The 2005 Travel Camera Shootout took a different sort of turn, compared to past Shootouts, in that it was less a contest between camera models and more an exploration of shooting styles as driven by categories of cameras.
In past years (see the 2003 and 2004 Shootout articles here) this evolution can be seen growing as affordable superior digital equipment has grown in prominence. 2004 saw the introduction of the affordable dSLR with the Canon Digital Rebel EOS 300D (subject of an iNova/Steinmueller eBook now) as it contrasted with the more professional design Olympus E1.
This year two Canons went to the front lines along with one of Nikon's more advanced Coolpix models plus a surprise from left-field that heralds the future.
Canon 350D Digital Rebel XT
Eighteen months newer than the 300D, the 350D camera contains a version of the Canon 8-megapixel CMOS image chip found in two other cameras, the 20D and EOS-1D Mark II. In the Rebel XT, that chip is masked down 48 x 32 pixels smaller than it is in the other cameras, but the silicon is the same and image quality is virtually identical. Overall, the 350D shows how light a dSLR can become, and compared to the 300D it shows how many features can be packed into a small space.
Canon EOS 20D
The mid-camera in the Canon line inherits its predecessor’s (EOS 10D) professional build and handling, improved with a Digic II processor for speed and the bigger 8-megapixel chip found in the EOS-1D Mark II.
Canon sure loves those Roman Numerals, don't they?
Nikon Coolpix 7900
Its so small that it lived the entire trip in my vest pocket. I often forgot it was there.
This small, flat metal-body 7MP Coolpix has all the standard Coolpix features, Scene Modes and image sweetening extras that Nikon has been evolving for years.
How good is it really?
If there is a dramatic question this year, it might be posed as, “So, tell me, is that 20D worth the extra bucks compared to the 350D? After all, the 350D is a $900 body and the 20D is a $1400 body (at MSRP) making the jump up a 50% premium. That’s a lot of loose change to spend on a metal body versus a plastic outer shell over a metal frame, so where are the value points, if any?”
And now for something completely different: HDV.
Apple Computer called 2005 the Year Of High Definition and they were right. Along on the Shootout was a Sony HVR-Z1U, a professional 3-chip HDV camera that shoots a large-frame HD video image on DV tape, suddenly making theater-quality imaging available at the price point of a pro dSLR.
Optical fellow travelers:
Also along for the ride were several extra optics for the Canon cameras.
Canon’s own 10-22mm digital wide-angle zoom, Sigma’s 8mm fisheye and the Sigma 18-200mm super zoom designed for APS-size digital chips.
So tell me, does having an 11:1 zoom make your life better?
Canon 350D EOS Digital Rebel XT.
The second rebellious dSLR from Canon is tagged merely fifty model-number points higher than last season’s EOS 300D but is a completely new camera from the ground up.
Surely it is worth a hundred and fifty moniker points, but Canon has its own ideas for nomenclature.
The 350D jumps the image chip from the 3072 x 2048-pixel image of the 300D to a 3456 x 2304-pixel image, almost exactly 8-megapixels big. It sounds like a lot, but that’s really only a 12.5% growth factor over the previous picture in each dimension, or in print terms, the difference between an 8 x 10 and a 9 x 12. Image quality is the usual Canon superb.
Supporting the larger chip is Canon’s Digic II processor, successor to the Digic found in prior models (300D, 10D). It’s a great deal faster than the original Digic and much kinder to batteries. So fast, in fact, that wake up time is virtually instant. So kind to the power supply, in fact, that you don’t really need to switch the camera off as long as you have it set to fall asleep at a reasonable time. Unlike the original Digital Rebel, the XT uses a different, smaller, less potent battery, the NB-2LH which is found in smaller cameras in the Canon line.
It’s a battery with a history. The NB-2Ls have been around for years powering small cameras like certain Canon PowerShots and camcorders in the Optura collection. NB-2L batteries are specified to hold as little as 570mAh while the “H” adds another 26% for 720mAh and last about as long as the larger batteries in the original Digital Rebel.
