Monday, September 10, 2012

The Neglected Compact Camera

I intended to do my shutter therapy today with the Olympus PEN E-PL1, only to realize on the way out of the door that the battery was not charged, and the camera had been used for two shooting sessions already. Initial alternative was to either use the DSLR E-520 or E-5, but I made a change of mind in that very last minute, to take out my much ignored compact point and shoot camera Panasonic Lumix LZ8. If you know that I have this compact camera (which I bought 3 years ago) stashed somewhere, you must have been following my blog for quite a while now, and I have you to thank for. The Panasonic LZ8 was my everyday camera that I used for documentation purposes on for my day to day work on a construction site, and I paid little attention to using the camera on my own non-work activities. However, a camera is still a camera, and why not give this lowly, budget, neglected, looked-down upon camera a spin? Will the camera work for street shooting?

The camera that I use for day to day work, but almost never for my shutter therapy. 



All images in this entry (except the above image of course) were taken with Panasonic Lumix DMC-LZ8.

Afternoon Smile

Face Down

Spiraling upward

Suitcase

Something in your hair

Piggyback

Relevance of Compact Point and Shoot Camera

I am not sure where the compact point and shoot category fits into anymore in today's modern digital photography world. Most people who wanted to venture into photography will surely skip this small sensor, small body, non-changeable lens and non-professional looking cameras, jumping straight to monstrous sized, professional grade, high performance, most technologically advanced system out there, such as the full frame DSLR system. No, people are not exactly that interested in entry level DSLR anymore these days. Where does this leave the compact camera? I am very, very sure the sales of compact cameras are declining to a sure death, the question is when. Mobile phone photography is taking over the world now, for those who refuse to lug around those gigantic neck-breaking DSLR bodies with bazooka lenses. For those who would want to consider compact cameras for light-weight, small-sized and easy to carry around reasons, they would go for high-end compact or "bridge" compact systems, with slightly larger image sensors and more advanced controls, such as the Panasonic LX-7, Sony RX100, and Canon G12. Those cameras are not exactly compact point and shoot anymore, considering the much higher price range, and more sophisticated packed with features and functions. Piecing all the above puzzles into a larger picture, I cannot help but wonder if my Panasonic LZ8, a budget, lowly compact is still relevant anymore. Should I just give up on it? I do not even shoot much with it !!


Using the Compact on the Street

As I looked back into what I have been doing for the past month, I have come to a very stark realization: I do not need high end cameras to do all the experimentation that I have carried out (flash photography on the street, and the slow shutter speed techniques). In fact, all that I have been shooting with the DSLR E-520 and kit lens, with a manual flash, the similar results can be obtained with a compact camera, such as the Panasonic LZ8. Hard to believe, but I can assure you, it is true, and I have photographs in this entry to show. 

It all comes down to your own preferences and how you perceive street photographs. As for me, my usual style includes using shallow depth of field (bokeh, oh beautiful bokeh), producing very sharp images (wonderful 50mm macro lens), and displaying glorious, natural colors. Nonetheless, most street photographs you will find in the world are against such technical execution. You will find mostly grainy photographs, that could be out of focus, or soft, or even blurred due to motion captured in the photograph. The sharpness was never that important. Furthermore, the popularly used zone-focusing system renders everything in focus and clear in the photograph, with no place for bokeh or shallow depth of field. Undeniably, almost all of the best and most popular street photographs are shown in black and white, with the absence of color. If we were to take what a "typically good street photograph" is against my usual shooting style, I would say I most certainly have disqualified in all criteria. I am fully aware of this, but I love what I have been doing, and that is not going to change. At the same time, I also have been experimenting with the black and white, gritty, grainy, not so sharp output, no-bokeh, harsh with flash-in-your-face shots for the past month. 

Why do you use an F1.4 lens if you decide to shoot at F/11 or narrower for zone focusing to have everything in focus/sharp? Why do you need such large image sensor (APS-C or full frame) that gives you so much dynamic range, just for you to throw it all away when you boosted the contrast so that the shadow is blackened and the highlights and blown to pure whiteness? What is the point of having so many megapixels when at the end of the day you purposely induce motion blur and create very soft dreamy output? For those "typically good street photographs" output, I don't think you need to use something so expensive and powerful. 

Now enters the compact camera. With the small sensor (smallest you can find really) you get massive depth of field. Set the aperture to F/5.6 or smaller, you get something equivalent to "zone focusing" effect. With the gritty, high contrast, harsh, slightly out of focus, black and white kind of outcome, there really is no need for very good lens, even the tiny built in lens would do. Flash photography on the street? No problem, almost all compact cameras have a built in flash, and they work relatively well too. So why not use a compact camera on the street?


