Brian's Photo Blog — Article 522
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When a Pocket Camera Is the Right Tool For the Job
Saturday 5 March 2016   —   Category: Equipment
This article was originally going to be about how little I use my pocket camera, especially on photo outings. But when I re­viewed the more than 6,000 pictures presented on this Web site, I was shocked to find that nearly 20% of them were not taken with one of the interchangeable-lens cameras I have owned over the past five years. Until now I had no idea!

Of course, all of the photos contained in the 17 albums from 2006 through 2010 were taken with fixed-lens cameras, because it was not until 2011 that I bought my first SLR in 25 years. But there are occasions when an interchangeable-lens camera sys­tem is still too heavy, bulky and conspicuous — even with my small and lightweight Micro Four Thirds (µ4/3) equipment.

Over the past five years there have been times when I wanted to travel light yet still indulge in photography, like when I flew to California, or when I attended a photography seminar. In other situations, being discreet was the most important consideration, like when I took photos at a Phil Keaggy concert.

During my daily one-and-a-half-mile neighborhood walk I for sure don’t want to be lugging around a backpack full of camera equipment! As a result, almost all of the pictures in my Neighborhood albums over the past few years were taken with my always-present pocket camera. As the saying goes: “The best camera is the one you have with you!”

Sometimes I don’t want to risk damaging my expensive camera equipment in adverse weather, so I opt for risking my pocket camera instead. These situations have included rain and flooding, a snow storm, and even underwater in a river.

Out of my 24 photo outings to Portland in 2015, there was only one particular occasion when my current pocket camera was the best tool for the job. During the 20th annual Providence Bridge Pedal (and Stride), I needed to walk a six-mile course in about two hours. There would not be much time to stop for picture taking, and on the Tilikum Crossing we were not even allowed to stop for photos because of the crowd of more than 20,000 other par­tic­i­pants!

I get very hot and thirsty when I exercise, so it was much more important to carry plenty of water in my photo back­pack than a bunch of camera gear. Furthermore, I ab­so­lute­ly could not afford the time and hassle of constantly chang­ing lenses for different types of shots. It would be im­per­a­tive to employ a quick and easy, run-and-gun style of pho­tog­ra­phy.

Even though I love my µ4/3 camera equipment, in this case I was glad to leave its 4⅔ pounds behind, and carry my featherweight 8½ ounce Panasonic ZS50 instead. The reality is that I just would not have been able to get the wonderful shots I did with a larger and heavier camera. My little pocket camera really came through and made it all possible!

This was especially true on the Tilikum Crossing, where we were not allowed to stop to take pictures. As I was shuffling across the bridge in the can-​of-​sar­dines-​like crush, I simply held the camera up over my head and snapped away.

Just because I’ve painted a rosy picture of using a pocket camera on an outing, don’t imagine that it was totally a bed of roses. This was particular apparent when I was examining the resulting images on my computer back home.

Even though the ZS50 captures RAW images, just as my µ4/3 Olympus OM-D E-M5 camera does, its tiny 1/2.3” image sensor produces an image quality which was not horrible, but still noticeably lower than the quality of the images from my E-M5. Which goes to show that you really can’t have your cake and eat it too.

Just to put this in perspective, a 1/2.3” sensor is a whopping eight times smaller than a µ4/3 sensor. In comparison, a µ4/3 sensor is only 3.8 times smaller than a 35mm full-frame sensor. The drastically-smaller size of a pocket camera sensor invariably translates into lower-quality images — there is just no way to avoid the reality of physics.

In addition, the lens on a pocket camera is not going to come anywhere near the quality of one of my expensive professional-level lenses. Again, the inexorable laws of physics overcome any wishful thinking on the part of marketers and consumers.

But in the end, the image quality from my pocket camera does not need to be awesome, or even as good as my E-M5 camera — it simply needs to be ad­e­quate, suf­fi­cient and ac­cept­a­ble. In other words, as long as the photos from the ZS50 are good enough, then it has fulfilled its purpose on an occasion when my µ4/3 equipment, with its better-quality images, would not have been able to fulfill the role because of its excessive size and weight.

