Panasonic ZS100 pocket 10x zoom bests Sony RX100 for travel

In 2016, the most portable 10x zoom on a 1-inch-Type sensor is Panasonic LUMIX ZS100 camera (Amazon) (2016, 11 oz, 25-250mm equivalent, 21mp). ZS100 is now my favorite camera which can fit a large shirt pocket. Read why larger sensors can improve image quality.

Although rival Sony RX100 (read my review) is admittedly sharper throughout 3x zoom, Panasonic ZS100 focuses closer at more zoom settings and enormously extends optical telephoto reach. Anywhere from 3x to 10x zoom (70-250mm equivalent), the ZS100 easily beats digital cropping of Sony RX100’s furthest reach (70mm in versions III & IV). ZS100’s good telephoto remarkably expands your capture of wildlife and distant small subjects, more sharply than pocketable rivals or smartphones (see heron photo further below).

Panasonic ZS100 vs Sony RX100 III size

Compare lens and size of Sony DSC-RX100 III with Panasonic ZS100 digital camera. The ZS100 is definitely fatter but can still squeak into a large shirt pocket.

Compare body sizes:

  • 102 x 58 x 41 mm (4.02 x 2.28 x 1.61) Sony RX100 versions III and IV
  • 111 x 65 x 44 mm (4.37 x 2.56 x 1.73″) Panasonic ZS100

Panasonic ZS100 beats macro focus of Sony RX100

ZS100 captures best macro (close focus) when zoomed by 2x, near 44mm equivalent, to minimize excessive corner softness seen at wider angles of view. You must first press the Macro (Flower symbol/left toggle) button to focus closest. In contrast, Sony RX100 III focuses closest only at 24mm equivalent (widest angle of view), lacks a dedicated macro mode, and cannot enlarge subjects as much. Panasonic ZS100 can enlarge small subjects more sharply than Sony RX100.

Because macro was one of my main reasons for carrying an RX100 (to supplement a larger-sensor APS-C system with 11x zoom which captured poor macro), a ZS100 now serves better as our backup travel camera for my wife to carry.

Surprisingly good telephoto sharpness

Carrying a pocket camera with 10x zoom around town lets me capture unexpected moments like this at a distance:

Panasonic ZS100 shot at 250mm

Above: A Great Blue Heron on a boat spears a fish along the Cheshiahud Lake Union Loop in Seattle, Washington. At 250mm equivalent zoom in sunny conditions, the Panasonic Lumix ZS100 camera captures surprisingly good detail in the heron’s head and feathers (portions shown at 100% pixel view). Even the shadowy “Yamaha” letters look reasonably sharp at the edge of the frame. Photographed at ISO 125, f/5.9, 1/1000th sec.

The above overall image (originally 20 megapixels, 5472 x 3648) can be cropped to isolate the heron at 1764 x 1348 pixels, which is enough to print sharply about 7″ high (at 250dpi). Much better than a smartphone camera, Panasonic ZS100 gives you lots of leeway to share digitally cropped telephoto shots on the internet, as in the example below shrunk to 600 pixels high:

Great Blue Heron spears fish

A Great Blue Heron spears a fish. Photographed along the Cheshiahud Lake Union Loop in Seattle, Washington, USA.

Compare digital camera sensor sizes: 1″-Type, 4/3, APS-C, full frame 35mm

To optimize the portability of a serious travel camera (recommended here), get 1-inch Type sensor size or as large as APS-C sensor. Above this range, full-frame sensors overly increase camera weight for most travelers. Below “1-inch” size, sensors can suffer from poor image quality (especially in dim light) when making large prints. The archaic inch-sizing of sensors is clarified in the illustration and the table further below with relative sizes and millimeters.

For a given year of technological advance, a camera with physically bigger sensor area tends to capture better image quality by gathering more light, but at the cost of larger-diameter, bulkier lenses. Recent digital sensor advances have shrunk cameras and increased optical zoom ranges while preserving image quality. If you avoid using their poor digital zoom, even top smartphones such as Google Pixel, Samsung S6/S7 or Apple iPhone 6s can potentially make good 18-inch prints, and they excel at instantly sharing images. A powerful image can be created any decent camera in the hands of a skilled or lucky photographer. But for superior optical zoom, better performance in dim light and sharper prints, get a bigger camera.

Below, compare sensor sizes for digital cameras:

Sensor sizes for digital cameras.

In the above illustration, compare digital camera sensor sizes: full frame 35mm, APS-C, Micro Four Thirds, 1-inch, 1/1.7″ and 1/2.5” Type. For new digital cameras, a bigger sensor area captures better quality, but requires larger diameter, bulkier lenses. To optimize the size of a serious travel camera, consider 1-inch-Type sensor or up to APS-C sensor size. “Full-frame 35mm” sensor / film size (36 x 24 mm) is a standard for comparison, with a diagonal field-of-view crop factor = 1.0. In comparison, a pocket camera’s 1/2.5” Type sensor crops the light gathering by 6.0x smaller diagonally (with a surface area 35 times smaller than full frame).

