29 June 2010

A More Correct Perspective

I was rereading a series of posts I wrote last July on compact digital cameras. I've just purchased two, in fact, one for my daughter and one for myself. For my daughter I bought a refurbished Panasonic DMC-ZS1, a compact superzoom that produces really fine images for its class and has a very wide 25mm (equiv.) Leica-designed lens. It's not perfect, but for $150 it's a wonder.

I've ordered a Panasonic DMC-FH1 for myself, but it's not here yet. It's very inexpensive, but has a fast 2.8 28-140mm equiv. lens (5x zoom), as well as optical image stabilization. The wide, fast, and quite long lens was important to me, and to get that in a $125 credit-card compact, less than an inch thick, is unexpected. And reviews say the picture quality is excellent. I've always owned Canons in the past, but Canon models with equivalent features start $50 higher. And I'm not sure they have anything on these Panasonics.

In the past, you just could not find a compact at any price with these fast, wide lenses. That they now can be had so inexpensively is real progress. I find long zooms not so useful, but a wide angle lens is indispensable. Not having that has been one of the biggest compromises in using a compact. Paired with a fast 2.8 aperture, which gathers lots of light, and the stabilized lens, you gain both wide angle and four f-stops over older compacts. They are just made for natural-light indoor photography, which I do a lot of when traveling.

Lens tech has advanced, certainly, but still: how can they do this? And at these price points? The problem traditionally is that it takes a lot of highly optically-corrected glass to build a fast, wide zoom lens that does not suffer from gross optical defects. That translates into bulky, expensive cameras. One of the big tricks that manufacturers have pulled off is the correction of optical defects in the camera's image processing software. A great article on this has appeared on dpreview. I expect this wizardry is used in my Panasonics. This permits much more flexibility in lens design, permitting smaller, cheaper (if optically less perfect) lenses.

Dpreview also addresses the question: Is this cheating? Traditionally, lens makers have expended extravagant resources to remove all possible optical defects, and photographers have correspondingly paid for it. But some purists think that is the correct order of things.

    Every time somebody does anything with a digital camera that couldn't be done in a film darkroom, people have called 'foul' and make accusations of cheating. However, 20 years after the appearance of Photoshop, it's safe to assume that a degree of post-shoot 'retouching' is the norm, rather than a sneaky exception (and remember that plenty of secrets could hide in the darkrooms of skilled practitioners). At which point, there's a chance that one person's cheating might turn out to be progress for the majority.

Yeah, I'll take that progress.

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