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Superzoom camera group: Studio comparison (cont).

ISO 400 compared

Most cameras can produce perfectly acceptable results at their lowest ('base') ISO setting. Despite all the marketing hype surrounding super high ISO modes the truth is that all small sensor cameras start to struggle as you raise the ISO. We'll look at the performance of each camera at really high ISO settings on the next page, but before we do, let's have a quick look at how they do at ISO 400.

ISO 400 is important in so far as it is usually the highest setting where compact cameras still produce what we would consider to be 'acceptable' output; anything higher and the problems of noise and strong noise reduction (which smears away detail) really start to take their toll. It's also the setting some cameras use for indoor flash shots (see later). From this latest generation of superzoom cameras we feel it's fair to expect a usable result, with the main difference being the balance of visible noise and the destructive effect of noise reduction. So let's see how the cameras in our group fare.

Canon SX20 IS
ISO 400
Casio EX-FH25
ISO 400
FujiFilm HS10
ISO 400
FujiFilm S2500HD
ISO 400
Kodak Z981
ISO 400
Nikon P100
ISO 400
Panasonic FZ35
ISO 400
Pentax X90
ISO 400
Samsung HZ25W
ISO 400

While at base ISO the differences between the contenders were fairy small, the gaps are starting to widen as you go up the ISO scale and noise reduction takes its toll on detail and sharpness. The best of the bunch is again the Panasonic FZ35, closely followed by the Canon SX20 IS and the Nikon P100. All three models manage to keep noise under control and at the same time retain a decent amount of detail.

At the other end of the scale you'll find the Fujifilm S2500HD and the Pentax X90 which both show a significant loss of detail caused by noise reduction. Especially the Fujifilm looks more like a watercolor painting rather than a photograph. The rest of the pack are located somewhere in between and all show clear signs of noise reduction and other artifacts. At this ISO setting noise comes mostly in the shape of grain rather than color blotches and all but the worst of these cameras will still produce decent prints at sub 5x7 inch sizes.

Raw mode

The ability to shoot in raw mode is still not very common on non-SLR cameras, but it is an option on five of the models in this group; the Casio EX-H25, Fujifilm HS10, Kodak Z981, Panasonic FZ35 and Samsung HZ25W (up to ISO 200 only on the Casio and up to ISO 400 on the Samsung). Shooting raw allows you to bypass the camera's built-in processing, and the 'raw' data from the sensor is then developed using the supplied software or one of the various alternative processing applications such as Adobe Camera Raw. Thus you can make your own decisions about white balance, color, contrast, noise reduction, sharpening and so on after you've taken the shot.

Part of the reason why so few compacts offer raw capture is that such large files (between approximately 14 and 16MB on our test candidates) slow the cameras down, sometimes to the extent that the mode is all intents and purposes unusable. However, more powerful image processors have improved matters considerably and the Panasonic FZ35 and Fuji HS10 can both capture raw files at a rate that makes the format suitable for every day use (3.3 sec shot-to-shot times). The Samsung is only slightly slower at 4.1 sec and only the Casio and Kodak are prohibitively slow at 12.3 and 10.3 sec respectively (the EX-H25 only allows to shoot RAW+JPEG files).

For the purpose of this group test we've taken one or two studio shots with each camera and developed them in Adobe Camera Raw using the following parameters:

  • Taken from the same tripod position with the zoom set to approx. 80-95mm (equivalent).
  • Manual white balance
  • Aperture Priority or Manual mode (~ F4.0)
  • Luminance matched (middle gray ~L50)
  • Lighting: Daylight simulation, >98% CRI
  • Adobe Camera Raw 5.7, default settings except noise reduction (set to zero)
  • Saved as JPEG (quality 10) for download

The Fujifilm HS10's .RAF files are not supported by Adobe ACR 5.7. Therefore we've used Fujifilm's proprietary Raw File Converter (which is powered by SilkyPix) to convert these files, again with all noise reduction set to 0.

Base ISO raw comparison

Casio EX-H25, ACR 5.7
ISO 100
FujiFilm HS10, RFC 3.0
ISO 100
Panasonic FZ35, ACR 5.7
ISO 80
Samsung HZ25W, ACR 5.7
ISO 64
Kodak EasyShare Z981, ACR 5.7
ISO 100
 
 

Removing the camera's processing from the equation reveals that all cameras apply quite a bit of noise reduction even at base ISO. There is a small amount of extra fine detail in all RAW images but also more grainy noise and, especially in the shadow areas, chroma noise. The difference is least noticeable on the Panasonic FZ35 where the JPEG engine is doing an excellent job.

It's also worth mentioning that the Casio and Fujifilm both apply distortion correction to their JPEG images. The RAW output shows clearly visible distortion. On the Samsung there is an option to apply distortion correction in the menu. It is disabled by default. The Panasonic FZ35 is the only camera that does not need to apply any distortion correction - at this particular focal length its lens is as good as distortion free (we also opened its files in RawTherapee to make sure distortion wasn't corrected by Adobe ACR). It does however apply distortion correction at more extreme focal lengths.

ISO 1600 raw comparison

FujiFilm HS10, RFC 3.0
ISO 1600
Panasonic FZ35, ACR 5.7
ISO 1600
Kodak Z981, ACR 5.7
ISO 1600
 
 

Looking at the ISO 1600 raw output you can see why so much detail is being lost in high ISO JPEGs; there's so much noise in all of these images that it reduces the amount of detail that the JPEG engine can work with very significantly. As a consequence even the best balanced noise reduction algorithms will introduce a lot of smearing and blurring. Of this small group, the Kodak gives the noisiest output, although comparisons are difficult since the Fuji's raw file is clearly benefiting from noise reduction in the proprietary Raw File Converter software.

Here we provide RAW files that we've used for the conversions above both to allow you to apply your own workflow techniques and see whether your experiences match ours.

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