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Sharpshootin’ 8-megapixel pieces-is one right for you?
Cameras: Canon PowerShot Pro 1, Konica Minolta DiMAGE A2, Nikon Coolpix 8700, Olympus Camedia C-8080, Sony Cyber-shot DSC-F828
Seemingly overnight, the electronic-view- finder (EVF) camera became the hottest category in enthusiast digital cameras. And now that these eight-shooters have arrived, it’s starting to positively sizzle. For good reason. The 8-megapixel rigs offer tremendous advantages to the serious shooter:
• Pixel power: These five cameras all deliver excellent resolution (our highest rating), plus extremely high to excellent color accuracy ratings. If their $1,000 price point puts you off, consider that the minimum entry fee for an 8MP digital SLR is currently $4,500-without lens.
• Lens power: 8MP EVFs sport zoom lenses in the 5X to 8X range, with high-speed apertures like f/2 and f/2.8 being the norm. (This feat is possible due to the smaller-than-35mm sensor size, which allows for a larger zoom ratio with a smaller optic.) An f/2 interchangeable SLR optic with a 28-200mm range, if it existed, would cost a fortune and would be at least five times larger and heavier.
• Framing accuracy: Because the EVF shows the image as seen through the lens by the imager, these cameras have excellent framing accuracy-90 to 98 percent, as tested by our lab-that puts many optical SLR viewfinders to shame. You can also view camera menus and review images in the finder without using the higher-drain LCD monitor.
• Composing: You can view and frame at eye level, or switch to a real-time LCD monitor. And because these five cameras have tilting LCDs (or, in the case of the Sony, an articulated body/lens), waist-level, low-angle, and high-angle viewing is easy.
• Advanced features and capabilities: All provide RAW capture, high-speed burst rates, selectable (and sometimes movable) AF points, and extensive control over exposure. All can take accessory flash units for more power and flexibility. Some provide higher-quality video (VGA 640×480-pixels at 30 fps) than digital compacts.
So what’s not to like? A number of things, actually. The major two are lens limitation and viewfinder clarity. As good as it may be, the lens you get is all the lens you get, save for a few front-mounting auxiliary optics (see chart for details). And even the best EVFs show some grain and jumpiness, particularly compared with the crystal-clear, real-world view through an optical prism finder. (We compare the pluses and minuses of EVFs and SLRs on the next page).
So, is a top-gun EVF for you? If you’re looking for a compact camera, maximum all-in-one lens power, sharp imaging, and lots of control-for about a grand-you bet!
There’s more to image quality than color accuracy and pixel counts. Camera AF and metering accuracy, plus noise levels, all play a part. For our field test, we set all cameras to ISO 100 and 1/100 sec in shutter-priority. Most did well in automatically selecting the right aperture. Detail images below are from a 1-inch-square area of a 12×16-inch image at 200 ppi.
|Image-Quality Field Tests|
|Canon PowerShot Pro 1 This camera captured the smoothest skin tones, and also showed great detail and color in shadow areas. There’s also an Adobe RGB color-space setting and extensive image-quality controls. But noise levels, which are low at ISO 50 and moderate at ISO 100, hit unacceptable levels at ISO 200.|
|Konica Minolta DiMAGE A2 Image shows great skin tones and overall color accuracy, but the blue jacket was off-color. We applaud the wide variety of image-quality settings and color-space options, but the A2 has only moderately low noise at ISO 64-100, and unacceptable noise at ISO 400.|
|Nikon Coolpix 8700 Our test camera had a tendency to underexpose by about 1¼3-stop outdoors, and proper exposures showed some noise in shadow areas at ISO 100. But overall noise levels didn’t tank out until ISO 400, besting the Canon. Color accuracy was excellent at ISO 50, but there’s no Adobe RGB setting.|
|Olympus Camedia C-8080 In the lab, the C-8080 topped our color-accuracy scale. But in the field, skin tones were slightly less saturated and shadow areas less detailed than Pro 1 or 8700. There’s no Adobe RGB setting. Noise levels were low from ISO 50 to 100, moderate at ISO 200, just barely unacceptable at ISO 400.|
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-F828 The four-color CCD helps deliver pleasing skin tones, extremely accurate color, and details in shadows. However, very slight color fringing showed up (see neckline), and there’s no Adobe RGB setting. Noise was very low at ISO 64 and low at ISO 100, but unacceptable by ISO 400.|
The race for more color space
Most compact digital cameras record color information using the sRGB color space (common to PC monitors). But this color space clips certain colors that may be captured by the camera’s sensor. To improve color accuracy and saturation-especially for printing and reproduction, most digital SLRs and several EVFs offer an Adobe RGB color space option. Note the wider color gamut captured by the Minolta DiMAGE A2 in this mode.
