Choosing the right digital camera for you (part 2)

Size, Weight, Focal Length, and Image Stabilization
If it has to be something that fits in your shirt pocket, then it’s game over, and it has to be a compact or super compact.

With the exception of a model by Leice and one by Ricoh, all of these compact cameras produce jpegs. That means the camera converts the raw (RAW) data within the camera and presents it as a jpeg that is readable by just about any digital aparatus – so the finished product that comes out of the camera needs to be as good as possible.

And the reason for this is that it really doesn’t pay to tweak a jpeg image to any great extent; particularly one processed on a small sensor. If the shot is not well exposed, with good white balance and good processing ‘out of the box’ then forget it and move on to the next image or the next camera. And the reason that it does not pay to tweak a jpeg with an image processing package such as Photoshop, is that the original jpeg image is ‘8bit’.

What that means put simply is that for any given color or hue, there are 256 steps between dark and light. RAW ‘digital negatives’ are 16bit, which means there are millions of steps between dark and light. And if one tweaks a 16bit image there is no visible degradation in the image even with quite a lot of tweaking. Whereas with an 8bit image, even a little tweaking can create posterization. Posterization is the effect one sees when there is an abrupt change from one tone to another rather than a gradual and smooth change. That said, there are some compacts that are capable of producing good images that are well exposed, with good white balance and good processing ‘out of the box’.

Canon has a number of different lines. The PowerShot SD700 IS (Digital IXUS 800 IS) is small, has image stabilization, 6 million pixels and a lens that zooms from 35-140mm. Canon make other models of course, but reading several reviewers, I pick this one as the one that has the best combination of features with the best image quality.

If 35mm isn’t wide enough then there is another model – the SD800I IS (IXUS 850 IS) which zooms to 28mm at its wide end. I should say though that the reviewers who have tested this suggest that image quality is not quite as good as with the earlier model. I suggest this is due to the fact that the newer model has 7 million pixels and as I said before, there is always a price to pay in terms of image quality and signal to noise ratio in cramming more microlenses onto a chip of a given size.

The consensus seems to be that the Nikons produce shots that look a little more naturalistic and less over-processed and less sharp than the Canon offerings and it is a matter of personal preference as to which one likes or prefers.

The Nikon models seem to be less able to focus well in low light and if focus can be achieved, shots show a lot of noise. Even the flagship Nikon Coolpix P5000 model, which is praised by reviewers for the subtley of its image processing, suffers from slow focusing and, bearing in mind that a compact camera is one that the photographer wants to be able to use in a variety of situations including snaps of moving subjects, I cannot recommend the latest Nikon models. As it happens I own a Nikon P2, a model that was introduced in September 2005. In my mind it suffers from the same faults that all compacts I have seen tested suffer from, and that is the lower image quality of a jpeg from a small sensor compared to the quality from a RAW image on a larger sensor.

The Fuji models seem to have something to offer for clean low-light photography. There are several models now – the Fujifilm Finepix F30, F31 F40, and now the F50 fd – each one increasing the megapixel count. This last model has image stabilization built into the sensor; manual control of aperture and shutter speed; and 12 million pixels. It ‘ought’ to have poor signal to noise ratio, but initial reports suggest it is a very good camera.

And that is it as far as my recommendations for compact cameras go. As I said, if you want something that really fits in a shirt pocket, then the super-compact Casio exilim models are unbeatable. They really are no bigger than half a dozen credit cards glued together.

More on Image stabiization
The two SLRs that have image stabilization built into the body are the Sony Alpha A-100 DSLR and the Olympus E-510, The Olympus model has something else going for it and that is the small weight of the camera. My benchmark is the Nikon D40, which I use as a carry-around-anywhere camera. Its dimensions are 124 x 94 x 64 mm (4.9 x 3.7 x 2.5 in). The Olympus E-520 is 136 x 92 x 68 mm (5.4 x 3.6 x 2.7 in) but it is lighter than the Nikon at 490g (17.25 ounces) as opposed to 522g (18.4 ounces) for the Nkon. That extra ounce is not to be ignored.

Whether the image quality and other aspects of the useability of the Olympus model make it a contender, is a question that 35 users of the camera in one of the foremost photo reviews forums (dpreview,com) have answered with a solid yes. Until I see a review by an expert that discusses all the things that go to make up the useability of a camera and the image quality it is capable of, I will hold on my opinion, but image stabilization is not to be ignored for it will produce a sharp image in some situations that otherwise would result in a blurred image.

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