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Picture That!

Eight boundary-busting digital cameras hit the market with features that include ultra-zooms, low-light sensitivity, better flexibility, new connectivity choices, superior durability and even 3-D images
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Matthew McConaughey, March/April 2011

Your local electronics superstore has shelves full of digital cameras that are decent but unexceptional (oh look, it’s a pink one!). If you know where to look, however, there are truly remarkable models on the market, cameras that pull off tricks that weren’t possible just a few months ago. Some of them will change the way you take pictures. Some are more novelty acts than center-stage performers. But all of them open up new photographic opportunities in eye-opening ways.

Nikon D3S

The professional-grade Nikon D3S is a top-of-the-line performer across the board, with quick, accurate autofocus, a blazing-fast nine-shots-a-second burst rate and in-depth customization options that let finicky photogs tailor the camera’s performance precisely to their preferences. It’s also built to take a beating, with heavy-duty weather seals and a rugged magnesium-alloy body.

The knockout feature, though, is the camera’s extraordinary ability to see in the dark.

The stat that measures a camera’s sensitivity to light is the ISO level—the higher the number, the less light you need to take a picture. Most of the consumer-grade digital SLRs top out at about ISO 3200. Some go to ISO 6400, and a handful push the upper limit to ISO 12,800, though the amount of grainy noise you get at that setting makes shooting impractical. At its highest setting, the Nikon D3S achieves ISO 102,400. Here again, you’re not likely to use the top setting for anything but a Hail Mary pass in the pitch dark. But keep the level just a few notches below the maximum and you’ll find amazing flexibility to shoot in low light without blasting a flash.

In practical terms, that means I can shoot the cat in a room illuminated with a single 60-watt bulb, with the D3S set at ISO 6400, at a very hand-holdable 1/40 second shutter speed and get a photo with every whisker razor-sharp and the dark background smooth and clean. When shooting in an even darker room, I can point into an area where I can see just about nothing at all with the naked eye and get a shot that reveals all the furniture and hanging artwork in the room. It’s pretty damn close to magic.

Of course, this level of technological bravado comes at a cost, and I’m not just talking about the $5,000+ sticker price (that’s without a lens). The D3S is a bit of a beast to lug around; nearly five pounds with the admittedly bulky 24-70mm lens I used for my review. Still, as someone who loves shooting in natural light, I have to say the D3S is worth every penny and every pound. Wonder if Nikon will take the cat in trade?

$5,199.95, nikonusa.com

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5

The low-light champion among compacts is the sleek little Panasonic LumixDMC-LX5, an excellent second-camera choice for SLR shooters looking for a carry-everywhere alternative. The headline bit of hardware here is the Leica lens. One key measure of how well a camera will function in low-light conditions is the size of the lens’s maximum aperture—with a smaller number translating into better performance.

Most compact cameras have a maximum aperture between f/2.8 and f/3.5. The LX5’s is f/2.0, a significant step up. Combine that with an image sensor that maxes out at ISO 12,800, and you can fire away flash-free in most settings. Equally important, you can use faster, more-blur-resistant shutter speeds when there’s plenty of available light.

When you’re trying to catch that slashing baseball bat in mid-swing, the LX5 gives you the option to cut the time the shutter is open by half compared with most cameras, doubling the odds you’ll get the shot.

The LX5 is reasonably small and light at 4.3 x 2.6 x 1.7 inches and 9.8 ounces, but still boasts a solidly built metal—not plastic—body. As with nearly all compact cameras today, there’s no optical viewfinder for eye-level shooting, an old-school feature I miss when squinting at an LCD screen to line up a shot in bright sunshine, or struggling to keep a camera steady when held at arm’s length.

Unlike with the competition, though, the LX5 offers a solution in the form of a $200 electronic viewfinder that fits into the top hot shoe slot. Not an inexpensive option, granted, but it provides a nice sharp image and a comfortable shooting experience.

The 3.8x zoom lens provides adequate range, and gets high marks for offering a wider-than-usual angle for landscape shooting. Some may be put off by the relatively modest 10.1-megapixel resolution, but don’t be fooled: that’s more than enough to create great big prints, and resisting the urge to pump up the megapixel stat is a key factor in the camera’s premium low-light performance.

I like the control scheme. Experienced photographers can quickly and easily tweak the settings in great detail, but you can also set the LX5 to automatic mode, hand it over to your less photo-savvy friends and family and get very good results. The buttons are a bit on the small side, but even my big paws found the camera easy to handle after just a little practice.

