Compact musings

April 27, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

I’ve just finished a feature on cycling photography for Cycle magazine. As part of this I was asked to suggest a number of cameras that people might use. I approached a number of camera makers (or their UK representatives) to see who could (a) recommend and (b) loan me something suitable.
I had a Nikon D7100 on hand (already on loan for Expanded Guide duty) and a Nikon 1 V1 (we own this), and I didn’t approach Canon because they get more than enough publicity already… With that in mind, telling you who did take the trouble to respond and supply me with something might also give you a good clue as to who didn’t.

Anyway, the two companies which did let me have a camera to play with were Sigma and Pentax, so many thanks to both of them. By a happy-ish chance, considering that the cameras they sent could both be (loosely) described as ‘compacts’, they could scarcely have been more different. They are the Sigma DP-1 Merrill and the Pentax WG-3 GPS.

I don’t intend this to be a detailed review. I haven’t tested the cameras to that extent and there are plenty of places where you can find detailed reviews: dpreview is always the first one I turn to. Instead, here are a few general impressions of the two cameras from my personal point of view.

Common Ground

One thing that they have in common is that there’s no viewfinder. I’ve commented before on my  low tolerance for cameras that force you to use the screen at all times, and neither of these cameras has done anything to change my view. In fact, they’ve reinforced it. Here’s a shot taken with the Pentax during an evening cycle ride.
As you can see the light was great – strong evening sunlight. Using an SLR, this would have been an unalloyed Good Thing. Using a compact, all I could see on the screen was the reflection of my own face. Even shading it as best I could, framing this shot was about 90% guesswork. It actually doesn’t look too bad, but at the time I had very little idea how much of that wall in the foreground was actually going to appear in the image.
Of course in poorer light it’s much easier to see the screen, but that’s just not good enough. What use is a camera that you can’t use effectively when the light is good?

I plan to try the Sigma a bit more seriously one day soon; when I say seriously, I mean using a tripod. As we’ll see, this is a camera whose natural home is on top of a tripod, and I have generally found that the drawbacks of screen viewing are at least partly neutralised when you use a tripod. This was very much my experience with the Nikon Coolpix P7700. Its tilt-and-swivel screen was mostly a pain in handheld use but much less so on the tripod; sometimes, especially with low shooting positions, it was a real boon. The Sigma does not have a movable screen, so we'll see how we go.

Pentax WG-3 GPS

This is Pentax’s latest ‘outdoor’ model, which is obviously why they suggested it for a cycling feature. Its almost military styling – which I guess you either love or hate – makes a bold statement that this is a tough camera. Personally, I quite like it; I certainly don’t see any need for all cameras to be dull grey boxes. It’s shockproof and waterproof, and it’s also designed to be easily operated when wearing gloves: it fits the hand well, has a grippy surface and the textured control buttons are a decent size. These are all great features, and the fact that it slips easily into the back pocket of a cycling jersey is great too.

As the name suggests, the camera has built-in GPS. It works. I’ve no more to say about it because it’s of little interest to me and I’ve turned it off; it’s a nice feature but there’s quite a penalty in terms of battery life. There’s a cheaper version of the camera without GPS.

In use I’ve found the buttons easy to use, as advertised, and the layout of controls and menus generally logical. At first I did find that the placement of the On-Off button next to the shutter-release meant I kept turning the camera off when trying to take a shot. As you might guess, this was ever so slightly annoying. However, I adjusted very quickly, so it’s more a matter of acclimatisation than fundamentally bad design.

In use it seems very responsive; it powers up quickly and there’s not much shutter lag. I haven’t yet tested focus on fast-moving subjects, and continuous shooting abilities are distinctly modest, especially at higher image quality settings – but this is par for the course for compact cameras. Shooting rapid bursts demands a lot of processing power.

As with any camera, the crux of the matter is image quality. Just by reading the spec sheets, I could tell this is not a camera I could use routinely as it doesn’t shoot RAW. With JPEG images, settings like white balance, saturation and contrast are baked in to a much higher degree, and so is sharpening.

The shot I’ve used above is an interesting example. This was taken in Landscape mode at the base ISO setting (125), so image quality should be as good as it gets. What’s interesting, looking at the image in detail, is that there’s clearly some noise and that noise reduction has been applied. Noise reduction has a softening effect, so images are then sharpened; the collision between these two processes produces images in which fine details are somewhat lost and everything tends to have a ‘plastic’ look. Here’s a screen grab from the same image at 100%, followed for comparison purposes by a similar grab from an image from the Nikon Coolpix P7700.

The noise is undoubtedly related to the unfortunate cramming of too many pixels into a tiny space (16 megapixels on a 1/2.3 inch CMOS sensor). The Coolpix comparison is a little unfair because this has fewer megapixels and a a larger sensor (12.2 megapixels on a 1/1.7-in. type CMOS) but then I would strongly maintain that that’s how it should be. In fact I think the Coolpix would also be better with fewer pixels. It’s also unfair because the Coolpix shot originated as a RAW image so I’m able to seek the best balance of noise reduction and sharpening for each image. But I’ve no doubt that the Coolpix images are intrinsically much less noisy in the first place.

It’s immediately clear to me that – even at base ISO – I would never make large prints from this camera and it wouldn’t stand up to well to repro in magazines either. You might say that this is irrelevant to most users, who will either look at images on a screen (remember that an HD TV is equivalent to 2 megapixels) or as fairly small prints. This is true, but what many users do want is the ability to crop their images, either when shooting (so-called ‘digital zoom’) or later.

I don’t want to make this too much of an attack on the Pentax. It’s much more about the limitations of compact cameras generally. I even accept that the combination of noise reduction and sharpening is designed to make images look good at smaller sizes, and by and large they do. It’s just that it all begs the question – what is the point of 16 megapixels?

