Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sony Alpha DSLR-A550 Review

Sony Alpha DSLR-A550 Review

Introduced in late August 2009, the Sony Alpha DSLR-A550 slots into the Sony lineup at the top of their entry level/consumer DSLR fleet of five bodies (in addition to the three other Alpha models comprising the prosumer and up class). The camera features a new 14.2 megapixel Sony Exmor CMOS sensor in the APS-C size format that produces a 1.5X crop factor (35mm film equivalent), as well as the newest BIONZ image processing engine and an ISO sensitivity range of 200 to 12800.

There are two distinct Live View modes, smile and face detection technology, two separate dynamic range management modes, an articulating 3.0 inch LCD monitor with 921k dot composition, up to a 7 fps continuous shooting rate and in-body stabilization. Automatic sensor dust removal, 6 specific scene shooting modes in addition to the usual DSLR menu of manual and semi-automatic modes, and an on-screen help guide and graphic display to further explain settings on the fly round out this fairly feature-rich model.

Following current Sony practice with their DSLRs, the A550 has no video capture capability. There are dual memory media slots for Sony's Memory Stick PRO Duo media as well as SD/SDHC memory cards, but Sony recommends the PRO-HG Duo card and will not guarantee "proper operation for all Memory Stick PRO Duo media functions."

he A550 is available in body-only or kit form with the Sony f3.5/5.6 18-55 SAM zoom lens. Sony includes a power cord, battery charger and battery, shoulder strap, CD-ROM software, USB cable, body cap and printed instruction manual with each camera. In addition to Sony-branded lenses (some by Carl Zeiss), the camera is compatible with Minolta Maxxum A mount lenses.

When we shot the A550 briefly for a "first impressions" look at the camera, there didn't appear to be any areas of immediate concern save possibly some softness in image quality with the default settings. Did we discover anything during a more extensive shooting period to change our mind about this new Sony? Read on and find out.

The A550 features a two-tone composite body with rubberized material in strategic locations to facilitate a firmer grip. The composite might be a bit underwhelming for a camera body with an asking price north of $800, but the rubberized stuff feels about right and the overall build quality looks to be good.

Ergonomics and Controls
In typical DSLR fashion, the A550 features a deeply sculpted handgrip front and built-up thumb rest rear - the shooting finger falls naturally to the shutter button. The top and back of the body are covered with buttons and controls except for the thumb rest area, and the overall spacing and layout of the controls doesn't present any obvious conflicts that might encourage inadvertent activations. The most likely candidate for such a problem is the control dial which sits below the shutter button - in the manual or semi-auto shooting modes it only needs to be moved to change camera settings, but in practice it proved immune to accidental inputs.

The camera body has buttons providing quick access to ISO, shooting drive mode, dynamic range management options, auto exposure lock and exposure compensation. A "function" button takes you to a menu offering additional inputs: flash mode, autofocus (AF) mode, AF area, metering mode, flash compensation, white balance (WB) and creative style color options.

Live view fans can switch to the Quick Auto Focus live view mode by simply selecting the live view setting on the external live view/optical view finder (OVF) switch. From there, they can jump to the Manual Focus Check live view mode by merely pressing the MF Check button; in the alternative they may proceed directly to the manual mode by pressing the MF Check button without first switching to the auto focus mode. Here's a sample of a screen in both auto and manual live view - there are other overlays of information possible in both modes, including a histogram in auto that is not available with manual.

The Help Guide is activated with the "function" button and is on by default - it can provide guidance to folks unfamiliar with the controls, settings or potential impacts of changing settings on the camera. The shots that follow show the initial screen after pushing the function button and the subsequent screen after selecting "DRO AUTO"; the third screen is typical of the presentation when switching to a shooting mode, in this case shutter priority.

Menus and Modes
While offering the usual DSLR manual and semi-automatic shooting modes, the A550 retains a fully auto mode and six specific scene modes that offer only the barest of user inputs.

* Auto: Camera handles all settings, user can select self-timer and flash only.
* Portrait: Camera handles all settings, user can select self-timer and flash only.
* Landscape: Camera handles all settings, user can select self-timer and flash only.
* Macro: Camera handles all settings, user can select self-timer and flash only.
* Moving subjects: Camera handles all settings, user can select high speed or speed priority continuous shooting and self-timer only.
* Sunset: Camera handles all settings, user can select self-timer and flash only.
* Night scene: Camera handles all settings, user can fire shutter via self-timer or remote commander only and has flash available.
* Program auto: Camera handles exposure settings, user has wide variety of input including drive, flash, AF and metering modes; AF area, ISO, flash compensation, WB, dynamic range management and creative style color options.
* Aperture priority: User sets aperture, camera sets shutter and user has all inputs listed for Program auto.
* Shutter priority: User sets shutter, camera sets aperture and user has all inputs listed for Program auto.
* Manual: User sets aperture and shutter, same inputs as Program auto.

Menus are simple and intuitive in the A550, running only about seven pages internally.

The A550's 3.0 inch LCD monitor has 921,000 dot composition and features automatic level adjustment as the default setting; five levels of brightness may be selected manually via an internal menu. The monitor is articulated and may be tilted up or down through 180 degrees as well as moved away from the camera body.

The monitor could be difficult to use in some instances in bright outdoor light, but the articulating feature was of some help in this regard. Coverage is 100% in playback, but only 90% in live view - framing and composition in live view will not show some parts of the final image. The shot below was composed in live view so the picture and its frame filled the monitor - the sections of wall at the sides were not visible when the shot was composed.

All of you who skipped directly here from the Help Guide section to find out the first feature to disable should be ashamed. But since you're here... during the shoot for the first impressions story on the A550, nothing much jumped out as being of concern. Once I started wandering about doing more extensive shooting for the main article the A550 started behaving oddly.

I had the camera set for continuous AF, which should take place as long as the shutter is held at half-push. The problem was I could feel and hear the A550 doing its AF thing as I walked along with my finger nowhere near the shutter button. Setting the camera to auto and single-shot AF didn't fix things, nor did trying every shooting mode available. The camera was doing AF all by itself, and I'm thinking maybe I've got a faulty camera. After spending about an hour going over the instruction manual (when all else fails, read the manual!) it turns out the A550 was operating perfectly.

"Eye start AF" is an A550 feature enabled by default that causes the subject located in the viewfinder AF area to come into focus automatically as you look into the viewfinder. I wasn't looking into the viewfinder all the times the camera did the AF routine, but I was walking along carrying the camera in my shooting hand and as my arm would swing as I walked, the camera interpreted the proximity to my leg as the camera being looked into and activated the AF.

It's actually a pretty neat feature, but depending on how you carry your camera it does have the potential to drain the battery sooner due to performing AF unnecessarily. Personally, it would be the first thing I'd disable.

While the A550 can carry both Memory Stick and SD memory media, the type it use is designated by flipping a switch in the memory card compartment. I'd liked to have seen Sony set up the camera to automatically move on to the other media when one got full, rather than require the user to go into the compartment and switch the camera over.

While I'm not a big fan of live view, the A550 has the best system I've come across so far. The quick auto focus live view mode makes use of a separate imager that dramatically cuts AF time - and in fact you can shoot at speeds approaching 4fps in this live view mode! The A550 makes it easy to transition to either quick AF or the manual focus mode live view, but one drawback with going to manual is you'll be trying to focus by working against the focus motor in the camera unless you take the time to switch both the lens and the camera from AF to MF. Without the switch, manual focus is stiff and imprecise at best.

Shooting Performance
As one would expect from a DSLR, the A550 starts promptly - sensor cleaning is performed on shutdown by default - and acquires focus and shoots on a par with other competitors in the class. We measured shutter lag at 0.01 seconds and press-to-capture with no pre-focus at 0.20 seconds.

Continuous shooting rates are up to 5 fps in high speed mode, and up to 7 fps in speed priority mode. Our studio tests actually got 7.6 fps in speed priority, much better than advertised. The A550 generates that high fps rate in speed priority by establishing exposure and focus for the first shot of any sequence and applying those values to all subsequent shots. The 5 fps rate is made with exposure and focus calculated for each shot.

AF with the A550 was generally quite accurate in good conditions with the spot AF mode set - the wider area AF modes would sometimes hunt a bit before settling down on the AF point, which wasn't necessarily the point intended. There is an AF assist lamp with a range at 200 ISO of up to about 14 feet - it doesn't operate when the camera is set to continuous AF or in Auto AF when the subject is moving.

The A550 flash is listed as having a guide number (GN) of 12 (meters) at 100 ISO, even though the nominal ISO sensitivity for the camera is 200. Flash range at f/5.6 is in the vicinity of about 9 feet, so if you plan to do a lot of shooting with flash at greater distances an external flash would be a good idea - the A550 is equipped with an accessory shoe that can accept a wireless flash. Flash recycle times are given as 4 seconds by Sony, but in practice our flash recycled a bit quicker than that in moderate lighting with a high battery level.

Sony's "SteadyShot" image stabilization system is on by default in the A550, and is of the sensor-shift type. The camera will display a "camera shake" warning on the OVF or monitor if it senses the shooting conditions are beyond the system's ability to stabilize the image. There is also a "camera shake status" indicator to display the relative degree of shake at any particular time - Sony recommends shooting when this indicator is low. Stabilization should be disabled if the camera is mounted on a tripod.

Sony rates the battery in the A550 for approximately 1000 images using the OVF and about half that in live view, according to a CIPA standard that has proven reliable in my experience. The camera displays both a battery "fuel gauge" icon and battery life remaining as a percentage in the upper right of the graphic display on the monitor.

Battery charging is a little convoluted with the A550 - a steady green light on the charger means charging is underway. When the light goes out the battery has a "normal" charge, but it takes another hour after the light goes out for the battery to be "fully" charged. My vote would be Sony have the charger display a flashing green for charging, steady green for the "normal" charge and lights out with the "full" charge.

Lens Performance
The Sony f3.5-5.6/18-55 SAM zoom lens is fairly typical for kit lenses offered on this class of camera. There was some barrel distortion present at the wide end of the zoom, but pincushion was largely absent at the telephoto end. A bit of softness and a tiny amount of vignetting in the corners at wide angle was again balanced by a fairly even performance across the frame at telephoto. Chromic aberration (purple fringing) was present in some high contrast boundary areas, but the defect was virtually impossible to detect at 100% enlargement on our sample shots.

