The Sighs And Surprise Of Size – How Big Is Your Favourite Camera?

My camera evolution has led me to shooting digital compacts almost exclusively these days.

Obviously a major appeal of these cameras is the pocketable size.

I grew tired of having an SLR, then DSLR, or even a Sony NEX with adapter and vintage lens, swinging across my chest.

I prefer a camera I can have on a wrist strap and hold in the palm of my hand.

In my experiences of the last few years, I would categorise the cameras I’ve used into four sizes.

Palm – A camera you can virtually hide it in your hand, like the Canon Digital IXUS 870 IS or Sony Cyber-shot DSC-L1.

Jacket pocket – The typical size of your average digital compact, still very small and light compared to a DSLR, but not tiny enough to secrete in your hand or a trouser pocket. For example the Ricoh GRD III, Pentax Q or Panasonic Lumix LX3.

Wrist strap – These cameras are too big for most jacket pockets, but still compact enough to have on a wrist strap and in one hand. Many mirrorless cameras are of this size, like the Panasonic Lumix GF1.

Everything larger – Even a small DSLR is a bit cumbersome on just a wrist strap, and generally these bodies are more comfortable with a strap across your chest or out back in a bag between shoots.

On the whole, it follows too that the larger the camera, the heavier it is.

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But in favouring small, light cameras, there is a limit, an optimum.

I haven’t simply gone for the smallest and lightest possible cameras available. For the same reason I’ve tried on a few occasions to rely only on a phone as my main camera, and quickly remembered it’s not going to work.

This is all about how the camera feels in your hand(s).

You can have a tiny camera, but the handling is so awkward, and space and grip for your fingers so lacking, it can be more challenging – and more annoying – to use than a far bigger camera with excellent ergonomics.

A surprisingly significant factor I’ve also found is the screen, and its size and position on the back of the camera.

Having a larger screen obviously means you can see your compositions better, and make better judgements on the hoof about exposure, focus, depth of field and so on.

But again, if the screen takes up so much of the rear that your thumb has nowhere to rest firmly, and/or the buttons have been made so minute to accommodate the larger screen you can’t operate them easily, it’s a major downside for me.

So in assessing the size of my ideal camera, whilst there might be general rules, there is no single magic formula. 

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-L1 on paper is too small to be comfortable to use – just 95mm long, 44mm high and 26mm deep.

But details like the 1.5 inch screen being small enough to get out of the way (but big and sharp enough to still compose ok), the ample space for your thumb on the rear, the clever position of the angled wrist strap lug and raised metal texture to aid grip even more, the lens being positioned on the far left of the front of the camera so your fingers have plenty of space to close around, and the curved front face following the shape of your partly closed grip, all add up to a camera with brilliant handling.

Something like the A series Canon PowerShots (eg the A95) are much chunkier than the diminutive Sony and into jacket pocket territory. But again, excellent handling – even one handed – and intelligent design and layout, make it a winner.

Clockwise from top left – Canon PowerShot A95, Canon Digital IXUS 870 IS, Sony Cyber-shot DSC-L1. The names of these cameras are often bigger than they are…

How about you? How big is your favourite camera, and what makes its size so ideal for you?  

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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24 thoughts on “The Sighs And Surprise Of Size – How Big Is Your Favourite Camera?”

    1. Is that a drawback from your perspective, ie the weight and bulk makes it awkward, tiring etc? Or because a DSLR can’t be used as discretely and anonymously as a digital compact or phone camera? I assume you meant both!

  1. I think the starting question should be what kind of photos or which style you want to shoot. Is it personal documentary or do you like a certain “snapshot aesthetic” (wide angle, everything in focus), then a compact or mobile might be the best option. If you want to play with shallow depth of field, if you like the compressed layers of longer focal lengths and/or if you want to make portraits, then a compact is of little use and you really need a (small) dSLR or mirrorless camera – despite the extra weight.
    So as far as I’m concerned, your photos or favorite genre should determine the camera (size), not the other way around (and of course that can change over time).

    1. I agree, though I do think the opposite can happen to. If you are looking for a style or genre of photography after having tried half a dozen, then thinking about the camera(s) you have enjoyed using most can influence the genre of photograph you spend most time on.

  2. Um… not sure about the advice from above? If you use wide angle and large depths of field, then a compact/phone is your best option..? I’m pretty certain my friend who does landscape photography uses a DSLR and a large format camera.

    Anyway – as much as I like small cameras I’ll always prefer a SLR/DSLR. I like the control, I like the weight (most of the time) and I like that they have a decent viewfinder – I can’t abide using a screen to compose photos.

    1. Stuart, just to clarify: I meant that the compact or phone is the best option when size and weight are a big deal (for me personally, it’s not) and you want wide-angle and everything in focus. Of course you can also do that with other cameras. That’s why I personally think the versatility of the dSLRs or mirrorless cameras is still a big advantage.

    2. Stuart, thanks for your thoughts.

      Compact digital cameras usually have smaller sensors than DSLRs or full frame (digital or 35mm), so the depth of field is deeper for the same equivalent focal length.

      I use my Ricoh GRD III for example at its widest f/1.9 nearly all of the time and can still get a decent depth of field as long as I don’t focus on something very close. The same focal length (28mm) and aperture with a DSLR or 35mm SLR would give a much shallower depth of field.

