when traveling or involved in some outdoor activity, a
compact camera with built-in lens is more convenient and
practical than an SLR system. If you want great versatility
as well as images with ultrahigh resolution, consider
one of the eight-megapixel cameras.
Photos © 2003, Peter K. Burian, All Rights Reserved
Until recently, a 6-megapixel
sensor was considered to be the ultimate available in a digital camera
with built-in lens, but that changed suddenly when five manufacturers
released 8-Mp models. Boasting numerous advanced features, through the
lens viewing and compatibility with optional flash units, each of these
cameras cost about the same as a 6-Mp digital SLR body alone; the built-in
wide angle to telephoto zoom lens is a bonus. Because of their versatility
and high-resolution capabilities, some retailers recommend these cameras
as an alternative to an SLR system.
But how do these new cameras stack up? In order to make that determination,
I tested all five models: the Canon PowerShot Pro 1, Konica Minolta
DiMAGE A2, Nikon Coolpix 8700, Olympus C-8080 and Sony DSC-F828. Similar
in certain respects, all are very well specified, and include an electronic
viewfinder and employ the same Sony ICX456 CCD sensor. The differences
are worth noting, too. In addition to varying features these cameras
differ in speed, convenience of operation, in the quality of their electronic
viewfinders (EVF) and in the image quality produced by each manufacturer's
own processing engine. As well, the Sony DSC-F828 employs a four-color
filter (intended for more accurate color reproduction), while the others
use the traditional three-color filter. The effects of these differences
are discussed in the following text and in our Ratings chart.
scene was one of several (of varying levels of darkness)
that I used for testing digital noise levels at ISO 400.
The results produced by each camera should be visible in
the small sections of all five images reproduced here. (All
at ISO 400 at f/4 at 60mm equivalent; not all images made
at the same time.)
Image Sensor Issues
An 8-Mp sensor is certainly impressive and all five cameras can generate
images with 3264x2448 pixel resolution, surprisingly high for a compact
camera. Problem is, the CCD sensor is also small: 8.8x6.6mm, tiny when
compared to the 23.7x15.5mm sensor in the Nikon D70, for example. Consequently,
the 8 million photodiodes or pixels are miniscule. The pixel pitch--distance
from the top corner of one pixel to the next--is only 2.7x2.7 microns,
much smaller than the typical 7.5x7.5 microns in the 6-Mp sensors used
in D-SLRs. (A micron is one millionth of a meter.)
That raises a concern because very small photodiodes are less sensitive
to light. They cannot record as much detail in both highlight and shadow
areas in contrast scenes and they produce more digital noise (colored
specks caused by electronic interference) in shadow areas, particularly
at high ISO settings. On the other hand, a highly effective image processing
system can produce quite "clean" images with a wide tonal
range; these aspects were important considerations during my testing.
In spite of the theoretical
problem, I found that most of the cameras produced images with good highlight
and shadow detail. The Coolpix 8700 rated lower but only because of its
higher contrast. Digital noise was not a problem in most outdoor shooting
with any of the cameras. At ISO 100 and below, only one camera produced
images with apparent noise and that was detectable only in shadow areas
at high magnification. At ISO 200, noise was certainly visible but not
objectionable, especially in images without a lot of shadow areas; regardless
of the camera, my best ISO 200 images made for beautiful 8.5x11"
prints. By ISO 400 however, digital noise is obvious in images made with
four of the five cameras. Before making large prints of exhibition quality
from ISO 200 or 400 images, I would recommend using Noise Ninja, a highly
effective noise reduction program. ($29; www.picturecode.com)
Performance And Image
Although each camera produces virtually identical resolution, every model
has a unique personality as well as its own pros and cons. Lack of space
precludes a full review, but I can provide the following summary of each
model, with additional specifics in our chart.
Canon PowerShot Pro 1: A bit heavy but surprisingly compact, this one
is nearly intuitive in operation, thanks to several SLR-style analog controls.
Incredibly fast, reliable and versatile, it's competitive with some
D-SLRs for serious photography, missing only a TIFF recording mode, faster
autofocus response in low light and a full tracking focus system. Still,
the AF system is fast; combined with high-speed continuous framing and
recording, the Pro 1 was ideal for capturing a fleeting photo opportunity
or a very long series of high-res JPEGs at 2.5 fps. The electronic viewfinder
offers very high resolution for a crisp sharp view and it's quite
bright in low-light conditions. Images made at ISO 400 exhibit prominent
noise with a slightly coarse pattern, moderately high sharpness and good
definition of intricate details.
Konica Minolta DiMAGE A2: A fairly large camera with an oversized handgrip
and convenient mechanical focus ring, the A2 is also very convenient to
operate thanks to many analog controls. Loaded with advanced capabilities,
this one includes two valuable extras not available with the others. The
Anti-Shake (stabilizer) system allowed me to make sharp images without
a tripod in low light while the true tracking autofocus (not merely continuous)
makes this camera more useful than the others for action photography.
I judged the EVF as exceptional; aside from ultrahigh resolution, it was
bright in low light, though the image turned to monochrome at times. My
ISO 400 images are slightly soft and quite smooth; digital noise is prominent
but the "grain" pattern is quite fine and intricate details
are well defined.
five cameras employ an electronic (not optical) viewfinder,
a small LCD monitor that provides through the lens viewing.
Some of the viewfinders are better than others, particularly
in terms of brightness level in low-light photography, as
discussed in the text and the Ratings chart. (Minolta DiMAGE
A2; JPEG Fine mode; flash.)