Be Aware: Aftermarket batteries often list as being the “H” variety and claim up to 1200mAh which seems close to physically impossible for the volume of space and current LiION tech. That said, they’re much less expensive.
Rebel XTs mount all the Canon optics, both EF-mount (Electro Focus mounts were introduced in 1987) and prior FD lenses via rare optical adapters, and like all EF Canons, it can even adapt Nikon, Olympus OM, Contax/Yashica RTS and Leica R lenses with adapters, because the Canon body design is several millimeters thinner than other cameras.
How many of you knew all that? Show of hands?
Only lenses designed to work with the EF mount will enjoy auto-focus and computed iris adjustment, however, and all those legacy lenses will become manual glass only, if adapted, but I digress.
Inside the 350D a whole new camera is at work. There’s almost no comparison to the 300D, and while that camera continues to take outstanding images (and at about $700 these days, is an amazing value), the 350D offers numerous advantages:
Okay, that last point is lost on many of us, but it’s rather fun to switch the menu language over to other tongues just to see what things are called. Excuse me, I have to adjust my Spazio Colore.
Image quality, pixel for pixel, is on a par with the images from the 300D and 10D cameras that preceded it. In fact, it’s on a par with the 8.2 MP 20D. Canon has an excellent grasp of digital image attributes and JPEG shots are uncommonly well-tempered, extending up into the highlights with smooth highlight tonalities--one of the more difficult areas of digital images.
You can easily play Truth Or Dare with prints made from 10D, 20D, 300D and/or 350D Canons, challenging viewers to spot which camera shot what. Results are so close that you would have to see the original EXIF data on the image file to become certain of the source.
Of course, higher caliber RAW images are only a click away, and although they each consume many more megabytes than a Fine/Large JPEG image, you have the option to save RAW only or RAW + Fine/Large JPEG with each shutter press.
Using the 350D:
In the heat of picture taking, working with the 350D is rewarding and direct. Nearly every function you would wish to access is available through the buttons on the camera back or inherent in the Mode Selector atop the camera. Instant Menu, Review, Trash, ISO, WB, Meter Type, AF Type, Motor Drive, Self-timer, AF area selection, exotic pre-flash manipulation and Image Size/Quality functions can be accessed and altered. Review Zoom, Review jumping, EV±, DOF preview and shot Info also available via easily touch-identified buttons. The only control missing from this list is Flash Exposure Compensation, which is located in the Menu system.
One negative point that disrupts the work flow is that Canon decided to make several functions ONLY changeable on the monitor screen. ISO, White Balance, Meter type, Image Quality, AF mode -- they each have icons on the LCD, but those icons don’t change until a new setting is locked in. In bright sun, you need a big hat to shade the monitor enough to see what you are setting.
With a maximum motor drive speed of 3 fps, the 350D is fully capable of gathering shots of wildlife charging through the neighborhood. My preference turned out to be leaving the camera with Continuous frames switched on, just in case I wanted to fire off a string of shots without planning ahead. Finger training for this is fairly easy -- you can learn to fire off just one -- and sometimes an accidental double-tap produces a better shot in frame number two.
A large internal image buffer makes shooting with the motor drive a joy forever. Especially if you have dialed in a Small frame (1728 x 1152 pixels and still detailed enough for 6.7 x 10 inch prints) which now gives you virtually infinite frames (provided you have a big, fast CompactFlash card).
Sigma WhopperZoom full range. Wide 18mm here.
Much of the time I mounted the Sigma 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 DC zoom on the 350D giving me a range of wide to respectably long tele all in one small, lightweight package. The Sigma makes framing and composing very easy, but I must say, it’s not the sharpest pencil in the cup at wide zoom settings when gathering full 8MP images. Center sharpness was fine, but not always the extreme corners. Still, it’s often more important to be able to get the shot than to have the corners of the frame perfectly clear.
