Tuesday, April 5, 2011

In Praise of Point-an-Shoot Cameras

There's a new camera in the family, a Canon SX30IS. It's a beauty. I got it for Gary before he took a trip to Texas where he would be seeing spring flowers in an arboretum and migrating shorebirds at an NWR. Gary loves wildlife and has been carrying a big DSLR with a huge 500mm lens in a backpack for quite some time. I decided to upgrade his equipment. He took the SX30 to Texas and when he returned, he gathered up all the old hand-me-down equipment I had loaned him over the years and returned it to me. So I guess the gift was a hit.
We went together to photograph the full moonset at Nubble Light. I climbed down the rocks for foreground. He stayed on the hill and shot the lighthouse at his level. We wandered around until sunset, shooting whatever we saw. Some guy was playing bagpipes, and I listened as I concentrated on the moonlight. After dark, he drove home and we chatted. It was a nice evening together.

The next morning, I loaded my photos onto my computer. I was pretty happy with them, although they were somewhat homogeneous. I had crawled around on the rocks a lot so I was emotionally invested in that wide view with lots of foreground. The colors were pretty, and I had gotten some images of the Nubble that were a bit different from the norm.

I think I looked at his pictures out of politeness, expecting to tell him that I liked his new camera. You know, photo-snob. But HOLY COW, he got some really great stuff. His compositions were impeccable, as always. The lighting was great, color was fine, and he got what I didn't: close-ups of the lighthouse tower and the moon. His shots were the perfect complement to mine - a product of our different vision, not camera capability.

He even got the bagpiper! I was in la-la land, I guess. But including this detail makes the photo essay in my mind much more interesting.

Oh, I knew I should have zoomed in, but my telephoto lens is heavy, and my mobility is  poor on wet, rocky cliffs, so I just left it behind.  Gary got the shots. I loaded his images into Lightroom and made sure to put his name in the copyright field, knowing I wouldn't be able to tell the difference later. Our sense of composition is very similar, as you can see, and the camera makes the technical issues non-existent.

I've always thought of compact cameras as toys. Great to take downtown, when I'm in a street-shooting mood. Ok for flowers where I want to get unusual angles. Fine to slip in a small bag for a wedding reception. But for serious shooting, for publication in calendars and magazines, I always use my DSLR. Now I'm not so sure. The newer cameras have all the features - and more - that my DSLR has. For under $200, you can now get a camera with exposure compensation, bracketing, HDR, macro focusing, various shooting modes - all kinds of goodies. True, the SX30 cost almost $400, but that gave us the zoom capability to replace that 500mm monster for wildlife shots.

One difference became apparent in the post-processing. Because the SX30 produces only JPG files, it has much less to work with than a camera that produces RAW files.  It's not filesize, the SX30 produces a 10 megapixel file. But the jpg format just doesn't have the detail that raw files have. 

Nevertheless, I got it to look sort of bright and dreamy, like my own shots of that moonrise. I wouldn't usually do this to his stuff, but I wanted to really explore whether this camera could produce images I would use for calendars.

I think the answer is yes. Even in automatic mode, today's compact cameras produce amazing pictures. The current generation of point-and-shoot cameras have more features than DSLRs that cost thousands of dollars. They're lighter, more flexible, and small enough to be with you always.

I'm not going to throw away my EOS. I know it inside-out. I can operate it in the dark with my eyes closed. I love my EOS.

But I may need to learn how to use all those buttons on my compact after all.

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