I bought my first single-lens reflex (SLR) camera over 20 years ago. It was a state-of-the-art Minolta with electronic autofocus and a digital display, though it still captured pictures on film. Then I bought a Canon compact and the Minolta seemed like a museum piece. Now I also have a Nikon digital SLR (DSLR).
I use the Canon sometimes to take panorama shots
, a feature unavailable on the Nikon. But for my own egoistic, and also photographic, purposes I prefer the DSLR, even though I know the Canon has as many modes and effects, and as big an optical zoom. Indeed, the compact also has a super macro mode
that has bested all the efforts of the bigger, better Nikon.
Most compacts today are way ahead of their original agenda of being 'point-and-shoot' cameras, which was to simplify the whole process of creating album images and render it as easy as boiling milk.
Gone are the fussy controls of the SLR and the range finders and the mysteries of correct exposure. Now cameras on auto mode themselves decide whether the light conditions demand additional flash illumination or not.
The digital compact is not called a point-and-shoot for nothing. You literally point it at a subject and press the button. But as its simplicity brought buyers to the shops like never before, market forces took over.
The International Data Corporation estimates that in 2012, 16.7 million DSLR cameras and 130.6 million compacts will be sold. But with $40 billion - the estimated size of the digital camera market - at stake, the war to corral buyers has ironically begun to revolve around the strategy of making the compacts more sophisticated.
Today, when you go to buy a compact, do not expect your decision to be influenced by just the looks - thick, thin, retro, modernistic, straight, curvaceous - or the colour. The array of features will leave you confounded.
Forget the usual suspects of the photo world - the modes (auto, programme, aperture, shutter or manual), white balance (auto, daylight, tungsten, fluorescent) and the effects (indoor, portraits, landscape, night, panorama). Forget even the sensor megapixels (MP) or the optical zoom. There are numerous other infuriating choices to make.
Nikon has compacts that come with in-built projectors. Samsung offers you an extra, front-facing screen. Olympus has a compact with a 'beauty' mode that lets you manipulate the skin colour in a photograph to suit your aesthetics.
Canon was among the first to enable its point-and-shooters to pick a single colour - except for the chosen hue the rest of the picture is in monochrome. Sony brought in sweep panorama. Samsung has released the first Wi-Fi-enabled point-and shoot. And if 3D is what satisfies your creativity, think no further than a Fujifilm or a Vu.
The compact today masquerades as a simple machine, when it is, in fact, packed with a mind-boggling complexity. It is also an overkill of technology.
I asked a tech writer who is an expert on imaging devices whether the point-and-shooter actually needs the complications of his device. "No," he said rather emphatically. "Some may experiment, but most people use the basic camera functions set to the auto mode, everything else is an overdose."
He added that the features of these cameras attract buyers but will not be used by them. "Like most iPad buyers I know," he adds. "I know MBAs and editors who have iPads and iPhones and have never downloaded a single app in three years!"
I would simply suggest that you buy a compact with a good sensor (CMOS above 12 MP), optical zoom of 10X or above, the usual auto and PSAM shooting modes, rechargeable batteries, a big display of above three inches and with a slim form factor.
The writer is Executive Editor, Gadgets & Gizmos