Advancement of the digital point & shoot camera

by Jeff Bouton

I remember my very first experiences with a digital point & shoot camera over 15 years ago now. A no name camera without zoom for $99 – “no more film” I thought, “… almost too good to be true.” I was right, it WAS too good to be true. The idea was spot on – a handy compact camera I could slip in a pocket to capture all of life’s moments when I didn’t want to carry a large camera around (it’s what most do with the phones today). But in reality this bargain basement camera was definitely not up to the task. When you depressed the shutter release there was an enormous lag of a second or more and then the “pictures” this beast created were unbelievably grainy, colored rectangles with the subjects looking much like they were animated in 8 bit cartoon graphics (think Space Invaders for those old enough to remember this) if you tried to enlarge them to even a wallet-sized print. This digital technology was still so new that even the lingo we now use wasn’t developed. Now of course we’d refer to these as digital images rather than pictures, and they are not “grainy” (which is a film term), but “noisy” (obscured by digital noise – those oddly colored red, green, & blue pixels). Even the familiar ASA (American Standards Association) developed by Kodak, was also replaced by ISO (International Standards Organization) in this new digital world. Despite my failed earliest attempts the digital revolution had indeed begun and even as some of us clung dearly to our fond and familiar film cameras, it was sadly game over for these soon to be dinosaurs.

an ironic twist - old film canisters made into thumb drives

an ironic twist – old film canisters made into USB thumb drives

My next dabbling in the world of the electronic point & shoot camera came almost 5 years later. The first really good digiscoped images were being produced by a handful of swivel bodied cameras. So I scooped one up. It was 4 megapixel and again suffered from incredibly long shutter lag issues. The extremely deliberate and slow focus and subsequent lag caused me to miss a lot of images of fast-moving birds & wildlife, but I had some very nice results as well. Sadly, the issues with lag cost me more images than I successfully took, but in it’s day this was as good as it got and the lens functioned well behind the spotting scope.

Black-necked Stilt digiscoped 2004

Black-necked Stilt digiscoped 2004

Within 3 years, Leica introduced their first point & shoots that worked well for digiscoping. The D-lux and C-lux cameras offered relative simplicity, greatly reduced shutter lag, and higher mega pixel ratings.

 

bathing White-necked Jacobin digiscoped with Leica D-lux 4 & APO Televid spotting scope

bathing White-necked Jacobin digiscoped with Leica D-lux 4 & APO Televid spotting scope

The Leica D-lux 4 camera with matched adapter on the new Leica APO Televid 65 & 82 mm spotting scopes ushered in a new era of simplicity and effectiveness as the first of Leica’s all in one digiscoping solutions. It featured a Leica camera mounted on a Leica spotting scope with an adapter designed and machined exclusively to mate those two separate components flawlessly. The resulting images were impressive!

Leica V-lux 1 superzoom

Leica V-lux 1 superzoom

The Leica V-lux 1 came to the market in 2006 and was the first “super-zoom” digital point & shoot camera featuring a 35 – 420 telephoto zoom lens, swivel screen, and an electronic viewfinder. Now we were getting somewhere, a digital p&s camera that offered enough zoom to actually work well for wildlife as a standalone piece! It was amazing and I first put it through it’s paces in wild Alaska.

Orca pod taken with Leica V-lux 1, Kenai Fjords, Alaska

Orca pod taken with Leica V-lux 1, Kenai Fjords, Alaska

The super zoom cameras opened the door to many would be wildlife photographers that wanted the reach necessary for wildlife imaging without carrying a spotting scope for digiscoping or a 10-11 pound DSLR.

Sea Otter image taken with Leica V-lux 1

Sea Otter image taken with Leica V-lux 1

The V-lux cameras weigh only one pound and each successive model became infinitely better up through the V-lux 4 with its 600 mm f/2.8 lens equivalent, lightning fast 12 frame shutter burst capabilities, dual stereo input hi-res video capabilities. By the end I was even able to shoot impressive flight shots that I’d thought would be impossible from a digital point & shoot a decade earlier!

Prairie Warbler with Leica V-lux 4

Prairie Warbler with Leica V-lux 4

Fast moving wood warblers were easy to stop in their tracks with the V-lux 4.

Northern Parula, male - Leica V-lux 4

Northern Parula, male – Leica V-lux 4

Even a fly over raptor is easily captured with the rapid shutter burst capabilities of the latest V-lux 4.

Swallow-tailed Kite, Leica V-lux 4

Swallow-tailed Kite, Leica V-lux 4

These cameras have changed so dramatically & rapidly with the advent of newer, faster microprocessors, real-time autofocus, lightning fast shutter bursts, and superior control of digital noise. I can’t imagine what the next generation of products might bring, but I also can’t wait.