Readers' Submissions

Photographing Thailand, Part Two – The Low Light Capable Pocket Camera

  • Written by BKKSteve
  • September 2nd, 2006
  • 23 min read


By BKKSW

Sometime I wonder, no strike that. I don’t wonder at all, it’s a fact. Most people have no idea how much time goes into a decent product review of any type. The more technical the item the more knowledge and subsequent research needed. Testing, actual hands on experience, comparisons to like products, ensuring you use the item for its intended purpose so the review is fair. The list is very long and being somewhat of a perfectionist when it comes to all things technical I’ve been up in the air on how to proceed with my plans for this photography series. I wish I had the knowledge, skill, and testing equipment to do the formal reviews you see on so many websites if only because knowledge is power, the more knowledge the more power. However, there are tons of reviews written on products and to be honest while most are well done and informative they can be awfully dry. Do I want to bore the people reading my writings? Of course not. So after some thought I’ve decided to base these submissions on the actual selection and use of the item as intended in the real world bringing in a bit of my own wit and personality in the process while linking to some of the better review sites for the technical reviews for those of you interested in reading about pixel density and the latest D/A converters. What I am very good at is reading all the dry reviews for you, extracting the germane factoids, and making educated decisions based on our needs. In other words I’m going to do your homework. All you have to do is take my word for it, or enough of your research to see I’m pretty much spot on.

In my last submission I wrote about the need for a small and light pocket camera that could take high quality photographs in the best of circumstances and decent snapshots under lighting conditions other pocket cameras just can’t. The focus here is on low light performance as the first priority, size and weight (the lower the better) as the second priority, creative control as a third priority, and compatibility both with flash memory and batteries where possible as the last priority. Make no mistake, we’re not talking professional cameras or professional results here. We’re talking having a fun night out on the town and being able to easily and with no effort take great snap shot quality images that might end up being printed to the 5×7 inch size but will probably be 3×5’s and 4×6’s. The truth is, the larger you make a print the more defects and faults are going to show, so you need to be honest with yourself about your needs. Do you often make 8×10” prints and frame them for the wall? Or do you mostly get a small stack of 3×5’s and share with friends or email small jpegs to share back and forth with friends?

When it comes to photography light is everything. How much of it, the temperature of the light (yes, light is measured in degrees), the direction, the hardness / softness of light, everything about light is what makes the image. With film you’re capturing light on a negative to expose it, with digital cameras you’re capturing light on a sensor. The better the quality of the light, in the right amounts, the better the image. The more creative you are in using the direction / quality / softness / hardness of light the more interesting your photographs will be. Let me tell you about a bet I made with a friend who was convinced he needed a $2000 DSLR and a $1500 lens to photograph products for his Ebay business. I had an oldOlympus 3.1mp point and shoot (1998 era) laying around and a $8000 DSLR with a $2000 lens. Taking one of his products (handbags) I challenged him that I could produce a web sized photo (any web sized photo is big enough for a 3×5/4×6 print) with each camera and show him the two images side by side on the screen and he wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. He laughed at me. After all, all the photography forums and friends with expensive systems told him he needed a minimum of this $2000 body and $1500 lens combination. 20 minutes later I had the two images side by side and he had watched me do it. I asked him “which one came from what camera?” He said he couldn’t tell and looked shocked. The images were actually bigger than he needed for Ebay, both were extremely detailed, both sharp and well lit, and both looked professionally done. The difference was one was taken with $10,000 USD worth of equipment and one with a camera with used value of about $50 USD. The difference was in the lighting. $200 spent on a cheap shooting tent (sold on Ebay of all places..:) that came with some halogen lights and he was now the proud owner of my old Olympus 3.1 megapixel point and shoot and happy as a lark turning out high quality product photographs suitable for Ebay. Now don’t get me wrong, product photography is an art. I’m friends with a true master and he uses very expensive gear and a huge studio, thousand of dollars in lighting equipment, etc. and his work can be seen in brochures and magazines on every news stand. But for simple lighting of small products not much is needed.