A Prostitute. 
Hip Shot

Two Wheels

Broken Window

Stretches

Vegetables on my Shoulder


Please do take note that using flash, creating very harsh, high contrast black and white and dark-toned, gritty images are not usually my style, or preference when shooting on the street, I believe in trying out different thing, and exploring more possibilities. I want to be able to see and experience different techniques first hand, before I can give any comments, and when I do, I can be more objective and clear about the topic, because I have done it, and I have put myself in doing it again and again, not just a simple, quick encounter. 

So what did I do with the Panasonic LZ8 this time? The camera has manual controls, full PASM, and I switched between P (programme exposure) and S (shutter Priority). When I am shooting normal subjects, with direct point and shoot and nothing extra fancy, I use the P (programme exposure), with ISO set to Auto and exposure compensation +0.7 EV (I prefer my images to be brighter when they are in B&W). As you have probably noticed in this entry, quite a few shots were taken with motion blur in mind, hence for slowing down the shutter speed, I switched to the S (shutter priority), using 1/10sec to 1/30sec, depending on how fast the subject moves. I switched the Image Stabilization OFF for smoother panning results. I also engaged the in camera black and white conversion. Mostly I shoot at wide open (equivalent 32mm) but when I did close up portraits, I zoomed in at least 2x to avoid ugly distortions on the facial profile. The focusing was not very fast (as the same with most budget compact point and shoot cameras) but with some pre-planning and pre-focusing (focusing on nearby subjects) it was not much of an issue. For some shots that I needed to use flash, the in camera flash worked just fine. 

I do have my set of complains with this camera. The main problem is shutter lag, and it was bad enough for me to have some important misses, which was frustrating. I can blame the camera, but the camera can blame me at the same time, for not using it enough, to understand its focusing behaviour and time myself more efficiently as I execute my shots. It is true I spent very little time with this camera, and not knowing it thoroughly, it was not easy to work with it. At 8MP output, the resolution was quite poor, lacking details, and the file viewed at 100% is full of compression and sharpening artifacts. As expected, even at ISO400, noise can be quite an issue, even on monotone images. Traces of luminance noise can be seen throughout the images, especially those with more shadow. 

I Chew My Shirt

Searching for the Answers to the Universe

Telescope

Busy Street

Train

Today's street shooting session with the Panasonic LZ8 compact point and shoot camera made me realize that all the experimentation with the more "typically good street photographs" do not require high end cameras, in fact, they can be achieved with relatively cheaper, and lower-end cameras. Indeed, in street photography, the focus has never been about how sharp your image is, or how beautiful the colors you have captured. It has nothing to do with the 3D effect that your lens can deliver, or how much dynamic range your image sensor is capable of showing. What makes street photographs work? Good subject content, with emotion and drama in the image, composed creatively and timed strategically to capture that moment. 

What do I believe in? Do I agree with the "typically good street photographs"? Lets just say, I am still very young (in terms of photography age) to make any conclusions, and I shall not make any. There are so much more to learn and try out. Lets not tie ourselves down with too many rules and restrictions. I want to stay open to more possibilities, and be flexible when I approach street photography. Therefore, besides shooting within my comfort zone, I dared myself to try different techniques. And of course, pushing myself on the street with even the compact camera that nobody seems to care any more. 

Does any of you have a compact camera still, and do you still use your compact camera frequently? Do share some thoughts. 

24 comments:

  1. Phew. I use a compact camera, but that's because I've just started taking more photos - a photograph-each-day project I started a couple of months ago. Decided, if I make it out well, I can buy myself a nice mirrorless camera next year. But perhaps I don't need too. ;)

    Thank's for the good blog (first time comment).

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    1. Hello DJS,
      Glad to find people still use their PnS !! Keep going at it, I am sure the camera will serve you very well.

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  2. Robin, I'm not much of a street photog, but I do love the LX5. I just keep it wide open. A couple of things which help this camera:
    1) Hot shoe... It looks funny, but it takes great pix with my Oly 36R flash, which I interchange with my GH2 and EM5. No shallow DOF of course, but for shots at parties with a few people of different focus distances, you are shooting at the equivalent of F16 if you have it set for 90mm-e and max aperature of F3.2 (about a 5x crop factor)

    2) Few people know this but the LX5 gives you what you need for hyperfocal focusing. Set to Manual Focus and you can still use the "up" button to autofocus, or go to the focusing scale on the display and it shows a yellow bar that indicates the range of distances that are in focus. For example(I just turned mine on) at F8 the yellow bar shows that everything from 5 feet to infinity is in focus.

    Peter F

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    1. Hello Peter,
      Indeed, having the hotshoe opens up a world of possibilities, and even the Olympus flash is quite cheap. It was very thoughtful of Panasonic to include manual focus in the LX5, surely they have street photography in mind when they designed the camera.

      Delete
  3. Robin
    honestly, if you hadn´t pointed out that this session was shot with a compact, i would not have noticed it anyway....great shots, any camera in your hands will do the job!

    bw
    Sven

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    Replies
    1. Hello Sven,
      Thanks for the kind words. I think the compact camera has very poor resolution, you can see the sharpness was not real details, mostly due to sharpening artifacts (artificial processing).
      The images also has more noise, very harsh looking.
      Nonetheless, if we look beyond the technical flaws, and focus on subject content, composition and techniques, they are pretty much the same, no matter what camera we choose to use !

