Post by By Andy Ihnatko’
In a fairly loose definition of the term, the block of Vermont Sharp Cheddar in my fridge is a pocket camera. I’ve just given it a test and sure enough…it fits in my pocket.
(Actually, now that I’ve broken off a hunk to nibble on, it’s become even more compact and convenient.)
I have my reasons for inserting the cheese into this narrative. I was a bit peckish and the cheese was just sitting there. But primarily I want to make the point that the term “pocket camera” isn’t a reflection of a camer’a size. It reflects the camera’s design philosophy.
What do you expect from an SLR? Well, you want to be able to take the best photos possible. An SLR is big and clumsy and you can’t use it without attracting a lot of attention. Changing lenses is a pain, and puts the camera’s innards at risk. Sure, go ahead and take a walk through its menu structure if you must…but pack a couple of days’ worth of provisions and a space blanket in case you get hopelessly lost.
(“Six different color profiles,” was all the 34-year-old systems administrator could say after he was finally found and rescued by National Guard helicopters. “The thing kept asking me about my ‘perceptual intent’ over and over again, no matter how pitifully I begged it to just let me take another picture.”)
All true. And who cares? Convenience and ease-of-use are always desirable features but that’s not why you buy an SLR. You buy an SLR to have a fighting chance at walking away from that place and those circumstances with the best photo that could possibly have been taken.
The Panasonic LX3 carries that philosophy into a pocketable size. Bravo! But as I say…it isn’t a pocket camera.
The philosophy behind a pocket camera is a bit different. Its goal is to place as few barriers as possible between your desire to take a picture and actually taking it. Each of its design decisions is meant to keep you from thinking “I’d like to take a picture. But honestly, I just can’t be bothered.”
And that’s why I own a Nikon P6000 instead of the LX3.
- The Nikon has a smooth shape that easily slips in and out of any pants or jacket pocket. The LX3’s lens makes it a tight fit for smaller pockets. It kept getting caught, even on the seams of the ample, shoplifter-friendly pockets on my 511 Tactical Pants. I also worried about the cap popping off in my pocket and scratching that fantastic lens. I often felt that I couldn’t be bothered to either wear the LX3 around my neck or to put on a belt pouch.
It’s a fundamental maxim of photography: the $120 shirt-pocket camera that you actually have with you takes way, way better photos than the $2700 SLR that you decided to leave back at the house or the hotel. This stuff really matters.
- The Nikon has none of the LX3’s silly retro-style mechanical slider switches. Often, I’d often spot a opportunity for a silly, casual snapshot and the LX3 was there on my belt but I’d it holstered. Unless you’re wearing it around your neck, the first step with the LX3 is to examine all of the mode switches to make sure that every setting is where you left it. I couldn’t be bothered for something so silly.
- The Nikon’s body is far less cluttered and its UI is far easier to navigate. I was absolutely comfortable with the P6000’s features in fewer than fifty frames. Whereas with the LX3, I was still forced to employ the Random Walk algorithm to find certain needed functions after a month.
Most of my complaints about the LX3 run along those lines. It’s not a heroically comfortable and practical camera design. It’s not as though Panasonic dips every LX3 in glue and then rolls it around in a bucket of tacks and glass shards before boxing and shipping it. It’s just not a terrific camera for those shots in which you’re not motivated to work very hard, or where circumstances prevent you from staying put until you get it right.
That backstage photo at the Colonial is a perfect example. I had the LX3 in my hand already. I stopped, composed a shot, and clicked the shutter. If the camera had messed up the shot for any reason…well, I’d have lost the shot. This guy was being very nice to show me around and I didn’t want to waste his time by stopping and futzing with the LX3’s settings.
I took the P6000 on another cool tour while I was in San Francisco. But it was a whole different story. When I reviewed the shot I had just taken and didn’t like it, I had no qualms about calling an audible thanks to the camera’s friendly design. “Increase the ISO to 400; decrease exposure one stop; flash on slow-synchro, minus 1.3 compensation. Engage!” And about two seconds later, I had the photo I wanted.
The difference between these two cameras is pretty simple. Folks who wish that their SLR were as compact as a pocket camera will love the Panasonic. Folks who wish their pocket camera had some of the power and flexibility of an SLR will love the Nikon.