Image Quality
When I first shot the A550 and examined the default results at 100% enlargement I had the feeling the images looked just a bit too soft for my taste. I still feel that way, but upon further consideration I can also see where a lot of folks would have no problem with the images as they come right out of the camera, particularly if they never get involved with large prints. At large magnifications I think the A550 needs additional sharpening above the default values to maximize the image quality, but at the smaller end of the spectrum it can be hard to tell a default shot from one sharpened to my liking. Here's a pelican image captured at default settings, and the same image post-processed with added sharpening. If you have a hard time telling the sharpened shot from the default at the small size you're not alone - I can't either.

The downside to this is the settings are available in the manual and semi-automatic modes - folks shooting full auto or the scene modes will have to post process if images produced in these modes don't meet their expectations.

Aside from sharpness, default images out of the A550 were generally accurate with regard to color fidelity.
The A550 is equipped with a "smart teleconverter" offering 1.4 and 2X multiplication factors - the feature downsizes image resolution by making use of smaller portions of the sensor to obtain the magnification factor. Here are shots at 55mm, and with the 1.4 and 2X converters enabled.

Sony's Alpha DSLR-A550 offers beginners and advanced shooters alike an instrument that each can embrace. On the newbie end of the equation the A550 offers automatic and scene modes that require little input from the user, as well as the opportunity to explore the more advanced shooting modes and have the camera explain the nuances of each to them as they go. For those folks who are inclined to shoot at a more advanced level, the camera offers a 5 fps motor and dynamic range management tools to exert some serious creative input into the process.

No matter which end of the spectrum they're at, any user will appreciate a quick start up and responsive shutter along with a reasonably quick AF system. For those who just can't divorce themselves from using the monitor for image capture, the A550 offers a live view system that's quick and easy to use.

Image and color quality is good, and if shooting in the manual or semi-automatic modes there are substantial user established settings available to tailor output to virtually any taste. Noise performance is about par for the class, the plastic on the body might look a bit cheap for the price point and the battery charging cycle is odd, but these are really minor gripes for a camera that goes about its business in a very capable manner.


* Good shutter and AF performance
* Excellent live view system
* Versatile dynamic range management options
* Large articulating monitor


* Plastic body material a bit cheap looking
* Dual memory card slots not linked

Editor's Rating: Impressive


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Fujifilm FinePix S200EXR

Fujifilm FinePix S200EXR

When Fujifilm announced the Finepix S200EXR ultrazoom in late July 2009, Fujifans everywhere may have been hoping for a design to close the zoom gap between the 18x of Fuji's top offerings and the 24 and 26x competition. That wait will continue - the S200 is the anointed successor to Fuji's S100fs - but while the S200 has a lens with the identical 14.3x zoom multiplication of the older camera, its 30.5 to 436mm (35mm equivalent) manual zoom lens is a bit longer.

Besides the lens, the two cameras have nearly identical external dimensions and appearance, and both offer a video capability that tops out at a pedestrian 640x480 resolution.

But the big news with the S200 is the inclusion of Fuji's new Super CCD EXR sensor and EXR processor, hardware developed by Fuji with the avowed purpose of mimicking the performance of the human eye as closely as possible. In Fuji's own words:

The Super CCD EXR provides superior picture quality, enabling a "3-in-1" sensor combination of Fine Capture Technology (High Resolution), Pixel Fusion Technology (High Sensitivity & Low Noise), and Dual Capture Technology (Wide Dynamic Range). With an innovative color filter array and image processing technology, the EXR ensures an advanced reproduction in imaging with exceptionally balanced quality.

Super CCD EXR technology debuted back in February in the Fuji F200EXR and has also appeared in the F70EXR announced with the S200.

The S200 gets a bump up in resolution to 12 megapixels (up from 11.1 megapixels in the S100) on its 1/1.6" sensor (which is physically a bit smaller than the 2/3" sensor of the S100). Full manual controls return in addition to the usual suite of automatic and specific scene shooting modes and a few interesting EXR technology-driven options that we'll discuss in more depth further into the review. The camera can shoot RAW, JPEG or RAW/JPEG combinations and utilizes SD/SDHC memory media. There is about 47MB of internal memory.

Fuji includes a battery and charger, lens cap and strap, shoulder strap, USB and A/V cables, a basic printed user's manual, CD-ROM complete manual, and CD-ROM software with each camera. There was a cautionary note from Fuji in the box explaining that the bundled FinePix Viewer would not be able to decode RAW files until an update was produced in November 2009, but the version included on the software worked fine, so perhaps Fuji is ahead of schedule with their RAW processing in the S200.

While ultrazooms typically look like slightly downsized DSLRs, the S200 dispenses with the downsized part - its overall dimensions of 5.3 x 3.7 x 5.7 inches are practically identical to the Nikon D3000 with an 18-55mm kit lens: 5 x 3.8 x 5.6 inches. The S200 actually outweighs the Nikon by about 5 ounces, probably not completely surprising once you remember that the S200 lens has about 353 more millimeters of focal length than that kit lens.

The body is of composite materials that appear to be of comparable quality with the better entry-level DSLRs. Overall build quality looks to be solid.

Ergonomics and Controls
The S200 has a deeply sculpted handgrip-style body with a patch of nicely tacky rubberized material wrapping around the front of the grip. There is adequate clearance for the fingers from the lens barrel and the shooting finger falls naturally across the shutter button.

The body is festooned with buttons, dials and switches everywhere but the camera bottom and grip area, but Fuji has managed to install them in such a way as to minimize the possibility of activating one by mistake. The S200 has a nice overall feel.

Menus and Modes
The S200 has an abundance of menus (and sub-menus), but they are largely intuitive. One surprise was that the selection of JPEG, RAW or RAW/JPEG as the shooting format is made in the setup menu rather than the shooting menu.

Otherwise, selecting a shooting mode via the mode dial brings up that mode, and the menu button will then display available options. For example, selecting "EXR" on the mode dial and then pushing the menu button gives you page 1 of 3 in the EXR shooting menu for the "HR" (high resolution) mode (simply because HR happened to be the EXR mode that was last selected).

The arrow pointing to the right next to the "HR" icon indicates there are other EXR modes available, and scrolling to the right with the selector button gives us those options.

After keeping "HR" as the EXR mode by pushing the menu button again, we are returned to the first page of the HR mode shooting menu (menu 1 above), and by scrolling up or down we find two additional pages of settings in the HR menu.

The menu process remains essentially the same for every shooting mode selected via the mode dial, and in the case of the manual modes, user-established settings may be varied from mode to mode. For example, you may set ISO to 100 in aperture priority mode, but set another value for shutter priority and the camera will keep the settings for each mode. Automatic shooting modes such as the specific scenes have fewer user inputs available, but those may be varied from mode to mode as well. Changing the default settings on the various modes can be a time consuming exercise depending on the number of modes and actual changes involved, but the S200 offers users a great deal of flexibility to tailor images to their liking.

There are 11 primary shooting modes:

* Auto: fully auto mode, user can select ISO ranges with upper limits on sensitivity (auto/400, auto/800, auto/1600 or auto/3200) as well as image size and quality, film simulation (Fuji's term for standard, vivid or soft color) and high speed shooting.
* Program auto: auto mode with additional user inputs: dynamic range, WB fine tuning, color, tone, sharpness and noise reduction, AF mode and flash compensation.
* EXR: there are 3 program auto-like modes here, but 4 options for the user - in EXR auto the camera determines which of the 3 modes to use (resolution priority, high ISO & low noise or d-range priority). User inputs are limited to auto ISO, image size and quality, and standard color, B&W or sepia color options.

The user can also select any of the three options manually, and have the auto and program auto inputs available. However, image size is limited to a maximum of 6 megapixels for both the high ISO/low noise and d-range priority modes (whether selected via auto or manual means) - the resolution priority mode retains the full 12 megapixel image size.

* FSB (film simulation bracket): the camera makes three captures - one in each color mode (standard, vivid and soft). User inputs are same as auto/program auto.
* Scene Position: user can select from 17 specific scenes, including pro focus and pro low light (more about them later). User inputs are limited to image size, quality, film simulation and high speed shooting.
* Movie: user can select 640x480 or 320x240 resolution, both at 30fps.
* C1 and C2: Two separate positions on the mode dial that allow the user to create two shooting modes with their choice for settings: ISO, image size and quality, dynamic range, film simulation, WB fine tune, color, tone, sharpness, noise reduction, AF mode, AE bracketing, flash compensation and high speed shooting.
* Aperture priority: user sets aperture, camera shutter speed; user has same inputs as the C1/C2 modes.
* Shutter priority: user sets shutter speed, camera aperture; user has same inputs as the C1/C2 modes.
* Manual: user sets aperture and shutter speed, and has same inputs as the C1/C2 modes.

The 2.7 inch LCD monitor is of about 230,000 dot composition and adjustable for 11 levels of brightness. The monitor is generally good outdoors but can be overwhelmed by the right combinations of bright outdoor light. Coverage is 100%.

The 0.2 inch electronic viewfinder is of about 200,000 dot composition and offers the 100% coverage and 11 level brightness adjustments of the monitor.

In its press release announcing the arrival of the S200, Fuji U.S.A. proclaimed that
"Users of the FinePix S200EXR will find their results equal or superior to D-SLRs, principally due to the revolutionary design of Fujifilm's EXR CCD sensor technology."

The camera is sized like a DSLR and the MSRP is in the entry-level DSLR league, so let's find out if the end product lives up to the ad copy.

Shooting Performance
The S200 powers up and displays a focus icon in about 3 seconds - I was able to get off a first shot in about 3.4 seconds. Single shot-to-shot times run about 2 seconds with a SanDisk Extreme III 20MB/s memory card. The camera shot 6 full resolution, fine quality JPEGS or 3 RAW files at a slightly faster than advertised 1.8 fps in our studio tests, with write times of about 13.5 seconds for the JPEGs and 11 seconds for the RAW files.

