Being a sucker for a tiny compact camera, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-L1 has retained a fond place in my handful of cameras since I bought it in June 2018.
First launched in 2004, it features a 4MB CCD sensor paired with a Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar 32-96mm lens, starting at f/2.8.
I love that despite this Cyber-shot’s diminutive dimensions, it handles very well.
This is due to the thickness of the body, the curve of the front surface, and the clever placing of the lens on the far left, giving plenty of room to grip on the right side.
Leaning on my usual avoidance of zooming a zoom lens, I treat the L1 as a 32mm f/2.8 prime lens camera, and never touch the zoom switch.
The sensor may be tiny but I really like the images the Sony delivers, especially after my usual Snapseed tweaks.
It cost me under £7.
Six months after first getting the Sony, I decided to experiment with a One Month, One Camera project for 2019.
One of the candidates that came along was an equally titchy Canon Digital IXUS i.
Slightly older than the Sony, released in 2003, the IXUS also has 4MB CCD sensor, and the lens is fixed at 39mm, also with a maximum f/2.8 aperture.
My example was more pricey than the Sony, and set me back all of £8.
So I thought it might be fun to look at the two head to head, probably one of the latest camera reviews you’ll ever read, it now being 15 or 16 years since these two came out!
Well, these are undoubtedly the two smallest digital cameras I’ve used. There’s so little between them it’s negligible. Both disappear in your hand or a trouser pocket.
Both have the similar design approach of keeping the lens to the far left (when you look down on top of the camera), leaving plenty of space to grip the right side of the body.
They also both have the same screen size, which at 1.5″ sounds too small to be of use, but serves its purpose perfectly well, and fits the general (small) size of the cameras.
It’s a similar story here, both are very light, the Sony at around 150g, the Canon even lighter at 120g. You barely feel either of them in your hand. But they don’t feel flyaway cheap.
Despite that light weight, both feel well built, with a significant part of the body made of metal. You feel a few accidental drops and knocks wouldn’t do much harm, especially as the lens retracts safely with both.
Well, here’s a shock. They are both very similar, taking perhaps five minutes of exploring the menus to set the camera(s) up to your personal preferences. After that it’s equally straightforward with either camera to make occasional adjustments to focus mode, colour, ISO or exposure compensation.
The Canon is perhaps slightly better to handle in terms of the rear controls and the screen being further to the left, but there’s very little in it.
Extra points to the Canon here, which focuses down to 0.03m with its Macro mode, compared with a still respectable 0.12m with the Sony.
The only slight annoyance with the IXUS is that switching to Macro mode is a bit slow, and two steps from the standard focus mode. You have to press the Function button, step across one mode, wait for the screen to catch up with your button press, then do the same again. It still only takes three seconds though, so no major complaints.
On the flip side though, the Canon is not as wide at 39mm (equivalent 35mm focal length).
I haven’t found this particularly limiting, but that 32mm of the Sony is a great trade off between the standard 35mm so many of us favour, and the wider 28mm which can be great in many situations, but too wide for every type of composition, in my experience.
So 32mm pretty much gives you the best of both worlds, especially in a compact camera. Well done Sony.
The Sony focuses a bit faster, and in low light you really hear the Canon working overtime in Macro mode. But it still locks on virtually every time.
As I didn’t buy either of these cameras for capturing fast moving action, I’ll take reliable if slower AF over speed any day.
Again, not much in it.
I’m not a pixel peeper, and don’t need huge prints, so 4MP isn’t a limitation.
I like the images both cameras make, though as expected, with both on their default b/w mode, I need to apply some Snapseed tweaking afterwards to get the look I favour.
Perhaps the Canon is a touch sharper, and maybe the Sony images have slightly more character somehow. But both are very pleasing.
Well, no surprises here, I really like both of these miniature marvels.
There’s so little between them that it would be hard to choose one over the other.
The Sony for me has slightly more character somehow – in use and the final image.
Which fits with my general experience of Canon cameras being very capable and easy to use, but just a bit bland.
And that 32mm lens on the Cyber-shot is a really useful focal length for a compact camera.
But the IXUS has that closer focus – something I use often, and sometimes I have to draw back with the Sony because I’m too close for it to lock focus.
A more widely available SD card also tilts the balance towards Canon, rather than the more unusual Sony Memory Stick Duo.
But since both cameras came with a card plenty large enough for my needs, this again is really not an issue or deal breaker, it’s just more likely you’d already have an SD card over a Sony card.
Comparing these two little cameras is almost pointless, it turns out, as either serves its purpose well, and has an abundance of charms.
Both cameras meet many people’s needs very well and deliver very satisfying pictures in a very small and genuinely pocketable package.
I think the biggest surprise from this comparison for me, is that they were conceived and produced in an era when manufacturers were also offering bulky DLSRs and bridge cameras ten times the weight and size.
That range of physical size and weight seems far more vast than the differences between the photographs these different types of camera can produce.
In summary, if you’re curious about how small a digital compact can be – without losing decent ergonomics and usability – and these days can be snapped up for the price of a (cheap!) lunch, I’d recommend grabbing the Sony or the Canon and having fun.
Their size and relative simplicity might be just the tonic and refreshing new direction your photography needs.
Which are your favourite small cameras, and why?
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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