(In my best ‘Movie Guy Voice’) In a world where smartphones have killed off point and shoot cameras, and DSLRs are the professional choice…why the heck do companies still make point and shoot cameras?
I want to explore this idea, because technology is allowing the same image quality and features into increasingly smaller cameras. It's certainly cheaper and easier to carry a smaller camera. But if you are a 'serious' photographer, ahem, would you consider a point and shoot for your next purchase?
We run photo walks and photography workshops, and ‘what camera should I buy comes up every time. With our training, you’ll get the most out of any camera. But, of course, we produce these blogs to get you thinking before or after.
Yes, phones have done away with the little pocket cameras that our mums have used ever since the one-hour photo lab closed down. The bottom end of that market is nowhere near as profitable as it once was – but the big manufacturers, Sony and Panasonic in particular, have found a terrific niche with higher end (more features sure, but mostly higher cost) cameras offering similar features and image quality compared to the flagship DSLR.
For centuries, everyone assumed that battleships ruled the seas. The bigger the better. Until World War II when aircraft carriers proved otherwise overnight. Are newer, more versatile, cameras set to tip the balance? And despite everyone building big ships, smaller raiders did all the important work stopping supply convoys. Big ships with big guns were status symbols. And little more.
If you’re a professional, then you use a DSLR, right? For the last couple of years, Fujifilm and Sony have been having a field day with their mirrorless offerings, and Panasonic is charging along with their tiny powerhouse MFT (Micro Four Thirds) range. And a lot of pros have switched over.
Apart from video, the ‘advancement’ in cameras has been ‘mirrorless.’
A DSLR gets its name from the box mirror and glass pentaprism arrangement that sends the picture through the eyepiece until it’s time to take a picture. The mirror flips out of the optical path, the light now goes straight through the lens to the sensor. The shutter opens, the sensor makes an image. The mirror slaps back into place and you can see the image again. It happens so fast you can track the thing you are photographing and keep reframing, with only a flicker, way faster than a blink, between shots.
Sony and Fuji, who both have experience in making ‘traditional’ cameras, figured that if you did away with the mirror and the giant hunk of glass, they could make a much smaller camera. Notice again, I didn’t say cheaper?
Now the sensor is always on, relaying a ‘live’ image to the screen on the back or viewfinder, which is now a tiny TV. Fujifilm has a hybrid that lets you look through a rangefinder (basically a glorified hole in the camera body) and you can switch a TV into the path. You can decide which is best for you.
So mirrorless is smaller. But having that EVF or screen on all the time tears through batteries at such a rate that DSLRs suddenly get a free advantage. The smaller mirrorless camera body leads to a smaller battery, compounding the problem. Use more power, and leave less room for the battery. One day someone is going to wake up and solve that simple problem. Right now it seems Panasonic have it figured out with great battery life on their top of the line GH4. So we know it’s possible.
You can't run the screen and the EVF at the same time because the CPU has to work twice as hard to render 2 images, the heat and power from that and running two TVs also factor in.
Again, if you just make the camera a little larger, you can have more CPU power, less heat, and bigger batteries. Perhaps this is the unexplored territory for DSLR stalwarts to beat off their mirrorless rivals. Make your size the continued advantage. If you make trucks, add more power and features, don't try to race against cars.
Making cameras smaller has had a nice trickle-down effect, meaning point and shoot can make use of software and circuit design breakthroughs. Now we can have truly tiny cameras with great EVF or screens. With a smaller sensor than DSLR, you can build a smaller lens. A lens so versatile, you don’t need to change it out.
Camcorders have this advantage – whopping great zoom ranges and tiny bodies. But, there is a price to pay. The smaller the sensor, the more noise (not nice like ‘grain’ from film) you get. You also have the optical problem of depth of field. The larger your sensor, the less that’s in focus. The smaller the sensor, the more that’s in focus. You would think that’s a good thing. But as human beings, we love the ‘out of focus’ background in our photos – known in film and TV circles as ‘the film look.’