There's a blackout of the monitor or viewfinder after the first shot in the series, and once the picture comes back it's lagging one behind the latest shot, so panning on moving subjects can be some work, especially if you're filling the frame with the subject. Here are two consecutive shots in the continuous mode - it always surprises me how much a scene can change in a second or less.

AF acquisition times were generally good, and in the range of most of the competition - we measured a 0.55 second press to capture time with no pre-focus. Things slowed at the telephoto end, but not out of the norms for the class - the S200 had a hard time picking out a small subject in front of a busy background (hummingbird hovering with palm trees 50 feet behind), but that's a tough assignment for any ultrazoom. Shutter lag is nothing more than an afterthought at 0.01 seconds.

* Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

† Note: The Casio Exilim FH20 has no continuous shooting capabilities at full resolution (9 megapixels). It is, however, capable of shooting at 30 fps at a slightly reduced 8 megapixels. Given this relatively high resolution, we have included the FH20's continuous shooting numbers in our comparison.

Flash range on the S200 is listed as ranging from 23.6 feet at wide angle to 12.5 feet at telephoto, both at auto ISO. I tried shooting with manually set ISOs and it appears that the S200 needs ISO 400 at least to make the published figures. Recycle times were good at 100 ISO, ranging from just under 3 seconds at wide angle and a moderately lit scene to about 4.75 seconds for what was probably close to a full discharge - f/8 and telephoto in a near pitch black garage.

The camera has a hot shoe with which to mount an external flash, but the shoe is not dedicated - there's no electronic connection to the camera so TTL (through the lens) exposure metering with external flash is not possible. Flash units that provide aperture adjustment, external metering and sensitivity control may be used with the S200.

Fuji rates the S200 battery for 370 shots using CIPA standards that are generally pretty accurate.

Lens Performance
The S200's 14.3x zoom features an f/2.8 maximum aperture at wide angle that matches the competition in the class, but the f/5.3 at telephoto is slower than most but a bit quicker than the Canon PowerShot SX20 IS.

There is a very slight amount of barrel distortion at the wide end of the zoom, and edges and corners look a bit soft. The telephoto end looks pretty good across the board - very slight, if any pincushion distortion, and a small amount of softening in the corners, but really quite good overall. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) can be present in some high contrast boundary areas, but the fault is difficult to see below 300%+ enlargements - for most folks and normal size prints there won't be many complaints in this regard.

The lens with its manual zoom is a joy to use - much more precise framing than is possible with the power zooms found on most ultrazooms. Rotation of the zoom ring through about 90 degrees takes the lens from wide angle to full telephoto. The lens will focus as close as 0.4 inches in super macro mode.

The basic and complete manuals identify the stabilization mode as optical (lens shift), but the press release from Fuji USA mentions a dual stabilization system incorporating automatic high ISO adjustment in addition to the optical mode. Shooting primarily in programmed auto or manual modes, I didn't come across any instances where it appeared an auto-ISO stabilization system was at work.

Video Quality
In a class where most of the competition is packing at least 720p HD video, the 640x480 resolution of the S200 puts it behind the others in this category. The zoom function of the lens is not available during movie capture per the basic manual, but in practice if the camera focus mode selector is set to continuous, it will re-focus after zooming - you'll lose focus during the zoom but the camera refocuses fairly quickly once the zoom ends.

Image Quality
Default images out of the S200 were generally good as to color reproduction and overall image quality in good light. The default auto ISO setting for auto shooting is auto/1600 and you don't want the camera to go towards the upper end of that setting if you can help it. With a full set of manual controls, special scenes and a large number of user inputs available, the S200 offers a wide variety of ways to capture images.

The EXR shooting mode is one of the special modes available in the S200, and I tried the auto setting on one of my usual high contrast scenes, the fountain at Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside, California. As advertised, the camera selected the d-range shooting option.

The auto and manually selected d-range options both shoot at a 6 megapixel reduced resolution, and while the histograms are very similar, the manually selected d-range has just a bit more detail in the dark areas of the fountain. The aperture priority shot (at a full 12 megapixel resolution) is quite similar to the two EXR shots, but examination of the histogram for this shot indicated some clipping of highlights that was not present in the other two images. Keeping the camera in EXR auto mode and training it on a normally lit scene resulted in the camera selecting the high resolution option; the camera opted for high ISO/low noise in a dimly lit indoor scene. In short, the EXR auto mode performed as described.

The lower resolution files produced in the d-range and high ISO/low noise modes produced files of 2816x2112 pixel dimensions; the full res files are 4000x3000 pixels.

The FSB (film simulation bracketing) shooting option makes three images with a single push of the shutter button; colors are the standard, vivid and soft settings.

Not a lot to choose from between these three images. While a single push of the shutter takes the three shots, you have to hold the camera on the subject until the third shot is completed - the camera makes a single image in each color rather than a single image and then processing it in each of the three color palettes. Next, here's a shot in standard color and the same shot with color, tone and sharpness settings all maximized from their default values.

Pro focus and pro low light are the two shooting modes in the scene position menu that aren't found in most other cameras. Pro focus takes up to three images when the shutter button is pushed once (you have to hold the camera on the subject until the shots finish), using the multiple shots to produce a sharp main subject with a blurred background. Pro focus is limited to 6 megapixel resolution.

Pro low light takes four shots for each push of the shutter button and combines them to produce a single image. You have to hold the camera on the subject until the fourth shot is taken and the image is at 6 megapixel resolution. Here's a shot of Bandit using pro focus and an image captured in pro low light (shutters closed to darken the room).

Default exposure calculation is via 256 segment TTL multi metering; there are spot and average metering options available. Multi proved largely capable across a broad range of lighting conditions, but it could lose highlights in very contrasty conditions such as the white water portion of breaking waves.

ISO noise performance was good - Fuji's Super CCD sensors have earned a deserved reputation for providing some of the best low light noise performance in compact digitals, and my impression of the S200EXR is that it has about 1 stop better noise performance than all the recent ultrazooms that I've reviewed.

Looking at the studio shots and particularly the crops, 100 and 200 appear practically the same, with a slight bit of noise showing up at 400, and a bit more at 800. The most dramatic change in the crops occurs between 800 and 1600 - but the S200EXR looks cleaner to me through 800 than any other 12 megapixel ultrazoom I've shot personally.

Even though 100 and 200 look very similar, 200 is a bit noisier as can be seen in these two beach shots when viewed at the large size.

When Fuji USA announced the S200EXR, they referred to the camera as a "bridge" unit offering a long zoom and excellent image quality without the bulk associated with the DSLR and its interchangeable lenses. They then went on to say users of the S200 would find their results "equal or superior to" DSLRs.

The S200EXR is an excellent camera and I would have to say the best ultrazoom overall that I've tested. Image quality is very good and no one in the class has better ISO performance. The camera offers a full range of manual and automatic shooting modes, and a host of user established settings to manipulate images in just about any conceivable way. Shutter lag is minimal. AF performance is on a par with the class competition.

As good as the S200EXR is, it still falls a bit short of many DSLR performance standards, particularly in the ISO noise arena. But as an ultrazoom that packs a modest wide angle to long telephoto capability in a package sized like an entry level DSLR with a short zoom lens, this Fuji is pretty hard to beat.


* Very good image quality
* Good shutter performance
* Best in class ISO performance
* RAW capability


* Cost
* Video trails competition
* 30.5 to 436mm lens range exceeded greatly by some competitors

Editor's Rating: Very Good


Friday, January 15, 2010

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FP8

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FP8

When Panasonic announced the Lumix DMC-FP8 (henceforth the FP8) in late July, a casual glance might impress onlookers that here was another rectangular, standard zoom compact digital with the 12 megapixel sensor resolution that seems to be almost obligatory in this class. More astute observers might have wondered where Panasonic put the lens, since the front of the camera was remarkably clean and appeared to house only a flash, an assist lamp and an electronic viewfinder.

Turns out the FP8 doesn't have a viewfinder but it does have a 4.6x Leica foldable optic zoom lens tucked into that small rounded rectangle on the upper right front of the body. Foldable optic means, among other things, that this lens never protrudes from the camera, zooming through its 28 to 128mm range (35mm equivalent) from behind the clear cover of the housing.

Panasonic also put in "high speed auto focus (AF)" and their new POWER O.I.S. (optical image stabilization) system that "doubles" the shake repression power of their earlier system, MEGA O.I.S. The processor is the current generation Venus Engine V, there's a 2.7 inch LCD monitor, approximately 40MB of internal memory and 720p HD video capability. The camera accepts SD/SDHC memory media and Panasonic includes a battery, battery case and charger, USB and A/V cables, basic printed operating instructions, CD-ROM software, a CD-ROM of complete operating instructions, and a hand strap with each camera.

The FP8's rectangular aluminum body fits the general "deck of cards/pack of cigarettes" size template that has been the standard for this class of camera for some time. It may be a bit slimmer than many competitors, but this difference doesn't really impact its shirt-pocket portability. The lack of a large, round lens centered on the front of the body is easily the most distinguishing characteristic and the camera has a solid, well-built look and feel. There are silver, black and red bodies available, depending on the sales area.

Ergonomics and Controls
Some subtle rounding and contouring of edges and a sort of terraced slope approach to the upper camera back are about the extent of the FP8's concessions to making the camera feel secure in the hand(s). The sloped part works well, but the attachment lug for the wrist strap protrudes from the right front of the camera body and lies right under the middle finger of the right hand during shooting. There are two ways to look at this - the protruding lug offers an additional bit of security in the grip, or an uncomfortable annoyance. I tended to find the latter more applicable.

The location of the lens on the FP8 brings up some potential to partially obscure its operation by users who tend to wrap their left fingers around the front of the camera when shooting, so a bit of attention to grip with the left hand is in order for you folks.

Aside from the relocation of the "set" button from the center of the directional buttons, control layout is straightforward and typical. Power, zoom/shutter, and intelligent auto buttons are arrayed across the top right of the camera body, with the record/playback selector switch just below on the sloping portion of the camera back.

The 2.7 inch LCD dominates the camera back and a vertical array of eight lighted control buttons sit alongside. The buttons illuminate briefly upon power-up and again when one is pushed, but the illumination is not sufficient to render the button descriptions legible in dim light - you'll need to push one and bring up the associated camera function unless you've committed the layout to memory.

