Mudsock Heights

Mudsock Heights

The View from Mudsock Heights: A Tiny Camera Can Make Big Pictures and Do It Well

By Dennis E. Powell | Posted at 8:13 PM

Having been raised as a photographer, I’ve always felt a little vulnerable if I didn’t have a camera on my person. For years I carried a Nikon or Leica film camera with me pretty much wherever I went, often as not along with a big camera bag made by Jim Domke, all crammed full of spare camera bodies and lenses and film and a few filters and more film and a strobe (which is what we used to call electronic flashguns). I didn’t need to go to the gym.

Then there came a time a few decades ago when I went light, even though I was taking pictures for publication every day. All I carried, for more than a year, was a tiny Rollei 35, a 35mm camera the size of a pack of cigarettes. It had a 35mm collapsible lens and was in no way automatic. I got great pictures that year, in part because I always had it with me, in part because it didn’t have interchangeable anything so I’d concentrate on the picture instead of what lens to use, and in part because it was so small that no one took it seriously.

Though I have use of big digital Nikon SLRs now for very serious work, and always had big film cameras before the digital age, tiny-yet-competent cameras have been a little bit of an obsession of mine since that year at Knight-Ridder in Florida in the 1970s. Finding the greatest quality and versatility in the smallest package with the fewest tradeoffs is a continuing goal of mine.

Before we had digital cameras, my carry-around camera was the tiny but wonderful Olympus XA rangefinder, followed by the fixed-lens Olympus stylus — autofocus, motor drive, a cover that protected the lens, a decent and decently fast 35mm lens, all in a case not much bigger than the Rollei 35 struck me as the height of coolness.

When digital cameras arrived, everything changed. My first was a huge Sony product with a long zoom lens that wrote its pictures to floppy disk — it has a built-in floppy drive — and that could fit only four highest-quality images to a disk. It was capable of, I think, 2.1-megapixel images. I have some very nice 8×10s made with that camera, but it was built before the megapixel war so nobody knew that four times that many were needed for prints of that size. Something that required one to carry boxes of floppies was scarcely a good carry-around camera, though. (I didn’t fall for the one that wrote to mini-CD, but it was close.)

Then came the Canon SD400, the standard tiny Canon digital size and shape. This thing is really cool, stores oodles of 5-mp images on an SD card the size of a postage stamp, and was generally the niftiest thing in town — if there were enough light. For low light it is pretty miserable.

It has the still-standard 3-power zoom lens, which is something but not much. Still, that much camera in that little space …

The Canon got replaced by a dinky Panasonic that was gotten because I could not believe that a camera with a Leica lens — a 5-power zoom, no less — could be had at WalMart for $135. And it proved to be the best $135 digital camera I’ve ever used. But the low-light performance was still awful.

Earlier this year, there started to be a buzz about a Fujifilm camera, the Finepix F200EXR. Fuji had come up with a cool way to make pictures in low light and do some other tricks. Part of the magic came about through the use of a larger sensor. In many important respects, the sensitivity of a photo sensor is the function of size, just as a photovoltaic cell will produce twice the electricity if you double its size (and as in the film world a big negative will render better pictures than a small one will, ceteris paribus). But there were other tricks as well, such as using alternating pixels to gather bright and low light to produce great dynamic range — capturing detail in both bright and dark areas. To do this, it would use 12 megapixels of information to make a 6-mp image. Fuji knows (as do the photographers at serious magazines) that simple pixel count means very little — the important parts are sensor size and how the pixels are used.

But the F200EXR offered only a 5-power zoom lens. It seemed that a little wait would reveal something better.

It did.

The something better is the Fuji Finepix F70EXR. Though in some respects a little brother to the F200EXR (it draws only 10 megapixels from a slightly smaller sensor, for instance), it adds some great new features, too, chief among them a good 10-power zoom — a real surprise in such a small package.
The web is full of reviews of this camera, so I’ll not go here into the kind of detail they do. Instead, I’d like to offer some impressions based on using the thing for awhile now.

Much is made of the EXR mode, which offers several advanced features: a low-light function which alternates pixels in the way the F200EXR does, a dynamic range mode that produces detail in both highlights and shadows, and a resolution-priority mode that gives those who love big filesizes their 10-mp way, the first two rendering 5-mp images. There is an “Auto EXR” function that chooses from among these to decide which is appropriate for a particular scene. This setting has been widely praised, but I do not very much like it. Here’s why: the camera loves to select the highest ISO rating, which often isn’t necessary. (Well, not the absolute highest — the thing offers sensitivity up to ISO 12, 800, which renders pictures that one reviewer aptly described as resembling “watercolors painted with a sponge.”) While the F70EXR is quite low-noise, with truly useful pictures available right up to ISO 800 and fairly useful ones even at ISO 1600, it is not noise-free, so its prejudice ought to favor lower settings.

Here’s hoping that Fuji offers a firmware upgrade that adds a couple things: a setting for “ISO do not exceed” that would let the user establish a top limit, a “no slower than” shutter speed that would let the user tell it when to warn that the shuttter speed will be too slow to hand hold (even with its shake prevention system), and a choice of which of those settings to employ when when one has to be ignored to make a picture. With those added, it would be a simple thing to stick it on “EXP Auto” mode and leave it there. For me, now, it’s not.

Fortunately, the camera has the usual auto and program auto-exposure modes. But wringing the most out of this little gem requires some study of the manual (which, sadly, is a .pdf file on a CD instead of a real manual — and which has page numbers that do not agree with the page references on any known PDF reader, rendering the table of contents mostly useless). It also requires some practice. Sure, you can put it on “Auto” and snap merrily away in standard point-and-shoot fashion, but this hides many of the things that make the camera great.

There are a couple of specialty modes that I have found useful. One is called “pro low-light.” This takes four pictures in quick succession and, through some processing magic, joins them so as to make a fairly noise-free picture in situations where a picture would be otherwise impossible. It can even be done hand-held. I intend to play with this feature some more and master it. The creative possibilities seem vast.

Another is hidden at the bottom of a menu in the “scene” mode. It is called “text,” and with it one can make near-scanner-quality photographs of documents. For a reporter who often would like to grab a quick copy of something, this is just about perfect. I do not know how they do it, but it works well.

In such a tiny camera with such a big lens, there are inevitable tradeoffs. The corners of images at the widest setting — 27mm equivalent in 35mm terms — are slightly soft. The dreaded purple fringing is wont to appear at some focal lengths where there is very sharp light-dark contrast, though this is fairly easily fixed in just about any photo editing program, so it doesn’t much bother me.

I have a few little nits to pick. The thing has a glossy finish that makes it slippery, and no good grip ridge or anything of the like to aid in keeping hold of it. A rougher finish would perhaps not appeal to our design sensibilities but it would make the camera easier to use. The mode dial moves far too easily and would benefit from some sort of locking detent. And in some respects it has too many features for my liking. It has the now-standard movie mode. I don’t use small still cameras to make movies. I would far rather the movie, microphone, and speaker software and space be devoted instead to the making of better still pictures. At least it doesn’t have a built-in telephone, or games.

But for me the purpose of having a little camera like this is to serve as “tornado insurance.” It is known that the likelihood of encountering a tornado is inverse to the likelihood of one having a camera with which to capture it. If you have a camera all the time, tornadoes will leave you alone.

It serves the purpose of having always available a camera capable of making publication-quality pictures. Indeed, with the little firmware upgrade I described, it would be just about perfect for this purpose, better than anything else I’ve seen. Yes, it requires a little study to make the greatest use of all its features.

Hey, surprise — good photography still sometimes involves some skill!