Serious Compacts: The Care and Feeding Of

Text and images © 2008 by Simon C. Hughes. All rights reserved.

Whereas the term “small sensor camera” is a fairly recent one, certainly the genre itself is not new, and has in fact been with us since the introduction of consumer digital. Early “digicams”, with megapixel capabilities of 1 to 2 MP introduced the small sensor that has remained with us, implemented now at frighteningly higher pixel densities (up to 12 MP at the time of writing). While these cameras have always held appeal and some measure of promise for the serious photographer, they have only recently begun to appear in a form that embodies the desires of those of us whom consider ourselves to be “serious”.

In this article, I will discuss some of the small sensor cameras that I use currently. Note that this is not meant as a definitive review of these cameras (for that, I highly recommend Sean Reid’s excellent site, Reid Reviews) but rather an exploration of how one person’s photography evolved to include this category of camera.

Defining the “Serious Compact”
Although photographers may debate an exacting definition of this genre, by the most basic description, the camera should offer controls that allow the user to alter exposure beyond the “all automatic” interpretation favored by the great consuming public. The device should at a minimum offer Aperture Priority, with Shutter Priority and full Manual exposure hopefully available as well. A further requirement is generally a method by which manual focus is made possible, hopefully in a manner that is easy to understand and to use. Further control functions such as EV and ISO adjustment should be both available and easy to set (although this is not always implemented as we would wish it to be).

File format wise, the serious compact allows RAW images to be saved, hopefully quickly enough to allow for uninterrupted shooting with the camera. Typically, these cameras also allow for simultaneous saving of a jpeg file along with the RAW file, although many photographers would like this to be an option rather than the norm. (Why waste additional processor time and memory space for a file that many simply do not use?)

Typically, the lenses of serious compacts are of high quality and are reasonably fast, with (the widest) apertures being f2.8 or f2.4. Many photographers feel that the serious compact should also allow for provision of an external optical viewfinder (VF) as most cameras offer either no integral optical VF or offer an electronic viewfinder (EVF) which most often leaves much to be desired from a quality and performance perspective.

Finally, all agree that the response time of the serious compact should be such that it presents no obstacle to the user. Many of these cameras have specific modes, such as “snap focus” that allow a quick response that is then only compromised by the ability of the camera to write the file and then return control to the user for subsequent shots.

Personal Odyssey (How Did I Get Here?)
Past History
I was lucky enough to be introduced to photography at an early age by my father. We had a darkroom where I learned the wonders and delights of developing and printing the B&W image. Other than a brief interval (a momentary lapse of reason in which I sold all my equipment), photography has been a major part of my life throughout the years.

Being a true gearholic, I relentlessly traded equipment, always 35mm, and for many, many years always Nikon, until I was shooting with a pair of F5 bodies and too many lenses to carry comfortably. During this latter phase, a friend gave me one of the early Kodak consumer digitals and I was struck by the immediacy of the process. I ended up purchasing a Canon G2 and having convinced myself that this was indeed the future (at least for me), I sold my F5s and purchased the then new Nikon D1. Incredible as it seems now, this camera, with only 2.7MP (of nice fat pixels), literally blew me away. I was absolutely hooked on the digital process. In time, the D1 was supplemented by the D100, and finally replaced by the D1X.

Strangely enough, at this point, I took a sharp left turn, sold all the digital equipment and bought a Leica setup with the M7 and an M6TTL along with Leica and Cosina Voigtländer (CV) lenses! I simply loved the cameras, even holding them was sheer pleasure, but in the end, I was disenchanted as the price of processing and printing was astronomical (I had no darkroom, nor the possibility of building one). So, the Leicas went, and I went back to Nikon, this time the D2H.

It was shortly after this that Epson introduced the R-D1 digital rangefinder, and as I had been so taken with the Leica film rangefinder experience, I switched to the Epsons. During this time, my wife and I spent three weeks in Paris and I took the two R-D1s and it was so absolutely liberating shooting with the two small bodies and a waist pouch with a few extra lenses!

In true gearholic fashion however, I soon missed the long telephoto and macro of the bigger cameras, and being at a stage with no legacy glass, I bought into the Canon system, getting a pair of 20Ds and lots of “L” lenses.

