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I will be getting a point-and-shoot camera for taking portraits and only portraits. Specifically portraits with a shallow depth of field. Groups portraits sometimes. It's just too much work to add lens blur at post-prod. I understand that setting a P&S on macro mode gives a shallow focus and DOF.

How do I read P&S camera specs to shortlist those with the shallowest depth of field?

Added: By point-and-shoot, I mean a camera that is easy to use -- Not necessarily compact, inexpensive, or current.

Also, if there are two or three factors/specs to get a shallow depth of field, then which spec contributes the most to bokeh? which is second most contributing? the third, etc.?

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Quick question: "point and shoot" can mean many things — compact, affordable, or simply highly-automated. Which of these aspects are important to you? –  mattdm Jun 20 '11 at 19:59
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That's a tough question. The most important aspect to me is "ease of use". In other words, a P&S that will shoot bokeh when you turn it on and give it to a random stranger. :) –  William C Jun 20 '11 at 20:11
    
Sensor size is also a variable in the equation for the amount of Bokeh a camera/lense can do. Point-and-shoot cameras will have more limited bokeh compared to large sensor cameras, for lenses of equal aperture. More info here: photo.stackexchange.com/questions/19/… –  decasteljau Jun 20 '11 at 20:30
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PS: +1 to the question. This is an example of how to ask a good "camera shopping" question on Stack Exchange. –  mattdm Jun 20 '11 at 21:19
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6 Answers 6

up vote 9 down vote accepted

I think you'll be best served by a large-sensor compact camera, often called a "mirrorless", EVIL, or SLD. A smaller sensor impacts depth of field. A typical high-end P&S like the Canon G12 has what's called a "1/1.7" sensor. This is approximately ¹/₃rd the width of an APS-C sized sensor, which means that the depth of field wide open at f/2.8 is equivalent to about f/8 on a larger sensor. (Assuming the same framing and same-sized prints.) The Olympus XZ-1 does a little better, with a faster f/1.8 lens and a slightly larger sensor, but even then, the wide-open depth of field is equivalent to f/6 on an APS-C camera.

So, there's this relatively new category of cameras with large sensors but no reflex mirror as in an SLR — they've got a point-and-shoot-like rear LCD, and sometimes a smaller viewfinder LCD as well. Some of these aim to basically be smaller alternatives to SLRs, but many models also aim at the P&S market — focusing on simplicity and ease of use over sophisticated control.

Recent models which fall in the "simplicity" category would be the Sony NEX-C3 and Panasonic DMC GF3. There's also models from Olympus and Samsung. The Sony and Samsung models have APS-C sensors, same as entry/midlevel DSLRs. Panasonic and Olympus use somewhat-smaller "micro 4/3rds" sensors (which are still much bigger than those in a typical P&S).

These cameras also offer interchangeable lenses, so you could get a nice, fast prime to match. This shouldn't be overlooked, because the quality of bokeh is dependent on the lens design, and there's a lot more to it than aperture and sensor size.

Oh, and I should add: one feature that's pretty much vital for your use case is a proper Aperture Priority mode — usually Av or A on the dial (but not to be confused with A for Auto!). You'll probably want to use so that the camera computes exposure automatically but can be instructed to use a given wide aperture for shallow depth of field.

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The NEX series shares a sensor size with its DSLRs - so thats always a good thing for shallow DoF. There's some issue of only on screen controls - but thats another thing. –  rfusca Jun 20 '11 at 22:32
    
do you concur with this sequence? I'm fiddling with the DPreview finder; do you agree that I filter by "Zoom Tele" then by "Aperture" then by "Sensor Size"? Because, this sequence presents me with the Canon PowerShot G6 and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-F828. –  William C Jun 21 '11 at 7:18

You should look at compacts with the largest sensor possible. Some of the micro 4/3 cameras are pretty small, smaller still is the Sigma DP-2 (with a DSLR sized APS-C sensor) which is bulky for a compact, but has excellent image quality (equal to about a 10MP DSLR) and an f/2.8 lens that will give you quite a bit of DOF blur, with a very pleasing quality...

