Archive for the ‘Cameras & Accessories’ category

Canon EOS-1D Mark III

July 16, 2007

If you’ve ever looked at the sideline of a major sporting event and seen a gaggle of huge white lenses, then you’ve witnessed Canon’s dominance in the sports shooting world. Part of the reason for Canon’s edge is its 1D series of SLR bodies which, in the form of the new EOS 1D Mark III, will no doubt continue the Japanese camera company’s preeminence among the paparazzi, sports shooters, news photographers, and anyone else who has to shoot fast bursts of high-megapixel images. This new SLR feels like a machine gun when set to its Continuous Shooting mode, with which we were able to capture 10-megapixel JPEGs at an average of 9.9 frames per second. Add to that this camera’s amazingly low noise, high-end build quality, and vast custom-function menu, and you’ve got one of the hottest cameras to hit the market this year.

Design
At first glance, the 1D
Mark III doesn’t look all that different from its predecessor, the 1D Mark II N. It still has a built-in vertical grip, with duplicate shutter and control buttons, so you don’t lose functionality when changing grips. In fact, from the front, the most noticeable difference is that the Mark III has a steeper slope to the camera top on the nongrip side and a smoother slope from the prism hump on both sides. However, even that is difficult to see unless you’re very familiar with both cameras.

Turn the Mark III around, though, and you’ll see that things have changed quite a bit, largely due to the addition of a 3-inch LCD. This has forced Canon to move some buttons around to make up for the fact that the LCD now extends to the left edge of the camera. Menu and Info buttons move above the screen, while the playback button drops to below it. The Select button from the Mark II N is now obsolete, thanks to the Mark III’s Set button, which is mounted in the middle of the large scroll wheel, much like the scroll wheels found on the EOS 30D and 5D. Another feature drawn from those siblings is the tiny joystick controller, which is used to navigate between various menus, among other things.

One of the only problems with Canon’s 1D and 1Ds series bodies is that they are big and heavy. Some photographers simply don’t want to deal with the weight–about 3 pounds without a lens– while those with very small hands often complain that some controls are out of reach. After a long day of shooting, my right arm definitely did feel the awesome weight of this camera, but I didn’t have trouble reaching any important buttons, even though my hands are on the small side for a man. Canon does place the exposure compensation button a little too far to the left, but since the large scroll wheel doubles as exposure compensation in aperture- and shutter-priority modes, it wasn’t a problem for me. In case you’re worrying about accidental exposure compensation, know that you can disable the large wheel with the three-way off/on/on-with-scroll-wheel switch, which is easy to manipulate with your thumb. My biggest control complaint is that Canon didn’t clearly mark a hard button for white balance. The Func button does let you change white balance when in shooting mode, but it easily could have been labeled as such. I had to consult the manual to find that out.  

While the Mark II N used button combinations for bracketing, drive mode, and ISO, the only combo that remains in the Mark III is for bracketing. ISO moves to its own button just behind the shutter button, which I found extremely useful and convenient compared to the old configuration. Drive mode gets doubled up with the AF button, with the two split between the small scroll wheel behind the shutter and the large wheel on the camera’s back. Metering and flash compensation get the same treatment, as they did on the Mark II N.  

Canon also has added a new viewfinder, which the company says ups the magnification to 0.76x from 0.72x and the viewing angle to 30 degrees, from 28.2, while maintaining the same 20mm eye point and the same claimed 100 percent coverage. Suffice to say that the viewfinder is nice and bright and a pleasure to use for manual focus. If you’re the type that likes to change your focusing screen, you’ll like the fact that Canon offers 11 different kinds of optional focusing screens for the 1D Mark III. Like its predecessor and big sister 1Ds Mark II, the Mark III includes numerous rubber gaskets to keep dust and moisture out of the camera. New to this model is a redesigned hot shoe that is surrounded by raised plastic and made to mate with a rubber gasket on the new 580 EX II Speedlite, to effectively seal one of the few places that wasn’t already sealed on the 1D Mark II N.

Features
At the heart of this camera you’ll find a newly developed 10.1-megapixel Canon CMOS sensor. Like all other 1D cameras to date, the sensor is APS-H-size (28.1×18.7mm), which gives the
Mark III a 1.3x focal-length multiplier. That means that a 50mm lens will give you a field of view that is similar to that of a 65mm lens. As such, the 1D Mark III’s sensor size lands between the full-frame sensors offered by the EOS 1Ds Mark II and the EOS 5D, which have no effective focal-length multiplier, and the 1.5x/1.6x focal-length multipliers found on almost all other digital SLRs on the market. Whenever you turn the camera on or off, the camera vibrates the IR-cut filter to shake away any dust that may have settled on it. If that’s not enough, the camera can find dust particles on the sensor, plot their locations, and store that data so the included Digital Photo Professional software can remove the dust spots in post processing.

To process the data from the sensor, the camera uses a pair of Canon’s Digic III processors, making it the first dual-processor camera that I’ve ever seen. Instead of the 12-bit analog-to-digital converters found in Canon’s other cameras, the Mark III uses 14-bit converters, which theoretically allow for more tonal gradations than their 12-bit brethren. A dedicated AF processing unit drives the camera’s 45-point autofocus system, which includes 19 cross-type points. For comparison, both the EOS 5D and 30D sport only one cross-type point, while Canon’s 16.6-megapixel 1Ds Mark II has a mere seven cross-type points. Cross-type AF points provide a higher level of sensitivity than standard points. The points are both user-selectable and groupable, so you can fine-tune the AF system as you like it.

