The Point‑and‑Shoot Option: Everypaddler's Camera
By Tamia Nelson
October 2, 2012
Serious photographers like to think of themselves as standing apart from the crowd of snapshooting shutterbugs. It's an us‑and‑them thing. We are serious about photography, and "they" aren't. As is the case with most such invidious distinctions, however, there's very little propping it up but vanity. Still, we serious photographers persist in our comfortable — and comforting — delusion, and our copious equipment is the one visible sign of our self‑proclaimed status. We favor digital single‑lens reflex cameras. And this preference is reflected in the many websites, forums, and print magazines that cater to our interests.
Camera makers aren't unhappy with this state of affairs, of course. Digital SLRs are costly high‑end products, and the battery of lenses that most serious photographers acquire over the years adds greatly to the tab. Which isn't to say that this gear doesn't give good value for the money. It does. Professional‑quality equipment has never been cheaper than it is today (in inflation‑adjusted dollars, that is), and it does things undreamt of in the wildest imaginations of earlier generations of photographers.
But there's a downside to this, too. If you're not a serious photographer, and if you don't think you'll ever be one — life is too short to pursue every possible enthusiasm, after all — then it's easy to lose your way in the thicket of gearhead chatter. Suppose you just want to take pictures of your buddies around the campfire. Or capture a roseate sunset over Golden Pond. Or snap the moose grazing placidly in the shallows as you paddle by. Nothing more than that. And you'll be posting your shots on your Facebook page or your blog or sending them as e‑mail attachments to your friends. You definitely won't be submitting them to National Geographic. So why do you need many hundreds (or thousands) of dollars of camera gear? Is all that stuff really necessary?
In a word: No. It's not. Horses for courses. If you're a pro, competing for the attention of photo editors, all of whom will be infatuated with the latest New Big Thing, you've got little choice in the matter. You'll have to empty your wallet if you want to catch an editor's eye. But if you're just a paddling Jane (or Joe), then you can get great shots for a lot less.
That, in a nutshell, was the point made by In the Same Boat reader Greg Morgus in the following note:
I would like to get a good camera, but perhaps not a full single-lens reflex. Maybe you could do an article on high-end point-and-shoots. I bet there are a lot of people like me. They want to take a good picture, but don't want to haul the bulk and weight of an SLR. Is there a point-and-shoot camera out there that could fit the bill and perhaps handle low light as well?
Greg's e‑mail also reminded me that high‑end digital SLRs have other drawbacks besides their up‑front cost — their weight and bulk, for instance. Not only can you spend thousands on an SLR and the accompanying battery of lenses, but you'll end up with a suitcase‑sized load to haul around (and protect from the vicissitudes of water and weather, into the bargain). A pro has to grin and bear it. But you don't.
Of course, it's not as simple as I'm suggesting. It's not an either‑or proposition, shutterbug or serious photographer. If one endpoint on the equipment spectrum is the professional's kit bag, filled to bursting with multiple camera bodies, many lenses, a separate flash unit, and one or more tripods, the other is the camera in your cell phone. But there's also a broad middle ground, with plenty to offer paddlers like Greg. And this middle ground is populated mostly by point‑and‑shoot cameras. That label is a good one. With a point‑and‑shoot camera, you don't need to commit a library of manuals to memory, decide which lens to mount on your camera, and then fiddle with aperture and shutter speed. You can (if you wish) just point your camera at your subject and squeeze the shutter release, in the sure and certain knowledge that — nine times out of ten, at any rate — the resulting shot will suit you just fine. It won't make the cut for next month's cover of National Geographic, perhaps, but it will be a great addition to your blog. And that's good enough, isn't it?
Which is why I'm tempted to say that …
The Point‑and‑Shoot Camera Is the People's Choice
Yet this, too, is an oversimplification, since point‑and‑shoot cameras run the gamut from the simplest cell‑phone clickster to high‑end (and high‑priced) mirrorless interchangeable‑lens cameras that give little ground to digital SLRs, at least as far as image quality and versatility are concerned. Generally speaking, though, point‑and‑shoot cameras are cheaper, lighter, and more compact than the serious photographer's SLR. And what's not to like about that? Especially because many point‑and‑shoots are quite capable of capturing images of very high technical quality, indeed. Even the pros have been known to turn to point‑and‑shoots on occasions when weight and bulk loomed large.