Click here for my latest camera recommendations

1″-Type sensor size is now optimal for travel camera portability:

I upgrade my digital camera every 2-4 years because the latest devices keep beating older models. As of 2016, a 1″-Type sensor size is perfect for a portable, lightweight travel camera, as in the following which capture excellent dynamic range (bright to dark) with exceptionally fast autofocus:

Or the following top APS-C-sensor camera lets you interchange lenses (though I prefer the above all-in-one solutions for travel convenience):

The next step up to full-frame-sensor cameras costs extra, adds bulk, and is only needed if you regularly shoot in dim light higher than ISO 6400, or often print images larger than 2 or 3 feet in size to be viewed closer than their longest dimension by critically sharp eyes.

But huge effective billboards can be printed from compact 3-megapixel cameras (read my article)

How to compare cameras

  • My CAMERAS article updates Light Travel camera recommendations several times per year.
  • If possible, compare cameras shot side-by-side under a variety of actual field conditions (which I do just before selling a former camera to confirm the quality of the new replacement camera). I like to “pixel-peep” a side-by-side comparison of two different cameras capturing the same subject under same lighting conditions. Be sure to mentally or digitally normalize any two given shots to compare their fine detail as if printed with equal overall image size.
  • I judge image quality and resolution not by megapixel (mp) count but instead by comparing standardized studio test views at 100% pixel enlargement and checking resolvable lines per picture height (LPH), at the authoritative dpreview.com (owned by Amazon since 2007) and handy Comparometer at imaging-resource.com. Check other review sites analyzing a camera’s telephoto in addition to standard lens.

For me, yearly advances as of 2014-16 put the sweet spot for a serious travel camera between 1”-Type and APS-C size sensors. Most cheaper compact cameras have smaller but noisier sensors such as 1/2.3″ Type (6.17 x 4.56 mm) — tiny enough to miniaturize a superzoom lens (above 15x zoom range), but poor for capturing dim light or for enlarging prints much beyond 12-18 inches.

Smartphones can have even tinier sensors, such as 1/3.0″ Type (4.8 mm x 3.6 mm) in iPhone 5S. Top smartphone cameras have improved miniature sensors to the point where citizen journalists can capture newsworthy photos with image quality good enough for fast sharing and quick international publication. My Samsung Note 5 smartphone (same camera as S6/S7 with 1/2.6″ sensor) captures sunny 16mp images sufficient to make a sharp 18-inch print, virtually indistinguishable from that taken by a larger camera. Tip: avoid the digital zoom on smartphones, and instead move closer before shooting or crop at editing time, if needed to isolate subjects.

Read this pointed perspective on how far image quality has progressed from early DSLR to 2014 smartphone cameras. Historically, evocative images can clearly be captured regardless of camera size or modernity. But for a given year of technological advance, tiny-sensor cameras can have severe limitations compared to physically larger cameras in terms of print enlargement, autofocus speed, blurred performance in dim or indoor light, and so forth. The “best” travel camera is the one that you are willing to carry.

More details:

The non-standardized fractional-inch sensor sizing labels such as 1/2.5-inch Type and 1/1.7″ Type confusingly refer to antiquated 1950s-1980s vacuum tubes. When you see those archaic “inch” size labels, instead look up the actual length and width in millimeters reported in the specifications for each camera:

Table of camera sensor size, area, and diagonal crop factor relative to 35mm full-frame

Sensor Type Diagonal (mm) Width (mm) Height (mm) Sensor Area (in square millimeters) Full frame sensor area is x times bigger Diagonal crop factor* versus full frame
1/3.2″ (Apple iPhone 5 smartphone 2012) 5.68 4.54 3.42 15.50 55 7.6
1/3.0″ (Apple iPhone 5S smartphone 2013) 6.00 4.80 3.60 17.30 50 7.2
1/2.6″ Type (Samsung Galaxy S6 & Note 5 in 2015) 6.86 5.5 4.1 22.55 38 6.3
1/2.5″ Type 7.18 5.76 4.29 24.70 35 6.0
1/2.3″ Type (Canon PowerShot SX280HS, Olympus Tough TG-2) 7.66 6.17 4.56 28.07 31 5.6
1/1.7″ (Canon PowerShot S95, S100, S110, S120) 9.30 7.44 5.58 41.51 21 4.7
1/1.7″ (Pentax Q7) 9.50 7.60 5.70 43.30 20 4.6
2/3″ (Nokia Lumia 1020 smartphone with 41mp camera; Fujifilm X-S1, X20, XF1) 11.00 8.80 6.60 58.10 15 3.9
Standard 16mm Film Frame 12.7 10.26 7.49 76.85 11 3.4
1” Type (Sony RX100 & RX10, Nikon CX, Panasonic FZ1000) 15.86 13.20 8.80 116 7.4 2.7
Micro Four Thirds, 4/3 21.60 17.30 13 225 3.8 2.0
APS-C: Canon EF-S 26.70 22.20 14.80 329 2.6 1.6
APS-C: Nikon DX, Sony NEX/Alpha DT, Pentax K 28.2 – 28.4 23.6 – 23.7 15.60 368 – 370 2.3 1.52 – 1.54
35mm full-frame (Nikon FX, Sony Alpha/Alpha FE, Canon EF) 43.2 – 43.3 36 23.9 – 24.3 860 – 864 1.0 1.0
Kodak KAF 39000 CCD Medium Format 61.30 49 36.80 1803 0.48 0.71
Hasselblad H5D-60 Medium Format 67.08 53.7 40.2 2159 0.40 0.65
Phase One P 65+, IQ160, IQ180 67.40 53.90 40.40 2178 0.39 0.64
IMAX Film Frame 87.91 70.41 52.63 3706 0.23 0.49

