Are Compact Cameras up to the Job

Are Compact Cameras up to the Job

Wasdale Head, January 2011
Copyright: Robin Whalley 2011

I was having a discussion with an acquaintance the other day who was arguing with me that Compact Cameras are just not up to the job of taking good quality images. His argument revolved around his own experience with a compact digital, where the results were “mushy” and much of the detail had been lost. Before we get into why his argument is flawed, let’s take a moment to look at what being “up to the job” actually means.

If we shoot an image with a digital compact camera and shoot a second image with comparable settings on a DSLR, then the DLSR image will almost certainly be the better quality. This does not however mean the image from the compact camera isn’t up to the job as this would depend on the intended use of the image. If the image will only be used to produce a 6×4 inch print or perhaps a low resolution image for a web site, then there is no advantage to be had with the DSLR. If however you want to produce a 30×20 inch fine art print then the compact camera is unlikely to be up to the job.

But what about a 35mm film compact camera? It’s quite possible you would be able to take a great image which could produce an image of this size. The person I was discussing this with had somehow muddled up his experience of digital photography with compact cameras in general and had forgotten entirely about film. Looking further at his argument I was also able to identify the camera he had been using was a cheap consumer compact and not one aimed at the photo pro/enthusiast. This is likely to make a big difference in that the lens might be of a lower quality, the camera sensor is likely to be smaller and the image is probably stored as a JPG rather than RAW. Let’s explore each of these in turn.

Lens quality, even on a compact camera is very important. Lenses must be sharp across the entire zoom range and display little diffraction. The ability of the lens to resolve detail is also an important factor. If the lens won’t resolve sufficient detail or isn’t sharp, the images produced will seem to be “mushy”. Now an expensive compact camera isn’t a guarantee of a good lens but a quality lens costs money and you can be sure no camera manufacturer will sell a camera with an expensive lens cheaply.

Next we have the subject of sensor size and whilst even high end compact cameras have small sensors in comparison to DSLR’s or Micro 4/3 cameras, they are larger than the sensors in cheap compact cameras. Add to this the tendency for cheaper compacts to be of a higher resolution e.g. 14Mpixels rather than the 10Mpixel you find on most high end compacts, you end up with a camera that produces images with a lot of noise. The solution most of the manufacturers have to this problem is to apply a lot of noise reduction, which is simply the blurring of the image to remove the appearance of noise. The result is “mushy” images.

Finally, the images tend to be recorded in JPG once the noise reduction has been applied. Unfortunately not every image needs the same level of noise reduction and often too much is applied. A much better approach is to capture your images in RAW format and then apply the noise reduction in software as part of the conversion process. This allows you to make judgements about how much noise should be left in the image with a trade off against sharpness.

So, to prove my point, look at the above image. This was captured on my LX5 compact camera in RAW format before process in Lightroom. The resulting image was then resized in order to produce a A3+ print at 300dpi. Is it sharp? Yes. Does it contain lots of crisp detail? You bet it does. In fact, here is a small section of the image shown at 100% so you can judge for yourself, and keep in mind a print from this will be even more impressive once sharpened.

Unfortunately I still don’t think I convinced my acquaintance.

Copyright: Robin Whalley 2012
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