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choosing a compact camera singapore

So your smartphone has a camera. It’s adequate enough for most intents and purposes, as evidenced by Instagram. These days, the use of the front camera, never once a bastion of image quality, has even become acceptable for snapping ‘selfies’, ‘wefies’ (seriously, who coined that word?!) and whatnot.

With that being the case, is there even a point in buying a compact camera? Afterall, it’s something extra that you gave to carry around, and that gets in the way of convenience sometimes.

Well, from my personal experience, and fortunately for camera manufacturers like Canon and Nikon, there’s still differentiating factors that make owning a dedicated compact camera worthwhile. We’ll be covering these factors, as well as some metrics you could use as a basis of comparison when choosing between cameras.

For the purposes of this article, we define a compact camera as a camera that’s not a DSLR. We’ll be excluding things like camcorders and the action camera, since their main purpose is to record videos. Still, that’s a lot to cover, so let’s begin by exploring the types of compact cameras out there in the market today.


Types of Cameras

The Basic Point-and-Shoot Camera
(Image Source: Nikon)
The Nikon Coolpix L29
(Image Source: Nikon)

At the bottom of the barrel lies the basic point-and-shoot camera. Such cameras are petite in size and may have a high megapixel count, but other than that, they have nothing else to offer. Zoom range is nothing to shout about, sensor size (we’ll get to that later) is small, image quality is generally mediocre especially in low light situations, and the camera flash probably takes a long time to recharge.

If you’re lucky, the camera will offer optical image stabilisation (OIS), giving it an edge over many smartphones (though OIS is becoming common in smartphones too). Otherwise, there’s really no reason to opt for a basic point-and-shoot camera if you already own a smartphone with a halfway-decent camera. If you need the optical zoom, there are better options out there, which leads us to…

The Superzoom Camera
(Image Source: Fujifilm)
The Fujifilm FinePix S9900W with 50x optical zoom
(Image Source: Fujifilm)

The superzoom camera offers a long zoom lens, with a zoom factor often lying between 10x to 50x. It offers the one advantage that smartphones of today don’t yet have: reach. Often used in nature and animal photography (it’s safer to snap a photograph of a lion from far than up close), some of these cameras, like the one pictured on the right, may even masquerade as DSLRs. If that’s too much bulk to shoulder, there are more petite options out there, like the Canon Powershot SX600 HS, which has a respectable 18x zoom range.

For the larger superzooms, they were originally intended as ‘bridge’ cameras filling the niche between compact cameras and DSLRs. Therefore, you’ll find a plethora of manual modes, such as shutter priority, aperture priority and full manual, on these cameras. Given their relative low cost, such cameras make a good companion for someone new to photography and wishes to explore some creative controls.

Unfortunately, the superzoom is also beset by the same problem as the basic point-and-shoot: image quality. As we’ll find out later, image quality is a function of image sensor size. In addition, lens size has to increase when the image sensor size increases, and the problem is compounded with superzoom cameras which require several such lenses. Larger lenses are more expensive and bulkier, therefore manufacturers have taken the prudent approach and traded off image sensor sizes (and thus image quality) for more zoom. Yep, this is even true with the DSLR-looking beast on the right, which has the same sensor size as the basic point-and-shoot camera above.

Thankfully, despite both categories possessing similar sensor sizes, the superzoom is generally equipped with a better sensor, so image quality is probably a class higher.

Overall, the superzoom still manages to hold its own compared to smartphones because it fills the niche for someone looking for a versatile camera that offers long zoom range, and in certain models, full manual controls.

 The premium Fixed Lens Camera
The Canon Powershot G7X (Image Source: Canon)
The Canon Powershot G7X
(Image Source: Canon)

So far, we’ve established that the image quality on both basic point-and-shoots and superzooms are nothing to shout about. This is where the premium camera steps in, and unsurprisingly, it’s where camera manufacturers are focusing on right now for the fixed lens segment.

These cameras generally offer a larger sensor size that’s in between that of basic point-and-shoot cameras and mirrorless cameras. Larger sensor sizes, as we’ll find out later, are able to absorb more photons, and as a result, perform better in low-light situations.

We started out with cameras featuring 1/1.7″ sensors, which are about 50% larger than the typical 1/2.3″ sensors used in basic point-and-shoot cameras and superzooms, and over 150% larger than the 1/3″ sensor found on the iPhone 5S, 6 and 6 Plus. Such cameras include the Canon Powershot S120 and the Panasonic Lumix LX7. There are only few phones with a sensor larger than 1/1.7″. They are the Nokia Lumia 1020 with a 2/3″ sensor, the Nokia 808 PureView with a 1/2″ sensor, and the recently launched Panasonic CM1 (that’s arguably more of a camera than a smartphone) with a 1″ sensor.

