Posted in review, what really matters by hemmant jha on May 19, 2009

clarity NOW!


This piece kicks off a new subgroup of posts tentatively titled : When will it end? Under this sub-banner, we will strive to expose and dispel misinformation [and disinformation] surrounding pressing matters / technological issues of our time.


Zen and the fine art of selecting the right digital compact camera / the end of the megapixel race is in sight. Yes, it is.


As designers with a good grasp of technology, we are often asked to weigh in on decisions regarding the purchase of objects with high technological content, which usually have a similarly high level of disinformation surrounding them. A prime example is the compact digital camera.


In the days of film photography, the absence of an inbuilt image sensor made things relatively simple. You would buy a camera that suited your needs and pocketbook and would load film into it that worked for you – variations in speed, color, grain, etc. were easily accomplished. A wrong choice of film was not a long term problem – it simply meant that one would get a different roll once the 36 exposures had been made. Simple. 


Digital compact cameras, with the promise of ease and flexibility, come with unique issues that are generally inseparable from the format. And they come with urban legends – most often surrounding megapixels. The year 2008 saw the megapixel race peak [in the compact shooter segment]. The silliness of ever increasing pixel dimensions and pixel density, with the corresponding increase in in-camera noise reduction, finally came to a close [of sorts] early this year. Manufacturers such as Fujifilm, Panasonic and Ricoh started to produce more serious compact cameras with focus on image quality and low-light sensitivity rather than an ever increasing number of pixels. As these are companies that cater to the mainstream, one may assume that some of these changes were driven by market requirements.


Below is the transcript of an exchange I had with a friend looking for a ‘prosumer’ compact camera [with zoom lens] that works well in low-light and shoots good video. I know that he cares about image quality. His first assumption was : more megapixels = better low-light performance. As I sought to dispel that myth [this has been done previously by the good folks at and by David Pogue at NYTimes], I also made a few suggestions regarding the impending purchase.


Exchange 1. 


Our recommendations : 


FinePix F200EXR [low light+dynamic range]



Ricoh CX1 [best looking+good performance]



Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 [best for video + low light]



this is a comparison between enthusiast [serious] level compact cameras [first link is to the entire article, second link is to the conclusions]



let me know what you think – once you’ve had a chance to look at these, we can talk some more. The Lumix DMC-LX3 is the most  expensive,  so it may be out of contention.


Exchange 2. His response to 1: 


Thank you.

The camera I was looking for was Canon Power shot SD780 IS :


It has right dimensions and weight, the viewfinder, etc.

I could not figure its movie shooting qualities and compare it to the

cameras you found.


Exchange 3. My response to his response: 


the Canon you mentioned has a smaller sensor than the ones I sent you

[this has to do with the physical size of the sensor, not the number

of megapixels]. The smaller the sensor, the worse its low light

performance – since the pixels are too close together. The worse the

performance, the more the error correction applied to reduce noise.

The more noise reduction applied, the worse the quality of the image,

especially in low light conditions.


It’s possible that you’re comparing this canon with the one that you

have [from many years ago]. Compared to that one, almost any camera

today will probably be better in lower light – but not necessarily a

better camera overall.


The lens : Canon does not typically have wide lenses – the SD780 has a

33mm lens. the difference between 33mm and 24mm [or even 28mm] is huge

[the Panasonic goes down to 24mm, which will be amazing].


Exchange 4. His response to 3: 


I think my problem probably is that I am looking for a smaller camera

(3.4 x 2.1 x 0.7 and 4.2 ounces), and there are no small cameras which

meet my specifications.


Exchange 5. My response to his response:


sometimes it is difficult to tell the feel of the camera in hand [and

in pocket] from dimensions alone – I would suggest doing what your

daughter suggested – get a couple of cameras and see how you like them.


Exchange 6. His response to 5: 


Thank you, an excellent idea, I may try. Also, thank you for all your efforts in helping me with the camera research.



While I have no idea what the purchase will be, and what the prime motivators of the purchase will be [clearly, image quality does not appear to be #1], I feel I’ve done my bit to fight the naked profiteering from gross technological disinformation. Let’s put an end to the race of meaningless statistics and focus on what’s really important – the ability to preserve life’s important moments as beautifully as possible. May we all join hands in our support of good photography.


thinkmore clarity now 1A2


{Despite my fondness for film and for compact film cameras such as the Ricoh GR21 and the GR1S, I am no stranger to digital. I was an early adopter – starting with the Olympus E10, which was and still is a remarkable camera. I plan to re-enter the digital domain with a Sigma DP1 or an as-yet-unreleased micro four-thirds compact}.


7 Responses

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  1. outsidedown said, on May 19, 2009 at 7:22 am

    Low light photography is one thing I wish my camera (Canon Digital Rebel XTi) did better. That’s why I keep my film camera around. I tend to use the digital for product photography on a daily basis, which has saved me tons of time and money, allowing me to take 100 shots and keep 3 without guilt. I wish good digital cameras had been available and (relatively) inexpensive when I was photographing my architectural work for portfolios.

  2. hemmant jha said, on May 19, 2009 at 7:55 am

    most of the product shots on this blog have been taken with a digital camera as well – there’s no beating digital for convenience. What did you use to shoot the toys on outsidedown [picture on Flickr]?
    As for architectural photography for the portfolio, I remember getting a ‘professional’ to take some shots – all this was pre-digital, and waiting with bated breath to make sure the shots were fine. Invariably, there were color issues everytime I had a new set of prints made – fun times!

  3. nrepose said, on May 19, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    Thank you for this post. I have a small son who is always on the move and most of my shots are inside. I have a Sanyo VPC-503 and need an upgrade. The speed and low light ability of this camera just do not work for keeping up with a 14 month old son. Nr

  4. hemmant jha said, on May 21, 2009 at 1:33 pm

    Successfully capturing a child in motion is possibly the most difficult sort of photography there is. I’ve finally settled on 400ASA film pushed to 1200 or so, depending on lighting conditions. Now that film is simply difficult to procure / have developed / scanned, I’ve seriously started to consider digital. I’m glad you found the post to be helpful – have fun!

  5. outsidedown said, on May 22, 2009 at 8:50 am

    My toy pictures (I’ve got a bunch from our collection— I should post more of them) were taken with the Canon DR XTi. I also took a bunch of pics of kids in motion at the Millennium Park face fountains yesterday (is there an official title for those things?) with the same camera. It was extra bright out, so getting some high motion/speed shots was not a problem:

  6. 106 « thinkmore said, on July 3, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    […] might want to make some sort of half hearted switch to digital about now, besides that fact that digital seems to have matured to a point where the quality is acceptable. Reason 1 : Good film, once commonplace, is practically […]

  7. 123 « thinkmore said, on August 25, 2009 at 11:42 am

    […] aware, we prefer film over digital for many reasons, some of which have been presented here, here, and […]

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