The intelligent auto button is the selector for the camera's full auto shooting mode (all other shooting modes are selected via the control buttons on the camera back): a push of the button translates the camera into full auto, and a second push returns it to the previously selected mode.

Menus and Modes
Menus in the FP8 are fairly intuitive, which is good since the basic printed user's manual provided with the camera mentions the existence of "my scene" and "motion picture" shooting modes but offers not one word of advice on how to proceed if you've selected them. I had the same gripe about the Canon SX20 IS - a partial manual in the box with the complete document elsewhere - but this looks to be the way the industry is heading. At least Panasonic included a CD of the whole manual with the camera.

FP8 shooting modes are simple - much like Henry Ford's Model T that could be had in any color "so long as it is black" - the camera can shoot in any mode so long as it is automatic.

* Intelligent auto: full auto mode, with camera selecting aperture and shutter speed along with scene detection, stabilization, intelligent ISO, face detection, quick AF, intelligent exposure, digital red eye correction and backlight compensation. ISO can range from 80 to 1600 and scene detection chooses from portrait, night portrait, scenery, night scenery, baby or macro settings - if none of the scenes are applicable to the shooting scenario IA proceeds with the balance of the standard settings. User inputs are limited to burst or single shooting, picture size, LCD mode, and B&W or sepia color modes in addition to the default standard color and the face recognition feature of face detection.
* Normal picture: a program auto mode where the camera sets shutter speed and aperture but the user has a wide range of custom settings available, including picture size and quality, aspect ratio, intelligent ISO (which may have ceilings set by the user), ISO sensitivity, white balance, face recognition, AF mode, intelligent exposure, burst or single shooting, expanded color palette options and stabilizer mode.
* Scene: user selects from 28 shooting options and the camera establishes settings based on the particular scene with the user having some input available depending on the specific scene.
* My scene: allows the user to program 2 scenes from the scene menu for quick recall and the camera will establish settings according to the particular scene with user inputs limited to those available for the scene.
* Motion picture - can capture video at 1280x720 (HD), 848x480, 640x480 or 320x240 pixel resolutions, all at 30 fps. Video can be captured continuously up to a 2GB maximum per clip.

One of the scene modes is "photo frame" which provides the user three options to overlay a frame-like border on images - here are two of those.

The 2.7 inch LCD monitor is of 230,000 dot composition and is adjustable for seven levels of brightness. In addition, there is an LCD mode available in the quick menu that has three additional brightness settings including one designed to work at high angles of view. Any of the settings could be overcome by the right combination of bright outdoor lighting conditions, but the monitor was not too bad in all but the worst outdoor conditions.

Monitor coverage is listed as 100% - there is no viewfinder.

With a fairly pedestrian sounding sub-5x zoom and the ever-present 12 megapixel sensor, Panasonic has wisely chosen to spotlight the performance features of the camera (image quality, fast startup and autofocus times) as a means to set it apart from the competition. Somewhat surprisingly, they left out any mention of shutter lag, but they shouldn't have.

Shooting Performance
Panasonic claims a 0.95 second start up time for the FP8, and while the screen goes live in about that time, it's a bit longer before the focus icon is presented. Still, I managed a first shot in about 1.75 seconds after power up. Single shot-to-shot times (shoot, write, re-acquire focus and shoot) were about 2 seconds with a SanDisk Extreme III 20MB/s card. The camera produced 3 full resolution, high quality stills at a 2.2 fps rate in burst mode, and 5 at normal quality before the buffer took a break. The monitor blacks out briefly after the first two shots in burst and lags 1 shot behind, so panning with a fast moving subject can be problematic, even for the brief period the camera can shoot at full resolution. There is a high speed burst mode that fires at about 10fps with a brief blackout at the start of the burst, but resolution is limited to 3 megapixels or less.

AF acquisition times in good light were speedy across the range of the lens - we measured a 0.23 second press to capture time without pre-focus. Shutter lag came in at 0.01 seconds - this camera proved very quick to focus and shoot, and was quite pleasant to work with in good light. When I shot the camera for its first impression piece AF performance in low light appeared to be more in line with the class as a whole. After more extensive shooting in dim light the FP8 seems to do better than I first suspected - if there's anything with some contrast in range of the camera's focus assist beam it seems to acquire fairly quickly.

There are still times when the camera struggles like the rest in really poor conditions, but overall the FP8 was consistently faster to focus than the competition when lighting was good and generally faster when it wasn't.

Flash performance with the FP8 was very good with regard to recycle times with a fully charged battery. In moderate lighting conditions at wide angle and ISO 80, recycle times were in the high 2/low 3 second range. Shots in the same conditions at telephoto recycled in under 4 seconds. Switching to auto ISO produced similar times, and shots designed to produce a full discharge (80 ISO, telephoto, pitch black conditions) ran just over 4 seconds. At auto ISO flash range varies from almost 18 feet at wide angle to a bit over 10 feet at telephoto, but shooting at the low ISO sensitivities that produce the best noise performance impacts flash range dramatically - just less than 4 feet and 2 feet respectively for wide angle and telephoto at 80 ISO.

Panasonic rates the FP8 battery for 380 shots using a CIPA standard that generally produces accurate results in my experience. Our review FP8 produced 265 shots and about 7 minutes of video before the battery "fuel gauge" dropped to the last third, so this figure seems reasonable. Carry a spare battery for all-day shooting sessions.

Lens Performance
The Leica aspherical DC Vario-Elmar lens in the FP8 is "composed of 10 elements in 8 groups, including 1 ED lens and 5 aspherical lenses with 6 aspherical surfaces," not to mention the folding optics aspect which does away with the fixed lens barrel. In very general terms, the inclusion of aspherical elements is an attempt to optimize image quality at the edges of the frame while the ED lens is aimed at improving contrast and sharpness by reducing chromic aberration (purple fringing).

The FP8 was a bit soft in the corners at wide angle, but pretty good along the edges otherwise; corners were a bit better at telephoto and edges stayed comparable to wide angle. There was minimal barrel distortion at wide angle and a bit more pincushion distortion at telephoto, but both defects were slight. Chromic aberration was present in some images with high contrast boundary areas, but it too was slight and, overall, well-controlled.

The lens is a bit slower than the competition at both ends of the range - f/3.3 at wide angle and f/5.9 at telephoto, but this is perhaps the price you pay for optical performance that is quite good otherwise. A slower lens means the camera will have to resort to increasing ISO sensitivity to maintain fast shutter speeds sooner than the competition, bringing into play the noise problems associated with higher ISOs. The camera can focus at just under 2 inches in macro mode.

While mounting a nominally 4.6x optical zoom lens, the FP8 has another trick up its sleeve to push that ratio out to as much as 9.1x (although at reduced resolution). In any still shooting mode where you can reduce the image resolution size to 8 megapixels or lower, the FP8 will enable "extended optical zoom" and capture images from only the center of the sensor, resulting in higher magnifications from the increasingly cropped sensor. An 8 megapixel image permits a 5.7x zoom; 5 megapixels permits 7.3x and 3 megapixels or lower produces a 9.1x. Panasonic claims no loss in image quality from this process. Here are shots at the standard 4.6x telephoto zoom as well as the 8, 5 and 3 megapixel sizes for comparison.

Panasonic shared some details of their new "POWER" optical image stabilization (O.I.S) system with us, and it appears the performance gains have been realized primarily through improved efficiency rather than a radical departure from the basic design of the older MEGA O.I.S. system:

Panasonic's O.I.S system includes gyrosensors detecting handshake and the lens system shifts to compensate, helping to prevent handshake from creating a blurry image. Power O.I.S. offers double the repression power of Panasonic's previous optical image stabilization system, MEGA O.I.S. The mechanical process itself is the same, the repression power has just doubled and is now more effective for at least an addition 2-3 shutter stops.

With the ability of the FP8 to utilize that extended optical zoom, any increase in stabilization capability is a welcome addition to a camera whose telephoto can run out to as much as about 254mm at reduced resolutions.

Video Quality
HD video quality on the FP8 seemed on a par with or perhaps slightly better than class competition. The zoom function of the lens is available during video, but it's rapid and hard to control with regard to making a smooth transition from wide to telephoto, or vice-versa. The microphone proved sensitive but also susceptible to wind noise in light airs. Panasonic recommends a media card with at least 10MB/sec performance for video purposes.

Image Quality
Default images out of the FP8 were generally good as to color rendition and overall image quality and sharpness - there are no in-camera adjustments to image sharpness or contrast per se in either the shooting or playback menus. Exposure compensation is available in shooting modes other than intelligent auto.

Normal picture mode provides an expanded color palette of seven color and monotone shooting options - here are the standard (default), normal, vivid and b&w settings.

Auto white balance did a good job with a variety of lighting conditions including bright sun, overcast/cloudy, open shade, flash and the yellow sodium vapor lamps used in many local cities to help the astronomers at the nearby Palomar Mountain observatory. The camera shot quite warm under incandescent light in the studio. There are daylight, cloudy, shade, and halogen presets along with a custom white balance option.

Intelligent multiple metering that reads points across the entire image in determining exposure is the only method available.

Panasonic didn't break any new ground with ISO noise performance in the FP8. The 80 and 100 ISO crop shots are fairly clean but look somewhat soft, with noise beginning to become apparent at 200, and to a greater extent at 400.

ISO 800 sees a significant drop in image quality and 1600 takes another significant turn for the worse. In the 80 and 100 ISO range, the FP8 is probably average in comparison to top competitors, and perhaps as well at 200. From 400 and up the Panasonic seems to fall behind the best 12 megapixel compacts I've come across. The full frames don't look too bad across the board, which is the norm, and the higher ISOs are probably usable as long as print sizes stay small.

When I reviewed the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX35 back in March 2008 I was impressed enough with that camera's overall performance to buy one for my sister. Subsequent Panasonic offerings that have crossed my path for review purposes didn't produce the same warm and fuzzy feelings as the FX35, but the FP8 has reversed that trend.