When video was added to large sensor cameras, we could make videos that had the lovely ‘out of focus’ areas that made it look more like Hollywood and less like ‘Sex, Lies and Videotape.’ Or more correctly, cheap television.
The Canon 5D MkII that started the DSLR video movement uses has a full frame sensor – that is double what the average movie is shot on, so even shallower depth of field. And you can use fast lenses. The more ‘wide open’ a lens is (f/2.8 for example) the shallower your depth of field. DSLSR video looked magical in a time when most of us used f/5.6 lenses on video cameras with sensors only 1/3rd of an inch; everything was in focus.
A great compromise is the 1” sensor (or MFT version that’s a little larger) that’s popping up in all kinds of cameras, video and photography.
Now we have an option where you can build a smaller lens because it creates the image on a smaller area, and you can still get photos and video with some (not all) of the pleasing ‘shallow depth of field.’
Yes, mirrorless is somewhere in between point and shoot and a DSLR, and frankly, for advances in tech and features, mirrorless is the place to be. Most serious mirrorless offerings have an APS-C sized sensor. That means even on tiny bodies, you need much larger lenses. They are larger and heavier. They are also removable, but not pocketable on the whole.
Is a DSLR better quality? Isn’t that why pros use them? I’m calling out that blanket stereotype right here. Pros know there is no perfect camera. We often use the term ‘unicorn camera’ to describe the camera we want and manufacturers (accountants) refuse to sell.
The best camera I have ever shot with was the Konica Hexar. A film camera that would still be my first choice but we wore it out and they are rare collectibles now. The Fujifilm X100 series is a direct copy – only digital, and with astounding image quality. The forthcoming 24MP version still has me waiting.
So why don’t I just use an X100? With a fixed lens and still quite a bit larger than an LX10, I come back to how great a pocketable point and shoot is. You can’t really ‘pocket’ the X100. And high end point and shots have terrific video and screens that turn around so you can film yourself.
A DLSR gives you virtually unlimited lens options and total control. It also gives me a doctor's bill from carrying around all the metal and glass.
So now there is a new generation of point and shoots that give you a large degree of the control I want, with a tiny size and weight. Ignoring mirrorless for a moment, would I prefer a point and shoot to a DSLR? Let’s try a few comparisons.
I’ve picked 2 cameras to fight it out. The Canon 80D APS-C DSLR and the newly announced Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX10 Digital Camera.
|Feature||Canon 80D||Lumix LX10|
|Price||USD$1,2000 ($2,950 w/lens)||USD $700|
|Camera body||Dimensions (WxHxD)
5.5 x 4.1 x 3.1" / 139.0 x 105.2 x 78.5 mm
1.61 lb / 730 g body only
4.2 x 2.4 x 1.7" / 105.5 x 60.0 x 42.0 mm
10.93 oz / 310 g with battery and memory card
|Lens||24-70 f/2.8 lens
28.4 ounces / 805g
41/2” / 12cm long
Folds inside camera
|Pixels||24.2 Megapixel||20.1 Megapixel|
|Sensor||22.5mm x 15mm||1”|
|Resolution||6000 x 4000||5472 x 3648|
|Image Stabiliser||No||Optical & Digital, 5-Way|
|Focus Range||38cm to infinity||3cm to infinity|
|Shutter Speed||30 seconds to 1/8000||60 Seconds to 1/4000
1/16000 electronic shutter
|Display Screen||3" Rear Touchscreen Swivel LCD (1,040,000)||3" LCD Rear Touch Screen Tilt (1,040,000 pixels)|
|Viewfinder||Pentaprism (100% coverage)||None|
|Autofocus Points||Phase Detection:45, 45 cross-type
Dual Pixel CMOS AF in video
|49 Contrast Detect|
|Frames per second||Up to 7 fps at 24.2 MP for up to 25 frames in raw format
Up to 7 fps at 24.2 MP for up to 110 frames in JPEG format
Up to 3 fps at 24.2 MP
|Continuous shooting at up to 50 fps with an electronic shutter and 10 fps with the mechanical shutter.|
|External Flash Connection||Hot Shoe||No|
