Sensor Size and Compact Cameras.

Camera choice is a very personal thing, and we all use what suits us within the financial constraints (or otherwise) that we have. If we buy a camera because it looks good or because it makes photography simple for us, that is a perfectly legitimate choice. But what if that choice involves the use of what is generally perceived to be a inferior and non-serious piece of equipment, i.e. a micro sensor compact? And what if we are then offered the opinion that such a camera / sensor combination is actually superior in many ways and that the more expensive and better cameras that we cherish and desire are only marginally better than what many of us regard as a "point and shoot". This is my personal response to the recent post on this subject.

In a forum / website about Serious Compacts, some products are perceived to be more serious than others, and this can often relate to the size of the sensor. Small or micro sensor compacts have a substantially smaller imaging area than Micro Four Thirds or the APS-C sensor sized compacts such as the Sony NEX, Samsung NX100, Leica X1 and Fuji X100. These are generally perceived to provide better image quality, better high ISO performance and better dynamic range. This of course doesn't imply that the aesthetic quality or importance of the image is any higher, but the general perception is that a larger sensor, all other things being equal, is capable of recording more detail, with less noise and the capacity to handle a wider range of tones.

To all intents and purposes this is true. I don't know of a single test or example that says anything to the contrary. While under certain circumstances, usually at base ISO, in good light and with a non-problematic composition, it can be difficult to see much difference between a high quality small sensor image taken with a good lens at its optimum aperture, and an image taken with a larger sensor, when viewed at small sizes. But a difference there is, and it can be seen clearly at 100% on any decent computer monitor. Go up the ISO scale and this difference becomes more apparent. If a micro sensor was capable of comparatively similar results to an APS-C sensor, then why would manufacturers choose to design the latter? There would be little point.

I'd love a good quality small sensor compact camera. I still hanker after the results I got with my Olympus E-10. Seemingly infinite depth of field and a nice sharp image. However 3.97MP and a 10.8MB file just isn't enough these days. It probably wasn't when I used it, but with a bit of interpolation, I managed to convince myself it was. However there's no denying that the files printed and published very nicely, provided of course that nobody blew them up too much. In the hope of getting something better than that, I've looked at endless samples and even bought a couple of examples. The last being a Leica D-LUX3. Surely this will be good I told myself, but after getting the images on the screen I was almost in tears at the featureless mess that appeared before me. And then I looked at the jpgs!! From time to time a "super-compact" appears. Samsung and Olympus are the latest to come up with one of these. I eagerly look at the samples, imaging the light-gathering possibilities of an f/1.8 lens and the incredible depth of field I'll get at the same time. But no, there it is again, the lack of detail, the blown highlights, the over active noise reduction, the overall "processed" look that I find so dispiriting.

Micro Four Thirds changed everything for me. I bought a G1 in a last desperate attempt to avoid buying a Leica, so that I could have a light, small high quality camera without living on bread and water for a year. Eureka! I found it. I was, and still am, mightily impressed with what Panasonic came up with. (The Leica avoidance exercise didn't work however, as I still bought one, and kept the G1, which actually persuaded rather than dissuaded me to buy the Leica!) I couldn't believe that this kind of quality was possible in something so small. Though to be realistic, it was the removal of the SLR mirror that made the difference. All this and interchangeable lenses. Since that day I've gone SCC (small camera crazy) and Sony, Olympus and Samsung as well as Panasonic, models come and go on a regular basis.

In the meantime, the smaller stuff kept on coming. The LX4, that must be good? Well no. The LX5, this has to be it. Well the pictures kind of look like the LX4 pictures did. I must admit I find looking at images taken with these cameras quite depressing. Trying to see a blade of grass in the green blotchy mess at the bottom of the picture is not easy. At small sizes they look quite promising, but as I keep hitting the Apple + keys they just keep getting worse.

Of course not everybody wants the same level of resolution or detail that I do. The popularity of camera phone images testifies to that. But I'm a photographer, not only is it my passion, its my job. I want to see something that approximates to what I saw out there in the world and I've never seen a micro sensor image that yet does that for me.

