New camera

We're mostly done with the Fedora 12 release now, and I'm going for a weekend break to Seattle with my partner tomorrow, so I thought it was a perfect time to indulge myself in a shiny new toy - a new camera. My last one was a fairly cheap Sony compact bought three years ago, so it was definitely showing its age. It annoyed me to take quite nicely-composed shots like:

Lake twilight

which are mostly ruined by the high noise level. Its various other inadequacies were also getting to me - it's pretty slow by modern standards, not many manual controls and they're a bit finicky to use, the usual stuff.

So I've been thinking about getting a new one for a while. I considered a low-end SLR but rejected that on the grounds that I'm just not committed enough to lug the thing around with me. It'd end up sitting at home all the time, and the old aphorism is that the best camera is always the one you have with you. So I discarded that option. I also considered the Olympus E-P1 and especially the Panasonic DMC-GF1, the two popular somewhere-between-SLR-and-compact micro Four Thirds-based cameras. Especially the GF1. Eventually I reluctantly decided against this option for a couple of reasons. One, it's really pretty expensive; a bit more than I, as a casual photographer really, can justify. Two, they're only really portable as long as you're using the fixed focal length pancake lens option. (For the even-less-photgraphically-knowledgeable than me, that basically means 'no zoom'). There's lots of rave reviews which go on at great length about how this is really less of a big problem than you'd expect, but these are clearly all written by the type of drooling photo geek who has seventeen cameras available at any given moment, most of which could zoom in on Alaska in an emergency. For someone like me for whom this will be my only camera, it's a much bigger deal. You can, of course, buy a wide range of variable focal length (zoom) lenses for these cameras, that's kind of the point of the whole system, but they all make the thing much bigger once attached. And then I have the portability problem again; I know the zoom lens would wind up sitting in a bag in a corner somewhere, being a waste of money, and I would be out with the pancake lens cursing that I can't zoom in on something.

So, although the micro Four Thirds options called very strongly to the shiny-odd-things geek part of me, I manfully rejected them. This left me in the market for a newer compact camera. For a while, I was considering the Sony DSC-TX1 - the new model of their high-end extremely tiny camera, the line with the sliding lens covers that you've probably seen in any big-box electronics store. I considered this for a few reasons. Perhaps oddly, I'm something of a Sony fan, as laughable as that may be at present; I generally like Sony design and interfaces, and have found Sony stuff is generally well-made and solid, which is a quality I care about quite a lot. I am a sucker for extremely small instances of things (viz. Exhibit A, my laptop). And it's actually supposed to be a rather good camera for its size, with the video and low-light capabilities quite widely praised.

In the end, though, I decided you're just inevitably giving up too much in raw potential quality to gain such a tiny tiny body, however well Sony have managed to cope with it. I don't really need something so tiny, my pockets and bags can accommodate something a little bigger, and if I am going very lightweight my phone can take acceptable 'fun' pictures at a pinch. What I really wanted was something small enough that I won't wind up leaving it at home all the time and small enough to be pocketable in a pinch, but that was all.

Eventually I wound up back at the usual suspect: yup, Canon. Sony make a mean-looking and very tiny widget, but it seems like the serious choice always winds up being a Canon. At first I was looking at the new G11, the old-fashioned-style compact which feels like you could run over it a tank and has extremely highly-rated image quality. But a few of the reviews pointed me in a different direction. If you don't mind not having the articulated LCD, external flat hotshoe, and optical viewfinder - and I don't mind any of those - you can get the same sensor, and an arguably better lens, in the much-slimmer body of the PowerShot S90.

So, I did. (Whew, you were getting tired there, eh?) And I'm very happy with it so far. It's a revelation compared to any other compact camera I've ever used; in operation (though not physically, obviously) it feels much more like an SLR. The controls, as many reviews have remarked, are wonderful - it's amazingly easy to twiddle with all sorts of options, from the fairly vanilla (zoom, ISO setting, white balance presets) to exposure compensation, flash power, a very wide range of shutter speed and aperture size settings, and all sorts of clever bits like moving face autofocus and slow synchro modes and heaven knows what else. It provides two dial controllers - a typical one on the back and a big one around the lens, like many SLR lenses have for manual focus - and a plethora of modes so you can set each one to control whatever you'd like to have fast access to at any given time. It's just brilliant. Easy enough to have me fooling around on my balcony with the thing sitting on top of my barbecue (tripod? hah!), taking two-second exposure shots of the street outside (it's pretty dark). The processing is again like no compact I've used before - in super-dumb auto mode you can just point it at anything you like and usually get a pretty decent shot, and it's incredibly responsive.

The quality is really amazing for this kind of camera, and just worlds apart from what I was using before. You're never going to get SLR quality out of the lens and sensor that can be stuffed into a compact body at a sub-$500 price point, but it really does wonders with those provisos. Anything up to ISO 800 is very usable, and the image stabilization gives workably sharp hand-held shots at shutter speeds as slow as 1/60 (that's good, very good, for your dimly-lit inside/night shots). I'm very sure my lakeside picture would've come out a hell of a lot better with this camera. The flash is a compact flash that you can't point anywhere but straight at what you're shooting, it's never going to be brilliant, but it does as well as anything this big could. The build quality is great, which as I said is a big deal - I like to keep my stuff a long time, and I do tend to drop things. The casing is metal and feels very solid, all the buttons and wheels feel chunky and non-breakable, even the port covers aren't bad as port covers go.

As you can tell, I'm really happy with this thing! I'll have pictures taken with it up on Flickr after I've been to Seattle, nothing interesting to point it at around here tonight really. But yep, if you're in the market for a new camera, the price is in your range and you're not very sure you want something tiny or really big, it's a fantastic choice.


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