I was at a friend’s house the other night for a party. They live in the city (it’s a small city, but it’s a city) and there were lots of young children in attendance. The children needed running space and so were in the backyard on a dark and chilly evening, along with a few of us adults to monitor their activities. Someone decided it would be nice to have the light and heat of a bonfire back there; so they lit a nice big fire in a metal fire pit. The kindling was especially effective because the fire quickly flamed way up and threw lots of welcome heat into the backyard.

Well, it wasn’t long before two fire trucks show up in response to a phone call by a “concerned” neighbor. It turns out you can only have small contained cooking fires (e.g., a Weber grill) in the city and the firemen and accompanying policeman informed us we had to put out the fire.

The firemen and policeman could have easily been jerks about all of this. However, they clearly felt bad about this seemingly overblown response to our reasonably contained bonfire. So, seeing all the young children around, they invited the children to come aboard the fire truck and see the inside firsthand. Of course, the children *loved* this and the adults were thrilled with this free entertainment for their kids. (I think some of the adults were themselves entertained by the spectacle of these trucks and their flashing lights in the darkness of the night as well!)

Why am I telling this story in a blog post titled “Best Compact Digital Camera to Buy for Image Quality and Pocketability”? Because I had failed to bring a camera to this party. All I had was my Blackberry, and I couldn’t get a decent picture with it to save my life! This very photographable nighttime spectacle was clearly beyond the reach of my cell phone camera.

The next day, this thought entered my brain: “I must get a good compact digital camera that I can always have with me.” And so started a rekindled effort to find a quality compact camera.

If you’ve followed my postings at Lightmanship, you’ve probably seen me talk about using compact film cameras more than once. The great thing about a compact 35mm film camera is you get the equivalent of a “full size” sensor in a compact form factor.

I have a Ricoh GR1 that fits into a front jean pocket, has a great lens (28mm f/2.8), and gives me great pics. I’m quite enamored with it. But there’s a catch.

When you’re loading a roll of film into a camera, you’re making a prediction about the types of photos you’ll be taking that day and/or in the near future. If you’ll be photographing in the middle of the day with plenty of light, you may select some 125 ISO or slower film. If you’ll be photographing late in the day or at night–or indoors with low lighting–you might select 800 ISO or faster film. If you’ve loaded slow film and find yourself in relatively dark conditions, you can use the camera’s flash to still get the photo…though, with the “flash aesthetic”…which may be good or bad.

One of the great things about a digital camera is that the ISO is adjustable from shot to shot. This provides an important degree of flexibility for a camera you want to have with you at all times in a wide range of shooting conditions.

So, I’ve decided that if the digital camera on my cell phone can’t hack it (it’s also painfully slow at saving images and being ready for another shot), then I need to find a quality compact digital camera to carry around in addition to my Blackberry–perhaps I can fit them both into a slim and compact pouch–that I won’t find burdensome.

It turns out that this compactness + high image quality combination is quite tricky! Most compact digital cameras have *very small* sensors and mediocre lenses that yield pretty awful image quality…especially for someone used to the images coming out of a full-frame DSLR camera.

Camera companies like Olympus, Panasonic, Ricoh, Sigma, and Canon (to name a few) are starting to come out with small cameras with relatively large sensors. (Large sensors improve things like image quality, low-light shooting, and image depth-of-field characteristics.) However, many of their offerings are not truly SPS (“Shirt Pocket Size”).

For example, I bought and owned a Panasonic DMC-LX3 for a while. I published a short review of it some months back. Once I customized my settings, I was pretty happy with the images I was getting. I ended up selling my LX3. Why?

Despite what DPReview has published at their website, the Panasonic DMC-LX3 is not a mere 1.1 inches thick. It’s actually closer to 2 inches thick where the lens barrel sticks out. In fact, it’s “thicker” than a Canon G10 which is definitely not a Shirt Pocket Size (SPS) camera! (here’s a photo showing the G10 next to the LX3)

There’s been a lot of press around the Olympus E-P1 and Panasonic GF1 which are like small DSLRs, in terms of having relatively large sensors and interchangeable lenses. (They’re actually not SLRs because they don’t have the flip-up mirrors of a single lens reflex camera, etcetera..but the sensors are almost as big as the APS-C size sensors you find in 1.6 crop DSLRs and you can change lenses like you can with a DSLR.)

If you look at the specs for these cameras, you’ll find that they too are not Shirt Pocket Size, *especially* with the standard 14-4Xmm zoom lens they usually come with attached. If you opt for the more expensive “pancake” lenses instead of the zoom lenses, you can definitely reduce the thickness of the camera plus lens. But by how much?

I’m going to present a table comparing the lengths, widths, and thicknesses of the compact digital cameras I’ve been considering as true competitors when it comes to the Image Quality + Pocketability market. But before I do that, I’d like to discuss some criteria for the cameras I’ve included…

Most compact digital cameras have very small sensors that yield poor image quality and lots of digital noise at all but their lowest ISO setting, regardless of how many megapixels they might have. (Actually, jamming more megapixels into these tiny sensors exacerbates these image quality problems!) It turns out that there is substantial variation in sensor size, quality, and number of megapixels; so all compact digital camera sensors are not equal.