What I was trying to get across in the above paragraph is that there is a huge (and expensive) difference of trying to buy a camera that can “do it all” and buying a camera that will do exactly what you need it to do. The less light, the faster the action, the more complex the scene, the more expensive the gear needed. I could have just as easily turned out 8×10 portraits with that3.1mp Olympus that would be comparable to Sears or Wal-mart and most studios in that range, using the right lighting. For this purpose we’re going to want a camera that meets the following criteria:

1. In great light can turn out an 8×10 inch or even 11×14 inch prints suitable for framing of a landscape, portrait, etc.

2. In poor light turn out 4×6 inch prints or email images WITHOUT using flash or other light sources. The sort of life you’d have at a party, inside a restaurant, bar, club, etc.

3. Small enough to put in your pocket and take anywhere.

4. To be used without notice. Without the flash going off people usually think you’re just reviewing shots on the LCD’s as most people have seen digital cameras by now.

5. It should be very tough, sturdy, fingerprint resistant, and able to be in the same pocket with your keys, pen knife, etc, without worrying about damage.

With this criteria (and the criteria listed in my previous submission) in mind I gathered information on all the existing cameras in this class and also on the “soon to be released” models and narrowed my list down to 20+ models. I flew to Singapore with an assortment of different flash memory cards that fit these types of cameras and spent a day handling them, shooting some images on my own memory cards, and going back to the hotel at night to review them on my computer. I’ll be honest, based on what I had read there was one camera where if it worked as advertised was going to be a stand out from the rest in a big way. It did work as advertised and I purchased it and used it while inSingapore. The camera is the Fuji Finepix F30. It is the only point and shoot with ISO ratings of up to 3200 and let me write a paragraph and tell you exactly what that means.

Remember buying film at 100, 200, 400? The bigger the number the less light it took to expose the film. 100 ASA film was great for bright light and had nice tight grain that you could hardly see. 400 ASA film worked great later in the day or on a cloudy day and had a looser grain pattern that would show up in larger prints. Special black and white films could be shot and pushed to 1600-3200 ISO but would be very grainy and were only used when there was no choice for sporting events, police work, etc. Most point and shoot pocket cameras are limited to 400 ISO (ISO / ASA can be used interchangeably for the sake of this comparison, ISO is used to refer to digitals, ASA to film) and at 400 have terrible grain that shows up on large prints. Lately there have been some models advertising 800 and even 1600 on a few, but the results were hardly worth it. The Fuji F30 through advanced sensor design and internal processing produces very useable results suitable for email size images and prints to 4×6 in the 1600-3200 ISO range. NO OTHER POCKET CAMERA DOES THIS and the Fuji F30 does it better than even many DSLRs. And it does it for about $300 USD. And it fits in your pocket and can run a few months on one battery charge.

This particular camera is so significant that most other professionals I know are buying them for personal use. I’m friends with perhaps the best architectural photographer in the world and he’s here photographing the new international airport. In fact, it’s been a long ongoing project over the last year. A few nights ago sitting in a dark outdoor restaurant eating dinner I pulled out the F30 from my pocket and said “you’ve gotta see this!” He scoffed, this is a guy with 100-200k USD of equipment just that he carries with him for his job here. “What’s so special about any one of a 1000 pocket cameras” he asked. So I turned it on, put it in full auto, and quickly snapped a picture. I showed him the LCD and he zooms in and studies it and says “I’m going to buy one right away.” It does things no other point and shoot can do and we’ve all dreamed about having such a camera that can be used without a flash. It does include a flash and it works out to 21 feet and works well. But it’s a lot more fun and the pictures much more natural (not to mention discrete) when a flash isn’t going off in peoples eyes in dark places. Last night I was able to take a picture of the dancing girls at Patpong while on stage with the security guard who is supposed to prevent such things right in the frame. I’ll post that picture below. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that professionals really appreciate what this camera can do. Amateurs might be a bit disappointed because they expect too much, but if they tried the same shot with any other compact camera out there they would immediately see the difference. The difference between a usable image for a 4×6 print or something not recognizable.