It was somewhere in between all of this that I also bought what I consider my first serious small sensor camera, a Leica Digilux 2. I was very taken with the usability of it, and in how it reminded me of the Leica rangefinder experience of being able to actually use an aperture ring once again! Its 5MP files, while not comparable to the quality of the Canon or Nikon DSLR files, were, nonetheless, very appealing. It was a perfect travel camera and accompanied me to Amsterdam, Budapest and Moscow. My second serious small sensor camera was probably the Nikon Coolpix 8800, purchased specifically for a (business) trip to Uganda. I wanted a camera that would shoot RAW, had a good lens with a healthy reach and was reasonably inexpensive and small. Although the 8800 had its foibles (it’s a slow shooter), it worked admirably and I got some very pleasing images.

Current History
Well, on the non-compact side of things, I had worked my way up to a Canon 1D Mk IIN, and was still dragging around way too much weight in lenses etc. By this time, Leica had introduced the M8 and I had followed the forums on the issues that they were having. Finally, after the M8 was about a year old (and most of the glitches had been worked out), I sold all the Canon gear and switched to a pair of M8s and Leica and CV glass, and at that point, I felt that I had finally found my ultimate system. Unfortunately, my older eyes have resulted in the RF system not giving me the consistent results I demand, and I have recently switched back to DSLRs, this time based on the Nikon D300.

So much for the “big” stuff... what about the compacts? Well, I had always kept an eye on the compact market, and had tried quite a few different cameras as they had emerged, looking for one that would give me the right combination of performance and image quality. Most lasted a relatively short time, cameras from Canon, Casio, Fuji, Kodak, Nikon and Panasonic, before being sold off. Eventually, however, I bought a Leica D-Lux 2 (Panasonic LX-1 equivalent) and finally felt that I had found a compact serious enough for good image making. Last year I picked up the Panasonic TZ3 to be able to have a small camera with some reach (it has a 28 to 280mm lens). Although the TZ3 doesn’t shoot RAW and has no A, S or M modes, it does produce a nice image at the lowest ISOs.

In addition to the D-Lux 2, I also have the Ricoh GRD II (having had the original GRD also) and the GX100. I find that it is these last two cameras that I now use almost exclusively for my serious compact shooting.

Usability Issues
Usability in a compact camera is everything. If it’s not usable, you may as well get rid of it. There are many things that I find that make a compact more or less usable. For example, I prefer wearing a camera (any camera) around my neck, and not dangling from a single point. I want to keep my hands free, but have my cameras safe yet instantly ready and in a stable configuration.

To this end, for the Leica D-Lux 2, I bought a Luigi half case for it (Leicatime). An expensive affectation some may say, but it allows me to wear it comfortably around my neck, ready to use at any time, and truth be told, I like the way it looks. I find that a neck strap is also very handy when using the LCD on compacts as you can hold the camera out so that the strap is tight and thereby gain an added measure of stability.


For the TZ3, which like many small cameras comes with a single strap lug, I took a strap lug off an old beater film body, used a Dremel tool to grind it slightly concave on the mounting side so it would fit flush on the opposite side of the TZ3’s body and then glued it on. Voilà, now I can put a neck strap on it too.

Another issue mentioned above in our definition is that of an optical viewfinder, which, of course, the D-Lux 2 lacks. As I shot it almost exclusively at 28mm, I glued a CV 28/35mm mini-finder onto the top of the body (there was not enough room for the cold shoe I had sourced). This makes using the camera a dream compared to squinting at the LCD as is otherwise the norm. As the viewfinder also has 35mm frame-lines, I extended the D-Lux 2’s lens to the 35mm point and marked the underside of the lens barrel with a Sharpie marker so it is easy to set it at this focal length. (There is no step focus available on the D-Lux 2.)

Each camera that I buy gets an Invisible Shield screen protector. This plastic film, originally developed to protect the leading edges of helicopter rotor blades is easy to apply and is astonishingly strong.

Operational Commonalities & Specifics
In this section, I’ll discuss how I personally use these three compact cameras
(D-Lux 2, GRD II and GX100).

