Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Crossing the "Bridge"

So, a few months ago, my lovely wife made a bit of an unfortunate error in spatial perception; knocking my (now 5 year old, but still excellent) prized Nikon D80 (with my 28-135 lens mounted) off a table, about 3 feet down onto a tile floor.

As you might expect, this broke both the camera and the lens; rather spectacularly in fact. They are both now in multiple pieces, and make quite disconcerting noises when shaken back and forth.

I was rather dismayed by this development.

At the same time (in fact, in the same week) she also managed to semi-permanently misplace (as in, we haven't found it yet) our little pocket sized Canon point and shoot (the now 4 year old and again quite decent, SD850is).

As such we have been sans camera since around late January (other than our cellphones of course).

For Mel, this isn't really a problem, as she finds her cellphones camera to be of acceptable quality, and surpassing convenience.

I am not so sanguine about the state of affairs.

This lack of decent camera has been somewhat irritating to me; both because we've done some traveling around the region since then and wanted a real camera for some decent photos; and because as part of the blogging thing I'm used to taking and posting a lot of pictures.

In particular I was rather annoyed at not being able to get good pics at boomershoot. I tried taking some with the cell phone camera, and they were just such poor quality I gave it up as a bad job.

Now, I know what camera I WANT to replace my much loved and missed D80 with: a Nikon D7000.

There's a lot of reasons why I want that particular camera, and if I scrape up the cash to buy one any time soon I'll go into that in detail; but for now I DON'T have that kinda cash (about $1200 body only). In fact I don't have enough cash for any of the current Nikon DSLR range... or the current Canon range either.

I've been budgeting and saving aside for a replacement for a while; and at the moment, I can swing about $400.

Of course that's less than ideal, but the issue has just become pressing; because several people have recently sent me gear and/or products to review, with a couple more coming in the next few weeks, and I don't have any means of taking a decent photographs.

As of today, this is a problem requiring immediate resolution.

Now, I could get a refurbished Nikon D40, D60, or D3000 for my $400 budget; but not a body and a decent wide to mid zoom to replace the 28-135 I lost, and I don't have another lens that covers the wide-normal range.

Right now, I just have a couple primes (a 50mm and an 80mm), and then some big zooms above 70mm. In particular,  for the blogging work I need to be able to cover the wide to normal range (24mm to 80mm); and of course for nature and shooting pics, I need the mid to long zoom. I'd have to walk around with 4 lenses, or spend $200-$300 on the minimum acceptable quality VR lens from Nikon.

So that wouldn't work for me right now either.

Also, frankly, at this point if I'm going to buy another DSLR (and I will, eventually), I'm just going to wait to get what I want... And though the d40, d60, and d3000 are all good cameras, they don't have the features I want.

In particular, though the d3000 is really an excellent camera, it doesn't shoot video; and at this point, I'm not going to buy a camera without at least 720p video capability. To get that would mean going to the d5000 (currently running about $500-$600 refurbished). If I'm gonna pay $500-$600, I'm going to wait til I can pay the $1200; or even the $850 street price of the d5000s successor, the d5100 (also an excellent camera... and too new to have any refurbs available).

Oh and yes, I could consider Canon as well; but I'm a Nikon shooter, and I'm not throwing away the lens and accessory investment I've already made. Besides, they're no cheaper for the same features.

So anyway, by the time I can afford one, a refurbished d7000 will probably be down to $800; and in the meantime I need a capable camera. Something worthwhile purchasing over a cheap pocket cam, or the "8 megapixel" camera on my mobile phone (which, yes, is utter crap... though less utter crap than most other phones cameras).

The problem is, if I'm not going to have a changeable lens camera, I need something with a very useful wide zoom range, and good image stabilization. Plus I need some manual shooting controls, and other "professional" type features.

That leaves out the pocket point and shoots, ("compacts" and "ultracompacts" in the industry market definitions) and moves me into what are colloquially called "super-zooms" or "bridge" cameras. So called because they "bridge" the gap between P&S and DSLR cameras.

This is not a very fun space to play in frankly; it's a land of pretty hard compromises. Either you spend outrageous bucks to get a big sensor (in which case, why not just buy a DSLR), or you get stuck with the small sensor of a P&S and the limitation on image quality that imposes. And of course, you're stuck with the one lens grafted on the front, so you have to find one that will cover everything you need to shoot.

Oh and one major thing to note, is that unlike changeable lens cameras; fixed lens cameras conventionally list their lens focal lengths as "35mm equivalent". 