Exposure metering options are just as sophisticated as the AF system. The camera uses a 63-zone through-the-lens (TTL) metering system that offers full-frame evaluative metering, center-weighted average, and partial and spot metering. According to Canon, the partial option uses the center 13.5 percent of the frame to determine exposure, while the spot setting uses 3.5 percent and can be set to the center or linked to the AF sensor in use, or you can choose up to eight spot readings and let the camera average them. Canon calls this last option “multispot metering.” In our field tests, the 1D Mark III yielded remarkably accurate exposures and was rarely fooled by tricky scenes, but the 3D color Matrix Metering found in Nikon’s D2Xs–with its 1,005-pixel sensor and onboard database of comparison image data–barely edges out the 1D Mark III’s system when it comes to very tricky situations. Ultimately, though, this may be a matter of preference on my part, since the Nikon tends to err on the side of caution in preserving highlight detail by slightly underexposing in some situations, while the Canon will serve up what is traditionally a proper exposure. Really, you can’t call either approach “wrong.” If you’re really worried about highlights, though, you can activate the Mark III‘s Highlight Tone Priority custom function, which extends the upper portion of the dynamic range to help preserve highlight detail.  

While most photographers likely will stick to a neutral color mode, the 1D Mark III offers an entire Picture Style menu in which you can quickly adjust sharpness, contrast, saturation, and color tone to change the overall look of the images you capture. In addition to six presets, which can each be modified as you see fit, there are three user-defined settings so you can make up your own. Among the presets is a monochrome setting, which includes filter effects that mimic traditional (yellow, orange, red, and green) black-and-white filter sets. In addition to the filters, there are also toning effects, such as sepia, blue, purple, or green. The black-and-white filter effects are subtle, but do a decent job of approximating the effect of real filters. Best of all, you can access the Picture Style menu from a dedicated button next to the Func button, so if you want to create different styles for different situations, it’s easy to switch between them quickly.

Including the one mentioned above, the Canon 1D Mark III has 57 custom functions. Just for reference, the Nikon D2Xs has 42. Both of them can be customized extensively, and it would behoove any owner of either camera–or of almost any midlevel or higher digital SLR–to read the manual to find out how to tweak the camera to suit their shooting style. If you own a previous 1D series camera, don’t assume that the number-labels of specific custom functions will be the same on the 1D Mark III. Some functions lend themselves to one-time settings, such as the ISO speed range, which lets you set the highest and lowest available ISO from among the camera’s range of L (aka ISO 50) all the way up to H (aka ISO 6,400). While the camera displays L and H for these two extremes, they show up as either 50 or 6,400 in your images’ EXIF data. Other custom functions, such as the number of bracketed shots (from two to seven), or linking spot metering to the selected AF point, lend themselves to more frequent changes. Thankfully, Canon groups the custom functions into four submenus to make it easier to find the one you want to change.

Canon officially joins the live-view SLR revolution with the 1D Mark III, which lets you frame images with the big 3-inch LCD on the back of the camera instead of the optical viewfinder, should you choose to do so. Once the Live View mode is enabled in the setup menu, all you have to do is press the Set button to enter Live View mode. When you do, the camera locks the mirror up, thereby cutting off the optical viewfinder, and you are restricted to manual focus. Conveniently, you can use the playback zoom controls to zoom in either 5x or 10x on your subject, to aid in manual focusing. Canon doesn’t set any strict limits on how long you can remain in Live View mode, but it does mention that the sensor heats up in Live View mode and that you may encounter a thermometer icon on the LCD once the camera reaches a certain temperature. I never saw this icon when I used Live View mode, but if you typically shoot in very warm environments (studio hot lights, anyone?) you may run into it. As you may guess, shooting at higher ISOs should make the sensor heat up faster than at lower ISOs. Canon also warns that increased temperatures can lead to increased image noise.  

As usual, along with this new SLR comes a new version of Canon’s Digital Photo Professional software for raw processing. This new version (3.0) is very similar to the last version. We did notice, however, that it runs more smoothly on Intel-based Macs than did the previous version, and it now officially supports Windows Vista. If you prefer to use Adobe’s Camera Raw plug-in with Photoshop, you may be as irked as we were to find out that Adobe forces you to upgrade to Photoshop CS3 or Photoshop Elements 5.0 if you want to use the latest update, which includes the 1D Mark III as well as Fuji’s FinePixS5 Pro, Nikon’s D40x, Olympus’ E-410 and SP-550UZ, and Sigma’s SD14. That’s a mean piece of corporate tomfoolery on Adobe’s part, especially considering the fact that pro-level photographers who would use the 1D Mark III helped make Adobe the powerhouse it is today. If you can’t yet justify the expense of upgrading to Photoshop CS3, remember that Elements costs significantly less and could serve as a quick way to get the new Camera Raw, especially for pros who may have decided against upgrading to CS3. Other third-party raw processors, such as the latest version of Bibble, have also begun adding support for the 1D Mark III, so if you decide against a CS3 upgrade, there are other options available.  

