solutions to these problems in recent years, and they are still developing them now.

    Image noise has two variants, chrominance and luminance. Luminance noise has a characteristic that is not unlike film grain, and is generally acceptable. Chrominance noise is the horrid coloured blotchiness that we all hate. Both these forms of noise are caused when the signal is amplified, and are exacerbated by reducing the pixel pitch or size.

    I maintain that the GF1 and the EP series cameras demonstrate that a reasonable size sensor is perfectly feasible, and in fact a larger sensor could be used if the lens accompanying it has a larger imaging circle than is required for that size of sensor (to mitigate the vignette issue). And 6MP is perfectly adequate: there are many experts who have gone on the record saying that, and my own experience printing massive prints from what is effectively 4MP back that up.

    As an aside, I have a neat solution to chrominance noise when processing an image: copy the image onto a new layer in photoshop; run that layer through a gaussian blur filter (the exact level will vary from one image to another); use the colour blend mode watching the effect in bright red contrast areas to maintain image integrity. The effect is change the appearance of the chrominance noise to something similar to luminance noise.

    Finally, Martin Parr’s British, and he does that sort of thing, and there are plenty of others too. Look up In-Public.

  11. Paul says:

    I think I understand the oblique light & pixel response issue. Would ‘pixel binning’ or the new EXR sensors that Fuji have developed help to address this?

    To summarise though, You CAN’T have what you want, what you really really want………yet!

    That is, until market forces (primarily) and technological progression stimulate manufacturers to produce a comercially viable camera that you (and the rest of us luddites) want.

    Until then you can buy a Canon G11 – or have my old F30!!!

    Paul

    PS: I’ll try your photoshop trick but how does that compare to the chroma noise reduction built into the Adobe Camera Raw 5.6 plug-in? I use this with noise ninja which gives excellent results (particularly with my LX3 shots at higher ISOs)

  12. Michael says:

    You’re right. Sad, isn’t it, and hence the reason for the post. If enough people were to respond by saying, “yeah, I would really like a compact like this and would pay £400 for it”, the manufacturers might take notice. But as long as they think we all want the same gizmo-maxed toys it won’t happen.

    Funny you mention the G11, because when it was first announced I was quite excited, but when I saw how bulky it was thanks to the introduction of the swivel screen, it just turned me off. Put the G11 in a G9 body and I would probably be happy.

    Regards noise reduction, the ACR is very capable (I am assuming that it is either the same or better than in 4.6 as I am using CS3), but my method will give you rather more control over the final result, and has the added advantage of working with scans of high speed films, or under exposed negatives.

  13. […] have not written much about equipment on this blog (save for the item about what I really want which ironically seemed to generate more comments than the other pieces). To be honest I am not […]

  14. Walter Burns says:

    I want a Leica M9 for $2999. That’s it.

    – Manual focus!

    – DOF scales on lenses

    – WEATHER SEALING!

    – I will gladly trade the 18MP CCD for a 12-14 CMOS sensor (full frame). You can even make it a Fuji SuperCCD sensor, because dynamic range is more important than megapixles (12MP is enough)

    – Leica M-mount

    – If you put a more sophisticated matrix meter in there I will be eternally thankful. Digital just does not have the very forgiving exposure latitude of negative film and therefore needs a pretty accurate meter. Just pull the meter out of the D700 and we’ll call it even.

    – I DO NOT WANT AN EVF for the viewfinder. I need a display that runs in 100% REALTIME.
    Just copy what Leica did with the M-series.

    – RAW buffer for at least 12 images.

    I will purchase two of these cameras if you build them. Maybe three.

  15. admin says:

    A good case well made, Walter. However, as a response to the original article it fails in one area: even at $3000 (what’s $1 between friends!?) it may be a steal for a Leica, but it doesn’t cut it as an “affordable” compact.

  16. admin says:

    Ask, it appears, and you shall receive. Thought you all might like to be brought up to date. You may be aware that two weeks ago Nikon announced the P7000. Now although it does not answer all my requests, on paper it looked (notice the past tense) like being the closest I was likey to get, and indeed in many respects I suspect it will be a very good camera. So much so that I was already lining up to buy one to fill that need I have for a quality compact.

    Needless to say, Canon responded within a matter of days (OK, I know they were all waiting for Photokina) with the G12, but good though it is, it still has the same issues that prevented me from buying the G11. Nevertheless, I do not want to appear churlish, so I would give it a try before committing to the P7000 – assuming that I did of course commit.

    Well, all that changed this morning with the announcement of the X100. What is that? I’ll give you a few stats:

    12.3 megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor with good low light capability
    23mm f2 9-bladed aperture lens (yes – f2!) with built in 3 stop ND filter
    An optical viewfinder that can give live shooting info at the same time.

    These are just a few of the stats, and I will be writing a new post in time – and there is as yet no suggestion as to the intended price point.

    Who makes it? Fuji. Learn more at: http://www.fujifilm.com/news/n100920.html

  17. […] readers will remember my post last year bemoaning the lack of a compact for photographers rather than gadget freaks. Well, I was […]

  18. […] November 2009 I wrote a post bemoaning the absence of a decent compact camera on the market. If you don’t fancy reading it […]

  19. […] about like a zombie with your camera held at arm’s length is not intuitive. I complained on this blog, and gave a list of what I wanted to see in a decent digital compact. The response was almost […]

  20. […] the time to be a considerable risk in launching the X100 in the first place. It was a camera which answered all my requests, despite people telling me at the time that no one would make a camera like it. Its success spawned […]

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