What’s With The Compact Camera?

After I finished the review of Nikon’s Coolpix S8000 compact camera this week, I got to thinking (a dangerous pastime I know) about the state of the compact camera.

I’ve been accused of being too hard on the poor old compact class, which by the way covers everything from the tiniest pocket numbers to the big super zooms. If it hasn’t got a mirror assembly or interchangeable lenses, well then a compact she be matey!

I’ve given a few compacts some fairly average and even poor reviews lately and while none of the review units were truly bad cameras, I had higher expectations. The same high expectations I’ve taken into every compact camera review for a while. Today’s compact is a state of the art piece of precision equipment, with all the specs, bells and whistles that anyone could ever want but the image quality still isn’t up to speed.

Too harsh? Too damn kind perhaps. It’s 2010 and we should be years past the noisy substandard low light performance still found in 99% of compacts today. The days of images softened by noise reduction software should be as distant a memory as the Great War (at least in digital years). Unfortunately it’s not the case. We’re living in the post war years; the post Megapixel wars that is. For years, manufacturers have crammed more and more pixels into tiny sensors and instead of pulling back and concentrating on image quality, they’re mostly still up to the same tricks.

Many consumers don’t realize just how small compact sensors are. The common 1/2.3″ sensor is only about 6.1 x 4.6 mm, hardly a postage stamp but expect to find 12 or 14 MP jammed into that little rectangle. Canon has just recently introduced APS-C DLSR sensors with 18 MP (which is considered a lot of pixels) but these sensors have over ten times the surface area of the 1/2.3″ sensor.

The best compact camera out there at the moment (in my ever so humble opinion of course) is the Canon G11, with ten MP on a 1/1.7″ sensor, which at 7.6 x 5.7 mm isn’t massive but the pixel density is much lower than my own Canon G10, with it’s identically sized 14.7 MP sensor. Gee funny that the G11 is a far better low light/high ISO performer than its predecessor.

It took big cojones for Canon to drop the MP on its premier compact camera but the results speak for themselves, so what’s with everyone else? Nikon only makes one DSLR with more than 12 MP, so on what Bizarro world does its compact range freely flirt with 14+MP?

The other question is – is it just me?

Am I the only anally retentive magnifier (thanks Gary) who is interested in printing images bigger than 4×6 or in seeing the actual detail that the camera captured? How about taking a photo at night or in a dark cafe without the noise going insane? Or maybe even seeing a sharp image where the noise reduction processing hasn’t gone overboard?

Does the bulk of the camera wielding public not give a damn that little Johnny/the boat trip/the India trip/the birthday party/the girlfriend all look soft or noisy when blown up?

If so, then we should immediately implore the camera makers to release 36 MP compacts because everyone knows more pixels are better.

Image quality matters people.

It should just matter more to more people.


  1. You want to blow up your girlfriend?

  2. Doesn’t everyone?

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