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Compact Cameras for Digital SLR Photographers

    Photographers who shoot with Digital SLRs are accustomed to high quality images, short shutter lag speeds, excellent performance at high ISOs and low light situations, large viewfinders, responsive autofocus systems, the ability to manual focus, and so forth. However, bringing the large and bulky cameras are not always practical. Point & shoot cameras offer the benefits and convenience of being smaller, less of a burden to lug around on trips or hikes, are less eye-catching to thieves, are almost always available since they easily fit into your pocket or purse, plus they're not as goofy to carry around during parties and social gatherings. Given that many photographers have grown accustomed to the quality and responsiveness of their DSLRs, are there any P&S cameras which can complement, or even replace DSLRs? Let's take a look.

    Among the most popular compact cameras purchased by DSLR users are the Fuji F31fd, Canon SD800 IS, and Canon G7. We will also take a look at the Panasonic Lumix LX-1 and the Sigma DP1. Each camera has its own specialty, distinct feature set, and particular price point. Depending on what you plan on shooting most often, one may be more appropriate for you than another.


Fuji F31fd: The "Social" Camera

Fuji F31fd

    Fuji's cameras are incredibly popular primarily due to their high ISO abilities. Fuji hasn't completely succumbed to the megapixel race and in turn, they've created cameras with fewer megapixels than average, but outstanding low light abilities. Compact cameras are typically limited to ISO 400 to 800 at best. With their relatively slow lenses and lack of usable high ISOs, many indoor shots come out very blurry due to subject motion or camera shake. Fuji remedies this situation thanks to their Super CCD sensor. At anything over ISO 200, the Fuji's sensor blows away the competition. The F31fd has the ability to shoot all the way up to ISO 3200 which is a rarity among P&S's. Of course noise level is an issue at 3200, but it's less than you'd expect, especially when compared to other cameras. Most cameras fall apart at ISO 1600, but the Fuji holds on enough to produce usable results. The only way to get better ISO 1600 results is to pull out your DSLR.

    Thanks to its remarkable high ISO abilities, the Fuji can better balance ambient light with fill-flash, producing more natural looking results than those from most cameras which try to fire the flash as the main light and underexpose the background.

    Outdoors, however, the Fuji's results are fairly average. The images may look a little bit flat, but it's nothing that a little Photoshop can't take care of. Then again, one of the main appeals of P&S's is that you don't need to do lots of post-processing.

    The F31fd features a 3x zoom (36-108mm) and an f2.8 lens. The lens could be wider so this is one of the tradeoffs to consider.

    The camera uses xD cards so chances are good that you'll have to buy a new memory card to use just with this camera.

    The F31fd is just a minor update to the previous model, the Fuji F30. If you don't need the face detection abilities of the F31fd, the F30 is a nice way to save a few bucks, especially since the camera is now retired and you can pick up a used copy cheaply. Alternatively, if you don't need aperture priority or shutter priority shooting modes and fully auto is good enough, as well as if ISO 2000 is good enough for you, you can save a few more dollars by picking up the Fuji F20.

    If you're looking for a pocketable camera to take with you to social outings, the Fuji F31fd is your best bet.

    For a more detailed review and sample images from the Fuji F31fd, check out the DPReview article.


Canon SD800 IS: Wide Angle and IS

Canon SD800 IS

    Most P&S's are relatively limited in the wide angle department. For example, the previously mentioned F31fd only zooms out to 36mm. The SD800 IS, on the other hand, zooms out to 28mm, covering a nearly 4x focal range of 28-105mm. Being able to zoom out so far is a tremendous help when walking outside in tight streets or indoors at a party with friends and you can only back up so far.

    The camera does exhibit corner softness at 28mm, but this is simply one of the optical compromises created by making a wide lens.

    This camera features optical IS which gives you about an extra 2 stops of handholdability. Of course IS won't stop subject motion, but it will help with camera shake and will help you in low light situations.

    The camera has very little manual control, but its auto abilities are fast and accurate.

    At high ISOs, the SD800 IS performs fairly. Results are usable from ISO 80-400. Things start looking bad at ISO 800 and ISO 1600 is all but useless. The camera's built in noise reduction creates a noticeable smearing effect, but if you only plan on using this for parties and don't plan on pixel peeping or printing large prints, this problem won't be too big an issue for you.

    The camera uses the very common SD card. Most DSLRs use CF cards, but many newer cameras such as the Nikon D40x and Canon 1D Mark II N support SD cards. If you own a DSLR with SD cards, you get the added bonus of being able to share cards across different cameras.

    The people at the Gadget Show put together a head to head video comparison of the Fuji F31fd, a similar Canon P&S, and a Sony P&S. They took all three cameras out and tested real world situations and compared the cameras with respect to responsiveness, handling, abilities in shooting people and sporting events, exposure control, red-eye, and ultimate print quality. The Fuji was far and away the winner while the Canon significantly trailed behind the other two.

    For a more detailed review and sample photos from the Canon SD800 IS, check out the DPReview article.


Canon G7: The (almost) Do-It-All

Canon G7

    Hearing the cries for a compact DSLR replacement, Canon created the G7. Then, realizing this camera might eat into the sales of their entry level DSLRs, they took away some key features that would have made this camera the nearly perfect DSLR replacement.

    The G7 sports a 10 MP sensor allowing for large prints.

    The 35-210mm lens is a 6x optical zoom with image stabilization.

