Superzoom camera group: Studio comparison contd

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 (of up to 12,800 in some cases) 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 because it's the setting you're most likely to use for indoor flash shots (see later) and 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. In 2008 we feel it's fair to expect any compact camera to produce 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 SX10 IS
ISO 400
FujiFilm S2000HD
ISO 400
FujiFilm S8100fd
ISO 400
Nikon P80
ISO 400
Olympus SP-565UZ
ISO 400
Panasonic FZ28
ISO 400
Sony H50
ISO 400

Here the differences in each manufacturer's approach to image processing means the output from the seven cameras, which was pretty close at base ISO, starts to diverge as noise reduction takes its toll on detail and sharpness. The best of the bunch by far are the Canon SX10 and Panasonic FZ28 - both manage to retain detail without showing too much noise (what noise there is looks grainy rather than blotchy or colorful). In the middle of the pack is the Fujifilm S2000HD, which has heavier noise reduction combined with sharpening, which doesn't look very pleasant up close but doesn't look too bad in prints at smaller (sub 5x7 inch) sizes. Fujifilm's other model, the S8100fd does the same thing, but less successfully.

The last three models use increasingly heavy amounts of noise reduction, and as a result sacrifice even more detail. The Olympus SP-565 is just about usable for a small print, but the Nikon P80 and Sony H50 are pretty poor; the Nikon has a very soft appearance (with blurry color noise across the entire frame) and the Sony has a killer combination of detail-destroying noise reduction and ugly chroma noise in the shadow areas.

Raw mode

The ability to shoot in raw mode is still something of a rarity on non-SLR cameras, but it is an option on two of the models in this group; the Olympus SP-565 and Panasonic FZ28. Shooting raw allows you to bypass the camera's built-in processing (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 amount of processing involved with such large files (about 12MB for the Panasonic FZ8, 14.5MB for the Olympus SP-565) slows down the cameras to the point where the mode would be to all intents and purposes unusable. Cheaper and more capable components have improved matters considerably and the Panasonic FZ28 can knock out raw files at an acceptable rate of knots as long as you're not shooting sports or anything else that moves too quickly (around 3.5 seconds between frames). The Olympus SP-565 is slightly more sluggish, with shot to shot times just under 5.5 seconds.

We'll look at the raw output of these cameras in our full reviews - for now here's a couple of studio shots shot and developed in Adobe camera raw using the following parameters:

  • Taken from the same tripod position with the zoom set to approx. 55-70mm (equivalent).
  • Manual white balance
  • Aperture Priority or Manual mode (~ F5.0)
  • Luminance matched (middle gray ~L50)
  • Lighting: Daylight simulation, >98% CRI
  • Adobe Camera Raw 5.2, default settings except noise reduction (set to zero)
  • Saved as JPEG (quality 10) for download

ISO 100 raw comparison

Olympus SP-565 raw, ACR 5.2 Panasonic FZ28 raw, ACR 5.2
100% crop 100% crop

As you can see, removing the camera's processing from the equation reveals that there's little difference between these two cameras, and that in both cases the 'cooked' JPEGs you get out of camera are far from optimal. Although there's only slightly more detail in the raw file they are much cleaner and show none of the smearing visible in the JPEGs (this is especially true of the Olympus).

ISO 1600 raw comparison

Olympus SP-565 raw, ACR 5.2 Panasonic FZ28 raw, ACR 5.2
100% crop 100% crop

Looking at the ISO 1600 raw output you can see why the cameras have so much of a struggle producing anything usable in a JPEG; there's so much noise that it threatens to swamp any of the detail in the image. The SP-565 is marginally worse, but there's not a lot in it.