Secrets of Digital Photography
The Winner!    
Starting 10 9 03

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Point by Point

I did not have this in mind before the trip began. But I do now.

Winning on points. Not the maximum image, just the maximum number of Really Good Images under the widest range of image challenges. I would kick none of the final four out of bed for eating crackers. All would be welcome as the only camera with me on a trip. In the end, the decision to declare a winner came down to very subjective points. Every camera had drawbacks, none were perfect. One proved itself under more varied conditions and actually brought back more good images than the others based on criteria of storytelling, ease of composition in light and darkness, angles of view, playfulness (think intentional blur), control and portability. And the winner is...

For meritorious service in the greatest range of shooting situations, the camera that edged ahead of the others was the Nikon Coolpix 5400. Its compact size, wide zoom, special features and extensive controls made it the winner, closely followed by the Sony DSC-F717, Sony DSC-V1 and Nikon Coolpix 5700 in that order.

Here's a 5400 Victory lap (Victory Tower, Berlin):



Interiors, low light captures with BSS, wide subject capture, flip out monitor, long battery life, good physical grip and full-daylight external monitor viewing all contributed to the success of using the 5400. With a sharper tele zoom it would have been farther out front of the others, it just won on points.

Image quality top honors went to the Sony cameras.

The Sony DSC-F717 might have walked off with the prize if it had been outfitted with a 28 mm wide zoom or BSS, it was that close.

Its exposures were less dead-on compared to the Nikon models, but its extra dynamic range allowed even slightly over-exposed images to be brought back to fully normal looking shots. "Orange Drink," left, is an example.

Everything on the camera is purposeful. The long barrel puts you in touch with zoom and focus controls easily. One wishes that the external monitor was more useful in bright sun.

The Sony DSC-V1 isn't as fast or long as its older sibling, but the pictures are just as long in dynamics and sharpness.

A swivel monitor may sound like an embellishment to those whose camera doesn't have one, but this camera was edged out of second place due to a lack of one. Many of the candids seen in this report were only possible through use of the swivel monitor. Its monitor also was difficult to read in full sunlight.

(How strange that Sony introduced a "transflective" monitor with the DSC-F505 but abandoned it for subsequent cameras and Nikon introduced one on their CP5400 without a whiff of fanfare.)

Like the 717, the V1 needs something like Nikon's BSS. It can focus in light that would give the Nikons fits, but it can't stabilize the camera via luck, the way the BSS feature does.

The Nikon Coolpix 5700 drops to fourth not because it lacks zoom range or sharpness, but compared to the Sony cameras it doesn't quite hang on to the image dynamics as well, doesn't manually focus with ease or certainty--or even a hint as to how far from the camera the focus is, numerically, isn't as fast to power up, doesn't have the photographer-friendly control ergonomics and, let's face it, it's a three dimensional, non-pocket lump. Sure, it's smaller than the Sony 717, but at least that camera lets you zoom and/or focus with options like holding focus on a subject while zooming out to frame the shot.

It's worth noting that any one of the cameras I traveled with would bring back large numbers of really fine images. Depending on how much low-light or long tele shooting you do, your own conclusions might have been quite different from mine.

The single greatest criterion for making this choice wasn't something that was decided before shooting began, but it ends up being stated something like this: When I reach for the camera, which one gives me the most frequent confidence that I'm going to get the shot? In fact, all of them usually gave me what I was looking for, but the 5400 gave it to me most often.

Next time, new cameras will be on the trip. Sony's 8-megapixel DSC-F828 has the wide zoom position I crave plus manual zoom and focus. Like the current models, it allows capture at about 80% scale--a proven memory card saving feature. And its new chip design promises still greater dynamic range.

Will a camera from Nikon or another manufacturer beat it to the finish line? Stay tuned.

PS: The ultra wide bend in the Rhine shot at the top of this article? Two hand-held frames from the CP5400, butterflied (bow tied?) out into a panoramic in Photoshop. The final image was well over 4500 pixels wide.

Other pages to visit:

Nikon CP5700 Gallery.

Nikon CP5400 Gallery.

Sony DSC-F717 Gallery.

Sony DSC-V1 Gallery.

Travel Front Page.

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