I use all my cameras in RAW capture mode with jpeg capture disabled if possible. Each camera is typically set up so that it remains on for the longest period its menu will allow. I hate having to periodically wake a camera up so it can be ready to go. Other initial setup chores include disabling any “digital zoom”, enabling auxiliary AF light, setting a short LCD review and disabling all bells, whistles and beeps!

An interesting commonality with these three particular cameras is that they all share the same battery type and charger. This is a real boon... I bought four extra batteries (as well as getting a couple of extras with the cameras) so I always have a good supply for shooting!

In addition, I’ve finally gotten to the point where all my current cameras use SD cards... Hallelujah! No more CF, and even more exciting, no more wretched xD cards! (Before I finished this article, I had switched back to DSLRs and have CF cards again… ah well.)

Leica D-Lux 2 Specifics
The Leica D-Lux 2 is, to me, a very well thought out camera for the serious user. It has features that allow for a very hands-on approach to photography. I think the Leica D-Lux 3/Panasonic LX2 are similar enough to this earlier generation model that my comments below are still germane. Personally, I never saw a reason to upgrade.


I use the camera almost exclusively in the Aperture Priority mode, for the most part shooting with an intermediate aperture such as f4 to f5.6. This is enough to have sufficient DOF for hyperfocal operation yet not enough for diffraction to become an issue. If I am shooting in lower light then I will open the aperture up as needed. DOF is so deep on this type of camera that it is rarely an issue getting a good focal depth, in fact trying for a shallow DOF is the real issue. I shoot the D-Lux 2 at only the lowest ISOs as anything over ISO 200 tends to exhibit too much chrominance noise for me, especially for a color shot. If you intend to process for B&W, then you may shoot at the higher ISO (400) and use a program like Noise Ninja to help mitigate the chrominance noise.

(Shooting jpegs on this camera at anything over ISO 80 or 100 is, to me, a waste of time as the processing engine seems to opt for overly aggressive algorithms that produce wretched smeared/blotched images with little discernible detail.)

Personally, I shoot this camera in the 16:9 aspect ratio exclusively and this was indeed one of the reasons I bought it. As a major movie buff, I adore the widescreen format... it’s how I see life! As an aside, I recall inadvertently purchasing a non-widescreen VHS tape years ago, and when I returned it (unopened) for exchange, the clerk, in full Goth regalia, regarded me sagely and solemnly intoned, “The horror, the horror!” Obviously a fellow widescreen aficionado!


The Leica-designed lens is superb, offering 28mm to 112mm at f2.8 to f4.9 over that range. In fact, at 16:9, and set to the widest focal length the D-Lux 2’s FOV is actually more like 25mm. This wide angle capability was one of the main reasons for my initial interest in the camera and I’m delighted that other companies are finally offering wider compacts.

For white balance, I generally always use Auto, and since I only shoot RAW, it’s easy to mop up WB later if necessary. I find that unless shooting a particularly tricky subject that I will use the multi-segment (“matrix”) style metering, reverting to spot metering if really necessary. The D-Lux 2 also has a dedicated AE/AF lock which may be set for either or both parameters, so it is easy to lock in exposure and recompose.

One nice thing with this camera is being able to set the LCD for B&W while capturing in RAW. I find this very helpful to “see” the image in B&W, which is often how I will process the final images.

In manual focus mode, the D-Lux 2 has an extremely well thought out user interface that graphically shows, for a chosen aperture, the depth of focus from foreground to background (infinity). This is very useful for setting the camera up for a type of hyperfocal “snap” focus, and yields the very best response time for capturing images. This certainly allows quick captures, but it is here that we then run up against the all too familiar “buffer choke”. I am constantly amazed that insufficient buffers continue to be the norm rather than the exception on serious cameras.

As with almost all of my digital cameras (not just the compacts) I set a -0.7 EV to help ensure that highlights are not blown out.

Although my D-Lux 2 is now relegated a more of a backup role, I enjoyed shooting with it immensely and felt that it was indeed worthy of the title “serious compact”.

