Friday, April 9, 2010

Everyone photographer should have a pocket camera...

Altoids, the curiously strong (and cheap) camera case!!!

It doesn't matter if you have a billion-pixel-best camera in the world-uber-DSLR hopped up on steroids it won't amount to jack squat if you don't have it with you when you need to take a shot. A few times now I've had my shots or videos used in the news simply because I was the only one present with a camera, the shots were not always the best quality but they were often the only ones available. In one instance there was a large accident near where I work, photos I took were used by the local newspaper in an online story and the video was used by a few local stations. One day at work we had some stray moose wander into our parking lot and once again I had some of my footage make it onto the news. Last winter during a -40ยบ C cold snap a spur of the moment experiment let to a video that ended up being used province wide of water freezing before it hit the ground. They played it throughout the winter whenever there was a cold snap ;)

Point and shoot cameras are sometimes looked down upon by us "serious" photographers but there is still a place for them for multiple reasons, the main one being size and portability. Another key advantage is that they don't attract a lot of attention, something very handy for street photography or events where "professional cameras" aren't allowed. A few years back when I visited China I accidentally left my point and shoot back here in Canada. I was so envious of my fellow travellers as they popped candid street photos while I had everyone shying away from the business end of my monstrous 40D. When I first purchased my G10 I read an article of a man who had to cover a university's championship baseball team's trip to the white house, his G10 slipped under the radar because it wasn't an SLR. [On a side note that last link is an interesting read since he accidently snapped his SD card in half whilst trying to dump the shots]

My current camera "family" is like the 3 little bears story, my SD780IS is the baby, my G10 is the middle one, and my 5DMKII is the big one. In this story however the "middle" one isn't necessarily the right one. Each have their place and for this post I'm going to focus on the SD780IS and the G10.

I'll admit I'm a bit biased towards Canon personally but even if you're a die hard fan of brand X it doesn't really matter when it comes to point and shoot cameras. Its not like the SLR world where you have hundreds or thousands of dollars invested in glass that's keeping you loyal to a specific manufacturer. Some of the Nikon cameras coming out are becoming tempting, likewise Pentax has some cool water and weatherproof point and shoots and Panasonic's Lumix series is quite good as well.

Getting the most out of your tiny camera.
CHKD is one of the biggest reasons I'm still going back to Canon for my tiny camera "fix". If you haven't heard of it I recommend clicking the link. Basically its what is referred to as a "firmware extension" that unlocks tons of control in your point and shoot giving you SLR-like features. Shutter speed, aperture, ISO, custom bracketing and even RAW! Using the shutter overrides some people have claimed insanely fast shutter speeds above 1/20000th of a second. But the fun doesn't stop there, you can even run scripts on your camera like a motion detection script that some have used to capture lightning, or an intervalometer script to take cool time-lapse shots. These clever MIT students used a cheap Canon A470 running CHDK to take pictures in SPACE!

Perhaps you're a photographer who is just starting out, say you want to get into using some off camera flash ala strobist well if you're running CHDK you can set your on-camera flash to manual to avoid that nasty pre-flash that is preventing you from using those cheap optical slaves. This summer I'm planning on doing a fashion shoot using only my SD780IS just to prove it can be done. If/when that happens I'll post the results here.

Know your limits, then bend or break them
The image quality of a point and shoot may not rival a full frame SLR but if you wield it correctly and know your limitations amazing things can still be done with these cameras.

Generally the really tiny cameras (like the Canon Elph series) all suffer from the same thing, a small sensor and small optics. The very thing that makes them so nice and portable is their biggest downfall. Small sensors don't work well with low light situations or tolerate high ISO's very well. The small lenses they come with often suffer from barrel distortion and pincushion distortion when they are either zoomed all the way in or all the way out. While the lowlight issues can't always be avoided the optical distortion caused by small lenses can be easily corrected using software like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom.

One of the frequently overlooked issues with point and shoot cameras that is getting worse with every generation is the mega-pixel race, every year they're cramming more and more photosites into the same size sensor. In more than a few instances its been proven that older version of the same cameras that are lower MP actually produce better images.

For the most part the image quality of most point and shoots aren't going to win any awards but what I told you this doesn't have to be the case? Well one way is to take a bunch of pictures then stitch them into one huge picture. Essentially you fake a large sensor. Confused? Let me explain. Say your point and shoot at full resolution and highest quality takes a really sharp 5x7 but once you start to blow it up to 8x10 or 11x14 it starts to look poor. Now take that same subject but zoom way in (optical zoom only) and take 20 pictures to cover the same area. Now since each of your photos have enough resolution to make great 5x7's when you stitch them together with some software like this you'll have a very large shot that looks sharp. The shot below is an example of trying this technique out, it was taken using a piddly 3.2MP Canon SD200. It was made up of about 50 individual photos and I later printed it sharply at 16x20!

Delta Besborough

What about the middle road?
Ok some of you may say those little cameras are too tiny, I want something a little beefier. No problem, the Canon G series, the Nikon P600, or the Panasonic Lumix LX3 among others might be right up your alley. All 3 bring SLR-like control to the table, are still pocketable (mostly) and have. Once again I'm biased towards the G10 but this time it is attachment based in that I can use my 580EXII on it. That being said the other two have some nice perks of their own, the P600 for example has built in GPS for automatic geotagging and the Panasonic will do HD video. All 3 still suffer a little from the smaller sensors with respect to ISO noise (try to keep it below 200) but the G10 at least in good light could give some dSLR's a run for their money.

I'm not sure about the Nikon or the Panasonic but the G10 has one huge ace up its sleeve, amazingly high speed sync. Using a wired connection the G10 can sync a flash up to 1/4000th of a second thanks to its electronic shutter. This feat can let you do some pretty amazing things like overpowering the midday sun. There are two ways to do this, either use a very high power strobes full blast like an AB1600 or White Lightning 1800 and crank your aperture up to f16 or higher, or use a few speedlights at low power at a very fast shutter speed.

In conclusion
Don't dismiss these diminutive cameras, keep one in your shirt pocket and keep these tips in mind:
  • When possible avoid low light situations
  • Try to keep the ISO below 200
  • Use the low key nature to your advantage (street photography, concerts etc)
  • Get large sharp images by taking a bunch of smaller ones and stitch them together
  • Use the features unique to smaller cameras like the electronic shutter to you advantage
  • Take advantage of the video feature, most point and shoots are near camcorder quality and newer models are

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