In the past six-to-eight months we’ve fielded a number of requests from Photo Review readers who are searching for a compact digicam that can be used as an alternative to a DSLR in situations when portability and ease of use are essential. Unfortunately, although camera manufacturers have catered well for snapshooters’ needs in their latest products, we have been unable to find a truly pocketable camera that meets all the needs of serious photographers. So we thought it would make an interesting exercise to let camera manufacturers know exactly what we photographers do – and don’t – want.
Here’s a list of the features we’d like to see in a compact digital camera for photo enthusiasts, listed in order of importance:
1. APS-C Sized Image Sensor
It’s no longer acceptable to keep offering cameras with ever higher megapixel counts if their image quality continues to be ordinary. Give us a camera with a nice big sensor; ideally, APS-C sized (23.5 x 15.8mm), but at least 4/3-inch (17.3 x 13.0mm). And pack it with a modest number of photosites. Few photographers aim to produce prints larger than about A3 size from a compact digicam so 6- or 7-megapixel resolution will be just fine. (It’s a different story with a DSLR where you want at least 8 megapixels to equal the resolution of a 35mm film!)
2. A pocketable body
It doesn’t have to be small enough for a shirt pocket, but we should be able to slip it into a jacket pocket.
3. File Formats
JPEG-only may be fine for snapshooters but enthusiasts also want Raw – preferably DNG-RAW. We’re fed up with proprietary Raw file formats and indifferent file converters; give us a format that can be ‘read’ by Adobe’s Camera Raw and be done with it. And, at the same time, make sure you include a RAW+JPEG capability – with the JPEGs at high-res!
Naturally we want decent optics. We also want a reasonably wide angle of view and moderate tele capabilities. How about 28-140mm so you don’t have to compromise on lens performance. Or even start at 24mm? And give us a good range of aperture adjustments – at least four. We can accept a maximum aperture of f2.8 and minimum of f8 – at a pinch. But it would be great if you could extend that range by several stops. The ability to attach filters would also be appreciated.
5. Full control over apertures and shutter speeds
P, A, S and M shooting modes are mandatory, along with long exposure times out to 60 seconds. A Bulb mode that supports exposures longer than 10 minutes would be nice, as long as some kind of release trigger was included. Top shutter speed should be at least 1/2000 second.
6. A nice bright optical viewfinder
A tiny, cheaply constructed viewfinder crammed in tightly above the LCD is no substitute for a well-designed and engineered viewfinder that shows at least 95% of the sensor’s frame coverage. Make sure it’s positioned so you don’t cover the LCD with nose grease. It doesn’t matter if you have to increase the camera’s body size a bit – in fact, that could be advantageous as the buttons could be larger and easier to access.
7. A good focusing range
Compact digicams can be great for close-ups so please make a lens that will focus to within 5cm of the subject. Having a macro range of about 5-20cm, which seguø©s neatly into the normal focusing range, would be just dandy!
8. Fast focusing and image processing
We want AF systems that lock onto subjects quickly and positively, without hunting in low light conditions. We’d also like to be able to select the AF points for focusing on specific areas, so we need at least five AF points. The ability to choose continuous focusing and/or focus tracking would also be handy for shooting moving subjects. There’s no longer any excuse for shutter lag times longer than 0.2 seconds; nor should it take more than a second to process and store an image file. We know you can make cameras with total capture lag times of less than half a second, so how about aiming to improve that?
9. Good continuous shooting capabilities
At least 3 fps for a burst of 10 Raw image files shouldn’t be too much to ask.
10. Optical Image Stabilisation
You know it’s the most effective type – and so do we! If Panasonic can include it in all their digicam lenses, why can’t the rest of you include it in at least one model?
11. Minimal post-capture processing
Forget about trying to reproduce the colours of a lab-produced print and concentrate on allowing us to record natural looking hues and tones. If we want to boost saturation, we can do it on our computers. The same applies to adjustments for contrast and sharpness. Set the camera to deliver minimal image sharpening (if the lens and AF systems are good enough, our pictures should be sharp!) and relatively low contrast. Then leave it to us to re-create the shot as we remember it. After all, that’s one of the reasons we shoot Raw files!
12. Flash output adjustment
Although some of us will rarely use the built-in flash, others may find it invaluable. Essentially you have two options: build the flash into the camera or provide a hot-shoe (the latter is probably preferable). Then please give us the control we need over the flash output, preferably in 1/3 EV increments, and ranging down to -2.0EV so we can use the flash for close-ups. Accessories that enable us to bounce the flash and/or use it for close-ups would put icing on the cake!
13. Usable sensitivity selection
We know you’ll include an Auto ISO setting plus a range of ISO pre-sets. How about starting somewhere below ISO 100 (ISO 50? 64? 80?) and extending no further than ISO 1600? If you adhere to the sensor specifications outlined in point 1, the need for noise reduction processing should be minimal.
