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Choosing a Camera
05 May 2014

Years ago I would rarely leave the house without a camera. I didn't want to belong to the "best photo I've never taken" club so I felt it was vital to have a camera at hand whenever there was a remote possibility that something special would appear in front of me.

Over the years, as camera kit got larger and heavier, and shoulders ached more and more, I found it harder to justify the hassle of carrying extra weight around just on the off-chance. A compact camera wasn't really an option because what was available was either not good enough to satisfy the requirements of photo libraries or very expensive.

In the last few years things have changed dramatically and there are now compact mirrorless cameras on the market that are affordable and perfectly good enough for most requirements. In fact, a lot of professional and semi-professional photographers are ditching or mothballing their heavy DSLR kit in favour of lighter, smaller models.

After one too many walks along the local canal during which I spotted some great photos but hadn't felt like lugging my gear along, I decided to take the plunge. I had three criteria which had to be met: firstly it had to be pocketable otherwise there was no point. Secondly it had to produce sufficient quality to satisfy Alamy's QC process. And thirdly it had to be affordable (i.e. not more than 500).

The most obvious contender was the Sony RX100. It's genuinely tiny and will slip into any pocket, is well within the price bracket, has a 20 megapixel sensor and is on Alamy's approved list of cameras. So I bought a secondhand one to test the water. When it arrived I took it out eagerly to test it and was shocked by the poor image quality. I didn't feel that the images would ever pass QC and I felt somewhat let down by the claims for the camera. On top of this, it has no viewfinder and after a lifetime of using SLRs I just couldn't get used to composing photos at arm's length (not to mention that the rear screen can be difficult to see in bright light). The RX100 is now waiting in a pile of things to be eBayed.

So I now had a fourth criterion: it must have a viewfinder. There are some excellent Fuji compacts which would have met all my criteria hands down but are well above my budget. I discounted the Sony NEX6 because although it has had excellent reviews and quite a few Alamy photographers were already using it with success, it looked just too big for a pocket. So I then looked at the Canon G15. This seemed to meet all my requirements, but when I asked about it on the Alamy forum I was warned that the viewfinder was not very good and only covered about 75% of the image area - not very useful if you want to frame your shots accurately. I hummed and hahed and eventually decided against it. I now appeared to have exhausted all my possibilities.

So I went back over the cameras I had dismissed. Any one of the Fujis might have been ideal if they had not been too expensive (and also with a zoom lens it's quite likely they wouldn't be very pocketable). Then I noticed that the Sony NEX6 was available with a very slim-looking 16-50mm zoom. I looked up the measurements. The body is a little larger than the RX100 but the lens is only twice as thick when retracted and I thought it was very likely it would slip into a large pocket. Before parting with any money I went to find one in a camera shop just to satisfy myself that it was small enough. It was (just) so I took the plunge. At 450 it's well within budget, the pictures it produces are excellent and my first batch has just passed Alamy's QC, and although it needs a big pocket it can be carried around everywhere with ease, so it meets all my needs and I'm (so far) a happy bunny.

An added and unexpected bonus is that the rear screen tilts, which makes the screen much more user-friendly for composing pictures, giving me a usable alternative to the viewfinder (useful if I want to shoot from the waist without attracting too much attention). The 16 megapixel sensor is APSC sized so although it has fewer pixels than the RX100 it is much larger and should match the image quality from many DSLRs.

Unlike some converts to the compact life, I will not be ditching my Canon 5D2 and all its lenses - I will still prefer to use that when carrying gear is not an issue. But the NEX6 gives me an extra dimension and might ensure that I never have to come home from a walk cursing the one that got away.