April 23rd, 2011, 09:46 AM
Collecting Digital Compacts
I have been a collector of premium film compact cameras for the last few years. Most people thought I was crazy to buy and hoard all that junk. The world had turned its back on film, except for a few die-hards who kept using it for their rangefinders, classic DSLRs, medium format and large format cameras. Compact cameras were not widely respected, and consumers dismissed them, like the sub-miniature format consumer cameras, as an embarrassing episode best put behind them. Consequently, they were cheap. Some were actually very good, having sold in small numbers for hundreds of dollars in their heyday. For a collector the winning combination of virtues are: items that were well made, scarce and above all cheap; so I busied myself hoovering up cameras from local and Japanese second hand stores, eBay and market stalls. I even got some from friends.
Recently, the world seems to have cottoned on. The typical buyer is either a collector or a photographer that has gone back to film from digital and now wants something competent and controllable to shoot with. Today, just about any camera from a top brand or with a prime lens of f/2.8 or faster sells for good money, and some rare cameras can go for upwards of a thousand dollars. Thankfully, by the time prices rose, I had nearly filled my dry cabinet and now I have one of just about everything worth owning.
At this point, a sensible man would sit back and watch from the sidelines with bemusement, thanking his lucky stars that his collection was complete (or even better start selling). I am not a sensible man. I have got the bug and am looking for the next big thing that is well made, fairly scarce, and above all, cheap. Digital cameras fit the bill. Like compact film cameras, compact digital cameras are easy to store. At least they’re smaller than a DSLR. I know it sounds silly and you are probably ready to dismiss me as an eccentric crank. That I am, but my film compact camera collecting was sneered at too.
Many of us already have a collection of digital cameras. They’re cameras we’ve bought new and used in the past. They are now redundant and gathering mould in the attic. Other people give them away, sell them for a pittance, toss them out, or send them for recycling. In most cases, I think that’s for the best. Digital cameras have benefited from much technological improvement over the years, and models just a couple of years old have fallen behind the leading wave of innovation. There is just so much dross out there, and it is not worth collecting.
The early digital revolution wasn’t really a revolution in quality. In my opinion, compact cameras in 2011 are only just beginning to surpass the best film compact cameras of the 1990s. The digital revolution was the democratization of photography. It made cameras super convenient, cheap to use, and now even young children can consistently take great photographs under just about any lighting condition. Digital cameras, especially trashy entry level models, sold in astronomical numbers. They won’t be “collectible” until they are antiques. As Obi-Wan said, “These are not the droids you’re looking for... move along”.
The cameras that we are looking for are the same profile as the most collectible film compacts. Amongst those cameras was the Rollei SE, a camera that marked a definitive turning point in compact cameras and probably killed off the half frame market. The Contax T1 had an excellent T* coating. The T2 was a joy to control. The Hexar AF and Yashica T5 had unique features that made them superb candid street shooters. The Minolta TC-1 was smaller than a cigarette packet but produced lovely images that an SLR would struggle to match. The Leica Minilux wowed with its lens and build quality. Well kept special editions like the IXUS gold are fought over. The Fuji Natura F1.8 Black and Ricoh GR21 had lenses that were radical and characterful and were made in tiny numbers mostly for the Japanese domestic market. In short, we are looking for the most important and fêted cameras of the day.
I have made a short-list below of some of the cameras that match this description and that I have bought or am looking for.
- The Ricoh GRD and GX series (GRD, GRDII, GRD III, GX100, GX200) are the best, along with some of the Caplio GX100 precursors like the RDC-5300. The GRD and GX cameras are generally underrated but highly prized by those in the know. They got me back into compact digitals after I had just about abandoned digital shooting in my daily life. They have the very best user controls, customisable menu and build quality. They are noisier than the best new cameras, but they shoot black and white better than anything else. They are so pocketable and easy to draw. The default to snap focus feature means I always get the shot. I just about always have one of these in my right front trouser pocket, even when I’m carrying a DSLR or my X100. The secret is that the early models take excellent photos and cost very little. There is so much more to recommend them: intervalometer, 2xAAA backup power, etc.
- Fujifilm Early F series (F10, F11, F20, F30, F31fd) are all very collectable. These had the Super EXR sensor that gave superior high ISO performance and high dynamic range. The F31fd was the gold standard for low light for years and until the X100 came out this year; even Fujifilm struggled to beat it.
