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I've recently been borrowing my grandmother's Nikon D40, in order to take pictures at Microsoft's Imagine Cup US Finals. I'm not really a big photography guy, and I don't anticipate using most of the features offered by this camera. But I'm impressed because it's the first DSLR I've used. It's got several things I like:

  • The images it creates aren't noisy (I guess this is due to the larger sensor)
  • It produces useable images in low light scenarios
  • Autofocus is pretty much instant
  • Taking a picture is pretty much instant (rather than the delay usually there in Point and Shoots)

But two I don't:

  • Turning off the flash is a pain Fixed.
  • It's freaking huge! (But apparently small for a DSLR)

I don't use things like the aperture priority settings, shutter priority settings, any manual switch or do-dad, or anything like that. I'm not an artist -- I'm a programmer -- so it's unlikely that I'll be using this for anything too artsy anytime soon.

Therefore I'd like to find something that has some of the performance of the DSLR but which is a point and shoot (if such a thing exists).

How can I find such a thing if it exists?

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Can you elaborate on "turning off the flash is a pain"? That's probably model-specific. It's not something I've found to be a problem on any dSLR I've used. –  mattdm Apr 10 '11 at 0:06
    
@mattdm: Figured it out -- basically, when you scroll through flash settings, no flash is not available as a setting. But if you close the flash itself, then it won't open itself automatically while in manual mode. –  Billy ONeal Apr 10 '11 at 5:44
1  
The Fuji X100 is a compact camera with retro styling that has an APS-C sensor giving it the low light and noise capabilities of DSLRs as well as their resolution. But auto-focusing is slower since it unavoidably uses contrast detection. If you have ever lusted for an affordable Leica this is the camera for you. –  labnut Apr 10 '11 at 7:56
    
It may depend, to some extent, on the type of photography you want to do. For instance, compacts tend to do better at landscapes during the day (i.e. lots of light, and you want everything in focus), but generally suck at low light photography (lots of noise) or selective focus/blurring (you're usually stuck with most if not everything in focus). In general, the bigger the sensor, the fewer problems you'll have with the image quality aspects you mention. –  drfrogsplat Jun 21 '11 at 1:40

6 Answers 6

up vote 13 down vote accepted

A few possibilities you might want to consider would be a high-end P&S, a micro 4/3rds, or a Sony NEX.

A higher-end P&S camera (e.g., Canon G-series) gets rid of (most of) the shutter lag common in the cheaper P&S cameras. Image quality can be pretty decent as long as you have lots of light, but like other P&S cameras it deteriorates very quickly in lower light. These also typically cost close to as much as a low-end dSLR that will generally produce considerably higher quality pictures.

A micro-4/3rds is more like an SLR -- they use an electronic viewfinder, but still have interchangeable lenses. They're smaller/lighter than an SLR, but still rather on the largish side for a P&S. The sensor size (and low-light performance) is similar to an SLR.

The Sony NEX are slightly different from micro-4/3rds -- they have a slightly larger sensor, and different lens mount. Otherwise, they have roughly the same tradeoffs; bigger than most P&S, but smaller than an SLR. Image quality is roughly on a par with an SLR -- better than many older SLRs, but not as good as a current higher-end SLR.

None of these addresses focusing speed though. SLRs using phase detection focusing, which is a large part of what lets them focus so fast. P&S cameras use contrast detection focusing which is almost unavoidably slower.

If you want the fast focusing of an SLR, about the only choice is an SLR. For small size/light weight with excellent quality, a Pentax would be a strong possibility.

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Canon G-series are only marginally better than most point-and-shoot cameras in terms of image quality, so recommend removing those from your answer. Same goes for the Nikon P7000 which you did not mention. There are a few similar models with have bright lenses (Olympus ZX-1, Canon S90/S95) that give then another incremental advantage. Still, large sensors of 4/3rds size or more are the only ones to compare with DSLRs. –  Itai Apr 9 '11 at 21:34
    
aren't these essentially high-end P&S cameras reasonably fast, when contrast autofocusing? i agree, not as fast as phase detection, but still, day-to-day usage fast? –  JoséNunoFerreira Apr 10 '11 at 1:33
    
@JoséNunoFerreira: that's a bit hard to answer. They do focus faster than the low end cameras, but for pictures of children (for example) I'd consider them pretty marginal (at best). Then again, they can be a bit tough for many SLRs too... –  Jerry Coffin Apr 10 '11 at 1:53
    
precisely. i'd go out on a limb and say that in most day to day situations, high end p&s cameras don't lag far behind entry level dslrs (their price range is similar),focus speed-wise. –  JoséNunoFerreira Apr 10 '11 at 14:36
    
I've not used the latest generation of m4/3 cameras, but rumor has it that the autofocus is pretty fast now. Also, companies are coming out with PDAF on chip, which will work during live view. –  Kaushik Ghose Sep 22 '13 at 2:42

In addition to the other cameras mentioned, The Sigma DP-1x and DP-2x cameras are compact cameras (can fit in a jeans pocket although quite tight) that contain APS-C sizes sensors, roughly about the same size as your D40, thus producing very little noise. They have fixed-focal length lenses with no ability to zoom, but using primes produces image sharpness on par with a good (or even great) DSLR lens.

Some full-size examples can be found here:

http://www.pbase.com/sigmadslr/users_dp2

and here:

http://www.pbase.com/sigmadslr/users_dp1

One of my example DP-1 shots showing both detail and low noise (click on "other sizes" for full size image):

http://www.flickr.com/photos/kigiphoto/3353122692/in/set-72157615145445011/

enter image description here

The other cameras mentioned can also be good, though generally not as compact (especially with a good lens).