Ricoh GRD II Specifics
When the original GRD was introduced, I eyed it with interest, finally purchasing one. Using it was a pleasure and even though I felt it was the very best compact I had ever used, the RAW write times of 13 seconds were simply unacceptable and in the end, I sold the camera. The GRD II makes this particular problem moot and now the camera has once again claimed the title of best compact (for me). (RAW write times seem to be about 4.5 seconds with a Transcend 8GB Class 6 SDHC card.) The GRD II does have a small RAW buffer that allows a second consecutive shot to be taken about 2 seconds after the first, but then you’re up to 5 seconds while the buffer clears.


Build wise, this camera is simply a gem, solid, well sculpted, easy to hold and eminently usable. If I were to try to find any issues over what the original GRD had, it would only be the way in which the rear ADJ control is now a rocker switch whereas the original was a wheel which I feel was much more appropriate and quicker to use. The inclusion of MY1 and MY2 settings modes in the newer
GRD II adds a welcome improvement over the clumsy manner in which these settings were accessed in the original (which required menu choices along with a power recycle!). The LCD screen of the GRD II is astonishingly good and is a joy to look at and work with.

The GRD II has a fixed 28mm f2.4 lens which is wonderfully sharp. Also available from Ricoh are supplementary 21mm and 40mm lenses that mount via a bayonet tube that extends from the camera body. Both lenses have available matching external viewfinders; the 21mm VF also has 28mm frame-lines. Both supplementary lenses are of excellent quality and alter the focal length without impacting the aperture. Surprising too is that even though the camera is certainly no longer a shirt pocket device, the combination of body, adaptor, supplementary lens and VF is still very compact and manageable.

The GRD II allows the photographer to customize the rear ADJ control to easily display and alter up to four different parameters. I have mine set as follows:

•Flash Compensation

The camera remembers which of these four parameters was last accessed and will present it again when the ADJ button is pushed. Typically, mine is set to default for ISO.

The Function button (keypad left arrow) is also customizable and I have mine set for AE Lock.

The Zoom button (which controls image zoom in review mode) is set up to control Exposure Compensation.

I utilize the MY1 and MY2 modes for the bulk of my shooting, with settings as follows:

MY1 settings:
•Aperture Mode
•f4.0 (approximate)
•Snap Focus
•ISO 80
•EV -0.7
•Flash Off
•Metering: Multi

MY2 recreates MY1 but changes the ISO to 400:
•Aperture Mode
•f4.0 (approximate)
•Snap Focus
•ISO 400
•EV -0.7
•Flash Off
•Metering: Multi

This allows me to have easy access to a mode that is excellent for quick shooting. Adjusting for light levels is as easy as changing from MY1 to MY2. Further ISO adjustments are done simply using the ADJ switch.

These settings certainly comprise the bulk of my shooting situations. The other area where the GRD II shines is macro and in this, the camera just shines! You can get the lens as close as 1.5 cm of the subject so it really fills the frame. Interestingly, in macro mode, due to the very short focus distance, you can actually get some very nice bokeh happening even with the inherent extreme DOF that a small camera like this has.


Unless I am shooting a macro image, I rarely use the LCD and choose to turn it off altogether, preferring to use the external optical viewfinders. If I am carrying both the GRD II and the GX100, then I’ll often mount the supplementary 21mm lens and VF on the GRD II, and will have the GX100 set for 50mm or 72mm with an external optical VF. The GRD II has a green focus confirmation LED situated near the hotshoe that is visible peripherally when using external VFs. While this is not important for Snap Focus mode, it is very useful in an AF mode.

From what I have seen thus far with the GRD II, the higher ISO performance is better than it was on the GRD I, although for the most part, I would probably process to B&W for high ISO images as the noise resembles film grain and I always loved the grainy higher ISO B&W films. If processing for color, then higher ISO images may benefit from a program such as Noise Ninja to help control/remove the chrominance noise unavoidable due to the low signal-to-noise ratio of such small sensors.

The GRD II then is without doubt my favorite serious compact camera.

