My Cameras

Introduction

I have liked photography since I was a teenager. In school, I learned how to develop negative film and make paper copies in a darkroom, but for a long time I didn't have my own camera. When I went to Los Angeles in 1983 (and again in 1988) I didn't take any photos. People looked skeptical when I said I didn't need to take photos, because I would remember what I had seen. Later, e.g. when I went on trips abroad in 1991 and 1994, took some photos with a camera I borrowed (I think it was a Minolta 7000i).

Having become a computer geek, dealing with photos printed on paper was not my idea of fun. In the mid 1990s, I started making web pages, which meant I sometimes had to scan paper photos to be able to use them on the web. This inevitably meant some loss of quality, which can be seen e.g. in these photos from a wedding in 1998. As a result, it wasn't until decent digital cameras became available that I decided to get my own camera.

[Photo of Thomas behind the Canon Powershot S30]

2001: Canon Powershot S30

In 2001, with a new job and a larger pay check, I decided to spend money on some new toys, and one of the first things I wanted to buy was a digital camera. One of my friends, who always seemed to be years ahead of me, got a digital camera already in 1998, but the photos had a cheap home video look, see e.g. these photos from a party in 1998.

[Early digital camera photo example]

A couple of years later, I saw Photos taken with the Canon Powershot S20, which looked better, but not as good as photos from traditional film cameras.

I started reading camera reviews online and compared various models, but hadn't found what I wanted. Then Canon announced the Powershot S30 and Powershot S40, and after reading the review of the S40 on dpreview.com I knew this was the camera I wanted. Actually, I choose the 3 megapixel S30 rather than then 4 megapixel S40, because the S30 supported ISO values up to 800, while the S40 supported ISO values only up to 400, which I assumed meant that the S30 would produce slightly less grainy photos at all ISO values.

So in December 2001, the Powershot S30 became my first digital camera (my first camera of any kind). Since then, I always carry a camera in my pocket and take photos more or less every day.

I was very eager with my S30 in the beginning, and I often took photos until the battery ran out or the memory card was full (I bought a 128MB CompactFlash card to replace the 16MB card that Canon included in the box). I liked what the photos looked like, the colors were more pleasing than what I had seen from digital cameras before.

A few days after I bought the S30, I went on a quick trip to Seattle. I tried to get some nice shots of the Seattle skyline at night, but they were rather dark. What I didn't know then was that in automatic exposure modes, the longest exposure selected by the camera is 1s. Later I found out that if you set the shutter speed manually you can choose up to 15s, which makes more interesting night shots possible.

[Night shot, 1s exposure] [Night shot, 15s exposure] [Night shot, 4s exposure]

2002: Canon Powershot S230 (while sending the S30 away for service)

The Powershot S30 was border case too big to carry in a pocket, so adding some kind of case or cover to it would make it too big to carry around comfortably, I thought. Of course, carrying the camera around unprotected in my pocket all the time meant that after almost a year, it exhibited a certain wear and tear. The lens cover had become dented (probably because the camera got squeezed between my leg and the edge of a table at some point) and the screen had a rather deep scratch.

The wear and tear was to be expected, I thought, and I had taken thousands of photos after all, so it didn't bother me much. But there was one other thing that bothered me: in some photos a dark shadow could be seen. It looked like it could be the out-of-focus shadow of a small fiber that had somehow entered the lens. I went back to the store, and since the camera was till under warranty, they could send it back to Canon and have it repaired for free.

When I got my S30 back after about a month, I was very happy with the work Canon had done on it. The dent on the lens cover and the scratch on the screen was gone, and there was no sign of the dark shadow in the photos. The camera was as good as new!

Even though I had had the S30 for less than a year when I sent it away for repair, I had already become so used to always having a camera in my pocket that I didn't want to be without one until I got my S30 back, so I bought another camera to use in the mean time: the Canon Powershot S230, the latest model from Canon's even more compact series. It had a smaller sensor, only 2x zoom and less manual controls than the S30, but the same 3 megapixel resolution.

The S230 was better than the S30 in one way: it could shoot videos with 640x480 pixel resolution, compared to 320x240 on the S30. In fact, the S30 videos looked rather blurry, and after comparing to 320x240 video from other cameras I figured that the video on the S30 probably was scaled up from a measly 160x120 resolution.

The S230 also had Canon's new DiGiC image processor, which meant slightly different exposure and colors.

I found the S230 pleasant to use, and took lots of photos with it, but after I got my S30 back I sold the S230 to a friend.

2004: Canon EOS 300D (Digital Rebel)

While I was happy with my Powershot S30, I continued to read camera reviews online, anticipating to upgrade to a newer model every few years, just like I upgraded my computer every few years. While I expected my next camera to be another compact camera, I also enjoyed reading reviews of DSLR cameras. I particularly remember being impressed by an action shot in a review of the the Canon EOS D60, or maybe it was this action shot in a review of the Canon EOS 1D. Anyway, I didn't think I would be able to take action shots like that with a compact camera.