Onward. The P6000 has two characteristics which made it the presumptive nominee from very first day I had it:
Ergonomics. This is one damned comfortable camera to hold. The grip is thick and coated with diamond-textured rubber; the grip rolls around the right side of the camera and ends in a severe edge that your fingertips will naturally lock into. Your right thumb settles into a rubber saddle in the back.
The P6000 comes with a neck strap but I’ve never bothered to attach it. I feel as though I can walk thirty blocks with it in my hand without the slightest worry of dropping it. (All the same, yes, I’ve attached a wrist strap as a begrudging nod to Murphy’s Law.)
And that makes it a better camera. The P6000 never leaves my hand and in the second or so it takes to raise the camera, I’ve thumbed the power switch and it’s ready to shoot. No need to grasp it with two hands, no need to take it out of a pouch. Result: I take more photos.
The physical layout of buttons is tops, too. When navigating though its menus, you can hold the camera in both hands like a game controller. The buttons under your left thumb select features and modes while your right thumb chooses options for those modes. The buttons themselves are big and well-spaced, and can be easily pushed by thick, beefy workman’s fingers like mine. They’re labeled in no-nonsense white letters and can easily be read in low light. A scrollwheel rounds out the UI nicely.
Customization. The LX3, the Canon G10, and the P6000 each have two custom user settings on its mode wheel. Click from “P” through “A” and “S” all the way to “U1” and presto: your camera has recalled all of the settings you used the last time you were in a diner and found yourself sitting behind a majestic stack of pancakes that demanded to be documented.
(Yes, I have a “Diner” setting on my camera. What of it, tough guy?)
But the P6000 really runs with this idea. It has two buttons on the back of the camera just for your custom settings. I use flash exposure compensation so frequently that I wish I could get to that option in just one keypress. No sweat: I’ve assigned it to the “Fn” button. A “MyMenu” button brings up a custom menu with six slots that you can fill with any functions you desire.
Between these two buttons, even the most sophisticated features of the P6000 will never be so tricky to engage that you “can’t be bothered” to get the shot right.
Other features that I love:
- Wireless remote receiver. $17 bucks on Amazon buys you Nikon’s tiny ML-L3 wireless remote. It’s an automatic buy. The sugar-frosted tourist side of you will enjoy being able to get your picture taken with your family standing next to the World’s Largest Drywall Screw in Ox Stocking, Montana. The crunchy-wheat Artiste side will bring the remote into play when shooting long, tripod exposures.
- Fixed-range Auto ISO. On top of the usual full-auto and “high ISO” auto modes, you can tell the P6000 not to set the ISO any higher than 400, 200, or 100…your choice. So when you’re in a shooting situation where high-ISO noise is absolutely unacceptable, you have the option of ensuring that the P6000 never chooses a setting where that’ll become an issue.
- Interval shooting. It’ll shoot a sequence of photos at a frequency ranging from every thirty seconds to every hour. There’s even a special time-lapse movie mode where every shot will be a new frame in an movie file. You sure wouldn’t pay extra for this feature but when it happens to be there in the camera, it inevitably triggers your “Sure, why the hell not?” impulse. Check out video I shot on a train ride to New York City followed by a walk to a lunch meeting in the Village. It shot a frame every thirty seconds throughout the journey.
- Optical viewfinder. Which is a useless feature as far as I’m concerned but hey, there are people out there who apparently enjoy getting nose grease on their LCD screen. I ask you: did Ansel Adams insist on looking through a teeny little glass peephole? No, he did not. He composed his Yosemite landscapes by looking at the big, luxurious live preview image on the huge LCD on the back of his bellows camera. No, I’m certain you’re right: you’re so much smarter than Ansel Adams.
But there’s one standout new feature that’s won the P6000 a lot of attention: it has a built-in GPS receiver. With the GPS feature turned on, each of your shots is tagged with the precise coordinates of its location.
The damned thing works. I often forget that it’s tagging photos until I’ve uploaded them to Flickr and the service pops it onto a map. I don’t have my copy of iLife ’09 yet but I predict that I’m going to waste many hours generating moving-map globe animations of my Tuesday journey from the post office to the comic book shop to the pizza place next to the comic book shop to the movie theater the next town over.