One undeniable stumbling block here is the price: you could buy a respectable entry-level SLR, with its interchangeable lens option and a built-in optical viewfinder, for the same price you’ll pay for this compact camera. On the other hand, you’d be hard-pressed to stuff an SLR into your jeans pocket, where the LX5 makes a comfortable companion.

$499.95, panasonic.com

Sony NEX-5

Nobody’s really come up with the right name for a new class of cameras that delivers the interchangeable-lens flexibility of an SLR with the compact body of a point-and-shoot. My favorite attempt to date is EVIL (for Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens) cameras—for practical purposes it’s a lousy acronym, but how cool is it to say your camera is EVIL?

Whatever it’s called, the class started when Panasonic and Olympus  created a new format called Micro Four Thirds. These cameras got rid of the internal mirror assembly that lets SLR shooters look right through the shooting lens before they press the shutter. Instead, like a point-and-shoot, the Micro Four Thirds cameras ask you to line up your shots using the rear LCD, sometimes (but rarely) with an additional electronic viewfinder for eye-level shooting. They have also shrunk the image sensor size compared with a traditional SLR, and use physically smaller lenses. The result: interchangeable-lens cameras that are more portable than SLRs, to the point where some can fit into a jacket pocket.

Smaller isn’t necessarily better, though, particularly when it comes to sensor size. Cram lots of megapixels into a smaller sensor and you get lower light sensitivity and more electrical interference, the end result being a notable increase in the grainy-looking flaw called image noise. That’s where Sony broke the mold. They took the mirrorless concept and upped the ante by fitting the same-size sensor you’ll find in a digital SLR into a body that’s even smaller than the shrunken-sensor Micro Four Thirds cameras.

The NEX-5 offers sophisticated manual controls, though getting at them is a bit of a chore. The burst-shooting speed hits over seven frames a second, an impressive performance. Not everything here is lightning-fast though. The original crop of mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras delivered painfully slow autofocus. And while Sony offers a substantial improvement here, I’d still be reticent to recommend it for photographing sports or chasing fast-charging children.

The three-inch high-resolution LCD is a thing of beauty, and it can pivot up and down for shooting with the camera overhead or down below your waist. There’s no built-in flash, but Sony ships a small add-in version that clamps onto the top, so that’s a forgivable omission. What I still miss is an eye-level viewfinder, which is available as an accessory on some Micro Four Thirds cameras but entirely missing in action here.

Of course, I’m used to shooting with an SLR. Those upgrading from a point-and-shoot probably won’t miss a feature they never had, and the step up in image quality, flexibility and photo features is dramatic.

$699.99 with 18-55mm zoom lens, sonystyle.com

Canon PowerShot SX230 HS

One of the hottest camera categories today is compact ultrazooms, delivering major telephoto power in very portable packages. One of my favorites is the Canon SX230 HS, a 12-megapixel model with a full 14x zoom lens that’s the equivalent of a 28–392mm lens on a 35mm camera. The 28mm means you have good wide-angle coverage for landscape shooting, while the 392mm telephoto side lets you fill the frame with a face from across the room. Stick a telephoto lens this powerful on a digital SLR and you’re in serious hernia jeopardy. Thanks to the smaller sensor size and clever lens design, the SX230 weighs just 7.87 ounces.

The camera works just fine if you point and shoot, but there are respectable manual controls as well, for those who want to tweak the shutter speed and aperture, white balance and so on. Video recordings at full 1080p come with stereo sound, and there’s a handy red button for instant access to movie shooting, even if the camera’s set for still photography.

In a significant upgrade from Canon’s previous SX210, the SX230 has a built-in GPS, recording location information as you shoot. You can later sort your images based on where they were taken, and see them overlaid on a map on your computer screen and on photo sharing sites (including Flickr and Picasa) that support “geotagging.”

$349.99, usa.canon.com

Fujifilm HS20 EXR

It looks like an SLR, but the Fujifilm HS20 EXR is actually an upscale compact camera, offering an insanely long built-in zoom lens instead of an SLR’s interchangeable optics. We’re talking a 30x lens—the equivalent of a 24-720mm lens on a 35mm camera (if such a thing could be built for a 35mm camera, that is). The shooting flexibility this range provides is mind-boggling.

The widest setting is unusually wide, which makes both expansive landscape shots and large group photos in tight quarters feasible. And the 720mm telephoto? It’s instant paparazzi power when you can get close-ups of random weirdness from a football-field-length away.

The camera is large, at 5.1 x 3.6 x 5.0 inches, but it’s surprisingly light, and the substantial, rubberized right handgrip is a comfy pleasure to hold. Unlike many long-zoom compacts, which control the zoom with a side-to-side lever push, the HS20 zoom works by twisting the lens barrel, just like an SLR, providing superior speed and control.


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