I would like a new camera for taking pictures of me.
That first sentence sounds a bit narcissistic so let me explain. As a photographer taking pictures of everyone else including the family, I don’t have too many photographs of myself. In most cases, that is OK but I do occasionally want photographs where I’m part of the event. My wife is pretty good at framing and the camera mechanics and can get a decent shot of me. However, when I hand over any of my existing cameras to my kids, it is a different story. The concept of focus and recompose is still beyond them. Also when I’m on vacation at Disneyland, for example, I want a simple camera to hand to a stranger to get a snap of the entire family. Followers of this blog will know that I use various mirrorless (EVIL) cameras these days and these smaller mirrorless cameras are easier for people to use than say my Canon 7D. However during my recent India trip, if found out that while my two camera setup really works well for me, it poses a challenge for the less photographically inclined.
I was at the Taj Mahal and requested my tour guide to take a tourist snap of me with the Taj in the background. While I eventually got a decent photo, it was more of an effort that I expected. There are a few reasons for this. First, many people are not familiar with prime lenses, where you can’t zoom. I tell people to zoom with their feet and I get a blank stare. The Olympus E-PL1’s multi-point focusing is not the best. The coverage of the focus area is not large and I do occasionally get some mis-focusing. These “imitations” generally don’t effect me since I’m a fairly experienced photographer and I know the cameras well. But hand this camera to the uninitiated or a child and I realize that it become more of a challenge that I expected. The biggest hinderance of the E-PL1 for casual snap photography is the flash exposure. I mentioned this in passing in my E-PL1 review, but the more I try to use flash, particularly in dark places, the more frustrated I get. Daylight fill is also not aways powerful enough too so while I really like the E-PL1, the flash situation is not ideal. Since I usually shoot my E-PL1s with large apertured lenses in natural light, the flash is not something I usually have to deal with. My other mirrorless camera, the Sony NEX-5 generally does a better job at focusing and flash exposure but I usually have a super wide-angle lens on it, which is not as as conducive for portrait photography.
So is there a high quality camera out there that is also easy for anyone to use? It is a question I never asked myself since I usually shop for cameras for myself and not for others. I know that I won’t be satisfied with standard point and shoots. Their feature set with ultra-zooms or high megapixels don’t interest me. No I was looking for something else, high image quality, ease of use, accurate focusing and good flash exposure. Yeah, also I didn’t want to spend the big bucks for this thing either since it won’t be my primary camera. I ruled out the Canon PowerShot G1 X immediately at $799 but the smaller Canon, the S100 at about $400 was a possibility. I recommended a Canon S90 back a couple of years ago to my sister and the S100 is the newest incarnation. These small Canons are known for good image quality and the price sounded decent. The other camera that came to mind was the Fujifilm X10. I’ve been moderately interested in this camera for a while now and maybe I could justify getting it now. At $599, it is certainly a premium priced point and shoot but I might consider it if it delivers. So how does the Canon S100 and the Fujilfim X10 compare? I took an empty SD card down to Precision Camera and put the two cameras though its paces. Reading reviews online is a start but nothing beats playing with them with your own hands. What follows is a writeup of what I thought about both cameras after playing with them for about an hour and looking at the image quality at home.
The S100 gets great reviews and is a very popular high quality point and shoot. I’m familiar with the S90 because many of my photographer friends bough one a couple of year ago. The S100 is even smaller and can probably be carried around in a pants pocket though it is still larger than my svelte Sony TX5. The build is solid and there is a finely crafted feel. The textured surface and the small front and back grips make it easy to hold with one hand. The controls are cramped but this is understandable given its small size. The user interface is standard Canon Powershot which is generally good. It is clear and easy to understand. The mult-point focus worked quickly and reliably, and locked on to the closest object properly. The face detection boxes also worked as expected and things felt solid in the auto focus department. When I turned on the flash, the ISO defaulted to 80 and you get that typical flash look. The people are decently exposed but the background is dark with little of the ambient light included in the image. At iSO 80, the pictures looked clean. A quick higher ISO test revealed a decent image with low noise but you can tell that the details are lost with the noise reduction. I’m sure there is a way to set the S100 to mix ambient light and flash, and it may be easy to do but I didn’t figure it out in the short time I played with the camera. The general impression, high quality, small camera with better than average (point and shoot) image quality but with average flash exposure. I think the flash exposure is better than what the Olympus E-PL1 can do but, it is nothing special.