* Crop Factor: Note that a “full frame 35mm” sensor/film size (about 36 x 24 mm) is a common standard for comparison, having a diagonal field of view crop factor of 1.0. The debatable term crop factor comes from an attempt by 35mm-film users to understand how much the angle of view of their existing full-frame lenses would narrow (increase in telephoto power) when mounted on digital SLR (DSLR) cameras which had sensor sizes (such as APS-C) which are smaller than 35mm.

With early DSLR cameras, many photographers were concerned about the loss of image quality or resolution by using a digital sensor with a light-gathering area smaller than 35mm film. However, for my publishing needs, APS-C-size sensor improvements easily surpassed my scanning of 35mm film by 2009.

An interesting number for comparing cameras is “Full frame sensor area is x times bigger” in the above table.

  • In comparison to full a frame sensor, a pocket camera’s 1/2.5-inch Type sensor crops the light gathering surface 6.0 times smaller diagonally, or 35 times smaller in area.
  • An APS-C size sensor gathers about 15 times more light (area) than a 1/2.5” Type sensor and 2.4 times less than full frame.
    • APS-C sensors in Nikon DX, Pentax, and Sony E have 1.5x diagonal field of view crop factor.
    • APS-C sensors in Canon EF-S DSLRs have 1.6x diagonal field of view crop factor.
  • 1 stop is a doubling or halving of the amount of gathered light. Doubling a sensor’s area theoretically gathers one stop more light.

Lens quality & diameter also affect image quality

For improving image quality, the quality and diameter of the lens can rival the importance of having a physically larger sensor area. Prime (non-zoom) lenses usually are sharpest for larger prints, but zoom lenses are more versatile and recommended for travelers.

Small sensor can beat larger with newer design (BSI) plus faster optics:

In my side-by-side field tests, the sharp, bright 25x zoom of Sony RX10 III resoundingly beats the resolution of 11x SEL18200 lens on flagship APS-C Sony A6300 at 90+ mm equivalent telephoto, even as high as ISO 6400. (Wider angle zoom settings show little quality difference.) Apparently RX10’s faster f/2.4-4 lens plus backside illumination (BSI) technology magically compensate for the sensor size difference, 1″-Type versus APS-C. Like most APS-C-sensor cameras in 2016, A6300 lacks BSI. Surprisingly little noise affects RX10’s image quality at high ISO 6400 in dim light. Its larger lens diameter gathering more light also helps in this comparison (72mm filter size of RX10 III versus 67mm SEL18200 on A6300).

Larger lens diameter can help dim light photography:

In my field tests, the linear sharpness of Sony’s high-quality SEL1670Z 3x zoom f/4 lens on flagship A6300 is only about 5% better than Sony RX10 III f/2.4-4 in bright light in the wider half of its 24-105mm equivalent range, but no better in dim light. I expect that RX10’s catch-up in quality under dim light is due to superior light sensitivity of BSI sensor plus larger lens diameter gathering more light, 72mm versus 55mm.

Using sweet spot of full-frame lenses on APS-C may not improve quality:

In principle, you might expect a slightly sharper image on an APS-C sensor when using the sweet spot of a lens designed for a full frame (which has a larger imaging circle), but results actually vary, especially when using older film-optimized lenses. In fact, a lens which is designed and optimized specially “for digital, for APS-C” can equal or exceed the quality of an equivalent full-frame lens on the same sensor, while also reducing bulk and weight (as in the Sony E-mount example further below).

Theoretically, new full-frame lenses “designed for digital” (using image-space telecentric design) may perform better on a digital sensor than would older lenses designed for film:

  • Unlike film, digital sensors receive light best when struck squarely rather than at a grazing angle.
  • Digital cameras perform best with lenses optimized specially “for digital”, using image-space telecentric designs, in which all the rays land squarely on the sensor (as opposed to having incoming rays emerge at the same angle as they entered, as in a pinhole camera). The light buckets (sensels) on digital sensors require light rays to be more parallel than with film (to enter at close to a 90 degree angle to the sensor).
  • Film can record light at more grazing angles than a digital sensor. Because older film-optimized lenses bend light to hit the sensor at more of a glancing angle, they reduce light-gathering efficiency and cause more vignetting around the edges (which is somewhat mitigated by the image circle being cropped by the APS-C sensor, which uses just the center part of the full-frame lens).
Side-by-side testing works better than theory to distinguish lenses:

Compare the following two Sony E-mount zoom lenses, full-frame versus APS-C:

  1. 2015 full-frame “Sony E-mount FE 24-240mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS” lens (27.5 oz, 36-360mm equivalent).
  2. 2010 APS-C “Sony E-mount 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS (silver SEL-18200)” lens (18.5 oz, 27-300mm equiv).