At other times, I mounted the Canon 17-85mm IS lens on the Rebel XT and always appreciated its ability to stick the image to the ground glass with the Image Stabilization feature switched on. Expose at 1/8th second? No problemo.
17-85mm IS at 3/10 sec.
I was even able to shoot images in the dead of night in Venice under available darkness conditions with 1/2 sec exposures (not kidding). Shooting a continuous string of these often yields one that is well stabilized, if you can achieve a hand-held stance that minimizes camera shake. With any reasonable bracing assist from a lamp post, building edge or table top, this could be extended.
When wide images were needed, the Canon 10-22mm EF-S f/3.5-4.5 USM ultra wide zoom provided coverage and extraordinary sharpness throughout its entire range. This is one of those optics about which legends arise. Although this lens is only $100 less costly than the 350D body itself, it’s worth saving up for. At full wide, the 10mm view looks like a rectilinear 16mm ultra wide prime lens on a 35mm camera.
Pincushion distortion is very minor, and at 22mm, still equivalent to a 35mm wide-angle lens in 135 format, straight lines are completely undistorted. Architects, take note: here’s your lens. I can’t emphasize this enough. Turn off your laptop and step over to your nearest camera store and nobody gets hurt.
Shooting at elevated ISO with the 350D allows image gathering in the dimmest environments. It turns modest f-stops into major night shots, and the ISO 1600 setting delivers consistent color along with modest grain for such a high sensitivity. At this high ISO, grain is apparent but not deadly, and the long tonal scale of the CMOS imager constructs images that seem surprisingly close to what human eyes take in dim light.
The overall experience of shooting in fast-moving situations, which benefit from fast camera response and high sensitivity, is positive. Canon’s EOS 350D can be regarded as either the most capable enthusiast camera or the lowest priced professional camera.
With a good lens such as the 18-55mm Kit Lens II (What? Another Roman numeral?) or any fine optic, the images offer no excuses and continuously bring back the shots alive and kicking.
Canon EOS 20D
Successor to the 10D, which was a 6.3MP camera that preceded the EOS 300D but used the same image chip, this newer camera is definitely built for professional hands. Its metal body, 8.2MP CMOS imager, fast Digic II processor, superior ergonomic controls, long battery life, extended ISO, rapid 5 fps continuous shooting and super-speed menu system let you know quickly what professional photographers crave. Need, actually, since the definition of pro is more a matter of T=$^2, or in layman’s terms, interval equals income.
It’s heavier than the 350D by a notable 36%, just under half a pound more weight, and it takes the larger BP-511A batteries that power many other Canon cameras including the 10D and 300D before it. With the Digic II’s extra dimension of kindness to the power supply, the 20D runs much longer per battery charge than earlier models.
At the heart of the camera is the 8.2MP image chip. This is a third-generation Canon CMOS sensor and produces images 3504 x 2336 pixels big in the Large file size. That’s 8.185344 million little color tiles for those of you who think in mosaic terms. If each were an inch on a side, a vertical shot would be nearly thirty stories tall. Put that on your billboard! Of course, the chip is identical to the one found in the Canon EOS-1D Mark II (which originally sold for a whopping $4,500 in the US) and EOS 350D as far as its silicon goes, but the outer pixels are masked to a slightly smaller image on the 350D. As noted earlier, the 350D image is 48 x 32 pixels smaller than the one produced by either the EOS-1D Mark II and the 20D. How come? I’d bet a buck that it had to do with ephemeral issues such as marketing puff more than any technical reason.
Quick, count to five as fast as you can. The 20D beat you. That’s how fast the motor drive sucks in the images.
Fast five frames per second is closer to Gatling gun speed (the original, not the one in the A10 Warthog) than digital camera speed. That’s 300 shots per minute. The internal buffer is big enough to absorb a minimum of 23 Large/Fine frames, but as shots are gathered, they’re processed and stored. Meaning that by the time #23 is reached, the first dozen or so have been recorded into the card and more shots can be continuously absorbed. The smallest number of Large/Fine images I could gather was 37 in an unbroken stream. Increasing compression to Normal, almost 80 Large images of typical complexity could be sequenced continuously.
