A new year, time to take a look and have a ponder on what's past.
The purchase of my Canon A640 back in the winter of 2006-2007 was not a difficult decision: I had owned an A60 which I absolutely loved and played around with an A610 of a friend and was thoroughly impressed by the speed of operation, resolution and features like the articulated screen, 1 cm macro and FlexiZone autofocus. My subjects are usually macro, indoor and architecture.
Due to a finnicky online retailer, I ended up paying 400 euro (600 USD) which was moderately overpriced at that time.
First impressions were disappointing. I found the A640 to be a bit chunkier and it simply didn't feel like the glove my A60 was. Concerning styling the A640 was quite the looker, however, with the blackish finishes and decent build quality.
Another big disappointment was the screen. Although the articulation was fantastic, I found the resolution very low (it's like a bigger version of the screen of the A60, not finer whatsoever). However, my biggest gripe was the slight greenish colour malcalibration of the screen. This makes all pale skintones and fluorescent lighted scenes appear with a hideously ugly greenish tone. And since I photograph mostly people indoors, this was a huge problem. At first, I thought the camera was incorrectly calibrated, so I took endless amounts of “testshots”, comparing it to my A60. On camera screen, all pictures seemed off, with the horrendous Green Goblin effect occuring everywhere. I was wholly gutted by this. (Note: Ken Rockwell discusses this very matter on the Canon EOS 5D here: http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/dslr-co ... /index.htm
A final downer was the perceived lower sensitivity. Although the A640 can go to ISO800 while the A60 was limited to ISO400, I found that at identical ISO, focal lengths and aperture the A60 shot at shutterspeeds 33-50% faster. Ie, a typical indoor shot of ISO200 at 28mm equiv and F2.8 would be 1/10 for the A60 and 1/4 or 1/6 for the A640. Combined with the huge resolution and, for my hands, worse ergonomics, I had to start lugging the A640 on tripod all the time indoor or stabilize it on a surface.
Since the online retailer had a very bad returns record I decided to stick with the A640. And although after a year it hasn't fully redeemed itself after that terrible first showing, the A640 has shown many of its advertised and reviewed qualities and taught me a great deal about (compact) photography.
One thing that has been a real delight was the actual jpeg result after the download off-camera. Because even though the screen is ugly, the actual pictures are fantastic. The A640 delivers very neutral but sharp images, has reliable metering and a great colour representation. Although my sample has more vignetting than I would've liked, there is almost no fringing and the corner sharpness is amazing.
Zooming in on the jpegs delivers startling amounts of fine detail, a very clean image on ISO80 and good, conservative noise reduction at higher ISO settings. ISO200 is very good, ISO400 is usable and processable. ISO800 is very rough, with heavy chroma and luma noise, but due to the above mentioned conservative NR it is very reasonable with worthwhile retention of detail. A last quality of the A640 worth mentioning is the great custom timer function and the great long exposure image quality. Even at the longest exposure time (15 seconds) there are not hot pixels or added grain. With a tripod, the A640 is a dream church and museum shooter. And to close off, the A640's manual controls are easily accesible through the FUNC/Set key and mode dial, a trademark of the Powershot A series. Great stuff.
The CHDK firmware hacks also deliver the A640 advanced functions like a live RGB histogram and zebra, DOF calculator, bracketing and RAW shooting. Many of these functions are actually very useful in real life, but RAW processing is very slow (5 seconds approximately). A640 RAW pictures are tiresome to process (needs homebrew methods to get and to convert from CRW to DNG), a lot larger (12.3mb) and are often grainier and softer. However, especially at frames where dynamic range is important, RAW shots retain more colour information of over- or underexposed areas and prevents highlight clipping. So basically, it's a good feature to have but is only necessary at selected occasions.
Talking about real life, the A640 has certain perks but also gripes when taking it along on trips.
First off, the articulated screen is a stalker's dream. It's very easy to photograph that cute couple on the bench next to you. Putting it in a less iffy perspective, the screen allows for some great custom angles that's especially great for crowds and architecture.