- Nikon Coolpix The 950 was a people's camera that popularised digital in the late 1990's. It won the TIPA Compact digital award in 1999. Later the P5000 scooped several awards, including the TIPA award of 2007. I owned a P6000 and it was an excellent daylight camera. In mint boxed condition, they are worth a pittance on the second hand market. Forget the other Coolpix models.
- Any of the Canon PowerShot G’s are worth buying. Early models G1 to G6 had wider aperture lenses, flip screens, took CF cards, had hot shoes and wrote RAW. All these are amazing features for cameras made between 2000 and 2004. I’d stick to these early models. Later models had bags of style, with black bodies and turned knobs, but slower lenses are more expensive and some had issues. The only models that were at all unpopular were the G7, which lacked RAW, and with some the G11, which saw a step down in resolution in exchange for better low light performance. The G10 is the model with the highest resolution to date and still sells for a pretty penny on the second hand market. If you want to show a collector how much you know about cameras, ask for the rare G4 or G8 models . There are a other Canons worthy of consideration. The IXUS 65 (SD630) was well regarded, but too common and besides, I still have my old Ixus 60 (SD600) anyway.
- Any Leica compact digital camera is an instant classic, but they hold their value and aren’t cheap. The Panasonic Lumix equivalent were half the price, did the almost exactly the same thing and are a better deal as a practical user camera. Many people have a soft spot for the DMC-LX3 because it was small and just about the best compact digital camera available until very recently. Buy that one if you see it very cheap.
No doubt I have left out a lot of good compact cameras from this list. I have deliberately omitted some of the very early ones from the 1990’s because they’re not really practical to use today. I have a Casio QV10a from way back when I first went digital. This was the first consumer camera with an LCD display. I also have a Fujifilm Finepix 2700 (dust on sensor). None of these cameras use modern CF or SD cards. For a similar reason, I’m personally not interested in Sony cameras, some of which were rather good. My wife had a Cybershot U20 (known by many derogatory names such as the mars bar, or RFB). It was revolutionary, being good enough to make prints with, and yet was small enough to be a choking hazard; but I developed a personal aversion to Memory Sticks. If you still have a 3 1/2-inch floppy disk drive somewhere, you might consider a Mavica. These were revolutionary early “still / video cameras”, but back then I couldn’t afford one and today I wouldn’t want to use one.
- Any Contax is collectable. The U4R and later SL-300RT are glorious, early digital compacts with leather trim and twist screens. The funky i4R is the Olympus O-Product of the digital world.
Even if your camera is relatively modern, it may not be operable. I think cameras make poor paperweights, so we need to make sure that they’ll be operational now and in the future. Besides connectivity, you should also consider battery availability. Some brands like Ricoh all use the same very generic battery, and can even use AAA alkaline batteries if necessary; this helps to safeguard their usability in the future. You should also look around the internet to see it there are any problems common to that model. For example, the chaps at Ricohforum.com will tell you to check the ‘Adj button’ on the GRD I and note that the GRD II is unpopular due to noise reduction that won’t turn off and limited shutter speed control range.
For some people, usability doesn’t matter at all, and they just want some of the most memorable and important cameras of the past. They are a rare breed and I am encouraged that there are people willing to sacrifice storage space to preserve that period of our history.
Whatever breed of camera collector you are, you are sure to find many bargains out there, not to mention friendly enthusiasts with a common interest that may become lifelong friends!
Dan has been a lifelong avid photographer and is a long-term small camera enthusiast. I follow Dan's daily insightful and entertaining Twitter coverage of all things photography and photo-gear related. You can find Dan on Twitter: @ZDP189. -Amin
Last edited by ZDP-189; April 23rd, 2011 at 01:17 PM.
April 23rd, 2011, 01:21 PM
Very enjoyable read! I don't have any strong desire to collect anything, but I have owned, used, and given away or sold most of the cameras mentioned here, so it was an interesting trip down memory lane .
Some personal favorites which I would consider "collectible" if I were so inclined:
- Canon Powershot S50: The S series was the forerunner for the "modern" G series. The G6 was the last of the old G series (articulated screen, fast lens), and the G9 picked up where the old S series left off. G7 was neither due to lack of RAW, and the current S series is much more IXUS/Elph than S.
- Leica Digilux 2 (D2): I know you said that all Leica digitals were collectible, but to me this is the most classic of small sensor digital Leicas. The lens on this camera was simply superb. I would love to have a Micro 4/3 equivalent to this camera/lens. The known sensor failure issue makes it less collectible, but last I checked Leica was still doing replacements for free.