In addition to all the nice features of the camera body itself, the 1D Mark III is made to work with a very wide variety of Canon’s optional accessories. This includes an array of Speedlites; one of the most comprehensive assortments of lenses available today; the WFT-E2A wireless file transmitter, which lets you send files to a computer via the 802.11g wireless standard; and the OSK-E3 Original Data Security Kit, which lets you verify that images have not been tampered with. Of course, there are many more accessories, but listing them all here would be excessive.

Performance
As our testing analyst
Matthew Fitzgerald quipped, the Canon 1D Mark III is “a rocket ship.” The camera took 0.1 second to start up and capture its first JPEG, then took 0.4 second between shots when capturing subsequent JPEGs. When shooting raw, the camera took 0.5 second between shots. Shutter lag measured 0.4 second in our high-contrast test, which mimics bright shooting conditions, and 1.1 seconds in our low-contrast test, replicating dim shooting conditions. Our lab tests were performed with Canon’s EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens. Continuous Shooting basically lived up to Canon’s 10-frames-per-second (fps) claim. We were able to capture full 10-megapixel JPEGs at a rate of 9.9fps with the camera set to its highest quality JPEG compression setting of 10. Canon’s claim is based on a lower compression setting of 8, but either way, it feels like you’re firing a machine gun (without the recoil or death) when you shoot with the 1D Mark III in high-speed Continuous Drive mode.  Just be warned, if you do shoot 10-megapixel images in Raw+JPG mode, you’ll fill up your CF or SD card extremely fast. Full size raw images from the Mark III can easily be 14MB or 15MB, while large JPEGs at the highest quality setting hover around 7MB.

The Mark III represents a major shift for Canon away from the nickel-metal-hydride battery found in previous 1D models (and stretching back to pro-level film bodies, too) to a new, much shorter, lithium-ion battery. The 2,300mAh battery looks almost identical to the one used in the Nikon D2Xs, though I wouldn’t try to interchange them. Canon rates the battery to provide up to 2,200 shots per charge, and though we didn’t test it, I believe them. After a full weekend of shooting many hundreds of shots in Raw+JPG mode, the battery hadn’t even drained halfway. Of course, along with the new battery comes a new charger, so professionals or companies that have invested in extra batteries and chargers for older 1D models may be annoyed to find that they have to buy new spare batteries and chargers. The charger that comes with the Mark III can charge as many as two batteries at once, though only one battery comes with the camera. 

Image Quality
Images shot with the Canon EOS 1D
Mark III can be absolutely stunning. Colors look extremely accurate, and the automatic white balance does an excellent job of neutralizing colors under a variety of lighting situations. The only times it became confused was in situations in which there was mixed lighting, and even then it produced pleasing, if not absolutely spot-on results. If paired with a sharp lens, the 1D Mark III can produce images with a vast amount of fine detail.  However, where this camera really shines is its ultralow noise. Even at its highest sensitivity setting of ISO 6,400, we were able to make pleasing prints. On a monitor you’ll see a covering of fine, multicolored grain, but there’s still an impressive amount of shadow detail and finer detail, especially for such an extreme setting. At lower sensitivities, images are extremely clean, and noise doesn’t even begin to show up significantly on monitors until you reach ISO 800  If you can afford the cost of the 1D Mark III, and are a Canon shooter who doesn’t absolutely need the higher resolution of the 16.6-megapixel 1Ds Mark II, then this camera is a no-brainer. Nikon shooters who are reading this might even begin to second-guess their beloved brand, but with rumors flying about a possible D3, you’ll probably want to wait and see if Canon’s top competitor can match this. It’s going to be extremely difficult, though, as this is one of the best digital cameras I’ve ever used.

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Canon PowerShot TX-1

July 16, 2007

Every now and again, a company will make a product just to turn some heads; sometimes this is called a statement piece. Usually these products sport unusual designs and fantastical feature sets. With its PowerShot TX-1, which includes a 10x optical zoom lens, 7.1 megapixel CCD sensor, optical image stabilization, face detection, and the capability to record high-definition 1,280×720-pixel video at 30 frames per second, Canon was definitely trying to make a statement. However, the camera’s vertical design makes it so difficult to use, we wish they wouldn’t have blurted it out so quickly.

In many ways similar to the Sanyo Xacti VPC-HD2, the Canon TX-1 uses a vertical design with the lens at the top of the body and is intended to be held as you would a pistol. Unlike a pistol, the trigger, or in this case the shutter release, sits on top of the camera body. This unfortunate placement and the body’s blocky overall design lead to many of the camera’s ergonomic problems. With my middle finger tucked awkwardly beneath the lens and my index finger on the shutter release, my pinky ended up dangling beneath the camera, and I didn’t know where to put my thumb. A trio of raised dots to the left of the zoom rocker beckoned to my thumb, but with it placed there, I inevitably nudged the zoom and ruined my composition. Plus, that positioning also placed my thumb squarely across the video recording button, forcing me to continually worry about inadvertently pressing it. Also, since Canon placed the zoom rocker on a rounded protrusion on the camera back, you have to pull your thumb back into an uncomfortable position to manipulate the control. Worse yet, trying to shoot a vertical still picture is an exercise in contortion. Ultimately, we didn’t look forward to shooting with the TX-1’s strange controls. Sanyo’s design, which places both video and still shutter buttons on the camera back and includes an angled grip, felt much more comfortable, though its video couldn’t compare to the footage we captured with the TX-1.