So now that I set the background let me describe the camera.

Click on the camera picture to be taken to the Fuji website for complete camera views and specifications.

It’s a 6.3megapixel camera in an all metal very durable body. Don’t be fooled by how many megapixels a camera has. The number of megapixels is a marketing tool and really doesn’t mean as much as you think it does. Read this site if you want to know more about megapixels and how they really affect a image. 6.3mp is more than sufficient for this type of camera and frankly anything more on this particular type of camera and you’ll start to sacrifice in other areas. Pixels are photosites. There are only so many photosites on a given sized sensor so obviously the more of them there are the smaller the photosite and the less capable it is to gather light and other important information (which is light in it’s various forms though you may call it different things) As a general but not absolute rule, the larger the photosite the better it can gather light, the less grain (in digital we call it noise), and the less the camera can do. And for what? So the marketing folks can claim you can print that rare 11×14” print when 99% of the time you’re printing 4×6’s or just emailing the images to your friends? Enough about pixels. Believe me when I say that in this class of camera anything from 3-6 megapixels is plenty for the cameras purpose. Some readers are going to take this hard and want to argue, etc.. but that’s just the way it is.

The camera is small, approximately 3.6(w) x 2.2(h) x 1.1(d) inches and 5.5 ounces, about 7 ounces with the battery and memory card. It easily fits in your pocket. There is no viewfinder but instead a very bright (even in strong sunlight) and large 2.5” LCD that you use as a viewfinder. The lens is a 36-108mm (35mm equivalent) 3x zoom. Shot to shot time is very quick for this class of camera and you can quickly snap up to 2.2 frames per second for a max of three shots, actually more like 5-6 as the card is very fast to save the images. In actual use I’ve never waited for the buffer to empty to the card, this is a very responsive and quick camera in all ways. From the time you turn it on till the time you can take a picture is less than two seconds. It closes up faster to go back in your pocket with the lens automatically covered and protected. Personally I think it’s rather boxy and ugly, but I’m a function over form kinda guy when it comes to cameras so there you go.

It has a battery that is rated at 580 images (half with flash) that on my first charge I got over 800 images from and then 40 minutes of video recordings playing with that function before the battery ran out. I purchased a 1 gig XD card that holds 380 of the highest quality images, or twice that many with some barely noticeable compression. The battery is a lithium ion and I would have preferred AAs but virtually all small cameras in this class have lithium ion batteries. Most cameras in this class have batteries rated at 200-280 images, the F30 battery takes at least twice as many images per charge. And being lithium ion the battery can sit on the shelf for a month and still be mostly charged. I don’t need any other memory cards as 380 pictures is quite a lot and I’ll never use this class of camera for more pictures than that in a day anyway. They’re recently announced some 2gig XD cards which should be out soon. I find the 1gig XD card and the battery a good match. Again, I would have preferred SD memory cards because they’re more available, fit in more card readers, and I already have some.. but since the battery never comes out to be charged (you just plug the charging cable into the charging port on the side) and it comes with a USB cable to download the images I just do it that way. This is contrary to the way I use my professional cameras but this isn’t a professional camera. I leave the USB cable attached to my desktop or in my zip lock bag of such cable I carry when I travel, and just hook the camera up as I would a card reader, plug in the power adapter to top off the battery, and there you go. Simple and easy.

The included software is basic but sufficient for correcting red eye and simple editing, downsizing images for emailing, and most things you’ll want to do with this class of camera. It installs easily, takes up very little room, and doesn’t interfere with your other programs. More advanced photographers with other programs already installed that can process jpeg files and know how to use Windows Explorer file utility won’t even have to bother with the included software. But it’s there if you need it.

The automatic mode. I’m surprised at how good these are getting. The exposure seems to be pretty much spot on in most circumstances with the exception of a bit of overexposure in bright sunlight and I’d expect they’ll release a firmware fix for that before too long. The flash is automatically on in the auto mode but a toggle of the four way toggle switch will turn it off and from a dark room to bright sunlight the auto exposure will adjust the camera to include the aperture / shutter speed / ISO to the appropriate settings. If there’s a setting it struggles with, which is universal to even professional $8,000 DSLRs it would be the white balance setting. Light as I mentioned before as a certain temperature depending on if the sun is bright, the room is lit by incandescent bulbs, the flash, shade, or any other type of light. In daylight or flash the sensors normally work very well as does the F30. Even out on the street at night it does fairly well. But the temperature the sensor reads will be off a bit from picture to picture in difficult light and this will change the color tint of the photograph. This isn’t that hard to correct in Photoshop or most photo editing programs, but it is something you might want to deal with. The camera allows you to take a custom white balance reading by choosing the menu selection, filling the viewfinder with someone white or 18% grey (a white napkin gets you close enough but you can carry around a small grey card if you want) and snapping a test shot. From then on until you change it back the camera will adjust the light temp to that reading and you’ll get proper skin tones, etc. Personally for this kind of camera I’m in it for the fun and the different colors that are off add “mood”, but if it’s the only camera with me and I want to take a serious portrait then custom setting the White Balance is easy and quick to do. The menu modes are accessed from the center button in the toggle switch and the menu that appears will be appropriate (different) to the mode you’re in when you access the menus.

For advanced amateurs or those who like tweaking the best out of things or just being creative the camera allows both aperture and shutter priority. I’m not going to get into how to use these controls for this submission but it should be enough to know that these features are available if you need them or grow into them. These features aren’t that common on this class of camera.

Flash use. The flashes in these compact cameras aren’t very powerful but will be adequate on this model from about 5-15 feet. Any closer and you’ll over expose and any further and you’ll under expose due to lack of flash power. From 5-15 feet (1.5-3 meters) the exposure is very good.

The bottom line here is that if you want a camera to slip in your pocket for a night out on the town with friends, a party, an occasional portrait, or even a landscape, and you want to spend about $300 USD then there’s nothing else in the Fuji Finepix F-30’s class. In low light it does as well as some expensive DSLRs and that my friends is a modern miracle and the most important reason seasoned pros are snatching these up for personal use. With a $2 USD table top plastic tripod I can set this on a handrail, table top, window seal, and capture beautifully sharp and detailed photographs. With the aperture and shutter priority modes I can adjust the exposure for wonderful sunsets, perfect portraits, or most things a much more expensive DSLR can do. Of course this part takes some tweaking of the settings and time, but the camera is capable of it. In auto mode it’s fun to just snap away in any light or circumstance, even without a flash, and get fun and mostly accurate snapshots to share with friends.

I’d like to refer you to some very technical reviews of the Fuji F30 and you can read the opinions of much more knowledgeable camera testers than I am. Ironically, these reviews hit the websites about a week after I already made my choice from the 20+ models I’d narrowed the field down to. Here are the sites.

Digital Photography Review Fuji Finepix F-30 Review

Steve’s Digicams Fuji Finepix F-30 Review

Megapixel Net Fuji Finepix F-30 Review

Perhaps the final bottom line of these three reviews that stands out the most is this final paragraph:

To sum up, the F30 is far and away the best low light compact camera on the market today, bar none. It's the perfect 'social' camera for the DSLR owner who doesn't want to lug all his or her gear to parties, and it is – in expert hands – capable of superb results in any light. I would even go as far as to suggest – funds permitting – getting one for low light work even if you already own a camera you use for daylight shooting… So then, Highly Recommended unless you rarely shoot indoors or capable of superb results in any light. I would even go as far as to suggest – funds permitting – getting one for low light work even if you already own a camera you use for daylight shooting… So then, Highly Recommended unless you rarely shoot indoors or at night.”

I’m going to show some examples. These are not carefully set up shots. These are very quickly taken “snapshots” in the auto mode without the flash enabled taken in a variety of light while walking down the streets of wherever. I’ll caption the images so you’ll know the settings and circumstances. Click on the image to be taken to another website with the full size image for inspection. No sharpening or post processing of any kind were applied, these are straight out of the camera. All handheld.

I also want to make something very clear. These types of “auto exposure” quick snaps are pretty much what anyone not “into” photography is going to be taking, especially when out at night and enjoying yourself and not wanting to take the time to set up the shot, etc. IF I had used the other modes, tweaked the settings, and used a tripod, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference from this camera and a much more expensive DSLR costing thousands of dollars in most instances unless you were highly trained and knew what to look for. This camera is plenty capable for the advanced amateur or even professional for a variety of uses. Perhaps later in this series I’ll do some studio and landscape comparisons with an $8,000 dollar Canon 1DS Mark II DSLR and some other expensive professional equipment to illustrate just how much it’s really the photographer more than it is the equipment. Professional equipment doesn’t necessarily take better pictures, it just gives you more choices in the pictures you take. This premise by itself might be a very enlightening submission for many.

More. When clicking on the small pictures and viewing the larger pics, don’t be a pixel peeper. If you blow anything up to 100-400% it’s going to show flaws. Instead view the image on your monitor at approximately the size you’ll be making the prints and that will be a much better representation of what the prints will look like. If you’re planning on using a $300 point and shoot to make 24×30” prints then by all means look at them at 200% and learn why pros use different equipment. However, for 5x7s and below and the occasional 8×10 or 11×14 this camera will not disappoint you when the final print rolls off your printer of from your processor.

One more thing. I’ve thrown out some topics for discussion. A. The difference between pro and amateur gear. B. Pixel peeping. C. Making prints D. Night shooting. E. Getting the absolute most out of your $300 Point and Shoot. F. How to really evaluate images for their intended purpose. Give me some feedback on what your main interests are and I’ll get to them by popular request. Any topic, any use.

You can click on any of the pictures below to open a larger sized picture in a new window.

Typical mid-day sunny day shot taken in Singapore. ISO 200, F5.6 1/800th Full Auto Mode

Inside the hotel hallway in Singapore’s Orchard Hotel. ISO 1600 F2.8 1/90th Full Auto Mode

Inside the hotel lobby in Singapore’s Orchard Hotel. ISO 1600 F2.8 1/45th Full Auto Mode Taken from a dark street at night of the side of a large bus in Singapore. ISO 1600 F3.4 1/35th Full Auto Mode
Taken from a dark street in Singapore. ISO 1600 F2.8 1/30th Full Auto Mode Taken inside Changi Airport Singapore. ISO 3200 F4.3 1/120th Full Auto Mode
Taken from a dark street in Singapore. ISO 1600 F4 1/30th Full Auto Mode The Royal Thai Embassy in Singapore. ISO 800 F2.8 1/6oth Full Auto Mode
This is perhaps my favorite shot for the excellent way it handled this difficult exposure. ISO 800 F2.8 1/75th Full Auto Mode Singapore night safari during darkness. ISO 1600 F4.9 1/90th Full Auto Exposure
Singapore Night Safari. ISO 1600 F2.9 1/25th Full Auto Exposure Taken inside Bumrungrad Hospital. ISO 1600 F4.8 1/80th Full Auto Exposure
Taken inside Mall Bangkapi. ISO 1600 F2.8 1/80th Full Auto Exposure Taken on a bright sunny day in Bangkok. ISO 100 F5 1/710th Full Auto Exposure
Taken after dark at Patpong Outdoor Market. ISO 200 F2.8 1/80th Full Auto Exposure Taken in “stealth mode” (this means TURNING OFF the AF illuminator that sends out a fairly bright green light to aid in focusing) at a Kings Group bar at Patpong. ISO 1600 F2.8 1/25th. Full Auto Exposure. Motion blur did this one in, but a still object would have been clear.
Taken after dark at Patpong Outdoor Market. ISO 400 F2.8 1/90th Full Auto Exposure Soi Cowboy after dark! ISO 800 F2.8 1/65th Full Auto Exposure
Recognize this place? ISO 200 F3.4 1/80th Full Auto Exposure Very difficult exposure from the other side of the Cowboy. ISO 1600 F2.8 1/95th Full Auto Exposure

Stickman's thoughts:

A really excellent submission and the examples make it even better.