Take a look at full size image samples here:

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

An example:

http://www.pbase.com/sigmadslr/image/111999436

And here's an f/2.8 example from Flickr:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/gensu/4057161137/

enter image description here

If you search for DP2 on Flickr you'll find many other examples.

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The blur here (and for any camera with a small sensor) is really relying on being quite close to the subject. So it'll work well for close-up shots of small things, but it'll be much harder to get the DOF blur with bigger things like people, if its more than just their head. –  drfrogsplat Jun 21 '11 at 1:34
    
It does not have a small sensor, the sensor is APS-C sized. I'll find a person shot... –  Kendall Helmstetter Gelner Jun 21 '11 at 2:09
    
20.7mm x 13.8mm, so a little smaller than most APS-C sensors, but still in the same basic class. f/2.8 on this camera would be like stopping down just a fraction to f/3.2 on larger APS-C like the Samsung mirrorless. The sensor is bigger than micro 4/3rds. The only reason I didn't include the Sigma DP series in my answer is that I think they're a bit too quirky to really be P&S cameras. Not that that's bad in general. Also, while the Sigmas have nice lenses, I think interchangeable ones would be nice here. The DP2's "perfect normal" focal length may be a bit wide for portraits. –  mattdm Jun 21 '11 at 3:02
    
They are quirky, but for the question at hand (dedicated portraiture camera) I think it would be perfect. I find the focal length really good for portrait work and I think the ease of manually focusing makes it a great tool for that job. I wouldn't recommend it as a general camera for anyone but a pretty dedicated photographer, but for photographers it is fantastic. Also they deserve to be mentioned in a "P&S" category as they actually can fit in a pocket, I even keep mine in a jeans pocket (though not everyone can manage that I think). –  Kendall Helmstetter Gelner Jun 21 '11 at 18:41
    
that's not a creamy bokeh. –  Michael Nielsen Feb 12 at 23:38

The shallowest depth-of-field is obtainable using the widest-aperture. Presently this is F/1.8 among fixed-lens camera. A quick search shows two current models. The XZ-1 even has a relatively bright aperture at the long end of its range which may be useful to you as well since the ultra-wide end of the P300 may give more distortion than desired.

These are technically not point-and-shoot, nor should they be since you have to control the aperture to make sure it is wide enough. Macro mode won't always help since you may be forced to focus too close to make the portrait you want.

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I'll add the Fujifilm X100 to that list, at f/2.0, see this photo I took Saturday for example. If P&S means ease-of-use then I'd say no, the X100 is a very quirky camera. –  sebastien.b Jun 20 '11 at 20:40
    
Missing link to the comment above: flickr.com/photos/altuwa/5846318621/sizes/l/in/photostream –  sebastien.b Jun 20 '11 at 20:53
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The wide aperture is only a part of the story though, the sensor size combined with the aperture is what determines DOF. An f/1.8 lens with a tiny sensor will give less DOF than a much larger sensor at f/2.8. –  Kendall Helmstetter Gelner Jun 20 '11 at 21:11
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Based on experience, people usually mean small and cheap camera when they say point-and-shoot, the X100 is a very nice camera but I would not suggest it to one looking for a P&S because of price. –  Itai Jun 20 '11 at 21:16
    
In response to the question though (dedicated portrait camera) I think the X100 is a decent answer because it seems like quality or ability is more important than just price. –  Kendall Helmstetter Gelner Jun 21 '11 at 18:42

If you're even interested in creating beautiful bokeh in your photos and you're not super constrained by budget, you don't want a typical point-and-shoot camera. There are a lot of beautiful, artsy things you can do with a point-and-shoot camera if you know what you're doing, but bokeh is one of those things that really hard to pull off unless you have a camera with a big sensor because big sensors can achieve shallow depth of field.

