The DSC craze

As Christmas approaches quickly, my wife and I are trying to figure out what presents to give to friends and family, and to ourselves. We figured it'd be time to bite the bullet and get ourselves a new digital camera. We own a rather old Casio 3 MP compact DSC that has served us well for a couple of years but now the case is seriously starting to fall apart. The latch of the battery housing lost its lock and now it doesn't want to keep shut and can only be held in place with some duct tape. Anyway it's a pretty old camera, slow and with very limited features, its only advantage being, well, it's compact.

Now, while we could just get a similar DSC to replace it, unfortunately we both are a bit gadget crazy. Also, my wife owns an old Minolta SLR that makes awesome pictures but could be replaced by something more fancy. It's quite battered, the case is cracked a bit so she put some black insulating tape over the crack to keep light from coming in. And now we've got to decide what we want to get.

The options are close to infinite. Should we go for a real DSLR or is a "bridge" camera with a 20x Megazoom the better choice? And since we also love travelling with our motorbikes and taking pictures on the road, wouldn't a point-and-shoot compact camera be a much better idea? This weekend I've looked at a lot of reviews and narrowed down the options to only a few, but it's still tough.

For a compact DSC, the Canon PowerShot G10 could be a good choice. But it's got a too small sensor with way to many pixels (14.7MP) and quite consequently it suffers from noise a lot. Looking at the sample pictures the reviewer took, already at ISO 200 you can see the effect of noise filtering done by the camera, taking away sharpness and details. However, there's the predecessor G9 with a slightly "smaller" sensor at 12.1MP which has better noise figures. The G9 or G10 would be the ideal travel companion on the motorbike. Still, it's not an adequate replacement for the Minolta.

We know from experience that a small SLR camera can be handled easy enough even while sitting on the motorbike, balancing the bike with one foot on the ground and the other foot on the brake pedal, even with the helmet on. You just use a wide angle lens and point the camera to the approximate direction and press the trigger. A life preview like on compact DSCs helps but is not strictly mandatory. Changing lenses to go from wide angle to zoom is out of question, however.

This is where we enter the domain of Megazoom bridge cameras. I looked at two models, the Nikon Coolpix P80 and the Canon PowerShot SX10IS. The fixed lense ranges from wide angle to extreme zoom and their sizes are similar to compact SLR cameras. But again, a small sensor and high pixel count drive up the noise figures. The SX10IS is much better than the P80 there, but its image quality is just about par to the compact PowerShot G10, this leaves the long zoom as the main advantage. But again, on a motorbike its very difficult to use a long zoom even in good light.

The Panasonic Lumix G1 is an interesting candidate. It's a so called "Micro FourThirds" camera with a big 4-by-3 sensor at 12.1MP. It's not a real DSLR, because there is no mirror box and hence no optical view finder. But leaving out the mirror box and using a electronic view finder allows to make a very compact case. Not that compact however. It's not much smaller than compact DSLRs, but it's got a twist-able live preview display which is an advantage over regular DSLRs. The image quality is stunning! Due to the big sensor the noise figures are much better than of any of the MegaZoom or 10+ MP compact cameras and the quality of the lense is much better as well. The lenses are however also the weak spot: They are exchangeable and currently there is just two options, a variable 14-45 mm and a 45-200 mm. I already stated that changing lenses on a motorbike is a no-go. But I also said that a long zoom is difficult to handle anyway and looking at our trusty Minolta, we find that it also has a vario lense with 28-70 mm focal length, which is about equivalent to the 14-45 of the G1. And we know from experience that a compact SLR works well with the bikes.

Enters another contender, the Nikon D40. This entry level DSLR has a 6.1MP Nikon DX sensor(crop factor 1.5) and is amazingly cheap to have. The noise figure of this camera is really, really good. It doesn't even feature any ISO below 200, it's just not necessary! You can expect it taking very good pictures especially under low light conditions, think sightseeing and not needing to carry a flash for photographing in churches, crypts or in fading daylight. It's also quite well established and has a wide range of lenses to chose from. It's currently sold as a kit of body and 18-55 mm plus 55-200 mm vario lenses. Cons: it's larger than the Lumix G1 and doesn't have a life view display. On the positive side there's the image quality and the wide variety of lenses, making it the perfect replacement for the old Minolta.

It's still a tough choice. On one side compact cameras can be carried wherever you go and taking out the camera to shoot is quick and easy. But then, my wife also owns a Nokia N95 with a built-in 5MP autofocus camera, we have used it on our last summer holiday trip with good results. So is there really a need for another compact DSC? MegaZoom cameras are very versatile due to the wide zoom range. However the image quality appears to suffer from the technical constraints and the long zoom is no advantage while on the motorbike. Still, in the coming days we'll also look at new model, the Canon PowerShot SX1, but it's hard to tell if the use of a CMOS sensor can do anything about the image quality. The Micro FourThird Panasonic Lumix G1 is quite a cool device. The electronic view finder is stunning, image noise figures are not so bad and the quality of the lenses is very good. But will it survive as a concept so that more lense options will be available eventually? Experts seem to be undecided. And since it's not really small, why not go all the way and buy a real DSLR like the Nikon D40?

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