The often given reason for the popularity of these small sensor cameras, is that they are easy, or simple to use. And popular they are, outselling everything else by quite some margin. Point and shoot has become a favoured term. But are they that easy? Try taking a picture indoors without some (usually useless) flash gun popping up, rendering all those you know and love as extras in a zombie movie. The ones that take raw files usually provide enough time between pictures to let you get on and finish defrosting the fridge, which usually comes in handy at shrinking your fingers to a size so that you can actually change a setting. And then of course they are pocketable.

Why anyone would want to put a camera in a pocket eludes me. I know whats been in some of mine, and I certainly wouldn't want to put my camera in there! Even in the ones I'm not ashamed of there's dust, money, keys, last nights pizza etc. etc. There's also this notion that we're supposed to be photographers. Why we would want to hide the thing we love baffles me. Everybody walks around with their mobile phones on show, whats wrong with a camera? Are we ashamed of them? There are also these modern inventions called straps and cases but I suppose thats a bit radical for some.

In the last few years we've seen the emergence of the Super Serious Compact, usually at super serious prices. The Olympus Pens aren't cheap and then there's the Leica X1 and the Fuji X100. Heavy duty image quality, but a few operational issues. However they are pretty small. Even pocketable if you moonlight as a poacher. So why are they so expensive? With Leica you're paying for the name as well as whats inside the thing. And you're paying for top of the line image quality. Say what you like about the slow focusing, lack of viewfinder and pointless manual focusing option, it takes a damn good snap. So much so that Getty Images "allowed" it to go on their approved camera list. They don't do this lightly, and a camera has to be thoroughly tested before it gets their seal of approval. And then there's the Fuji X100.

Its difficult to talk about the new love of my life. Remarks (unkind I must say) have been made about just how long my "infatuations" last, but this is the real thing. (Really!!) I've sold four cameras already and another three are on ebay, all because of this little wonder. The image quality of a Nikon D3 in a small, incredibly gorgeous package. I have never enjoyed using a camera so much and what makes it so special is that the images are so stunning. The best image quality I've seen in any camera apart from my Leica M9. Accurate AF, though not the fastest, the most amazing viewfinder I've ever used and unbelievable high ISO performance. Can a small sensor compact compete with this, well of course it can't. If anyone thinks it can, they need a new monitor or an eye test or both.

And yet despite all the plastic finishes, the plastic lenses and the plastic images, compact micro sensor cameras still have their fans amongst serious photographers. I applaud their courage and their determination to coax a viewable picture out of these little devils and though to me it seems easier to offer a sticking plaster to a stone they are undaunted. Turning your back on sharpness, resolution, a decent dynamic range, a decent lens and the ability to take a picture that you can decipher at higher than ISO 400 takes guts as far as I'm concerned. The same guts it takes to say " Mmm… this Mcdonalds Burger is tasty" or "The Nissan Micra is a decent car you know"

Personally, I just can't see it. Neither can I see the point. Yes these cameras are perceived to be easy to use, but to what end? If you're happy with the results, then fine, I've no problem with that, unless you try to persuade me that they can do the job as well as a camera with a larger sensor. Yes the best camera you have is the one you have with you, but why not give yourself a head start by taking one out that gives you the best quality you can afford. And yes it may require a little more work to get the results, and no it may not fit into your Lycra shorts (at least not without causing quite a stir!) but aren't you supposed to be a photographer? Don't you owe it to yourself and your subjects to do the best you can? We suffer enough dumbing down as it is, to voluntarily dumb down what we choose to take pictures on strikes me as virtually a crime. If convenience rather than quality is your thing, then I suppose thats a choice you have made, but I've never seen that as an option. Photography is the second most important thing to me after my family and the idea of not giving it my best shot (sorry!) is anathema to me. Using a micro sensor that is going to restrict me and disappoint me is not my idea of doing that and while I respect peoples choices I just wonder what they will think many years down the line when they look at their images and say "Was I really satisfied with that?"