      With the Pentax Q and 47mm equivalent 01 Prime lens it’s similar. I can shoot f/1.9 and still get depth of field if not too close. Try a DSLR or 35mm SLR with a 50/1.9 (or more typically 50/1.8 or 50/1.7) lens and wide open you’re usually working with tiny slivers of the image in focus, ie a very narrow depth of field.

      My default starting point with a 50mm lens used to f/5.6. With the two digital cameras mentioned above it’s f/1.9.

      I used to love using viewfinders with vintage SLRs like the Pentax ME Super, Contac 139 Quartz and Minolta X-700, all of which are superb and immersed one beautifully in the scene.

      But my eyes just started to tire quicker than I wanted (and quicker than they used to) so I came to rely on the screens of digital cameras more.

      Even the best DSLRs have poor VFs compared with the best 35mm cameras, so composing and focusing with a screen on a digital camera became the only reasonable option for me.

  3. I agree; the bulkiness of a camera does not equate to better photos in most cases. I actually like using my stupid little Kodak V1003 with its horribly limited functions and mere 3X zoom because I can take it along anywhere. Not much difference between its 10 MP and the P610’s 16 MP either. But when I need that zoom length, I need it. It comes down to what you shoot most, and for me that’s “grab shots” which the Kodak handles just fine.

    1. Yes Marc, from my recent experiences with more humble digital compacts, what you call “horribly limited” can actually be highly liberating. Taking a bunch of features and options away means you tend to make the most of what you (and the camera) have, and simplify your whole approach. Which usually makes it more fun too!

  4. For the time being, anyway, I am committed to 35mm film cameras. The smallest such camera I have used is a Rollei 35. The largest was a Nikon F5. The most convenient to carry and use, by far, is a thread-mount Leica with a collapsible lens. I carry it on a short Domke strap over my right shoulder. I wear it under a jacket in the cool/cold months and, often, under a long sleeve shirt I wear as a light jacket for protection from the sun in the hot months. When I swing the camera up into shooting position the strap tightens and helps a lot with holding the camera steady. I’ve tried this arrangement with other cameras, including small SLR’s and lighter fixed-lens RF’s but none work as well. The SLR lenses bump my arm and the lighter cameras refuse to stay in place.

    1. The Rollei 35 is pretty tiny!

      I know what you mean about lighter cameras. Sometimes the very lightest aren’t the best, as they’re harder to hold steady. Finding that balance of being light enough that you can carry them in your hand for hours and not feel it, but weighty enough to give you the stability you need, and inspire confidence, is the key I think.

      Just take SLRs, some are absolute tanks (the Konica Autoreflex T and early Zenits come to mind) and quickly wear you down, other later plastic bodied once almost float away (Canon EOS). Something in the middle became my ideal, like a Contax 139 Quartz or Pentax ME Super.

  5. Interesting. I just looked up the weights of the Contax and Pentax you mentioned. Both weigh about 16 oz. Very close to the 14-1/2 oz. of my Leica IIIf.

  6. Hi Dan, I’m just getting caught up on my blogs, and this post jumped out at me today. I’ve been shooting with different cameras a lot trying to settle on on system, so I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Unlike yourself, i’ve realized that the one thing I must have in a camera is a viewfinder. My vision is not great, and I just find the screens on the back of digital cameras impossible to use to frame shots. I really just want to use a 50mm lens for a time, and tried really hard to like my LX-7 but I can’t seem to make it work. I tried two different passive view finders in the shoe, but neither one is even close to what the Lumix thinks is 50mm. I bought a lens and viewfinder from Olympus for my GF-1 but have the same problem with that, the v.f. frame is way off. I agree that some cameras are just way too big to carry around on a regular basis. Iv’e been shooting film on a Nikon FM10 which I find ideal, I have big hands. So, for film cameras the ideal size for me is the Nikon FM10, Contax 139, and my old workhorses the Olympus OM’s. With digital, the closest ive come so far is my Canon 40D, which is rather large and heavy, but I like the way it just gets out of the way and does what I need.

    1. Jon, thanks for your thoughts.

      Very interesting about the viewfinder versus screen, I’ve moved towards screens for the same reason, ie my vision is not as good as it was and it hurts my eyes using a VF for a sustained period now. Odd that you’ve found the opposite!

      What about one of the more compact cameras with an EVF, like one of the Fuji X series?

      1. Dan, it’s an x-pro 1. I splurged and got a very clean one owner copy with some accessories and one lens. It arrived today and I’ve been out shooting with it all day. I always said there was no such thing as a perfect camera. I was wrong.

      2. The lens is what I think is considered to be the worst one – 18/2, a little wide for me. It sure seems to take sharp pictures. The only knock I can come up with so far is, yes, it’s a bit big.

      3. Dan, Apparently it’s equivalent to 27mm on full frame. I’m not familiar with wide lenses so it will take a little getting used to. Definitely no further lenses in the near future but I had great success with the included adapter for FD lenses, and two more on the way for M-42 and Minolta.

      4. Oh so I assume it’s an APS-C size sensor with a 1.5x factor.

        Intriguing about the adapted lenses, especially M42!

      5. That’s right Dan, almost (But not quite) the same as my Canon 40D. I’ll keep you posted on the results from the adapters. I watched a good video by Roy Cruz on youtube about M-42 lenses on the Fuji cameras, he does a good job.

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