What this means is that your 24-800mm zoom isn't actually a 24-800mm lens. There is a multiplying factor based on the length of the sensor, compared to the length of a 35mm film frame. With full frame DSLRs the multiplier is of course 1x, because their sensor is the same size as a 35mm film frame (or close enough that it doesn't matter). With conventional APS-c sensors (the majority of DSLRs under $1500) the multiplier is either 1.5 or 1.6 (sensor measurements vary slightly); so that a 28-135 would be a 44.8-216 or "50-210mm 35mm equivalent).

Compact, ultracompact, and "bridge" cameras don't have a standard sensor size, so each one has a different multiplier; but their sensor size numbers are published, so you can figure them out.  Most of the superzooms use the 1/2" or 1/2.3" sensor size, which is about 6x5mm, vs APS-c at 24x16mm, or full frame at 36x24mm. Instead of a 1.6 multiplier, these cameras have about a 6x multiplier. 

So, the 24-810mm "35x" superzoom in question has an actual focal length of 4-52mm (which by the way is actually very hard to do, and still maintain optical quality. You could only do a focal length that short in a fixed lens camera with an electronic shutter, because the rear element of the lens can be so close to the sensor. 

This multiplying factor (also called a cropping factor, or a reduction factor) is one reason why it's rather difficult to throw out background focus, even wide open with fast apertures in these lenses (and why an f2.8 on these lenses isn't nearly as much light as it would be on an equivalent SLR lens), why they zoom in and out so quickly, and why they are so much smaller and cheaper than an SLR lens (for comparison, an 800mm SLR lens at f3.5 will be about three feet long, have an 8" front element, weigh 20lbs or so, and cost as much as a car). 

So, you can see why, other than the weight and the cost, I'd prefer a DSLR... but as I said, it's not happening right now.

The good news is, the "meat" of the superzoom marketspace is right around $400-$500 (or a little less if you don't mind a refurb, and I don't).

Ok, so the first step is to make a list of what I consider the essential features:
  • Biggest sensor possible, backlit sensor preferred, cmos sensor preferred
  • EXCELLENT image processing capability
  • Video capability at least 720p, 1080p preferred
  • Slow motion (high frame rate) video capture capability is preferred, but not required
  • Fast shooting, at least 4 frames per second, preferably 8+ with a 10+ burst capability
  • Image stabilization (preferred electronic-optical hybrid, not just sensor shake)
  • As many manual controls as possible, particularly controls with dedicated buttons not menus
  • Manual focus is required, on lens manual preferred but electronic control is acceptable
  • Manual zoom is desirable, but fast electronic controlled zoom is acceptable
  • Manual shooting modes (program, shutter priority, aperture priority at least)
  • High iso range (at least a USABLE 100-1600)
  • Wide shutter speed range (1/1200 to 15s minimum, 1/4000 to 60s preferred) with bulb
  • Wide aperture, f2.4 or f2.8 preferred, f3.5 acceptable (barely)
  • Wide angle wider than 30mm... 24mm preferred
  • Long zoom greater than 500mm, 800mm ideal
  • Very short macro focus. Less than 8cm required.
  • MUST have standard sized filter thread, preferably non-rotating, along with standard hood lug
  • Exposure bracketing is strongly preferred, but not required
  • Viewfinder required
  • External hot shoe strongly preferred but not required, TTL strongly preferred (not dumb shoe)
  • External microphone port is desirable but not required
  • Remote release strongly desired, but not required
  • Raw format, including Raw+JPEG is desirable (almost necessary given the small sensor)
  • Street price under $500 (such that refurbs, sales, specials etc... will be under my $400 budget)
You can see by the list, even if I wanted a compact or ultracompact, there's no way they could meet those requirements. In fact, as far as I know, there isn't any fixed lens camera of any type that meets them all, or even 80% of the list above the bare minimum to qualify; no matter what the price, never mind under $500.

Yes, I'm demanding. What can I say, I'm used to shooting with an $800-$1400 dslr body and a $500-$1500 lens. I'm sure a $2000-$3000 superzoom would be spectacular, and have all the features I want (and I still wouldn't buy one. I like being able to change lenses).

But, we have to work with what we've got, right... And in general, you can get a lot of capability for $400... with some irritating gaps and surprises.

Most surprisingly, the single biggest eliminator was the manual focus capability. Very few cameras in this class give you manual focus at all (which boggles my mind). Frankly, I don't think a camera is functional without at least some type of manual focus capability, even a little point and shoot. Otherwise what do you do when your autofocus get's confused and won't trigger the shot? I'd rather get a shot with less than perfect focus, than no shot at all.

Next up was the manual aperture control... almost none of the cameras in this class give you full aperture control, and many don't even give you an aperture priority mode. I can't use, and won't buy a camera  without at least some manual aperture control (though frankly, with such small sensors, your ability to throw a background out of focus is rather limited, even wide open).