Both lenses are optimized for digital, yet the APS-C lens is much lighter weight and performs equal to or better than the full-frame lens. Side-by-side comparisons and also DxOMark tests on a Sony A6000 camera show that while they are about equally sharp, the Sony 24-240 has more distortion, vignetting and chromatic aberration than the 18-200mm.

Raw format and advantages of large sensors over small

Cameras with larger sensors can achieve a shallower depth of focus than smaller sensors, a feature which movie makers and portrait photographers like to use for blurring the background (at brightest aperture setting, smallest F number value) to draw more attention to the focused subject. Conversely, smaller-sensor cameras like the Sony RX10 III and RX100 III tend to be much better at capturing close-focus (macro) shots with great depth of focus (especially at wide angle), at ISO up to 800. But the macro advantages of small-sensor cameras can diminish in dim light or when shooting at ISO higher than 800.

Landscape photographers often prefer to capture a deep depth of focus, which can be achieved with both small and large sensor cameras (often optimally sharp using a middle aperture F number value such as f/4 to f/5.6 on 1-inch Type sensor or f/8 on APS-C, while avoiding the diffraction of small pupil openings at high F number values such as f/22 on APS-C or full-frame).

To maximize raw dynamic range of brightness values from bright to dark, use base ISO (around ISO 100 or 200 in most digital still cameras), rather than higher ISO settings which amplify noise (blotchiness at the pixel level, most-visibly in shadows). However, using the latest full-frame sensors at high ISO values 6400+ can capture unprecedentedly low noise and open new possibilities for dim-light action photography at hand-held shutter speeds, indoors or at night.

Without the help of a flash, night and dim indoor photography is best with a full-frame sensor to gather more light with less noise. Low-noise night photography is usually best shot on a tripod at slow shutter speeds in raw format between ISO 100 and 800 (or as high as 1600-3200 on the latest large sensors).

For a given year of technological advance, cameras with larger sensors typically capture a wider dynamic range of brightness values from bright to dark per image than smaller sensors, with less noise. In 2016, Sony’s 1″-Type backside illumination (BSI) sensors capture sufficient dynamic range for my needs.

Camera raw format allows editing recovery of several stops of highlight and shadow detail which would be lost (truncated) in JPEG file format (if overexposed or underexposed). Alternatively, PC software or camera firmware using HDR (High Dynamic Range) imaging lets any size of sensor greatly increase an image’s dynamic range by combining multiple exposures. But for me, the great dynamic range of a single raw file (from 1″-Type BSI or APS-C sensor) usually makes shooting extra images for HDR unnecessary.

Despite advanced circuitry, cameras are not smart enough to know which subjects are supposed to be white, black, or midtone in brightness. By default, all cameras underexpose scenes where white tones (such as snow) predominate, and overexpose highlights in scenes where black tones predominate. IMPORTANT TIP: To correctly expose for all tones, you need to lock exposure upon an actual midtone (such as a gray card; or on a line halfway between light and shadow) in the same light as your framed subject.

For greatest editing flexibility, rather than shooting JPEG format, serious photographers should record and edit images in raw format, which is supported in advanced cameras (but often not in small-sensor devices). Editing raw format fully recovers badly-exposed images − allowing you to “point and shoot” more freely than with JPEG. Even so, I carefully shoot to expose each histogram to the far right while avoiding truncation of highlights, in order to capture the highest signal-to-noise ratio in each scene. Try to stay close to base ISO 100 or 200. I typically first shoot a test shot on automatic Aperture-preferred priority, inspect the histogram, check any blinking highlight warnings, then compensate subsequent shots using Manual Exposure (or temporary Exposure Lock grabbed from the scene). Tonal editing of JPEGs can quickly truncate color channels or accumulate round-off errors, often making the image appear pasty, pixelated, or posterized. White Balance (Color Balance) is easily adjustable after shooting raw files, but tonal editing often skews colors oddly in JPEG. 12-bit Raw format has 16 times the tonal editing headroom and color accuracy compared to JPEG (which has only 8 bits per pixel per red, green, or blue color channel). In their favor, automatic point-and-shoot JPEG camera exposure modes get smarter every year, making advanced larger cameras less necessary for many people.

Detailed full-frame comparison of low-light Sony A7S 12mp versus A7R 36mp

How can we distinguish the image quality captured by different cameras? Images are best compared at a normalized pixel level (with fine detail examined on a monitor as if printed with equal overall image size) after shooting side-by-side in the field with comparable lens and shutter speed settings. Consider two sibling full-frame-sensor cameras:

  1. Sony Alpha A7S (12 mp of large-bucket photosites optimized for high ISO, low light, and videography plus stills, new in 2015) versus
  2. Sony Alpha A7R (36 megapixels of smaller-bucket photosites optimized for high resolution, new in 2014)

Despite its tinier but denser photosite buckets (also called sensels or pixel wells for catching light photons), the 36mp Sony Alpha A7R beats the dynamic range of 12mp Sony Alpha A7S in a normalized comparison of raw files (see dpreview article). While both cameras spread their photosites across the same surface area of a full-frame sensor, the 36mp A7R trumps the 12mp A7S for exposure latitude flexibility in raw post-processing at ISO 100 through 6400. Overall image quality of the 12mp A7S doesn’t beat the A7R until ISO 12,800 and higher (but only in the shadows through midtones under low-light conditions). Sony A7S is better for low-light videographers, whereas A7R is better for low-light landscape photographers who value high resolution and dynamic range.