      Delete
  4. I used to own a lowly Samsung CA-5 compact that was stolen four or five years back. It was then already obsolete, "only" 5mp, technical IQ was only so-so even in good light, that sensor was seriously noisy - but still I liked it quite a bit. In fact some of (what I consider to be) my best pics where shot with that unassuming, slow camera. My wife has a little Pentax Optio compact (10mp or so) that's technically quite a bit better, and we still use it.

    I even have a couple of very nice shots made with an ancient Nokia N95 (with quite good Zeiss Tessar lens). It's all relative. I'm thinking of the new Sigma DP2 Merill. A no-frills compact, yes, cheap, not really, but with a fantastic Leica-quality lens and a absolutely stunning sensor, capable of medium-format results minus the bulk.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Andre for adding that sometimes our best images do not necessarily have to come from our best gear, even the humble compact point and shoot or mobile phone can deliver.
      I do think that the Sigma DP2 is very expensive !! And here I am using an outdated, budget compact camera.

      Delete
  5. Oh, needless to say, Robin: great shots again! You really have "the eye". Keep up the good work!

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    1. Thanks Andre,
      I would not go as far as saying about "the eye" but surely being out there with a fairly open heart and minds, surely we will see some interesting opportunities to shoot !

      Delete
  6. Robin, your comment on the shutter lag is pertinent. That's what drove me away from small compacts to a Nikon DSLR. I have since migrated to an X100 and an E-M5 with some nice lenses. Buuuut, you can clearly see here that it's the man/woman behind the viewfinder that makes good photos. You have a great eye. I may never visit KL, but you make it real for me. Thank you.

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    Replies
    1. Hello Ron,
      Thanks for the kind words, but as I have mentioned in my comment to Andre, I think it is more important to be out there shooting, and while at it, having an open mind will open up more opportunities.
      Shutter lag is a huge problem for most compact cameras, it is very difficult to predict and time the shots especially when you want the camera to click at that exact moment you click the shutter button. Actually in my photos in this entry, it can be seen that most of the crucial moments were missed, being one or two second lagging behind the click of the button.

      Delete
  7. I like compact and small camera all the time. It make me more creative and want to shoot more when using a small camera. From your photo, the grain look very nice with this compact camera. You shoot carry it all the time in your pocket beside your mobile phone.

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  8. Clear proof that it's the photographer :D

    For about nine months I have used an LX-5 almost exclusively. From this experience grew the decision to give up on Nikon DSLRs and change to the OM-D. Weight DOES make a difference.

    As to the RX1, somehow it's crazy, isn't it? It's really the smallest big lens they could possibly attach. Maybe for some people this camera would even make sense as a main camera. If 35 mm is your "main" focal length, why not? Not for me though, not to speak of the price :)

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    1. I agree that the RX1 is somehow crazy, but I would like an idea of pocketable camera with full frame sensor, and a matching sharp, capable Zeiss lens. 35mm can be very versatile, for street shooting and general purposes. However, as you have mentioned, the price was a put-off !!

      Delete
    2. And not only that. The lens is not big, right, but it is still big on that small body, and that diminishes pocketability. The overall shape is not really that of a brick but more of an oddly shaped ball :D

      Delete
    3. Oh dear becareful or you will find Sony fans giving you death threats. But true the lens is not really that small, full frame lens with F2, cant make that small no matter how.

      Delete
  9. Like your articles, your own vision of photography and your passion to do a lot of research.

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    1. Thanks Alexander ! It is through research that we can learn new things, and our own experimentation that we will improve further.

      Delete
  10. Very good work Robin. If you had told me you used your Olympus gear for these I wouldn't have questioned it. The camera doesn't really matter. Use what works for you, or what you can afford. I still use my small sensor Nikon Coolpix P7100. It surprises me every time I use it, and I sometimes feel silly having all this DSLR gear.

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    1. Helo Carlo,
      Thanks for the kind words. That Nikon P7100 is a great camera !! I am sure it is more than capable in general shooting conditions. Of course there are challenging situations where DSLR surely will excel, but do we need 10FPS, 24MP and ISO12800 to shoot a portrait of a cute cat, or that bowl of nicely arranged fruit salad?

      Delete
  11. I am down to a single camera now, MFT was the right size to eliminate my need for both a larger dSLR and a smaller P&S. You've done a great job playing with the Panasonic, and highlighted why I think that size camera still has a place - the flexibility to set shutter speeds, lock focus and recompose, etc are difficult to do on a phone.

    Regarding the LX1, I find it interesting that back in the film days many p&s cameras came with a fixed lens - maybe a 28mm f2.8. It is interesting to me that now it is mainly the high end ones that do that...

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