Ricoh GX100 Specifics
I bought the GX100 after the GRD II to use the two cameras together. (When not using the compacts, I shoot with two M8 bodies, typically with 21mm and 90mm lenses.) I love wide angles and so the GRD II with the 21mm lens works very well for me and having the GX100 at an intermediate focal length such as 50mm or 72mm is a nice compliment. (As mentioned above, I have now switched to Nikon D300s.)


Ricoh’s GX100 is very similar to the GRD series although not quite as robust in its build. It has the same shape and (for the most part) control layout, but has more plastic rather than an all-metal body. Moving from one camera to the other, however, is fairly seamless, the major differences being the placement of the Function button (which is a dedicated button on the top of the GX) and the fact that turning off the GX’s LCD is done via a dedicated VF/LCD button (rather than the DISP button as on the GRD).

Ricoh offer an external EVF for the GX100 but I cannot comment on it as I did not buy it, preferring to use optical VFs and thus I purchased 50mm and 75mm Cosina Voigtländer viewfinders (I already had a 28/35 mini-finder that I use for those focal lengths and which is also usable for 24mm by looking outside the frame-lines). Similar to the GRD, the GX100 has a green focus confirmation LED situated near the hotshoe that is visible peripherally for use with AF modes with an external VF.

The GX100’s lens offers 24mm to 72mm either continuously, or in “step” mode, in which each subsequent push of the Zoom rocker toggles the lens as follows: 24 - 28 - 35 - 50 - 72mm. I use this step mode exclusively. Over this focal length range, the aperture is f2.5 to f4.4.

Let’s look at how I use the MY1 and MY2 modes on the GX100:

MY1 settings:
•Aperture Mode
•f4.0 (approximate)
•Snap Focus
•ISO 80
•EV -0.7
•Flash Off
•Metering: Multi
•Lens: 24mm

MY2 recreates MY1 but changes the lens focal length to 72mm:
•Aperture Mode
•f4.0 (approximate)
•Snap Focus
•ISO 80
•EV -0.7
•Flash Off
•Metering: Multi
•Lens 72mm

As with the GRD, the GX100 allows the photographer to customize the ADJ control to easily display up to four different parameters. Also in common with the GRD, the last chosen parameter becomes the default when the button is pushed again. I have mine set as follows:

•Exposure Compensation

The Function button (a dedicated button on the top left end of the camera) is also customizable and I have mine set for AE Lock.

Set this way, MY1 and MY2 allow me to access quick response modes for general shooting, easily customizable for ISO shift via the ADJ button as needed.


The GX100 is a little bit slow compared with cousin GRD II as far as RAW write times are concerned, but I find them to be manageable (about 5 seconds) with my current Sandisk Extreme III 4GB SDHC card.

The GX100’s processing engine is a generation behind the GRD II and so its RAW images are not quite as forgiving at the higher ISOs although, once again, they can produce excellent B&W images. High ISO color images may benefit from a good noise reduction program. Obviously, as is true for any camera, the size you wish to output to will define how the image ultimately looks. Also true is that prints will generally be more acceptable and forgiving of noise than pixel peeping at 100% on a screen. In my opinion, far too much time and rhetoric is expended about image quality at high screen magnifications. I have produced 13x19” prints from small sensor cameras with stunning results.

Another consideration worth mentioning for those contemplating the GRD II or GX100 is that Ricoh is one of very few manufacturers who actually release firmware upgrades for their compact cameras. They have even gone so far as to keep upgrading the original GRD I firmware to include features that the new
GRD II had introduced. It is obvious that Ricoh listen to their users’ feedback and suggestions and implement them. This is very rare and Ricoh is to be commended for this. It shows a level of dedication to the serious compact and the photographers who use them that is almost unique in the business.

(The Dreaded) Flash
Although I personally hate using flash, I will discuss it briefly here. As a general rule, I will simply state that using the built-in flash on any compact camera is an utter waste of time. Besides being underpowered, they are constrained by design to be situated much too close to the axis of the lens, virtually ensuring redeye in portraits. This, therefore, implies that we must use some type of external flash unit if we indeed must use flash.