In July 2004, I bought the Canon EOS 300D, which was Canon's first "affordable" DSLR. (Half a year later, Nikon released their response, the Nikon D70.)

Instead of the standard 18-55mm kit lens, I got a Tamron 28-300mm zoom lens, which was very versatile, but much bigger. At that time it was not possible to buy the kit lens separately, unfortunately, and I regretted not buying it from the start.

One of the main reasons I wanted to get a DSLR was that I was going to a wedding in August, and I wanted to get good photos.

I was happy with the quality of the photos I got with the EOS 300D, but the best camera is the one you have with you, and most of the time I left the EOS 300D at home and continued to keep the Powershot S30 in my pocket. The EOS 300D also seemed rather primitive compared to the S30, not much more than a traditional SLR with a CMOS sensor replacing the film. It didn't show a live preview on the screen and it didn't support video recording, and while the image quality was very good, the colors and white balance often seemed slightly off, requiring post-processing to make the photos look good. Also, except for the kit lens, the lenses available at time time were designed for full-frame SLRs and thus bigger and heavier than they needed to be for a camera with an APC-C sized sensor. And the their focal length ranges did not permit wide angle shots, e.g. a zoom lens with a 18-200mm range would be much more useful than the 28-300mm range of the Tamron lens I got.

I sold the EOS 300D to a friend later that year, so at the next wedding I went to, I only had my Powershot S30.

[Photo of Thomas behind the Canon Powershot S80]

2005: Canon Powershot S80

After the S30 & S40, Canon continued to release similar cameras in the Powershot series: the S45, S50, S60, S70 and finally the S80.

My Powershot S30 was now four years old, but still working well. My plan from the start had been to upgrade my camera every few years, and with the S80, I thought the improvements were significant enough that it would be worth an upgrade. I bought the Powershot S80 the day before going on a trip to Las Vegas. I read the User Guide on the plane.

Compared to the S30, the S80 had a slightly slimmer body, larger screen and faster operation, making it more pleasant to use. The lens was also slightly wider, 28-100mm instead of 35-105mm, which doesn't sound like much, but it made some scenes easier to capture. The maximum aperture was still f/2.8 and the highest sensitivity dropped from ISO 800 to ISO 400, so it didn't make it easier to get good photos in low light.

The S80 could shoot video at 1024x768 pixel resolution and 15fps. It could also shoot 640x480 video at 30fps, but it didn't look good (like it has been scaled down from 1024x768 in a rather unsophisticated way...)

Unlike the S30, the S80 did not have a raw mode, probably because the wide angle lens (28mm) in such a slim body required some digital image processing to avoid geometric distortion…


The S80 had a shooting mode called My Colors, and one of the options in that mode was called Positive Film (which I think could just as well have been called Postcard Mode). It gave very nice strong colors, and I used a lot (e.g. in two of the photos above).

In 2007 it appeared that the manual focus settings on my S80 needed to be recalibrated. Manually settings the focus distance to infinity resulted in images that were blurry at infinity and sharp at a much closer distances (around 5m). Fortunately, autofocus was still able to focus at the right distance.

2009: Canon Powershot S90

After the Powershot S80, it seemed like this series of Powershot cameras had come to an end. Canon stopped releasing new models. Then in 2009, the Powershot S90 appeared.

The S90 skipped the optical viewfinder (which I didn't often use on my S30 and S80 anyway) and had a much slimmer body, which made it very comfortable to keep in my pocket, even in a case with some protective padding.

The S90 made it a lot easier to get good photos in low light. A combination of three factors made a game changing difference:

The S90 could also shoot descent video (640x480 pixel resolution at 30fps), but it was probably the only compact camera released in 2009 by any manufacturer that didn't support HD video. (Canon released the S95 in 2010, a minor upgrade of the S90 which added 720p video at 24fps and a few other things.)

The S90 reintroduced raw mode that was omitted from the S80. The raw images reveal that the lens produces some geometric distortion at wide angle, which is digitally compensated for in the JPEG output from the camera.

In 2011 I started noticing that my S90 sometimes had a hard time focusing. Sometimes it took a very long time to focus on distant subjects, sometimes the autofocus gave up. Inspecting the photos revealed the problem: the photos were not sharp from edge to edge, part of the image would be out of focus whatever distance the camera tried to focus at.


2013: Canon Powershot S100

Apart from the focusing problem, my Powershot S90 was still working well, but when I saw that Siba was selling the Powershot S100 for 1500kr, I thought it would be worth it to upgrade. It would be a rather small upgrade, but I would have a fully functional camera again. HD video recording and GPS tagging of outdoor photos would also be nice bonuses.

The S100 did not have the same telephoto focusing problem as my S90 (although the S100 review on dpreview.com talked about sample variation, saying that some brand new S100 cameras had a focusing problem similar to the one my S90 developed after a couple of years). However, by accident I found out that it had a problem with manual focus. If I set the correct distance (e.g. infinity) manually, I got very blurry images, particularly at the wide angle end of the zoom. My S80 also developed a manual focus problem, but this was even worse.