    The sensor sensitivity spans ISO 80-1600 and ISO 3200 at a reduced resolution.

    The camera also has a viewfinder so you don't have to hold the camera away from your chest (a less stable position to shoot from).

    It also allows for a hot-shoe flash to be mounted atop the camera, as well as screw-on telephoto and wide angle lens adapters.

    For all you fellow Strobist readers out there, you can always bring an extra flash to do off-camera lighting with the G7 with an inexpensive wireless hot-shoe trigger.

    The G7 uses the popular SD card which is fast, inexpensive, and compact.

    At first, the G7 sounds like it's the top contender, but remember that Canon pulled some key features.

    First of all, unlike the previous G-series cameras, the G7 does not support RAW. Then again, neither do any of the other previously mentioned cameras. If you are used to post-processing your images and aren't satisfied with results straight out of camera, your options will be more limited than if you had the original RAW to work with.

    Also, changes from the G6 to the G7 include the departure of using BP-511 batteries (the same as in a 30D or 5D) and a change from using CF cards to SD cards. Given that many people use those batteries and CF cards, this means you'll have to pick up a new set of batteries and cards. On the upside, these changes make the G7 more compact and lightweight than previous models.

    The handy swivel-type LCD screen from G6 was also dropped to the typical built-in version for the G7.

    Cramming in a 10 MP sensor into such a tiny area definitely gives you noise. The laws of physics simply don't allow otherwise. Cramming more and more megapixels into a tiny sensor seems to be the trend being followed by most manufacturers. (Fuji is an exception, sticking a 6 MP sensor into a larger than normal area, giving us the F30 and F31fd.) The 10 MP sensor does provide very nice image quality however. ISO 200-400 is useble. ISO 800 is noisy. ISO 1600 is unusable without heavy noise reduction.

    If you read reviews online, you'll find plenty of people complaining about the many steps backwards taken from the G6 such as a lack of RAW, no swivel LCD screen, change from CF to SD cards, and a slower lens. This camera costs about 2x as much as the previously mentioned F31 and SD800 so you should expect some added perks for the respective price increase, not a removal of them.

    Even though the G7 does support external flashes and lens adapters, lugging around all that extra gear kind of defeats the purpose of carrying around a compact camera in the first place. If you're going to be carrying all that extra weight and bulk around, you might as well bring your DSLR!

    There's also tiny annoyances such as the lack of a battery meter on the display and a lack of ISO information in the EXIF. Why are these fundamental items missing? Who knows...

    If you're willing to plonk down the cash for this camera, it will give you very nice performance, especially if you accept and understand the drawbacks.

    For a more detailed review and sample images from the Canon G7, check out the DPReview article and the Luminous Landscape review.


Panasonic Lumix LX1: Built for wiiiiide daytime landscapes

Panasonic Lumix LX1

    The Panasonic LX1 excels in a few key areas: It offers a wide 16:9 aspect ratio coupled with a 28-112mm lens in an excellently designed case, along with optical IS. Its Leica lens is very sharp, rendering lots of fine detail. The camera's manual controls are excellent as well.

    The RAW files are large and it takes a while for each image to write to the card, but the camera is very responsive and nimble otherwise.

    Noise at high ISOs is absolutely terrible, even at ISO 400. Similarly, lower ISOs like 80 and 100 exhibit more noise than other cameras. In fact, this one single issue is so bad that it alone drives people to other cameras and make them discount this one on the spot. If you plan on shooting only at low ISOs, which most backpackers would typically do, the high ISO noise will be less of an issue and this camera may be just the one for you!

    For a more detailed review and sample images from the Panasonic LX1, check out the DPReview article and the Luminous Landscape article.


Sigma DP1: The heart of a DSLR in a P&S's body

Sigma DP1

    Sigma stepped up to the plate with their DP1. They crammed a DSLR-sized sensor (crop factor of 1.7x) into the body of a point & shoot. The sensor is a 14 MP (or 4.6 MP, depending on how you define a megapixel) Foveon X3 sensor, not CMOS or CCD like most other cameras.

   Like the LX-1, the DP1 features support for RAW images. Like the G7, it also features an external flash hotshoe. There's also an accessory available to slide a viewfinder into the hotshoe since one isn't built into the camera.

    One of the tradeoffs of stuffing such a large sensor into a tiny camera is that the lens doesn't zoom. It's a fixed 28mm f/4 lens.

    The DP1 is not yet available, but it's expected to come out at a pretty lofty price point of $1,000.



So which camera is best?

    *Drumroll please!*

    ...It depends on what you plan on shooting most.

    If you intend on shooting lots of parties and social events with your friends, the Fuji F31fd is your best bet. Even if you don't plan on doing so, its incredible high ISO performance and good all around performance makes it the most widely recommended P&S cameras for DSLR users. In fact, some people even recommend picking the camera up alongside another camera, specifically for the situations where you intend on shooting in low light. The camera is inexpensive enough to make this option quite feasible!

    If you're looking for an inexpensive camera that will let you shoot outside in tight situations and don't plan on pixel peeping, the Canon SD800 IS might be a good solution.

    If you are going to hike outdoors with your camera and, are looking for high quality, low ISO shots, and find the 16:9 aspect ratio appealing, the Lumix LX-1 will fit the bill.

    If you're looking for an excellent all-around camera with good image quality and noise characteristics, and you don't mind shooting JPEG instead of RAW, the Canon G7 will give you lots of quality for the money.