By way of illustration, here are a few examples from my own collection of photos, all of them taken with my Canon PowerShot A590 IS, a consumer‑grade point‑and‑shoot that's now several generations removed from state of the art:
They're nothing special, to be sure. But they do everything I need them to do, and I'm happy with that. To get a much better idea of the limits of the possible, however, just check out the work of Pat McKay. Pat is a serious photographer by anyone's standard, and his photos reflect both painstaking attention to detail and meticulous care in composition. With his permission, I've used many of his images to illustrate In the Same Boat columns, while others have been the subject of feature articles on my own website. As you'd expect of a serious photographer, Pat often chooses to work with a digital SLR, but he also uses two point‑and‑shoot cameras: a Canon PowerShot SD1200 IS Digital ELPH and a high‑end Canon G11. And as even a brief glance at his portfolio will demonstrate, both of these cameras perform superlatively well.
Don't be misled by my frequent references to Canon cameras, though. They don't constitute a blanket endorsement of Canon products over their many competitors. It's just a case of sample bias. Pat and I both own Canons. And this article reflects that fact. But Canon is not the only game in town. A photographer I've often corresponded with, who has one of the best digital SLRs ever made in his kit bag, is extremely happy with his point‑and‑shoot Fujifilm X10. He says it offers very good image quality and exceptional low‑light performance, particularly if you don't mind letting the camera make the exposure decisions. He recently started up a wide‑ranging online discussion group for point‑and‑shoot camera buffs, too. It's hosted by the Pentax Forums, but the conversation is open to owners of all makes and models. And yes, it's well worth a look if you're in the market for one of these handy cameras.
All well and good, you say? But how can I tell …
Which Point‑and‑Shoot Camera is the One for Me?
Good question. It's probably best to get the bad news over first. So let's begin by discussing the disadvantages of the breed. By and large, point‑and‑shoot cameras are slower than their digital SLR counterparts — slower to power up and slower to focus. They also have a slower cyclic rate of fire, or "frame cycle rate": The irritating wait to get a green light to click a follow‑up shot can sometimes seem agonizingly long. Many point‑and‑shoots don't have an optical viewfinder, either, forcing the photographer to frame her shot in the LED display. This won't bother paddlers who've grown up in the digital age, I suppose, but we old salts will find any camera without something to look through — rather than at — sadly incomplete, especially when glare renders the LED display unusable.
So much for the bad news. Taken all in all, none of the point‑and‑shoot's drawbacks is a crippling one. Still, it pays to look at both sides of the ledger before you part with your hard‑earned cash.
What about it? Have you decided to take the plunge? Then the next step involves drawing up a comprehensive list of your priorities. Here are some of the things you'll want to consider:
- Size and "handiness"
- Weather resistance (Some point‑and‑shoots are waterproof, and that's a real plus for any paddling photographer.)
- Sensor format and reputed IQ (image quality)
- Maximum resolution, as reflected in limits on recorded pixels
- RAW file format option(s)
- Optical zoom range
- Manual control options
- Frame cycle rate
- Low‑light performance
- ISO range
- Viewfinder (Is there one? And does it have a diopter adjustment?)
- LED display (Performance in bright light? Is it hinged so it can be angled away from the camera body?)
- On‑board flash (Effectiveness? Cycle time?)
- Image‑stabilization capability
- Battery type and longevity
- Memory card type and size limit
- Video and sound capability (Output formats?)
- Included software, if any (And is it compatible with your computer's operating system?)
- Connectivity options
This list looks intimidating, but as extensive as it is, it's not exhaustive. It's a pretty fair start, though, and most of the items are self‑explanatory. My article on "Bringing it All Together for Beginners" discusses some of the more esoteric points, and it provides an overview of the elements of field photography, as well. For topics I don't address, Wikipedia is always a good first stop.
Back to the list now. One way to reduce it to manageable size is to …
Ask Yourself What Matters Most to You
And then go on from there. Is image quality your first concern? If so, resign yourself to choosing from among the many high‑end point‑and‑shoots, and expect to pay a bit (or a lot) more. On the other hand, if money is definitely an object — and don't forget that paddling trips can be mighty hard on gear, not to mention the possibility that your new camera will end up at the bottom of a beaver pond — you'll have to accept somewhat lower image quality. But this needn't be a cause for lamentation. Even cheap cameras will yield images that are more than good enough for many purposes, including Web publication.