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Digital versus film for travel photography

Tom began using 35mm film (135 film cartridge) in 1978 and switched to digital cameras after 2004. This article explains why:

Digital versus Film for Travel Photography 2009” PDF document
compares and reviews digital cameras versus film through 2009.

See my latest camera model recommendations.

Read the book “Light Travel: Photography on the Go” for the story of how a photographer’s switch from film to digital cameras inspired new creativity. Get more out of your digital camera using Tom Dempsey’s helpful tips.


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BEST 2017 TRAVEL CAMERAS reviewed

Top recommended travel cameras (pocket, midsize, DSLR, full frame) as of June 2017:

Research by Tom Dempsey recommends the following portable cameras and gear best for on-the-go photographers. Yearly advances now put the sweet spot for serious travel cameras in the size range from 1”-Type to APS-C sensors (read article).

Sony RX10 III camera

The world’s most versatile midsize camera: Sony RX10 III has a weather-sealed 25x zoom 24-600mm equivalent, bright f/2.4-4 lens.

As smartphones typically blur shots in dim light and zoom poorly, upgrading to (A) a pocket-size 1″-size-sensor camera (read my review) will help make bigger prints. But for publishing, I prefer (B) a midsize Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 III camera (price at Amazon) with versatile 25x zoom lens which outshines APS-C sensor systems anywhere near its weight class — read my RX10 III review.

Traditionalists wanting more lens choices and optical viewfinder may pick (C) a bulkier DSLR-style camera with APS-C sensor. Elite photographers seeking dim-light images at high ISO 6400+ may prefer a heavier (D) full-frame sensor camera

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A. World’s best pocket-size camera:

Panasonic Lumix DSC-ZS100 (buy at Amazon) (2016, 11 oz, 25-250mm equivalent lens) outguns all pocketable 1″-sensor rivals with a versatile 10x zoom (read my ZS100 review).  Other options:

  1. Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 (IV, III, II, or I) (price at Amazon) only zooms to 3x but is noticeably sharper and brighter than ZS100. Add a Sony AG-R2 attachment grip. Fit into Tamrac Digital 1 Photo Bag with extra Wasabi Power NPBX1 batteries. Save money with used or earlier III, II or I versions — read Tom’s Sony RX100 review.
  2. Pocket superzoom: Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS60 (2016, 10 oz, 24–720mm equiv 30x zoom, 18mp, EVF) or older ZS50.
  3. Cheapest: Canon PowerShot ELPH 170 IS (2015, 5 oz, 25-300mm equiv lens, 1/2.3″ sensor).
  4. Underwater, shockproof, dust-resistant: Olympus Tough TG-4 (2015, 8.7 oz, 25-100mm equiv) compromises image quality but is good for underwater movies.

Continue reading

2008: Panasonic FZ8 vs FZ7, Canon G7, G9, SD700

Tom compares Panasonic FZ8, FZ7, Canon G6, G7, G9, SD700 IS (2008 cameras), and JPEG versus raw.

“Hi Tom …I was very keen to buy Canon G6 , but as now out of production & very difficult to get hold of , even second hand . The G7’s reviews are mixed especially the absence of RAW [file support]. Do you think this is a big disadvantage , is it something an amature would have much use for ? What are your views of the G7 ? Your photos on your website look great , do you use a Polariser filter to get the colour contrasts ? Particularly enjoy your trekking photos in Switzerland.”  — Regards, from Tony Lord February 6, 2007
[ Information here dates from 2008 for people interested in older cameras. Click BUY > CAMERAS to see the latest recommended gear. ]
Tom Dempsey replied as follows including new information as of February 2008:
  • If like Tony you are attracted to a camera such as the Canon G6, I suggest upgrading to the class-leading image quality of the Canon G9, with 3-inch LCD, raw file support, and 12 megapixels; introduced 10/2007.
  • To save money, try ebay.com or craigslist.org for finding a Canon G6.
  • From compacts to SLRs, today’s digital cameras are much better than cameras of only 2 years previous. Performance of pocket cameras today can sometimes exceed older 35mm film SLRs.
  • Note that your photography skills are much more important than the camera you use. One of the best cameras to have is a small one which you can carry everywhere, such as the shirt-pocket sized Canon SD700 IS, with which I captured these images:

    Powdery snow islands dot Commonwealth Creek in Commonwealth Basin, Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area, Snoqualmie Pass, Washington, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / Photoseek.com)

