Am I one of the few people who see the potential image quality benefits of the smaller P&S camera? We all know they are lighter and more compact and we all know they produce inferior results in terms of absolute, pixel-peeping image quality, compared with larger, heavier and more expensive cameras. One could say there's a scale of basic image quality ranging from the mobile phone built-in camera at the bottom of the heap, to the P45+ at the top of the heap.
Most comparisons are based on single shots and the single shot is usually better, the larger the format, when shutter speed and/or extensive DoF is not an issue. We know that sports shots of fast action need a Canon 1D3, not a P45, but for still-lifes or any scene with little movement, the larger format triumphs.
But does this necessarilly have to be the case? Are manufacturers failing to exploit the full potential of the smaller format in order to protect the sales of their larger format DSLRs? This might seem like a dumb question, but the fact is, hardware and software go in tandem. Apparent limitations in hardware can often be overcome with clever software. We now have a lot of clever software. I'm thinking of auto-alignment of multiple images in CS3; stacking of images to reduce noise in CS3E, automatic and effective parallax correction in stitching programs such as Autopano Pro etc.
Rather than waffle in a theoretical manner, I'm going to concentrate on a specific scene I photographed with my Canon 5D in circumstances where I would have preferred to have used a much lighter camera. The scene is the Himalayan mountain range featuring Nepal's highest mountain, Mt Daulagiri, at dawn. The light was dim and I wanted extensive DoF, so I set up my rather wobbly and inadequate but lightweight tripod on the rough terrain. With the rising sun suddenly creating a blaze of red on the snowy peaks, but the surrounding foliage being relatively in shade, I could sense there would be a dynamic range problem, so I bracketed 3 shots ranging from 1/6th to 1/60th second at F11. I honestly can't remember whether I had mirror lock-up enabled. This glow appeared quickly and soon disappeared. The fact that the image is not quite tack sharp might indicate I simply didn't have time to enable MLU. On the other hand, the uneven and soft terrain might simply not have been suitable for a rock-solid tripod placement, or F11 might not have been sufficient to encompase the entire DoF. Perhaps I really needed my TS-E 24mm which, as I recall, I didn't have on this climb.
What I want to do is imagine what the shot might have been like if I'd had a camera like the Canon G9 sporting the features that I'd like, such as a fast frame rate in RAW mode and the potential to bracket 5 or more shots ranging from +/- 5 stops of exposure, which entails having a much larger buffer.
For the same DoF as my 5D shots, I could use F2.8 instead of F11 or F3.5 for greater DoF. 1/6th of a second would probably be overkill for the shadows. However, on the same flimsy tripod, if a P&S such as the G9 could take such bracketed shots as I describe, would image quality be any worse than what my 5D produced? I can't see that it would be. In fact it might be better as a result of less need for the really slow shutter speeds.