Nikon Coolpix 8700: The smallest
and lightest of the 8-Mp cameras, this one boasts the longest focal lengths;
that feature, plus fast autofocus, was useful for shots of wading birds
in Florida. However, the Nikon does not offer the wide angle of view possible
with the other cameras. I found this model to be the least intuitive in
its overall operation; it also required more frequent access to the electronic
menu. After a thorough study of the owner's manual, the camera proved
to be quite fast and highly versatile. It was quick in startup, in focusing
even in low light, in continuous shooting (at 2.5 fps) and in image recording,
so I rarely missed a photo opportunity. Its EVF is quite acceptable in
dim light but in bright outdoor conditions, it produces blooming, a bright
color pattern. Digital noise is obvious in ISO 400 images, with a slightly
coarse pattern, accentuated by high sharpness/contrast, but intricate
details are well defined.
Olympus C-8080: A moderately large and heavy model, the C-8080 starts
up quickly and focuses almost instantly with a dual autofocus system that's
very reliable, even in low light. Its EVF proved to be about average in
brightness. This camera is particularly versatile offering more choices
than the others in autofocus, ISO, image size and light metering options.
I missed only the longer focal lengths available with its competitors.
While continuous framing was adequately fast (1.6 fps), image recording
and playback were slower than average. Digital noise is exceptionally
well controlled in ISO 400 images, making the C-8080 the leader in this
regard. My JPEGs are a bit soft, sometimes lacking in texture; still,
most intricate details are well defined and the images respond well to
sharpening in Photoshop.
at ISO 50 and 100, the Canon PowerShot Pro 1 produced images
of excellent quality with high sharpness. Color balance,
saturation and exposure were generally close to perfect.
(ISO 100; at f/3.2; Superfine JPEG; "Shade"
white balance; continuous AF.)
Sony DSC-F828: The largest
and heaviest model, the DSC-F828 offers a professional look and feel,
many analog controls for ease of use, an EVF that's quite useful
in low light, plus reliable autofocus with good responsiveness even in
darkness. The 2.5 fps burst mode allowed me to shoot long series of a
(not particularly fast) dog sled race. This is clearly a serious photographer's
camera with some unique features and a very convenient mechanical zoom.
At low ISO, image quality is excellent, especially in color rendition,
but digital noise could be more effectively controlled. By ISO 400, noise
is very obvious with a coarse pattern, accentuated by high sharpness,
and it begins to obliterate the finest intricate details.
How do these compact 8-Mp cameras compare to the 6-Mp digital SLR cameras?
As you might expect, the higher pixel count produces greater resolution,
but the D-SLR cameras, with their larger sensors and photodiodes, generate
superior overall quality. Because the data is cleaner, the 6-Mp files
can be enlarged to a greater degree in Photoshop without a significant
loss of quality. My very best 8-Mp low ISO images allowed me to make very
nice 11x15" prints, while the 6-Mp images from the SLRs produced
12x18" prints of similar quality. When starting with ISO 400 images,
the D-SLR cameras' low noise advantage offers an even greater benefit:
The 12x18" prints are comparable to 10x13" prints made from
In terms of specifications, some of the 8-Mp cameras are quite competitive
with the D-SLR models but the latter generally offer even higher speed,
faster recording and more advanced autofocus systems, more useful for
sports and action photography especially. Naturally, the ability to use
a vast range of interchangeable lenses also gives the D-SLR cameras an
On the other hand, not all photo enthusiasts need the benefits provided
by a D-SLR system. If you generally use ISO 50 or 100 for your serious
work, rarely shoot action subjects, do not need ultra-wide or super telephoto
lenses and do not make 12x18" prints, you should be fully satisfied
with one of the 8-Mp cameras. In order to decide which model would best
suit your own specific needs, compare specifications on the manufacturers'
websites, including information about compatibility with optional flash
units and a wide angle and telephoto lens adapter. Select the right camera,
add an accessory to increase its versatility, and you'll be well
equipped for a great deal of serious photography.
A long-time eDP and Shutterbug
contributor, stock photographer Peter K. Burian is the author of a new
book, Mastering Digital Photography and Imaging. ($21 through online bookstores.)
Covering all aspects of the topic--the technology, equipment and
techniques--this book provides 270 pages of practical advice for
of the fastest 8-Mp cameras, the Sony DSC-F828 allows for
shooting a full seven high-resolution frames in a series
at 2.5 fps. While its continuous autofocus system was not
designed for tracking fast motion, many of my images of
this race were quite sharp. (At ISO 64; f/8 at 1/400 sec.;
JPEG Fine mode; image cropped.)
extra long focal length available with the Nikon Coolpix
8700 was often useful for distant subjects. However, the
camera produced images with very high contrast, problematic
in bright conditions particularly with light toned subjects.
(At 280mm equivalent. f/4.2 at 1/100 sec with camera braced
on a tree branch; JPEG Fine mode.)
ISO 400, the Olympus C-8080 produced smooth images; while
digital noise is visible, the pattern is very fine. The
slight image softness is easily corrected with Unsharp Mask
in Photoshop, if desired. (At f/3.2; 1/80 sec; flash; ISO
400; JPEG Fine mode; underexposure corrected in Photoshop
but no sharpening applied.)
only 8-Mp camera with an Anti-Shake (stabilizer) device,
the Konica Minolta DiMAGE A2 was very useful when shooting
handheld in low-light situations. In order to clearly illustrate
the value of the
Ånti-Shake system, I used an extremely long 1 sec
exposure for this image and it's surprisingly sharp.
(At 200mm; f/8; JPEG Fine mode; image cropped.)
the image quality produced by each camera differed, all
five generated many superb images, suitable for making a
fine 11x15" print. As the small section of this image--sized
for making an 11x15" print at 280dpi--indicates,
resolution and sharpness are excellent. (JPEG Fine mode;
ISO 400; f/4.2 at 1/100 sec; at 280mm equivalent; fill flash;
Nikon Coolpix 8700.).