    Powdery snow islands dot Commonwealth Creek in Commonwealth Basin, Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area, Snoqualmie Pass, Washington, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / Photoseek.com)

Image on right: Snow & ice saucers formed on rocks in Commonwealth Creek, Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area, Washington. Commonwealth Basin makes one of the best snowshoeing trips in the Snoqualmie Pass area along Interstate 90.
A tiny camera such as the Canon SD700 IS ELPH is easy to keep warm in your pocket to capture winter snapshots while snowshoeing or skiing. The Canon SD700IS also lets us record movies of our tango dance instructor (with permission) to remember the steps. It handily records pictures of different flooring, cabinet, and lighting designs as we comparison shop for our kitchen remodel. My wife Carol likes to keep this tiny Canon ELPH (about the size of a pack of playing cards) handy in her purse or daypack for capturing images that inspire her quilting designs.
A yellow flower of a Glacier Lily grows on Scorpion Mountain, a hike (9 miles round trip, 2500 feet total gain) near Skykomish, US Highway 2, Washington, USA. Published in "Light Travel: Photography on the Go" by Tom Dempsey 2009, 2010. (© Tom Dempsey / Photoseek.com)
Above left: A glacier Lily on Johnson Ridge in late June, on the hike to Scorpion Mountain (9 miles, 2900 feet round trip), a hike in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, accessible from US Highway 2 near Skykomish, Washington. Digital cameras like the tiny Canon SD700 IS have great macro abilities.
  • If a camera is too big, then you might decide not to carry it everywhere, thus missing many great shots.
  • The Canon G7 is a better camera than the smaller Canon SD700IS. You could be very happy with a G7 which can conveniently fit into a big shirt pocket. The G7 has 10 megapixels, image stabilized 35-210mm f/2.8-5.9 lens, great 0.4″ macro close focus (about 1 cm ) at 35mm, sophisticated DIGIC III processing, bright 2.5″ LCD visible at high angles. [Upgrade to Canon G9for 3-inch LCD, raw and 12 megapixels; introduced 10/2007.]
    • Unfortunately the G7 has no flip-out-and-twist LCD which was a great feature of the Canon G5. [See the excellent Fujifilm FinePix S9100 for a tilting LCD.]
    • The G7 has no raw mode (and battery life is shorter than the G5). [The excellent Canon G9 offers raw.] Also, I prefer a camera which starts zooming with a wider angle such as 28mm equivalent for flexibility indoors, tight spaces, or wide landscapes (workaround: stitch images together).
    • If you want to print images bigger than about 18 inches, you would need a camera with a lens diameter larger than the G7, to capture more light.
  • Also consider the Panasonic FZ8 as an inexpensive and versatile travel camera for standard sized prints. [FZ8 is cheaper than G7 or G9, but image quality suffers in comparison due to smaller sensor.] FZ8 features: 36-432mm (35mm equiv) 12x zoom lens with stabilization, now includes raw mode, 7.1 megapixels, weighs only 310 g (11 ounces). My brother who is a very discriminating photographer bought a Panasonic FZ7 (which has no raw mode) as a travel & backpacking camera for convenience such as when traveling with children — he likes the FZ7 (versus his older bigger & heavier film system Olympus OM-1). [He later upgraded to the FZ8.] The FZ8 improves upon the FZ7, and probably can make bigger prints.
  • Raw vs JPEG: Most consumers (not professional photographers) are usually happy with JPEGs and not using raw, since raw requires an extra conversion step, which takes a few extra seconds per image (or minutes if you adjust the image). The extra step in using raw adds a lot of extra time when processing dozens or thousands of images like I do — but for me raw is very much worthwhile due to the extra 1 to 2 stops exposure & white balance latitude and editing headroom, which translates into larger print capability, such as 20×30 inches from my Canon Powershot Pro1 (when print is viewed at 30 inches). Sometimes the extra information in raw gives you enough exposure & editing headroom to let you print up to twice as big versus JPEG. The raw conversion step need not take much extra time since you can automate raw conversion to make the defaults look much like the JPEG would have. Raw is much more forgiving than JPEG and lets you adjust white balance, exposure, tone, contrast, saturation, sharpness and so forth after shooting. With JPEG you need to be careful to shoot with the right exposure & white balance, at the risk of irretrievably losing highlight or shadow information (or both).
  • Be cautious when using a polarizer with digital, since may oddly affect white balance, and can make skies look unnaturally dark. But sometimes a polarizer is very important in removing reflections on water & green plants or increasing contrast in the sky, so I keep a polarizer in my kit.
Good luck with your photography.
Bright yellow algae grows in a tarn (mountain pond) which reflects peaks of Dents des Veisivi (left) and Aiguilles de la Tsa (right) above Arolla Valley, part of Val d'Hérens, in Valais (Wallis) Canton, Switzerland, Europe. Hike the High Route (Chamonix-Zermatt Haute Route) for classic mountain scenery. Panorama stitched from 2 images. Published in Ryder-Walker Alpine Adventures "Inn to Inn Alpine Hiking Adventures" Catalog 2006-2009, 2011. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Above: Striking yellow algae in a tarn reflecting Les Dents des Veisivi, above the Arolla Valley, Switzerland. On this day we hiked about 8 miles (2900 feet up, 3300 feet down) from Arolla to La Gouille, then we bused to our hotel in Les Haudères. Published in Ryder-Walker Alpine Adventures 2006 & 2007 “Inn to Inn Alpine Hiking Adventures” Catalog. Photographed with a Canon Powershot Pro1 camera.

