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Tiny Digitals: When Smaller is Better

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

A recent attempt to wade through all the different pocket digital snapshooters out there – the number of which seems to increase exponentially each week – got me to reminiscing.

More than a decade ago (I remember because it was Judy's and my 10th anniversary) I brought a tiny little Nikon point and shoot film camera with me during a three-week trip to the southwest. We were traveling with our friends Marilyn and Guy and, since we all were freelance photographers or artists, the four of us were able to carve out the time with comparative ease. It was a mini-vacation, but each of us was anxious to come back with "real" pictures.

So Judy and I brought along our "regular" camera gear – my collection included, besides my 35mm Nikons, a medium format Mamiya 6 rangefinder – but I made sure also to make room for my little Nikon Lite Touch, for the inevitable happy snaps over dinner or anywhere else for that matter.

At the time, the Lite Touch was the point and shoot champ in terms of compactness. It literally was the smallest P&S on the market and I loved it. Not much larger than a pack of Marlboros in a crush-proof box, the camera was only slightly thicker that its 35mm film cassette. It had a fixed Nikon lens that was surprisingly fast and sharp. Back then, its blinking lens protector cap, rather than a separate, and therefore losable, lens cap, was a novel device – which now has been copied by almost every camera maker save Olympus, which still favors its collapsible clam shell design.

What I loved most about the Lite Touch was its lens – a medium wide angle that allowed for decent landscape shots, while also allowing you to zoom with your feet for close-ups. Moreover, the pix were so sharp that I was able to use several for publication – in at least one magazine piece, as well as in my photography column.

The Lite Touch was flat out simple and fun to use – and I used it a lot.

I thought of this great little camera as soon as Steve Hash, owner of Photo Pro in Kensington, Md., introduced me to one of the most remarkable – and smallest – P&S cameras I ever have seen: the Canon PowerShot SD-10 ELPH, (List $449; street $349), as groundbreaking a digital P&S today as the analog Nikon Lite Touch was back in 1994.

[In fairness, the SD-10 is not the only tiny digicam out there. The Minolta DiMage X20, for example (List $249; street $159), or the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-U30 (List $250; street $175) each are fine tools, but neither has the rare combination of simplicity and sophistication that is in the Canon SD-10, as of this writing the smallest 4-megapixel digital camera in the world.]

"It was our bestseller over the holidays," Steve Hash told me, adding that he barely was able to keep the camera on the shelves. In fact, the SD-10 he showed me the other day was the only one he had in the store – and that one already was paid for and waiting to be picked up.

It's fair to ask why I am getting so excited about this digicam when most others leave me cold. The simple reason is this: here is one case where size – not to mention quality and ease of use – matters.

One of my biggest peeves with the amateur camera market is that manufacturers seem never able to leave well enough alone. Think back to the first film point and shoots, like, say the old Nikon One Touch. With these cameras, all you did was (you ready?) point and shoot. But within a few years, Nikon and everyone else was tarting up their cameras with dubious Panorama mode, and all kinds of other "creative controls" that served only to confuse the average amateur snapshooter. And don't forget all those phallic P&S telephoto lenses that took a year and a day to zoom in and out and which lost nearly all their light-gathering power at full extension.

No wonder people started to hate their cameras.

We've seen much the same thing happen with mid-range digital cameras. Usually fixed-lens zooms, these cameras are threatening to become as intimidating as their analog predecessors. And I include pros in this equation as well. Don't think that because we use high-end gear in our work we don't appreciate blessed simplicity and being able to make a quick point and shoot snap when the mood strikes us. Do you think I want to carry my Fuji Finepix S2 and heavy Nikon zoom to, say, family events or outings? Get real.

Happily, there are some user-friendly exceptions, as in the case of, say, the Nikon Coolpix line or in the Fuji S5000 and S7000 (which I'll talk about in future columns). But in general people today who are looking for an easy to use digital camera with precious few bells and whistles have to wade through a lot of fairly sophisticated, confusing gear in order to find something that is light, compact and – most important – fun to use.

Hence the appeal of the SD-10.

Frankly, the first thing that appealed to me about this camera was that it is made like a fine watch – with the all-metal outer construction that has become a signature of the popular ELPH line. At an amazing 3.6" by 1.9" by 0.7" and 3.5 ounces (do the math: it's tiny) the SD-10 fits easily into any pocket. And though anyone could be forgiven for buying it and using it only in program mode, the camera does feature a surprising number of features, including manual mode, long shutter mode, a surprisingly good macro mode for close-ups, numerous white balances and a 5.7x digital zoom.

Purists might wonder about the latter (optical zoom always being preferable to the electronic, digital substitute) but consider: the SD-10's fixed optical lens is a very sharp, very fast f.2.8 four-element affair that is the equivalent of a 39mm medium wide angle lens in 35mm. And, as Steve Hash notes, the lens is so sharp that anyone not wanting to use digital zoom, can simply blow up a section of a non-zoom pic.

So, am I going to use this camera in place of my FinePix S2? Not at weddings, certainly, or on commercial or portrait jobs.

But you know something?: I'm already looking forward to walking out of the house without that great Fuji paperweight on my shoulder, knowing that I've got a hell of a lot of camera tucked unobtrusively in my shirt pocket.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

©Frank Van Riper
When smaller not only is better, but spectacular. The new Canon SD-10 ELPH is blowing the doors off its competition for its tiny size and terrific picture quality. It is currently the world's smallest 4 megapixel camera and is as beautifully made as a fine watch. At roughly 3 1/2" by 2", the camera is shown here close to actual size.

©Frank Van Riper
No dummy, Canon also offers four designer exteriors and a cool underwater housing for the SD-10. Not that anyone is going to take the thing scuba diving, but how about white-water rafting, or horsing around by the pool? I'd even use the housing when making pix at the beach, where sand can be death to any camera.


Photography columnist and author Frank Van Riper will teach a 6-week evening workshop in documentary photography and photographic printing at Glen Echo Park's PhotoWorks studio this winter. The Thursday evening classes will begin February 19th and go through March 25th. and will be open to all students who would like to improve their photographic story-telling and/or darkroom skills. Class hours are 7pm-10:30pm. Students will be expected to initiate or continue a project of their choosing, and pursue that project during the course of the workshop. Weekly discussions of each student's progress will be held, both in class and privately, with the goal of producing a finished picture story by the end of the class. Students wishing to also accompany their photo essays with written text are encouraged to do so. Class size is limited. Early registration is suggested. For information: 301-320-7757. Or see website: www.glenechopark.org/brochure.pdf



Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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Frank Van Riper Archive:

One Photographer's Return to Film

Creating the Decisive Moment

Portrait of an Artist – In Half an Hour

The Overpaid Wedding Photographer – Huh?

An Urban 'Segway' To Easier Shooting

Lost Camera: a Holiday Puzzle You Can Solve