Digital cameras are perhaps the worst example of consumerist segmentation for the sake of it. On this page alone I count 25 current model digital compact cameras. Considering other brands and previous models, you have something like 300 cameras to choose from if you want to purchase a digital compact camera today. I imagine the selection of a camera from the middle of this range is purely random. Perhaps based on the colour, a special of the day, or the pushyness of a salesman.
If instead you select the “top” camera in the range, you can at least be sure that there are no compromises to make the camera fit into a “segment”. What you’ll find are switches and menus for every aspect of picture control, sometimes lifted directly from the DSLR range of the same brand. You’ll also get some interesting additions like extended ISO range or even a built-in neutral density filter.
In this two-part series, I’m going to look at two of the least disputed kings of compact: the Canon G10 and the Panasonic LX3. Both aim to compromise as little as possible while still keeping a reasonable size and internal lens. First up is the G10.
As is customary, you’ll want to hit up DPReview’s in-depth review if you want to know about exact specifications, test shots, and a complete list of shooting modes and menu options. I’ll be focusing on usability and a couple of basic real-world shots.
The first thing you notice about the G10 are the SLR-esque dials all over the top of it. My intial reaction is gadgety lust – the nested, nurled dials just ask to be fiddled with. They put me in mind of a Brannock device, or perhaps a slide rule. Beyond looks, the dedicated dials for ISO and exposure compensation are actually bloody useful. Sure every other high-end compact allows you to change these settings, but the use of dedicated dials makes it so much easier to fine-tune your shots. I found myself wanting to take more shots with this camera, just because it was so simple to navigate the controls.
The G10 also uses a click-wheel on the back face of the camera to control the “current” setting, e.g. the aperture or shutter speed. Spinning the tactile wheel brings up a nice sliding visual meter applicable to the setting you are changing. The combination of wheel and meter again generates a subtle confidence that you’re making the right changes. Overall the usability of this camera is fantastic. Without reading the manual I was able to confidently generate manually exposed shots in about 5 minutes.
In terms of quality, it’s about as brilliant as you’ll get from a compact camera. Having complete photography control means you can get shots that you won’t get from another compact with the same lens and resolution. You also get some great features for composition, like a built-in physical neutral density filter. If that’s not enough, the G10 also has a mounting bracket so you can add filters to the internal lens.
A couple of other things I liked: the nifty scrolling mode when reviewing photos, and the custom display options. With the display options, you can completely customise two different LCD display modes, opting for features like a histogram or “thirds” grid, or a combination of anything. A third display mode turns the LCD off to conserve battery, but will flick it on again with a plain black background if you need to change any settings.
One small gripe: the G10 suffers the same fate as every other compact digital camera: noise. Those 14.7 megapixels jammed into a tiny quarter-inch sensor are always going to struggle to capture a smooth image at anything more than about ISO 200. I find myself agreeing with the reviewers over at DPReview, wishing that Canon had opted to use the same quality lens and construction but stick with 8 or 10 megapixels.
Overall the G10 is just downright fun to use. Twirling the dials and popping off shots at crazy exposures just to see what will happen.
It’s also a camera that you can use at family occassions without intimidating people. Sure, shots from the 5D will be massively cleaner, but the reaction of people to that giant lens and body would probably spoil shots like this one:
You can get the G10 in New Zealand for about NZ$900. It’s not cheap, but if you don’t want to go for an SLR, and don’t want to compromise photography control, it’s not a bad price to pay.
I’m yet to test the Panasonic LX3, which I understand might do a better job of noise control due to the lower resolution. I might change my mind after testing that one, but at this stage my “lottery” camera selection would be this G10 for travel and still the 5D Mark II for “real” photography.