Shooting video with the TX-1 felt much more comfortable, though still not as cozy as the Sanyo. The TX-1’s small 1.8-inch screen, compared to the HD2’s larger 2.2-inch screen may have something to do with this fact. Also, the camera’s dual functionality occasionally has its drawbacks. For example, with the still image mode set to super macro, the zoom is understandably disabled, but it remains disabled if you start shooting video while still image mode is engaged. On the upside, Canon’s menu controls carry over the intuitive design and quick access to important functions, that we’ve come to love in their other cameras and camcorders. A quick press of the tiny joystick lets you access features such as shooting mode, ISO, image size, exposure compensation, and white balance. You won’t find aperture-priority, shutter-priority, or full manual exposure modes, but Canon does include seven preset scene modes, such as portrait, beach, snow, and night snapshot, which automatically set the camera to deal with those shooting situations. In addition to those shooting modes, the TX-1 includes some nifty functions to help make shooting a bit easier. Optical image stabilization helps keep your shots steady and becomes especially useful when using the long end of the 10x optical, 39mm-to-390mm-equivalent, f/3.5-to-f/5.6 zoom lens. In our still image field tests we were able to shoot more than two full shutter speeds slower than we normally do with adequately sharp results. For example, when zoomed to an equivalent of 118mm, we shot a sharp photo at a shutter speed of 1/20 second while hand-holding the camera, whereas we’d normally need to use a tripod to shoot at that shutter speed. For video, the image stabilization helped, but as with most camcorders, it wasn’t effective enough over the full range of the zoom. When shooting at full 10x zoom, you’ll want to use a tripod or a monopod to get steady footage.  

If you feel you need to quickly boost your sensitivity to raise the shutter speed, Canon’s Auto ISO Shift will boost the ISO with a single button press but caps the sensitivity at ISO 800 in an attempt to keep ISO noise at bay. To help with portraits, Canon includes a rather effective face-detection mode. Unlike some companies, which give face detection a dedicated button, Canon places it at the top of its menu.

In our lab’s performance tests, the TX-1 turned in mediocre results. The camera’s built-in lens cover and extending lens barrel must slow down the start-up a bit, because the TX-1 took 1.82 seconds to start up and capture its first JPEG. After that, it took 1.99 seconds between JPEGs with the flash turned off, and 3.3 seconds between JPEGs with the flash turned on. We were impressed with the shutter lag though, which measured 0.55 second in our high contrast test, which mimics bright shooting conditions, and 1.2 seconds in our low-contrast test, which mimics dim shooting conditions. Regardless of image size, the TX-1 captured 1.04 frames per second in our continuous shooting tests.  

Image quality wasn’t what we’ve come to expect from Canon. Overall, video turned out better than stills though. The footage we shot wasn’t perfect, but was sharper than footage from the Sanyo HD2, and while the TX-1’s footage did have its fair share of compression artifacts, it certainly had fewer than the HD2, especially on edges of objects, and showed a significantly wider dynamic range than the Sanyo. The reason for Canon’s edge in video quality most likely has to do with the fact that the TX-1 uses Motion JPEG compression instead of MPEG-4. Of course, Motion JPEG also consumes more memory than MPEG-4. A 1-minute 720p clip we made took up about 267MB on our SD memory card. Both the Canon and Sanyo lagged a bit on focus compared with a dedicated camcorder, though again, the Canon edged out the Sanyo. Overall, if you’re looking to capture really good HD footage, you’ll need to step up to a dedicated HD camcorder, such as the Canon HV20 or the Sony Handycam HDR-HC7.

Still images showed more ISO noise and image artifacts than we’re used to with Canon’s digital still cameras. We also saw other image artifacts, which turned some curved lines and angled lines jaggy. Colors looked accurate overall, and we saw a decent amount of finer detail, but the images weren’t as tack sharp as many of the company’s cameras from recent years. Noise doesn’t become very significant until ISO 400, but we saw some on our monitors with the sensitivity as low as ISO 100, though you most likely won’t notice it in prints. At ISO 400, noise becomes obvious on monitors, starts to show up in prints, and begins to chew up some of the finer detail, though dynamic range remains largely intact. At ISO 800, noise becomes a heavy blanket of fine snowy specks, obscuring lots of finer detail and eating up more dynamic range. At ISO 1,600, most fine detail is destroyed by the vast snowy blizzard of tiny speckles, and dynamic range is crunched to the point of obscuring most shadow detail. We suggest staying below ISO 800 when possible.

If you absolutely have to have a combo still camera/720p HD camcorder, the Canon PowerShot TX-1 is probably the best bang for the buck. Its two serious competitors, the Sanyo Xacti HD2 and Panasonic SDR-S150 both cost significantly more, and in the case of the Sanyo, you get lower quality video and stills but a more comfortable-to-use design. Ultimately, you’re still better off buying separate video and still cameras, though maybe someday combo devices like this will reach a point when they’ll make sense for the casual vacation shooter. Despite all that, we do have to commend Canon for having the guts to push ahead with an experimental product like the TX-1.

