How To Create The Ultimate Pocket Sketchbook Camera

This month I’ve been experimenting with two or three different cameras, which have been pretty impressive.

Being in the full flow of spring now too, it’s seemed logical to start to switch back to colour photography, to capture the resplendent displays of late daffodils, tulips and of course bluebells.

But somehow, I keep getting drawn back to that tiny little Lumix XS1 I raved about a few weeks ago, after using it exclusively throughout March.

Not only that, the XS1’s excellent Dynamic Monochrome mode (the same kind of mode I so love in its Lumix predecessors the LX3 and GF1) seems the natural choice for this camera, in keeping with the theme of stripping down to the bare essentials.

In this mode, all I really do is focus, (re)compose, and shoot.

The Lumix XS1 in Dynamic Monochrome seems have been designed for this kind of simplicity, but intelligently so.

In many ways it’s the perfect camera for the kind of sketchbook photographs we make when out and about (or staying closer to home), where we don’t want to be too concerned with excessive gear, settings, and analysis.

The Lumix XS1, I’ve gathered from experience in the field, thinks about exposure as follows.

Written after each “rule” it follows is why I think it’s been designed to work like this (and why it’s so good at it).

All of this is at its widest focal length of 24mm, as that’s all I use it at.

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What it does – Shoot at the widest aperture, f/2.8, and ISO100 – the native ISO of the sensor – wherever possible.

Reason – The lens design must be optimised for its widest aperture setting, and any sensor loses image quality as you raise the ISO, so this combination gives the best possible image.

What it does – As light decreases, keep lowering the shutter until you reach 1/60s.

Reason – At 1/60s virtually anyone can still get blur free shots hand held, especially with the “Mega OIS” – Optical Image Stabilisation – switched on. Images are still optimised by using f/2.8 and ISO100.

What it does – When f/2.8 and 1/60s isn’t letting enough light in, lower the ISO, until you get down to ISO400.

Reason – ISO200 and 400 will start to be more noisy than native ISO100, but still give a respectable image. The XS1 deliberately avoids ISO800 and ISO1600 which are available in other modes, but will show a noticeable image degradation.

What it does – At f/2.8 and ISO400, with even less light, start to lower the shutter speed, until you get to the minimum 1/8s.

Reason – With the OIS, most will still get a decently sharp image here, though it’s less likely than at 1/60s.

What it does – With less light still, show the shutter speed of 1/8s in red.

Reason – Alert the photographer that the light levels are lower than the camera’s exposure range will capture. They can still shoot, but it will be under exposed.

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What it does – Heading in the other direction, in brighter conditions, the first rule is always stay at ISO100.

Reason – Optimises the sensor at its native ISO, and for brighter scenes the lower the ISO, the more options you have to play with in your aperture and shutter speed settings.

What it does – Beyond f/2.8, ISO100 and 1/640s, switch the aperture to f/9, set the shutter speed accordingly, starting at 1/60s.

Reason – The camera switches to what seems to be the only other aperture setting it has (at 24mm), which is probably not as highly optimised as f/2.8, given the camera favours f/2.8 so strongly. It switches at this point because the next step beyond f/2.8 and 1/640s appears to be f/9 and 1/60s. Again, not going lower than 1/60s minimises the risk of camera shake. If it switched to f/9 sooner, the shutter speed would be lower, and a blurred image would be more likely from the average consumer photographer.

What it does – Increase shutter speed as the light increases, staying with f/9 and ISO100.

Reason – The aperture and ISO are at their fastest setting so the only one of the three variables to adjust is shutter speed.

I really love cameras that on the surface seem like very simple point and shoots but on closer analysis appear to be actually very well designed to achieve this.

They give the impression of simplicity and ease of use to the user – and deliver a maximum success rate in terms of photographs being well exposed, as high quality as possible, and free from unintentional blur from camera shake.

The designers obviously carefully considered how the camera would be used, and gave it a “brain” that would optimise pictures and ease of use accordingly.

When you come across so many cameras with poor design choices, it’s always a joy to find one that’s so well designed.

In practice, I don’t pay scrupulous attention to the settings the camera is using, now I understand how and why it makes its decisions.

It’s one of the most mindless cameras I have – in terms of the thought I have to give to the settings for each shot.

Aside from focus, (re)compose, shoot, I do little else with the Lumix XS1, aside from sometimes forcing the exposure to be lower or higher by locking focus (and exposure) on a certain part of the frame for more dramatic effect.

And because my thinking about the settings of the camera is so low as to be almost mindless, it means I can be more mindful of more important aspects, like composition, light, shadow and texture.

I see the XS1 – not least of all because of its tiny size and negligible weight too – as perhaps the ultimate little sketchbook camera.

One you can have in your pocket barely knowing it, ready to pop out and jot down something you find visually interesting at a moment’s notice.

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But, like a beautifully designed sketchbook that works exactly as you want it to, nothing more, it’s almost invisible.

Ah, I seem to recall talking about invisible cameras somewhere before.

Which camera you’ve used would you consider to be an excellent sketchbook camera? Which camera is the furthest from this? 

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).

Thanks for looking.

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8 thoughts on “How To Create The Ultimate Pocket Sketchbook Camera”

  1. I would personally stay at ISO 100 until I’m at like 1/4s – which should still yield great results at 24mm since there’s stabilization and a wide angle at play (actual focal length due to the small sensor is more like 4mm so 1/4s should be fine). And of course a steady hand and proper camera holding technique, with the elbows in…
    I keep looking at that fantastic little XS1 and people keep asking too much money for it on Ebay – which of course means all auctions go unsold. It must be pretty rare on this side of the pond if this keeps happening…
    But to answer the actual question, I tried to make my Pentax RZ18 my little take-anywhere camera, and it worked for a couple days… until the battery decided to not hold a charge anymore.

    1. The XS1 being auto exposure I can’t force it to hold on to ISO100 a stop or two longer. I’m really happy with how it behaves, and as I’ve said in the post, I think it’s very intelligently designed to give the best pictures possible.

      I’m really surprised what the XS1s are going for. Mine I think was about £12 or something. It’s fantastic, but even brand new it’s not a high end camera, just a very neatly designed consumer compact. Sounds like some are going for more than they would have cost brand new!

      Is it worth getting a new battery for the Pentax?

      1. I almost bought a new battery for the Pentax but it’s also got the rear display half dead – I gave it to my oldest son who has not yet learned to care for the things he has. He just throws things around like they are made of rubber and I haven’t been able to teach him to be more careful… I’m amazed that the camera actually still worked even though the screen is dead.
        But at this point probably not worth the cost of a new battery. I found a very cheap GoPro 3 camera so he has that now.

      2. I imagine the GoPro is much more robust! I thought about getting one for my son (who’s currently seven). But the little Canon IXUS I gave hime he’s treating well, and he’s getting some lovely shots with it, especially flower close ups.

  2. I get this entirely! Much as I love my Lumix LX5, my photographic output has been far more prolific with the two smallest cameras I’ve owned. My original Nikon A300 and my current Lumix FX150. Small, pocketable and capable. Fewer settings to mess with (or at least buried in menus rather than switches) and I suppose more likely to be in my pocket or bag. I’m going to charge the little thing up now and shoot a few pictures later!

    1. Richard, how did you get on?

      Yes I think it’s finding that balance in terms of size and simplicity. Sounds like you have done with your little two!

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