There are many people out there who stake that “if you want to be a serious photographer, you need an SLR.” I.e. you need the ability to change lens to suit the occasion. You need to have total control of your shutter speed, depth of field and white balance. You need to be able to drive a master speedlite with two slaves, want the capability to use your gradient filter kits and must have the capacity to capture high ISO pictures with low noise. More recently, you probably even want to shoot 1080p HD videos (no mention of shooting videos well, just shooting 1080p video). These are all assumed low level deliverables to the aforementioned high level objective.
So what if we rescope the high level objective to simply, “I want to take nice photos.” What does this mean in terms of the gear you need? Is it possible?
Some may argue that if you have an SLR, you don’t need another camera, but what if it wasn’t practical to carry your SLR (and accessories) with you? This was the situation I was facing for my snow holiday to New Zealand.
Taking my SLR to the snow to me, was out of the question for a few reasons. These include:
- I wanted to pack light.
- I wanted to take my camera with me to the snow fields (reasonable weatherproof) and have it fit nicely in my pocket.
- As a first-time snowboarder, I anticipated a high number of falls – (imagine falling on your SLR!)
- I wanted to take video (yes, I know most SLRs have video function these days, but mine doesn’t.. )
So, weighing up all my requirements and researching the likely candidates, it was clear that I was going to purchase a ‘compact’ camera.
I narrowed down by options to three (ranked in price from most to least expensive):
- Canon G12
- Canon S95
- Panasonic Lumix TS3
I was most tempted to go out and buy a G12. In terms of manual modes, and all of the ‘serious photographer’ features listed in the opening paragraph, it pretty much covered it all. However, it is certainly the largest camera of the three and the most expensive.
For approx $100 less, I could purchase the S95, with the same 10MP sensor, all the manual modes I wanted, all in a smaller form factor! But alas, as you can probably tell from the title of this entry, I decided on the TS3. My reason in the end? I wasn’t too sure how my camera would be treated on the slopes, so I went for the waterproof and shockproof option. I know there are a lot of cameras in this category, but I sided with the Lumix based on my previous (and positive) history with Panasonic cameras.
A simple search on the net will bring up full tech specs of the TS3, so I’ve just listed a few of the ‘important’ ones below:
- Waterproof to 12m, shockproof from 2m drop, dustproof, freezeproof…
- Takes SD/SDXC, SDHC cards
- In-built GPS with location, altitude tracking with barometer and digital compass
- 28-128mm, F3.3-5.9, 5cm macro mode with OIS
- 12.1MP CCD, 1080p video (mono sound) @ 30fps
- So many automatic shooting modes…..
- Comes in a range of colours!!!
Look and Feel
In my opinion, the camera looks a lot tougher in the photos… There is a lot of plastic on the exterior and the anodised aluminium shell seems quite thin. That being said, I have full confidence in the camera being waterproof, shockproof, freezeproof and dustproof, just not crushproof!
In previous Panasonic ‘tough’ models, I’ve noticed that they have multiple doors for access to the battery, memory card, PC connector etc, however in the TS3, they have combined these to fit behind a single door – making the xproofing much easier.
As with most (if not all) cameras, it is designed to be easily and comfortably operated with your right hand. The buttons provide good tactile feedback and for the most part, I can turn it on/off, zoom, navigate the menus and most importantly, take photos and videos with ski gloves on.
When trying to choose between the many ‘tough’ compact cameras out there, the battle came down to the TS3 and the Olympus TG810. Whilst I wasn’t too pleased with photos from the Olympus compacts in the past, I was half sold on the TG810 because of its 920,000pixel, 3″ screen (the TS3 has a 230,000pixel 2.7″ screen). Having used a 5D MkII (which has a similarly screen resolution to the TG810) alongside my 40D (which has a similar screen resolution to the TS3), there was simply no comparison. However, I chose the TS3 on the merits of its out-of-box photo quality.
The driving reason behind the purchase of this camera was my trip to NZ- what better country is there to field-test a compact, ‘tough’ camera? The idea of taking photos in moisture rich environment was the main reason in choosing the TS3 and I can comfortable report that the camera did not skip a beat at the snow. The altimeter display was a bit of a novelty when ascending Coronet Peak and The Remarkables, however, as I purchased the camera from the States, the altitude was reported in feet, not meters and there was no way to change this in the menu (perhaps flashing the firmware?).
Unlike the TG810, there is no in-built, sliding lens cap/cover for the TS3. Instead, Panasonic provide a lens brush, which I assume should be carried with the camera to brush off any sand or dust that may collect on the lens glass. This was a slight inconvenience as ice and snow frequently made its way onto the lens glass. My corrective action for this was to carry a soft cloth with me at all times so I could quickly wipe the lens clean. Hopefully this does not lead to scratches in the long term.
I am really happy with the out-of-the-box quality of the photos produced by the TS3. Images shot in the ISO100-200 range are very sharp and clean with little noise. Noise however is noticable from ISO400 onwards, but still well within acceptable levels. The in-built JPEG processing turned out very nice photos; although I must admit, the weather (and light) in which I was shooting was, for the most part, superb.
I tried the in-built HDR function a few times, however I found the images produced were noticably lacking in contrast (see below). However, this is something easily fixed in any image processing software.
Whilst in NZ, I was able to test out the 1080p video feature of the TS3. Using the new “AVCHD” HD codec, developed by Sony and Panasonic. Whilst the quality can’t compare to say, HD video from a 5D MkII, it is still quite reasonable for a compact camera.
A welcome function in video mode is the ability to zoom and refocus during shooting – whilst I’m pretty sure there are a lot of cameras out there that allow you to do this, it is stifling when you can’t, or, when you can zoom, but the camera won’t refocus (something I recall, happens in most Canon compacts).
What I hoped for, when purchasing the Panasonic TS3 was not just a reasonable tough, compact camera, but a good compact camera, which happens to be waterproof, which I can comfortably take with me, when it is otherwise impractical for me to carry my SLR. I wanted a camera which, out of the box, would take good photos in non-trying conditions.
Having seen the quality of photos produced by compact cameras such as the S95, my expectations were pretty high. Happily however, I can report that the TS3, for the most part, fulfils this role.
For more photos taken with this camera, check out my upcoming post about my trip to New Zealand!