Canon PowerShot TX-1

July 12, 2007

Every now and again, a company will make a product just to turn some heads; sometimes this is called a statement piece. Usually these products sport unusual designs and fantastical feature sets. With its PowerShot TX-1, which includes a 10x optical zoom lens, 7.1 megapixel CCD sensor, optical image stabilization, face detection, and the capability to record high-definition 1,280×720-pixel video at 30 frames per second, Canon was definitely trying to make a statement. However, the camera’s vertical design makes it so difficult to use, we wish they wouldn’t have blurted it out so quickly.

In many ways similar to the Sanyo Xacti VPC-HD2, the Canon TX-1 uses a vertical design with the lens at the top of the body and is intended to be held as you would a pistol. Unlike a pistol, the trigger, or in this case the shutter release, sits on top of the camera body. This unfortunate placement and the body’s blocky overall design lead to many of the camera’s ergonomic problems. With my middle finger tucked awkwardly beneath the lens and my index finger on the shutter release, my pinky ended up dangling beneath the camera, and I didn’t know where to put my thumb. A trio of raised dots to the left of the zoom rocker beckoned to my thumb, but with it placed there, I inevitably nudged the zoom and ruined my composition. Plus, that positioning also placed my thumb squarely across the video recording button, forcing me to continually worry about inadvertently pressing it. Also, since Canon placed the zoom rocker on a rounded protrusion on the camera back, you have to pull your thumb back into an uncomfortable position to manipulate the control. Worse yet, trying to shoot a vertical still picture is an exercise in contortion. Ultimately, we didn’t look forward to shooting with the TX-1’s strange controls. Sanyo’s design, which places both video and still shutter buttons on the camera back and includes an angled grip, felt much more comfortable, though its video couldn’t compare to the footage we captured with the TX-1.

 Shooting video with the TX-1 felt much more comfortable, though still not as cozy as the Sanyo. The TX-1’s small 1.8-inch screen, compared to the HD2’s larger 2.2-inch screen may have something to do with this fact. Also, the camera’s dual functionality occasionally has its drawbacks. For example, with the still image mode set to super macro, the zoom is understandably disabled, but it remains disabled if you start shooting video while still image mode is engaged. On the upside, Canon’s menu controls carry over the intuitive design and quick access to important functions, that we’ve come to love in their other cameras and camcorders. A quick press of the tiny joystick lets you access features such as shooting mode, ISO, image size, exposure compensation, and white balance. You won’t find aperture-priority, shutter-priority, or full manual exposure modes, but Canon does include seven preset scene modes, such as portrait, beach, snow, and night snapshot, which automatically set the camera to deal with those shooting situations.

In addition to those shooting modes, the TX-1 includes some nifty functions to help make shooting a bit easier. Optical image stabilization helps keep your shots steady and becomes especially useful when using the long end of the 10x optical, 39mm-to-390mm-equivalent, f/3.5-to-f/5.6 zoom lens. In our still image field tests we were able to shoot more than two full shutter speeds slower than we normally do with adequately sharp results. For example, when zoomed to an equivalent of 118mm, we shot a sharp photo at a shutter speed of 1/20 second while hand-holding the camera, whereas we’d normally need to use a tripod to shoot at that shutter speed. For video, the image stabilization helped, but as with most camcorders, it wasn’t effective enough over the full range of the zoom. When shooting at full 10x zoom, you’ll want to use a tripod or a monopod to get steady footage.  

If you feel you need to quickly boost your sensitivity to raise the shutter speed, Canon’s Auto ISO Shift will boost the ISO with a single button press but caps the sensitivity at ISO 800 in an attempt to keep ISO noise at bay. To help with portraits, Canon includes a rather effective face-detection mode. Unlike some companies, which give face detection a dedicated button, Canon places it at the top of its menu.

 In our lab’s performance tests, the TX-1 turned in mediocre results. The camera’s built-in lens cover and extending lens barrel must slow down the start-up a bit, because the TX-1 took 1.82 seconds to start up and capture its first JPEG. After that, it took 1.99 seconds between JPEGs with the flash turned off, and 3.3 seconds between JPEGs with the flash turned on. We were impressed with the shutter lag though, which measured 0.55 second in our high contrast test, which mimics bright shooting conditions, and 1.2 seconds in our low-contrast test, which mimics dim shooting conditions. Regardless of image size, the TX-1 captured 1.04 frames per second in our continuous shooting tests.  

Image quality wasn’t what we’ve come to expect from Canon. Overall, video turned out better than stills though. The footage we shot wasn’t perfect, but was sharper than footage from the Sanyo HD2, and while the TX-1’s footage did have its fair share of compression artifacts, it certainly had fewer than the HD2, especially on edges of objects, and showed a significantly wider dynamic range than the Sanyo. The reason for Canon’s edge in video quality most likely has to do with the fact that the TX-1 uses Motion JPEG compression instead of MPEG-4. Of course, Motion JPEG also consumes more memory than MPEG-4. A 1-minute 720p clip we made took up about 267MB on our SD memory card. Both the Canon and Sanyo lagged a bit on focus compared with a dedicated camcorder, though again, the Canon edged out the Sanyo. Overall, if you’re looking to capture really good HD footage, you’ll need to step up to a dedicated HD camcorder, such as the Canon HV20 or the Sony Handycam HDR-HC7.