In many ways I like this camera. It’s tough, it’s neat, it’s responsive and (with a little acclimatisation) the controls and interface are easy to get on with. I couldn’t use it long-term without a viewfinder or a screen-shade, but then that’s a failing it shares with most other small cameras out there. I can’t help feeling that I’d like the images a lot more if it had far fewer pixels – 5 or 6 mp at most. It would almost certainly be able to shoot faster as well.

Sigma DP-1 Merrill

As I’ve already hinted, this is a very different beast. For starters, it has a much larger sensor. In fact, the DP-1 has an APS-C sensor, the same size as the majority of DSLRs. This gives it more than 13 times the light-collecting area of a camera like the Pentax. The number of pixels is harder to express because Sigma’s unique sensors (called Foveon) use different technology from the Bayer-pattern sensors you’ll find in almost every other camera. Because the sensor has three layers they claim that it has 46 megapixels, but the actual images that you end up with are 4800 x 3200, or 15.36 megapixels.

However, it’s not entirely hype. The sensor design is said to produce exceptional colour fidelity, colour depth, and crisp but natural rendering of fine detail. My early trial shooting suggests that this is not an idle boast. Take a look at this image, for example:
And here’s a section at 100%:
I’m not convinced that image quality here is actually better than my DSLRs. For sharpness and colour it probably compares well, but dynamic range is not as good, and that’s a big factor in landscape photography. On the other hand, it is streets ahead of the Pentax in every IQ measure, and better overall than my once-prized Nikon D2x: all this is in a camera that will (just about) fit in a pocket. On the weight and bulk angle, it’s certainly one I’d consider carrying on casual bike rides.

However… There are some very real issues with this camera. I’ve already rambled on about the restriction to screen viewing. I’ve seen reviews suggesting an accessory viewfinder is available but at the moment it’s not listed on Sigma’s UK website. I used to use an accessory optical finder regularly when shooting with the wide-angle lens on my Mamiya 7 – a rangefinder camera which delivered 6 x 7 cm images on 120 rollfilm. In fact I had to use the accessory finder for framing and the one in the camera body for focusing. This might seem like a digression, but actually it provides an interesting perspective on some of the ‘weaknesses’ of the Sigma. For certain types of photography, things that slow you down aren’t necessarily bad. If they encourage a more considered, contemplative approach, then they can be a very good thing.

Which is just as well, because the Sigma is a very slow camera. For action sequences, forget it. In fact, I’d forget about shooting any kind of action with it other than the one-off pre-focused shot and the occasional panning shot. That’s OK, that’s not what this camera is for.
What it’s for is thoughtful, careful photography, where you take time and trouble and make each image count. Which, by the way, you have to do for another reason, because the battery life is utter, utter pants.

I’ve seen 60 images – yep, 60, not 600 – quoted as the average you’ll get off one charge. On my first outing, because I was playing with the screens quite a lot to explore the settings, I didn't even get that. On my DSLRs I expect to manage more than a thousand images per charge.

Of course, you can argue that most people shoot far too many photos. And if you’re trying to make every image count, shooting introspective landscapes or architectural studies, 60 might be plenty for a day. And, to be fair, you do get a second battery in the package. But what the hell are you supposed to do on a 3-week wilderness expedition or trek? Those solar chargers are going to be in constant use…

The camera is also extremely slow in writing images to the memory card. Of course, harking back to my days with the Mamiya, there was a time when we sometimes had to wait not minutes but weeks before we could see the results from a shoot. And some will say it was better that way, but we have all grown used to being able to see results right away, to look at the histogram and highlights display and check that the exposure is bang on. I don’t have to wait any appreciable time for the review image when I’m shooting with a DSLR and I’m not convinced that the Merrill needs to be as slow as it is. Landscape photography isn’t always slow; sometimes tricky, fleeting light leaves you very little time to get things right.

The Slow Photography Movement may also like the fact that you are currently limited to using Sigma Photo Pro software to process the RAW files. To me it’s just an exercise in frustration. In fact I haven’t used photo software that’s as clunky as this since I had a Fujifilm Finepix S3Pro, in the Dark Ages BL (Before Lightroom). Sigma’s software isn’t as bad as Fuji’s was, but I’ve got used to far better things. There’s a compromise workflow which involves using Photo Pro for a few key adjustments first and then exporting a JPEG or TIFF to Lightroom. Sorry, but it doesn’t work well enough and it’s too much hassle.

Another aspect that makes you think with this camera is the fixed 28mm-equivalent lens. That’s right, no zoom and no interchangeable lenses either. Want a different focal length? Then carry a second camera – like the DP2 Merrill, for instance, which has a 45mm-equivalent lens.
Again, this isn’t entirely a bad thing. Using a camera like this would certainly teach a lot of people to use their legs instead of twiddling a zoom – and bring it home that the results are different. It’s certainly an excellent exercise and I’d recommend it to everyone. And 28mm is a very useful focal length for landscapes. My problem with it is not so much the lack of longer focal lengths as that there are times when 28 is not wide enough. On my full-frame camera I use 24mm a lot, and I also have a 12-24mm lens. But it’s worth remembering that Cartier–Bresson – possibly the greatest photographer there has ever been – did the vast majority of his work with a 50mm lens, and used a modest wide-angle (I think 35mm) occasionally for landscapes.

There’s a strong argument that we have it too easy today and I think a day out with the Sigma, a tripod, and nothing else would be very good for me. But is it a camera I could use all the time? No way. Add a viewfinder, speed up the write speeds and do something about the battery life and give us Lightroom support and then – but only then – it might start to get interesting.



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