Which digital camera should I buy?
June 1, 2006 6:28 AM   Subscribe

I need help finding the right digital camera. (I've returned 2 already.)

I'm becoming an avid amateur photographer (2000+ photos on Flickr) and I outgrew my Kodak LS743. I had problems with exposure, flash, macros and blurry indoor photos.

First I bought a Casio Z850, but I got photos that were grainy, noisy and blurry. I know the photos can be improved by learning how to use the manual features, but I don't want to work that hard to get a decent picture.

I returned it to my local camera store (no restocking fee) and got the Canon SD550. I played with the SD700 but found that I was getting blurry shots despite the image stabilization feature, so I got the SD550 for almost $200 less at B&H.

The pictures are OK - not fabulous. I have to increase the sharpness of almost every photo in Photoshop. I still get blurry shots indoors (the camera has a max ISO manual setting of 400 and no sports mode) and the colors are a little muted. The macro works well, but without a soft flash mode, macro photos are either overexposed or blurry without flash.

So what do I do now? Is there a better point and shoot camera out there for me? Am I just too picky now for one of these tiny pocket cameras? Can I spend the same money ($300-400) and get a camera that's a little larger that will take great photos? I have a crappy old 35mm that can take better photos than any of these 3 digitals.

I'm returning my camera to B&H today and possibly paying a 15% restocking fee, plus shipping, which kills me. I have to find something better.

I prefer cameras that use SD cards and battery rechargers that plug right into the wall (no dock). But I'm flexible.

Here are samples of my (best) photos with the new camera. Remember that I've increased the sharpness on almost all of these, and also played with the brightness and contrast (curves) on many of them. And still they're not incredible. (You should have seen the 150 bad ones I deleted).


Thank you for your help.
posted by kdern to Media & Arts (35 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

excellent resource. i've bought both my cameras after extensive research there. my latest pick was the Panasonic FZ-30, an 8mp prosumer (all the manual features of an SLR without having a side-lens/interchangeable lenses). $500, image stabilized, mechanical zoom ring, etc...

For regular point-and-shoot, I'm personally an Olympus Stylus fan because of past experience.

The important thing about researching on this site is that I knew all this cameras flaws before I bought it. No delusions... it performs exactly as i was told it would.

Check out the Buying Guide
posted by trinarian at 6:37 AM on June 1, 2006

(forgot to mention that if you look through the In-Depth Reviews, you'll find tons of sample photos, some side-by-side as comparisons with similar cameras)
posted by trinarian at 6:39 AM on June 1, 2006

Am familiar with dpreviews.com, but it hasn't helped me to figure out if I'm just expecting too much out of one of these tiny cameras. It's not set up to compare cameras in different categories easily.

Also - both of the cameras I bought were recommended by dpreview.com, and I still wasn't happy with them. That's why I'm thinking I may need to go to another type of digital camera other than an Elph.
posted by kdern at 6:47 AM on June 1, 2006

It looks like your photos are blurry from shutter speed. I see that some of your shots are taken at shutter speeds around 1/6 of a second.

If that's the case then you need to either increase your ISO and/or increase your aperture so that you can decrease your shutter speed to eliminate camera shake / blur.

To increase your ISO you need both a camera that has higher ISO settings than 400 and which is able to produce low noise images.

If you're interested in staying with a compact camera you should check out the Fuji F10 / F11 cameras. They're compact but have excellent high-ISO performance.
posted by bshort at 6:50 AM on June 1, 2006

It really sounds like you want the site DC Resource. I wrote about why they're great recently in my blog.
posted by Wild_Eep at 6:54 AM on June 1, 2006

kdern--you say you don't want to learn how to use manual settings. The fact is, if you're at all serious about photography, it will make a big difference in how you approach exposure setting etc. Perhaps you already understand this stuff , but the tone of your question suggests that you don't.

I'm not saying you need to take every shot in manual mode: what I am saying is that you'd do yourself a favor by learning the basics of traditional photography and doing a lot of methodical experimenting to see how those principles translate into results, so that when you are shooting in automatic mode, you'll have a better idea of what to expect. I wish my digicam had an exposure needle like my old Pentax K1000.

