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Slim/Style camera group: Studio comparison (high ISO)

For our studio comparison we chose to use, where possible, ISO 1600 - beyond this few compacts produce output that is usable, and most will only shoot higher ISO's at a reduced pixel size.

On this page you'll find our standard studio comparison shot taken with each of the cameras in the group. Click on the thumbnail to see the full image.

  • All taken from the same tripod position roughly half way through the zoom range
  • Manual white balance where available (nearest preset used where not - indicated with a *1)
  • Aperture Priority or Manual mode where available
  • ISO 1600
  • Luminance matched (middle grey ~L50)
  • Lighting: Daylight simulation, >98% CRI

ISO 1600 studio comparison:

High ISO settings allow you to shoot in low light without using a tripod or the flash and has become one of the key differentiators between digital SLRs (which are usually pretty good at higher sensitivity settings) and compacts (which aren't).

Since (with current technology) the combination of high pixel counts and small sensors inevitably results in high ISO noise (and there's not a huge difference between the various makes), what we're looking at here is how well each camera's processor deals with it, and how well the result balances the need to reduce/remove noise and the desire to retain fine detail.

Heavy, unsophisticated noise reduction also removes lots of detail from the image, but if the noise reduction is too low you'll get so much noise that it will appear even in the smallest print.

Canon SD790 IS
(IXUS 90 IS)
ISO 1600
Casio Exilim S10
ISO 1600
Fujifilm Z200fd *1
ISO 1600
Nikon Coolpix S60
ISO 1600
Nikon Coolpix S210
ISO 1600
Olympus Stylus 1040
(Mju 1040)
ISO 1600
Panasonic DMC-FX37
ISO 1600
Pentax Optio S12
ISO 1600
Sony Cybershot T700 *1
ISO 1600

100% crops: center

Canon SD790 IS
(IXUS 90 IS)
ISO 1600
Casio Exilim S10
ISO 1600
Fujifilm Z200fd *1
ISO 1600
Nikon Coolpix S60
ISO 1600
Nikon Coolpix S210
ISO 1600
Olympus Stylus 1040 (Mju 1040)
ISO 1600
Panasonic DMC-FX37
ISO 1600
Pentax Optio S12
ISO 1600
Sony Cybershot T700
ISO 1600

All 9 cameras show heavy noise reduction, with most showing an almost total loss of subtle detail and some producing very soft results indeed. There are no clear winners, though ironically the Nikon S210 and Panasonic FX37 fare least badly in comparison to their output at lower ISO settings (high ISO shooting truly is the great leveler with small cameras). The Casio S10 has, by a whisker, the most detail retained, but it's also the noisiest output, proving you really can only have one thing or the other. Ultimately all these cameras produce results at ISO 1600 which, though fine for social snaps intended to be printed small (postcard size) are of little use to the more demanding photographer.

100% crops: Edge

The first thing to suffer when noise reduction kicks in is fine, low contrast detail (as shown in the crops above), but with very high NR even bold details (such as on the martini bottle shown here) can start to suffer.

Canon SD790 IS (IXUS 90 IS)
ISO 1600
Casio Exilim S10
ISO 1600
Fujifilm Z200fd *1
ISO 1600
Nikon Coolpix S60
ISO 1600
Nikon Coolpix S210
ISO 1600
Olympus Stylus 1040
(Mju 1040)

ISO 1600
Panasonic DMC-FX37
ISO 1600
Pentax Optio S12
ISO 1600
Sony Cybershot T700
ISO 1600

Again it's interesting to see that the Nikon S210 and Panasonic FX37 show the best detail here - in a complete reversal of the situation at base ISO. Some of the cameras in this group use very destructive noise reduction, meaning that in most cases even the bolder high contrast detail here gets blurred to oblivion. It's interesting to see that even Fujifilm, champion of high ISO performance, can't work miracles with a tiny (1/2.3") 10 megapixel conventional CCD sensor, and it would be nice if the company had found a way to get its technically superior SuperCCD sensor into a camera like the Z200fd.

Higher ISO settings

Whereas most of the budget compacts we tested last week do the decent thing and give up at ISO 1600 (or even lower), most mid-range and high end compacts offer at least one higher sensitivity setting. Given what we've just seen above it's probably best not to expect miracles at even higher IS0 settings, and to take any marketing claims with a hefty pinch of salt.

Below you'll find our standard studio comparison shot taken with each of the cameras in the group at its highest ISO setting (where a setting above ISO 1600 is offered). Click on the thumbnail to see the full image.

Canon SD790 IS
(IXUS 90 IS)
ISO 3200
Nikon Coolpix S60
ISO 3200
Nikon Coolpix S210
ISO 2000
Olympus Stylus 1040
ISO 3200
Sony T700
ISO 3200
 

Canon doesn't offer a true ISO 3200 option, instead opting for an ISO 3200 scene mode (which unfortunately means no manual white balance, hence the horrible color cast in our test shot). The other cameras allow you to select ISO 3200 more easily, though looking at the results you'd obviously want to do so with caution. Two cameras here (the SD790 IS and Olympus Stylus 1040) only offer ISO 3200 at a reduced resolution, using a technique known as 'pixel binning' to combine the output of several pixels into one. Although this significantly reduces resolution (and inevitably creates the blurred jaggies seen here), the result is certainly better than that produced by the Nikon Coolpix S60, which makes most camera phones look impressive by comparison.

The Sony T700 tries to keep hold of a little detail (though it doesn't do a very good job of it), and again, thanks to a less aggressive approach to noise reduction the Nikon Coolpix S210 actually does a better job than most of the more expensive models in this group. That said, none of these are of much use beyond the quick social snapshot, and even then you may struggle to identify anyone in the picture.

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