For the past few years my Canon 5D and associated lenses have been sitting in a drawer, unused. I’m still taking plenty of pictures but I take them on hikes with smaller cameras; there’s no way I want to lug a big or even a small DSLR on a hike. I prefer smaller cameras without interchangeable lenses as they’re easy to turn on, get a shot, and put away so as not to disrupt the pace of the hike any more than is necessary.
There are times when my hiking partners and I agree that we’re going on a photo walk but for the most part we hike at a moderate pace and stop every now and then for a short break to take a picture. Hiking comes first, photography second. We have smaller cameras in small pouches connected to our pack’s shoulder straps and we can get to them easily without taking the packs off.
I’ve also been doing all of my street and architectural photography in New York with smaller cameras for the past few years and it’s great to not have all of that weight around my neck and on my back.
As many reading this know, there is a trend away from DSLRs for the demographic now called “photo enthusiasts” (not beginners but not professionals). A piece of this is the popularity of iPhones and other smartphones which is biting into the point and shoot market but the other piece of this is medium-sized camera systems: micro 4/3 from Panasonic and Olympus, Fuji X100, Nikon 1 system, and Sony making smaller cameras with interchangeable lenses that can take the place or bulkier DSLR kits.
A few months ago my friend the artist Joy Brown wanted me to shoot a ceramic mural she was taking to Japan to install. I brought three cameras with me: Canon 5D (older full frame DSLR) and a Canon 16-35 f/2.8 L lens, Canon Powershot G15, and Canon Powershot S100.
I took about ten shots (all RAW) of the mural with each camera and brought them home to process with Lightroom.
I mixed them all up in a Lightroom album, processed them all the same way, culled the losers and ended up with about ten decent images. I called Joy Brown over and we blindly went through and chose the winner and a runner up.
The winner was shot with the G15, the runner up with the S100. Amazingly, the images made with the 5D’s full frame sensor and the high end lens didn’t look all that much different from those made with the compact cameras. in reality most of the images were fine but there was a nice quality in the G15 files.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying a G15 or an S100 is a replacement for a 5D and a high end lens, neither is. But for my purposes which at that point was shooting portfolio images for my friend, I didn’t see a need to keep the DSLR that I wasn’t using.
Given that the resale prices on Canon L lenses have remained good I figured I had an opportunity to turn over the DSLR part of my photo kit until the day I decide to get a Canon 5D Mark III or some other DSLR.
So, I sold my entire DSLR kit to two good friends at good prices for them and fine prices for me and that was that. If I decide to get another DSLR kit I’ve got the Canon 5D Mark III and Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 L II on my B&H wish list and while this combo is big money, I’d pull the trigger on them if I felt the need. So far I don’t feel the need.
Because I have experience with the Canon 5D and a variety of high end lenses I have a good idea of what’s possible with decent equipment when I do my job and point the camera in the right direction at the right time and adjust the settings to make a nice picture. I know a decent image when I see one. Over the past few years I’ve enjoyed attempting to use my smaller cameras to make decent images and while they many times come up short, occasionally I get something I like.
The question isn’t whether I can get the same images out of the smaller cameras that I can from a full frame DSLR and good lenses, the question is can I get images that are good enough. My experience with Joy Brown’s mural showed me that I can and I have a number of large, framed prints on my living room wall that I shot last year with my Canon S100 that also show me that I can make images with small cameras that can be printed large.
So, after the sale of the 5D and lenses I was left with a Canon S100 and a Canon G15, both fine cameras although similar in that they share the same sensor and image processor. The lens on the G15 is a bit faster, the lens on the S100 opens up wider.
Before my last trip to Los Angeles to visit my 97 year old mother I rented a Sony Cyber-shot RX100 from Lensrentals.com. I wanted to try a small camera that has a much bigger sensor than my small Canons and the RX100 has a sensor that’s close to four times as large.