|Video Record Duration||1920 x 1080 (HD)
@ 60 fps: 29 min. 59 seconds
|4K video continuous recording up to 15 minutes is possible. For Full HD 60p recording users can record continuously for up to 29 minutes and 59 seconds while Full HD 30p video can be recorded without a time limit.|
|Wireless link to smartphone||Both photos and movies can be wirelessly shared to smartphones or tablets, using the Canon Camera Connect app, for instant online sharing or backed up to the Canon Connect Station CS100 via built-in Wi-Fi with NFC connectivity. Remote shooting from a linked mobile device is also available, allowing you to wirelessly configure exposure settings or release the shutter.||Built-in Wi-Fi allows you to pair the LX10 with smartphones or tablets running the Panasonic Image App for wireless image transferring and remote camera control.|
|Battery||7.2 VDC, 1865 mAh||7.2 VDC, 680 mAh|
Putting these two cameras against each other as representatives of what’s great about each category, there are a surprising number of advantages to the point and shoot. Enough that the casual user would have to need a pretty good reason to go DSLR.
For professionals, the biggest issue is manual controls. You don’t have time to surf a screen or menu, especially for critical functions like aperture, shutter speed, or moving the focus point. In fact, it’s these very controls that separate Canon and Nikon’s DSLR tiers. They each have 4 main tiers. Entry, enthusiast, prosumer and professional. It’s mostly the buttons and controls (and quality of autofocus) that are different. They all use the same sensor technology and take the same lenses. Using the same lens yield pretty similar results across a manufacturers range.
One other area where you get what you pay for is autofocus. DSLRs really have a terrific advantage, but the gap is narrowing. I’d say by 2018 that advantage will be close to gone.
I got wonderful pictures off my enthusiast level Nikon D3300, but it didn’t have enough focus points or direct controls for shutter speed. I had to hold down a combination of buttons to change the shutter speed!
Autofocus was dumbed down too. My very picky Sigma 18-35 was so sharp that focus was even more critical. It is one of the sharpest lenses ever produced – easily in the top 5 of all DSLR lenses. The kit lens that came with the Nikon was so dull that it covered the camera’s slow and spotty autofocus. And the kit lens was at f/5.6 at the long end Vs Sigma’s constant f/1.8. Stopping down to f/5.6 (whether you liked it or not) meant the Nikon wasn’t having to try has hard to get exact focus.
My Sony A6000 had the same control issues for me. Tiny buttons and fiddly controls – and deep menu dives to change settings. Meh!
Am I going to hate having a small camera? Probably enough that it wouldn’t be the only camera I own.
So after all my rambles about large sensors, shallow depth of field is really the elephant in the room. You are not going to get super shallow focus from front to back with a 1” Sensor. It’s going to be 3 or 4 times less than a full frame DSLR. BUT! It’s still going to way better than your phone.
You also get a headphone and mic input on the Canon 80D and a magnificent focus system for video that conquers the usually terrible focusing in DSLR videos.
But if you are on the run blogging, vlogging or travel shooting? I’m going with a high end point and shoot like the Panasonic Lumix LX10 (or it’s Sony RX100 competition).
Both the LX10 and 80D allow you to reverse the screen so you can see yourself. Casey Niestat (look him up) famously lugs a Canon 70D around and vlogs from a skateboard. He's broken several. He got an early 80D that had issues, so he's stuck with what he knows, which is a shame given how much better an 80D is. Why not a point and shoot? The Canon is very reliable and has less rolling shutter (jelly-like images from moving the camera around too quickly). I think a more of it is about going with what you are used to.
