A better pocket camera

I went on holiday in the summer and knowing that the best camera is one you have with you I took my smallest M43 setup, a Panasonic GX80 and 12-32 pancake zoom. I then failed to take any pictures with it, and instead used by phone the whole time.

The problem is even that small M43 setup is still far too big. It would fit in some very capacious walking trouser pockets but it bounced around horribly, which was uncomfortable and probably not very good for the camera. I don’t like camera neck straps, and didn’t want to have to get it out of my rucksack for every snapshot so it just got left behind.

The phone, a Moto G4 Plus, took some passable pictures, but they’re not great. The whole outcome implied there was something wrong with my approach to this kind of photography.

Phones are the future

Phone photography is always going to be an option as I’ll have a phone with me anyway so it’s zero cost. One option is therefore to just to get a phone with a much better camera than the G4. This might not be too hard, as the G4 Plus is a mediocre phone. It wasn’t expensive when it was new, the camera has no optical stabiliser, there’s no RAW mode. A while ago I had to Dremmel-polish the lens because the oleophobic coating was so scratched the camera wasn’t usable. It does at least have a laser focusing system.

In terms of a replacement, it was always going to be Android as iTunes would inevitably make me so angry I’d throw the phone across the room and it would, being an iPhone, instantly shatter.

Most high-end phones make use of multiple lens systems for improved telephoto. But these lens can turn out to be quite marginal and tied to weak sensors. Also, any RAW output modes may be linked to just work with the main wide-angle camera anyway. The single-lens Pixel 3 was interesting, including its ability to output computed RAWs making use of the cameras ability to join together several shots, but still output a DNG for final processing. But, at the time of writing, the Pixel has some QC issues particularly with the screen.

So I decided not to skip the very high-end and get a solid mid-range phone instead, and ended up with a Huawei P20 (not Pro) as it seemed good value and DxO seem to like it.

Compact cameras aren’t quite dead

The money ‘saved’ on the phone meant I could buy a better pocket camera, a Canon G9X II. I’ve seen snotty opinions on this camera, saying the lens isn’t very exciting and there’s no 4K. You could argue the conceptually similar Panasonic LX10 and Sony RX100, at least the newer variants, are better. I’d probably agree.

But the difference is that the G9X is cheaper, and it actually fits in a pocket. People describe the LX10/RX100 as pocketable but they’re not really. Well, in a coat pocket, yes, but not in a jeans pocket as they’re too thick. I know what the G9X would be like as it’s very similar in size to my elderly Canon S110.

This combination gives me these options:

  • P20 as an always-available camera
  • G9X for days-out, holidays etc.
  • Olympus E-M1/Panasonic G80 for when it matters

Testing

That was my decision, but I wanted to see if I’d made a good one and find out:

  1. Is the P20 significantly better than the G4 Plus
  2. Is the G9X significantly better than the P20
  3. How do any of these compare against the Panasonic G80, or how much performance am I giving away by not wanting to carry a larger camera

Phone camera reviews include things like how good they are for taking selfies with your good looking friends in trendy bars, but that’s not really me.

What I do take photos of are my dogs. Rottweilers in particular are a tough subject because of their dark fur which can trip up cameras in terms of focusing, and even if focused the detail can easily be lost. This picture of Rosie was taken in good outdoor light and she’s just a blur.

Combine those problems with dim indoor light and you’ve got a tough test. I took advantage of Rosie being calm to take some comparison photos. Not the greatest composition but at least repeatable as anything involving dogs can be.

For the G80 I used the Panasonic 12-35/2.8. I zoomed the 12-35 to approx 14mm for the wide shots and stepped the G9X back ‘a bit’ from its maximum for the telephoto. All cameras were set to automatic white balance and default JPG processing. The P20 RAWs were edited in Lightroom, the others in DxO PhotoLab. I much prefer PhotoLab but it doesn’t support the P20 DNG format.

Wide

To it’s credit the G4 had the second best AWB, but unfortunately in every other way it’s rubbish.

Overall this is a clear step up from the G4. The JPG is disappointing, the white balance is the worse by far and the noise reduction has blasted any details.

With the RAW things are much better. Zoomed-out the quality is passable but go in close and there isn’t much fur detail. The colours are nice are rich, but this may just be Lightroom’s defaults.