Still images showed more ISO noise and image artifacts than we’re used to with Canon’s digital still cameras. We also saw other image artifacts, which turned some curved lines and angled lines jaggy. Colors looked accurate overall, and we saw a decent amount of finer detail, but the images weren’t as tack sharp as many of the company’s cameras from recent years. Noise doesn’t become very significant until ISO 400, but we saw some on our monitors with the sensitivity as low as ISO 100, though you most likely won’t notice it in prints. At ISO 400, noise becomes obvious on monitors, starts to show up in prints, and begins to chew up some of the finer detail, though dynamic range remains largely intact. At ISO 800, noise becomes a heavy blanket of fine snowy specks, obscuring lots of finer detail and eating up more dynamic range. At ISO 1,600, most fine detail is destroyed by the vast snowy blizzard of tiny speckles, and dynamic range is crunched to the point of obscuring most shadow detail. We suggest staying below ISO 800 when possible.

 If you absolutely have to have a combo still camera/720p HD camcorder, the Canon PowerShot TX-1 is probably the best bang for the buck. Its two serious competitors, the Sanyo Xacti HD2 and Panasonic SDR-S150 both cost significantly more, and in the case of the Sanyo, you get lower quality video and stills but a more comfortable-to-use design. Ultimately, you’re still better off buying separate video and still cameras, though maybe someday combo devices like this will reach a point when they’ll make sense for the casual vacation shooter. Despite all that, we do have to commend Canon for having the guts to push ahead with an experimental product like the TX-1.

 

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9

June 21, 2007

Sony changed quite a few details, inside and out, between last year’s H5 and its latest megazooms, the Cyber-shot DSC-H9 and DSC-H7. An f/2.7-4.5 31mm-465mm 15x supersedes the 12x zoom on last year’s, and the resolution kicks up a notch from 7 to 8 megapixels. Say goodbye to AA batteries and hello to a proprietary lithiumion.

Two features differentiate the H9 and H7: The H9 retains the same excellent 3-inch flip-up LCD as the H5, while the H7 uses a fixed 2.5-inch version, and the H9 includes Sony’s NightShot infrared mode. They are otherwise identical, and we expect the same performance and photo quality. We tested the H9.  

The plastic body feels a bit cheap, and the grip–a bit larger than the H5’s–could use more of a rubbery texture. Sony also “improves” upon the simple 4-way-plus-set navigation controls of the H5 by adding a scroll wheel and now-Sony-standard Home and Menu buttons. I love the scroll wheel, but it takes a little while to get used to the operation for adjusting shooting settings. You toggle between changing the particular setting and changing the settings values with the OK/Set button; the changeable option turns yellow. In theory, it’s all very logical. But in the heat of the shoot, it requires a little too much thinking. Still, it makes sense, so it shouldn’t take long to adapt. 

 And after using several Sonys, I’m still not thrilled with the Home button. When you press it, the first item it shows you is Shooting; but when you select that, it displays the current mode dial setting and tells you to use the Menu button to change the current settings. In other words, telling you that you’ve pressed the wrong button. If it’s that confusing, perhaps it needs some restructuring. On the other hand, you have to scroll over four categories and down a level to get to settings such as AF illuminator and AF mode, then down another level to change the flash-sync mode. (Especially since you can get to these more easily via the Menu button.) True, these aren’t settings you want to change frequently, but why bury them quite so deeply and keep the useless info close to the surface?

The H7 and H9 offer a typical set of manual, semimanual, and automatic exposure options, including scene modes for high ISO, portrait, twilight portrait, landscape, twilight, beach, snow, and fireworks. (Inexplicably, on the H7, the metering and bracketing/continuous shooting must be changed via the LCD, while on the H9, they have dedicated buttons.) There are also newfangled choices such as Face Detection, Advanced Sports Shooting, and NightShot infrared mode. Face Detection only operates within full automatic mode, and you have no control over which faces it sees or selects. The Advanced sports mode sets the camera to a fast shutter speed and uses a continuous autofocus. If you don’t count the slog through the menus, the H9–and by extension, H7–delivers good speed for its class. Based on CNET Labs’ test results, it wakes up and shoots in a reasonable 2.1 seconds, with a shutter lag of 0.6 and 1.3 seconds in bright and dim light, respectively.

It can shoot consecutive single images 1.4 seconds apart, growing to a modest 2.9 seconds with flash enabled. Continuous shooting is fixed at about 2 frames per second (fps), regardless of image size, and can run for about 18 shots before it starts to slow. I was a bit disappointed by the surprisingly small electronic viewfinder. Sony’s Super SteadyShot optical image stabilization, as ever, works very well.  

Under the right circumstances, the photos look very good. Those include shooting at sensitivity settings of ISO 200 or lower, in bright sunlight. Thanks to the fast continuous shooting, solid stabilization and reliable center-point focus, the H9 delivered the best results I’ve had so far shooting dogs in the park. The EVF updates quickly enough to make it possible. The automatic white balance does a solid job, if a bit cool, and colors look bright and saturated.