Both cameras have full manual controls so shots can be instant, though if you just stick with aperture priority and pre-focusing a lot of shots you have essentially no shutter lag even with a slower AF system (as another responder noted, all compacts have a somewhat slower AF system than you'll find on a DSLR).

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Sheer brute sensor size is the major difference when it comes to image quality. Point&shoots have fingernail-sized image sensors and pay for it with noise in low light. To get around this, look at the micro 4/3 cameras, Sony NEX, Fuji X100, Leica X1 type of camera, all have more-or-less DSLR sized sensors; five or ten times the size of a P&S image sensor or so. None of these cameras are exactly small - they will fit in a pocket if it's a big pocket, not otherwise :)

Autofocus remains a problem, though. Jerry Coffin covered this issue quite well in his reply. Fuji had a brainwave recently and put phase detection circuitry on the image sensor itself, we shall have to wait and see if this works well enough in practice.

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It does work well. The Fuji F300 EXR which uses the EXR sensor with phase-detection is the fastest focusing compact camera I have ever used: neocamera.com/review.php?id=75 –  Itai Apr 9 '11 at 21:29
    
koti.mbnet.fi/pelasu/images/millio.jpg That's an example of fingernail size sensor. Really tiny but stuffed with 7 megapixels. The photo is straight out from camera, no editing whatsoever. –  Esa Paulasto Mar 7 '13 at 18:27
    
Aye, and look at all the image noise it shows at a mere ISO 200 :) My DSLR is way better in this respect and is almost ten years old now. –  Staale S Mar 7 '13 at 18:39
    
I forgot to tell the size, it is 5.8x4.3mm (1/2,5") and it gives noise in all lighting, not only in low light. As is seen in my photo, and in all of my photos :( –  Esa Paulasto Mar 7 '13 at 22:16

The new breed of P&S cameras that are coming out all use the same size sensor as your grandmother's D40. That is to say, they all use the APS-C size sensor.

In order of physical size some to look at are the Sony NEX-3/5, Leica X1, Fujifilm X100. All have "automatic" modes and come with built in (or attachable in the case of the NEX) flashes. The X1 is $1999 (MSRP) new, the X100 is $1199 (MSRP) but not available in the US yet, and the NEX-5 will run about $700 with the kit zoom. The NEX accommodates interchangeable lenses, the X1 has a zoom, and the X100 has a fixed-length lens. All can use the LCD screen on the back for composing and focusing but only the X100 has an integrated viewfinder. This allows for removing the prism (a big, heavy hunk of glass) and the mirror the DSLR must have and allows for a smaller form factor.

The 4/3rd and Micro 4/3rds cameras have a smaller sensor size then the D40 but offer excellent picture quality, small-ish form factors, and a wide selection of lenses.

I expect with the enthusiasm of the X100, though, that we will be seeing more cameras with integrated viewfinders, APS-C sized sensors... and interchangeable lenses. The rumor mills, in fact, point to an unconfirmed Nikon EVIL (electronic viewfinder, inter-changeable lens) camera and the Sony NEX-7 as possible products in that direction.

In full disclosure, I've owned the Leica D-Lux2, Panasonic L1 (4/3rds), Leica M8 and Nikon D3000 (both APS-C-esque), but am currently hooked on my Sony NEX-5 which is smaller by far than the others, has full-automatic and full-manual exposure and focusing modes, a detachable flash, a low buy-in dollar-wise (comparable to the D-Lux), and offers what I consider to be equal to superior image quality when compared to the other digitals I've owned.

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The industry at last has taken seriously the most important element for cameras: the lenses. And so we now have monsters such as the Canon PowerShot G15 (28–140mm equiv, f/1.8-2.8) and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 (24-90mm equiv, f/1.4-2.3) and DMC-FZ200 (25-600mm equiv, f/2.8 across the board).

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A 20X superzoom lens easily outperforming a 3x zoom on a DSLR: http://www.cameralabs.com/reviews/Canon_PowerShot_SX10_IS/outdoor_results.shtml

Here's another:

Three-year old compact cameras beating the image quality of the latest DSLRs being made: http://darwinwiggett.wordpress.com/2009/11/11/the-canon-7d/

A handheld compact camera rivaling the image quality of a medium format Hasselblad. Even when the Hasselblad is securely locked on a tripod. Even when using a cable release, mirror lock-up, and a time-delay shutter-release for it too. The handheld compact camera still rivaled the images from the Hasselblad. http://www.luminous-landscape.com/reviews/kidding.shtml

In fact, even my most favorite small-sensor camera from 2002 was beating the image quality of all the DSLRs being made that year. This is nothing new. The ONLY thing a larger sensor has going for it is better performance in lower-light levels. Nothing more. "Image Quality" is dependent on the optics more than the sensor.

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I'm not sure exactly where your last comment is coming from. It seem very negative. If you disagree, please contribute positively and make the site a better place. –  mattdm Apr 12 '11 at 11:07
    
Also, from a Luminous Landscape article shortly after the one you link to: "As good as they can be, (see my G10 vs Medium Format article) these aren't really a replacement for a DSLR let alone a medium format camera when it comes to image quality. They're good, but not that good." — luminous-landscape.com/reviews/cameras/pocket-battleships.shtml –  mattdm Apr 12 '11 at 12:52
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Personally, I think it's a little more helpful to understand the scenarios where handhelds do well, vs. those where they struggle. Having owned both, there are advantages for each. –  D. Lambert Apr 12 '11 at 16:45
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@The Truth Deleted: there's no reason you can't just make your (perfectly valid) point that modern sensor tech is so good that compact cameras provide top-notch image quality in a wide range of situations without being derisive of everyone else, or making personal attacks. This is a community site, and it works on basic rules of civilization and politeness. You have some strong opinions, and along with them, some valuable insight to share. Why not contribute in a positive way? –  mattdm Apr 12 '11 at 16:52

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