If you want a camera that delivers good results at >400 ASA, you pretty much need to step up to a DSLR. Right now, there are no consumer-grade digicams (that I know of) that can shoot at 800 ASA and deliver good results. I just bought a Lumix FZ7 myself, and while it nominally has 800 and 1600 ASA modes, it achieves these through trickery that result in poor-quality images. Also bear in mind that the difference between ASA 400 and 800 is equivalent to the difference between lenses that stop down to f2.8 vs f2.

Also, I second the recco for dpreview. Excellent resource.
posted by adamrice at 6:56 AM on June 1, 2006

The biggest problem with these compact cameras is that they have teeny little compact CCDs and slow ultra-zoom lenses.

This results in a really slow aperture even at wide zoom settings and poor noise performance because they're packing in so many pixels in such a small area. This means you're going to have to lengthen your exposures (increase your shutter speed) which means you're going to get blurry pictures.

How sensitive are you to the size of the camera? Would you be willing to get a non-compact?
posted by bshort at 6:57 AM on June 1, 2006

Is there a better point and shoot camera out there for me? Am I just too picky now for one of these tiny pocket cameras?

No to the former, and yes to the latter. To get the results you want, you're going to carry more camera than you'd like to, and also work harder than you'd like to for the final picture. Or, you could accept what you're getting now.

You've listed as shortcomings so far:

* "I had problems with exposure, flash, macros and blurry indoor photos." -- Most point-and-shoots have reasonably reliable automatic metering, so if you're still having problems with dialing in the appropriate exposure compensations to adjust for each camera's metering quirks, then you'll really need something like spot metering to set the exposure reliably yourself, which is a feature you're not going to find in a point-and-shoot. Underpowered flash is a chronic point-and-shoot problem. Macro capabilities vary wildly by camera model in point-and-shoots, whereas all DSLR systems have decent macro lenses. And blurry pictures are almost always due to either poor handholding technique (a problem with any camera) or subject/camera motion (from too-slow shutter speed due to too slow lens/ISO sensitivity, areas where DSLRs have huge advantages over point-and-shoots).

* "the camera has a max ISO manual setting of 400 and no sports mode" -- If ISO 400 is too slow and still too grainy, you're looking at DSLR territory.

* "The macro works well, but without a soft flash mode, macro photos are either overexposed or blurry without flash." -- Onboard flash is wholly inadequate for the vast majority of macro shooting. Some point-and-shoots can take external flashes via either sync cable or hotshoe, but for good exposure and even illumination, you'll need a ring flash mounted on a macro lens, which means DSLR.

I can't think of any current digital point-and-shoot that can meet all of your current criteria.

I have a crappy old 35mm that can take better photos than any of these 3 digitals.

Which old 35mm point-and-shoot were you using that had good enough flash illumination and close enough focus for shooting macros -- while also having a fast enough lens for shooting indoors without motion blur and without resorting to crappy ISO 800+ color film? I could definitely use something that to replace my digital point-and-shoot. :)
posted by DaShiv at 7:09 AM on June 1, 2006

Digital camera questions are a bit like health questions in that the answer is always the same: Go see DPReview.

It looks like you shoot in natural light without a flash. You want to be certain that your shutter speed doesn't drop below 1/60 (1/30 if you're really steady). Look for a camera that gives you some indication of your speed and aperture settings and you'll be in good shape.

For true control over your images a DSLR is the only way to go. But perhaps you'll be happy with something in between - I've heard nothing but good things about the Panasonic FZ30, for example. There are other SLR like cameras that might suit you as well.

If you do decide to go for a true DSLR remember that the lenses are, in general, more important than the body. Skip on the lousy zoom lenses that come bundled with most kits and go for a solid fixed lens or a faster zoom (in terms of f-stop). I use a Nikon D50 with a 35mm f2.0 and am, very, very happy with it.
posted by aladfar at 7:09 AM on June 1, 2006

Buying an ultra-compact like the Canon SD is a trade-off against picture quality. They are good for the size, and a lot of people (including me) really care about the size, but they're not perfect. They have to give up some important features like a proper aperture to get that small.

