Buying a Point and Shoot Camera

A Guide for the Perplexed by Philip Greenspun; created 1995

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Big Island, Hawaii.

If you already own a P&S camera, you might enjoy guide to taking good pictures with a P&S camera.

Is a point and shoot camera the right tool for the job?

As I discuss in "Choosing a Camera for a Long Trip", you have to decide whether the purpose of an outing is primarily photographic. Are you trying to experience Paris or photograph Paris? If you're going to be spending 80% of your time exposing film or thinking about pictures, then a larger camera is a better tool. A standard 35mm SLR camera has larger and more convenient controls than a point and shoot. A medium- or large-format camera will give significantly better image quality (see "What Camera Should I Buy" for a discussion of these cameras). A tripod will be a tremendous help. But if you're only carrying the camera on the off chance that something catches your eye, it is rather unpleasant to lug around 50 lbs. of equipment.

Digital versus Film-based Cameras

Soho door. Manhattan 1995.

There are pocket-sized digital cameras that function quite nicely as point and shoot cameras, for example, the Canon S100. The advantage of the digital camera is that the photos are available for instant sharing via the Internet and you don't have to spend money on film or processing. The main disadvantage of digital cameras circa 2001 is that they depend so heavily on personal computers circa 2001. With a film-based camera, you press the button 36 times then remove the film and take it to a lab. For long-term archival storage, a metal file cabinet serves nicely. With a digital camera, you need to transfer the images to a computer and learn how to use a high-quality printer or produce Web pages. For long-term storage and retrieval you need to get a big hard drive, a big tape drive, backup software, and the discipline to make backups regularly.

What if you don't use your camera regularly? Suppose that two years ago you loaded up a film-based camera with a roll of ISO 400 film and lithium battery. You took two photos of your dog's birthday party and put the camera on the shelf until the next birthday whereupon you snapped four more photos. Your dog's birthday is today. You grab the camera off the shelf and snap a few more photos then take the roll down to the local minilab. Most digital cameras rely on rechargeable batteries. If you tried the same scenario with a digital camera you'd have missed two birthday parties.

Why you might not want that fancy zoom P&S

Zoom lenses have more elements (pieces of glass) than fixed focal-length lenses. More elements means more ways for light to bounce around inside the lens. Stray light (flare) fills in areas of the picture that are supposed to be black, thus reducing contrast. That's why pictures taken with most zoom lenses are flat. If your subject is a stand of trees on a foggy day, you might not mind, but most of the time photographs taken with a zoom lens will lack snap.

You can forget about shooting into the sun with most cheap zoom lenses; all you will get is flare.

The zoom lens adds weight, cost, and size. You might not have the camera with you when you need it and that's the whole point of getting a P&S instead of an SLR.

Why you might want that fancy zoom P&S

Technology changes fast. Some of the very latest zoom P&S cameras can fit in a shirt pocket and don't have much flare. How do they do this? With aspherics. Most expensive camera lenses are still made with only glass elements that are sections of spheres. If you are willing to mold a lens out of plastic you have much more freedom of shape and can correct more optical problems with a single element.

Manhattan 1995.

Minolta sells a 28-70mm shirt-pocket zoom camera that uses four elements, two of them aspheric. The exposure system is great with slide film and the contrast seems just as good as with the T4. Under a Schneider 4X loupe, the images from mine were sharp enough for the photo editors at Hearst magazines. The fill flash doesn't suit me very well on overcast days, however. The subject is usually brighter than the background and that looks unnatural. I'm not sure if the T4 was any better or if I just tended to use it more with ISO 50 film where the flash didn't have much reach.

I carried mine in my front left pants pocket for a few months and the viewfinder filled up with dust (lint?) then the camera jammed and prematurely rewound its 10th roll of film. This was the same failure mode as my old T4. I sent it back to Minolta and they cleaned it for me and claimed that it works perfectly now. It would seem that I've demonstrated the inability of these cameras to survive the pants pocket environment. [Note: the camera broke again a couple of months later. I sent it back to Minolta for warranty service. They held it for two months. It came back vaguely repaired but still not behaving reliably.]

The Yashica T4: a sensible choice

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Thousands of pros have Yashica T4 point & shoots. These have a fixed 35/3.5 lens that is as sharp and contrasty as most SLR optics, an exposure metering system accurate enough for slide film, and a true shirt-pocket size. Even Consumer Reports top-rated this camera. It is about $150 in New York. The latest "T4 Super" (known as the T5 in Europe and Asia) has the same optics and film transport but adds a right-angle "waist-level" finder (good for low-angle and/or sneak shots) plus weatherproof construction. The latter is very important if you like to carry your camera in a pants pocket, where the high humidity from, dare I say it, sweat tends to fog the viewfinder.

My T4s have proven to have exposure metering that is sufficiently accurate for slide film though these days I never use anything other than ISO 400 color negative film in a point and shoot (or sometimes Kodak TMAX 400 CN black and white film, which is more or less the same idea).

Don't expect miracles from the T4, though. The plastic construction doesn't feel any better than the other P&S cameras; it is the beautiful Zeiss Tessar 4-element lens (with T* coating) that makes the T4 special.

Here's something I found in the newsgroups about a German magazine's test of a T4 versus expensive ($600) Contax and absurdly expensive ($900) Nikon P&S cameras (yuppie class):

"The following is a side by side comparison of Yashica T4 vs Nikon 35Ti and Contax T2's optical performance according to foto Magazin test charts.

                  Yashica T4        T2               Nikon  35Ti
  Lens:           Tessar 35mm/3.5   Sonnar 38/2.8    35mm/2.8
  Resolution      (smaller  better)
  Center:         0.017mm           0.015            0.015mm
  Edge:           0.017             0.016            0.018
  Contrast        (higher  better)
  Center          92%               78%              72%
  Edge            85%               50%              45%
  Performance     9.8               9.4              9.2
  Rating         *****              ****             ***

       T2 slightly better than 35Ti, but very close.

       T4's resolution < T2 at center and edge
                       < 35Ti at center
                       > 35 Ti at edge

       T4  contrast,  better than T2 and 35Ti center/edge
    by subtantial margin."

Here are a few other cameras worth considering: