Buying Tips
A Pros Picks In The Compact Class

Even though the Voigtlãnder Bessa-L lacks a rangefinder, its assortment of interchangeable wide angle lenses offer extreme depth of field.

The concept of carrying a small camera with you at all times certainly isn't new. Street photographers from the first half of the last century, whose main work was most often done with a cumbersome tripod and large format camera, eagerly adopted 35mm Leicas and twin-lens Rolleis when they were introduced in the early 1930s. Film quality of the day still dictated large format for the best results, but these new portable sidekicks allowed the capture of fleeting images that would have been lost without an ever-present small camera.

"Small" in regard to camera size has always been a relative term, and it remains so today. The Rollei TLR, considered "miniature" during its heyday, would hardly be any photographer's idea of a pocket companion these days. Advancing film and camera miniaturization technologies have progressively enabled a particular level of picture quality to be produced by increasingly smaller film formats and cameras. The level of picture quality deemed acceptable is what separates the average consumer from pros and advanced amateurs.

A Rollei 35 (SE model), predecessor of today's point-and-shoots, shown next to a Leica M4 for size comparison; both cameras' collapsible lenses (50mm collapsible Summicron on the Leica) are retracted.

An average consumer's yardstick of quality is a 4x6" print for the photo album, and practically any 35mm or APS camera made today, even inexpensive ones, can deliver the goods. More advanced photographers set the bar higher, with a sharp 8x10" print being the most frequently quoted criterion for a "grab-shot" camera. Pros can readily market prints of this size (or equivalent quality slides) to thousands of publications, thereby making it somewhat of a de facto standard.

The task then becomes choosing a camera of min-imum bulk and weight capable of yielding a professionally sharp 8x10. Unfortunately, as bulk and weight dwindle, so do features and versatility; with every desirable feature on-board, you're quickly back up to a generously-dimensioned SLR. It's therefore necessary to strike a happy medium somewhere between bare-bones minimalism and a "kitchen sink special," insisting on only a sufficient roster of features appropriate to the type of photography you normally engage in.

Colorful decals commemorate various brands of surfboards. (Rollei 35SE.)
Photos © 2000, Dave Howard, All Rights Reserved

How Small Is Small Enough?
Before we examine particular features available in compact 35mm cameras, perhaps it would be beneficial for you to determine just how small your tagalong camera really needs to be. Will it have to fit easily and unobtrusively in a coat pocket, or are you looking for a camera to carry in the center storage console of your automobile? Although the consoles of behemoth SUVs can easily swallow a 4x5 Speed Graphic, more modestly proportioned vehicle consoles should be capable of concealing a compact 35mm SLR, such as an Olympus OM or Pentax ZX-5n. A compact zoom lens would be ideal, but when space is at a premium, nearly flat "pancake" lenses in the 40-50mm range are available for the Pentax and Olympus (the Olympus one is discontinued, but occasionally available used). Center consoles, particularly in front-drive cars, are typically much cooler than glove boxes and trunks, which can be veritable ovens during hot weather. A word of advice; be cautious of consoles in rear-drive cars with automatic transmissions, as their close proximity to one another can lead to elevated temperatures.

The recent Konica Hexar RF offers interchangeable lenses and rangefinder focusing.

If you're seeking a true compact that is pocketable, or at least wearable in a small belt case, how much camera do you require? Are scenics your main interest, or perhaps architectural details and abstracts presented by constantly shifting light and shadows? Then autofocus (AF) and built-in flash won't be all that important to you. Conversely, if impromptu people photography is your passion, AF and built-in fill flash will be high on your list of priorities.

Lens Options
The most compact cameras have fixed focal length (usually 28mm or 35mm), non-interchangeable lenses; will that meet your needs, or do you require greater lens flexibility? You don't want to be constantly having to enlarge small sections of your negatives; filling the frame is the surest route to quality results, and imperative if you shoot transparency film.

If multiple focal lengths are mandatory, then pick a model with a zoom lens or interchangeable lenses. Keep in mind that a selection of interchangeable lenses doesn't take long to get unmanageably heavy and bulky, defeating the purpose of having a minimally intrusive, "rapid response" camera at your beck and call. A manageable strategy might be to keep your most often used focal length, say 28mm, on the camera, and carry just one alternative lens, perhaps a 90mm, for those situations when normality is mismatched to reality.

A bit of partisan political sentiment adorns a surfer's beach wagon. (Rollei 35SE.)

With zooms, it's necessary to reconcile yourself to the fact that top quality point-and-shoot zooms, in order to maintain evenness of light distribution across the image area and still be partially or totally retractable, will have a limited focal length range. Rather than despairing the lack of ability to meet any conceivable photo op, regard the short-range zoom as valuable insurance against all your pictures exhibiting the same perspective. Avoid point-and-shoots that have zooms with ridiculously wide focal length ranges. While most consumers will be content, my impression of the results at the extremes of the range is that they aren't up to professional standards.

Speed And Flash
Do you frequently shoot fast moving subjects? Then be sure to check on any prospective camera's top shutter speed, as many top out around 1/250 sec. While I seldom have any use for speeds beyond 1/1000 sec, I regard 1/500 as the serviceable minimum. Also, remember that higher shutter speeds aren't just for action situations. They'll also bail you out without having to resort to neutral density filters when you get caught in broad daylight with super-speed film in your camera. A related action photo consideration is the film advance rate on motorized cameras. Few top 1.5 fps, many are even slower, so don't plan on shooting a blazing series of frames.

If you only need to carry a camera in your car's center console, a compact, lightweight SLR, like this Pentax ZX-5n, could serve nicely; a compact zoom or "pancake" 43mm lens are good options.

