Although the auto white balance system works almost completely flawlessly in natural light, shooting under artificial light is a much more hit and miss affair. This is made worse by the failure of the white balance presets to get it right either, meaning the only way to guarantee neutral colors is to use custom (measured) white balance - thankfully this is a very simple process. Perhaps worse than the poor white balance performance is the fact that the screen itself doesn't actually show how bad the WB is (in other words it looks fine on-screen, you only find out about the color cast when you open the images on your PC).
|Incandescent - Auto WB
Red 9.8%, Blue -12.6%
|Incandescent - Incandescent preset WB
Red 4.0%, Blue -7.6%
|Fluorescent - Auto WB
Red 0.0%, Blue 1.1%
|Fluorescent - Fluorescent preset WB
Red 6.2%, Blue -8.0%
The Pro815's built-in flash is surprisingly powerful, reaching up to 6.0 meters at the wide end of the zoom (ISO 100), yet it throttles down well with close subjects. There is a slight tendency towards underexposure, which is no bad thing given the Pro815's propensity for clipping highlights. We found red-eye to be almost none-existant thanks to the distance between flash and lens, and of course the hot shoe means you can use external flash for even more versatility. Even flash recycling is fairly quick, and our only real complaint is that white balance, when using flash, is far from perfect.
Very slight cool cast, slight underexposure
Very slight green cast, slight underexposure
The Pro815 has two macro modes; standard macro (which gets as close as 10cm at the wide end, 150cm at the tele end) and super macro, which focuses down as close as 3cm, but only in a limited (50-100mm equivalent) part of the zoom range. There is actually a third option, Auto macro, which simply extends the standard focus range (down to 10cm / wide, 150cm / tele), but at a cost; slower focusing across the whole range.
Barrel and Pincushion Distortion
The wide end of the Pro815's zoom is a lot wider (28mm equiv.) than most of its competitors, and the range - 15x - is greater. So it is a tribute to the designers at Schneider (who presumably had some say in the design of the lens) that distortion is kept fairly low. The 1.7% barrel distortion is on the high side, but not enough to be a problem in most everyday shots, whilst there is no measurable distortion once you start to move into the middle and long end of the zoom.
|Barrel distortion - 1.7% at Wide angle
Equiv. focal length: 28 mm
|Pincushion distortion - 0.0% at Telephoto
Equiv. focal length: 420 mm
Specific image quality issues
Aside from the rather 'over processed' appearance of the images (which seem a little soft, and are certainly over-sharpened), the Pro815 actually produces very pleasing results in most circumstances, and if you have the patience to use Raw mode they are excellent. I found the JPEG output to be slightly 'muddy' (especially at ISO 100 or higher) when it comes to low contrast fine detail such as foliage, which isn't helped by the in-camera sharpening. Again you can get a lot more out of what is obviously an excellent lens by shooting Raw. Other minor issues include occasional missed focus - particularly at the long end of the zoom, and specifically in low light, a tendency to clip highlights very harshly (something shooting Raw helps) and a higher than average incidence of lens flare at the 28mm end of the zoom.
Of course camera shake is also a major issue given the lack of an image stabilization system. Surprisingly, camera shake is even a problem at wider zoom settings, due mainly to the very heavy lens, which makes single-handed shooting at even fairly high shutter speeds risky (see the color fringing example below - 100th second at 28mm should be tack sharp, yet there is evidence of motion blurring). It's worth remembering when using the Pro815 that you probably need a higher shutter speed than you'd expect unless you have hands as steady as a gunslinger.
Overall, however, there is much to like here - the images have very natural color (not too over-saturated), exposure is generally excellent (though the highlight clipping issue means it helps to underexpose slightly) and they print very nicely indeed at sizes up to about 8x6 inches (over this I'd probably stick to Raw wherever possible - there's so much more detail).
We found very little evidence of color fringing in the hundreds of shots taken when compiling the gallery, and when we did it was fairly minor, only occurred at the wide end of the lens, and was restricted to the edges of the frame where there was mild overexposure. Of course, this may reflect the lack of bright sunlight in the UK in late November!
|100% crop||28 mm equiv., F4.6, 1/100th sec|
Although it only happens in a very specific set of circumstances (low sun, 28mm end of the zoom), we did find the occasional incidence of lens flare, such as shown below. This isn't always prevented by the hood supplied, and is perhaps an inevitable consequence of such an ambitious lens range.
|100% crop||28 mm equiv., F3.2, 1/60th sec|
In common with virtually all small-sensor cameras, the Pro815 has a tendency to 'blow' highlights in contrasty scenes, something you can only avoid by very careful use of the AE compensation dial. As the harsh clipping occurs as a result of the in-camera processing as much as anything else, you can minimize it by shooting Raw and using a less steep tone curve, but this is hardly the perfect solution given the incredibly slow Raw writing speed.
|100% crop||320 mm equiv., F4.6, 1/160th sec|
|100% crop||28 mm equiv., F3.2, 1/60th sec|