In one of my last posts, I think I made it clear I was giving up on finding a small, pocketable digital camera I liked.

Well, the funny thing is, I keep finding myself in situations where I want to take some photos (mostly while with my children) and the only camera I have available is the one in my cell phone. First, there was the one in my Blackberry which wasn’t very good, but at least it was 2 megapixels. Now there’s the one in my current phone that only takes 640×480 images and you can’t even get them off of the phone without paying to send them to yourself via email (it’s a prepay phone)! Trying to take a decent photo with a cell phone has *really* lowered the bar on what’s acceptable in terms of features and even–to some degree–what’s acceptable in terms of image quality.

I was noticing that the form factor of my cell phones was making it *way* easier to have them with me than any of my cameras, digital or film. Also, people out in public barely even notice if you pull out a cell phone (or something that looks like a cell phone) to take a photo; practically everyone is carrying around a cell phone or an mp3 player that is rectangular and looks like a pack or cigarettes or small deck of cards.

My first thought was to get a good camera phone (like an iPhone) and just use it as a camera (forget the actual cell phone plan, I’m not giving up my cheap prepay plan). But camera phone manufacturers need to make compromises to fit a camera along with a phone into a small rectangular space. Sure, there are camera phones with decent digital cameras, but if you buy a dedicated digital camera, you’re bound to get a much better camera for the same price.

So, I figured I wanted a relatively thin, rectangular device without large, protruding parts that I could use to take reasonably good digital photos costing less than $200, so I could carry it around everywhere and not have to worry about damaging an expensive ($400+) piece of electronics.

I had a Panasonic LX3 for a while that I mostly liked. What didn’t I like?

  1. I was hoping for quality and performance that would rival my Digital Rebel but in a more compact form. I discovered compact digital cameras simply can’t compete with digital SLRs.
  2. The lens on the LX3 sticks out pretty far and makes it not very pocketable.
  3. It’s a relatively expensive camera (around $500), so I couldn’t have it banging around in a coat pocket or small camera bag or whatever without having to worry about it more than I would want to.

I also owned a Canon S90 for a couple of months. While it was definitely slimmer and more pocketable than the LX3 and its images had much less noise than the LX3’s at high ISOs (800-3200), I was quite disappointed in its focusing speed and accuracy–definitely not as good as the Panasonic. And again, I was carrying around a camera that was pretty expensive ($400+), so I had to worry about it more than I’d like to.

Another thing I’d like to mention about these compact cameras with large maximum apertures (both the LX3 and S90 go as large as f/2, and this large aperture tends to make them more expensive) is don’t expect to get the sort of shallow depth-of-focus you can get with a digital SLR; the sensors are just too small in comparison to achieve a nice bokeh. The nice thing about large apertures on compact cameras is they help to keep ISOs lower; they don’t do much for shallow DOFs…unless the subject is *very* close to the camera.

So anyway, after getting over this fantasy that a compact camera could perform anywhere near a digital SLR in terms of things like shallow depth-of-focus or focusing on moving targets, I’ve come to realize there’s still a place in my photographic life for a compact digital camera. And the requirements have finally become clearer:

  • Small enough to fit into a shirt or front jean pocket (1 inch or less in thickness)
  • Flat and smooth with no large protruding parts; something like my Blackberry or an iPhone
  • A flush lens. Even though there are many cameras with lenses that are flush until you turn the camera on (then the lens zooms outward from the camera), once that lens zooms out, it functionality as a camera is pretty obvious to everyone around you. The one thing–maybe the only thing–I like about the camera in my cell phone is no lens sticks out and so it’s less obvious that you’re using it to take a picture.
  • Reasonably fast and accurate auto-focusing on non-moving subjects: still objects or children sitting or standing still…or at least not moving too fast.
  • Less than $200. My cell phones have been worth less than $200, so I don’t have to worry so much about having them with me in all sorts of environments and weather conditions.
  • Reasonably fast and wide lens. To me, a f/2.8 lens is as fast as I need; f/4 gets a little slow and f/5.6 is definitely too slow for indoor settings. I liked the 24mm (full-frame equivalent) on the wide end of the LX3’s zoom range; however, I find that 28mm is sufficient in 90% of the situations I find myself in. Even 35mm isn’t a deal-breaker; I have two compact film cameras with fixed 35mm lenses that I’ve used with quite satisfactory results.

With these requirements in mind, I did some research on the web and found a compact digital camera I’m quite pleased with: the Panasonic DMC-FP8. I found and bought a new one for a mere $160.  I think I was somewhat influenced by my mostly positive experience with the Panasonic DMC-LX3; even though its quite different in many ways from the LX3, the FP8 is similar enough to the LX3 in terms of features and performance that I have found it a comfortable and somewhat familiar photographic ally.

Panasonic DMC-FP8

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FP8

Here are some specs for the FP8:

  • Camera Effective Pixels: 12.1 megapixels
  • Aperture: F3.3 – 5.9 / 2-Step (F3.3 – 10 (W) / F5.9 – 18 (T))
  • Focal Length: f=5.0-23.0mm (28-128mm in 35mm equiv.)
  • Lens: LEICA DC VARIO-ELMAR, 10 elements in 8 groups, (5 Aspherical Lenses / 1 ED lens)
  • ISO Sensitivity: Auto /100 / 200 / 400 / 800 / 1600 (High Sensitivity Mode : Auto(1600 – 6400) )
  • AF Metering: Face / Touch AF/AE Tracking / Multi (11pt) / 1pt HS / 1pt / Spot
  • Viewfinder: No
  • LCD Monitor: 2.7″ TFT Screen LCD Display (230K dots), Field of View : approx. 100%
  • Built-in Flash
  • Power O.I.S. Image Stabilization
  • Weight(lbs): Approx. 0.29 lb; Approx. 0.34 lb with Battery and SD Memory Card
  • Dimensions (H x W x D): 2.35” x 3.77” x 0.80”

The lens is made by Leica and it’s a “folding lens” that is flush with the outside of the camera; it never protrudes past the surface of the camera even when zoomed out to 128mm. The maximum aperture on the lens is f/3.3. This is slightly smaller than f/2.8, however it’s only about one-third of a stop different (f/4 is a full stop slower than f/2.8) and its noise at 800 ISO is actually slightly better (based on my memory) than the LX3’s was; so the better performance at higher ISOs helps make up for the ever so slightly slower than ideal lens.

I haven’t had the camera for long, but I can tell you the focusing speed and sharpness of the lens–especially at 28mm f/3.3–has impressed me. And the image stabilization seems to do a very nice job at slow shutter speeds.

Plant by Window

DMC-FP8, 125 ISO, f/3.3, 1/40 sec

Trampoline Fun

DMC-FP8, 80 ISO, f/3.3, 1/125 sec

I’m still experimenting with the different menu settings, but so far, I like what I’ve seen. The FP8’s performance when the lens is zoomed out past 28mm seems less good to me; but I like having that extra zoom range in special instances…it could come in handy.

So, if you find yourself with similar preferences and requirements to the ones I’ve described for myself here in regard to a compact digital camera, I recommend you check out the Panasonic DMC-FP8 for yourself!

(Note: the Panasonic DMC-FP8 has actually been discontinued, but you can still get it new online. This is one of the reasons you can get it so inexpensively! The only way to get this same lens in a current model is to buy the $300-$400 DMC-TS2.)

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