Also, you're trying to solve the hardest photo situation there is: interior without a flash. There's just not enough light. (I was just going to cite DaShiv but he beat me to it.)
posted by smackfu at 7:10 AM on June 1, 2006

Go back to a real camera store. Talk to real salespeople. Learn the mechanical basics of photography- ISO, shutter, apeture, depth of field, etc. Pay them back by buying a camera from them... There are cameras in the $300- $400 range that have full-manual settings and ISO 400 range. look at the Olympus SP500-UZ. mid sized, 6mp, lotso bells and whistles.
posted by Gungho at 7:22 AM on June 1, 2006

I am unimpressed with the low light capabilities of my SD600. It's fine in bright light, but in low light it really suffers. Without the flash the shots are too grainy (despite supposedly having ISO 800 capabilities) and with the flash faces are overexposed. Using night flash mode has improved the flash shots indoors. Here is a recent thread on digital P&S cameras with good low light capabilities.
posted by caddis at 7:26 AM on June 1, 2006

Hand-holding below 1/30th of a second is almost impossible, as it's just too blurry. You need to either mount the camera on a tripod, or increase shutter speed (most likely by using a higher ISO setting or, if your camera supports it, opening the aperture up a bit. You can also underexpose a bit and fix it up in Photoshop, but don't take this too far or your photos will look horrible.)

I personally use Fuji's Finepix S5100, and can highly recommend it. (Check it out on DPReview, though.) You can use it fully automatic and it takes great pictures. The zoom is amazing, something like 37-370mm equivalent. But you can also throw it into full manual model, for times like last night when I wanted to try astrophotography. (Don't get your hopes up about that one... I found that I can do a 15-second exposure at f/2.8 and still not get anything.)

The photos you took really don't look all that bad. An old friend of mine is an amazing photographer, but if you look through the pictures he takes, there's a whole bunch of bad ones. Don't expect every photo to be great, because I don't think anyone can achieve that goal.

FWIW, I've resorted to using a flash indoors. I much prefer the look of natural light, but without using an ultra-fast lens on a digital SLR, I don't stand a chance of having a photo come out without a flash.

Small cams are great, but if you're looking for a good camera, I think you're going to have to go with a bigger, pricier one.
posted by fogster at 7:32 AM on June 1, 2006

By the way, remember that point-and-shoots are all fundamentally very limited cameras. Typically, they "cheat" using tricks like slower lenses (and with the rise of digital, very tiny sensors) to keep their costs and sizes down, then try to compensate for their hardware limits by "guessing" what your needs are and trying to meet them with all sorts of preprogrammed modes that are designed to (sort of) make up for the camera's various shortcomings. When you're faulting a camera like the SD550 for not having a sports mode, it really doesn't change the fact that the sports mode issue doesn't change a camera's hardware limitations. Those modes are just presets that won't be as powerful as manually adjusting and making the tradeoffs yourself between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO (and manually adjusting more esoteric settings such as flash exposure compensation for automatic flashes, etc). A sports mode typically just sets a point-and-shoot at max aperture and as high of an ISO as needed to maintain a preset shutter speed. Whether the camera has a sports mode or not isn't going to change its max lens aperture, or how grainy its results are at ISO 400, etc.

The "cheating" with current digicams by using tiny sensors means that they're just not going to perform well under low light, period. There are some that are better than others, but either way it's pretty much an unavoidable brick wall -- as are crappy flash photos indoors for most people.

If getting great photographs under demanding conditions were as simple as buying the "right" point-and-shoot and setting it in the "right" mode, pro photographers wouldn't spend so much money on expensive equipment, nor spend so much time lugging that all heavy stuff around and learning to use it!
posted by DaShiv at 7:39 AM on June 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

You mention that you got good results with your 35 mm SLR but your digital pictures are noisy and blurry by comparison and have muted colors. How much post-processing do you/are you willing to do? I don't have time to go into detail, but the nature of digital photography requires that the image be processed for color and sharpness. Much of this is usually done in the camera, but if the camera settings are not to your liking you need to adjust them further with a program like Photoshop. If you really want control over your images, you need to shoot raw and set white balance, saturation, sharpness and so on yourself; this typically requires a DSLR. A DSLR will do a lot of the other things you want, but will quickly exceed your stated budget. I think you will have to either spend more on a camera or relax your standards, assuming you have good basic photographic skills. Another option is to continue with/upgrade your film camera. 35 mm is losing ground rapidly to digital, but there is still a lot of equipment out there to be had cheap, and there is enough of a user base out there to keep it viable for several more years at least. By that time the affordable digital camera of your dreams may be out there.
posted by TedW at 7:43 AM on June 1, 2006

I've been very happy with the Canon Powershot S2 IS (now supplanted by the S3).
But for great indoor shots without flash, you may have to go to a DSLR.
posted by omnidrew at 7:54 AM on June 1, 2006

imaging-resource.com reviews more point-and-shoot cameras than dpreview.com. You might find them useful.