Viewing by wire
Not all electronic viewfinders (EVFs) are created equal. The Konica Minolta DiMAGE A2, with 922,000 pixels, has more than triple the pixels of its nearest competitor, which means the viewfinder image can be magnified more without appearing fuzzy. As a result, the A2’s magnification ranks with that of the best SLR finders. The lowest magnification finders, by comparison, cause a tunnel-vision effect, and on-screen info is less readable. The images below show the relative magnification and detail from each camera’s EVF.
|Canon PowerShot Pro 1 EVF: Fixed eye-level; 235,000 pixels; diopter adjustment Framing accuracy: 95% LCD monitor: 2-inch TFT; 235,000 pixels; 180-degree swivel and 270-degree tilt|
|Konica Minolta DiMage A2 EVF: Tilting eye-level (up 90°); 922,000 pixels; diopter adjustment Framing accuracy: 98% LCD monitor: 1.8-inch TFT;|
|Nikon Coolpix 8700 EVF: Fixed eye-level; 235,000 pixels; diopter adjustment Framing accuracy: 94% LCD monitor: 1.8-inch TFT; 134,000 pixels; 180-degree swivel and 270-degree tilt|
|Olympus Camedia C-8080 EVF: Fixed eye-level; 240,000 pixels; diopter adjustment Framing accuracy: 90% LCD monitor: 1.8-inch TFT; 134,000 pixels; tilting (down 45, up 90 degrees).|
|Sony Cyber-shotDSC-F828 EVF: Fixed eye-level; 235,200 pixels; diopter adjustment Framing accuracy: 93% LCD monitor: 1.8-inch TFT; 134,400 pixels; articulated body (down 30, up 70 degrees)|
EVF vs. DSLR
Is an 8MP digital EVF camera a better choice than a 6MP digital SLR such as the Canon EOS Digital Rebel or Nikon D70? If higher resolution is your hot button, then you can’t beat the price-per-pixel of an EVF, nor can you beat its compact size, video capabilities, and all-in-one feature set.
But there are other advantages to DSLRs:
• Shutter lag is much shorter, and click-to-capture (combined AF and shutter lag) times are notably faster on most digital SLRs, so you have a greater chance of capturing the moment.
• Digital SLRs feature clearer TTL optical viewfinders that show finer details, more accurate colors, and respond instantly to lighting changes.
• Most DSLRs have depth-of-field preview. Of the tested EVFs, only the DiMage A2 has it.
• It’s easier to follow action with a DSLR, since the viewfinder doesn’t blank out for more than a split second between images in burst mode. All current EVF cameras freeze the first frame or stagger frames during the burst, making it nearly impossible to track a fast-moving subject.
• SLR shooters also have access to a wider variety of lenses and accessories, including dedicated flash units, battery grips, interchangeable focusing screens, and close-up attachments.
• In low light or at ISO 200-800, DSLRs are clear winners in image quality. But the wider f/2-2.8 apertures found on all of these EVFs, and the image stabilization on the DiMAGE A2, let you shoot in lower light without boosting ISO.
What’s with the noise?
Can the image quality from an 8MP EVF ever match the quality from an 8MP-or even 6MP-digital SLR? Some “experts” claim that EVF and compact digital cameras float-belly up because of digital noise-the term for image-degrading patterns and mottling, which is most evident in even-toned areas like sky, skin tones, or shadow areas.
That popular theory derives from a genuine fact: The smaller imaging sensors used in EVF and compact cameras are crowded with much smaller pixels. For example, on four cameras in this roundup, the 2¼3-inch CCD sensors feature 2.7 micron pixels, compared with 7.8 microns on the APS-sized CCD in the Nikon D70.
Two things happen with smaller pixels. First, the base ISO sensitivity of the sensor drops because more light is needed to fill the ultrasmall pixel wells. To compensate, cameras offer higher ISO modes, which unfortunately boost noise levels in the process of increasing low-light sensitivity (see ISO 100 vs. 400 shots at left). Second, the physical characteristics of the sensor, especially the materials used to create the boundaries between pixels, are less able to prevent electronic background noise from interfering with the signals from individual pixels. Thinner, more transparent walls between small pixels also allow angled light to strike adjacent pixels, causing noise, color fringing, and softer edges-especially with wide-angle lenses set to their widest apertures.
Sound like a dire situation for 8MP EVF models? It isn’t for the images they capture at ISO 50-64 settings in normal lighting. That’s because manufacturers have come up with some ingenious solutions to the noise problem. For example, many CCDs now use a microlens on each pixel to direct angled light toward the sensor, improving sensitivity and signal-to-noise ratio. Sony’s 8MP CCD goes even further, incorporating a double internal lens (DIL) to further direct light toward the sensor. Other advancements in image-processing circuits and noise-reduction technologies also help keep noise in check.
But there’s no avoiding the reality of increased noise levels found in these five 8MP EVF models at higher ISOs, and it’s this hurdle that may slow down the megapixel race in EVF and compact digital cameras for the near future.
Konica Minolta USA:
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