The Leica D-Lux 2 has no hotshoe and therefore requires a bit of creative thought in order to be used with an external flash unit. A solution that I have used is the Metz 28 CS-2, a small remote flash unit. This unit triggers off the flash from the camera and can be adjusted to account for pre-flash timing etc. The problem with this approach is that the on-board flash needs to be throttled down to a minimum so that it is enough to trigger the Metz but not enough to significantly alter the exposure. If the compact’s flash output cannot be programmatically altered, you can try to tape a diffusing element over the lens of the pop-up flash to reduce its strength to an appropriate level. The Metz unit is quite useful as being cordless it may be handheld and bounced to provide a softer, more flattering light.

With compacts like the Ricohs, which have dedicated hotshoes, an external flash unit can be directly mounted. The GRD II apparently actually offers some form of automatic flash using a Sigma EF-500G DG Super or the Sigma EF-500 DG ST external flash. (I have found little information on actual usage with these flash units.)

An important caveat is to only use a flash unit with a low trigger voltage otherwise you can damage your camera. The author assumes no responsibility whatsoever for damages caused by the reader’s experimentation!

I have successfully used external flashes with the GRD II and GX100 by simply using the attached flashes in A or mostly M mode and adjusting the camera aperture and flash unit compensation for the desired effect. I have a Leica SF 24D that works and is fairly compact, as well as a Nikon SB-80DX, which allows me to tilt the flash head for easy bouncing. I also have a Nikon off-camera cord that I have used for manual flash. Obviously having a large flash like this mounted on such a small camera looks somewhat ridiculous and personally, I don’t recommend it.

If you simply must use the on-camera flash on any of these cameras, then the GRD II at least provides flash compensation, whereas the other two will require some form of diffuser to be fixed to the flash for compensation. Often a couple of layers of matte Scotch “Magic” tape may do the job. As you can probably tell, I consider myself an available light photographer and unless there is simply no other option, I do not use flash.

Shooting Strategies
Typically, when shooting with compacts, I take both the GRD II and the GX100 with me, each camera on a neck strap, one hanging below the other, ready for instant use. Because I enjoy wider angles as well as a medium telephoto setting, the GRD II may have the 21mm lens and VF mounted and the GX100 may be set for either 50mm or 72mm and have the appropriate VF mounted. If I suspect that I will need a longer reach, then I’ll tuck the TZ3 into my waistpack just in case. (If I know I’ll need a significantly longer reach and RAW files, then I’ll bring my wife’s Leica V-Lux 1 that has a 35mm to 420mm image stabilized lens. Or better still, I’ll have my wife bring it!)


<center>Figure 7 Ricoh GX100 (Click image for intended viewing size)</center>

My small Eagle Creek waistpack contains additional viewfinders, my extra batteries, memory cards, a Manfrotto tabletop ball head tripod with a custom extension and a small homemade beanbag. My Eddie Bauer waistpack is slightly larger and has enough room for me to put both cameras away completely... out of sight, out of mind. With the larger pouch, I may also throw in the 40mm lens for the GRD II. This allows me to travel lightly and unobtrusively.

Currently, I’m using Gordy’s neck straps (Gordy’s Camera Straps) on my Ricohs and will carry a couple of his wrist straps in the pouch in case I want to safely handhold the cameras for even more discreet shooting.

Because both cameras have optical viewfinders, I will have the LCDs turned off and will shoot them as if they were film cameras. I find this helps my composition, my timing, my stability, and is much less obvious than waving them about at arm’s length, trying to compose via the LCD. I also wear glasses as (now) I’m far sighted and much prefer to shoot without them, so this method works well for me.

While Snap Focus mode is extremely helpful, and is certainly the mode I’m in predominantly, you need to be diligent about your DOF area… shooting closer subjects will require a quick change to one of the AF/MF modes with the appropriate focusing procedure.

Shooting macros with the GRD II is just a joy. The electronic software level display allows you to very easily get things aligned properly and the LCD is one of the best I’ve ever seen for clarity. One of these days I’m going to have to mount the GRD II on my Kirk focusing rail and get some really serious macros going! Remember that the GRD II has no image stabilizing and therefore needs extra care when being used for macro.

