Plugged In: Making a list, checking values twice

‘Fall into winter on the Kenai’ photo contest closes Dec. 1

The Redoubt Reporter is holding another in its series of reader-submitted photo contests.

Photos will be judged and winners selected by a three-member panel. After each contest closes, we’ll publish and discuss some of our favorites in the Redoubt Reporter. Some of the selected photographers will be invited to frame and hang their photos at a Redoubt Reporter June 2013 group photo show scheduled at the Sterling Highway Kaladi Brothers coffee shop.

The deadline to enter is 11:59 p.m. Dec. 1, 2012. All submissions must be in high-quality digital format. Submit no more than five JPEG images by email to redoubtreporterphotos@gmail.com.

Entry rules:

1. Our theme is “Falling into winter on the Kenai” and submissions must fit this theme.

2. Entrants must be amateur photographers who are residents of the central Kenai Peninsula.

3. Photographs can be of any subject fitting the theme but must have been taken of the Kenai Peninsula on or after Aug. 1, 2012.

4. If you submit photographs in which people are recognizable, you must also provide us with their permission for us to publish any such photographs.

5. Please do not submit portrait photos. Do not submit photographs whose content would not be appropriate for publication in a family newspaper. Do not submit photos of illegal subject matter. All such photos will be deleted immediately without notice to you and at the sole discretion of the editor.

6. Photographers must include their name, telephone number, email address, town of residency and each photo’s date, location and description of subject matter.

7. Submitted JPEG images should be of the best possible technical quality. Good technique and technical quality are important, but originality, creativity, interesting subject matter, artistic merit and good composition are even more important.

8. By submitting photos, you agree to our publication of them in the Redoubt Reporter newspaper and on our website. The Redoubt Reporter will have the right of first publication of your photos. However, you will retain the copyright for all other purposes and your name will be listed if we publish any of your photos.

9. Our decisions about what’s published or selected for exhibition are final and are admittedly subjective. Space is limited, and the judging panel and editor reserve the right to choose photos at their discretion.

10. Retain your original digital files of all submitted images. We are not responsible for preserving copies of your digital images.

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

The Christmas shopping frenzy is nearly upon us, so it seems like a good time to make some suggestions about photo gifts to be given, or received.

Last year’s upper-tier models are being closed out to make room for newer cameras introduced over the past few months. Often, the models being closed out are excellent and exceptionally good values.

Among the better current close-out values in formerly upper-tier models are the original Pentax K-5 (virtually the same image quality and features as the newer K-5 II), Panasonic’s GF3 and GH2 Micro Four-Thirds cameras, and Olympus’ E-PM1 and E-PL2 Micro Four-Thirds cameras. Among pocketable cameras, Canon’s SX150 IS and S100 compact cameras are similarly good values at the moment. These cameras are typically quite similar to their successor models, giving up little or nothing in terms of image quality.

Inexpensive consumer-grade compact cameras are a dying breed, thanks to higher-quality camera functions in top-end smartphones like the new iPhone5 and the Nokia 808. These smartphone-based camera functions are often good enough for small snapshots. They have the advantage of always being with you but are not particularly versatile. Image quality from even the best smartphone is not very good for anything beyond the Facebook equivalent of a snapshot. Their very small sensors perform poorly in dim light and, physically, there’s no room in a smartphone for the equivalent of a telephoto zoom lens.

These are significant deficiencies and those performance gaps are the areas where traditional camera manufacturers have retargeted their consumer cameras. Casual point-and-shoot users are now enticed to upgrade to more sophisticated (read: expensive) cameras featuring very high zoom range telephoto lenses, larger-sensor cameras that perform better in dim light, and serious interchangeable-lens cameras suitable for serious photography. These, by definition, are more expensive. One should not carp too much about higher costs, though, because virtually all camera makers are currently unprofitable and kept alive by their medical device and business equipment operations.

I reviewed a series of standardized test images comparisons and found that, among pocketable high zoom-range cameras, Canon’s  PowerShot SX150 HS (14 megapixels, 12 times zoom lens, $202 average price) and SX260 HS (12 megapixels, 20x zoom lens, $272 average price) performed significantly better than average, showing crisp resolution, good color rendering and saturation, and generally good optics. Panasonic’s similar ZS20 (14 megapixels, 20x zoom lens, $270 average price) also did quite well. The more expensive ZS25 and ZS30 models have the same imaging performance but more “features.”

These are well-established product lines that provide good quality and value. They’re easy to recommend. The Canon SX150 or SX160 would make a good camera for a student or teen — not too expensive yet capable of decent quality. The SX260 is a bit smaller and better built, hence the higher price. These cameras perform better than average for this class of consumer camera.