I have a similar scenario as you do, and ended up buying a Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z1. I have pictures taken with that camera on flickr
posted by gmarceau at 8:04 AM on June 1, 2006

Manual control takes a bit to get used to, but our manual camera still gets better results in low light than our only automatic (which actually has slightly better sensitivity). It's exactly as dashiv says, it's all about the trade-offs. Once your apeture is as open as it can be, you have to choose between under-exposure or going for long exposures - and which is best depends on what you want to do.

If you use manual control, you can purposely somewhat under expose photos to get better sharpness on movement. You say you are already doing some post-processing anyways, but of course under exposing will lose contrast, maybe detail in the darks.

But if you go with automatic settings, your camera will slow down the shutter speed until it has enough light, even if that isn't good for your photo. That's the source of your blurryness.

It does happen that in very low light settings (night time, lamplight, etc), sometimes there just isn't enough light and you need to go with a really slow shutter speed. Some people have steady hands - my husband can do a 1 to 2 sec exposure when sitting, bracing the camera on his knee. I'm not so good. We don't have a tripod, and would find it difficult to carry one around, but I've been discovering the usefulness of any flat surface possible, because I really hate flash. (People also resent being flashed a lot more than a little click). Tables, stone walls, steps, post office boxes -- all of these can become instant tripods.

Here are some examples of what I've been able to do in low light without flash. But those are a 2.5 sec and 1 sec exposure respectively. (Don't ask me why I had it on f8 indoors at night - suffice to say, I was doing a long distance outside shot, and forgot to adjust the apeture again.) There is some blurryness because the people were themselves moving too fast. But blurryness can work.

My camera is an Olympus SP-350, which has just dropped below $300 USD. It's 8MP, which is overkill for most people (I photograph documents when not taking pictures of landscape and bars), and there is no image stabilisation. But people who know more than me have told me that Olympus has very good lenses, and certainly I'm happy with the quality. I use it on manual, because I have fun that way, but my husband uses it on automatic and has had good results.

With any camera that switches, you can use automatic for family snaphots, and manual for when you want to work at a picture. It does take me a bit - that's why I like still-lifes and landscape - they don't move or complain as you take 10 different shots at different speeds or apeture. But I'm already faster at adjusting than when I was in photography classes in high school (I love that exposure feedback graph on the back). The more you use manual, the faster you get and you suddenly have so much more control. If you try, you might not go back.
posted by jb at 8:09 AM on June 1, 2006

Great advice everyone. I am going to look into DSLRs. Here's my "interested" list at the moment. Are the first four on my list DSLRs?

-Fuji S5100 / 5200
-Olympus SP500 UZ
-Canon S2 IS / S3 IS
-Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ5

Not SLR?
-Fuji F10/F11
-Fuji F30
posted by kdern at 8:38 AM on June 1, 2006

My indoor available-light point-and-shoot strategy:
1. Shoot in aperture-prioirity mode (probably A on the dial) with the aperture all the way open*
2. Shoot at highest ISO
3. Use RAW mode if possible
4a. Use noise ninja, or
4b. Convert to black and white and learn to love the grain.

* I think most point and shoots will, in automatic mode, set the aperture 1 stop or so below maximum (f/4 as opposed f/2.8 on my sony v3) as that's where the tiny lenses perform best.
posted by primer_dimer at 8:43 AM on June 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

The S5100 (aka the S5500 in some areas?) is not a digital SLR, although it looks like one. I'm not sure about the other three.

Some popular digital SLRs are things like the Canon 30D, Digital Rebel, and Nikon's D70. (The main identifying feature is that they have interchangeable lenses, although this isn't technically required...) They're quite pricey, though, $800-$1,500.
posted by fogster at 8:45 AM on June 1, 2006

I looked up some photos from the Canon 30D and they look pretty amazing. But the camera is $1200 and looks like it weighs a ton! (If I had an extra $1200 laying around I'd buy a Macbook!) Great pictures though...
posted by kdern at 8:51 AM on June 1, 2006

You've got some misinformed ideas of photography that are causing the majority of the problems. No camera will help you overcome some of these stumbling blocks. The only way to counter grain is to shoot at ISO's of less than 400. To my eye, no digital camera gives acceptable images above 400. If you absolutely must have an indoor shot in a dark room, there are only 2 options; a tripod or flash. The built-in flash on most digital cameras will not work miracles though, so consider a good off and powerful camera flash or some sort of more powerful slave flash. This will help all of your problems without being persistently dissatisfied with your cameras.

