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‘Point and shoot’ goes wide and fast

Having a fast medium wide-angle lens has been part of my documentary camera outfit for over forty years – first with an early version of the classic Nippon Kogaku Auto-Nikkor 28/2 – and later, after I switched to Canon SLRs, their fine FD 28/2 SSC Canon.

In the late 1970s I also bought an early version of the 35/1.4 Summilux-M for my battered Leica M2. The Leitz lens tended to flare when used wide open (as can be seen, below, in a photograph I made of that remarkable performer and writer, the late Nick Enright, at Sydney’s Nimrod Theatre in 1978) but from f2 on, the Summilux’s definition, contrast and colour were wonderful.

Such medium wide-angle lenses broadly approximate the eye’s main area of comprehension and their added speed gave me confidence to work in low light levels and still make sharp pictures – whether using either a SLR or Rangefinder camera. Now a new generation of digital compact cameras, nominally considered point and shoot, are emerging that feature wide, fast and sharp lenses – ideal for carrying when a bag full of cameras is inappropriate.

These modestly priced cameras are eminently pocketable and produce results that are clearly of publication quality. Though more expensive than point and shoot digital cameras with slower lenses, a camera such as Canon’s Powershot S95 is still well below the price of a 28 f2 lens for a DLSR. I recently spent time using the Canon S95, an upgrade of their S90, and found the results from this camera impressive.

Old photojournalistic habits die hard, so most of the photographs taken with the S95 were made at the zoom lens’s widest focal length and at its maximum aperture of f2. Even a test I made of the macro abilities of the S95 – using a rose from my garden, with the lens set at f2 delivered more than acceptable definition (pictured left). No lens is really worth having (with the exception of that Summilux I owned) unless it performs well when used wide open.

One of the hardest tests I then gave the S95 was a portrait I made of a friend, psychologist Michelle Sexton, as she stood, heavily backlit, before a window. I also had to add 2/3 of a stop exposure compensation – easily set by rotated a wheel on the back of the camera. The result (pictured below) was sharp with no visible flare. Controls for this camera will be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of digital cameras (especially Canon’s cameras and I confess I have yet to open the instruction book.

The Canon Powershot S95 lens has an image stabilised 3.8X zoom where the maximum aperture drops to f4.9 at its telephoto equivalent focal length of 105mm. The S95 also has the ability to shoot HD video and has RAW capture.

As if to prove Canon are serious about low light shooting the S95 can make pictures at up to ISO 3200 at full 10 Megapixel resolution. The Powershot S95 is currently selling at retailers such as Ted’s Cameras for $569.95.

During my last visit to Sydney I received a surprise invitation from arts journalist Ann Berriman to come to a lunch at short notice with eminent Australian sculptor Ken Unsworth (pictured below). A photographer friend, the late Robert Walker, had once shown me part of the extensive documentation he had produced of Unsworth’s remarkable vision and I soon found myself sitting opposite the 80-year-old artist, who discussed his art with the enthusiasm of someone sixty years younger.

As I love the diarist nature of photography I asked Unsworth whether I could photograph him and whether I could publish the picture in my next blog.

“Do anything you like with the pictures! I am from the generation that just wants things seen,” said Unsworth with some generosity.

Again, I set the S95 to aperture priority and the lens to wide-angle, and f2 (the latter by simply twisting the knurled ring around the lens) and made an un-posed portrait of the artist sitting in a naturally lit room at the rear of Berriman’s house.

The Canon S95 demonstrated how tenacious is the lens’s resolving power when used at its limits. But you be the judge. In future blogs I will look at some of the S95’s competitors – the Lumix LX5, Samsung’s EX1 and the recently released Olympus XZ-1.

This article first appeared on Robert McFarlane‘s blog,

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Image detail: Gary Ramage