I didn’t spend too much time learning about the camera and took a variety of images on the trip, including a nice one at the Getty Center that rivaled the series I did with the 5D and 24-70 lens:
I took a similar image with the Canon S100 and it just did not have the detail of the RX100′s bigger sensor.
And one of my mother in very low light at 6400 ISO:
While the Canon G15 will shoot at ISO 6400 and even higher the files I’ve seen from it at high ISO did not look this good.
When I returned home I sent back the rental and decided to actually buy the RX100, thinking that I’d learn more about it on using it more but knowing that it’s capable of making spectacular images in very low light.
The RX100 comes with scant documentation but I downloaded the PDF of it from Sony and put it in iBooks on my iPad and I also bought an eBook that’s a full blown manual for the camera and I actually read much of it.
I took the camera on numerous hikes took landscapes and macros with it, shot in low light and decent light, and attempted to set the camera up and use it the way I’ve been using my small Canons for many years.
Here’s a list of observations:
The RX100 is a beautiful design but the flush mounted buttons and dials are difficult to find and use without looking at the camera. The physical design of the camera was fine in LA in great conditions but out in the field on a hike in winter was less than fine.
The metal body on the camera is aesthetically beautiful but in cold weather its tough on bare hands and given the flush mounted buttons it’s tough to use the camera with even thin glove liners on.
The camera is a bit slow to turn on and off, formatting an SD card of any size takes a very long time.
The camera’s general ergonomics: menu system, button layout and the like take some time to get used to.
The camera’s front control wheel does not click and sometimes seems to get out of whack with what it’s controlling. The front control wheel on the Canon S100 (which the RX100 is no doubt copying) has a satisfying click when using it to adjust things.
Autofocus (AF) is a bit slow at times although adjustments and familiarity would probably solve this issue.
When I get everything adjusted correctly the RX100 makes some of the best images I’ve seen on any small camera, they are outstanding in every way. However, making adjustments is not fun or intuitive for me and in the field, like on a winter hike, it’s very tough.
I like tools that are easy to use and once learned fall into the background; when I want to change a setting I ought not have to struggle, especially on a hike when it’s cold. I found the RX100′s ergonomic issues distracting and problematic enough for me that I’m returning it.
What’s interesting about this is that in the end I chose ergonomics over image quality and this choice will seem odd to some. There is no doubt that the RX100 makes better images than the S100 or G15 but for me, the cost of those images is struggling to use the camera. Will that struggle ease in time? Of course. But, given that I know what it’s like to use cameras that are a pleasure to use (for me) I don’t want to struggle, even for better image quality. Okay, some of you will think I’m nuts and I probably am, but this is very clear to me. I like what I like and in the end I’m the one using this stuff so I’d better be happy with it.
Update: On sleeping on it I decided to keep the RX100. I won’t be taking it on hikes in winter but it’s image quality is so good for a camera in this category it’s worth keeping for fair weather shooting.
I’m still not happy with its ergonomics but the images I took with it are in a different class from my S100 and G15 and that’s worth a lot.
My dream Camera
My experience with the RX100 has helped me better articulate what I want in a small camera and if Canon built the camera I want I think it would be a winner. Let’s call it the Canon GX.
Start with a Canon G15 body as it is.
Remove the optical viewfinder.
Offer a high quality electronic viewfinder that attaches to the hotshoe. Allow the eyepiece of the EVF to tip up to mimic a bit of the functionality of the older G series articulated LCD (which the G15 doesn’t have).
Give the GX a Canon CMOS APS-C sensor (same one used in the EOS-M). This would be a bigger sensor than is on the Sony RX100.
Give the GX a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. No interchangeable lenses, just one good constant aperture zoom attached to the camera.
If Canon offered this camera for $800 and charged $200 for the EVF I think they’d have a winner. I know I’d pay as much as $1000 for a camera like this.
So, in the end I’m left with two small cameras that are a joy to use but can’t give me the images that the RX100 does and the RX100 which is less than a joy to use but makes amazing images. The good news is that maybe at some point someone (hopefully Canon) will make a camera with the best qualities of all of these.