If your macro photos are overexposed, it is because you are too close. Use the maximum telephoto setting for all of your macro flash shots. [b]Never use macro with a wide-angle setting.[/b] Learning some of the basics of photography will help you avoid many of the limitations that cameras have. Because no matter how expensive a camera you have, there will always be technical limitations.
posted by JJ86 at 9:05 AM on June 1, 2006

None of what you have listed above are DSLRs. They're just larger point-and-shoots, which may actually help you due to larger glass and sensor size. They may be the size of that crappy 35mm you were talking about earlier. The cheapest real DSLR is the Nikon D50, which can be had for around $500-$600 if you look hard.

Do you want something you can put in your pocket? Your only hope is image stabilization, like on the SD700, which gains you an extra stop or two, letting you shoot at 1/15 instead of 1/30 or 1/60, or to wait a couple more generations for image sensor technology to get better.
posted by zsazsa at 9:14 AM on June 1, 2006

I'd love something I can put in my pocket, but I want great photos.

Does a "larger point and shoot" like the ones I've listed above produce better photos because of a larger lens and more powerful flash? Or because it provides more manual controls?

Are photos from a larger point and shoot significantly better than a tiny one?
posted by kdern at 9:22 AM on June 1, 2006

A better lens can make some difference in quality, but it's really only going to be noticeable by enlarging a high resolution image. On a downsized 800x600 image or even 1024x768 image you would never be able to tell the difference between a photo shot with a $2000 lens and a $50 lens. Don't get suckered into the "spend more money, get better quality" mantra. If you really want better quality, you are better served by learning more about photography basics. At the end of the day, if you have a $1000 camera and still no nothing about photography, your images will be the same as what you are taking now.
posted by JJ86 at 9:30 AM on June 1, 2006

I'm lucky to have all these experienced photographers to help me. Thanks everyone for your time and advice.

Here's what I don't understand. With a $200 point and shoot 35mm with autofocus, I was able to take sharp photos with good exposure most of the time. This was without playing with any manual controls.

I can see making manual adjustments in unique situations (low light, macro, etc.), but for most shots (outdoors, portraits, scenery, etc.) I would prefer to use automatic settings.

With the two elph cameras I've tried, I have not been able to do that. If I use automatic mode on one of these larger cameras, is there any reason the quality will be better than automatic mode on an elph like the SD550?
posted by kdern at 9:39 AM on June 1, 2006

I have to admit, I'm a bit confused. Looking at your flickr set, you seem to be getting good photos with your Canon. This one - of fries - is quite nice, and you have very steady hands to hold that without flash at 1/5 of a second. (it's all in the information about the file). In terms of improving the photo, it's a little underexposed. Can you add some more fill light and then increase the contrast? (I'm no good with image programs, so I've been using Google's Picasa, which makes it simpler to adjust and crop photos).

But I can see what you mean by blurry on this squirrel picture. 1/100s is usually fine, but sometimes blurry if your hands are shaking or the subject is moving - I suspect it was the subject in this case. It seems your camera was only on f/4.9 -- mine will only go to f/4.9 when zoomed.

It may be that your 35mm film was just more sensitive to light, or were you working with 800ISO film? The digital sensitivity to light changes for each camera. My husband's older camera (getting on 4 years now) is more sensitive to light than any film camera I have ever worked with and has always taken better indoor shots than film does. But my new camera is less sensitive to light; I haven't used film in a long time, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were slightly less sensitive than film. I've learned to work with this, and I enjoy doing motion (purposely blurry) shots now.

Or it could be the automatic programming? - that would change from camera to camera. I find that my camera often wants to over expose anything in a high contrast setting -- washing out skies, for example. It also assumes that every scene will be quite bright, and thus tries to go for too much light when I am taking a photo which is mostly dark (a silohette, for example).

As other posters have said, grainyness cannot be helped except by sticking to ISO100 or less. Blurryness is a from too slow shutter speed - set the apeture as open as possible. My camera actually has a setting where you can manually set the apeture or speed, and it will treat the other as automatic and adjust around it.