- Olympus C-5050: Last in the old, proud line of Olympus compacts with very fast lenses
- Sigma DP1: Looks and feels like a prototype. Fitting for the first compact digital camera to have a large (> 1") sensor. Incredible lens and that special Foveon tonality.
- Sony DSC-V3: Petteri said better than I can: A Canonian Goes Sony: The DSC-V3
- All of the last generation of the golden age of 2/3" sensor bridge cameras, amongst them: Nikon Coolpix 8700, Canon PowerShot Pro1, Minolta DiMAGE A2, Olympus C-8080 WZ, and Sony DSC-F828.
One small correction to this point in the article:
Arguably there have been several cameras to improve on the F31 in this regard, particularly when keeping in mind that the F31 lens was f/2.8 on the wide end, slow at tele, and that the camera had no mechanical image stabilization. Pana LX 3/5, Canon S90/95, and Samsung TL500/EX1 spring to mind. However even if those cameras are not included, surely the Leica X1 soundly thrashed the F31 in this department .
The F31fd was the gold standard for low light for years and until the X100 came out this year; even Fujifilm struggled to beat it
April 23rd, 2011, 05:57 PM
REally interesting article - thank you :) Having read it now, I am kicking myself for not having kept my Fuji F20 which I bought new long after it had gone out of production, it had been buried in the glass case at a local not-very-popular department store and I bought it on sale when they were closing down. Sold it for next to nothing (way less than I paid, which wasn't much) to a workmate who was looking for something for her son to take on a road trip (I also sold her my S8000fd at the same time, for herself). The F20 was brilliant in low light indoors, and did very decent movies. Its 1/1.6 sensor helped a lot. I could never get anything decent out of it for my favourite genre, the sunrise/set.
I collect cameras not by design but because I rarely get round to actually doing much with them. Sadly, I don't have anything that either of you would consider collectable, at all. The only "old" digital camera I have is an Olympus C760-uz which has a 1/2.5 sensor, and 3.2Mp. For all that, it was (I think) the best for its time, and I still use it from time to time. Full manual control was really useful (and unexpected, for me), and even though the lens could never have been called fast, it was remarkable, even in low light for sunrises and sunsets (my fave, as mentioned above) and at night. I will likely never pass this one on.
I do have some old film cameras as well :)
April 23rd, 2011, 11:01 PM
Thanks! I know a lot less about compact digitals than compact film cameras. Writing this is a bit like writing "Collecting Leica M-Mount Rangefinders" on Leica forum. You lot are the experts.
Originally Posted by Amin Sabet
In my own anachronistic way, I am usually into the 'wrong' format in any given era, such as film cameras when others are into digital, APS when people like 135 film, compacts when DSLRS are all the rage, so my knowledge of bridge cameras is non-existant and I'll have missed out on 90% of the premium digital compacts from 2004 to 2008.
My secret is knowing a lot of experts like yourselves. Some of the suggestions on this list came from friends on the Ricoh forum. Ironically none of the suggestions were the Ricoh cameras (I own them all) and their inclusion was a given.
In a recent email to me, you also mentioned the interesting article on the old blogspot site: Serious Compacts Hall of Fame Those should be included and I am sure we will have endless fun suggesting and debating the inclusion of additional cameras.
On my own list, I have deliberately not included current models (besides the GRDIII ooops!) as I want to buy cheap. The cameras I listed all sell for anything between $30 and $150, meaning I can build up an impressive collection for under a thousand dollars. Current models, especially undamaged boxed cameras, sell for a discount to MSRP+tax, whereas discontinued instantly get slashed again. Japanese cameras that are two generations or more old, or with under 10MP is usually valued in the tens of dollars. Given that many models are given minor annual updates, it's a good value proposition to wait.
Originally Posted by Amin Sabet
I think we can all relate to your story. People like us don't go shopping for the "lousy mass market camera du jour", we always do our research and buy the best that our budget will allow. So when we give, sell, or get mugged, we lose an item of enduring quality and value. To this day, everytime cameras are mentioned, my dad tells of the Contax SLR system he gave to my cousin in the 80's only to have some punk smash my cousin's car window to filch it.
Originally Posted by kyteflyer
What's gone is gone. Look at it this way, you're starting afresh, with a nearly blank slate. The timing of this article is right - you still have time to re(buy) all these digital cameras at a cheap price. You can't do that any more with film compacts.
