Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Cheap but Good Point and Shoot for Serious Photographers

My wife wanted a new camera for those occasions when I wasn't available to take photos.  I also liked the idea of having a small point-and-shoot when the situation didn't warrant bringing my DSLRs, but I wanted one that had at least decent image quality.

If money were no object, I would like to get a Fuji X100, which has already received accolades from many pro photographers such as Neil van Niekerk and Zack Arias.  My wife (non-photographer) loved the retro design but I felt that $1300+ for a camera for casual shooting was way too much.

I also considered the Fuji X10 (available Nov. 2011).  I was even more interested in it than the X100 because of the lower price and more useful focal focal length range (35mm vs. 28-112mm).  But the cost is still substantial -- $600.  Too much for our limited purposes.  That could buy a lot of stuff for our kids!
Even the Canon G12 (around $450 at Amazon) or the Nikon P7100 ($500) are outside our budget.  Ditto with the Canon S100 ($429 at Amazon) and Panasonic LX5 ($370 at Amazon).  Too bad - the P7100 hotshoe would have been nice (I have a TTL cord, which would have allowed easy off-camera lighting).  We needed something more affordable but still had decent image quality.

I then looked at the Canon S95 ($320 at Amazon).  The S95 is a good choice because of its low noise sensor.  For more experienced photographers like me, it also has great controls for a point and shoot, offering many of the adjustments I've come to rely on in a DSLR.  It even has a nifty control ring around its lens (the function of the ring can be set in the menu).  I even recommended the S95 to a friend who was looking for a point-and-shoot.

I looked around for possible lower-cost alternatives to the S95.  I looked closely at the Canon SD4000 ($200 at Amazon) and Nikon P300 ($260 at Amazon). The latter two offer some similarities to the S95:

1. Image quality:
Based the dpreview tests, S95 is hands-down the winner.  It has less noise and more detail.  However, in my eyes, the SD4000 isn't far behind the S95, with just slightly less detail.  And the P300 isn't quite as good as the SD4000 but I'm not a pixel peeper.  In my opinion, the P300 image quality is close enough to that of the S95 and SD4000.

2. PASM.
Correction: the S95 and P300 have PASM.  The SD4000 is limited to PAS - see comment below.

3. Wide angle:
The S95 and SD4000 go as wide as 28mm. The P300 goes to 24mm.  Note: The SD4500 has a 10x zoom range from 36-360mm but wide angle is more important for me than a long tele length, that's why I didn't even consider the SD4500.

4. Decent aperture range.
The S95 and SD4000 go as wide as f/2.0 at their widest angle.  The P300 is as wide as f/1.8 at 24mm.

Other than the price, here are the differences that I found most significant.

1. Raw mode.
The S95 can take photos in raw.  The SD4000 and P300 can only shoot in JPEGs.  Why is this important? See mshafik's post "Raw vs. JPEG: Myth or Fact" http://betterfamilyphotos.blogspot.com/2011/05/raw-vs-jpeg-myth-or-fact-definitive.html

2. 1080p video.
The P300 can shoot at 1080p at 30fps in stereo, with optical zoom capability.
(The SD4000 can shoot at 720p at 30fps, while the S95 can shoot at 720p at 24fps).

3. Slow motion video.
The P300 can shoot at 120fps at 640x480.
The SD4000 can shoot at 240fps at 320x240.
Ever since the Casio F1 came out, I had been dreaming about taking smooth slow motion videos... :)

4. High speed continuous shooting.
The P300 can shoot at 30fps for 16 frames at a resolution of 2560x1920 (substantially higher than the 1600px I usually use).  It can even shoot at 60fps or 120fps at 1280x960. Perfect for capturing that key moment.  (The S95 and SD4000 don't have this capability.)

5. Two control dials.
The P300 has two control dials (same with the S95, while the SD4000 has only one).  This is amazing -- my first DSLR (Pentax K100D) had only one!

Based on the similarities and differences, I thought I could go with the SD4000 or P300 even though I would lose the S95's raw shooting mode.  I initially wanted to buy the SD4000 because I prefer Canon's SOOC look to Nikon's and because of the price difference.  However, there was one more important difference between the SD4000 and P300: flash exposure compensation.

Incredibly, the SD4000 has no FEC adjustment (even though it has flash exposure lock).  I was planning to use the camera to trigger a slave flash optically.  But if I couldn't dial down FEC, then I would likely end up with overexposure most of the time.

The P300 fortunately does have FEC, +/- 2EV.  If I bring it down to -1 or -2 FEC that would work as a fill light while the slave flash could be the key.  So I got the P300 instead.  Will post first impressions when I get it and a more detailed review after using it for a while.

Now available: P300 review


  1. Slave flash is indeed a problem with the SD4000, both because the flash can't be controlled and because of tricky preflashes that throw off my slaves.

    Here's my workaround:
    1. Stick a little IR-pass filter on the flash, of the kind discussed on this site before. Mine is made of Roscoe gray (ND) filters.
    2. Use CHDK to force the flash to medium level (out of off/medium/high), to prevent preflashes and reduce flash cycle time.

    Together with a tiny slave flash like the PF20XD, you get an off-camera-flash setup you can carry in your pants pockets. The PF20XD is weak, but at close ranges it's still enough for indoor bounce flash (especially at f/2.0) and for overpowering the sun with direct flash.

    But there's another problem with the SD4000: the UI is very cumbersome. Canon, in their infinite wisdom, decided to minimize the number of physical buttons on this camera. So even the simplest operations require a lot of scrolling and clicking, and you can't operate anything by feel since the action of the general-purpose buttons keeps changing.

    Also, the SD4000 is not PASM, it's just PAS. So for flash-dominated photos where I need Manual mode, the best I found is to use Aperture or Shutter priority modes, and then use use exposure compensation to control the other variable. And then use EC lock to keep it from fluctuating. Very annoying! Perhaps direct manual control can be done with CHDK overrides; I haven't tried.

    Yet another case of nice camera hardware ruined by braindead firmware.

  2. Thanks Opt! This hands-on perspective is very helpful for anyone considering these cameras. Thanks very much!

    Best regards,

  3. I've been waiting for a powerful small camera for sometime myself, I already had the G11 which shares the same sensor with the G12 and the S95 (not sure about the S100), so I already know how they perform.

    I am still waiting for something that can shoot and auto-focus faster than that, and also higher quality pictures at higher ISOs, I was intrigued by the Olympus EP3 but it's way too expensive, but I'm following Laurence Kim closely to see how he gets on with it.


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