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
| By Steve Morgenstern | From Matthew McConaughey, March/April 2011
Picture That!

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.

Want to grab a photo from an unusual angle? The 3-inch LCD screen pulls away from the camera body and pivots up and down—great for overhead shooting. Need to capture a fast-action sequence? You can grab eight full-resolution images in a second. Special shooting modes handle low light as well as heavy backlight and let you capture ultrawide panoramic images by simply pressing the shutter and panning the camera from side to side. When video shooting, the HS20 offers full 1080p high-def recording, along with slow-motion video capture (perfect for analyzing your golf swing).

The image quality isn’t going to match what you’d get with a full-fledged SLR, particularly when you start pushing the envelope with low-light conditions or big enlargements. On the other hand, given the extraordinary zoom range, you can get 16-megapixel photos that just wouldn’t be possible with a less feature-rich camera, particularly with long-range shots outdoors. A close-up of the bird perched on your fence? Got it.

A screen-filling shot of the singer in a band onstage? No problem. And unlike on some ultrazooms, the controls are smooth and easy to use, the controls for tweaking photo settings are extensive and you’ll find the special features actually have practical value.

$499.95, fujifilm.com

Pentax Optio W90

When we see ads for weather-resistant cameras, most of us think about underwater shots, and that’s about it. While today’s rugged camera models are fine for tackling chlorinated conditions, they work in many other situations that would quickly turn your ordinary camera into a digital paperweight. Seaside sand, for example, is more of a threat to a standard camera than a dunk in the drink, but no threat to a weatherproof model.

Want pictures of a family snowball fight, or your mind-boggling ski run? A rugged camera is able to resist both melting snow and freezing temperatures. And let us not forget the fumble-fingered of all ages. If you can hand a camera to your kids and let them enjoy snapping away without having your stomach clench when it happens to fall, that’s a win for everybody.

The Pentax Optio W90 is a fine choice among tough cameras—a bit more compact and lightweight than many competitors, with a unique close-up feature I find genuinely useful. As for iron man credentials, we’re talking waterproof to 20 feet (no scuba diving, but fine for snorkeling), shockproof against a four-foot drop, dustproof and coldproof to 140 F. You get 12.1-megapixel resolution for stills and 720p high-def video, as well as special underwater still and movie modes that adjust for lighting conditions when submerged. The 5x zoom is a decent range for a small (4.2 x 2.3 x 1.0 inch, 5.1 oz) camera, and while manual controls are limited, you do get a selection of Scene Modes that tailor the camera to varied conditions (portraits, high-contrast surf and snow, even shooting text pages).

The extra bit of goodness I alluded to earlier is tied to one of these special modes called Digital Microscope. Lots of cameras have a close-up macro mode but, when they get really close to a subject, you block out the illumination in the camera’s shadow, preventing a decent photo. The W90 has three little LED lights arrayed around the lens that let you take finely detailed close-ups of objects as small as a postage stamp—a fine feature for collectors, eBay sellers, or anyone who’d like to get up close and personal with a ladybug.

$299.95, pentaximaging.com

Samsung SH100

Sharing your digital pictures usually requires plugging the camera into a computer, transferring files to the hard drive, then uploading to an online photo site or editing them to get the file size down and sending them via e-mail. The Samsung SH100, though, lets you handle the task computer-free thanks to built-in wireless networking. And in a new twist on the Wi-Fi camera concept, those with an Android cell phone will enjoy unprecedented remote control capability with the SH100.

The Wi-Fi system lets the camera connect even to password protected wireless networks, allowing direct e-mail and photo uploading. The camera automatically resizes the images before sending them, so you don’t waste your time (or your battery power) trying to send full-resolution photos. The system currently supports uploading photos to Picasa, Facebook and Samsung’s own photo site, and videos to YouTube. You can save recipient e-mail addresses in the camera memory, so you don’t have to tap out lengthy instructions each time you send grandma another snapshot.