As for the 150 photos you had to throw out -- well, I recently did a research project on the legendary photo journalist Eugene Smith, and he would take hundreds of photos to produce the 15 to 30-odd for a given story. And this was back when it cost so much to develop each one, though most of his didn't make it past contact sheets or 5x7s. Of course, he was a genius and all of his discards are better than anything I've ever done -- but I just wanted to say that having throw away pictures is part of the reality of photography. The professionals have a higher hit rate, but still don't get it right every time.

I hope you do find a camera you like. My husband chose the one we have now by going into the store and just using everyone on display and looking at the result. That helped a lot - since we needed something that did old documents well, he actually took in an old book. Do you have a camera store nearby where this is possible?
posted by jb at 10:13 AM on June 1, 2006

It sounds like you have little formal training in photography, judging from some of your questions. I would suggest taking every opportunity to learn before deciding where to spend your money. Even if you do most of your shooting in automatic modes, understanding how those modes work and when they are likely to not work well is important to getting the best pictures possible. There are a lot of educational resources online geared to all experience levels; many have been linked to here if you look for the appropriate tags. Look for chances where you live to work with others; I went to one of the workshops here and found it a good place to see what other photographers had and get a chance to talk to the pro leading the class. I would guess you have similar opportunities where you live.

To get to the question you just asked, sensor size is extremely important to image quality. This is because unless you shoot 4x5 sheet film or like pictures smaller than a postage stamp, you have to enlarge the image to printable size. The smaller the original image the more you will have to enlarge the image and its flaws. That is why Canon has invested so much R&D in its "full frame" sensors that are the same size as 35 mm film and found in its most expensive cameras. To go even further, Hasselblad makes a 22 MP DSLR with a sensor that is about twice the size of 35 mm film (and costs nearly $30,000). That is certainly part of the reason why your 35 mm camera compares so well with supposedly more advanced digicams.

Have you looked at other photographers' work? Try to find some nice sharp pictures you like and find out what equipment was used if you can. Even the cheapest cameras can give decent results under the right conditions. By getting a more advanced camera you are merely expanding the envelope of conditions to take good pictures in.
posted by TedW at 10:22 AM on June 1, 2006

There are more variables involved with digicams than film cameras (which can all use the same film). You've got the optical system (as on a film camera), the metering system (more or less equivalent to a film camera), the sensor (which can vary greatly from one digicam to another), and the imaging engine (which also varies). DPReview compared three cameras that used identical glass and identical sensors, but had different imaging engines: surprisingly, the results were very different.

A 35-mm film frame is a pretty big imaging area, so you are getting effectively very very high resolution. Consumer digicams have tiny sensor areas, and perversely, very high resolutions can hurt image quality, since each sensor pixel winds up being smaller and more susceptible to electrical noise (and the higher the gain, aka "ASA", the more susceptible).

DSLRs, which are quite a bit more expensive, have fairly large imaging areas (usually not as big as a 35-mm frame, but a lot bigger than a consumer model), better glass, fancier imagine engines, and even at the same or lower pixel count will produce vastly superior images to a consumer digicam.

Then there's that weird "prosumer" category of cameras that are too fancy to call a point-and-shoot, but don't have a removable lens, and may actually cost more than some DSLRs. The Sony R1 is a prime example.

So there's no easy way to answer your question "If I use automatic mode on one of these larger cameras, is there any reason the quality will be better than automatic mode on an elph like the SD550?". You need to do the research on each model that interests you, see what its pros and cons are, and no matter whether you shoot in manual or automatic mode, learn more about the principles of photography.
posted by adamrice at 10:25 AM on June 1, 2006

With the two elph cameras I've tried, I have not been able to do that. If I use automatic mode on one of these larger cameras, is there any reason the quality will be better than automatic mode on an elph like the SD550?

Well, it's an alogorithm. Different companies don't share them. I don't know where I got the impression but I've always thought of the Elph as being for people who just "want a camera that looks cool". I could be totally wrong about that.

I love the $500 Canon S2 IS although I'm outgrowing it for a DSLR soon I think.
My Flickr examples, all 2,800.
posted by Brainy at 10:32 AM on June 1, 2006

Actually, the new SD700 does shoot at an 800 ISO.

I just returned my Canon S2 IS the other day in preperation to get an SD700. I liked the zoom on the S2 but its size meant that I left it at home more often than not. That and the AAA's were a major pain.