The P6000’s GPS feature is by no means foolproof, nor does it come without a price. When you first turn the GPS on, it can take several minutes for the camera to get its initial location fix. And like most GPS receivers, it needs a clear shot of the sky…it’s probably even more persnickety than most. So don’t count on it working indoors, or in a cluttered downtown, or off-planet.
And the GPS knocks the hell out of the battery. For that reason, I tend to keep the GPS switched off unless I know I’m going to find the location info interesting later on. It’s still a killer feature, made all the more so because its presence didn’t drive the cost of the P6000 above its competition.
My nominee for biggest tease among the P6000’s feature set: the Ethernet port. An ability to automatically slurp the contents of your memory card up to Flickr or Facebook or the destination of your choice is enticing. But in reality, you can only transmit pictures to Nikon’s “My Picturetown” service.
And it’s just a 100Mbit port. Uploading a day’s worth of vacation pix will take about ten minutes short of forever. Nice try, Nikon. Please call me back if you ever do a firmware update that makes this feature more flexible and practical.
Let’s break up this little love affair with some complaints:
- The battery kind of sucks. Even with the GPS turned off, I mean. The P6000’s shots-per-charge is in the mid-200’s (according to published benchmarks) while the LX3 and the Canon G10 are up closer to 400. It’s not a dealbreaker (it only gets in my way when I’m traveling, and it’s easily solved with the purchase of a spare battery) but it’s a notable problem.
- Shot-to-shot speed also kind of sucks. A JPEG takes about a second to write; a RAW will cost you about three, and when the shot buffer is full, you’ll be cooling your heels for five or six seconds. This is DEF-in-ite-ly not a sports camera. The Panasonic and the Canon are no champs either, particularly in RAW mode. But if you have only six seconds to get a good picture of the President as he makes his way past you on the ropeline, would you rather be able to take six photos, or eight?
- Can’t auto-bracket in RAW mode. Which seems like a really smart decision. The folks who care enough about image quality to shoot RAW aren’t the same people who like to bracket exposure for safety, after all. (Attention, Nikon: this is sarcasm. As a guy who shoots a lot of HDR sets, I hope there’s a damned good reason why this limitation exists.)
- No live histogram. I’m not as dependent on this feature as some people are. It’s very handy to be able to preview the data you’re about to capture before you press the shutter. I rarely use it (I tend to look at the histogram when I review the shot I’ve just taken), so I don’t really miss it. But this seems like a weird omission on a $500 camera.
- Occasional blowouts. I do indeed read other people’s reviews to compare their experiences with my own. And apparently, some folks can create a situation in which the P6000 will blow out certain highlights. We’re not talking “in general,” here; we’re talking about situations like shooting at the sky through the canopy of a tree and then magnifying the results to see where it might have screwed things up. In the P6000’s defense, I haven’t noticed a problem with blown highlights in my own shots, and it appears to be a case of the P6000 choosing a sub-optimal combination of shutter, aperture, and ISO (as opposed the P6000 being organically unable to shoot that scene without blowouts). But facts is facts, and the G10 appears to handle that specific situation better.
- Movie mode isn’t HD. Another odd choice for a $500 camera. The Panasonic does 720p; the Nikon (and the Canon) are stuck in 2005, with 640×480 resolution.
Room for improvement, clearly. But for my pocket camera needs, it was really no contest. The Nikon’s image quality lags behind the LX3’s. Yes, and so do all others within the Panasonic’s price range. I haven’t a single complaint about the P6000’s image quality, and its overall usability makes it the champ in my book.
I’ve had my P6000 for almost three months now. I’ve used it at parties, at family gatherings, at news events, for once-in-a-lifetime events, as a generalized capture device. I’ve even used it for those times when I don’t have my SLR and yet I deign to don the Beret of Artistic Arrogance and Coalesce A Moment Into An Immortal Photograph That Has The Power To Heal The World.
And the P6000 has never let me down. After three months, I’m still certain that it’s the perfect choice for me.
Tomorrow: I wind all of this up by finally talking about the Canon G10. It seems I have more than a few sentences to say about it. Hunh.
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