The FP8 is a desirable camera by virtue of its sparkling AF performance and speedy shutter lag alone - the camera acquires focus quickly across a broad range of lighting conditions and then takes the shot with little delay. The camera also powers up quickly, recycles its flash promptly and provides a lens that captures images with minimal distortion and defects. There's a 720p HD video capability for those who shoot movies.

ISO noise performance looks average at the lower sensitivities, but at 400 and above it appears to lag a bit behind the best 12 megapixel compacts I've reviewed. The lens maximum apertures are slower than most of the competition, which isn't a good combination with the unremarkable ISO performance.

With only automatic shooting modes the FP8 will appeal primarily to folks seeking minimal involvement in the image capture process, but Panasonic has put in enough user options in the normal shooting mode to keep the more advanced shooters interested, particularly once they get a taste of that speedy AF and almost non-existent shutter lag.


* Very good AF performance
* Very good shutter lag
* Good image quality, largely defect free
* Good flash recycle times


* ISO noise performance below average at 400 and up
* Minimal flash range at low ISO

Editor's Rating: Very Good


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Canon PowerShot SX120 IS Review

Canon's SX series of PowerShot cameras this year are a lot like last year's, with the same form factor and most of the same features. The differences aren't major, and with the PowerShot SX120 IS, it offers only a slight change in resolution from its older brother the PowerShot SX110 IS, moving from 9 megapixels to 10 megapixels in the SX120 IS.

The other change is in the processing of the SX120 IS, sporting the tenable DIGIC 4 chip, which has been proven in many newer Canons to work better in low-light and to provide superior image quality and color reproduction.

That being said, the PowerShot SX120 IS has a lot going for it, even if the differences are subtle. Sometimes the small things are the biggest in stature when you're looking at them up close. That's the case here.

In the August 2009 announcement of the new PowerShot SX models, we saw the move from the SX110 IS and SX10 IS to the newer SX120 IS and SX20 IS. Some of the shared features of the SX110 IS and the SX120 IS are a 10x optical zoom, a 3.0 inch LCD, manual control, in-camera processing, the same exact dimensions and weight, and the fact that they both takes AA batteries.

The SX120 IS offers only minor changes to the SX110 IS, including advanced face detection, slightly smaller 1/2.5 inch image sensor (the SX110 IS has a 1/2.3 inch CCD) and enhanced battery life when using the power save mode. Although they haven't changed much in terms of designs or features for this model refresh, Canon's mentality is sort of like Photoshop's for their SX series it seems - keeping what people are used to using in new software, and then easing in new features with an upgrade so as not to alienate their customers.

But is the SX120 IS worth the upgrade if you already use the SX110 IS? I'll seek an answer to that question below. Skip to the third page conclusions now if you are impatient (like me).

The Canon PowerShot SX120 IS is the spitting image of the SX110 IS, so not much can be said to those who already own this older generation model. It is the same size, weight and has the same exterior controls as the SX110 IS. The best way I can describe the design is to call it "boxy."

The body is constructed of hard plastic. It is sort of reminiscent of an older 35mm automatic film camera, as if Canon had left plenty of room for a film canister and crank. It feels retro grade, but again, it's the same as most of the previous generations of SX PowerShot digital cameras, so there's no new ground to be broken in design.

Though slightly chunky, the SX120 would still fit in your pocket if you were to force it enough. If you attempt ths, be careful of external flash - it's an analog pop-up that you push up with your fingers. That's an awesome feature when you want total control over the flash, but more about that further on down. It sort of looks like a pared down Micro Four Thirds camera, like the Olympus E-P1 or the Panasonic GH1, minus the interchangeable lens. Don't let that fool you, though, the SX120 offers a nice zoom range with a 36-360mm with the 10x optical zoom power.

Ergonomics and Controls
The size and weight are the same, we already know that, but the dimensions are 4.35x2.77x1.76 inches and weighing in at 8.64 oz. (camera body only) - exactly alike in both models. It has a nice handgrip on for the right hand, a mode dial with various automatic shooting modes as well as manual options like aperture priority and program auto.

The lens is retractable but still protrudes out, looking like a pancake prime lens when it's fully retracted. The shutter release also houses the zoom lever, left for wide and right for telephoto. The bottom of the SX120 is the trap door hatch for an SD/SDHC card and AA batteries. This part of the camera feels a bit chintzy, and every time I needed to change out batteries or remove my memory card it felt like I was going to break it.

The back layout of the camera is identical to the SX110 (I know you're already tired of hearing that comparison). The controls are comprised of a playback button, face detection, exposure compensation, func/set button, a scroll wheel to maneuver through the menus, a display button and direct access menu button on the very bottom, all of which are easy to use and to understand.

So you're asking yourself by now, is this the same camera as the previous model with just a new sensor size chip and a processing engine as well? The answer is, sort of, minus a few subtle nuances.

Menus and Modes
Canon doesn't often deviate from their menu system of the last five years or so, which is a good thing if you hate learning new menus every time you buy a digital camera. It is, once again, very easy to use and intuitive.

The menu, activated easily by pressing the menu button, presents the user with option tabs for camera settings or a setup menu. The setup menu exists mostly to provide access to the more advanced settings, format your memory card, or change the LCD brightness. The menu you'll utilize more often is accessed through the function button. It's especially useful in advanced shooting modes and allows you to change settings like white balance, My Colors, metering and exposure compensation without menu diving.

On the mode dial, you'll find your auto and easy mode, along with thirteen total shooting modes. It also has a specific SCN or Special Scene mode that takes you into a sub menu of seven different scenarios, including Foliage, Snow, Beach, Sunset, Fireworks, Aquarium, and ISO 3200.
Here is a rundown of what is on the mode dial:

* Auto
* Easy Auto: Easiest point-and-shoot mode, it requires you to do nothing but press the shutter.
* Portrait
* Landscape
* Night Snapshot
* Kids & Pets
* Indoor
* SCN: Has the 7 different scene modes besides the others on the mode dial.
* Movie Mode

More advanced control settings are:

* Manual: Allows you to set aperture, shutter speed, ISO, exposure compensation and white balance, and any other factors you introduce.
* Aperture Priority: Allows you to set your aperture speed while the camera chooses the optimal shutter speed.
* Shutter Priority: Allows you to control shutter speed while the camera decides the best aperture for the conditions.
* Programmed AE: Automatically sets aperture, shutter speed, but allows you to control exposure compensation, white balance and ISO speed.

The real estate on the back of most modern point-and-shoots doesn't easily accommodate a viewfinder, and an LCD offers certain advantages. This LCD provides 100% coverage, therefore allowing you to compose the shot exactly as you want it to be. Even in some DSLRs you will often get more picture than you see in the viewfinder because the area of coverage is below 100%, sometimes making it hard to frame your shot because you don't know exactly what you're going to get. The tradeoff is that an LCD is sometimes difficult to use in direct sunlight, and an optical viewfinder is often a nice tool to fall back on in bright conditions.

The SX120 IS has a big LCD that is comparable to most cameras in its class when it comes to resolution and size. The 230,000-pixel resolution monitor is quite vibrant and bright, faithfully displays your shots in playback mode, and matches precisely what you see when you upload the same image onto your computer. Even some of the details visible on-screen while I was in the field showed me blurry areas of the frame without zooming in with the lever, making it easy for me to delete and reshoot when it was an issue.

The one issue that I did find with the LCD is the slow playback and sluggish speed between operations. The LCD is also noticeably slower in power saver mode.

The PowerShot SX120 IS is in a bit of an unusual class. It's bigger than most point-and-shoots with a 10x optical zoom. But, it's also small enough to skirt around or put it in a coat pocket, and I mostly kept it ready at the helm of my palm when I went into my local park.

Shooting Performance
Upon start up of the SX120 there is a little bit of a delay, which I would calculate to be only a few seconds, making it easy to fire it up and get the shot you need quickly. I was able to do just that.

Once you're ready to start shooting, you have a best in class shutter lag (press-to-capture) speed of 0.01 seconds. Between single shots, it took approximately 2.5-3 seconds to capture, refocus, and then capture again.

AF acquisition was a little behind the competition, ranking in third place at 0.68 seconds among four other cameras tested in our lab. Field-testing showed the camera finding AF in low light slightly slower than the controlled environment, but still fast, even in low light. The camera bumps up the ISO to utilize faster shutter speeds, often creating a pretty noisy image, even though it can focus faster in low light. I guess it's a tradeoff.

Continuous shooting results were 0.78 fps at full resolution. I tested the camera to see how consistent this was in Continuous AF mode, and the camera kept firing off way past 35 shots until my batteries were about drained. Overall continuous shooting is decent, but the shot to shot ratio is good if you want to shoot some action (but bring extra batteries if so). The shutter can be set to a maximum of 1/1600th of a second - pretty fast for a point-and-shoot.

Flash performance is good, and the SX120 IS allows for control over the intensity and exposure compensation of the flash. The best part is that you can enact it whenever you want to by simply flipping up the flash. Choices include slow synchro for less intensity and full flash for a more encompassing shot.

I thought the Slow Synchro was better and offered a more natural look, while the full flash was somewhat overbearing at close range.

The battery power is one of the biggest issues as far as performance goes. The SX120 IS is rated at 130 shots for an alkaline and 370 shot with a Ni-MH Battery. I suggest going in on some NiMHs, because field shooting and some of the tests I conducted ate up a lot of power.

Lens Performance
The SX120 IS has a 10x optical zoom and a reasonably fast f/2.8 aperture at wide angle to f/4.3 at the telephoto end. The focal range covers a 36mm wide to 360mm telephoto and has a close focusing distance at macro of 0.4 inches.

There is some barrel distortion at wide-angle with some softness around the corners of the frame.

I did find some chromatic aberration at high contrast areas, though I could only find it when I blew up the images to about 400%. Purple fringing anywhere in a photo is undesirable, but it's controlled comparatively well and doesn't pose much of a problem.

The IS in SX120 IS stands for Image Stabilization, and Canon has developed one of the best and most effective systems to date. Image stabilization can be activated for continuous, shot only and panning operation. This gives you a few stops of light so that, ideally, you don't end up with so many blurry images at telephoto focal ranges. In the case of the PowerShot SX120 IS, this statement holds true. I was able to shoot at telephoto, enact the IS and come up with a steady shot every time, even when light was scarce.