14. Controllable noise reduction
Noise reduction processing should be an option; not an enforcement. We know when we want to apply it and we know what type of processing should be applied. So dispense with the automatic controls and give us both dark frame subtraction and noise-blurring options. Then let us choose which to use, and when to use them.
15. Histograms for shooting and playback
But make them big enough to be useful; covering at least 25% of the LCD screen. While you’re at it, how about providing both monochrome and RGB options?
16. A decent LCD monitor.
You’ll probably fit a 2.5-inch LCD and, most likely, claim the screen offers a ‘wide viewing angle’. That’s a good start but we also want a screen that is readable in bright light. Take any LCD out into bright sunshine and it instantly becomes unusable – especially when you are wearing polarising sunglasses (which turn the screen black when the camera is held vertically). This may be too big an ask, but we’re all hoping the technology develops to the point where camera monitors are usable indoors and out.
17. Easy-to-use menus
Please give us a well-designed menu system that is easy to read and puts key functions like ISO, exposure compensation, drive modes and flash controls on the first page. Or even provide direct button access for these controls. Minimise unnecessary menu toggling – for both shooting and playback functions. Let us check settings, erase shots and/or format memory cards without having to toggle through pages of settings we never use.
18. On–demand grid
It’s great to be able to call up a grid screen when you shoot landscapes so you can ensure horizons are level. Not a big ask – but a handy addition.
19. At least two colour space options
It goes without saying that we’ll want both sRGB and Adobe RGB. How about following Nikon’s lead and providing another option with a gamut designed for landscape photography or a colour space optimised for portraiture?
20. A strongly–built camera body.
We don’t mind whether it’s metal or polycarbonate as long as the actual design and construction are good. Poorly-fitting panels, battery and card compartment doors that pop open too easily, or are difficult to open and shut, are unacceptable.
21. Conservative power consumption
We don’t care what type of batteries the camera uses as long as we can get a decent number of shots per charge. At least 250 isn’t to much to ask, is it? And we’d like rechargeable batteries that were affordably-priced, since we’ll probably buy several sets. We’d also like reasonably fast re-charging times; say three hours maximum.
22. Competent white balance
We know it’s possible to design an auto white balance system that delivers acceptable colours under all kinds of lighting because we’ve seen it in a few of the cameras we’ve tested. So orange casts with incandescent lighting or green/magenta casts with fluorescents will no longer cut the mustard. And don’t over-correct with the pre-sets! In fact, you can probably dispense with most of them if you can give us a competent manual measurement mode to back up the auto setting in the rare situations where non-standard lighting is encountered.
The new Sigma DP-1 has many of the features we’d like in a compact digicam, including a large 20.7 x 13.8mm image sensor; a pocketable body; support for Raw file capture; a similar contrast-based AF system to DSLR cameras with auto and manual selection of nine AF points; and P, A, S and M shooting modes. Note the addition of a lens hood and bright optical viewfinder to improve performance and handling. We plan to review this camera as soon as it is available, so check the Photo Review website from mid-May.
Some functions would be nice to have – provided they have been thoughtfully implemented. But they’re not really essential, so we don’t mind if they are omitted. Top on our list is a panorama shooting assist mode that helps you line up sequential shots for a panorama. Naturally we would prefer to stitch the shots together on our PCs so stitching software should be provided. Weatherproof sealing – or even waterproofing – would be a big plus for those of us who engage in adventurous outdoor activities.
It would be great to have key camera settings displayed in the viewfinder. However, if this requires an EVF it will only be acceptable if the display has high enough resolution and remains streak-free in bright light. Some people may also request some kind of on-board instruction manual. However, if the controls are kept simple and all the unnecessary stuff is eliminated, operating the ideal digicam should be straightforward enough for the photographers who are likely to buy it.
What We Don’t Want
Naturally, we will have to make some sacrifices if we’re to obtain the ideal camera at a reasonable price, so here’s a list of unnecessary functions that wouldn’t be missed:
1. Scene modes
Any setting that takes control away from the photographer is unnecessary.
2. Digital zoom
We all know how it affects picture quality; forget it!
3. In-camera processing functions
See point 1. This applies to functions like in-camera red-eye correction, face detection, automated lighting adjustments and other knick-knacks that are designed to help novice photographers take better pictures. Serious photographers can accomplish all these tasks with editing software, with much greater control over the adjustments and a more satisfactory end result.
4. A direct printing button
We will choose which of our pictures we want to print – and we’ll print them from our computers because that’s the only way we can see the image clearly and manage the printing workflow. Direct printing may suit snapshooters but it’s way too limited for us!
5. Movie clip recording
If we want to shoot video, we’ll buy a camcorder.
We’d be interested in hearing about features you would like to see included in your own ‘ideal’ camera – either digicam or DSLR. Email your contributions to edmail[at]mediapublishing.com.au