Point and Shoot Cameras (P&S) versus DSLRs

Like many, I have been patiently searching – oftentimes, impatiently waiting – for a small, carry everywhere camera that can deliver great image quality. I’ve looked at most of the likely contenders, principally those from Canon, Panasonic and Leica - but they all came up short in the image quality stakes. For a while (which proved to be considerably shorter than the time it took for the DP1 to write files to a card), I thought that Sigma had answered my prayers to the Camera Gods. Alas, usability – or rather, a lack of it – let down the Sigma DP1 as surely as the ham-fisted way Panasonic, in a misguided attempt to deal with noise, smeared detail in images taken with their cameras.

All those manufacturer’s have put out recent successors: Canon G10, Panasonic LX3/Leica D-lux 4, and Sigma DP2. And, while they are all improvements to some extent, the basic problems with each manufacturer’s offering remains: the Sigma is still as slow as a dead tortoise and the Canon et al are, truth be said, still victims of their tiny sensors – unable to deliver DSLR-like quality when the going gets tough; which in photographic-speak means, when the light levels drop below anything that would have you reaching for your sunglasses.

I await with interest and something bordering on desperation for the imminent release of the Olympus micro four-thirds (m4/3) camera, the E-P1. It is my one last hope that the possibility of a small Decisive Moment Digital camera (DMD), as Mike Johnston refers to this elusive photographic tool over at The Online Photographer, is a reality and not just a dream.

In the meantime, however, I was struck by another thought: perhaps this search for peak performance in a small camera is not so important? That it’s like concentrating on the top speed that a car can do when we mostly drive it at 60 mph or less. What got me thinking this way was reviewing some of my images taken with a Canon G9 and being pleasantly surprized at how good some of them were: admittedly, they had all been taken at low ISOs (the equivalent of keeping well within the speed limit) and in good light – but for the resolutions one would typically use to display them on the web or for prints up to, say, 14 x 11 inches, I wondered whether we were not agonizing unnecessarily. Perhaps, under such circumstances and for such purposes, which would cover the way the majority of us use our photos, these top-of-the-line point and shoot (P&S) cameras were already delivering results that were essentially indistinguishable from a Digital Single Lens Reflex camera (DSLR)?

With that in mind, I decided to take a walk with a Canon G9 and an Olympus E-3 digital camera. The latter had Olympus’s 12-60 lens attached, one of the finest zoom optics I have ever used. I set the G9 to its widest field of view (equivalent to 35mm) and tried to match that as closely as I could by setting the Olympus lens to 17 mm, which with the 2x factor of the four-thirds sensor system, delivered an equivalent field of view to that of 34mm on a full-frame 35 mm camera like the Canon 5D II. I was not interested in setting up a tripod and comparing exactly duplicated photos – I was much more interested in using the cameras as I might on any casual walk: hand-held, composing and taking shots as they appealed to me.

These were the results: I could with unfailing accuracy, when I mixed up the subsequent images, tell the ones taken on the E-3 apart from those taken on the G9. BUT – and this is the interesting thing – the differences were not in sharpness or resolution. Sure, the per pixel sharpness of the E-3 images taken with the 12-60 were greater than those of the G9, but when reduced to normal sizes for on-screen viewing or those used for printing, the 12 megapixels of the G9 provided roughly the same level of detail as the 10 megapixels of the E-3. Noise was not an issue either: in good light, ISO 80 on the G9 seemed every bit as clean as the base ISO on the E-3. Sharpness on the G9 was generally very good – and perhaps it was a little unfair to compare it to a stellar lens like the 12-60, but the only significant difference at those viewing/printing sizes was in the sharpness of distant objects. Despite a potentially greater depth of field due to the miniature size of the sensor in the G9, the E-3 with 12-60 was able to maintain better sharpness throughout the frame with the lens stopped down for landscape photography. It’s likely that diffraction had a deteriorating effect on the image quality of the P&S at such small apertures. The main point, however, is that the differences between the images taken with the P&S and those taken with the DSLR were not substantial in the areas that we most often fuss about. A compact P&S is virtually as capable of delivering as much detail in its images as those coming from a hulking great DSLR.

Olympus E-3 with 12-60 lens: f6.3, 1/320, ISO 100, ev +0.7

Canon G9: f5.6, 1/250, ISO 80, ev -0.7

So why bother humping a bloody great camera along with us when we go out for walks?

Well, there were other areas of difference – and these contributed to the signature of the images, to my 100% accuracy in being able to tell what camera each image had originated from. I call these The Four Cs of Photography:

Colour: Much has been made of so-called Olympus colours, but there is definitely a look to the colours from the E-3. However, I suspect I would see the same sort of differences comparing the G9 to the Canon 5D Mark II: the P&S cameras just do not seem to have the same subtlety of colour palette as do the DSLRs.

Contrast: Images from the G9 lacked the contrast of those from the E-3, with the result that the G9 images appeared flatter. Certainly, in-camera settings can alter contrast on both cameras, but setting contrast too high on a P&S, in my experience, is a recipe for undermining image quality. Better to shoot in raw (as I did here) and alter the contrast in post-production – but, even then, the best one can hope for usually is an approximation of the contrast that a DSLR delivers.

Composition: One of the biggest disadvantages of using the P&S was framing shots outdoors in sunlight with the LCD screen. The G9 even has an optical viewfinder, which I was forced to use on occasions when I simply could not see any detail on the screen – and kudos to Canon for at least providing that backstop – but it was not terribly accurate. As a consequence, compositions (a much under-rated aspect of photography) were consistently better in those images taken with the DSLR compared to the P&S.

Conditions: It’s all very well to have a photographic tool that in certain conditions (sunlight, low ISO) is every bit as good as a DSLR. But photography is all about the conditions that affect the subject and the conditions that affect the light. The latter can change dramatically even on a fine day. And the subject conditions can change just as unexpectedly. For example, when photographing a landscape, my dog suddenly decided that full of the joy of life she was going to bound into the lake: with the DSLR I was able to almost instantly focus on her and recompose to take the opportune shot. When she did the same thing while I was using the P&S, the camera just lacked the responsiveness to keep up. Similarly, were light levels to fall (when walking in a forest, say) or if I came across an unexpected opportunity that required shooting indoors (e.g. an old building, a hollowed tree trunk, the entrance of a cave) it is good to have the versatility that a DSLR offers over a P&S.

There was, however, one area where the P&S shone. I shot all photographs using aperture priority and with the G9, using the live histogram display and exposure compensation, it was possible to get the exposure spot-on every time. With the E-3 there was a lot more guesswork. And even when checking the histogram on review, I still tended to have images that were often slightly underexposed because I was protecting the highlights, The advantages of a live histogram in the age of digital photography cannot be overstated.

So what did I learn from all this? Most importantly, I gained a new-found respect for my current P&S cameras. No, they are not DSLRs, but with some post-production of their raw images to address issues of colour and contrast, and taking into account their compromised versatility and convenience when composing shots, I realize that I am able to take images with them that are perfectly suited to the majority of my needs.

Do I still hanker for that holy grail of a camera small enough to take with me at all times but which is both responsive and capable of delivering DSLR-like image quality? You bet. Could that be the E-P1? Who knows. But in the meantime, to paraphrase Crosby Stills Nash and Young, we should love the P&S we’re with.