Secondly, battery life of the A640 is amazing. I manage an entire day of sightseeing (200 shots) without ever changing batteries. The wellknown AA supply is still a great facility that keeps the A640 independent from custom chargers and high price lithium-ion solutions.
The downside is that the A640 is quite chunky and heavy. Although I mentioned that it I found it not as comfortable as the A60 at first, on the road the deeper grip allows for some great one handed shooting. When you put it in a pouch however, it is just a tad too fat and heavy for your trouser pocket and annoying on your belt. But it could very well be that I have a lousy pouch. I should really get a nice shoulder pouch or one of them “messenger straps” you wear around your chest.
Over the course that I've been using the A640, I've studied as to whether or not getting a dSLR would be worthwhile. For a brief moment, I borrowed a friend's 350D with 28-135IS, 18-55kit, 55-200kit and battery grip.
Very quickly, I also came with some interesting first impressions: first off, I found handling the thing slightly unwieldy. I also felt quite uncomfortable lugging it around and shoving it in people's faces. Battery life, even with battery grip, seemed very short, but I did take an awful lot of shots, truth be told. I also had reservations about the usage and image result. I didn't like the fact that I had to press the Av button while turning the thumbwheel to change the aperture in manual mode. I was used to the quick two thumb approach and usage of the FUNC/Set key on my Powershots. I also found the viewfinder quite dark and small, compared to my dad's antique Canon A-1. Next, I found the noise not as low as I thought it would be at ISO800 and especially ISO1600. Macro was impossible, only with the 18-55 I got a reasonably magnification at 55mm. And lastly, I thought all images were very soft! I found it very hard to get nice, sharp pictures, both with manual focus and autofocus. When I compared with some shots when the Rebel is teamed with, eg., the 17-40 4L, the difference was quite noticeable. Here it is obvious that the lenses I tested were nowhere near befitting of the potential of the camera body.
What I did like about the dSLR however was the speed at which and action with which pictures were taken. I just love to frame through a viewfinder and hear and feel that mirror/shutter snap and rewind. Also, the colour representation and grading was a lot nicer. Pictures just felt a lot cleaner and more natural. The metering and white balance are also more accurate. Autofocus is blazingly fast. And the bokeh is so much nicer and the DOF so much shallower, making for some really nice portraits. The burst speed is also a lot higher. Combined with all the other perks of dSLR shooting I found “getting the action” or “getting that one moment” to be easier to attain.
After a lot of shooting and doing a lot of reading, I do intend to buy a dSLR later down the road. I will make this purchase at a proper photostore however, where I can thoroughly test it in my hands and get an hours' worth of workflow. No more awkward surprises or long adjustment periods after online retail.
I will continue to use my A640 for tourism, architecture, daylight shooting and macro. Under the right conditions, the A640's image quality is absolutely phenomenal.
I will supplement that with a Canon 40D (or 400D – depending on ergonomics) with 50mm 1.4, 18-55mm IS and possibly a 60mm macro or telezoom for portraits, indoors, lowlight or when I just feel like toying around.
More importantly however, I still have a lot to learn about actually making a nice photo (framing, lighting, etc). If my experiences have learned me anything, it comes down to something that has been said over and over again – your camera is a tool you need to be happy with and that will encourage you to shoot the things you want. This is what made me love the A60: it got every shot right, made me forget I had a camera and just made me think about where I wanna stand for that next shot.
Sample images, no PP unless mentioned (More: http://www.flickr.com/photos/22470170@N05
Kotobukiya's Mirei-san 1/7 scale figure
Garden - excellent lens sharpness throughout
Ghent, Belgium - St. Nicolas Church
Ghent, Belgium - Restaurant performer
Two more lovely Japanese scale figures
Antwerp, Belgium - Central Station
Sunflower - I'm pretty proud of this one tbh ^^
JPEG vs RAW (CHDK) comparison: note that the building's bricks' colour and the colour of the tree below have been lost on the JPEG. Both images Lightroomed to match colours and lighting as closely as possible.