Can a 20D's 8.2MP image compete with 35mm?
Smaller frames store quicker, so it’s possible to adjust compression and frame sizes until the shot limit is effectively infinity. Frame speed like this is able to record motion sequences worth animating into movies. Apple’s QuickTime Pro (thirty bucks!) will do the job in an instant, and shooting Small frame images will assure the camera of continuous, uninterrupted shooting until any fast CompactFlash card is filled to the brim. I use the Sandisk Extreme and Ultra II 1GB cards in these cameras all the time and never seem to hit the buffer limit, even with the most extended sequences of continuous shots. RAW files can only sequence six at a time, but choices of what size and compression of companion JPEG images (or not) make RAW shooting flexible.
Menu operation and all of the choices that must be accessed this way are at the mercy of any camera’s menu paging system. The 20D has what must be the fastest menu in cameradom. A fast thumb-wheel on the camera back swoops through color coded pages so quickly that anything you wish to access is usually within one or two seconds of searching for it. With practice, you recognize the menu items by pattern rather than by reading each one so finding the thing you’re looking for becomes “third one up above the short word” instead of digesting the text.
With its high-speed continuous action, shutter release even for single shots is like a finger snap. It’s instant. That mirror wastes no time swinging up and at any shutter speed higher than 1/50th second, the shot is over before you know it. It’s not click, click, click. It’s more like slam, slam, slam.
When I bought the 20D, I acquired the 17-85mm IS zoom at the same time. The two are a natural combo. Weight in a hand-held camera is a double-edged sword. Sure, it’s heavier, but it also has more mass and resists a definite degree of hand motion. The IS, Image Stabilization, built into the zoom resists even more hand twitching, and the net result is that you can hand-hold this camera and lens down to 1/8 sec routinely. At least I can, and my hands aren’t a surgeon’s. Combine that with the motor drive and you have the next best thing to a Best Shot Selector (Nikon’s proprietary shoot-many/keep-only-the-best feature). When in doubt, just blast away at five shots per second in any JPEG setting and the largest image in any string of exposures will likely be your sharpest shot. The combination is so powerful that unless I’m shooting flash, I keep the camera in Continuous mode almost all the time.
Where I first found this especially helpful was when shooting the interior of a dim church in Korcula, Croatia (above). I was impressed with the lighting, even though all of it was a fraction of a foot-candle, and pointed the 10-22mm zoom up to catch a dramatic view of the ceiling. One finger press released three shots in quick succession and zooming into them for review showed me that the second one of the string had the sharpness advantage. From that point on, I kept the 20D in Continuous mode for the rest of the trip. Throwing away bad pictures during nightly reviews on my portable PowerBook took on an extra dimension. Every shot I said good bye to brought me closer to a portfolio of good images.
The more I used the 20D in quickly evolving, opportunistic situations, the more I liked it. Size and weight are greater than the 350D, but with all other things being equal, the 20D made ME feel more like I knew what I was doing.
Looking identical at first glance to my wife’s Coolpix 5200, except for the black metal exterior instead of the all silver sheen of the earlier camera, the 7-megapixel Coolpix 7900 follows in the tradition of that small camera with its 7.8-23.4mm integral Zoom Nikkor in one of the smallest, tightest packages around.
Using a combination of SD card media and at internal memory cache for non-card shooting, it’s such a small device that during the entire trip it resided in the breast pocket of my shooting vest and much of the time I forgot it was there.
Fortunately that pocket has a Velcro catch, so the camera never fell out. If you put it in a pocket that isn't this secure, don’t blame me when you forget its there and you bend over a railing. Whoops!
