Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Recent personal thoughts on higher end digital cameras

John's Digital Photography Page

Advice to a friend on buying a digital camera. I wrote this in a quick email, but it might be of broader interest. My friend's daughter has a G2 she likes, but she's bothered by the "shutter lag" and is shopping for the next step up. I start by discussing how to make the Canon G2 work better:
The G2 actually has very good responsiveness, but there's a trick to it. She needs to pre-charge the CCD and eliminate the slow focus-acquistion phase. For the zoo pictures she can lock aperture and focus and then depress the shutter button slightly prior to shooting. If she squeezes to take the shot the lag will be very short. I've gotten very good pictures of our kids that way... (This was the reason I bought the G2, I knew beforehand that the timed lag was among the shortest in the industry -- assuming CCD pre-charge and pre-focus.)

Another trick is to drop the image res slightly so it will cycle into memory faster without overflowing the internal buffer, then put the camera into burst mode. Do as above, but when the picture is taken it bursts and you get more chances to capture an image.

Still, there's a lag. The pros use Canon CMOS SLRs mostly. I think some pros even use the $1500 10D, of which the Digital Rebel $900 is a cheaper version. Canon just introduced a new camera, the Pro1. It's a descendant of the G2 with a large zoom and up to 8mpixel. I think it has a faster bus and will capture quickly with a high speed card. The Nikon D-70 is also very new and very hot. I guess, but don't know, that the CMOS sensors don't need to be pre-charged and thus are less prone to shutter lag.

Another BIG factor is light sensitivity. Is she taking flash pictures at the zoo? If she's not, she needs ISO 400 or higher pictures with good light sensitivity. That's very rarely discussed. Most digital cameras have far too much noise at ISO 400. The main exceptions are the Canon CMOS cameras, including the rebel and the 10D. They have very nice images at ISO 400 and tolerable at ISO 800.

Digital SLRs all have problems with dust on the image sensor. I think the D-70 may have some new technology to help with that. Need to be very careful when changing lenses esp. in dusty settings.

I think for her needs I'd look at the

1. Canon Pro1: Just on the market, very hot -- but not my first choice because I of some "purple fringing" that's a side-effect of pushing smaller CCDs too hard. (The industry is selling megapixels now -- and pushing current CCDs further than they ought to. They depend on heavy post-processing in the camera to fix the images -- but it's not perfect).

2. Canon Digital Rebel (price is falling fast as the D-70 comes on board! Might get a good bargain. The Nikon D-70 is about $300-$400 more than the Rebel since it doesn't include a lens.)

3. Nikon D-70: Excels in burst mode, very new.

4. Canon EOS 10D: the $1500 version of the Digital Rebel, price probably falling because of the D-70. This camera is due for a refresh this fall I think.

5. The SONY alternative to the Pro1 ... SONY and Canon are in a dogfight with Nikon starting to come on fast.

Or she could try my tips on the G2 and see if they work :-).

I think the key discriminator for her may be image quality at ISO 400 and higher. If she wants more zoom (typical of zoo) she wants a smaller sensor, which does favor #1 and #5 above (smaller sensor --> smaller lens/higher zoom).


PS. Everything we need for a GREAT $800 camera is in place, it's just a matter of time. I want JPEG 2000 on the camera (better color management, better edge feature capture, better compression esp. at higher ratios), faster datapaths and bigger buffers (trivial), ISO 800 with tolerable noise, better manual focus/focus lock, image stabilizer technology, no perceptible shutter lag and D-70 level burst mode, internal but serviceable 20GB microdrive (forget the dinky memory cards), the Canon 6 megapixel CMOS sensor and a G2 style body (NOT an SLR -- I don't want the mirror complexity; I refer the swivel LCD feature of the G#/Pro1 line.) The only fly in my ointment is the CMOS sensors are larger than CCD (the "wire" problem) so I may need to live with a bigger camera. I'm fine with my G2 until I get the above -- though the market rarely delivers exactly what I want. I'm figuring on replacing my G2 in the spring of 2005.

PPS. Since cameras are going to get immensely better over the next 18 months (no new technology required, we have all the technology already) she might consider getting a Rebel now (since it will do very well I think) and then replacing it again in the spring of 2006.

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