8-megapixel digital cameras reviewed
The latest trend in digital photography is ultra-high-resolution fixed-lens cameras. The digital-camera manufacturers are constantly trying to outdo one another, in much the same way that CPU manufacturers compete - but in this case, the race is measured in megapixels instead of megahertz.
We found that this increased resolution may not always benefit those who buy these cameras. The four cameras we looked at - the Canon PowerShot Pro1, the Konica Minolta Dimage A2, the Nikon Coolpix 8700, and the Olympus C-8080 Wide Zoom - each have an 8-megapixel CCD, which is far more resolution than the typical consumer requires. (For a review of another 8-megapixel camera, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-F828 [mmmh], see the May 2004 issue.) They’re also priced the same as or very close to the entry-level digital SLRs, the Canon EOS 30D (mmmm; Expo 2003) and the Nikon D70, which offer better performance and quality. But these 8-megapixel cameras give tons of resolution without the bulk of a digital SLR. And while all four are quite good, the Olympus stands out.
Bundle it up
These four cameras differ greatly in terms of memory cards and software. CompactFlash cards aren’t included with the Konica Minolta and the Nikon. The Olympus includes a 32MB xD Picture Card and takes a CompactFlash Type II card, while the Canon has a 64MB CompactFlash card and a CompactFlash Type II slot.
Each camera comes with proprietary software. The bundled programs, which all run in Mac OS X, let you view and perform basic edits on photos. They can also process images in the RAW format. You can use the Canon software to control the camera’s settings and focus directly from a Mac, and to save images directly to the Mac. That feature, combined with the sizable memory card, means that with the Canon, you get more for money.
A look around
All four cameras have sleek black bodies loaded with buttons and dials. The Canon and the Konica Minolta have rings for zoom and focus, while the Nikon and the Olympus resort to more-traditional buttons for those functions. The Canon is the most compact camera of the bunch, at 11.7cm wide by 7.1cm tall by 8.9cm deep, though the Nikon is the lightest, weighing just over 453.5g. But none of them seem bulky, especially when compared with the 955.4g Sony Cyber-shot DSC-F828. The construction of all four cameras is excellent, with the Olympus being the most solid.
With the exception of the Olympus, all of the cameras sport big zoom lenses: the Canon and the Konica Minolta have a 7x lens; the Nikon, an 8x; and the Olympus, a 5x. Except for the Nikon, whose lens starts at 35mm, the cameras’ zoom range starts at a nice wide 28mm. All of the cameras support conversion lenses (though Canon doesn’t offer a wide-angle option).
All four have a hotshoe for an external flash. The Konica Minolta’s hotshoe is limited to Konica Minolta flashes, but it includes a flash-sync port for third-party flashes.
The Konica Minolta stands out in another big way: it has image stabilization. Unlike some other cameras that stabilize only the lens, the Konica Minolta’s Anti-Shake system moves the CCD. This will give sharp pictures at shutter speeds that would normally produce blurry photos, especially at the telephoto end of the lens.
When framing or reviewing photos, you’ll rely on an LCD or an electronic viewfinder (which you actually peer through, as on a film camera) on each of the four models. The LCDs on the Konica Minolta and the Olympus can tilt, while those on the Nikon and the Canon can be flipped to the side and rotated (which is far more useful). The Canon has the biggest LCD of the bunch, at 5cm diagonal. The Konica Minolta’s amazing electronic viewfinder (EVF) has nearly four times
the resolution of the other EVFs, and can tilt upward 90 degrees, which is handy when using a tripod.
The Konica Minolta, Nikon, and Olympus models brighten their screens automatically in low light.
All four cameras offer full control over aperture, shutter speed, focus, white balance, and colour, and all have similar shutter-speed ranges, except when in bulb mode (which only the Canon lacks). In this mode - which requires that you use a remote shutter release - the Nikon offers exposures for as long as ten minutes. For more-creative shots, the Canon, Konica Minolta, and Nikon cameras offer a time-lapse photo mode.