Video Quality
There's not much to write about as far as video quality, other than to say it's sufficient for standard resolution (640x480 at 30 fps). Video mode is accessed by through the mode dial.

Image Quality
Canon has built a brand on reliable cameras that are known for great image reproduction and processing. The SX120 IS can capture vibrant hues and provides several processing options with their My Colors settings. Options include default, vivid, neutral, sepia, black and white and custom color. The blues and reds captured with the SX120 were spot on, and neutral colors like green and brown differed depending on the processing prompt you were using, e.g., vivid brought out darker hues of green and brown, and neutral made colors look sort of flat.

I preferred using the vivid mode for my landscape shots and neutral for any architecture. In both cases, I got some pretty accurate shots, and was able to capture the images how I saw them.

The i-Contrast feature is among one of the new features that most camera manufacturers have developed and it's designed to bring out more highlight details in dark areas of your frame. In the case of the SX120 IS, it works perfectly. My sample shot with i-Contrast off shows a dark doorway with very little detail in the shadowed areas. With i-Contrast turned on, I got a wider range of color and detail.

Auto White Balance works great for most situations, including shaded areas and high contrast scenes. The incandescent studio shots turned out warm, but different options like daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, and custom will generally help the user find the right balance for shooting conditions.

The PowerShot SX120 IS provides three metering options:

* Evaluative: default setting that calculates light for the entire frame
* Center-weighted: factors in more emphasis to the subject in the middle of the frame
* Spot: measures only a small portion of the frame

Overall, evaluative worked for most situations and gave me a well-balanced exposure, however, when trying to emphasize contrast in a frame, you can't go wrong with spot metering.

The SX120 IS is almost exactly the same camera as the SX110 IS that was released last year at the same time, minus the processing chip, resolution and features like advanced face detection. It has the same body size and design, the same construction, operation and controls, and the same focal length.

It also shares the same purple fringing problems, ISO performance, and maximum aperture ratings at wide angle and telephoto. So is it worth the upgrade for SX110 IS owners? That's a tough call. But if you don't currently own an SX110, and you're looking for a camera with great optics, excellent image quality, full manual control, and a reasonable price tag, then the SX120 IS is a no-brainer.


* Good/faithful image quality
* Big LCD
* Good performance timings
* Full manual control
* Fast lens for its class
* Exceptional image processing


* Chromatic Aberrations/Purple Fringing
* Same design as last year's model
* ISO performance not up to snuff with other current models
* Have to use the CD-ROM to read the advanced manual

Editor's Rating: Very Good


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 Review

The Panasonic Lumix GF1 is the lastest member of the Micro Four Thirds family. But before Micro Four Thirds, there was Four Thirds. With Olympus having produced relatively small film SLRs since at least the early 1970s, it was probably no surprise that they would partner with Kodak to introduce the Four Thirds System standard (with its sub APS-C sized sensor) as they prepared to move into the digital age. The smaller sensor helped the company produce diminutive DSLRs that carried on the Olympus tradition.

In early August 2008, Olympus and Panasonic announced the joint development of the Micro Four Thirds System standard which will permit "... the development of radically more compact and lightweight interchangeable lens type digital camera systems based on the Micro Four Thirds System standard." That press release continued:

"When compared to the Four Thirds System standard, the primary distinguishing characteristics of the Micro Four Thirds System standard are:

1. Approximately 50% shorter flangeback distance (mount-to-sensor distance)
2. 6mm smaller lens mount outer diameter
3. Electrical contacts in mount increased from 9 to 11

* Image sensor diagonal dimensions are the same for both Four Thirds System and Micro Four Thirds System standards."

That asterisked part is significant - the Panasonic GF1 we're testing today has the same physical-sized sensor as the top gun in the Olympus DSLR fleet, the E-3, but without the bulky mirror assembly of the DSLR. The net result is a fairly compact digital that can make use of not only the two Panasonic-branded lenses currently offered in-box with the camera, but some 20 Leica M/R lenses and 30 Four Thirds System lenses (with appropriate adaptors).

Sensor resolution is 12.1 megapixels and there are full manual and auto controls, plus a palette of user-established settings that rival DSLRs in number and scope. You can shoot in RAW if you choose, or RAW/JPEG combinations, and there's 1280x720 HD video in AVCHD Lite (which is more memory efficient than Motion JPEG) or Motion JPEG formats. Because of space considerations inherent in the Micro Four Thirds System, a 3.0 inch LCD monitor operating in Live View is the only means of image composition and framing for capture. An electronic view finder may be added as an option and there's a built-in dust reduction system.

The camera uses SD/SDHC memory media, and Panasonic includes a battery charger/AC adapter, battery pack, body cap, AV cable, USB connection cable, AC cable, DC cable, shoulder strap and CD-ROM software with each camera.

Panasonic would seem to have all the hardware in place to produce "pro-level picture quality in an ultra compact design" - the same sensor size as the top Olympus DSLR, a quiver of interchangeable lenses from various makers, and a camera body that is undeniably compact (in comparison to DSLRs and the larger ultrazooms). Let's see how all this comes together in the field.

The GF1 body tapes out at 2.8x4.69x1.43 inches - bigger than the deck of cards/pack of cigarettes template of the typical compact point and shoot, but very small for a camera with an interchangeable lens capability. The body is metal, seems well built and solid, and is finished with matte black paint.

Ergonomics and Controls
Featuring an overall rectangular body with rounded edges, the GF1 has a slight ridge running vertically on the right front of the body and a small thumb rest on the upper right rear. The thumb and forefinger of the right hand fall naturally to the thumb rest and shutter button, respectively.

This design and layout contributes to a fairly secure feeling during one-handed shooting, but folks moving into a GF1 from more traditional compacts may take a while to get used to the added weight - the GF1 comes in at almost 10 ounces without a lens, and the 14-45 zoom adds another 6.9 ounces.

Overall, camera balance and feel were good with this lens, and Panasonic has wisely placed no controls or sensors on the left front of the camera body that is the natural resting point for the left thumb during two-handed shooting.

One concern to prospective buyers might be if the handling characteristics experienced with the 14-45mm lens carry over when longer and heavier lenses are mounted on the camera. Switching to a faster and longer 50-200mm Zuiko zoom adds over 1.5 pounds, an inch of diameter and about 4 inches of lens length. If you think your future includes a longer lens for the GF1, try before you buy to make sure you can live with the bigger glass.

The top and back of the camera body contain all external controls and my right thumb overlapped the white balance, ISO and delete buttons to a degree, but there were no accidental activations in my time shooting the camera.

The motion picture button on the right top of the body allows you to record video with a single push from whatever shooting mode the camera is set in; a second push stops recording and returns you to the previously selected shooting mode.

Menus and Modes
As you might expect from a camera with interchangeable lenses, the GF1 has a DSLR-like forest of menus and sub-menus, and are fortunately fairly intuitive to navigate. For example, in the manual shooting modes, the record menu runs five pages alone. Then, if you select the film mode (color shooting options) sub-menu you're presented with another page that details the current selection (vibrant) along with contrast, sharpness, saturation and noise reduction adjustments. Right and left arrows next to vibrant indicate there are other color options available through scrolling (and accompanied by the same mix of adjustments for each color choice).

The GF1 also has a handy quick menu button that calls up select settings that might ordinarily be adjustments you'd like to make on the fly: a wide range of settings for manual modes with fewer options for the automatic modes.

There are nine primary shooting modes:

* Intelligent auto: fully automatic mode with camera handling most settings; user can select standard color or B&W, stabilizer mode, movie record mode/quality, still image aspect ratio, image quality and LCD mode.
* My color: fully auto shooting mode that offers 7 preset color effects, plus a custom setting; user adjustments are same as for intelligent auto.
* Scene: fully auto mode that offers 17 specific scene shooting options; user adjustments are same as for intelligent auto.
* C1/C2: fully auto modes that allow user to establish a custom shooting mode; offers expanded flash and film mode options compared to intelligent auto and adds intelligent exposure, AF mode, metering mode, exposure compensation, ISO sensitivity and white balance adjustments.
* Motion Picture P: captures video at 1280x720 resolution in either AVCHD Lite or Motion JPEG formats; there are 3 quality levels for AVCHD Lite and Motion JPEG may also record at 848x480, 640x480 or 320x240 resolutions. Playback speed is 30fps for both formats.
* Program Auto: auto mode with camera setting aperture and shutter speed; user has extensive setting options (the complete five page record menu), with flash, film mode, white balance, stabilizer mode, movie record mode and quality, aspect ratio/picture size, quality (RAW/JPEG), LCD mode, intelligent exposure, AF and metering modes, exposure compensation, aperture/shutter speed and ISO sensitivity available via quick menu.
* Aperture priority: user sets aperture, camera sets shutter speed; user inputs same as program auto.
* Shutter priority: user sets shutter speed, camera sets aperture; user inputs same as program auto.
* Manual: user sets aperture and shutter speed; user inputs same as program auto.

The GF1 boasts a 3.0 inch LCD monitor with approximately 460,000 dot composition, 7 levels of adjustment for brightness and 100% coverage. Unfortunately, there are times in bright outdoor light when the monitor can be difficult to see, even with the range of adjustments available.

There is an optional live view finder (an electronic view finder) available from Panasonic, but details on Panasonic USA's website are somewhat sketchy and we didn't get a chance to try one for this review. It offers 100% coverage and is of 202,000 dot composition, with a diopter adjustment to fit a range of eyesight. MSRP for the finder is about $200 USD.

With reading glasses now a permanent part of my wardrobe, cameras with only monitors for image composition and capture are a pain - glasses pushed down on the nose so I can see over them to locate the subject, then tip the head back to see through the glasses so the monitor is clear.

With interchangeable lenses and a sensor the same size as that in the Olympus DSLR flagship, you'd expect the GF1 might provide some real punch in the image quality department, and you wouldn't be disappointed. This camera can allow a novice plenty of point-and-shoot type options for automatic image capture yet provide an experienced user with ample tools to create to their heart's content.