Clint Janson wrote Feb 7, 2007:
“I just discovered your website and viewed all of your Alp hike pages. I have to go back!!! My wife and I stayed in Gimmelwald a few years ago and did some hiking, but it was in march and in the snow and low clouds. Thank you for posting your wonderful pictures of one of the greatest and most beautiful areas in the world. I sent the linkto my Wife (who grew up in Europe and spent many holidays in the Alps) and I know she will be home sick. (which means a trip soon!) Thanks again, you are a very talented Photographer.”

2007: compare Nikon D40X SLR, Canon Pro1, G7, Panasonic FZ8

In 2007, I upgraded from a Canon Powershot Pro1 (2004) to Nikon D40X SLR (2007), mounted with the flexible Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED lens (27-300mm equivalent).

[ I have upgraded cameras since this article was posted. Click here for Tom’s latest camera recommendationsClick here for my personal photo gear history. ]

Cicada insect, Queen Charlotte Track, South Island, New Zealand. Published in "Light Travel: Photography on the Go" by Tom Dempsey 2009, 2010. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Cicada insect, Queen Charlotte Track, South Island, New Zealand. Published in “Light Travel: Photography on the Go” by Tom Dempsey 2009, 2010. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Compact versus DSLR cameras

  • Compact cameras can focus very closely with good depth of field, and their live LCD view (like a high definition video camera, capturing stills, movies & sound) makes framing shots easy at arms length over your head or on the ground.
    • To photograph this 1-inch cicada insect (above), I flipped out the LCD at a good viewing angle, I knelt comfortably, and slowly stretched my arms fully towards the insect. In the low forest light, I stabilized the camera against the ground for a sharper image at a slow 1/10th second exposure at f/6.3 aperture. I easily framed the insect by looking down on the live LCD, though accurate focus took several tries.
    • An SLR would have required me to put my head on the ground with my eye to the viewfinder, in a very uncomfortable & dirt-stained position. Also, my tripod would have taken too long to set up before the insect flew away.
    • The Super Macro feature (not found in SLRs) gives extra magnification (at 5 megapixels for the Canon Powershot Pro1, capturing better resolution than digitally cropping the Pro1’s normal 8-megapixel Macro Mode). The Pro1 can focus as close as 1 inch / 2.5 cm using 5 megapixel Super Macro Mode ,which can be impressively “fast”: f/3.0 at 90 mm equivalent.
    • The all-in-one lens in many other modern compact digital cameras can focus as close as 0.5 inches or 1 centimeter, great for macro shots, much closer than most standard SLR lenses.
    • All-in-one lenses and live LCDs on compact cameras let you more spontaneously and creatively capture fleeting moments. You can switch very quickly from macro close focus, to wide view distant focus, to telephoto. Even the smallest compact cameras can make decent prints to 16 inches or A4 size.
  • Disadvantages of SLR-style cameras: Heft and bulk may discourage you from carrying the SLR camera when you need it. Since a good shirt-pocket sized camera can make good prints to 16 inches, an SLR is overkill for most people. A bigger camera won’t make you a better photographer – you can get great shots with most any camera (click here for examples). Since most SLRs don’t have a live view on the LCD (due to their viewfinder mirror blocking the sensor), you must look through their viewfinder to frame shots, which is difficult for low-to-the-ground macro photographs, or for shots held overhead. SLRs may require the inconvenience of switching to separate (expensive) lenses such as for macro. Switching lenses gathers dust on the sensor, which can be hard to clean.
  • Advantages of SLRs over compact cameras:SLRs make bigger prints. SLRs capture less noise at higher ISO settings, giving much better light sensitivity. SLRs shoot with faster shutter response (with little shutter lag) to capture fleeting moments. SLRs capture images with less distortion using higher quality sharper lenses.
    • Of my images in New Zealand this year, I could have improved the print quality of about 50% of the photographs if I had taken them with the D40X SLR with 18-200mm VR lens, which has a longer telephoto and at least 6 f/stops greater light sensitivity.
    • Only 10% of my images (in the form of macro images; movies & sound recordings) would have required my compact Canon Powershot Pro1.

The following question from Chris De Schepper May 16, 2007 motivated this article:

I noticed that you bought a Nikon D40x [described on Tom’s Equipment page]. I am still in doubt about the Canon G7 and I can buy a Nikon D40 with kit lens for nearly the same money. Maybe it would be smarter to get the DSLR and buy eventually later on a cheaper compact. Is there an obvious difference in quality between the pictures taken with your Nikon D40x and your Pro 1 ? I have always used an analogue slr camera and assume that the big advantage in use would be the optical viewfinder in bright sunlight. I would use it a lot for hiking. Disadvantage being the weight of course, but the Nikon is not so heavy. If I buy the G7 I would also buy the adapter for a polaroid filter. kind greetings –  Chris

Tom Dempsey responds:

Nikon D40X SLR, versus compact Canon Pro1, G7, or Panasonic FZ8

In May 2007, I started using a great new lightweight travel camera, the Nikon D40X SLR, mounted with a 27-300mm equivalent zoom with 4 f/stops VR image stabilization. The D40X is Nikon’s answer to the similar lightweight Canon EOS 400D Digital Rebel XTi camera (2 ounces heavier).

