Camera Tips and Links


High-End Compacts


High-End Compacts

One of the most welcome trends in photo equipment in the last few years has been the emergence of high-end compacts. That is to say relatively small cameras with sensors with larger individual pixels than most point&shootsm fitted with fast high-quality lenses, convenient controls, better-made bodies, and more refined interfaces. All this can add up to a small camera that is more enjoyable to use and can deliver surprisingly good results. Often even in low light and without flash, something that you would ordinarily want an SLR with a higher-end lens for.

A typical example has a sensor with pixels that are 2x the size of another compact while having a lens that is not only  better corrected but also takes in 2x-8x more light (depending on zoom setting). This makes a big difference, especially in low light. 

There are even some advantages compared to SLR-type cameras. A typical high-end compact is fitted with a lens that takes in 2x-8x more light compared to kit lenses that come with SLRs. While the individual pixels on SLR sensors are significantly larger (5x the size), the extra light brought in by the lens can be a big help in bridging the gap. While it is certainly possible to get comparable lenses for SLRs, that can add considerable expense and bulk to an SLR system.

All the following cameras employ roughly the same sensor. The differences are primarily in lenses, processing done by the camera, and form factor and design of the body. All are in the $350-500 price range.


Olympus XZ-1

The newest and probably current best of breed. The lens is an extremely bright f/1.8-2.5 over the very useful range of 28-112mm. There are two dials for control including one around the lens. And there is a flash hotshoe for an external flash. Bit larger than the Panasonic LX5 and introduced at $100 more than others.



Panasonic LX-5 / Leica D-LUX 5

A predecssor of this camera really kicked off this segment in recent years and became something of a cult camera (in both Panasonic and the more elegant Leica body). The lens is a leica-branded very bright f/2-3.3 over 24-90mm. Compared to the Olympus XZ-1, the lens is significantly wider but a bit slower. It's arguable which one is a better lens to have. The 24mm gives you a very tempting and still unusual for a compact perspective and I would prefer having that. On the other hand, if you need all the light you can get, the Olympus is hard to beat. LX5 also features a flash hotshoe and quite a nice control system.


Canon S95

The smallest of the cameras and the only one that can actually fit in the pocket. The lens is a f/2-4.9 over 28-105mm. The zoom range is very useful, but it's only in the 'fast' category in the first half of it. It is also close, but not quite the same quality lens as the two above. But the control system is excellent and it can't be beat in the size.



Ricoh GR-D III -- this series was around before this became a hot market segment. It is a beautiful photographer-focused camera with many thoughtful features and a terrific fixed 28mm f/1.9 lens. There is no zoom, but the image quality can be superb and it's a low-volume camera. It's unusual and you'll look like you know what you are doing if you have one of these.

Samsung TL500 -- 24-72 f/1.8-2.4 lens makes it very attractive, but it's a bit large for me and it needs some refinement before it can be great. Wait for the next version. 

Canon G12 and Nikon P7000 -- Also quite popular, but in my opinion they are too bulky for what they are and are fitted with slower lenses. Not for me.




External Flashes

An external flash is arguably the biggest upgrade you can make to your camera system, especially if you are taking pictures in-doors.

It may be that you are using a zoom lens that does not let in enough light or the lighting in the room isn't great. Either way, a flash lets you add light when you need it.

Many cameras have built-in flashes. While those are great in some cases, they sit close to the lens and only fire directly, often resulting in that point&shoot look -- person in the middle lit up with harsh light and everything else is either too bright or too dark.

An external flash solves those problems by putting the flash head further away from the lens and by letting you tilt it to "bounce" the light from a wall or ceiling. In effect, the light then comes from a much larger light source which results in a more flattering and more evenly lit photo.

As with everything in photography, it won't work all the time. Best case is a a room with white walls and ceiling. Bouncing the flash against a wall with some color may add a color cast to the photos. While trying to bounce against a wall or a ceiling while standing in the middle of a larger hall or outside might not do much of anything. But, in a typical apartment, it can work wonders.


Which one to get?

Camera companies usually fit flashes into one of three tiers -- pro, mid, and a compact. For most people, mid or compact is the way to go.

The benefit of the compacts is that they are lighter (2 vs 4 AAs) and smaller. The smaller it is, the more likely you are to take it with you. They are also cheaper. The drawbacks are less power and usually only the ability to tilt up rather than turn the head to the side.

Mid-tier models usually have most of the features but less power than pro models. They are great if a compact is not working for you.

Flashes are usually system-specific (Canon flashes won't work automatically with Nikon camera, for instance). But there are third party flashes (sigma/metz/etc) available for all brands. Like third party lenses, they can be hit or miss. Some can be very good (Metz), others not as much. Brand name offerings are usually more reliable. 



The choice is between the compact 270EX or the mid-tier 430EX.

The 270EX (~$145) takes two AAs, is quite compact, offers tilt up. The 430EX II (~$265) is larger (four AAs), has more power and options, and offers both tilt and twist.

Both are good in typical party situations. Starting with a 270EX is not a bad idea.

Canon 270EX @ B&H

Canon 480EX II @ B&H



The compact is SB-400 (~$120) and the mid+ is SB-600 (~$230). Nikon is known for the quality of its flash system and it's hard to recommend one over the other, they are too different. The SB-600 is an easy choice, but SB-400 is a very nice compact/travel option.  

Nikon SB-400 @ B&H 

Nikon SB-600 @ B&H


Panasonic and Olympus (Micro43)

Olympus FL-36R (~$190) is an excellent option. It's a mid-level option that takes two AAs and is pretty compact and light as a result. A great buy if you have a micro43 camera.

Olympus FL-36R @ B&H



Whichever flash you go with, one thing to keep in mind is that they will recycle (flash to flash) much quicker with rechargeable batteries. Any rechargeable battery will do. One to look at is the Eneloop,  which don't loose charge like others when they are sitting around and last for many recharge cycles.

Sanyo Eneloop @ B&H