The Lightweight Photographer: Four Compact Cameras for the Pro or Serious Amateur

by Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen on December 14, 2009

UPDATE: This article refers to older equipment. Click these links to find out more about the latest models: Panasonic DMC Lumix LX5,
Canon Powershot G12, Canon Powershot S95, Olympus PEN E-P3.

Compact cameras get better every year. Also known as point-and-shoot cameras, there are hundreds – maybe thousands – of these little, pocket-sized image-making machines on the market today. But only a handful have the picture-quality and features needed by professionals and advanced amateur photographers.

Read all of my compact camera reviews here:
The Lightweight Photographer

Compact Cameras for Professional Results

If you really want to travel light, but still get usable images, there’s no better way than to carry a compact camera. These babies are so lightweight that, even if you carry a small camera bag and an extra battery, we’re still talking about less than a pound. Compare that to the 25 pounds I typically carry when I use my “big rig.” The Canon G11 will fit in a large pocket like a pants or coat pocket. The others will fit in a shirt pocket.

The Cameras

Here are the cameras I recommend considering for your shopping list:

Panasonic DMC Lumix LX3 digital camera Canon Powershot G11 Digital Camera
Panasonic DMC Lumix LX-3 Canon Powershot G11

Canon Powershot S90 Digital Camera

Olympus PEN E-P1 Camera with Zuiko 14-42mm Zoom Lens
Canon Powershot S90 Olympus E-P1 with Zuiko 14-42mm zoom Lens

Required Features

To be considered a serious photographic tool, there are certain features that, for me, are must-haves ( and all of the recommended cameras have all of these features):

  • RAW – the camera must be able to shoot raw images. Very few compacts offer this feature.
  • EXPOSURE CONTROL- the camera must offer aperture-priority mode (my favorite), exposure compensation, and manual exposure mode.
  • MANUAL FOCUS – Compact cameras have considerably longer shutter-lag times because of relatively slow auto-focus. To reduce this lag time – especially important when shooting action – manual focus is often a good choice.
  • WIDE ANGLE – the lens must be capable of wide angle shooting: 28mm or wider (35mm film equivalent).
  • ZOOM – I like zoom lenses for their photographic flexibility.
  • AVAILABILITY – it must be a current model and not discontinued by the manufacturer
  • PRICE – under $500 brand new.

If price is no object, there are two other cameras you may want to consider. Leica’s flagship compact is the Leica M9. It is astronomically priced at about $7000.  The Olympus PEN E-P1 at around $700 offers interchangeable lenses starting at a nice and wide 14mm. Sigma makes a couple of well-regarded fixed-lens models. The Sigma DP-1 has a 28mm equivalent lens. Sigma’s DP-2 gives you 41mm.

Nice-To-Have Features

  • A stabilized image. Canon calls it Images Stabilization (IS), Panasonic calls it Optical Image Stabilization (OIS), and Nikon uses the term Vibration Reduction (VR). All four of the cameras recommended here have this feature.
  • Optical viewfinder. This is a hard-to-find feature. Only the Canon G11 has one.
  • Filters. I like to use a polarizing filter when photographing outdoors. So, a filter mount on the lens is a nice addition. The Panasonic LX-3 has an optional adapter to accept 46mm filters.
  • Flash. Built-in flash is useful for daylight fill flash. A hot-shoe allows you to connect a stronger external flash which, with the right cord or controller, can be used off-camera as well.
  • Movies. Multimedia is big now. I don’t shoot a lot of video, but it’s nice to have it available. All four cameras offer some form of video recording.

Other Considerations

When evaluating a compact camera, there are a few other things to consider:

  • Picture Quality. This is hard to judge without some face time with the camera. For a scientific point-of-view, check DxOMark.com. They have tested and ranked the raw processing quality of a slew of cameras. It’s just one aspect of picture quality, but their findings are interesting.
  • Shutter lag. Most compact cameras have a considerable amount of shutter lag in autofocus mode.
  • Low-light performance. Because of their tiny image sensors, images from compact cameras are generally noisier than those from a DSLR. This is one area that is constantly being improved.
  • Durability. Look for metal camera bodies and weather seals to keep out the rain.
  • Ease of use. Better cameras have a lot of dedicated buttons to set commonly-used functions. The fewer menus you have to navigate, the better.
  • Variable angle LCD. A re-positionable LCD makes shooting from a low angle or from overhead much easier. The Canon G11 has one. The others don’t.
  • Size and weight. The Canon G11 is the biggest and heaviest at 12.5 ounces. The others weigh 8 ounces or less.
  • Available accessories. Some cameras offer add-on lenses for extra wide-angle or telephoto. The more popular the camera, the more third-party accessories will be available. This may give the Canon G11 the edge in this department.

Final Thoughts

Due to their small sensor size, no compact camera on the market today comes close to the image quality of even a low-end DSLR. But these compacts will give you publishable photos. And if the choice is between carrying a compact camera or no camera at all, I’ll go with the compact.

Right now, I’m leaning towards the Canon G11 or the Panasonic LX-3. I’ll keep you posted as I check out all four cameras.

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