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why digicams STILL suck

posted in Home Jabber on January 24, 2008

sony dsc-w100I recently decided to get an older Sony digicam to carry around in my backpack, instead of constantly lugging around my 5-pound Canon 20d DSLR. I ended up choosing a Sony DSC-W100 after reading it was fast to start up & shoot, not incredibly small but pocketable, supposedly good in low light, has full manual controls, and shoots macro and movies. A typical higher-end tinycam about a year old. Plus I was able to find it used on ebay for around $150, half the price I paid for my last lens.

When the package arrived, I excitedly unpacked it, charged the battery and loaded up a memory stick. I roamed around the house testing it out, and soon realized how spoiled I'd become since diving into the land of DSLR cameras with the ubiquitous Canon Digital Rebel XT two years ago. (I soon downgraded to a cheaper, used Digital Rebel/300d, and a year or so later, my current 20d.) I couldn't believe the difficulty in framing a shot with the Sony, and getting decent depth of field (sharp focus, blurry background) was near impossible -- after all these years, digicams STILL suck.

How about letting some pictures do the talking. This is a shot with the Sony DSC-W100 (in admittedly poor lighting) of an accordion I picked up in Mexico:

I mean, it's a dimly lit room, but this camera is supposed to be a good performer in low light. But not only is the noise out of control, the color is awful and it just feels flat and lifeless.

Now, a shot with my cheapo (yet indispensible) Canon 50mm f/1.8 on my 20d:

It's like candy for the eyes compared to that other piece of crap. I could likely fuss around with my digicam to try and get something comparable, but I guarantee it'd be a pain in the ass and tedious. The shot on the 20d was with the simplest of settings.

I've tried the digicam in lots of other situations, and it's just an exercise in frustration. I really think it comes down the tiny-ass sensor they equip these things with. No matter how fancy the camera is AROUND the sensor, it all comes down to sucking up light on a sensor that's 1/1.8" -- the size of your pinky fingernail. My 20d has a sensor nearly ten times this size, which helps you get more light more quickly, with less noise and a juicy depth of field. Which translates to much better pictures.

I was writing joseph robertson about my (not so unique) desire for a simple digicam, much like what I bought, but with a LARGE sensor. Even if it came with a fixed lens, like my 50mm, or even a 35mm equivalent, I would be in hog heaven. Small, black, metal, fast, simple walkaround camera, with a BIG sensor, damnit!

I'd gladly sacrifice all the useless features they cram in these things for a Holga-like simplicity. Well, maybe a Pentax K1000 simplicity. I just want to change ISO, shutter speed & aperture, and have a decent autofocus with good low-light performance.

Sigma is apparently developing a camera like this, the DP-1, but it's not very fast (not so good in low-light), and rumored to be quite expensive, and has been in development so long it's starting to feel like vaporware (vaporcam?) at this point.

All said, I realized there was one cool thing about the Sony -- it takes pretty damn nice videos. Here's a (somewhat-chewed up when converted to flv by Vimeo) video taken on Melrose:

5 comments on this entry

Ha! We've had a similar Sony DSC-P200 or some crap for a year or two. Virtually impossible to get a decent picture out of... I was beginning to believe I had just lost the ability to operate a camera in my old age. As you said, the thing does shoot surprisingly good videos; now it's primary function. I've been lazily craigslisting for a DSLR (Recently having built a darkroom that I have never and will never use). Umm... here's where I trail off- forgetting the intended conclusion of this comment. Are you ever coming back to Oregon? We've become bored and lame up here, if that's any motivation.

mlaargh 1/26/08

Yes, your wee Sony is no match for your monster Canon. But you seem to have bought it for a different reason (portability, snapshot from pocket), right? It's a different _type_ of photography, the kind that you can only get when nobody notices you taking pictures.

Look for things (like video) in a digicam that you can't do (or can't do easily) with an SLR, and you won't be disappointed. My favorite example is the rotating barrel on Sony's DSC-F88. You can shoot low, shoot high, even take pictures behind you and still frame the shot on screen. It's absolutely unlike any other camera, and so it doesn't seem to suck.

Chris Snyder 1/26/08

@mlaarg: not sure about returning to oregon. we're considering austin, tx even tho i've never even been there. ha! i'm also visiting jeremy next week in new orleans, who knows what will come of that. i do consider myself a fullblooded oregonian, tho, and am pretty set on building a shack by the river when i'm done roaming.

@chris: good points, and i guess what i concluded myself -- focus on what the lil' beast is good for. i was still pretty shocked at the near-impossibility of getting consistently decent pictures with a digicam. i guess it had just been a while. it really seems like there's a largely random chance what you shoot will turn out with digicams, whereas w/ even the cheapest of DSLRs (i am still most wooed by the 300d) it's the opposite.

i guess it's a separate subject, but i reiterate my strong desire for a walkaround compact with a large sensor. i think a lot of DSLR owners would buy one, which makes me surprised the market hasn't been explored.

nate 1/26/08

I really like the first photo. I think the light and colors are beautiful. Really nice, Nate.

Becca 1/27/08

i'll have to talk scott into printing a 5 foot poster of it for you.

nate 1/27/08

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