Some of the image-quality issues with my pocket camera when compared to my µ4/3 camera include a general lack of sharpness, more image noise, less dynamic range, less-true colors, and more-frequent highlight clipping. These problems can be fixed in Adobe’s Lightroom or Photoshop (or other image-editing software) to some extent, but often the final images still seems to suffer from the small sensor and mediocre lens.

On the positive side, in addition to the advantages I have already mentioned, I really like the wonderful com­pres­sion effect which occurs when taking pictures at the max­i­mum 30x zoom (720​mm equivalent focal length). I have written about this previously, and it came into play with some of the photos on the Bridge Pedal outing.

The photo to the right is not only a prime example of some of the quality issues I just mentioned, but also an excellent example of compression. The black railing in the foreground was only 140 yards away, while Mount Hood was 50 miles way, with the other in-between objects at varying distances. But because of telephoto compression, all of the objects in the image seems close together. Be sure to click on the photo in order to see a larger version and to read all of the details about the image and the compression effect.

To bring this article to a close, let me summarize the major pros and cons of taking a pocket camera on an outing instead of a larger interchangeable-lens camera:

Photo courtesy of Camera Ergonomics.
  • Small and lightweight
  • Easy to carry and use with one hand
  • Great compression effect at 30x zoom
  • Don’t have to change lenses
  • Discreet, unobtrusive photography
  • Photos lack sharpness
  • More image noise
  • Less dynamic range
  • More susceptible to highlight clipping      
  • Colors not quite as true
Even though I treasure my µ4/3 camera equip­ment, having a pocket camera is an essential part of my pursuit of photography — as evidenced by the four models I purchased and evaluated in my quest for the ideal pocket camera. Despite its shortcomings, there are certain situations in which a pocket camera is exactly the right tool for the photographic job.
UPDATE October 2016: For stories of others who have found this camera to be the right tool for the job, see: Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS50 — Reader Responses.
Brian's Photo Blog — Article 522
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Reader Comments
On March 29, 2016, Michael wrote:
Have been using the zs50 for several months and really love it as a quick shot travel camera to supplement my Nikon SLR. Today received a new zs100! Still in charging mode and looks like a bit of a learning curve might be required to get comfortable with the settings but with what I have read about it might be my next go-to primary?
On June 9, 2016, Laurie wrote:
Hi Brian. I don't know if this is the right place to pose a question--but I have been searching and searching for an answer about using my ZS50 and hope you might be the one!

Here is my dilemma: I carry this pocket camera for quick shots when traveling and enjoy keeping it in the Intelligent Auto Mode most of the time. However, I was dismayed to find that when shooting in shade, or with a strong backlight, I cannot use Forced Flash ON in the iA mode! Do you have a suggestion how I can quickly switch to the proper mode/exposure to turn on Forced Flash to illuminate faces, etc.?

Hope my question makes sense and thanks for any help you can give.
On June 9, 2016, Brian wrote:
In response to Laurie’s question, I would suggest rotating the Program Mode dial one notch to P (Program AE), which is an auto mode similar to iA, but it allows you more control to override some settings.

So, when in P mode, go to the flash settings and choose Forced Flash. Then take your shot. For normal use, you can stay in iA mode, but when you want Forced Flash, just flick the dial to P mode, and as far as I can tell, the Forced Flash setting should still be active.

Now here is something I just found out as I was experimenting, which I was not expecting: In iA mode I took a shot in dark conditions and the flash fired, as expected. Then, back in P mode, I set the flash to Off. Then back in iA mode I took the same shot. Guess what? The flash did NOT fire! Very strange! So obviously there is some connection between the flash setting in P mode and the flash behavior in iA mode. It will take further testing to figure out exactly what kind of connection.

In the meantime, I encourage you to experiment with flash settings in P mode, and then take pictures in both P mode and iA mode and see what happens. Let me know what you discover, and I’ll let you know what I find out.
Brian's Photo Blog — Article 522
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