 As with other megazoom lenses, however, the Sony’s displays some distortion and chromatic aberration (edge discoloration) on the sides of the photo, as well as purple fringing on high-contrast edges. In general, the Canon PowerShot S5 IS exhibits better sharpness both in the center and from side-to-side. As for shots at medium-to-high sensitivities, I suggest you avoid them. Despite boasting support for up to ISO 3200, The jump between ISO 200 and ISO 400 reveals serious detail loss and notable increase in artifacts. Though it produces better noise measurements than the S5 at the higher ISO settings, the Sony has more apparent image degradation. 

For movie capture, Sony makes a slightly better trade-off than most between file size and movie quality. Though they’re not quite as sharp, its 30fps VGA MPEG movies require about 1.3MB/sec of storage–far less than the Canon’s 2MB/sec M-JPEG recordings. One disappointment here is the tiny microphone that records muted audio.  

If you shoot primarily outdoors in daytime–especially sports, children and animals–and don’t find the interface quite as crazy-making as I do, the H9 is a great choice. The approximately $100 difference in street prices between the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H7 and DSC-H9 makes your choice simple: if you can forgo the infrared and the flexible LCD, then buy the cheaper model.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T100

May 16, 2007

The latest in a long line of stylish cameras, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T100 shares the same slim, metallic profile and signature sliding lens cover/power switch as the rest of the Cyber-shot T-series. Don’t let the DSC-T100’s pretty face fool you, though; this handy shooter proves that you can have plenty of substance with your style.

  The camera’s easily pocketable, all-metal body measures just 0.875-inch thick and weighs a bit more than six ounces. It comes in silver, black, and red, so you can have your choice of colors. Despite its sensibly laid out controls, the DSC-T100 still sacrifices some of its function for form; the camera’s buttons feel smaller and more shallow than I would like and can be a bit tricky for large thumbs.

  

A surprisingly strong heart beats beneath the DSC-T100’s slim, shiny exterior. The 8-megapixel camera features a 35mm-to-175mm-equivalent 5x zoom Zeiss lens, a notable upgrade over previous T-series cameras’ 3x zoom lenses. Its 3-inch screen supplies an extremely wide view; the display stays clear and colorful, even when looking at it from a near-90-degree angle in any direction. The T100 uses Sony’s Super SteadyShot optical image stabilization and can boost its sensitivity to as high as ISO 3,200 for low-light and high-speed shooting. The camera also features a 9-point autofocus mode, an extremely useful feature normally found on much higher-end cameras such as digital SLRs.

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T100’s firmware offers almost as many useful features as its hardware does. Its face-detection mode automatically adjusts exposures when shooting family photos. You can also tweak color, correct red-eye, and even apply different effects such as fish-eye and cross filter, all within the camera. The T100 can also output MP3-playing slide shows to standard definition TVs with the included RCA video cable, or to high-definition TVs with an optional component-video cable. It also works with Sony’s CSS-HD1 Cyber-shot Station, a dock with a remote and HD component output support. If you plan on viewing your photos on an HDTV, we highly recommend the component cable or dock option.  In CNET Labs’ tests, the DSC-T100 performed exceptionally well. After a quick 1.1-second start-up time, the camera rattled off a new shot every 1.4 seconds. With the flash enabled, however, that time ballooned to almost 3 seconds; the tiny 3.4 watt-hour battery simply can’t recycle faster. The shutter responded quickly, lagging just 0.4 second with our high-contrast target and 1.2 seconds with the low-contrast one. The camera’s burst mode also worked admirably, snapping 15 shots in 6.6 seconds for a frame rate of 2.3 shots per second. The DSC-T100 takes great-looking photos with plenty of detail. Pictures stay sharp and free of noise as high as ISO 400. ISO 800 and ISO 1,600 produce a notable amount of detail-softening, speckled noise but are still useable. The T100’s macro and super-macro modes really impress me; it took some beautiful close-up shots of flowers at the Brooklyn
Botanical Garden.

The camera’s pictures aren’t perfect, however. Like most snapshot cameras, shots taken at ISO 3,200 look more like expressionist paintings than photos. We recommend you stick to shooting at ISO 800 or lower to avoid extreme noise. Movies captured in Fine mode (640×480 30fps MPEG-4) look very good, as long as the motion doesn’t get too complex. A couple of flowers waving in the breeze works, but an entire tree full of fluttering leaves taxes the compression algorithm too much, leaving the video rife with blocky MPEG artifacts. Unfortunately, the trade-off leaves the video file size rather large: at about 1.3MB/sec, a minute of video takes about 77MB of disk space. That’s more efficient than the MJPEG used by the Canon PowerShot SD750, but overall still fairly large. The optical zoom operates in Movie mode, another plus. 

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T100 demonstrates exactly what a good snapshot camera should be. Its slim form looks good and fits easily in the pocket, it includes some very useful features, and it shoots great photos at a fast clip. Its price may seem a bit steep, but you’ll get a lot of camera in a very small package.