Shooting Performance
The GF1 powers up quickly and displayed a focus icon in about 0.7 seconds - I got off a first shot just 0.96 seconds after powering up. Single shot-to-shot times ran about 0.9 seconds - continuous shooting with full resolution, standard quality JPEGS rang up about 3.1 fps for 10 frames, and even with fine quality JPEGS the camera managed over 2 fps.

The GF1 was perfectly content to continue on past 10, but we called a halt at that point. There's about a 0.3 or 0.4 second blackout after the first shot in the burst with fine quality, and about half that with standard quality, while images lag one shot behind the monitor - it's still easier to follow moving subjects with a DSLR, but the GF1 is much better at it than any other compact digital I've reviewed. Shutter lag came in at 0.02 seconds.

AF acquisition times are good - we measured a 0.32 second press to capture time with no pre-focus. Not quite as good as the better entry-level DSLRs, but right in stride with the middle of the pack.

The flash on the GF1 is not particularly powerful, and with the fairly slow 14-45mm zoom lens we had for this review the range was given as 3.28 feet to about 11.2 feet at auto ISO. Shooting at 100 ISO from distances of about 5 and 7 feet respectively in program auto mode, the GF1 was at the edge of its flash performance envelope.

Fortunately, the GF1 enjoys good higher ISO performance, so bumping up the ISO to 400 gives the flash the extra distance needed to produce brighter shots while retaining good image quality.

Flash recycle times at 100 ISO with a fresh battery were good - under 3 seconds for partial discharges in moderate lighting conditions and about 4.5 for full discharges in pitch black conditions. You'll want to lose the lens hood for flash photography - it casts a shadow in the lower right portion of the frame.

Lens Performance
The Panasonic 14-45mm zoom lens is fairly slow, with maximum apertures of f/3.5 and f/5.6 at the wide and telephoto ends, respectively. There is a tiny bit of barrel distortion at the wide end of the zoom, and negligible pin cushion distortion at telephoto. Edges are a bit soft at wide angle, but telephoto is pretty good across the frame.

There was a bit of chromic aberration (purple fringing) from time to time in high contrast boundary areas, but this was generally difficult to see at anything under about 300% enlargement - very good performance overall from this lens.

While the lens has a nominal zoom multiplication of about 3.2x, Panasonic has included their extended optical zoom feature that bumps this factor up by capturing images at reduced resolutions using only the center portion of the sensor.

The 14-45 lens is stabilized, with an on/off switch located on the lens barrel. The GF1 allows selection from three stabilization modes via menu - continuous, when the shutter button is pushed, or during panning.

Video Quality
The AVCHD Lite movie mode is recommended for video that will be viewed on a HDTV, and Motion JPEG for computer/internet viewing. Unfortunately, the software included with the GF1 for AVCHD playback didn't like my 64 bit Vista platform (or vice versa) so I had to do all my viewing on the camera itself. AVCHD records at 60 progressive frames per second, but the output is at 30 fps - I understand this is good for action and high speed, but I couldn't really tell much difference between it and Motion JPEG on the small screen. The Motion JPEGs looked good on the computer - video quality is quite good with this camera.

Zoom is available during video and the continuous AF catches up with zooms fairly quickly. The microphone is quite sensitive to wind noise and there are three menu settings to help reduce its impact. Motion JPEGs are limited to 2GB file size; AVCHD can go as long as 110 minutes.

Image Quality
Default images out of the GF1 were very good with regard to color, quality and sharpness, and if you shoot program auto or any of the manual modes you have a wealth of adjustments to manipulate the final result. Here are the standard, dynamic, nature, smooth, nostalgic and vibrant film modes.

Multiple metering is the default and did a good job overall. There were some lost highlights in bright contrasty scenes, but overall these were relatively isolated. Center-weighted and spot metering options are also available.

ISO noise performance predictably left compact digitals in the dust, and fell a stop or two shy of the best DSLR performance with APS-C sized sensors. The Micro Four Thirds System standard sensor is much larger than the 1/2.3" sensors that are found in so many compacts, yet about only 2/3rds as large as an APS-C sensor. With everybody putting 12 megapixels on their respective sensors, it's usually the guy with the biggest sensor who wins.

The GF1 is very clean through the 400 ISO crops, with just a hint of noise starting to creep in at 800. There's a bit more degradation at 1600 but that value is still quite good, but 3200 definitely shows the effects of rising noise levels.

The GF1 is an interesting camera with the potential to attract a wide cross-section of users. On the one hand it can appeal to novice shooters with its host of automatic and scene shooting modes, face recognition technology and compact size. More experienced hands will find a broad expanse of manual controls and adjustments to suit the fussiest of users, along with that compact size. It's small, light and slots into the gap between high end compacts and the DSLR.

The camera focuses quickly, has good shutter response and a decent continuous shooting rate. Image and video quality are very good, ISO performance leaves true compact digitals far behind, and there's a bunch of lenses that will mount on the camera with proper adaptors, and, depending on their age, provide partial to full compatibility.

On the downside, there's an adaptor for legacy Four Thirds lenses: MSRP about $170. Another for Leica M lenses at about $250, and yet a third for Leica R lenses at another $250. An electronic view finder will set you back about $200. Get one of each to go with the $900 GF1 and you're approaching $1800. A Nikon D90 and stabilized 18-200 lens will set you back under $1600, give better high ISO performance and a higher continuous shooting rate (at least for a time).

But the Nikon is much larger and heavier, and there lies the attraction of the GF1 - it puts out quality images from a relatively compact and light camera. I don't mind lugging my DSLRs around, but if I ever needed near-DSLR performance without the weight, the GF1 would be an easy choice to make.


* Light and relatively compact
* Very good image and video quality
* Good AF and shutter response
* Shoots RAW
* One button video recording


* Cost
* Monitor only standard, view finder optional


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1

I first got my hands on Sony's current flagship ultrazoom, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1, all the way back at PMA 2009. A lot can change in the camera world in nine months, but when you're talking about a point-and-shoot (albeit an expensive one) that can fire off full-res frames at a rate of ten per second, the HX1 hasn't lost much of its allure in nearly a year since its release.

We reported in some depth back in January on the camera's high-speed shooting functions, and just in case you were waiting anxiously, we won't keep you in suspense: yes, this camera is as fast as they say it is. In fact, if sports or wildlife shooting is your focus but you don't have the cash for a high-speed, high-end DSLR, the combination of 20x zoom and 10 fps makes the HX1 the obvious front-runner among this year's ultrazooms. In this case, the better question becomes how the camera performs for the rest of us, shooting in a lot of more "everyday" environments.

The Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 is a new ultrazoom, extending the basic platform of Sony's long-lens H-models into the realms of high-speed shooting and 1080p HD video capture. Under the hood, the biggest change for the HX1 compared to older H cameras comes in the form of the new model's 9.0 megapixel Exmor CMOS sensor. Boasting slightly lower resolution than Sony's current H20 ultrazoom (which rings in at 10.1 megapixels), the HX1's CMOS chip promises some distinct advantages - lower noise, (much) faster continuous shooting, and high-def video.

Sony coupled this new imager to a 20x optically stabilized Sony G lens. Covering the equivalent of 28-560mm, the new glass is competitive with the current crop of 18-24x long-zoom cams out there, though it's worth noting that Sony has reverted to its own high-end "G" branding for this optic, rather than designing the glass in conjunction with long-time optics partner Carl Zeiss. With 10 element/13 group construction and built-in checks on optical concerns like chromatic aberration, though, the new lens promises exceptional sharpness across an impressive range - a promise that the HX1 definitely keeps, according to our performance testing below.

The rest of the HX1's feature set is standard fare for a high-end Sony, including advanced face detection, the previously mentioned multi-mode optical image stabilization, and panorama shooting mode, and automatic scene recognition. Supporting the Cyber-shot's advanced video functions, you'll find a stereo mic built in between the camera's flash and electronic viewfinder. The HX1 draws power from one of the more long-lasting lithium-ion packs I've encountered in a while (consistently good for more than 400 shots in our field tests). HD video output is provided via an onboard HDMI connector, which works in conjunction with the HX1's frighteningly enormous multi-connection cable.

Of course, buying a Sony - unless it's a newer Alpha DSLR - still requires coming to terms with the manufacturer's proprietary Memory Stick storage format. We've griped enough over the use about Sony's dogmatism in this area that it's hardly worth rehashing here: after all, how and where a camera stores its files (generally) has next to no impact on how well it functions as a picture-taker. That said, it is worth noting that the HX1's use of the small-format Memory Stick Duo/PRO Duo cards means you may have trouble finding a card reader to accept your storage media without an adapter. (To wit, shots from a friend's wedding languished on the card for more than a month until I was finally able to dig up the required, and until recently, misplaced, converter.)

Ergonomics and Controls
In hand, the HX1 feels very much like previous Sony H cams - and similar to a lot of other models in this class floating around out there these days. Construction is mostly plastic, with a slick polished metal surround on the lens barrel, and feels quite robust on all counts. In spite of lots of zoom range and relatively bright apertures (the HX1 registers f/2.8 at 28mm), the Cyber-shot's retracting lens doesn't dominate the rest of the camera in terms size, weight, or balance, and on the whole, the device is actually slightly smaller than most of its competition. It's not quite pocket size, but it's also significantly easier to stuff in a purse or small backpack than a lot of 20x ultrazooms.

Controls are logically placed, if not always logically labeled. And if you're phobic about devices with lots of buttons, the HX1 will definitely have the power to raise your blood pressure. With a lot of dedicated buttons - including keys for setting focus and drive modes, toggling between the viewfinder and EVF, changing flash and macro settings, as well as user-defined custom button - the HX1 takes some getting used to, though the most commonly used of these controls seemed to "find a home" under my fingers fairly quickly.

The HX1 combines a heads-up display with basic shooting controls like exposure compensation with both sidebar and page menus for more in-depth settings and setup work. If you're the kind who eschews reading manuals, accessing the parameters displayed on the shooting screen - crucial options like exposure compensation and ISO, as well as shutter and aperture settings in the camera's manual modes - may be baffling at first. The secret to getting at these basic adjustments? The HX1's thumbwheel (which sits just behind the mode dial) functions as both dial and button: press in on the wheel to "click in" to the menu, and click again to jump between available options within the menu. Somewhat more logically, the dial itself allows you to adjust the selected value up or down.