I didn't know if this was a simple calibration problem or a mechanical lens problem in this particular sample, a design flaw with the S100 model, or a more general manufacturing precision/quality problem with compact cameras from Canon, but I didn't have the patience to try to find out.

I returned the S100 the next day.

2014: Canon EOS M

My experience with the S90 and S100 meant I sort of lost faith in Canon's ability to produce high quality compact cameras and made me unsure about what my next upgrade should be.

At this point in time I had also been carrying both my S90 and a smartphone in my pocket for a few years, and often the smartphone took good enough photos in everyday situations, so it started to seem less important to have a compact camera.

Among the compact cameras available around this time, the one I found most interesting was the Sony RX100 (and its successors). While the S90 had a slightly larger sensor (7.59×5.69mm) than most other compact cameras, the sensor in the RX100 was even larger (13.2×8.8mm), and this is what I found interesting about the camera. It meant better image quality, particularly in low light. But the RX100 was rather pricey and reviewers complained about its annoying user interface.

Not sure whether I actually wanted a new compact camera, I started thinking about getting a camera with an even bigger sensor, which meant a DSLR or more likely a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, since I would want to bring the camera when I travel and I like to travel light. I decided to not bother with the Micro Four Thirds format (17.3×13mm sensors) and go for the larger APC-C format (22.3×14.9mm) common in DSLRs (like the Canon EOS 300D that I owned for a while in 2004).

Again, the most interesting cameras that fit the above description seemed to come from Sony, e.g. the Sony NEX-6. And again, they also seemed rather pricey for a camera that I would be leaving at home most of the time (considering that I would probably also buy more than one lens).

Canon seemed to have started lagging behind the competition in many ways, but they eventually also released a mirrorless exchangeable lens camera: the EOS M in 2012. This camera did not seem to impress anyone, however. dpreview.com published a preview of the EOS M, but not a full review. One particular disadvantage of the EOS M was its slow autofocus. Canon improved the autofocus speed with a firmware upgrade in the summer 2013, but not quite enough to catch up with the competition. As a result, prices remained fairly low. (When the EOS M was first released, it was sold for ~7000kr in Sweden, but prices soon dropped and in late 2013, even after the autofocus speed improvements, the prices were around 3000-3500kr.)

Apart from the below average autofocus speed, the EOS M seemed like a nice camera (e.g. with a nice touch screen user interface) and when the price dropped to 2000kr in January 2014, I decided to buy it. The price included the 18-55mm kit lens. (My guess is that the reason for this low price was that Canon released the EOS M2 in Japan in December 2013, and some dealers probably expected Canon to release it in Europe as well. They didn't, and after a while the prices for the EOS M went back up.)

Even with the below average autofocus speed, I still expected it to be faster than my Powershot S90. I also expected better low-light performance, of course. Based on the numbers and diagrams on dxomark.com it looked like I could expect obtain the same image quality with ~4x higher ISO sensitivities on the EOS M. However, the maximum aperture on the 18-55mm kit lens is f/3.5, compared to f/2.0 on the S90. This means 3x less light, i.e. almost negating the ISO sensitivity advantage. For this reason, I also bought a second lens, Canon's 22mm f/2.0 lens, for another 2000kr.

I put the new camera and the lenses to the test on my trips to London and other places in 2014 and I was happy with the result.

One more lens

In September 2015 I wanted to take advantage of a rare opportunity to take photos of a lunar eclipse. The eclipse would coincide with a supermoon, making it look extra big and red. This won't happen again until 2033.

With the 18-55mm lens at 55mm, the moon would only be 120 pixels wide in the photos, so I decided to get a new lens for the occasion. After considering various options, I thought buying Canon's 55-200mm lens would be a sensible choice. The moon would be ~440 pixels wide, still not a lot but good enough for photos on Facebook or Instagram, and the lens would be useful for other things as well.

Here are some of the photos I got from the September 2015 lunar eclipse:

Ironically, just as I had decided to give up on compact cameras, it seemed that the best option for occasions like this might be one of these long zoom compact cameras, e.g. the Nikon Coolpix P900 with its 24-2000mm lens, unless you are prepared to pay an awful lot of money for a big and heavy SLR telephoto lens (or, for rare occasions, I guess you could rent one)…

Epilogue: smartphones...

Sometime in the summer 2014 I stopped carrying around my Powershot S90 in my pocket, instead relying on my smartphone, which was a Samsung Galaxy S3 at the time, for my everyday photos. This was a step back in image quality though, especially in low light situations and with distant subjects, where the lack of a zoom lens was a significant drawback.

In 2016, I got a new smartphone from work: the Samsung Galaxy S6. For the first time the photos from my smartphone looked as good as the photos from my (now retired) compact camera, but still with the limited capabilities in low light and with distant subjects.

For special occasions, I bring my EOS M, of course.

Links