Sony announces its first removable-media HD camcorder

April 27, 2007

And then there were four: quadruplet Sony HD camcorders, that is. When they ship on June 27, the $1,200 Memory Stick Duo-based Handycam HDR-CX7 and $1,400 hard-disk-based HDR-SR7 will join the tape-based HDR-HC7 and DVD-based HDR-UX7 to provide consumers with an almost bewildering array of HD options

They differ primarily by storage media. All use the same 1/2.9-inch, 3.2-megapixel ClearVid CMOS sensor, recording video at 2.3-megapixel (HD) or 1.7-megapixel (SD) resolution before downsampling and encoding to 1080i HD (1,920×540) or SD (720×480), respectively. They also shoot photos at native 2.3-megapixel (16:9) or 3-megapixel (4:3) resolutions, despite the 6-megapixel claim on the body, which refers to maximum interpolated resolution. They also use the same 10x zoom Zeiss T*-coated lenses, 5.1 Dolby surround-sound recording, and support the as-yet unviewable xvYCC color space and are rated at a minimum illumination of 2 Lux.

 

In some ways, though, the CX7 is the odd man out. The other three provide a manual focus dial on the side of the lens and an eye-level viewfinder, while the CX7 appears stripped of the external power-user trappings of its siblings. I’m guessing that’s to save space: Sony claims that it’s the smallest and lightest AVCHD camcorder available.

 

In fact, both the CX7 and SR7 look remarkably small, especially given their recording capacities. In best-quality HD mode, the CX7 requires 133MB per minute of video, for a total of 30 minutes on a 4GB card or 60 minutes on an 8GB card. The SR7 seems to compress a bit more, managing 125MB per minute of best-quality HD video, or 8 hours on its 60GB hard drive. Both also ship with a Handycam Station for ease of transferring video. 

The HDR 5 series–HDR-HC5 and HDR-UX5–gets another member this spring as well, the $1,100 hard-disk-based HDR-SR5. It shares the specs of its line mates, including Sony’s 1/3-inch 2-megapixel ClearVid CMOS. The SR5’s 40GB hard disk will hold up to five hours of best-quality HD video, or the same 133MB per minute as the CX7. Sony makes no mention of an HDR 5 series Memory Stick Duo-based model

 

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ3K

April 13, 2007

Last year, Panasonic released the Lumix DMC-TZ1. The chunky, little 5-megapixel camera contained a 10x zoom lens that let it fit snugly into the compact, high-zoom snapshot camera niche. It didn’t exactly wow us, and we gave the camera a less than stellar rating. Now Panasonic has released the Lumix DMC-TZ3, taking the TZ1’s basic design and improving nearly every aspect of it.

The DMC-TZ3 looks almost identical to the DMC-TZ1, sharing its predecessor’s chunky 9-ounce frame, its prominent lens, the tasteful gold-and-silver Leica accent, and a straightforward, minimalist control scheme. I readily accessed the camera’s buttons with just my right hand for one-handed shooting, though they were a little smaller than I would have liked. If you’re not careful, you may end up hitting the wrong button, especially when using the four-way multicontroller. Much like the DMC-TZ1, the DMC-TZ3’s lens remains the camera’s most notable feature. The camera’s 28mm-to-280mm-equivalent, f/3.3-to-f/4.6, 10x optical, Leica zoom lens can handle both wide and close-up shots, a distinct improvement over its predecessor. Most high-zoom cameras, including the TZ1, use 35mm or narrower lenses, so the TZ3’s 28mm wide-angle lens gives it a definite edge when pulling back to take a shot. Panasonic included its Mega OIS optical image stabilization on the TZ3, a vital inclusion for any high-zoom camera.  The DMC-TZ3 also uses a 3-inch LCD screen, notably larger than the DMC-TZ1’s 2.5-inch display. The camera misses one minor feature its little brother had: the TZ3 doesn’t have the TZ1’s nifty stop-motion Flip Animation movie node. Beyond this minor mode omission, however, the TZ3 either retains or improves upon all of the TZ1’s features. Unfortunately, like its predecessor, the TZ3 also lacks any significant manual exposure controls.

The DMC-TZ3 performed admirably in our lab performance tests. The camera’s shutter lagged only 0.6 second for our high-contrast target and 1.3 seconds for in low-contrast conditions. We waited a mere 1.3 seconds between shots, and that wait increased to 2.4 seconds with the onboard flash enabled. Burst mode took five shots in just less than 2 seconds for a satisfying rate of 2.5 shots per second.

The camera’s pictures looked good and were almost completely free of lens distortion. This greatly impressed us, as most ultrazoom lenses–especially those with 28mm-equivalent wide-angles–tend to heavily distort images at their extreme settings. Fuzzy artifacts obscured certain finer points, but photos were otherwise colorful and detailed. Noise was evident, even at the camera’s lowest sensitivity of ISO 100, but the Panasonic keeps it well under control through ISO 400, where the amount of finer detail in our images diminished further. Even at ISO 800, the DMC-TZ3 produces usable images, though fine detail and shadow detail decrease slightly compared to those taken at ISO 400. The noise turned into a sea of static at ISO 1,250, taking away most fine detail and shadow detail, though you should still be able to eke out a usable 4×6-inch print. Of course, it’s best to stick with lower ISOs whenever possible. The
Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ3 puts a lot of lens into a small package. The wide-angle, high-zoom camera performs well and takes acceptable shots, though it’s hardly perfect. Its higher resolution, wider lens, and larger screen make it better than its predecessor in nearly all categories. Unfortunately, it misses one of the TZ1’s most fun shooting modes, and it keeps some minor image issues that, while improved over the TZ1, still cause problems. All that said, the DMC-TZ3 offers a lot of value for the money and easily trumps most other super zooms on size.