NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, October 2007
The New, the Best, and the Worst June 2007
Collected by Pim Borman, Webmster, SW Indiana PC Users Group, Inc.
(click to email author)

Obtained from APCUG with the author's permission for publication by APCUG member groups.

Digital Camera Lessons
My first digital camera was a 3.1 megapixel Olympus C-730 Ultra Zoom. With its 10x optical zoom lens I hoped to take candid pictures of squirrels feeding at the corn spike on the back fence. To my disappointment they turned out on the fuzzy side. I blamed the optics, until it was pointed out to me that a hand-held camera is too unsteady at that zoom level.

Lesson #1:
It takes a tripod for best results at elevated zoom levels.

Indoor pictures, especially those I took at our monthly meetings, were never as bright and sharp as some of those taken by others, even after processing with a photo editor. The pictures were underexposed due to the inadequate flash and small lens diameter. To compensate, the camera used a large aperture (affecting sharpness) and amplified the signal from the CCD as much as possible (to an equivalent of ISO 400 maximum in this camera). Amplifying the signal also amplified the electronic noise inherent in all electronic systems, resulting in a mottled background. The camera minimized the mottling by blurring the image.

Lesson #2:
Higher ISO specifications are meaningless unless the CCD chip has a higher signal-to-noise ratio. Otherwise it takes a stronger (external) flash, and/or a larger lens for better light gathering. If you already have an old SLR film camera with several large lenses you may be better off with a new SLR camera body that accepts your lenses. More expensive and bulky, but it will get the best results.

Digital pictures don't always turn out as intended. Taking a picture of a roomful of people may end up with people in the back of the room barely visible while the ones up front are overexposed. Often a part of the picture can be rescued by severely cropping to retain the group in the foreground only. Unless you start out with a large excess of pixels, the remaining edited version may not have enough pixels left for a sharp image of reasonable size, resulting in blurriness or even pixelation. 7 megapixel images can be cropped smaller than 3 megapixel ones.

Lesson #3:
Get as many pixels as you can afford. You can always discard the excess later.

My next camera was a Casio EXZ-750 with 7.2 megapixels and no more than 3x optical zoom. I already knew that higher zoom levels gave unsatisfactory results. Much more compact than the Olympus, with a large LCD screen and an optical viewfinder for bright outdoor use. According to the PC magazines it provided outstanding image quality. I did see a comment somewhere that its low-light performance was marginal and I should have paid heed to that. As it turned out, the camera performed beautifully under daylight conditions, but flash pictures taken in semi-dark rooms invariably showed the multicolored mottling due to background electronic noise in the chip. I have not found a photo editor (yet?) that corrects that problem, other than by blurring the picture to make the mottling less visible.

On the other hand, with the higher pixel count I took a daylight picture of a squirrel on the back fence from the kitchen door with 3x zoom and cropped it back tightly without losing quality. One night I surprised a raccoon raiding the bird feeders. It may have been a youngster, at least it did not show any fear and allowed me to walk right up to it and snap some flash pictures. Under these close-up conditions, with plenty of light from the flash, the pictures were sharp without mottling of the dark background. Still, the new camera did not solve my problem with the unsatisfactory performance in open areas under low light conditions.

Lately many camera manufacturers have started to emphasize higher light sensitivity of their cameras in terms of ISO values. Both my Olympus and the Casio had a maximum of ISO 400 speed. I took some trial pictures with both my cameras, changing the ISO setting from 100 to the maximum 400. As a target I used my 40-year old, seldom-used, set of Encyclopedia Britannicas, in dark-brown imitation-leather bindings and gold lettering on the spines. Sitting in their own bookcase in a dark corner of the den they make a perfect test image. It only confirmed lesson 2: higher ISO settings by themselves don't help. They just amplify the noise as much as the signal.

And then I read about the new Olympus SP-550 UZ camera. All-new technology! 18X optical zoom! Includes wide-angle! New Dual Sensor-Shift and Digital Image Stabilization! Up to ISO 5000 sensitivity (with reduced image size) and up to 1/2000 second shutter speed! I liked my old Olympus and this seemed to be everything I needed to solve my problems. I was ready to order but hesitated at the last moment. It sounded almost too good to be true, and frequently that turns out to be true.

Lesson #4:
First find out all you can about a new camera from an independent source.

PC World and PC Magazine were no help, since the camera had only recently become available. I found a terrific Web site, Digital Photography (http://www.dpreview.com) with in-depth reviews of just about any digital camera on the market. More detail than you knew existed, sure to uncover any shortcomings. Its summary opinion of the Olympus SP-550 UZ was deadly. In essence: a camera designed by the marketing department, out to establish the best-looking list of specifications without regard to actual performance. A detailed series of test images showed how the performance of the camera rapidly degraded with increasing ISO values, even well below ISO 1000, let alone 5000. The dual image stabilization didn't work well at the high zoom levels where it is most needed. Even under the best conditions, images were not as sharp as with competing cameras.

Lesson #5:
Image stabilization may not work as well as promised, especially at high zoom levels when it is most needed.

Having found dpreview to be a goldmine of information about cameras, I checked to see which make and model they liked best, especially under low-light conditions. Their clear choice was the Fujifilm FinePix F31fd camera, a minor upgrade of the previous F30 (http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/fujifilmf31fd/). In many respects it looked and acted like so many other compact digital cameras, but it boasted of having a Super CCD and a new Real Photo Processor. Also , ISO 3200 maximum, 6.3 megapixels, 3x optical zoom. The review showed that, as in other cameras, the image quality at the highest ISO settings was unacceptable, but it still found that “this camera has Class-leading high ISO performance; superb results up to ISO 400, surprisingly good ISO 800 performance.” This is presumably due to a higher signal-to-noise ratio of its CCD chip. As a result its performance at low light levels is superior. In other respects the camera is unremarkable. It lacks an optical view finder and its LCD screen is hard to see in bright light. It uses more expensive XD picture cards that have lower writing speeds than SD cards.

Lesson #6:
Digital cameras come with a minimum of built-in memory. Buy at least 512 MB of removable additional storage. SD picture cards are less expensive and faster than XD cards, but are not interchangeable. Check to see what the camera uses.

At half the (street) price of the new Olympus, I bought the Fujifilm camera. Test pictures of my encyclopedia confirmed its superior low-light performance. That is also clear in the first indoor group pictures I have taken with it. For outside pictures I still prefer the Casio, mostly because of its convenient optical view finder.

Lesson #7:
An optical or miniature LCD viewfinder is essential for accurately framing pictures under bright conditions.

Finally, if you are a stickler for perfection get a digital SLR camera with a set of high-quality lenses. You'll never be satisfied with the small pocket cameras. But even with less than absolutely perfect technical quality, an interesting picture is still worth at least a thousand words!

© 2007 Willem F.H Borman. This article may be reproduced in its entirety only, including this statement, by non-profit organizations in their member publications, with mention of the author's name and the Southwestern Indiana PC Users Group, Inc.

This article has been provided to APCUG by the author solely for publication by APCUG member groups. All other uses require the permission of the author (see e-mail address above).

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