The best camera to me is the one that you have with you when you need it. The Elph line works like that (though my SD500 puked a little foam o-ring on Opening Day). And a pocket camera is easy to grab and go.

I have gotten some excellent (some have said superb) results with the tiny cameras. One bit of advice for the little cameras is to make sure that you keep your lens clean or clean it regularly. Its a small lens so even a little smudge will show up.
posted by fenriq at 11:53 AM on June 1, 2006

Am I just too picky now for one of these tiny pocket cameras?

Yup and agree with everyone else who has said you would benefit more if you paid attention to the basics.

I wouldn't want to rely heavily on auto mode since your giving up control over ISO, shutter speed and aperture and letting the camera do all the thinking for you which can (and often does) result in bad photos.

DaShiv (most of?) the Canon PS's have spot metering.
posted by squeak at 11:53 AM on June 1, 2006

Here's what I don't understand. With a $200 point and shoot 35mm with autofocus, I was able to take sharp photos with good exposure most of the time. This was without playing with any manual controls.

Negative film is much more forgiving of exposure variation than digital sensors. Shooting digital is much closer to shooting slides, which requires a great deal more precision in exposure.

Not only that, but small digital sensors are even worse, owing to their lower dynamic range (making them more intolerant of small variations in exposure than larger sensors). And differences in sensor sizes are dramatic: here's a useful illustration of sensor sizes in digital cameras. The sensors used in point-and-shoot digital cameras are much smaller than the size of your old 135 film (i.e. 24mmx36mm).

Here's a mathematical comparison: a 4'x6' standard drug store print is a 5.7x enlargement from a medium format (645) negative, and a 17x enlargement from a standard 35mm negative. From the Nikon DX sensor size used in all Nikon DSLR's, it's a 58x enlargement up to a 4'x6' print, and a whopping 408x enlargement from your Canon SD550 point-and-shoot (whose sensor measures a miniscule 7.18mm x 5.32mm). This obviously puts enormous demands on both the camera's lens and sensor to resolve details that will be hundreds -- even thousands -- of times enlarged, and the image invariably needs lots of computational massaging (for example, having a tone curve applied to linear data) before it looks even somewhat presentable.

Result: for point-and-shoot cameras, the results produced tend to be already so overprocessed (usually by using oversatured colors, high contrast, and oversharpening any details) that their images fall apart quickly under post-processing. Of course, many customers love the overprocessed look as well. However, tiny sensors leave precious little margin for anything beyond straight-from-the-camera results. If you overexpose slightly with a point-and-shoot and blow some highlights, that data is completely obliterated, instantly. Light getting a little dim? Noise everywhere that obscures all the fine details. And so on.

So the point being: using a larger-sensor camera is expensive, inconvenient, and infuriating to use at times, but for those problems that can be best solved by going this route (for example, good high ISO performance), there's no real substitute. And all the large-sensor cameras out there are DSLR's (except for the Sony R-1 and the Epson R-D1/R-D1s). There just aren't any digital cameras with the small size of a Canon SD550 (Elph) and the large sensor of a DSLR. I've been waiting for a large-sensor compact for years now, and I expect to be waiting for many years more before such a thing even approaches becoming commercially feasible. So your choice: small camera/sensor or large camera/sensor. I've always owned both, and neither ask for high portability from my DSLR's nor ask for exacting image quality from my compacts. Horses for courses.

If you do choose the DSLR route, I'd go with either the Nikon D50 or the Canon 350D (DRebel XT) as a body. From looking through your photos, a Canon EF-S 60/2.8 macro (a small, very portable 1:1 macro) and a Sigma 30/1.4 (compact available light "normal" lens) should cover most of your shots if you choose the Canon route.

squeak: Egads, you're right! Looks like Canon's camera featuresets are completely schitzo, with raw-but-no-spot in their entry DSLR's and spot-but-no-raw in their compacts now that they've dropped it from the new S80. It's always love-hate with Canon.
posted by DaShiv at 12:16 PM on June 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

Small cameras have small sensors which receive a small amount of light. Small amounts of light mean either more noise (high ISO setting) or longer shutter times (blurry) or both. You've reached the limits of what you can do with a small camera.

Get a tripod, or if your subject is moving, a camera with a bigger sensor (i.e. an SLR).
posted by knave at 12:46 PM on June 1, 2006

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