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February 26, 2011 12:24 PM   Subscribe

Please help me choose a digital camera that does what I can't make my itty-bitty Canon ELPH do but is still reasonably portable.

I have owned 2 ELPHs -- an SD300 and an SD1000 -- and they have both ended up with a screen of death after a couple of years. The weird thing is that I think the 300 took better pictures! I've been somewhat unhappy with the 1000.

Here is what I don't like about the ELPH:
-- everything is in focus all the time, and there's no aperture control ("portrait" mode is indistinguishable from regular mode), making everything look kind of flat to me
-- faces often look weird -- overexposed and very pink, even when I turn the flash off and mess with what settings I can
-- the auto-focus seemed confused, often getting the wrong things in focus or nothing at all

Here is what I like about the ELPH:
-- little shutter delay
-- small
-- outdoors, in strong light, the images are fine, colors are accurately captured

I liked messing with the Pentax K1000 I had in high school, but I'm not good enough to do everything manually with the elusive targets I have around here (baby + toddler + preschooler).

I can buy a refurbished Canon G11 through the Canon Loyalty program, but I guess I worry that I wouldn't see much improvement over the ELPH, given that it seems like control over depth of field is still pretty limited. Would a Micro 4/3 camera make more sense? I do want to still be able to put it in a purse, even if an oversized purse.

So, tl;dr: purse-able digital camera with control over depth of field?

Apologies if any of this question reveals shocking ignorance of the workings of cameras.
posted by palliser to Technology (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: For control over DoF, you need a larger sensor. It is very difficult to get shallow DoF with a tiny sensor. I can go into great technical depth on this, but in short, no traditional small-sensor compact will give you that control. Get a small m43 camera with a pancake lens and you'll be amply rewarded for the overall increase in size.
posted by fake at 12:31 PM on February 26, 2011

Best answer: Seconding fake -- the Canon Elph series use a very, very small sensor, about 25 square mm. The G11 (considered a "large-sensor compact") is about 43 square mm. By contrast, 4/3 cameras come in around 225 mm^2 and entry-level SLRs ("APS-C") come in at 330-370 mm^2. This makes an enormous difference in depth-of-field control.

Sensor size chart

An entry-level SLR with a small prime lens might be an option -- primes typically have a larger aperture (thus work well indoors and in lower light) and are smaller than most zoom lenses. The shutter lag is virtually non-existent and I find that invaluable for catching my own rugrats in action. :-) Depending on your budget and definition of "purse-able" this might work well.
posted by jdwhite at 12:40 PM on February 26, 2011

fake is right, it is impossible to have shallow depth of field with a tiny sensor. That is the trade off of having a pocketable camera.
posted by bradbane at 12:44 PM on February 26, 2011

sidenote: Personally I am holding out for the Fuji X100 digital rangefinder that is coming out soon. I have been using small 35mm cameras and scanning the pictures because I don't like the smaller digital ones for a lot of the reasons you mentioned. If you liked your K1000 you may want to take a look.
posted by bradbane at 12:48 PM on February 26, 2011

I shoot with a Canon S3-IS. They don't make it anymore; I believe its descendant is the SX10 It has a large lens and some manual control ability, plus a 12x optical zoom. It's a bit buklkier than the Elph but still purse-able.

That said, that Fuji X100 is definitely drool-worthy and gorgeous. Want.
posted by azpenguin at 1:32 PM on February 26, 2011

As a corollary to larger sensor size, also look for a faster lens (two sides of the same coin, as it were). Something like the Canon Powershot S95? (David Pogue is a big fan, for one) One nice feature of the S95 (so I hear - haven't bought mine yet) is the control ring, which you can set to various modes, including set to aperture control to give some semblance of DOF control).
posted by misterbrandt at 1:36 PM on February 26, 2011

Best answer: Yes on micro 4/3rds. I think you might like the Olympus PEN cameras. They are a bit more compact than DSLRs; still bigger than an ELPH, but. I thought I might use my old ELPH-ish camera for on the go but the PEN keeps going in the purse despite the bit of extra space it takes up. Wonderful pictures, even for idiots. You can do things manually if you like; if you don't, the automatic modes do a great job. Preschooler snapped indoors w/automatic settings. A close-up. Outdoors on a grey day. Very clear...!
posted by kmennie at 2:27 PM on February 26, 2011

I love my Canon s90. I can force some DOF, but I tend to shoot things that don't move and really close-up, so this isn't too hard to do. Great in low-light. However, I don't have a lot of data on taking photos of people.

Here are some shots I've taken with stronger DOF. You can see what I've done with it.
posted by jlunar at 3:06 PM on February 26, 2011

I also have a Canon S90 that I'm a big fan of. (The S95 is the current version, almost the same but with slightly tweaked controls and better video capability.) Like fake and jdwhite said, it has a larger sensor than the ELPHs, but still much smaller than the 4/3s cameras and SLRs. And in practice, I have seen more depth of field than I did when using my older ELPH, but much less than my friends with SLRs can achieve. The S90's aperture control does help.
posted by JiBB at 3:35 PM on February 26, 2011

I have an Olympus PEN E-PL1 Micro Four-Thirds camera with a Panasonic 20mm/f1.7 pancake lens. It fits pretty easily in a coat pocket and takes terrific photographs with great depth of field.
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 3:52 PM on February 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also have a look at the Olympus PEN E-P1; with or without the kit zoom lens. What matters is the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7. This pancake will give you control over depth of field AND allow you to take pictures in the dark without flash or of a fast moving toddler.

The pancake ain't cheap, the E-P1 is.

For $15 you can buy an adapter to mount your longer K1000 lenses in manual mode on any µ4/3 camera.
posted by Akeem at 2:53 AM on February 27, 2011

For the benefit of any fellow mefites who are feeling their way through photography

All other things being equal a larger sensor provides a shallower / narrower depth of field - that is more of the photo is out of focus.

I think most / all people who have responded probably understand this, but the wording in some recent comments might give you the wrong impression.
posted by puffmoike at 6:11 AM on February 27, 2011

Whoops, puffmoike is right. Where I said "more depth of field" I really meant more precise (i.e. narrower) depth of field. Which is not quite what it sounds like.
posted by JiBB at 4:50 PM on February 27, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone! I will go with a micro 4/3.
posted by palliser at 8:47 PM on February 27, 2011

Cannot strongly enough recommend Micro Four Thirds. My girlfriend has a GF1 and the 20mm ƒ/1.7 pancake lens and it does about 90% of what she could ever want to (and she's considering investing in the 7–14mm ultra-wide lens for the rest). Grey market sales are of course iffy (especially because of no internal language-change option on them) but in Japan you can get that kit, used, for about ¥40,000 nowadays, and it is an outstanding thing overall.
posted by DoctorFedora at 9:00 PM on February 27, 2011

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