The Fujifilm X10 is a much larger camera than the Canon S100. Here is a visual comparison of their relative sizes from a new site I found called camerasize.com. As an aside, this is a fun site and I spent a bunch of time comparing the sizes of various cameras. Highly recommended if you have some extra time to "waste". While both cameras are in the enthusiasts' point and shoot category, the X10, feels like it's in a class by itself. It's bigger and more sophisticated than a standard point and shoot but not as flexible and high quality as a mirrorless interchangeable camera. Size wise, the X10 is about the same as the Olympus E-PL1, at least if you look at just the body. The big factor here is the lens. The Fujifilm has a nice 28mm – 112mm f2 – f2.8 zoom lens. If such a lens existed for the mirrorless cameras, it would be quite large. So while the overall size of the Fujifilm X10 does not seem small, if you consider the capability of the built-in lens, they did, in fact, make it compact. The build quality is first rate and it exudes quality. I like the look of this all black camera even more than its more premium big brother, the X100. Usability wise, I really like the size. The controls are sized large enough to be comfortable but the overall package is light and easy to carry. Certainly not pocket size but compact enough to carry all day without effort. The image quality is quite good, certainly a step up from the Canon S100 but not quite good enough to match the Olympus E-PL1. The X10's noise is well controlled and its noise reduction algorithms are probably more sophisticated that the one in the E-PL1. I think an ISO 1600 JPEG is usable though you can tell these is loss of detail with the processing. You get a graininess and texture when you sharpen the image but the chroma (color) noise is well controlled. I don't have a RAW processor for the Fujifilm X10 so I couldn't compare them directly to the Olympus RAW files, but the JPEGs are quite decent. Fuji has done an impressive job with the image quality, especially considering the sensor size. Beyond the noise, I think the Olympus E-PL1 still has better detail at a given ISO setting but this makes sense since the Micro 4/3 sensor used by the Olympus is significantly larger than the 2/3 Fuji sensor. What Fujifilm does exceptionally well is flash exposure, especially when blending the flash with ambient light. I noticed this ability on the Fuji X100 and the baby X10 also does very well. Getting this nice flash balance also does not require much fussing, just turn on the flash and fire away. It maybe possible to get something close to the Fuji with other cameras but I found it makes more specialized knowledge to do so. And I'm not completely convinced that other point and shoots can match the Fujifilm in flash exposure anyway, even with a lot of extra dial twiddling. It seems to me the Fuji's white balance is more accurate (or different) that other manufactures. I'm sure this also plays a part in Fuji's strength in this area. On the downside, I find the focusing to be a bit unsure. In general it works well enough but I feel like the Canon S100 did a more confident job in focusing, especially when the multi-focus mode was turned on. The larger apertured X10 will also needs to focus more accurately since the Fiji's shallower depth of field is less forgiving than the Canon S100.
So there you have it, my quick impressions of two high-end point and shoot cameras. My recommendation? If small size is the primary concern, get the Canon S100. It is small enough to be pocket-sized and if you believe “the best camera is the one that is always with you” mantra that is so popular these days, the S100 fits the bill. Image quality is probably good enough for most people. Especially these days when people end up just posting stuff to FaceBook. ISO 80 is really nice and would work nicely for urban and nature landscapes. Someone with some photography experience can potentially use this camera with a small tripod and really maximize its image quality all the time. Flash exposure is not terrible but nothing special. Expect to see normal bright foreground and dark background, point and shoot flash type images, unless you figure out the camera’s magic settings. With this in mind, the camera can work decently as a snap my friends a party type camera. If you are willing to forego pocket-ability and willing to shell out $200 more, the Fujifilm X10 is your camera. I think it is a more versatile and good for many different types of photography. It can certainly do a good job on landscapes, though the 24mm equivalent lens on the S100 is wider and maybe better for landscapes than the 28mm X10. For street photography and taking photos in mixed light or darker conditions the Fuji will do a superior job. Flash exposure is fantastic especially and your night-time people snaps will look more “professional” with the Fuji, because it will better balance the subject with the background lighting. I find that the Fujjifilm exposes a bit too brightly my taste, for some flash shots, so I darkened the exposure a bit in post processing. However, it’s not over-exposing the image, so I’m able to get a nicely balanced image with a touch of editing. Ease of use wise, I think the Canon as the edge. Maybe I’m more familiar with the Canon menu system however, I find the Fuji’s menus a bit more complicated. The physical controls on the Fuji are fantastic but geared towards a knowledgable photographer. If you are looking for a no fuss cameras, the Canon has the leg up. If you already familiar with photography exposure controls or you are willing to learn and play, the direct manipulation, physical controls on the Fuji are particularly nice.
For me, after the hour evaluation, I was leaning towards the Fujifilm X10. I don’t need the small size, I love the increased Fuji image quality and the build and physical controls are really nice. Focusing seems adequate but not outstanding but its flash exposure really is something that I like, especially if I want to take decent images in dark restaurants of my friends and family. This is one of the few weaknesses of my current Olympus E-PL1 so good flash exposure is high on my list. I also think that while the X10’s image quality is not quite a match for the E-PL1, it will do a nice enough job that it can be a more versatile substitute for my E-PL1, under certain conditions. So am I ready to plunk down $600 for yet another camera? Well I was seriously considering it when a new contender, a different camera, came into consideration. This new camera is a story I’ll leave for another post.
To Be Continued…
Read the continuation of this story at The system trumps the individual