I mentioned the Panasonic DMC-LX3 whose image quality I found to be relatively decent. It turns out its sensor is (approx) 8.8 x 6.6mm and the megapixel density is 24mp/cm2. Now compare that to a typical pocketable digital camera, a Canon PowerShot SD980 IS: the sensor is 6.16 x 4.62 mm with a megapixel density of 43mp/cm2. So, the LX3’s sensor is a bit bigger and the megapixel density is lower. Both of these tend to contribute to higher image quality all other factors being equal.

I have found other recent compact digital cameras with similarly slightly larger sensors and relatively low megapixel densities: the Ricoh GRD III, the Canon G11, and the Canon S90.

Of course, there are other factors to take into consideration when comparing compact digital cameras: 1) lens quality, 2) lens focal length, 3) fixed focal length vs. zoom, and what the zoom range is, 4) auto-focussing speed, 5) lens aperture range, 6) whether there’s a built-in flash and/or a hot shoe, 7) whether it has an optical viewfinder, and so on. Each person has to decide which of these factors is most important to them and how they should play out in their decision.

For me, I’d prefer a reasonably good quality lens (of course) that can go at least as wide as 28mm, has good auto-focussing speed, and a maximum aperture at least as large as f/2.8. I want a built-in flash and would prefer an optical viewfinder, but will live without the latter if necessary.

Okay, so let’s get to the table of sizes. One caveat though: it’s *really* difficult to get a depth or thickness dimension that includes the protruding lens and/or grip parts. I’ve had to estimate some of these based on various inexact indicators. But it’ll be better than going by the depth/thickness specs the camera manufacturers are providing!

The “Full Depth” below is an estimate of how deep or thick your pocket needs to be in order to contain the camera–lens and all–when the camera is turned off.

Camera Length Width Full Depth
Canon G11 4.4″ 3″ 1.9″
Canon S90 3.9″ 2.3″ 1.22″
Leica X1 4.9″ 2.2″ 2.0″
Olympus E-P1 w/ 14-42 zoom 4.8″ 2.8″ 3.1″
Olympus E-P1 w/ 17mm pancake 4.8″ 2.8″ 2.24″
Panasonic DMC-LX3 and
Leica D-Lux 4
4.3″ 2.4″ 1.9″
Panasonic GF1 w/ 14-45 zoom 4.7″ 2.8″ 3.8″
Panasonic GF1 w/ 20mm pancake 4.7″ 2.8″ 2.4″
Ricoh GR Digital III 4.3″ 2.3″ 1.2″
Ricoh GXR 4.5″ 2.8″ 1.8″
Sigma DP1 4.3″ 2.4″ 2.0″
Sigma DP2 4.5″ 2.5″ 2.2″
Now, personally, I find that 1.5″ is the maximum thickness that I’d still consider pocketable in a shirt or pant pocket, and even that is pushing it. I have a 1.25″ thick Ricoh GR1 that actually fits quite nicely into a pocket, even a relatively tight-fitting front jean pocket.

Many of the cameras above will fit into coat or jacket pockets. However, much of my photography is outdoors when the weather is nice and I *really* don’t like wearing coats or jackets when I don’t have to. (If I were willing to go up 0.5″ in thickness, the 2″ deep Leica X1 with a
36 f/2.8 [36mm in full 35mm frame terms] Leica lens and an APS-C size sensor–the biggest sensor in this group–would really be tempting. Of course, being a Leica, it’s pretty pricey!)

By the 1.5″ or less thickness criterion, only two of these cameras are shirt & pant “pocketable”: the Ricoh GR Digital III and the Canon Powershot S90. They’re both thin (actually even thinner than 1.25″),

have relatively wide lenses (28 mm on the Ricoh, 28-105 on the Canon), and both have large maximum apertures (f/1.9 on the Ricoh and f/2 on the Canon).

I suspect the quality of the lens on the Ricoh is better, mostly because of the well-known rule of thumb in photography that prime (fixed focal length) lenses tend to have better optical quality than zoom lenses. Of course, the strength of zoom lenses is that they cover more focal lengths.

What about price? The Ricoh GR Digital III retails for about $700; the Canon Powershot S90 for about $430. So the Ricoh sells for about 63% more than the Canon; that’s pretty significant.

I think I’d be pretty happy with either of these for my pocketable, relatively high image quality camera needs. But it’s a relatively clear choice for me: the Canon S90. Why?

  1. I’d rather spend $430 than $700 on a walk-around camera that is not meant primarily to make money for me; my professional DSLRs and lenses are my primary camera tools for generating photography-related income. The image quality on the S90 is sufficient, though, when I get a lucky shot that I want to publish at my website for marketing purposes or to make small prints.
  2. The zoom is more flexible than the fixed 28mm lens…and I think the quality of the lens on the S90 is good enough for my purposes. Canon usually puts good lenses on their compacts, and the Powershot S-series (I owned the 5 megapixel S60, which I was quite happy with; but it’s performance above 100 ISO was really poor) is at the high-end of their compacts.
  3. I own a 35mm film Ricoh GR1 with a 28mm f/2.8 lens that helps to satisfy my appetite for a compact Ricoh point-and-shoot camera when I need it…;-).

So, I’m going with the Canon Powershot S90! I’ll publish some of my photos and experiences with the S90 in future posts…:-).

To see more about the S90:

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