The 7900 packs so much camera into such a tiny space (smaller than a deck of cards and 5.3 ounces or 150g) that it could easily be the only camera one would take on vacation. It’s fast to work with for a live-viewfinder camera and supports such a vast array of extra features that actually help the photographic process I often wished some of these features were inherent in the dSLRs.
If you've never shot with BSS, you’re missing something. Nikon has had this in all the Coolpix cameras since the CP950 and it helps make dim light brighter without blasting forth with the flash. BSS, or Best Shot Selector takes a string of shots and saves only the sharpest one of the group. Sharpness being defined as the shot with the greatest amount of high-frequency edge contour (sharp edges are higher in frequency than soft, rolling tonal areas of an image).
New to the Coolpix line in the 7900 is the delightful D-Lighting feature. While reviewing any image, you simply press the OK button (center button on the large control cluster on the camera back) and instantly the camera lightens the dark areas of the current image under review. Press OK again and that “improved” version is saved as a new file with all the attributes of the original.
No, you can’t do the D-Lighting again to the new picture, but the improvement in the shadow areas is considerable. Later, in your digital darkroom, you could do the same sort of shadow lift if you used Photoshop’s Curves control, but when you want to perk up a shot in Dubrovnik, it’s a very useful tweak.
Face Priority Auto-Focus is one of those features the guys in the back room came up with that you will forever wonder how they did it. It combines a pattern-recognition intelligent analysis of the live image with the auto-focus system and actually, literally recognizes people’s faces faster than you can think about it. When it locks into the face, a red rectangle surrounds it on the screen and auto-focus uses only this area of the image for focus. Holy cow! Not only does it work, but it’s accurate, fast and nearly-miraculous. This is a feature that you will spend hours showing other people with jaw-dropping reactions all around.
Topping off the four aces in Nikon’s hand is the Auto Red-Eye Removal system for flash shots. It literally wipes the red out AFTER the shot has been taken, zeroing in on the eyes and selectively suppressing high-chroma red while avoiding serious pre-exposure rapid flashing.
The 7900 is high on features, size, weight and ergonomic design. Its lens is not as sharp as the ones on some other cameras in this class, having been roundly reviewed by the test/review sites as just average. One feature I wish were instituted in this camera is philosophical. Other Coolpix cameras spend their entire lives dedicated to taking pictures. No matter what mode you are currently in, a half-press of the Shutter Release immediately returns you to shooting mode. If you are reviewing an image or fooling around with a menu item with the 7900, you must work your way back to shooting mode. A simple half-press of the Shutter Release won’t do the trick.
Battery life from the slender CP1 lithium battery is on the short side. Were I traveling with this as my only camera, I’d make sure to have a spare or two with me. Charge time is a brief 45 minutes and with just occasional camera use, one charge might get you through the day, but with any enthusiastic use, more power would be greatly appreciated.
Here’s a bonus, courtesy of Nikon: Frame sizes are plentiful. From the 3072 x 2304 7M largest frame to the 2592 x 1944 5M intermediate size represents a reduction of just 15% in each dimension, but images captured at 5M are always down-conversions of full-size frames. Net loss in pixels is only 15%, but practical loss of image detail is under 5%. Shooting at the Medium frame size means more pictures by nearly double. Each smaller image packs more into each pixel, but the quality of each pixel is maintained at near optimum. Artifacts are low. Results are high. Moral to the story: Shoot 5M and shoot more frequently.
Say, how come that guy isn't shooting with the 7900? That's because the 7900 was busy shooting the guy shooting with something else. Remember that, the next time you see a picture of a camera. The camera in the picture couldn't have taken the picture of itself, unless it's yet another one of those mirror shots people shoot endlessly (mia culpa).
The Year of High Def:
Sounds like a conflicting report on auditory problems, but it really means that until now, high definition was an idea that started in the $50,000 US (MSRP) zone and peaked out at prices that can buy a nice home.