As a practical matter, the very high megapixel small sensors and high zoom-ratio lenses typical of current consumer-grade cameras result in lower-image quality. They are marketing-driven designs, not designs intended to optimize good engineering and image quality. Professional-grade cameras, where image quality counts most, use single magnification and low zoom-ratio lenses, large sensors and restrained pixel counts.

Long-zoom dSLR-styled cameras tend to be rather larger. They also tend to be both more expensive and generally not as sharp as the more pocketable cameras mentioned above. As an example, Panasonic’s FZ200 (12 megapixels, 24x zoom range, $560 average price), shows noticeably poor image quality, worse than Panasonic’s older FZ150, which uses the same lens. Canon SX50HS (50x zoom range, 12 megapixels, $480 average price) has image quality that’s even lower than Panasonic’s FZ200. Images made with Sony’s HX200V (18 megapixels, 30x zoom range, $430 average price) seem a bit crisper than those from Panasonic’s FZ200 but still are not very good. At the really low end of the image quality scale, Olympus’ SP-810 UZ (14 megapixels, 40x zoom range, $300 average price) is really bad, with images that can only be described as mushy. Nikon’s P510 (16 megapixels, 42x zoom range, $380 average price) is something of an exception, producing usable images despite the very high zoom range.

Figure 1 FZ200 ZS20

The upper magnification end of any of these high zoom-range lenses is ridiculous. They’re almost

impossible to hand hold and are very prone to severe camera shake and subject motion blurring, even when used with a tripod. Maximum lens brightness and overall sharpness is rather low at higher zoom settings. Optically, it’s virtually impossible to optimize sharpness over such a wide zoom range. My sense is that a more compact camera with a less-ambitious zoom range makes a great deal more sense. Figure 1 shows the relative size of Panasonic’s FZ200 and its sharper sibling, the ZS20. The ZS20 is much thinner as well.

There are a few high-quality, pocketable cameras worth considering if you want relatively high image quality in the smallest possible package and don’t insist upon a high zoom ratio lens. Sony’s RX100 (20 megapixels, 3.6x zoom ratio, $650 average price) has recently made quite a splash but I remain ambivalent about this camera because of its right side blurring caused by software distortion correction.

Canon’s S110 (12 megapixels, 5x zoom lens, $45 average price) is roughly the same size as the RX100

Figure 2. Canon’s S110/RX100 and G15.

but uses a smaller sensor. The S110 produces good quality images up to ISO 800. It’s also something of a puzzle to me. The S110 uses the same sensor and lens as last year’s S100 but the S110 is more expensive while removing some S100 features like the built-in GPS. The older S100 is a better buy. Figure 2 shows the relative sizes of the S110/RX100 and Canon’s G15 premium compact.

We’ll wrap up this week’s comparison with a look at other top-end, fixed-lens cameras. Premium compacts use a somewhat larger sensor and low zoom-range lenses for better image quality. This is a relatively uncrowded market segment, but several models in this range are excellent, although costly.

From my recent comparisons, I would be quite satisfied with Olympus’ new XZ-2 ($600), Panasonic’s LX-7 ($470) or either of Canon’s two offerings in this category, the G15 ($500) or the G1 X ($800). These are all excellent cameras built around 10- to 14-megapixel sensors, lenses that are bright and sharp lenses, and many features that appeal to more experienced photographers.

Despite the greater sophistication of these premium compact cameras, they include good, completely

Figure 3. Panasonic LX-7 and Canon’s G15.

automatic modes that make them suitable for less-experienced users. Realistically, though, none are pocketable except the Canon S100 and Sony RX100. Figure 3 compares midsized Panasonic LX-7 with the somewhat larger Canon G15, one of the few consumer cameras to retain an eyelevel optical viewfinder.

Canon’s G1 X is somewhat more exotic. It’s basically similar to the G15’s design but uses a large, APS-C sensor comparable to that found in Canon’s dSLR cameras. Coupled with an exceptionally good lens, the G1 X has the best image quality of any current premium compact camera. The downside, of course, to large sensor image quality is the need for physically larger lenses. That causes the G1 X body to be about two-thirds of an inch thicker than the otherwise comparably sized G15, although neither will fit into an ordinary pocket.

The real quandary is whether it makes sense to buy a fixed-lens premium compact that costs more

Figure 4. Olympus’ E-PM2 and Panasonic’s LX-7.

than a large-sensor Micro Four-Thirds camera such as the Olympus E-PM2 ($500) that’s physically smaller but uses high-end interchangeable lenses. That’s a topic for our next issue but perhaps it’s worth pondering Figure 4, which compares the body size of the E-PM2 and Panasonic’s  LX-7, which uses a smaller sensor in a larger body.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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