Also, many cameras in this space either have no filter thread at all, or they have a non-standard thread size; and they have no remote release or bulb shutter feature. Most also have no provision for mounting a lens hood. Try shooting in a light shower, or bright sunlight, without filters or a lens hood... No thanks.

Almost meaningless to me, but nice to have, and a requirement for SOME shooting situations because of the small sensors and more limited image processing compared to DSLRs; RAW mode is also missing from most cameras in this space.

I spent a number of hours going through dpreview.com, Amazon, and manufacturers web sites trying to find acceptable candidates. I found a number that had manyof the features I wanted, but when it all came down to it, never mind actually getting everything on the list; there were only five that didn't have at least two or three showstoppers missing.

Those five were:
So, let's take a look at how they stand up to my requirements, and each other.

I started comparing specs line by line, and combing through reviews (and watching many many many video reviews and sample videos).

Click this for a side by side feature comparison and links to more details of the cameras above.

After 8 or so hours, this is what I came up with.

Sony Cybershot DSC-HX100

Right away, the Sony was out of my price range  at $450-$499 street price (it's also the newest camera, only just becoming generally available so that may go down in the next few months); but it met most of my feature wish list, so I didn't want to exclude it yet.

On the plus side, it has a backlit cmos sensor, a 3200 max iso, and a focal length out to 810mm. However, with no hot shoe, no remote release, and no filters, at that price... Let's just say it was pushed way down the list.

Canon sx30is

The Canon  SX30is is the only camera in the group without 1080p (also the oldest camera in the group having been announced a year ago), but it has 720p and excellent zoom range and a wide aperture (24-840mm at f2.7-5.8; by far the best in the market).

According to reviews, the SX30 is noted for it's high video quality; having particularly good image stabilization and autofocus in video (a noted weakness for most of the other cameras).  Reviews also note that video quality remains excellent, and image stabilization remains effective, even at the maximum zoom range (again, something the other cameras are weak at).

Also, it is a Canon and therefore it has a lot more of the "professional" touches than other cameras; like the very basic item, having a metal tripod shoe (most in this class have plastic). It has more manual controls than most, more programming options; and the menu system is Canons usual excellent fare.

The major missing elements unfortunately are speed shooting (.6fps with no burst), lack of a remote release, and only 30fps film speed. Also, while manual focus is available, it isn't a manual focus ring, it's an electronic control (as is the zoom).

The Canon is available at quite low cost however, running $399 new and about $340 refurbished. So again I didn't want to exclude it. Given the value presented,  and the video quality it's definitely a viable candidate.

Panasonic Lumix dmc-fz100

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ100 is the very top of the Lumix superzoom line, and it has most of the features to prove it; but still at a reasonable street price of $399, with refurbished available for $50 less.

The FZ-100 runs a standard filter 58mm filter thread (all the cameras with filter mounts in this comparison use 58mm filters... which thankfully I have plenty of) and bayonet mount for a lens hood; but like most of the other cameras, does not have a remote release. It has the lowest zoom range at 25-600mm; though it somewhat makes up for it with a wide f2.8-5.2 aperture, using electro-optical stabilization instead of just sensor shake, and RAW capability. Unfortunately the manual controls are limited, and hard to access. Everything is buried in menus, and nothing is simple, or tactile.

The biggest selling point, is the video quality, and the autofocus and image stabilization in video. All are reported to be among the best in the industry; so it stays in the running.

Nikon CoolPix P500

The Nikon, like the Canon, comes from a market leader in consumer and professional SLR cameras, and the P500 is the top of their superzoom line. As such, one would normally expect it to have more of the "pro" type features.

It has better menus than most, better controls than most including a speed dial (a control dial for your right thumb that can be used to adjust many things on the fly, like shutter speed, aperture etc... All of the five finalists have one, though the Canons is on the back not the top corner), a zoom control on the lens barrel, a metal tripod foot... which makes the lack of a remote shutter release, hot shoe, or filter threads; utterly glaring. Honestly... how can Nikon produce a camera like this without a filter thread, or a hot shoe?

The p500 has a wide zoom range at 23-810mm, but the worst aperture at 3.5-5.7, and the slowest max shutter speed at 1/1600. Also it only has an 8 second maximum exposure time, which is really not sufficient for star shots, or other night shots... especially with the smaller aperture.

Also, it's reasonably priced at $399, but no bargain compared to the rest of the market; and frankly, with the missing features... It's the bottom of the list.

FujiFilm FinePix HS-20exr

The Fuji is the odd man out of this group, in that the list price is $600; which could normally have excluded it right away. However, the street price of the camera runs between $400 and $450, with refurbs running as low as $350.

