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17 February, 2013

OT: The two compact cameras you need to know about

I know that many rendering experts also dab in photography, it's a natural attraction between the two. So, I wanted to write this (hopefully small) off-topic post on the only two compact cameras that, as of today, you should ever consider buying (well, if you're ok to spend $700, otherwise, you might want to stop reading now).

First, a definition. What I mean with "compact" has very rigorous definition: a camera is "compact" if it fits -well- inside my coat's pocket. This is important, because there are many popular "smaller" cameras that are not quite as small, and many other that strive to be even smaller than that.
The reason I think that definition is fundamental, is that I wanted to shop for a camera to -always- bring with me. Anything bigger, I don't carry, anything smaller is nice to have but not important for me (actually, too small cameras I find hard to use).

So again, I will be talking about cameras that you truly want to carry with you all the times, not some smaller "vacation" camera that still needs 2/3 lenses and a bag...

--- Update!
I sold the Fuji. Why? I'm not sure, I loved that camera. But, I sold it at the same money I bought it, and meanwhile the X100S came out (which would also mean my old one would start depreciating).

The X100S is a killer camera, they fixed almost everything... faster, better autofocus (not that I found the old one too bad anyways, but this is significantly better and AF quality on digital cameras makes ALL the difference), more resolution in the EVF, better manual focus (even if I doubt it's really smooth still) and even a better sensor (16 instead of 12 megapixels, and bit better at high-iso too).
Yes, it's still a bit quirky here and there, but really, the complaints now are truly minor, and anyhow NO digital camera out there has a perfect ergonomy in my opinion. Also, the X100 was already really fun with its hybrid viewfinder, the image quality is the best you'll even find in a compact camera (even the huge, expensive full-frame RX1 doesn't fare much better at ISO1600 and lower, and the Leica M9 has an edge at ISO200 but higher than that it plain sucks, compared) so... Must buy?

Not so fast... Turns out the X100S is such a great camera it doesn't sell cheap! The cheaper I've found so far an used (but in "new" condition) one is around 1200$, the older X100 goes for around half that price... Tough call... But there is more!

Sony didn't stand still and made a little thing called RX100-II... Simply unbelievable. Insane. There are no adjectives really. It's the same camera as before, but with even better high-iso capabilities (how much better? more than on stop!), which also brings better autofocus, a flash hotshoe (which also allows for other accessories like strapping on an optical viewfinder, many brands make these) and some crazy other things like built-in WiFi (cool for tethering via an iPad) and NFC (to configure said wifi more easily).

So. What to get? Here is my guide:

  1. Do you really need a smaller-as-possible camera? -> Go for the RX100-II
  2. Mostly night photography? -> Skip to the last step
  3. Do you hate a 35mm lens? (or really, really, really need a zoom) -> Go for the RX100-II
  4. Do you really need high flash sync speeds, flash during the day? -> Skip to the last step
  5. Would your photographic routine be much, much easier if you could tether to an iPad, or make in camera panoramas and HDR? -> Go for the RX100-II
  6. You can't afford more than 700$? -> Go for an used X100, else X100S

All other compacts are miles, miles behind, it's like they're from a completely different generation, the only reason for them to exist is because they're much cheaper.
Even most other smaller systems can't compare, I'd say among the interchangable lens, non-reflex cameras, only the Leica Monochrom, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 and the Sony Nex-7 could compare, quality-wise, to the X100S, and that's really something...
--- End Update

Nex, Micro4/3 and such...
The definition above pretty much excludes the entire Sony Nex system, all the micro-four-thirds and also the Canon M. Even less suitable are the Leica Ms or stuff like the Sony RX1.
These are all great cameras (well, the Canon M is not, from what I hear) but they are not compact enough (trust me, I have a micro-four-thirds system, it doesn't fit my definition of compact). I'd say these are "travel" cameras, based on the fact that I do bring them to my travels, where I might want to arrange a photoshoot but not bring all the studio equipment, but not every day.
If you're shopping for these, I'd probably go for a Panasonic or Olympus Micro-four-thirds. The OM-D E-M5 looks really amazing, supersharp sensor, great form factor... Even if it's not the APS-C sized sensor of the NEX, M43 are often as good IQ-wise, and quite smaller as you can't really make good, compact lenses for the APS-C (Sony has a pancake, the 16mm 2.8, but it's an horrible, horrible lens. The Panasonic G married with its 20mm or 14mm pancakes are a much more balanced fit).

