Sunday, March 17, 2013

Social situations, which “compact”enthusiast camera? – X10 versus RX100 versus P7700 versus GX1 at 3200 ISO

I got curious about the X10 versus X20 comparison, but could not find any useful sample images yet for the X20. So I turned my attention to the market they server, that being the enthusiast market, where the camera does not have to be strictly pocketable.

And of course I consider most of the differences between cameras at base ISO to be a matter of photographer skill and personal taste, so there is little of interest in such a comparison, for me at least. If you are a base ISO shooter, you should be buying based on what features you personally need and the kind of performance compromises you can tolerate (and size of system, and so on.)

But when it comes to social shooting, there is one thing you cannot easily overcome … and that is sensor size. A very small sensor makes it that much harder to get shots at 3200 ISO, which I consider the minimum for serious social shooting (i.e. in dark bars or clubs or in peoples’ living rooms.)

SO here is yet another comparison, preliminary of course because I will repeat it when the X20 samples are out there. These are all 3200 ISO and shot at around 1/50 to 1/80, which is the bare minimum for an acceptable image of people. So the room has a modicum of light, but by no means a lot of light.

I used the “mannequin” series from and I am showing only crops at 100%. To be clear, all of these images look pretty nice at reduced web sizes. The time is long past where you could not find a decent enthusiast cam that could shoot at 3200 for the web. These images show the difference, though, when you crop or enlarge the images. And the difference is surprisingly large, when you consider that this represents three classes of sensor that are smaller than APS-C, a class in and of itself in many minds.

The GX1 represents the second and third generation of m4/3 sensor that came after the GH2, the granddaddy of this class of sensor. Panny and Sony make excellent m4/3 16mp sensor these days and you cannot really go wrong with any of those cameras. If you are all about the heavy processing in JPEG then you will be an Olympus fan. If you are into ergonomics and like shooting RAW, I would bet that you are a Panasonic fan. And there are plenty of shooters in the Panasonic JPEG class as well, but they have to use these modern bodies, and even then high ISO is a bit of a struggle. But the professionals (for example the pros that work with Will Crocket) are also very adept at adding light when necessary, so this article is more about enthusiasts who might have the camera in their purse or coat pocket and have to use ambient light. Over and above the obvious quality of the GX1’s sensor, there is the interchangeable lenses, allowing the ISO to be dropped by adding on any number of fast lenses. So the GX1 is hands down the most versatile low light camera here. But let’s assume a kit lens, as these are all shot at f/4 around 50mm effective.

The Sony RX100 is of course the darling of the compact(ish) class with its 1” sensor and high resolution. It responds almost as well as the GX1 in RAW, but I find it more difficult to process in Lightroom 4. But its biggest weakness by far is the lack of a hot shoe. So while it is nice and small, it also has no way of adding one of those nice compact flashes that are out there now. But … this is an ambient light showdown so we won’t dwell on that lack.

The X10 has the hot shoe and a very nice 2/3” sensor, but is know to be weak in RAW. I processed it in RAW for this comparison, but you are welcome to go look at the jpeg sample here. I think you will be even more disappointed. The 2/3” sensor is the largest previously used in compact cameras, but with Nikon’s new APS-C compact out there, well, this camera and every camera like it is living on borrowed time. The fancy x-trans based X20 is not rocking anyone’s world above base ISO, although some of the sharpness issues if the EXR sensor do appear to have been overcome.

And finally, the excellent in every way but still the smallest sensor in this level of camera P7700 from Nikon. Basically, it is totally outclassed. And if the X10 was meeting its potential, that would be even more obvious. This is a great all round shooter and probably the one most people should get. But if you are planning on mainly social shooting, you would want to own a second camera specifically for that purpose. Fast lens + larger sensor == no contest.

And finally, without further ado:

The Sony smears the hair more than the Panny, which is no surprise. As sensor size falls, the most obvious flaw that appears is the inability to separate low contrast fine details. This is an axiom and you are seeing it clearly shown here. The P7700 with its tiny sensor gives a credible performance, but the X10 gets stomped. That horrid graininess has been noted since the first cameras started showing up and Fuji and Adobe have never gotten that straightened out. Silkypix is the converter that Fuji has partnered with for their own variant, and that does no better in this sense. Basically, the X20’s xtrans sensor is the hope for the future of enthusiast compacts for Fuji. I look forward to seeing the difference.

Now, feel free to critique the processing, but I would ask that commenters consider processing the images themselves and posting crops if I somehow did not manage to get the best from these cameras. Thanks.

Bottom line: If you want the best image quality, you still have to go for the larger sensor. And since the GX1 is cheap these days (there are quite a few used ones on the usual sites) it is actually the cheapest of the bunch. But of course it is still fairly big. But for a simple to use camera the Sony looks like the winner. Which I think jives well with what I have been reading out there. But don’t forget to look at the new class of enthusiast cameras like the new Nikon and Canon’s entry. And of course the compacts from Panasonic (LX7) and Olympus (ZX-2) … they all have their merits. Just remember TANSTAAFL … sensor size will always matter.