Some readers may find it strange that with a pair of reasonably compact Leica M8s and excellent small prime lenses that I still would want something like the Ricohs, but let me say that at 59, I find the difference between the two kits to be significant in terms of weight and since I never leave the house without at least one camera, this arrangement suits me admirably. If I require the utmost in image quality then I’ll take my Leica M8s. I have to say, however, that as my wife and I plan a trip back to Europe, increasingly I like the idea of the simple Ricoh kit for portability and for what I know I can do with them in terms of image capture and quality. (As previously noted, I have switched to Nikon D300s.)

As I mention elsewhere, I always try to use the lowest ISO possible to capture the image that I have in mind. Sometimes this means that I will have to go to a higher ISO in order to get sufficient shutter speed to freeze motion, whereas at other times I’m content to let shutter speed go long and I’ll use my beanbag or tabletop tripod to stabilize the camera during capture. Both the D-Lux 2 and the GX100 have some form of image stabilization and this is typically good for a stop or possibly two (above let’s say 1/15th of a second), but when in doubt, I’ll typically reach for my beanbag. Camera stability is crucial for image quality but this doesn’t necessarily imply you need to lug a heavy tripod with you. Creative thinking and such aids as a sturdy tabletop tripod or beanbag can be every bit as effective. Indeed, many places will not allow tripod usage, whereas I’ve never had an issue bracing a camera against my little homemade leather beanbag.

The beauty of using such small cameras is that they are easy to use at interesting angles, whether up high pointing down or very low to the ground. This can be very effective, especially with the very wide lenses, yielding some unique perspectives. The only thing that would improve this would be an articulating LCD, but then you’re talking about a larger camera, so it’s perhaps a moot point.

View attachment 163
<center>Figure 8 Ricoh GX100 (Click image for intended viewing size)</center>

Another positive aspect of the small sensor cameras that should not be overlooked is how quiet they are. With no mechanical shutter or mirror and with all of the annoying and superfluous beeps, clicks and whistles turned off (my first task with any new camera!), they are virtually noiseless.

Certainly there are the initial start up noises as the camera powers up and extends the lens but from thereon, unless one is zooming, there is no indication whatsoever that an image has been captured. This makes stealth photography simple and very controllable.

Workflow & Processing
I should probably preface this section to stress that I anticipate having to do post processing on all my images. I don’t ever expect a finished out-of-camera product. This should be implicit since I shoot RAW, but I also quite enjoy the whole process, as I did in the wet darkroom. I take pleasure in the discovery of each image on the screen and then the varying permutations that may ensue as I take it to a single or occasionally, multiple end product variations.

After capture, I download my cards directly to my laptop via a card reader. I have never bothered hooking up my cameras to the computer for downloads. All images are saved to a specifically created “event” folder on an external 250GB “Pictures” HDD (which is regularly mirrored to a backup drive). As I browse and import the card files in Adobe Bridge, I will add tag and copyright info. (Memory cards are returned to the cameras and immediately formatted to be ready for the next outing.)

From the main Pictures drive, I then process (as described below) and save images to two further subdirectories within the specific event folder, one for print files, generally jpeg files at native resolution, and one subdirectory for web images that are sized to 1024x768.

Shooting RAW implies that there is a certain level of post processing of your images to be performed. Also implicit is the requirement for software that has the capability to interpret and manipulate those RAW files. I currently use a 15” MacBook Pro as my main photography computer. (I switched from Windows about a year and a half ago and would never go back!)

I have Adobe Photoshop CS3, Phase One Capture One LE, Apple Aperture and Apple iPhoto on my Mac. I find that iPhoto works well to interface with iWeb which is how I created and manage my website (Simon Hughes Photography). When importing finished images into iPhoto, I will add custom keywords so that I can create Smart Albums for easy inclusion into iWeb. For example, I may tag images as “B&W”, “Small Sensor”, “GX100” etc, for easy sorting.

I initially bought Apple’s Aperture software when I got my MacBook Pro but didn’t really adapt to it at the time. Now that Aperture 2.1 is out, I’m starting to take a look at it again, but for the most part, I use CS3 as my main processing tool, having used Photoshop since version 5.