There is an annoying wrinkle in the upload process when it comes to public Wi-Fi networks like those found in hotels and Starbucks. These require you to accept a legal agreement before logging in, which is no big deal for a computer with a browser, but a potential deal-breaker for a camera without one. Samsung’s workaround is support for Boingo, a national subscription network of Wi-Fi providers that runs $8 a month.

The wireless remote control app for Android phones is very clever, and very practical. You can look at the phone screen and see what the camera is seeing, making it possible to line up self-portraits and group shots perfectly. Not happy with the way a shot’s framed? Use the phone to zoom the camera lens.

When it’s all just right, trip the shutter by pressing the on-screen button. This neat trick works equally well if you’re holding your camera high overhead or down low—no more point-and-pray photography. Your phone’s built-in GPS will let you attach location information to photo files shot using the remote control app.

And if a little geek-speak doesn’t freak you out, DLNA support is another intriguing option. DLNA is an industry standard for sharing media files between devices. Some AV receivers and TV sets now support DLNA, along with Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 game consoles. Turn on the camera’s DLNA function and you can browse your photos on a big-screen TV without connecting a single wire. You can even set up a slick-looking on-screen slide show. Master this simple trick and even your kids will grudgingly admit you’re kind of cool.

Beyond its unusual wireless proclivities, the 14.2-megapixel SH100 is a photographic mixed bag. There’s a 5x zoom lens, but no mechanical image stabilization, the system that keeps blur to a minimum in most current digital cameras. The LCD is a relatively low-res 3-inch affair, and it’s touch-sensitive. Some people like touch-screen camera controls, and it’s easy to see the charm of focusing on a particular point in a scene by tapping on it.

Personally, though, I prefer good old-fashioned buttons. They let you work faster, without having to search a screen full of icons every time you want to change a setting, and respond more reliably. Then again, the SH100 isn’t the right camera for those who yearn for precise manual control anyway.

There are adequate adjustment opportunities for the basics, but it’s really designed for the point-and-shoot crowd. And given the camera’s extensive wireless capabilities, and the fact that Samsung’s previous wireless model sold for a hefty $399, the price for the SH100 came as a very pleasant surprise.

$200, samsungusa.com

Fujifilm FinePix REAL 3D 3W

I’m inclined to see 3-D as more of a gimmick than must-have technology, but when it comes to gimmicks, it’s kind of fun. It gets a whole lot more interesting when it becomes a do-it-yourself project, which is precisely what the groundbreaking FinePix REAL 3D W3 camera does best.

The expertise required to build an inexpensive handheld 3-D camera is not to be taken lightly. Fujifilm combined two separate, independently controlled and precisely aligned lenses with two 10-megapixel sensors to capture the separate left-eye right-eye images required to create the 3-D effect.

To give you an idea of the complexity involved, Panasonic recently delivered a $1,400 3-D camcorder that won’t let you zoom the lens at all when shooting in 3-D. Fujifilm mastered the parallax problem, thank you very much, in a $500 camera that shoots both 3-D stills and high-def 3-D video. And unlike the Panasonic, the REAL 3D W3 has a built-in 3-D LCD so you can preview the 3-D effect while you’re shooting.

One of my favorite features goes beyond its 3-D capability. You have two lenses, two sensors—in effect, two cameras in one—and Fujifilm uses this setup for innovative 2-D shooting strategies. Can’t decide whether you want to shoot a wide angle or zoom in? What the heck—why not take both shots at once with the lenses at different settings? Want to experiment with black-and-white photography but don’t want to sacrifice the color shot? Again, take ‘em both at the same time and figure it out later.

This is Fujfilm’s second 3-D camera; the first was barely marketed to the public because it lacked the ability to display your stills and video on a 3-D TV (of course, the fact that there were barely any 3-D sets in people’s homes didn’t help much either). The new model connects to a 3-D TV by HDMI cable, allowing the entire family to put on stupid-looking glasses and enjoy the 3-D experience together.

$599.99, fujifilm.com

Steven Morgenstern is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.