Looking for something that doesn't exist Part 4

July 11, 2011  •  Leave a Comment

Yes, I'm back to that elusive search for the Holy Grail of a compact-enough and yet good-enough camera to take biking or climbing. Of course I'll still carry an SLR for serious jobs but when I'm just riding for pleasure it would be nice to have something that would fit into a pocket, or at least a small pouch.


Just out of interest, I dug out my partner's old Canon PowerShot Pro1. This was reviewed on dpreview.com in April 2004, so it's hardly surprising that image quality doesn't measure up, though I was surprised just how grainy the images were at 400 ISO, even when processed carefully in the latest Lightroom, with its excellent noise reduction. But that's barely relevant, as I never expected them to be of good enough quality for anything more than Web use or maybe very small prints. I was more interested in how the weight and handling qualities felt, so I slipped it into a small pouch and we set off on a road bike ride over the hills of the Forest of Bowland. 
Now, when you're cycling for pleasure (but want to get a few shots anyway) it's especially important not to annoy your companions by keeping them waiting too much, or even asking them to ride a stretch of road more than once. Ego, I needed to be able to turn up the power, ride on ahead, stop and hoick out the camera and fire off a few shots as the peloton caught and passed me. Well, the riding wasn't too bad and the camera felt reasonably light even though its all-up weight of 640g is nudging into Compact System territory, and not that far short of a small SLR with a light lens.


However, the hoicking out did not go so smoothly. The problem is that this camera has a retractable lens, which extends when you power on and retracts when you switch off. Leaving it powered on means the lens stays in the extended position and to me it looks rather vulnerable to damage in the process of un-stowing and restowing in its case. With an SLR and its more solid lens, I'd happily leave it switched on when stowing away, making it instantly ready to shoot as I un-stow it next time. With its extending lens, power-on time on the PowerShot Pro is probably really only a second or so, but it feels like an age. I'm used to having that time to frame the shot, and it's very significant when someone's barrelling down the road towards you.


There were a lot of other handling issues, too, but some are just different ways of doing things which I could get used to in time. I do like the fact that you zoom in/out as on an SLR using a ring around the lens, rather than pushing buttons. Again, it's what I'm used to – but every experience I've had with cameras that use buttons to zoom convinces me that the way I'm used to is also the right way.


Anyway, I hardly need to go on. In digital camera terms, it's a dinosaur. If I was buying a compact camera today it would be a very different beast. 
More to the point, the weight and bulk gave me insight into what it would be like riding with a compact system camera like the ones I've looked at in Part 2. And here, though there is a saving, it's not all that significant compared to the lightest SLRs. I'm beginning to think that – for my needs – Compact System Cameras, at least as they stand at the moment, fall between two stools. There are shortcomings in performance compared to SLRs, in areas like focusing speed, and I'm really not sure I'm prepared to accept these compromises in exchange for relatively minor weight savings.
Which leaves me with two alternative options. One is to go the compact route, with the advantages of getting a genuinely pocketable camera. One I wouldn’t mind getting my hands on is the Panasonic Lumix LX-5. This has the attractions of a 24mm equivalent lens with f/2 maximum aperture (at the wide end; it’s still a pretty handy f/3.3 at its 90mm longest). 24mm on a compact is rare but in a non-interchangeable-lens camera I’d regard it as essential. And a weight of just 233g does sound very enticing.


But there’s another option. My usual ‘go-to’ site for price checks, Warehouse Express, has the LX-5 at £363.99. For virtually the same money (£359) I could get a Nikon D3100 body. That would be a weight saving of over 300g compared to my D7000. It’s heavier than a Compact System Camera –but not by that much.


Even an entry-level SLR like the D3100 is an infinitely more versatile camera than any compact.  Image quality is better at all levels but streets ahead at ISO 1600 and 3200. These are completely usable speeds on modern SLRs, more marginal on most of the Compact System Cameras, and ‘Web only’ on any compact I’ve looked at. It would have access to all my existing lenses and provide an extra backup to my D700 and D7000. And I’m already pretty familiar with it – I did write a book on it, after all!


Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm…...


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