The JPG is a bit under-exposed which makes it hard to access what the detail retention is like on the black fur, but looks OK on the orange fur. The white balance is easily the best of the four cameras.

The RAW output is a lot better than the P20. There’s now visible, clean black fur texture although the top of the muzzle has a lack of shading — it’s a bit two-tone.

Overall, the G80 JPG isn’t as good as the G9X. The exposure is slightly better but the white balance is much worse. Detail is similar on both, but I’d give the edge to the G9X.

The RAW is the best of all four, more fine detail than the fur which is catching the light in quite a pleasing way which gives nice shape zoomed-out.

Telephoto

Although the G9X has a smaller sensor than the G80, it does have a faster lens at 28mm which helps even the fight by keeping the ISO lower. However, that speed advantage is more than reversed at telephoto lengths and the smaller sensor is now having to work at a higher ISO than the G80, and it all starts to show.

The JPG is now all smoothed out noise with only the smallest hint of fur texture. The RAW is a bit better, although it has picked up some weird magenta highlights.

With the G80 the JPG is still rubbish and the RAW is still good. The fur is starting to look a little processed but still very usable even at this slightly higher ISO.

P20 thoughts

The P20 is definitely a step-up from the G4 Plus. In this test it’s the difference between “unusable” and “just about usable”. So not amazing, but better.

Most of the benefit is really from the DNG output and having all of that flexibility in processing. I will audition a few different RAW converters as I don’t really like Lightroom. This is the similar to the problems I had with Fuji cameras, which also lack DxO support due to their novelty colour matrix.

A slightly weird quirk is that as the photo filenames are generated based on the time, the JPG & RAW version of each photo can have different filenames which makes it harder to associate the JPG and RAW versions.

For file transfer to the PC I need to break my habit of using Google Drive as a transfer conduit rather than direct connections, as browsing/selecting the RAW files in the file manager is very slow. Transfer speed over USB is reasonable, but although the phone won’t present its internal storage as a real drive in Windows, it will present a fake CD-ROM in an attempt to get you to install some Huawei software. My main criticism of the phone in general is how pushy it is with the Huawei versions of things like cloud storage (no), voice (hell, no) and health apps (haha, no).

That aside, it’s a pretty good phone as far as I can tell, but I’m not really a phone guy. It seems to pick up a marginal signal in places where the G4 didn’t work at all, there’s a notification light which I missed on the G4, and the fingerprint scanner is really fast (providing you’re holding the phone the right way round, which isn’t obvious).

G9X II thoughts

I was actually really impressed with the G9X II. I think the “phones are good now” hype had got to me a bit and wasn’t sure the difference over a newer phone and a compact camera was going to make it worth it, but it clearly is. The G80 & 12-35 combo showed it who’s in charge, but so it should as it costs, and weighs, four times as much.

The fact that it can’t really do telephoto in bad light is not a huge problem, for indoors photography I’ll just treat it as a 28/2.0 prime. If I was redesigning the lens, I’d be tempted to go for something wider and shorter, maybe 24–50mm equivalent and use the ‘design space’ created by having a lesser zoom range to keep the aperture wider for longer.

The real test of the G9X will be how much I choose to pick it up and take it out. Realistically, I will take more photos with the P20 as it’s always there but when I do want to step up something slightly better I think I’ll be happy with the G9X. And because it’s reasonably priced I’m not going to feel too guilty if I don’t wear out the shutter on it.

The biggest complaint I have so far is that the connectivity to phones doesn’t work. I can get it to upload photos to Google Drive, although it’s quite slow, but in terms of direct to phone transfer no luck at all. I’ve never found these features any good on any camera I’ve owned. Panasonic’s is probably the best but I’ve only used that a couple of times. I was hoping the always-on Bluetooth connection on the G9X would make the difference, and although this works in terms of initiating control the actual transfer is done over WiFi and doesn’t work for me.

One more time, with lighting

Finally, for comparison purposes he’s a photo taken a few days previously with the G80. This used the Panasonic 30/2.8 macro lens. This isn’t as sharp as it could be as, like an idiot, I had the stabiliser turned off. However, the important point is that this used an off-camera flash bouncing off the ceiling. This keeps the shutter speed a bit higher at 1/125s, and the ISO at 1000 even with a relatively narrow aperture of F5.6.