Once you've decided on your priorities, you'll be ready to go shopping. It's no different than buying a new boat. You know what features are most important to you and how much you can spend. The rest is just legwork. The Internet makes it easy, and one of the sites I've found most useful is Imaging Resource's Digital Camera Reviews. Ask your buddies for their recommendations, too, and check out forum posts to get as broad a cross section of opinion as possible. Then compile a short list of acceptable models. Sooner or later, one will stand out from the rest. Of course, a camera can garner excellent reviews and still feel clumsy in your hands. In an ideal world, you'd want to take your chosen model on a test shoot before you opened your wallet. And this might be possible if a buddy owns a camera of the same make and model. If not, however, you'll just have to take your chances. But be sure to find out what the seller's return policy is first. Some are surprisingly generous. Others aren't. Don't leave this to chance. Know it before you buy.
Is cost an insurmountable barrier? Well, if you haven't yet seen much benefit from the $40 billion in walking‑around money the Fed is handing US banks each and every month, it may well be. The good news? The camera industry's product development cycle seems to speed up with every passing year, with the happy result that there are a lot of "nearly new" used cameras on the market. A few are paperweights, to be sure, but others are real bargains. It pays to look around, and this is one area where patience is definitely a virtue. In fact, patience is often richly rewarded even if you're in the market for a new camera. Just resist the temptation to join the queues at the sales counter when a new model is first released. Wait a couple of months, instead. Not only will you avoid many of the teething troubles that afflict new products, but you'll probably pay less, too. Price reductions are the norm as soon as the blogs start trading rumors about the current model's likely replacement.
OK. You have your new — or your "nearly new" — point‑and‑shoot camera in your hands. Only one question remains:
How Do You Get the Most From It?
This is largely a matter of common sense. First, …
Read the Manual! That's always Very Good Advice, even if it is seldom acted on. But there's no better way to learn what your new camera can do — and what it can't. Be sure to read the manual with the camera at your elbow, too. Try out all the controls. Learn what every icon in the display means. Explore the options buried deep in the sub‑menus. And then do it all over again after you've taken the camera on a couple of trips. You'll be amazed at what you missed the first time round.
A hint: Don't rely on your memory. Take the manual with you into the backcountry. Better yet, if you bring an e‑book reader like the Kindle on your trips, get a PDF copy of the manual from the maker's website and download it to your reader. Electrons weight less than paper, after all.
Finished studying the manual? Then here are a few more reminders:
Good technique costs nothing. Just because you have a point‑and‑shoot camera, don't neglect the human element. (That's you, by the way.) Pay attention to the light, compose your shots with care, hold your camera steady, and don't be afraid to think outside the box.
Spend some time in the digital darkroom. Inexpensive image‑editing software — much of it is free, and software doesn't get any cheaper than that — has brought darkroom magic to the masses. During the Age of Film, the pros cast their spells with filters, lights, and noxious chemicals. This was one of the things that made their work look so good. But now Everyman (and Everywoman) can do what they did, without having to convert a spare closet into a darkroom. Digital post‑processing isn't cheating. It's simply making the most of what you've got. Do it.
Turn off your flash! Flash photography is an art in itself, and few onboard flash units are up to the job in any case. Unless you plan to devote time to learning the techniques, therefore, it's best to turn your flash off — and leave it off. If you want to experiment, however, at least rig a makeshift diffuser.
Where zoom is concerned, less is more. Most point‑and‑shot cameras have zoom lenses. Most also offer something called "digital zoom" which purports to extend the range of the telephoto beyond the capabilities of the lens. Don't believe it. Digital zoom is a snare and a delusion. If you want sharp images, stay within the limits set by the optical elements of your lens — the "optical zoom," in other words. You can always crop your shot later, during post‑processing, if you need a digital‑zoom effect.
That's it. And though I wasn't able to recommend any particular camera to Greg — even if I had, my recommendation would have been out‑of‑date in six months, anyway — I hope I've given him the information he needs to find exactly what he's looking for.
And there's no reason it can't do the same thing for you, is there? Of course not!