My new S90 is smaller than the LX3. Image by Koekjeman
I recently bricked my camera and just got a new one down from Singapore. What follows is what I think are the best compact cameras on the market this season. My priorities are low-light and some degree of manual control. The thing also needs to fit in my pocket, including rather tight jeans. What I decided on was the Canon S90, but there are other worthy options. The S90 has great manual control and is small, but there are more specialized options from Sony and Fuji that do a bunch of neat tricks with low-light. My old, waterlogged LX3 (Panasonic) was also pretty good. It depends on what you’re looking for.
Photo by Noodle M
Canon S90 (sample shots)
This is probably the camera of the season. David Pogue of the New York Times said “This camera takes better photos than any other pocket camera on the market.” Wired said “The S90 is the best compact camera I’ve ever used.” Most camera reviews don’t start like that. I’m holding the S90 in my hand and I do like it. It’s small, but heavy with professional features. It shoots RAW (digital negatives), has a huge sensor and usable manual controls, including a comfortingly analog click wheel. This is probably the most reviewed camera out there, you can read more here.
What makes a camera good is what it does with light. It needs to let in a lot of light, perceive it on a sensor and then encode it into an image. The S90 has a f2 lens, which is a big aperture, it lets in a lot of light. It has a big, high-quality sensor. Finally it shoots at 10 megapixels, which is the right number to match the sensor. On the later point, more megapixels is often worse because it adds noise. The megapixels need to match the sensor, it’s a balance. Finally finally, it can shoot in RAW, which is basically a negative you can edit on Photoshop later.
The S90 doesn’t do anything fancy, it’s just a fast lens, good sensor and intelligent processing. This is basically the textbook way to take good photos. Sony and Fuji have tried innovative new things, but I am personally OK with this. This camera costs about $500 USD at the Singapore airport. I think it’s cheaper outside and can be found for about $400 in the US.
Sony stock image
Sony WX1 (sample shots)
This camera goes beyond the textbook formula with some serious computing. You can, for example, sweep the camera across a panorama and it will stitch a long image together for you. In low-light it can take up to six shots in a second and stitch them together into a clear, sharp image. For moving stuff it can do the same thing, cleverly transposing the sharpest version of the moving thing through some magic pixel jugglery. Beyond that it has a sensor optimized for taking great low-light photos. It also shoots HD (High Definition) video, unlike the S90. Imaging Resources has a more in-depth review,
The downside is that it has almost no manual controls. I dig the custom features, but I also like simply keeping the shutter open and telling subjects to sit still. You can’t do that here. It is, however, quite a bit cheaper and seems pretty simple to use. The WX1 costs about $370 USD at the Singapore airport.
Fujifilm stock image
The Fuji F30 was my favorite camera. It was a low-megapixel dork of a camera that was able to take great photos of my life, in the dark, indoors, at night. It was the one camera that stepped out of the megapixel race and went for quality. They kinda stopped development on that, until now. The F200 and F70 have some of that ability, plus this new EXR technology. That merges the data from two photosites. It converts the usual 12 megapixel shots to 6 megapixels, but you get great, non-noisy quality in low-light.
I’m sure this works great, but – like the WX1 – the F200 doesn’t have manual controls. It’s innovative, but that’s also risky. You’re pretty much stuck with the modes they’ve thought of. Which I think is fine for most people. The F70 (review) does have some manual control. It also has a crazy 10x zoom. However, what turns me off about these innovative cameras is I don’t quite understand what they’re doing. I sorta prefer the simple formula of lens, sensor, processor. Pogue has a good review of both the F200 and WX1. The F70 costs about $360 at the Singapore airport.
Photo by Nokton. Mine was silver and had no viewfinder
Panasonic Lumix LX3 (sample shots)
This is my old camera, you can read what I though and see some photos in these old posts. It is what the S90 was designed to compete with. It basically has the same features (fast lens, big sensor, RAW processing). However, the controls on the thing suck and it’s big. I found it not very fun to carry around and take pictures with. First off, the lens makes the thing more than two inches wide. It was heavy in my pocket, didn’t fit in jeans at all and I found myself leaving it in the car a lot. Also the lens cover isn’t automatic, so I’d always have to put it in my pocket or something. Finally, setting up a shot (exposure, shutter speed, macro) was quite annoying to do through the on screen interview and one clitoral button. Canons have much faster and intuitive controls. I found myself missing shots cause I a) didn’t have the camera or b) couldn’t get the settings fast enough.
That said, the LX3 can do everything, but I didn’t find it that much fun. Also, it’s just too big to really be a compact. In similar categories, the Canon G11 has better controls and also takes great photos, and the new Panasonic GF1 is supposed to be quite good. They’re just too big for me.
So I bought the Canon S90. It’s tiny, simply and I like it so far. I’ll post a review once I take some pictures.