Digital Camera group test: Premium compact cameras

    | Compact Cameras | Reviews | 17/11/2009 14:45pm
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    The Canon PowerShot G11, Panasonic Lumix LX3, Ricoh GR Digital III and Sigma DP2 go head to head in a Digital Camera magazine group test

    There’s a big gap between point-and-shoot compacts and D-SLRs. It’s not just the bulk and the cost, but the features too. To an extent, superzoom/prosumer cameras bridge this gap, but since they won’t fit in your pocket, their advantage over real D-SLRs is limited. What if you want a camera with proper, manual photographic controls, a good lens and a body small enough to slide neatly into a jacket pocket?

    We’ve rounded up four cameras that fit the bill perfectly. These compacts are all designed for serious enthusiasts who value control and quality over hand-holding and gimmicks. They’re not that cheap and, with the exception of the Canon PowerShot G11, they don’t try to do everything. Yet they offer PASM exposure modes, RAW shooting and auto/manual focus. Their lenses, meanwhile, are built for quality, not zoom range. These are four very different cameras, though, with four very different approaches. So which one works best?

    There’s a big gap between point-and-shoot compacts and D-SLRs. It’s not just the bulk and the cost, but the features too. To an extent, superzoom/prosumer cameras bridge this gap, but since they won’t fit in your pocket, their advantage over real D-SLRs is limited. What if you want a camera with proper, manual photographic controls, a good lens and a body small enough to slide neatly into a jacket pocket?

    We’ve rounded up four cameras that fit the bill perfectly. These compacts are all designed for serious enthusiasts who value control and quality over hand-holding and gimmicks. They’re not that cheap and, with the exception of the Canon PowerShot G11, they don’t try to do everything. Yet they offer PASM exposure modes, RAW shooting and auto/manual focus. Their lenses, meanwhile, are built for quality, not zoom range. These are four very different cameras, though, with four very different approaches. So which one works best?

    Canon Powershot G11

    £569

    The Canon PowerShot G11 is fatter and heavier than the other three cameras on test here. It will still fit in a coat or jacket pocket, but it’s a bit of a lump.

    The 5x optical zoom gives it a major advantage over the rest for outright versatility, and the swivelling LCD on the rear is another plus point. On the top, the combined shooting mode and ISO dial, and dedicated exposure compensation wheel, work really well. Around the back, though, Canon’s three-tier multi-controller feels lighter, cheaper and a little too vague, with too many controls concentrated in too small a space. Blame the fat LCD housing.

    Canon’s decision to go for a lower resolution than its predecessor, the G10, pays off, as noise is really kept down. There’s solid high ISO performance and excellent definition. The lens is versatile, but there is some barrel distortion at the wide-angle end of the zoom range and a degree of chromatic aberration, too.

    The G11 does feel a little sluggish compared to its rivals. It takes a second or so to save its JPEGs and this slows down its responses if you’re firing off lots of shots. The 1.1fps continuous shooting speed seems a bit tame, too.

    Key points

    ● 5x optical zoom beats the rest for versatility                                                                       ● Articulating LCD screen on rear good for taking shots at tricky angles
    ● External ISO and EV dials on top plate excellent for usability
    ● Three-tiered multi-controller on rear too cluttered and vague
    ● Continuous shooting speeds and general responsiveness a little weak
    ● The only one of the four cameras on test
    to have an optical viewfinder

    Verdict

    : Image quality **** / Ease of use **** / Value for money ***** /

    Overall ****

    Panasonic Lumix LX3

    £392

    Panasonic resisted the urge to increase the megapixel count with its flagship compact for the same reasons that Canon did – noise. The result is a camera with more than adequate definition that isn’t compromised by excessive noise, though by ISO1600 the quality is suffering.

    The 2.5x extra-wide-angle zoom takes a little getting used to after a regular compact, and the 60mm equivalent maximum focal length can feel limiting.
    But you soon adapt, and this camera is a joy to use. The controls are clear, logical and have an excellent feel.

    The picture quality is very good. There’s little drop off in definition at the edges of the frame and no significant chromatic aberration at all. The Canon’s detail is a fraction crisper, but it also looks as if it’s been sharpened more in-camera.