Sony introduced two HDV cameras in the last few months. As of July 7, 2005, they have three models available. The first is called the HDR-FX1, a three-chip HDV camera that shoots in either 1080i60 (for NTSC countries) or 1080i50 (for PAL countries) formats. Second was the pro model, the HVR-Z1U which shoots in both formats. Third, and most recent, is the HDR-HC1, a very small single chip camcorder that uses a 3MP chip to do the image gathering.
You may not see this unless you have QuickTime 7 or greater.
Many scenes were specifically shot for time-lapse processing later, which is shorthand for accelerating the shot up so clouds move and crowds jump into hyper speed. Results from speeding up scenes using Apple’s iMovie HD were encouraging and Apple’s Final Cut Pro allowed truly exotic manipulations of space and time with the High Defintion footage.
You may not be able to see this unless you have QuickTime 7 or greater.
All of the Sony HD cameras use DV cassettes as their recording medium and they all compress the HD image (1440 x 1080 pixels with anamorphic 1:1.33 aspect pixels) into HDV format’s MPEG2 on the fly. Five years ago, Sony was showing MPEG2 hardware that was more than a cubic foot in volume and cost more than a very nice car. Now they’ve stuffed all that tech into a chip the size of your thumbnail. Ain’t progress grand?
Sony HDV cameras are not limited to High Definition video. All of them switch to regular DV recording with the Z1 achieving either NTSC DV or PAL DV and DVCAM recordings on demand. They even record HDV and play back regular standard definition DV on the fly.
Everybody wants to know the answer to Question #1: How good does it look? With a little post-production HD lab work (equivalent to the digital darkroom for still images), Z1 shots can look good enough to intercut with much more expensive HD formats.
On a scale of 1 to 10, they probably equal an 8. To put that into perspective, Ive sat through major motion pictures that didnt look as good in the theater as the scene from the Z1 show on a full-resolution HD computer monitor.
The Nikon 7900 is a full-featured Coolpix with more positive attributes than negatives. Its images make great looking 8 x 10s and it would serve any traveler very well, bringing back well-exposed, accurate color images of anything its lens can see.
The Canon Digital Rebel XT, EOS 350D is a fast reacting, extremely versatile dSLR with so many features, image quality points and optional settings that we can hardly believe Canon has kept the price to the same under-$1,000 figure (with lens) that originally distinguished the first Digital Rebel. Ounce for ounce, dollar for dollar, pixel for pixel, this is the leading value in all of digital photography, period.
The Canon EOS 20D is a no-holds-barred thoroughly professional camera with a distinctive ergonomic performance edge over the 350D. Ergonomic features speed up the photographer so completely that it is my first choice when a photo assignment appears, and if I could take only one camera with me, this would be it.
Its handling, menu system, range of options, ease of use and solid presence instills confidence in me every time I pick it up.
Worth the extra weight? Sure, what’s half a pound in the grand scheme of things? Worth the price differential? To me, yes. Especially when considering the rapid pace of opportunistic candids, extremely fleeting photo opportunities and mix of techniques inherently accessible through the hardware.
That makes two for two by Canon on this trip. Each of these dSLRs deserve the best optics you can hang on them and the Canon 17-85mm Image Stabilization lens and Canon 10-22mm ultra wide digital lens produced reams of superb shots along the Shootout route.
The little Nikon is emblematic of a whole novel category of camera. Is it still or video? Actually, it does both. Is it snapshots or serious photography oriented? Actually, it does both. Is it for 4 x 6 prints or tabloid posters? Actually, it does both. Is it light weight or heavy? If you mean heavy in the beatnik sense of “substantial” then it is both. For a professional, this isn’t the camera you take to a wedding, but it is the camera you could have in your cargo pants for times in which the Big Gun wasn’t appropriate.
I have no problem with either Canon. I can count on either camera to deliver good superb even images and the work-arounds for either camera are quite small. Sure, the monitor setting requirements on the XT are unhandy, but not many demerits at all. Sure, the 20D weighs more, but not so many demerits at all.