At last count, I had 48 film compacts, including just about everything. All I'm missing are the Ricoh GR1, GR10, R1S, R10, Pentax Espio Mini, UC-1 and some of Matsushita's clones of the Leica Mini. Thankfully all these are cheap, if hard to find.
I guess that's part of the challenge. You would be surprised at how difficult it can be to find individual digital cameras over 3 years old. Leica's, the Powershot G and S and Lumix's tend to get saved from the dumpster, but they hold their value and the rest go to the municipal landfill, where they will probably only be unearthed by alien archaeologists millennia from now like the robot boy David in the movie AI.
Last night, like many nights, I scoured the market stalls and second hand camera stores of Hong Kong. I probably surveyed the entire inventory of some 30 specialist stores and this is all the notes that I came up with:
- Lumix DMC-F1 (price unknown)
- Lumix LX1 $164 (unnegotiated, but overpriced)
- Lumix LX2 $190 (unnegotiated, but overpriced)
- Nikon P5000 $164 (unnegotiated, but overpriced)
- Fujifilm F401 $32 (worthy?)
This is going to be fun!
Last edited by ZDP-189; April 23rd, 2011 at 11:04 PM.
April 24th, 2011, 08:01 AM
Thanks, Dan. Although there's a distinction between "collectible", "classic", and personal favorites, I'd love to broaden the discussion to what people hold as personal favorite older cameras.
Are there older digital compacts which you still use or would use if you still had them? What are some of your personal favorites from the past?
April 24th, 2011, 08:36 AM
It seems like I've been collecting digital cameras for a while now...
My first "serious compact" was a Casio QV5700 (circa 2003), which was built around the f2-2.5 lens from the Canon G3 and used a 5MP sensor. I pulled it out of the cupboard last year and it still worked but by god it...was...slow. I sold it without a second thought - I think I got about $50 for it. The equivalent G series Canons seem to sell for a similar price here.
After the Casio I started shooting with a Canon 350D and didn't own another compact until 2009. I do like Ricohs though so I would love to nab a GX100 or GX200. Ricohs aren't perfect by any means but the company seems to actually employ photographers to help develop their cameras. Even a relatively pedestrian model like my CX1 is easy to customise and has a great set of controls.
I don't know if anyone else will ever consider it a classic but my Canon IXUS 960IS (circa 2007) isn't going anywhere soon. It is basically a miniaturised alien lovechild of the 12MP Canon G9 without the manual controls. The later G10 would also be on my list of future classics, too.
Last edited by Luckypenguin; April 24th, 2011 at 08:57 AM.
Nic (Canonite, Olympian, Panasonian, Samsunite) ~flickr~
April 25th, 2011, 11:22 AM
Not knowing much about these compacts, which of these come with fixed focal length lens? One my favorite film compacts was the Olympus Stylus Epic. Nothing fancy about that camera, but the 35mm lens on it was tack sharp. It would be nice to try to find something similar to it that was digital.
April 25th, 2011, 11:34 AM
Funny. Some months ago I rediscovered this camera stashed away in a box, unused for years. I stuck a roll of Tri-X in and took a few pictures here and there. I'm dropping off the roll today. Curious to see how they turn out.
Originally Posted by Travisennis
April 25th, 2011, 11:48 AM
I still have mine, but I haven't used it in years. I would interested to see what you think of the results you get from it. I really enjoyed that camera. I had the champagne colored one, so it was rather ugly, and I had no control over any of the camera's settings, which is something I probably wouldn't be happy with now, but it produced very pleasing images.
Originally Posted by Andrewteee
April 25th, 2011, 01:51 PM
Lovely writeup, Dan, thoroughly enjoyed going through it, thank you very much! I've long been a Canon PowerShot A series fan and I think all Canon A6XX (A610, A620, A630, A640 and A650IS) and A7XX (A700, A710IS and A720IS) series PowerShots are cameras I'd love to have in my collection. I shot with A620 and A640 a lot and sold them for very reasonable amounts when I upgraded to G series, realising their value or worth only much later! I have the A720IS though and enjoy shooting with it immensely. They were all loaded with serious features and had pretty decent IQ and build quality; they don't make compact cameras like them anymore!
Two other compact cameras that I'd love to collect are Nikon Coolpix 5400 and Canon Pro 1.
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