23 July 2009

Compact Digital Cameras: This Is Progress? (Part 6)

So, after all this, here you are.You want to buy a compact camera. Maybe even two, a snapshotter and something a little more serious. You've read loads of reviews and compared test images until your eyes crossed. What should you buy?

For me, image quality is obviously important. The good news right now is that, even if they are not making low-noise compacts, camera manufacturers are getting very good at processing the noise out, at least at low ISOs. And I find that some cameras process the noise in such a way that it results in a film-like grain that is not unpleasing. I actually prefer a little aesthetic noise to overly-aggressive noise suppression, which blurs all fine detail out of images. Many images from compacts have a strange, creamy smoothness, even at low ISOs, caused by noise suppression. At least some of that cannot be avoided in even the best of these cameras.

I think all one can do is evaluate sample photos in camera reviews and decide yourself which camera you personally find least bad. And this almost has to be done on a model by model basis. A few makers (notably Canon) have a certain look they maintain quite consistently, but most do not. The main determinant is the particular sensor and image processing chip used in (very often) a range of camera models.

For example, Panasonic is now using a new 10mp 1/2.5” sensor and Venus Engine IV processor in several cameras across their line. I think the images this combo produces look very good, with low noise and great color and detail (samples here). So for our new family snapshot camera I am looking at an entry-level Panasonic FS7. For the money ($140), it looks very good.

I've also decided to buy an enthusiast-grade camera for myself to replace my old, partly-fried Canon G3. I want something that is SLR-class, with full manual controls, to teach my daughter photography with. That basically means a superzoom. I wish I could settle for the value-priced Fujifilm S1500, but the image quality is not quite there and some users have reported fatal hardware/software problems.

So I've just ordered a Canon SX10 IS. I've owned a lot of Canon gear and find it consistently good. The SX10 has been very highly rated and has a number of features I value, like a twist-out rear screen, exceptional EVF, highly-intuitive menuing, flash hotshoe, and great image-stabilized lens.

I've also always liked the "Canon look" in images. Noise suppression is aggressive, but the in-camera sharpening is strong and produces crisp images right off the card. Color is regularly described as "vivid but natural." Whatever that means, I like it. This Flickr photostream by bEbO (en vac), all shot on an SX 10, tipped me.

The SX10 costs a bit more than I wanted to spend, but I was able to buy it refurbished at a substantial discount. I think the two of us will be happy together. Now I'm just waiting on that UPS man.

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