I use Adobe Camera RAW (ACR) to open my images (typically from Adobe Bridge) and then adjust for Exposure and Blacks levels to ensure a full spectrum histogram. I may use Fill Light sparingly if necessary. (I find that using too much Fill Light may quickly produce an artificial look and therefore avoid it if at all possible.) If any white balance adjustment or image straightening is needed, it is done here. Typically, I push up the Clarity slider and possibly the Vibrance and then open the image in CS3. Once in CS3, I will then consider if I want to process the image as color or B&W and process accordingly thereon.

Over the years, I have created or tried many different sets of actions for PS for making adjustments etc. Many of them are now obsolete as Camera RAW has incorporated more and more sophisticated processing controls. For the past few months however, I have been using some actions from celebrated English photographer Jeff Ascough (Ascough Actions) and I have to say they are the best I’ve ever used.

Ascough’s actions are simple to use yet extremely comprehensive and yield stunning results. Jeff is world renowned for his wedding photography, especially his B&W images and these actions allow me to easily process images in either color or B&W as well as easily doing dodging/burning/vignetting. I highly recommend these actions.

View attachment 164 <center>Figure 9 Ricoh GX100 (Click image for intended viewing size)</center>

For B&W landscape work, I often prefer a warm brownish quad-tone look with skies burned in and a certain amount of vignetting to heighten the drama of the image’s main area. Ascough’s “Brown Sugar” action gives a marvelous look and is so much easier than how I used to do this with quad-tones. My preference for B&W images is that they be quite dark and I will generally slide the histogram mid-tone slider to the right for the desired effect.

For color work, I tend to prefer a more saturated look and I have no qualms about pumping up the color intensity. (I shot Velvia for years, so you just know that I love to push the intensity!) Ascough has an action called “Dream” which I simply love for color images. It adds a color film noir look that I find very appealing.

Interestingly, I started out with B&W and shot it exclusively for many, many years.
After a sabbatical from photography, I shot color exclusively and have only fairly recently rediscovered my love for B&W images.

If an image exhibits an unacceptable amount of noise then I will use Noise Ninja to see whether this will yield a more acceptable image for processing. While NN has specific profiles for both the GRD I and the GX100 (as well as the Panasonic LX1 which should work for the D-Lux 2), I generally find that simply profiling an individual image works very well. You can also create custom profiles for your cameras. Note that noise reduction is generally best done early in the processing chain.

After processing, the images will be sharpened appropriately for their intended usage. Finally, I will size the images for the appropriate output, whether it is for my website (Simon Hughes Photography) or for printing to my Epson R2400 printer for large prints or my Sony DPP-FP90 for small dye-sub prints that I use for pasting into a journal.

Future Thoughts
Who can say what I will be shooting with a year from now? By the way, never ask this question out loud when your spouse is around... it will only lead to the indignant and obvious retort of “What you’re using right now!”

As you can tell from my history, I am as fickle as most admitted gearholics and I am constantly scanning the web for the next great thing. I’m omnivorous for technology that advances what I can do with my images. Recently, I have been very interested in the Sigma DP1 and the promise that it may hold for better images. I was ready to purchase one of these unique cameras but I guess a modicum of maturity has finally taken root and I’ve held off. Specifically, I love the concept of the DP1, but for now, the apparent flaws, shortcomings and product immaturity have held me back. (Please note, I do not intend these comments to elicit a debate from the Sigma crowd, I’m simply explaining my non-purchase reasoning here.) I truly see the DP1 as a revolutionary product, but I’m going to keep my cool until the next generation comes out. Ultimately, I’d love to see Nikon bring out a large sensor compact. They seem to have the best low noise performance out there right now and they could certainly produce a compact that would truly be serious!

For now, I must admit that I find the Ricohs to fulfill 95% of what I want from a small camera and I certainly consider them to be “serious compacts”. (Note spouse compliant statement.)

Cheers, and happy shooting!


Simon Hughes has been a lifelong avid photographer. You can find more of Simon's work, including a gallery of images taken with small sensor cameras, online at Simon Hughes Photography.


Originally published on the old Serious Compacts blog. Older comments can be found here: Serious Compacts: 
The Care and Feeding Of
Last edited by a moderator: