Compact "System" Camera Sidewalk Smackdown

We compare three aspiring street photography cameras by taking 'em to the street.

What do the Canon G11, Panasonic Lumix GF-1, and Ricoh GR Digital III have in common? They all are being looked at seriously by serious photographers as ultracompact tools they can put in their pockets and use unobtrusively on the street. Are they all up to the task?

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It was a cold, windy December afternoon. The sun was peeking in and out of clouds. Nevertheless, people were coming to see the Macy’s holiday window displays and to get a cup of free coffee from Dunkin Donuts, which was set up in Herald Square across the street. There I was with a Canon G11, a Panasonic Lumix GF-1, and a Ricoh GR Digital III. My goal was to see which one had the best combination of quick reaction and image quality to be considered street smart, and to do it in as little time as possible because my fingers were turning numb.

These three cameras may not compare directly, but do represent different approaches. The G11 is the closest to a traditional digital compact, with its built-in zoom that starts at 28mm (35mm equivalent) and manual control overrides as well as a little viewfinder. The Ricoh GR Digital is a specialized camera, built on a metal chassis with manual controls as well as auto everything, but its built-in lens is a prime, a 28mm (equivalent) with a fast f/1.9 maximum aperture. Finally there's the Panasonic Lumix GF-1, the second ultracompact interchangeable lens camera produced in the Micro Four Thirds System. Mine was equipped with a 14-45mm (28-90mm) zoom.

The only thing they really have in common is that they're small, promise big-camera results—and have a G in their names.

After spending some time with each model, I chose settings that I felt were going to let each respective camera shoot with the least shutter lag time, an important consideration when shooting on the street. Let's see how they did.
Canon G11
Many street photographers and photojournalists have been asking me if this camera is worth owning after reading my review. Its noise reduction is quite good when applied to JPEG images and that's caught the attention of many. However, it does suffer from lag time. To limit this, I chose both manual exposure and focus control so it wouldn't require any time to calculate exposure or find focus.

Despite my best efforts, the G11 was the slowest of the bunch and I missed a lot of shots in fast-moving crowds. By pressing the shutter release button halfway I was able to cut this time, but it shouldn't be necessary if all calculations have been set in advance. Later, while walking downtown, I did take a few “hip shots” while looking at the scene on the flip-out LCD finder, and that was actually a lot of fun.

Image quality was acceptable at ISO 800 with moderate digital noise.

The shots:






Ricoh GR Digital
The GR Digital III seemed pretty zippy in my less formal studio tests, but its “snap” mode lets you essentially pre-focus to a pre-determined point. Conveniently, it offers a depth-of-field readout which told me that with Snap focus distance set to 2.5 meters, at f/5.6, basically anything from about four feet to almost infinity would be in focus. Again, I set exposure manually. Theoretically, this should eliinate any lag time.

Indeed, the Ricoh was the fastest of the bunch as far as lag time goes; the shutter release was just about instantaneous. The optical viewfinder was a pleasure to use and made it easy for me to quickly compose. However, if I tried shooting several shots in rapid succession, it froze up while writing the previous files to the buffer. I missed a handful of shots this way.

The Ricoh's image quality was the worst of the three cameras, with prominent noise by ISO 400. When looking at the slide show, you may notice the noise, especially over dark clothing.

The shots:






Panasonic Lumix GF-1
Other cameras in the Panasonic G line have proven themselves to be fast-focusing speed demons, so I wasn't particularly worried about lag time after a few quick “let's-see” shots. I decided to keep it humming in auto everything. Lacking the electronic viewfinder, I decided to keep the lens at 14mm and swiped the 28mm optical viewfinder from the Ricoh for framing purposes.
However, compared to the Ricoh there was an ever-so-slight pause, even when I decided to take the camera off auto and set exposure and focus manually. Manual focus is a bit rough because in order to focus, the camera enlarges the center area of the image and you can't see the whole shot. There is no focus distance indicator or depth of field chart, which would be welcome information in the viewfinder or EVF. I had to discard many images because the focus was off-target. The GF-1's buffer was never so full as to prevent me from taking new shots even in rapid succession.

Image quality at ISO 800 was fairly good, with a bit of digital noise apparent, but not objectionable. The GF-1, not surprisingly, had the best overall image quality of the bunch.


The shots:








Of course, there are other cameras in this growing category of system cameras that are worth testing, and I hope to get my hands on them in the near future. I love the feel and responsiveness of the Ricoh GR Digital III, but not its image quality or its limited buffer, which causes image writing jam-ups. The Canon is familiar and easy to use, but its squinty finder doesn't show me the whole image, and its hesitant shutter limits its usefulness on the street. The Panasonic GF-1 is pretty quick and responsive, and image quality (thanks to its larger sensor) is quite good. But its focusing system gets in the way. I'd like to see a distance scale, either on a future lens or in the EVF finder, and a depth of field indicator.

So while each camera has clear advantages, each model also falls short in at least one key area, so there's no clear-cut winner here that I would wholeheartedly recommend for street photography. I look forward to testing the next batch and you can be sure that I'll report the results!

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