I compared the same images shot side by side with my favorite compact camera, the Canon Powershot Pro1, (released 2004) versus the Nikon D40X (new in 2007) mounted with the powerful Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED lens (27-300mm equivalent), which has four f/stops faster hand-held shooting using Vibration Reduction (VR).

Results: The D40X SLR (10-megapixels) captures the same or better quality images in bright daylight, but significantly better quality in low light than the Pro1.

The Canon Powershot Pro1 (8 megapixels) still stands up surprisingly well to the SLR: even though its sensor area is 6 times smaller, the Pro1’s great Canon “L” 28-200mm f/2.4-3.5 lens has excellent light gathering power & sharpness. The Pro1 (25 ounces with battery) compares remarkably well despite being older, much smaller and lighter than the D40X with 18-200mm VR lens (38 ounces with battery). Where there is enough light, such as for outdoor landscapes in the sun, the Pro1 seems equally sharp as the Nikkor 18-200mm VR lens on the D40X.

Putting a better lens on the D40X might more clearly exceed the Pro1’s quality, but that would require multiple separate zooms (extra weight and inconvenience). I prefer an all-in-one zoom lens solution for travel photography, such as this Nikkor VR 27-300mm equivalent. (Note that 8 versus 10 megapixels are not a significant difference when choosing between cameras.)

A compact camera with flip-out-and-twist LCD (such as the Canon Pro1) is more fun to use and great for macro (see cicada insect image above), but the Nikon D40x will capture better images when using the Nikkor 18-200mm VR 11x zoom lens in a greater variety of hand-held dim lighting conditions. Other users report that the D40X captures quality equal to the excellent Nikon D200, which weighs 13 ounces heavier.

Upgrading to the Nikon D40X improves the printing quality of over 50% of my shots, versus using compact cameras such as the Canon Powershot Pro1. As a supplement to the D40X, I will continue using a pocket camera such as the Canon Powershot SD700IS which is great for movies, sound recording, and certain spontaneous shots when I’m not carrying the bulkier SLR. For me, using an image stabilizing (VR) lens is very important to make the SLR more clearly superior in overall performance & quality to justify its size and weight, versus a compact camera.

Compact cameras still offer an all-in-one photography solution at a great price value when compared to SLRs. If you choose a compact camera as an alternative to an SLR, I highly recommend optical image stabilization, and raw file support to compensate for the noisier small sensor.

Click BUY menu at left to see the latest Best Travel Cameras.

Compare the Canon G7 and Panasonic FZ8:

  • Panasonic DMC-FZ8: 36-432mm f/2.8-3.1; 12x image stabilized zoom lens; 7.2 megapixels; only 12 ounces with battery; slightly less bulky than the Canon Pro1 but half the weight. 5 cm closest macro focus. Sharp 2.5-inch LCD (which unfortunately doesn’t flip out). Raw support. A great price value. 1/2.5″ sensor size. Truly powerful and fun to use, this camera is very small & lightweight, making good prints up to A4 size (around 18 inches). Image quality is good at ISO 100 to 200 (but noisy at ISO 400 or higher). The raw file support can compensate for noise reduction problems (Venus III processor). Read the full review, “Highly Recommended (just)” at this external link: http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/panasonicfz8/
  • Canon G7: If you don’t need raw mode, you could also be very happy with the excellent Canon G7, which can conveniently fit into a big shirt pocket (one inch flatter than the FZ8), and can make good prints up to 20 inches. [Better yet, upgrade to the Canon G9 supporting raw files.] The G7 has an 35-210mm f/2.8-5.9 lens, 6x image stabilized zoom, 10 megapixels; only 13 ounces with battery. Great 1 cm / 0.4″ macro close focus at 35mm. Bright 2.5″ LCD visible at high angles. 1/1.8″ sensor size (bigger than the FZ8). Image quality is good to ISO 400 (one stop better than the FZ8). Sophisticated Canon DIGIC III processing. Read the full review, “Highly Recommended (only just)”: http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/canong7/
  • Disadvantages of Canon G7 and Panasonic FZ8: These compact cameras only zoom as wide as 35 or 36mm equivalent; but I prefer a camera which zooms at least as wide as 28mm for flexibility indoors, tight spaces, or wide landscapes (workaround: stitch images together). In comparison, SLRs can shoot good images at ISO 800-1600 and can make bigger, higher quality prints. These cameras all lack a flip-out-and-twist LCD (which is a great feature of the earlier Canon G5 and Pro1).

More details regarding the Nikon D40X SLR with Nikkor 18-200mm VR lens: Continue reading