Anyway, sensor sizes on these premium cameras slowly crept up to widen the gap between them and smartphone cameras, and now we have cameras with 1″ sensors like the Sony RX100 series and the recently launched Canon Powershot G7X you see on the left. Some have even gone further and stretched sensor size to its limits, like the new Panasonic Lumix LX100 with a cropped, Micro Four-Thirds sensor, and the Canon Powershot G1X with a 1.5″ sensor. Then there’s the Nikon Coolpix A with an APS-C sensor, which is basically the same size as most DSLRs and many mirrorless cameras. It doesn’t come with optical zoom, however, perhaps because the camera would become too big as a result. This is a trade-off with larger sensors as you’ll need bigger lens to accommodate them, and it’s hard to have such lenses collapse into one slender package when not in use.

If you’re getting confused, just know that bigger is generally better when it comes to the sensor size. As it is right now, premium fixed lens cameras are versatile and offer great image quality while not compromising on practicality and portability. As compared to a mirrorless camera, you won’t have to bother about changing lens since there’s only one you can use. The lens on a premium camera is generally more versatile than a typical kit lens on a mirrorless camera in that it offers wider angles and a larger aperture for better low-light performance, so a premium camera may be the most cost-effective way of getting great image quality and versatility.

The Interchangeable Lens (Mirrorless) Camera
The Sony α7S (Image Source: Sony)
The Sony α7S
(Image Source: Sony)

The DSLR utilises a mirror that basically reflects whatever the lens see into the viewfinder. Some seven years ago, manufacturers realised that the LCD (and later, the electronic) viewfinder was adequate enough for most intents and purposes, and in the process, they could remove the mirror that was one main culprit behind the bulkiness of DSLRs. The mirrorless camera in the form of the Micro Four-Thirds (MFT) system, which was pioneered by Panasonic and Olympus, was born.

As its name suggests, MFT offers a sensor size of 4/3″, which is smaller than most DSLRs, but way larger than most point-and-shoot compacts. It was a good compromise: photographers could enjoy the flexibility of changing lenses, while the relatively smaller sensor size made it easier to carry around.

Over the following years, the competition heated up and now we have mirrorless cameras that are almost identical to DSLRs, save the mirror. The Sony α7S which you see on the right has a full-frame 35mm sensor, which is even larger than that in most entry-level to mid-range DSLRs. We have also seen manufacturers going the other way.

While in photographs the premium camera and the mirrorless camera seem similar in size, don’t be fooled. The mirrorless camera is still more bulky to carry around because its lens is still external and doesn’t retract into the camera’s body. To work around this, some manufacturers have opted for mirrorless cameras with smaller sensors. For example, the Nikon 1 series and the Samsung NX Mini, for example, opts for a smaller 1″ sensor whereas the Pentax Q series uses 1/2.3″ and 1/1.7″ sensor sizes.

The Lens Camera
The Sony QX1 (Image Source: Sony)
The Sony QX1
(Image Source: Sony)

This segment is relatively new and was pioneered by Sony back in 2013. The idea is that you already have a smartphone, which essentially serves as the camera body. So, the lens camera is basically a camera without a body. The lens interfaces with your phone via Wi-Fi and NFC, and your phone acts as a viewfinder.

While a relatively niche market for now, it could perhaps take off in the coming years. In end 2014 and early 2015, Sony and Olympus launched models that are essentially mirrorless cameras without the body, a sign of things to come.

The Phone Camera
The Nokia Lumia 1020 (Image Source: Microsoft)
The Nokia Lumia 1020
(Image Source: Microsoft)

Last but not least, let’s not forget the humble smartphone camera. We may have thought of it as a novelty at the time, but who knew back then that smartphone cameras would end up destroying an entire industry of cheap point-and-shoots? (Not me.)

We’ve come a long way since Sony Ericsson’s famed Cybershot phones. Today, we have phones such as the Sony Xperia Z3 and the Nokia Lumia 1020 giving compact cameras a run for their money. Heck, even the newer iPhones have been known for their decent image quality, especially in low-light.

As the saying goes, the best camera is the one that you have with you. The smartphone turns out to be that camera. But of course, if you’re reading this now, you’re probably wondering if you can do better than your smartphone camera. Indeed, most smartphone cameras are decent enough but nothing outstanding: you can’t zoom up close (without sacrificing image quality), and photographs in indoor or night situations often end up noisier than you’d wish.

Now that we’ve covered the various types of cameras, head over to Part 2 , where we’ll guide you to the best camera for your needs >> A Newbie’s Guide to Choosing a Compact Camera – Part 2

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