The HS20exr is clearly intended to be much closer to a DSLR than other cameras in this market, and the list price reflects that; but Fuji also took some cost savings, using AA batteries instead of a custom LiOn battery pack and charger, which probably cut $50 off the price immediately. However, four lithium or NiMH AA rechargables will only cost you about $20, and will get you 800 or 600 shots respectively (about 500 for a set of alkalines). I would guess it's this particular measure that makes the street price under $450.

The Fuji has the second lowest zoom range of the group at 24-710mm, but a 2.8-5.6 aperture, a 1/2" sensor vs the 1/2.3" the rest of this class has, and a standard 58mm filter thread and bayonet mount for the included lens hood; make up for the missing 90-130mm compared to the Sony, Nikon, or Canon.

It also has a hot shoe, a metal tripod foot, a speed dial accessible from the top and back of the camera, and is the only one in the group with a remote release.

Most importantly though, it has FULL manual controls, usable in most modes. It is the only camera in this group that has a full manual zoom barrel, and a real focus ring for manual focus. It also has manual aperture controls accessible in the manual modes; and has dedicated buttons for exposure, white balance, autofocus modes... basically all the buttons you want on a DSLR, instead of having to hunt through menus. And, it's the only camera here with exposure bracketing.

The Fuji is also the only one of the five that offers 160 and 320 frames per second slow motion video; and it's got built in in camera HDR, low light optimization, a capture mode that takes half resolution pictures using the data from two pixels to dramatically reduce noise (something important for such small sensors), a capture mode that does the same two pixel trick to boost low light performance, and a capture mode that aids in throwing the background out of focus while keeping the subject in focus (producing a more SLR like photo).

The camera is capable of 8fps shooting at 16 megapixels, or 11fps at 8megapixels (in a noise reduction mode for higher quality) and bursts of up to 16 shots.

On the negative side, the menus aren't as good as the Canon, the image stabilization is sensor shake only, and the autofocus system is a bit slow, with difficulty tracking quickly in video mode. These flaws are magnified at the long end of the zoom; so much so that at 720mm it might as well not have VR, and the focus can't track moving objects at all according to the video reviews.

So... which camera?

From the writeups it might seem obvious; but I actually spent quite a bit of time deciding this one.

Unfortunately the Sony and the Nikon were right out; but because of the video performance and relatively low cost, the Canon and Panasonic were both real contenders, and I'm pretty sure I would have been happy with either of them.

At the end of the day, I chose the FujiFilm FinePix HS20 EXR; because it had the most of what I wanted, the fewest missing critical elements, with the least of what I didn't want... but at full price I would have bought the Canon or the Panasonic instead.

I would have excluded the Fuji on price, but I was able to find a new "open box" in stock for $350 with free shipping; making the Fuji actually less expensive, and to my mind a much better value, than any of the other cameras in this comparison.

Most importantly to me, it had by far the best manual controls; including full manual zoom and focus, and full manual aperture controls. Also, it was the only camera in the space to support exposure bracketing (a critical tool for me in mixed lighting conditions, and for HDR photography).

Also, the EXR image processing, and "pro focus" and "pro low light" modes seem to be really excellent and useful features, to help compensate for the lack of sensor size, and the fixed glass.

There were a few videos that helped convince me, even with the negatives on the autofocus and image stabilization; that the Fuji was the way to go:

Warning, this one is 25 minutes long...

This vid has a great demonstration of the EXR image processing capabilities, with HDR, lighting, focus etc...

And particularly, this video comaprison of the HS20, and a DSLR with the same zoom range (though obviously a higher quality lens).

And now, it's here... (and with hopefully the last product review shots I'll need to take with my cell phone for a while):

It looks basically like an SLR, and other than being a bit lighter, it feels like one in the hand. It shoots like one too for the most part. The menu systems are pretty quick and easy to use, and the manual buttons are great.

For me. 

Frankly... if you're used to point and shoot cameras, you probably won't like the HS20; and Fuji hasn't targeted this camera to you. It's very clearly targeted as a backup or secondary camera for SLR shooters and pros, or for those who'd like to be but can't afford a DSLR (which would include me at the moment).

That said, the wife had no problem snapping a few shots with it, finding it comfortable and easy to shoot with (click for larger, but blogger compressed and shrunk to 1600x1200, not original):

Here's macro mode, at about 2" from the subject:

And here's "Super macro mode" where my lens was literally touching the bottom of those keys at the bottom of the frame:

And around sunset I went out and took these; two shots each of the same scene in exr "low noise" mode, and then in exr "high dynamic range" mode:

And these two, slightly different framings, zoomed in about half way up the barrel, the first in low noise, the second in HDR (which is why I framed them differently, one to be much darker, the other to have very wide differences between light and dark):

I'd call that more than acceptable, especially for $350.

(Camera review photos gratuitously ganked from http://dpreview.com. The camera name links are all back to this most excellent site. If you buy one of these cameras, do it through their affiliate store).