Ok so, let's go on to the two contenders!

Sony RX100 - Best "mini" camera EVER.
If you want a really small camera, stop here. In its size category it's by FAR the best, there is no comparison at all, the gap between this one and for example a Panasonic LX or a Canon G is huge. It's a great, great camera.

  • Best performance vs size by far.
  • Incredible, incredible image quality.
  • Great, rational controls. The front dial is almost useless, but I've found that mapping it to the ISO selection works really well. Everything else is really well placed/made.
  • Good optical image stabilization, even if the camera is not easy to hold, 1/15 and even lower, are possible, with a bit of luck.
  • For me, it's even too small, the depth is ok, but its width and height measures are really compact and it's not easy to grip with both hands.
  • No viewfinder, which means you're always shooting with the arms extended. I don't mind per se looking through the rear LCD, but then again, it's a less stable grip.
  • Silly zoom lens. It's actually great, but it goes f1.8 only at 28mm (equivalent) which is understandable, but I would have preferred a 35 or 40mm fixed.
As you can see, there isn't much to say about this one. If you need/like the size, buy it. You don't have really any option there....

Sony RX100, cropped from out of camera JPEG. In daylight, it's incredibly sharp. At night, it's surprisingly good.

Fuji X100 - A great camera ruined by a BAD firmware.
There is lots of talk over the net about this camera. It's quite unique, with a big APS-C sensor in such a compact package, a 35mm f2 fixed lens, and a unique optical viewfinder with projected LCD indicators and the ability to switch to a fully electronic viewfinder with a lever.
No review on the internet will avoid talking about its many defects, I'll list the ones I've experienced too. But you should not worry. It's a fun camera, you will love shooting with it. It works well, it won't piss you off. And, it has a GREAT image quality. And that's all that really, really matters.

  • Looks and feels great in hand. It's a proper camera, made for manual control (even if the third-stop overrides are silly... but still).
  • The hybrid viewfinder is awesome. The electronic one is weak, but you won't really need it, I use only to review the shots (you can set an auto-review period, it switches back and forth fast enough)
  • The APS-C sensor is the best you can buy in a camera that still fits in a coat's pocket well (that means, it's slightly inferior to the best Nex, but better than anything else).
  • The 35mm f.2 is great (albeit with its quirks), and does not extend or rotate during focus.
  • The flash is tasteful in its default setting.
  • No optical image stabilization. I've hand-held it down to 1/15 easily though, due to the good grip and little vibrations.
  • The firmware looks and feels like it was made 10 years ago. Slow and ugly and stupid.
  • No flash exposure compensation button! Thanks lord by default the flash does a proper fill.
  • The lens has some quirks, a bit soft when focused near, flares are weird. The lens cover is not built-in.
  • No charge through USB. And the charger it's fairly bad too.
  • Bad exposure/dof preview, useless really.
  • Slow RAW mode. You'll need a fast SD card and some patience, not a camera to shoot action sports...
  • Not the fastest AF around. But trust me, it's fast enough and reliable enough even at dark. I've seen worse (i.e. very fast lenses on reflex cameras, my 85mm 1.2 on the 5Dmk2 is fucking annoying, the x100 won't really bother you unless you're shooting something that moves really fast). Also the manual focus mode is a joke.
  • Some design mistakes, i.e., the battery fits in the slot even if inserted wrong. The startup times can be incredibly long if you don't format the SD from the camera etc...
  • Silly expensive.
Really, the biggest issue with the X100 is its price. As a photographic tool, it works fine. But as a $1400 piece of equipment, its quirks are intolerable. Never, ever, never ever, buy this one new. Luckily, people know it's a camera way to expensive for its issues, and it goes used easily around $700, in great condition and with some accessories too. I bought mine that way, and I saw many similar offers. At that price, it's really, really compelling.

As for the one before, this from the X100, is an out of camera JPEG. And useless.

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