    If you want a pocketable back-up for your D-SLR system, the LX3 is ideal, offering the kind of casual travel/street photography that compacts are so good at. This camera is small, neat, handles brilliantly and costs less than the other models on test here. Plus, don’t overlook the extra-fast f/2-2.8 lens and the 1,280×720 HD Movie mode.

    Key points

    ● 24-60mm equivalent wide-angle zoom goes wider than the rest
    ● A maximum aperture of f/2-2.8 is unusually wide for a zoom lens and great for low light
    ● Aspect ratio switch on top of lens barrel encourages experimentation
    ● Focus mode switch on side useful for swaps from AF to zone focusing
    ● HD Movie mode a substantial improvement over limited movie modes
    of the other cameras on test
    ● Rear joystick a little too small for comfort when making manual adjustments

    Verdict

    : Image quality ***** / Ease of use ***** / Value for money ***** /

    Overall *****

    Ricoh GR Digital III

    £530

    We’ve all got used to the luxury of zoom lenses and single cameras that can tackle just about any kind of subject.

    But the Ricoh harks back to an age when photographers chose cameras for specific styles of photography. In the Ricoh’s case, it’s shoot-from-the-hip documentary, candid, travel and even landscape shots.

    Surprisingly, that fixed 28mm equivalent lens isn’t so hard to get used to. When you know there isn’t a zoom, you very quickly adapt, and it’s strangely liberating to know that your compositional control comes from where you stand, not a zoom button.

    It’s designed perfectly for the job, too. Ricoh’s cameras aren’t noted for their design and build, but this one’s a gem. The body’s slim, tough and minimalistic, and the controls are excellent. The action of the click-and-turn Adj button on the back is a little tricky, but otherwise it’s hard to fault this camera’s handling. The continuous shooting speed is a little slow, though.

    The pictures are excellent, with rich, vivid colours and edge-to-edge detail with no distortion or chromatic aberration. For those brave enough to invest in a fixed focal length camera, the Ricoh GRD III has to be a top contender, but it’s not cheap.

    Key points

    ● Fixed focal length 28mm lens ideal for documentary/landscape photography, but limited otherwise
    ● Simple but effective flush-mounted buttons on rear
    ● Customisable Adj button tricky at first but really useful in the long run
    ● EV compensation with ‘zoom’ button quick and easy
    ● Choice of focus modes including AF, Manual, Infinity and Snap
    ● Excellent Macro mode gets as close as 1cm for startling magnifications

    Verdict:

    Image quality ***** / Ease of use ***** / Value for money *** /

    Overall ****

    Sigma DP2

    £600

    Sigma’s multi-layer Foveon X3 sensor produces full RGB colour information for every pixel in the image. And the result is pictures with only 4.7 million pixels, but extraordinary definition.

    The DP2 has a fixed focal length lens equivalent to 41mm. The ‘old’ DP1 has
    a 28mm equivalent lens and continues alongside this model, so you can choose the camera with the focal length you prefer.

    Like the Ricoh, the Sigma is designed to do a simple job beautifully, but it only succeeds up to a point. It can shoot JPEGs, but the contrast and the colours don’t always come out well. Really, you need to shoot RAW files and process them with the Sigma Photo Pro software.

    The DP2 is slow at saving its RAW files, though. You have to wait several seconds before it’s ready for the next shot, and while it can take three in quick succession in Continuous Shooting mode, this then multiplies the wait before the camera’s ready again. This, combined with noisy and slow autofocus, and a small and dingy LCD, make the DP2 feel somewhat antiquated. The pace of development at Sigma needs to increase if its Foveon sensor technology is going to make any headway at all.

    Key points

    ● Stablemate to the 28mm equivalent Sigma DP1, which continues alongside
    ● Three-layer Foveon sensor produces 4.7Mp images of startling definition
    ● Can shoot JPEGs, but RAW files processed with the bundled Sigma Photo Pro software are best
    ● Slow image processing speeds can be a real handicap if time is of the essence
    ● Autofocus distinctly slow and noisy compared to the rest
    ● Focus dial on rear offers good, precise manual control

    Verdict

    : Image quality **** / Ease of use *** / Value for money *** /

    Overall ***


    Posted on Tuesday, November 17th, 2009 at 2:45 pm under Compact Cameras, Reviews.

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