6th December 2007, 04:16 PM
How Much Photo Quality for US$300?
New York Times
December 6, 2007
State of the Art
How Much Photo Quality for $300?
By David Pogue
You may have your holiday traditions: caroling, stockings, candles, whatever. But here at The New York Times Institute of Gadgetology, we have a tradition of our own. Every December since 2001, we've asked: "How much digital camera can you get for $300?"
For years, that low price pretty much guaranteed low picture quality. Camera makers spent all their effort groveling at the altar of megapixels, in hopes that the public would come to associate megapixels with picture quality.
But the manufacturers are finally turning their attention to features that really do help your photos, like image stabilization (reduces blur in low light) and face recognition (ensures proper focus and exposure on human subjects). They haven't eliminated shutter lag (the delay before the picture is snapped) — you'll have to buy one of those big digital single-lens reflex cameras for that luxury — but there's some improvement this year.
Here they are, then, presented roughly in order of photo quality: the cameras that the nine major manufacturers consider their finest sub-$300 work. Except as noted, they're credit-card-size, eight-megapixel models with 3X optical zoom, SD memory cards and no eyepiece viewfinder. (Don't miss the complete table of features, and the slide show of samples, at nytimes.com/tech.)
Casio Exilim EX-V8 ($240). With high-end features like a 7X zoom lens, image stabilizer and the ability to zoom while shooting movies, you'd think that this camera would get the highest marks. But no such luck; its photos consistently trailed the pack. In low light, some were truly awful: murky, sepia-toned, blurry. You can do light-years better.
Pentax Optio Z10 ($219). This sleek camera offers some unusual features. For example, it can help recover photos you've deleted accidentally. And its 7X zoom lens is astonishing, considering that it's completely contained inside the camera; nothing telescopes outward when you turn the camera on.
Unfortunately, that zooming apparatus eats up a lot of space, leaving only enough room for a cylindrical battery the size of your pinky. You'll get 180 shots per charge if you're lucky (compared with 330 on, say, the Sony).
There are other problems, too: no image stabilizer, no autofocus-assist lamp for low light and severe graininess indoors or at night.
Samsung i85 ($266). One thing is for sure: this is the only camera here that comes with earbuds. That's because it doubles as a basic MP3 music player and even acts as an e-book reader; it can page through text files copied onto it from a Mac or PC.
The Samsung is a looker, too: shiny stainless steel wrapped around an enormous three-inch screen. Its photos usually look good, and the flash is powerful. But because there's no image stabilizer, flashless indoor or nighttime photos are blurry and doomed.
Nikon Coolpix S700 ($280). For years, Nikon had a split personality: it made phenomenal digital SLR cameras, but mediocre pocket models. With this camera, Nikon might be starting to turn things around. The S700's stabilizer virtually banishes blur, and graininess is a problem only in nighttime shots. The camera itself looks great, too.
Unfortunately, in sunlight, the 2.7-inch screen turns into a slab of onyx; without an eyepiece viewfinder, you can't see well enough to take any pictures at all. (The Pentax has the same problem. The screens on the other cameras here are bright enough even in direct light.) And this camera's 150-shot battery life is the worst of the batch.
Kodak Z812IS ($245). This camera won't fit in a pants pocket; it's shaped like a miniature SLR, complete with a sculptured hand grip (and, alas, a detached lens cap). The payoff, though, is the amazing 12X zoom, which is enormously useful in shooting sports, school plays and anything surreptitiously.
Of course, zooming magnifies your hand jitters; fortunately, the IS in this camera's name stands for image stabilizer.
The camera takes great movies, even in high definition (at a full 30 frames a second). In fact, the Z812 can both zoom and refocus while you're filming, which is a rarity in still cameras. Nice.
Most of the photos came out great; a nighttime shot of a Miami Beach restaurant festooned by neon signs was practically magazine-worthy. The Kodak muffed only a few shots, generally night scenes.
There is an eyepiece viewfinder on this camera, but it's not a true optical one; it's electronic, meaning that you're peering into another screen, and a somewhat coarse one at that.
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3 ($270). This camera, like the Kodak, is also shaped like a mini-SLR and has a stabilized superzoom lens (10X). It feels wonderful in your hand.
Other goodies: With a $40 component cable, you can display your photos in spectacular high definition on an HDTV. And the H3 has the clearest, easiest, smartest button and menu design of the year. The only question: On a bigger camera like this one, why not include an optical viewfinder?
Like many Sony cameras, this one sometimes produces a slight bluish cast. But otherwise, it does a terrific job, even indoors, even without the flash. It blurred only a single torture-test photo: palm trees at night, illuminated only by reflected swimming-pool light.
Panasonic Lumix FX55 ($300). The menus on this camera's huge three-inch screen are something out of the Stone Age: huge, pixellated words in all caps, as though the camera is shouting at you.
On the other hand, the Lumix has an enormous wide-angle view; compared with the narrow fields of view on the Nikon and Sony, these photos are practically panoramas. The advertisements always promote the telephoto (zoom) powers of cameras, but wide-angle ability is arguably even more important, at least on vacations to scenic places.
And the Lumix's photos are nearly impeccable. They're grain-free, smoothly toned and perfectly exposed. Only one shot tripped up the Lumix: the same pool-and-palms shot that stymied the Sony.
Canon PowerShot SD850 IS ($256). This camera's awesome predecessor cost $360 last year. Now you can get the same vivid photos and movies for $256.
But that's not all! Yes, folks, you also get image stabilization, face recognition, 4X optical zoom and a genuine optical eyepiece viewfinder. It's the only optical viewfinder of these $300 cameras, in fact. Canon, mercifully, is bucking the trend on this great little machine.
Fujifilm FinePix F50fd ($234). For the last several years, Fuji has been spending big R.& D. dollars on nailing the low-light problem. "If we can put a man on the moon," they evidently muttered, "surely we can design a pocket camera that takes nighttime and indoor photos without grain, blur or flash."
This camera is it. The 12-megapixel photos are delightful; indoors, outdoors, with the flash or without. Even those poolside palm trees came out sharp and clear.
One probable reason is that the F50fd's sensor is more than 50 percent bigger than those on most of the other cameras: 0.625 inch diagonal, versus 0.4. Now that's a statistic — not megapixels — that matters in a camera.
More good news: the F50fd accepts standard SD cards in addition to the proprietary, expensive XD memory cards that Fuji has been pushing for years. How can this be the second-least-expensive camera of the batch?
The bottom line: some of this year's cameras truly rock. If you want a pocket model, consider the Lumix for its wide angle, the Canon for its 4X zoom and optical viewfinder or the Fujifilm for its amazing natural-light performance. If you're willing to pack something bigger, you can get a lot more zoom for your buck with the Kodak or the Sony. Congratulations to these companies for getting back to photo-quality basics this year — and to you, dear customer, for doing your homework.
Article and link to slideshow with sample pics: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/06/technology/personaltech/06pogue.html?ref=technology
$300 Digital Cameras: A Comparison Chart
Last edited by suede1976; 6th December 2007 at 04:19 PM.