The always-handy manual focus feature is offered by each of the 8-megapixel models, but I found the focus rings on the Canon and the Konica Minolta easier to use than the buttons on the Nikon and the Olympus. As you’d expect, these cameras have numerous white-balance options, including custom modes. The Konica Minolta, Nikon, and Olympus models go a step further, letting you fine-tune the white balance manually.
If you take a lot of ultra-close-up shots, then the Canon and the Nikon are the best choices, with the Olympus right behind. The Canon and Nikon can focus the lens just 3cm from your subject, while the Olympus focuses at 5cm. The Konica Minolta’s minimum focus distance is 25cm - and that’s at the telephoto end, unlike the other three.
These cameras all support the RAW image format; all but the Canon also support TIFF files. Although you can use Photoshop CS’s Camera Raw feature to process RAW images, the cameras also include software for that purpose (though Nikon’s is quite limited - to get features equal to those in the other cameras’ software, you have to pony up for the more capable Nikon Capture). The Olympus goes a step further by allowing you to edit the RAW image properties (such as white balance, colour, and sharpness) right on the camera and then save the image as a TIFF or JPEG file.
Time to shoot
Shooting speed is one area in which you’d expect these high-priced cameras to excel - and for the most part, they do. The Konica Minolta stands out in almost all aspects related to speed. Startup times range from 1.6 seconds for the Konica Minolta (which doesn’t need to wait for its lens to extend) to 3.5 seconds for the Nikon. Once up and running, you’ll find that all but the Canon offer live histograms; the Olympus has two.
All of the cameras focus quickly in decent lighting, with the main differences occurring in low light. The best in this situation are also the two with autofocus-assist lamps: the Olympus and the Nikon. Fortunately, shutter lag is low for all four cameras, though we noticed some lag on the Nikon at slower shutter speeds. After you’ve taken a shot, you can take another in 1 to 3 seconds, with the Konica Minolta again being the fastest. The spread widens a bit if shooting in TIFF or RAW mode: the Nikon and the Olympus have considerable delays while saving the image to the memory card, and the camera is locked up during that time.
You’ll be spending plenty of time with the in-camera menus, where most of the settings are buried. The easiest menu to navigate belongs to the Konica Minolta, though the controls on the camera’s body are quite complex. The Canon’s menus are also good, but they’re spread out in two separate sections. I found the Nikon’s and the Olympus’s menus to be clunky and complex.
If you’re making 8-x-10-inch or smaller prints, these cameras will do the job, though they will likely be overkill. But if you’re making 20-x-30-inch or larger prints, or viewing at 100 per cent on screen, you’ll notice that images from these cameras have higher noise levels and more chromatic aberration (purple fringing) than those from 4- and 5-megapixel models.
As with our other reviews of imaging products,
we assembled a panel of Macworld editors, who judged 8-x-10 prints made from these cameras. We took the same two photos with each camera at default settings and with the highest-quality JPEG setting selected, and then printed them on the same Canon i9900 printer. Our panellists gave the Nikon a thumbs-up for detail and colour, making it their number-one choice.
The Canon and Olympus also did well, but the colours of the Olympus prints were a little flat. Fortunately, colour saturation can be adjusted in the camera menu on all the cameras. While the Konica Minolta performed decently in the colour department, it fell short in terms of detail - and this is the camera’s biggest flaw. The Konica Minolta sometimes produced images so soft that they seemed out of focus - even sharpening the shots in Photoshop wouldn’t have fixed them.
The Canon’s much-vaunted L lens produced occasional vignetting, or dark corners, in several of
our test images. In pictures of people, we found that the Konica Minolta and the Olympus showed absolutely no red-eye, with the other two cameras having just a bit of it. In terms of overall photo quality, the Nikon, Olympus, and Canon cameras were very close, with the troublesome Konica Minolta in last place.