Now that doesn't mean your camera has to be big and bulky -- but it does mean it has to be a bit more sophisticated than a typical point and shoot. (There are some high-end exceptions like the Sony RX100, but with that camera you're limited to a fixed lens, and it's quite expensive.)

Taking snapshots is easy -- real photography takes more effort. So be prepared to deal with a few more sophistications. But the compact system cameras take away a lot of the weight and bulk, and that's mostly important because of the old adage "the best camera is the one you have with you."

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No one has mentioned the sony rx100 yet ? F1.8, big sensor (for a compact). And I can verify bokeh very easy to acheive. Adn defintiely fits the brief of point and shoot, has auto and super auto mode.

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In general, answers are better if they don't mention specific models - that way, they'll still be relevant in a few years time when the market's moved on and <whatever model is in vogue today> isn't available any more. –  Philip Kendall Feb 12 at 19:22

Shallow depth of field (DOF) and background blurring happen from a number of factors. They are (in order of highest importance to least):

  1. Subject distance (the closer to the subject you are, the more the
    background will blur)
  2. Subject-to-background separation (the farther from the background the subject is, the more the background will blur)
  3. Aperture setting (the wider the aperture, the thinner the DOF)
  4. Focal length (the longer the lens, the thinner the DOF)

Simply setting a typical 1/2.3"-format sensored P&S camera on macro mode doesn't give you background blur. It just changes where the lens searches for focus to a nearer range. It's having the camera in very close to the subject that gives you the blur. Shooting in macro mode at a subject that's not within the macro distance simply means you won't be able to focus correctly.

Larger sensors typically yield thinner DoF because of factors 1 and 4. The larger your sensor, the longer the lens will be, and/or the closer to your subject you'll get a similar framing than with a smaller sensor. And both of these will increase the background blur.

Typical small P&S cameras are handicapped from giving thin DoF because they have small sensors, tiny lenses, and small maximum apertures: all of which increases DoF. This is a feature, not a bug. Most P&S shooters don't want to have to worry about getting things out of focus. Bokeh is out-of-focus blur.

So, the specs you really want to shortlist for shallow depth of field are:

  • Sensor size -- Bigger is going to better for this; and you'd probably want at least 1"-format, if not APS-C.
  • Lens maximum aperture -- Bigger is going to be better. The maximum aperture (or max. aperture range across the zoom range of the lens) is the f-number(s) given after the focal length on the lens. The smaller the f-number, the bigger the aperture settings you can use. f/2.8 is probably your minimum--you'd really love something that's f/1.4.

Probably the best "P&S" (by which I mean a fixed-lens compact camera) today for thin DoF is probably the Sony RX-1. It sports a full-frame sensor (1x crop), like a Canon 6D or a Nikon D600, and has a 35mm f/2 Zeiss lens on it. It costs a bomb.

APS-C (1.5x crop) fixed-lens compacts would include the Fuji X100 series, Nikon's Powershot A, and the Ricoh GR. The Canon Powershot G1 X series is slightly larger than 4/3"-format (2x crop). Sony's RX-100 is a 1"-format (2.7x crop) compact. And Fuji makes two 2/3"-format (4x crop) compacts (X10/X20, and the XS-1 bridge camera).

All of these cost a bomb but are less than the RX-1. $500-$1000 is the more typical price spread on these cameras. Be aware, however, that the lenses on these cameras may or may not zoom. And, of course, this is an area where camera technology and manufacturers are constantly churning out new models with different specs. Expect all these models to be different in a few years; just as this answer is updated from the ones that were made preivously. A lot has changed in the camera landscape over the last three years.

You could also go for a mirrorless camera (Sony E-mount, Fuji X, micro four-thirds, Samsung NX, etc.) or a dLSR and have the freedom to change lenses, which will typically allow you access to wider maximum apertures, but system cameras tend to cost more because you have to buy the rest of the system as well.

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