Menus and Modes
No big changes here: the HX1's sidebar and page menus are similar to what we've seen on previous Sony Cyber-shots. Graphically, they are very slick, with lots of icons and multi-tier layering. Functionally, they've never been my favorite. Without lots of high-level divisions, it's not always easy to find the option you're looking for - doubly so if you're trying to make a rapid settings change in order to capture "the shot." The press-to-enter page menu, which contains most of the camera's top-level setup options, retains the confusing structure seen in previous Cyber-shots.

It's not surprising that a camera with lots of buttons also packs in lots of modes. Designed to meet the needs of newbies and enthusiasts in generally equal measure, the HX1 combines low-input options like Sony's trademark Easy mode with P/A/S/M options for shooters seeking full control.

To the casual observer, the HX1's inclusion of panorama, twilight, and anti-shake modes don't seem to do much to set the HX1 apart from other cameras in this class. Cast your memory back to the HX1's launch announcement, though, and you'll remember that this camera uses its CMOS sensor and copious processing power to offer a unique take on these settings. The most novel (and, amazingly, useful) of these three, in my view, is the panorama option. Rather than requiring the shooter to engage in the onerous task of lining up the camera carefully in order to stitch three or more shots together, the HX1 exploits its rapid-fire abilities to pull together some pretty impressive captures.

What's unique is not the panorama itself, but how it's created: simply set up the camera at one end of the shot you want to frame, press the shutter release, and quickly sweep the camera horizontally (or vertically - the HX1 does portrait panoramas as well). The Cyber-shot takes several shots in rapid succession and then stitches them together in-camera to produce the final shot. In addition to being one of the more seamless images I've seen from an in-camera panorama mode, the ease of use scores the Sony big points for this more-than-a-novelty feature.

The HX1 also packs in a low-light shooting option, which takes advantage of a similar process of overlaying several images to produce a single low-noise shot. As with the panorama mode, the results are surprisingly good - though we found this mode finicky if anything moves too much within your frame during the capture.

Finally, the anti-shake mode takes advantage of the same kind of multi-shot recombination utilized in the other two modes. In this case, I had trouble finding a situation in which this mode was able to provide more of an advantage than what you get from the camera's optical image stabilization alone. And as before, anti-shake mode doesn't deal with subject motion well - a potentially important consideration in this case.

The HX1 features a 3.0 inch, 230,000 dot LCD as its primary composition aid. While specs aren't class-leading, this screen proves to be crisp, fluid, and extremely bright in real-world testing. The display also tilts along the horizontal axis using a two-point pivot. While this movement lacks the range of motion found in Canon's latest tilt-swivel ultrazoom display designs, for instance, excellent side-to-side viewing angles mean you hardly miss the camera's inability to rotate the screen left and right - when shooting in landscape orientation, at least.

A dedicated button calls up the HX1's electronic viewfinder in place of the camera's main LCD. It's tiny, a bit blocky, and not nearly as fluid as the larger display. To Sony's credit, though, the viewfinder retains all of the on-screen information from the larger display, making it a versatile option in situations where working from the screen is impractical (i.e. in direct sunlight).


Shooting Performance
Just in case we weren't clear the last several times we've said it: when it comes to basic shooting performance, the HX1 is about as fast as cameras in this class get.

Under studio conditions, autofocus comes in just beyond DSLR speed. And as claimed, the HX1 is good for ten full-res shots at a full 10 fps - which puts this Cyber-shot on par with flagship pro-grade cameras for continuous shooting speed. Incidental timings - the time it takes for the camera to power on, or clear a full buffer, for instance - certainly aren't on par with a DSLR; this is still a point-and-shoot after all. But in good light with a static subject, the camera feels as quick as it looks.

Taking advantage of features like full 1080p video capture and extreme continuous shooting puts a lot of the HX1's performance burden back on the camera's autofocus system. As noted, baseline performance is much better than average for a camera of this class. Zoomed to a full 560mm equivalent, you won't get nearly as much speed as the camera offers at full wide-angle, but performance is consistent and competitive just the same.

In low light - and especially, in low light and at longer zoom lengths - the HX1 really begins to feel less SLR and more point-and-shoot, and taking the camera along to shoot an evening soccer match had me looking for an alternative to the Cyber-shot's default multi-area AF. High-speed shooting situations (and video capture) are where the HX1's semi- and full-manual focusing options, which allow you to set the camera's focusing distance either approximately or exactly, become a huge advantage - speeding up performance by nearly a full second at the long end of the zoom under poor light. But while the camera has one of the best face detection systems we've played with, there's no subject tracking mode either.

The HX1's pop-up flash is nothing to write home about - either to praise or to gripe about. With an effective range some under 20 feet, you get the kind of performance one expects from a point-and-shoot flash, with the camera tending toward slight but consistent underexposure in most indoor flash shots. The HX1 includes a slow-sync option for drawing in more ambient light, as well as a flash power compensation control in the sidebar menu. As we've come to expect, built-in red-eye mitigation worked when called upon. Although it likely only matters to a small percentage of potential HX1 buyers, it doesn't seem unreasonable to ask for a hot shoe on a camera at this price - and on this point, the HX1 disappoints, if only mildly.

Lens Performance
It seems that even 20x zoom ranges have, in the days of 24x and 26x ultrazooms, become rather ho-hum. Nonetheless, the HX1 packs some considerable power into its optics, starting with the fact that you get the equivalent of 28-560mm without having to change lenses.

Optically, it's hard to find nits to pick with the HX1's Sony G glass. Chromatic aberration was well controlled, distortion at both ends of the spectrum was hardly an issue, and more serious concerns like flare and vignetting were basically nonexistent in our test shots. The HX1's long lens barrel can cause some flash problems for close-up subjects, but that's about the most I can find to fault the Sony for in terms of overall optical performance.

Close-up performance is equally nice. Although this camera, unlike many previous Sonys, doesn't have an explicit "Super Macro" setting, it still allows close focusing to the point that you'll nearly touch your subject with the lens - with consistent lock possible at some under half an inch in full-time macro mode.

Video Quality
The HX1 is one of a handful of still cameras - both among DSLRs and point-and-shoots - that can claim full 1080p HD video performance. Of course, having this kind of serious resolution is only as good as it sounds if the images filling this space are smooth and crisp. And on this count, the HX1 more than holds its own.

Although low-light shooting all around isn't this camera's strong suit, the above sample shows off a number of things that this camera does well simultaneously. Choose your focus mode carefully, take advantage of the HX1's long lens and in-movie zooming capabilities, and the camera rewards with smooth, nearly camcorder quality clips that bring surprisingly clear stereo audio besides.

It's not all perfect with the HX1's movie mode: subject speed or rapid panning can cause some visual warping, zooming is slow during video capture, and frustratingly, the camera's AF seems to hunt more when shooting videos than stills. All of that said, if shooting movies is a big part of what you want from a still camera, the HX1 is one of the few (fairly) affordable offerings that we've shot with to date that seems capable of delivering serious HD video performance.

Image Quality
Small-sensor cameras are all about compromise, trading absolute image quality for reductions in size, weight, and cost. And all things considered, the HX1 walks this fine line better than the majority of point-and-shoots out there.

The HX1's captures evidence a careful balance, presenting overall results that are sharp and processed without, in general, looking too much so.

Sony's decision to pack a CMOS imager into the HX1 raised some hopes that overall image quality and detail capture would show dramatic improvements over the manufacturer's previous (and somewhat indifferently regarded) CCD-equipped cameras. As with Canon's foray into small CMOS sensors, however, the overall results are slightly if not dramatically improved from previous attempts.

Users who like to tweak their shots in-camera will appreciate the fact that the HX1 provides several processing presets, with fairly distinct tone curves in each case. Color is accurate throughout, if somewhat oversaturated all around (especially reds). For those who like extreme saturation, the HX1 gives enough processing options to really punch things up to near "pop art" levels if you're feeling so inclined.

Default multi-area metering is more of a mixed bag, with the camera clipping highlights more frequently than some competitors we've looked at when left to its own devices. Typical options for overriding the HX1's metering decisions exist for the benefit of the camera's sizable enthusiast buyer segment.

The HX1 sports one of the more adaptable auto white balance presets out there, coming closer than many point-and-shoots to neutralizing the excessive warmness imparted by incandescent light in particular. There are also several presets (of widely varying quality/accuracy) to choose from, and for even more control, the HX1 offers a user-set custom white balance option as well.

In spite of all of the chatter about CMOS sensors and cleaner images, in general, the HX1's shots show a lot of noise reduction from the lowest sensitivity settings all the way on up. In spite of the fact that it actually packs less resolution than previous Cyber-shot H cameras, the HX1 really doesn't improve performance - and may even lose a step at ISO 800 and beyond.

The Sony Cyber-shot HX1 proves to be a veritable Swiss Army Knife of a midsize camera. Need to grab some sports shots? It has the lens and the speed to do it. Headed to the zoo? Again, you're covered. Summer vacation at the Grand Canyon? The HX1 counters with perhaps the most useful panorama mode ever installed on a digicam. Plus, you can get video clips worthy of your 42-inch HDTV from the same device. It really is hard - doubly so if you exclude extreme low-light shooting - to find a situation where the HX1 won't be able to turn in nice shots with ease.

In truth, the HX1's biggest detractor may not come from its performance so much as its price. An entry-level DSLR certainly lacks the Cyber-shots versatility. But in terms of across-the-board shooting speed and outright image quality, a large-sensor, interchangeable-lens camera wins hands down. And given that the HX1, which lists at nearly $500, will set you back nearly as much as a basic SLR kit, potential buyers may have good reason to think twice.

As a technological achievement, though, the HX1 truly shines. Sony has always been known for their gadgetry: lately, it seems, they're figuring out how to make all of this novel tech less novel and more useful. And with phenomenal continuous shooting, a nifty panorama mode, and home-movie-ready HD video capture, the HX1 makes some giant leaps in fusing uniqueness and utility.


* Fast
* Fast
* Did we mention fast?
* Stunning panorama mode
* Exceptional HD video
* Super-sharp 20x lens


* Menus and controls could use clean-up
* EVF isn't the best
* Expensive