How about flash? While the small, built-in flashes don't have much range, they are a handy and effective daylight fill source in the 6-10' range where it's most needed. If you need to use a more powerful auxiliary flash unit on occasion, make sure any proposed camera has the necessary connection facility. Some have no provision for any flash other than the built-in one, several feature a hot shoe, but few have PC sockets. Also, try to avoid cameras with auto-activating, pop-up flash units that have no canceling override. A flash that fires unexpectedly at an inopportune time can be embarrassing at the least and can get you tossed out of many museums, religious shrines, and other sensitive locations.

Do you enjoy taking nighttime cityscape time exposures when you travel? Then check to see if that new point-and-shoot has a tripod socket and a mechanical or electric cable release connection, as many don't.

Is black and white photography your preferred means of expression? Then filter capability is a must. Unfortunately, very few point-and-shoots, even some ostensibly pro-oriented ones, offer this critical facility.

This snapshot of a kayak rental booth in Ventura, California, demonstrates the depth of field available with a 25mm lens on a Voigtlnder Bessa-L.

Some Cameras To Consider
With all of those considerations in mind, which compact cameras make notable companions for pros and serious hobbyists? I certainly haven't tested every point-and-shoot (the manufacturers prefer "lens-shutter cameras") on the market, but I have used the majority of the really good ones. My standard tagalong camera is a 20-year-old Rollei 35SE, which I carry in a belt case. It's as small as a 35mm camera is ever likely to be, and its 40mm f/2.8 Sonnar lens, which accepts filters, is superb. Some consider its lack of a rangefinder to be unacceptable, but I simply keep the lens set at the correct hyperfocal distance for the prevailing lighting conditions, which has allowed a pretty good batting average with grab shots over the years.

Is there a more modern camera that I'd rather have? In terms of size and weight vs. performance, no, but I do admit to occasionally longing for a few extra conveniences. I really like the Rollei QZ 35W and QZ 35T, but they're a little different size-wise from my Leica M4, and the cute but inconvenient separate flash unit gives me cause for pause. The Contax TVS II probably comes as close as any to my particular compact camera ideal, with AF, built-in flash, and a good little Zeiss zoom lens that accepts filters (as do the Rollei QZs). Contax's interchangeable lens, AF rangefinder G2 is another good candidate, but, like the Rollei QZs, marginal in the compactness department.

If nothing less than medium format quality will do, the Fuji GA645Zi is still quite handy. It features built-in flash and an autofocusing, non-interchangeable zoom lens.

For a fixed, single focal length camera, the Nikon 35Ti and 28Ti would be hard to beat. Construction is exemplary and the optics beyond reproach. Wide angle aficionados will like the Voigtlnder Bessa-L, with 15mm and 25mm lenses. With lenses of these focal lengths, depth of field makes the lack of a rangefinder irrelevant. If you just have to have a rangefinder, buy the Bessa-R.

Konica's recent Hexar RF and interchangeable lenses are wonderfully crafted and a joy to hold and use. Some are excited by the camera's compatibility with Leica M lenses, but on the assumption that if you have a bunch of Leica lenses then you probably also have a Leica, so what's the point? If you just can't bear to cope with anything less than medium format (remember, size is relative), then Fuji's GA645Zi, with AF, built-in flash, and zoom lens, may be love at first sight.

My "traveling light" camera philosophy is simple: If I have room for a compact SLR with a compact macro zoom lens, that's my preference; if I don't, then it's whatever is small, sharp, and fits in a belt case.

The compact Contax TVS II (recently superseded by the III) sports built-in flash and an autofocusing Zeiss zoom lens.

You may wonder why I haven't picked any APS cameras. It's not because there aren't any good ones. Canon, Minolta, and Nikon each have a super-compact APS SLR in their line-ups, all with excellent optics and features. But film (small 24mm format and very limited selection) and processing (you're limited to machine prints of professionally inadequate size, unless you are equipped to do your own APS enlarging) aren't geared to professional concerns, preventing this otherwise fascinating format from being a practical choice for commercial quality applications.

So, in the final analysis, are tradeoffs inevitable with pro-capable point-and-shoots? That depends on you and how spoiled you've become in terms of camera features that you feel you just can't live without. Unless your photographic specialty is one that requires exotic equipment (e.g., wildlife, underwater, etc.), or an SLR (e.g., flower close-ups or extreme telephoto shots), thereby obviating any practical point-and-shoot approach, a bit of discipline will allow you to pare down your "gotta have" list of camera features to a workable "all I really need" list. At that point it's highly likely that you can find a reasonably compact camera that can still deliver a highly respectable and marketable end result. Another plus is never again coming upon a neat picture opportunity and having to murmur, "Gee, wish I had a camera!"

The eye-catching graphics on this vintage Mercury were recorded on Agfa Scala 200 and a Rollei 35SE.

Camera Check List For Pro Pick Compacts

  • Lens quality is your major concern. Don't compromise quality for smaller camera size or a zoom with an unrealistically wide focal length range.
  • Fixed, single focal length lens, interchangeable lenses, or zoom lens? Lens speed, camera size and weight, and degree of pocketability and picture readiness are largely dependent on your choice.
  • Top shutter speed: important for action subjects and fast film/daylight compatibility.
  • Flash facilities: built-in only, or is there a hot shoe and/or PC socket? Is there a flash-cancel setting for auto-flash?
  • A dog makes himself comfortable in Jefferson, Texas. (Rollei 35SE.)
  • Tripod socket and cable release (mechanical or electric) connection: necessary for low-light and nighttime situations.
  • Filter compatibility: desirable for color, necessary for black and white.
  • Autofocus or manual? If you're "all thumbs" during fast-breaking picture situations, go for AF. With manual cameras, setting the lens at its hyperfocal distance will keep you covered when you don't have time to focus.

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