I have owned many fine cameras, but the last time I grabbed a plane, I took my iPhone and left the DSLR at home. The zoom lens alone makes the LX10 a better option for me than the iPhone. All the other controls are a bonus. It’s that trip that seriously got me started revaluating my DSLR.
If I had a shoot a portrait, my speciality, I’m reaching for the DSLR or the mirrorless camera closest. I need to trigger my flash(es). I prefer a super sharp prime lens and manual focus.
However, I can use the built in flash on the LX10 to trigger my external flash (optical slave mode sees a sudden bright light and fires the speedlite). So I may yet find the LX10 is enough for more than running amok.
In all but 2 cases (the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 Art and it’s 50-100 f/1.8 sibling defy the laws of physics) zoom lenses are a rolling set of compromises. That’s why we still like prime (fixed focal length) lenses. Good ones (still sadly the minority) can be a real joy and are worth the money. All this to say the lens on a point and shoot may be fast, but things like micro contrast, bokeh (the quality of out of focus areas), flare and chromatic aberration add up faster than sharpness. And since the LX10 hasn’t been released yet, the jury is still out.
But you can easily look at images from the very similar Sony RX100 mk IV. It’s at least as good as the kit lens you get with a Canon or Nikon DSLR, and better than the kit lens on a Sony A6000 or A6300. But I have seen better. Better usually costs more than the LX10, and your back to lugging glass and metal around.
Now that mirrorless cameras have the same image quality as DSLRs, a large number of pros are switching. The first reason they give? Weight.
Is the Canon 80D worth USD $2250 more? In image quality? Based on what I’ve seen from the LX100 (the predecessor to the LX10) and the Sony RX100 mk IV? With a very good lens, I expect the Canon 80D to be much better, but not night and day different. In professional usability, probably, but not for the average user. And if you are really pro, this is not necessarily the body for you. Canon wants you to buy a full frame 5D mk IV (Nikon has the stunning D810) these cameras have pro control, IQ and build quality oozing out of them. But you’ve just racked up a bill that would buy at least 5 high end point and shoots.
There is a little ‘you get what you pay for’ deliberately built into the equation.
But will we see the difference between these two cameras on Instagram or Facebook? Nope. We will see it in prints, especially past the 8x10 mark. But glass (lenses) make all the difference, often more so than the camera. So if you are going to buy a DSLR, get the best lenses. And pay accordingly.
I think a lot of the ‘average’ quality images we see from point and shoot cameras result from the user. Not the camera. They didn’t take advantage of all the control a modern point and shoot offers. I’ve seen just as many ‘average’ or less pictures from DSLRs. It’s you, not your gear.
The great photographers of the 20th Century had optically inferior lenses, purely mechanical cameras, pure guesswork for exposure and focus, and film that was nowhere near its zenith. We continue to be awed at those photographs. It’s how they used the camera, what they shot, and how they ‘saw’ things. Who really cares about image quality. Being there was way more important.
Buy the LX10 or some other point and shoot. Spend the difference on a plane ticket.
I bet you’ve already got one camera and want a ‘new’ one. Do the same comparison I’ve done in this post. Will you be better off? Will people notice a difference in image quality – will you be ok with less manual controls; do you need more?
The best camera in the world is the one you have with you. By that measure, I may have to upgrade my iPhone LOL. A point and shoot is small enough to always be with you. That’s almost the entire argument, and now the image quality is getting so close to the big cameras, I don’t think we are anywhere near the death of the point and shoot. We may instead be at the dawn of a new era.
Cue ‘Movie Guy Voice’: In a world…
Other cameras you should check out if this whets your appetite? In compact/point and shoot:
Sony DSC-RX100 IV USD $1,000 (120fps video), Canon G7X Mark II USD$700 (24-100 lens!) And in DSLR check out the Nikon D7200 USD $1000 (video features lack Vs 80D)
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