Plugged In: Find the Goldilocks of pocketable cameras

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Good things are said to come in small packages, and that’s increasingly true of compact, highly mobile camera gear capable of making great images, whether on vacation, on the trail or while driving to work.

I’ve preferred traveling as light as possible ever since winter hunting trips flown 35 years ago in a small Taylorcraft. There was scant cargo space or weight allowance for rifles and winter survival gear, so we quickly learned to make the most of every ounce and every cubic inch. That same challenge still faces today’s photographers, backpackers, hunters and travelers, especially those who want to make high-quality images while traveling light.

Although a cellphone’s camera function is certainly light and compact, it’s not especially versatile nor capable of making technically adequate images except of nearby subjects in bright sunshine. On the other hand, I recall with a bemused shudder the person I recently saw walking around Portland, Oregon with his family on a hot day, obviously vacationing, yet bogged down by a hulking bag of heavy full-frame camera gear. Some vacation.

As is so often true, the most sensible solution lies somewhere between these extremes. Prominent among the new cameras introduced at this year’s Photokina trade show is a variety of premium compact cameras that pack excellent image quality into surprisingly small, versatile camera bodies. These now use larger sensors with better low-light capabilities.

Until recently, premium compact cameras combining a sharp lens and a midsize, 1/1.7-inch sensor, like Canon’s S series, were the smallest cameras with decent image quality. With my own Canon S100 used at low ISO settings, I’ve made many exhibition-quality prints at sizes up to 18-by-24 inches. In fact, about half of the 18-by-24-inch images in my most recent exhibit, at Kenai Peninsula College, were made with an S100.

I routinely carry that slim camera in a large jacket pocket, where it’s barely noticeable but always handy. A highly compact camera is also useful in situations where it’s preferable to be as unobtrusive as possible, such was when we visited the Nazi-era Dachau concentration camp. Except in dark interiors where a larger sensor would work better, the tiny S100 was adequate.

Illustration 1 — Canon S200, Canon G7x and Panasonic GM5, front view.

Illustration 1 — Canon S200, Canon G7x and Panasonic GM5, front view.

Today’s Illustration 1 shows the most recent S-series camera, Canon’s S200, compared to Canon’s new G7 X, which uses a somewhat larger, 1-inch sensor, and Panasonic’s GM5, one of the smallest fully featured, interchangeable-lens cameras using an even larger Micro Four-Thirds sensor. From the front, all of these cameras appear to be virtually identical in size.

However, consider Illustration 2, which shows the thickness of these cameras with suitable lenses. It’s obvious that the GM5 and, to a lesser extent, the Canon G7 X, are noticeably thicker and thus bulkier in your pocket. In this illustration, Panasonic’s well-regarded 12- to 32-mm ultrasmall kit zoom lens is attached, and that’s about the smallest useful lens that can be attached to a Micro 4/3 camera.

Illustration 2 — Canon S200, Canon G7x and Panasonic GM5, top view with lens.

Illustration 2 — Canon S200, Canon G7x and Panasonic GM5, top view with lens.

My point is that the limiting factor that most affects the portability of a compact camera is its lens when retracted to the shortest position. Like most premium compact cameras, the S100 and G7 X electrically retract their zoom lens into an already slim body, resulting in the thinnest and most compact possible camera. Retraction into the camera body is not yet available with any interchangeable-lens camera.

Illustration 3 — Panasonic GM5, Pentax K-5 and Sony A7r with kit zoom lenses.

Illustration 3 — Panasonic GM5, Pentax K-5 and Sony A7r with kit zoom lenses.

As sensors become larger, physics and good optical performance force lenses, particularly zoom lenses, to become physically larger, further hampering portability. Thus, 1-inch sensor cameras require larger lenses than 1/1.7-inch cameras like the S200. Equivalent Micro 4/3 lenses are a bit larger, while lenses suitable for APS-C and full-frame cameras are larger still. Illustration 3 compares Panasonic’s GM5, Pentax’s small prograde K-5 digital SLR, and Sony’s new A7, currently the smallest full-frame camera, each fitted with equivalent wide-angle to short-telephoto zoom lenses. From these illustrations, you can see why simply comparing the height and width of only the camera body is deceptive.

I believe that the best balance between portability and high image quality is now found among new products using Sony’s excellent, 20-megapixel, 1-inch sensor and some Micro Four-Thirds cameras. After examining a variety of published full-resolution photos made of standard test images, it appears that Canon’s new G7 X has a somewhat better lens than Sony’s newest RX100 III model, although the Sony RX100 III has a clever pop-up, eye-level electronic viewfinder that’s very useful.

Canon’s G7 X is about $200 less expensive than the RX100 III. With its lower price and better lens, the Canon G7 X seems like the better buy. It’s not quite as pocketable as my current S100, but it’s close and the image quality seems noticeably better. Were I to replace the S100 in the near future, I would choose the less-expensive Canon G7 X rather than any of Sony’s RX100 models.

Panasonic has introduced a new smartphone with a 1-inch camera sensor and wide-angle lens. There’s no question that this is a versatile and portable smartphone/camera combination. However, a fixed wide-angle lens doesn’t fit my shooting style.

When fit with a slim zoom lens like Olympus’ new 14- to 42-mm EZ electric zoom lens or Panasonic’s 12- to 32-mm kit zoom, several Micro 4/3 cameras will fit in a large pocket while providing better image quality than the 1-inch sensor cameras. Panasonic’s GM5 and older, more basic GM1 are the currently popular models.

I’ve found the GM1 a bit too small for comfortable handling. The GM5’s slightly larger body and eye-level electronic viewfinder make the GM5 easier to handle than the GM1. Image quality and overall portability are about the same. Olympus’ E-PL5 is very slightly larger than either Panasonic, but it’s still highly portable. Image quality and features are generally comparable to the Panasonic GM5. However, the Olympus E-PL5 has built-in image stabilization hardware — a real plus — but no eye-level viewfinder.

At the moment, the E-PL5 is attractively priced. A newer E-PL model, the E-PL7, is somewhat larger, heavier and better built. With its excellent construction quality and robust handling, the E-PL7 is more akin to a high-end Micro 4/3 camera rather than the carry-everywhere portables discussed this week. Similarly, Panasonic’s fixed-lens LX100 approaches both the larger size and higher cost of upper-tier models. All of these Micro Four-Thirds cameras, though, do significantly better in lower light and at higher ISO sensitivities than 1-inch sensor cameras.

The Canon G7 X, Sony RX100 models, Panasonic GM models, and Olympus’ E-PL5 all work well as highly portable cameras when fit with appropriate lenses. My choice, though, for a new pocket camera would be Canon’s G7 X as the best blend of small, thin construction, good image quality at lower ISO settings, and lower retail price.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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