Two New Shirt Pocket Cameras
One Winner – One Loser
I'm not the kind of photographer that walks around with a DSLR hanging on my shoulder when I go to the corner store for a bottle of milk, or when walking the dogs at the local park. I can be a bit nerdy when it comes to my passion for photography, but not that nerdy.
But I have seen interesting things worth photographing often enough at times that I haven't had a camera along that over the years I now usually carry a small point-and-shoot handy for such occasions. And, since they're inexpensive enough – relative to pro SLRs at least, – once or twice a year I like to check out the latest offerings. Recently reports have appeared here about three such cameras, the Canon G9, the Ricoh GX100 and the Sigma DP1.
The things that I look for in such cameras are small size (otherwise why bother?), decent ergonomics, and reasonable image quality. I don't pretend that high image quality is paramount, but I won't accept something that's incapable of making a decent 11X14" print at speeds up to ISO 400. RAW is something to be preferred, but I'll live with decent JPGs if I have to.
Run Aground. Ontario, May, 2008
Samsung NV24 HD @ ISO 80
I have other criteria as well. For example, I really dislike framing at arm's length on a camera's LCD screen. I'll do it, but I'd much rather have an optical viewfinder, even a poor one, for use in bright sunlight and for more candid shooting.
Of the current crop which has attracted my interest in the first half of 2008, each has somehow been found wanting. The image quality of the Sigma DP1 is exceptional, but it's just not a very good camera operationally, requires proprietary raw software to get the most from it quality-wise, and it lacks any sort of viewfinder. The Sigma also has a fixed focal length lens (though of very high quality) and so is therefore somewhat limiting for the type of shooting that I do.
The Canon G9 produces decent image quality, has raw mode, is well made, and has a zoom lens and an optical viewfinder. What's not to like? It's heavy and bulky. Almost to the point that I sometimes debate whether it might not be worth carrying a small DSLR or superzoom digicam instead.
The Ricoh GX100 is nice and small, has raw mode, a zoom lens, and decent image quality. It lacks an optical viewfinder though there is a neat accessory electronic viewfinder available. Unfortunately this does add to the camera's bulk. So far though the GX100 comes the closest to meeting my requirements. (Your needs will of course vary).
Two new interesting cameras became available in May of 2008, after being announced earlier in the year, and are the subject of this test report. These are the Samsung NV24-HD, and the Sony Cyber-shot W300. Their appeal lies in their very small size – small and light enough to fit in a shirt pocket. These are cameras which can go with you anywhere at any time. One of them is a real winner – possibly the best pocket-sized digicam that I've ever tested, while the other disappoints. Find out which is which below.
Cool Camera / Poor Image Quality
The Samsung NV24-HD is a pocket camera that caught my eye when it was first announced at CES last January. What particularly attracted my attention was that it claimed to be able to record HD video at 720P resolution (2180 X 720 at 30FPS) using the latest codec, H264. For a shirt pocket sized camera this seemed an amazing feat, and so I was eager to see whether there was any meat attached to these bones.
In late mid-May the NV 24 HD became generally available and I spent a week shooting with one in various situations. My intent wasn't to produce any great art (either still or video) but simply to see whether this roughly $300 camera would meet the needs of serious photographers – in a combo still / video camera that isn't much bigger than a small stack of business cards.
The NV24 isn't the first Samsung camera to make use of this unique interface. But it's the first that I've ever used outside of a trade show booth. Rather than provide a touch screen, or a combination of control wheels and modal button, the NV24 has a horizontal and a vertical row of touch sensitive buttons along the base and the right hand side of its LCD. To select a function or setting one runs ones finger tips over the surface of the buttons and menu selections appear. The opposite row then provides additional choices. Find the one wanted and then press the appropriate button. It's a bit confusing at first but one quickly becomes used to it.
The ergonomics are otherwise quite good, with a large top right mode dial and a slightly protruding rubberized strip where ones fingers grip the front of the camera. Curiously though there is a similarly sized mechanical knob on the camera's left devoted to a range of silly shooting styles, like Retro, Forest and Calm. Come on Samsung! If you need to have these for marketing points with certain constituencies, fine, but put them in the on-screen menus where they don't get in the way. If you're going to put a cool mechanical knob on the top panel of such a small camera devote it to something useful, like ISO, White Balance or manual exposure control.
Otherwise the NV24 is a straightforward camera in the current idiom. It features a 1.233" CCD sensor offering 10.2 MP. The rear LCD is very nice, one of the first to offer OLED technology, which makes it very bright and crisp. The lens (f/2.8-5.7, 24-86.5mm equiv) is special because unlike most competitive cameras it goes out to the equivalent of 24mm at the wide end. Very welcome when shooting indoors.
But there are some serious omissions in the feature department. There is no histogram. What's that about? Does Samsung think that anyone buying this level of camera won't be interested in optimizing their exposures? There also isn't any way to lock exposure at infinity. This means that when shooting through a window, such as on an airplane, poor focus is more than likely.
The NV24 does not come with a battery charger. Instead charging is accomplished by connecting a cable between the camera and a USB port on ones computer. This is a proprietary cable that also provides data transfer and video connectivity. (It also comes with an AC adaptor for the cable as an alternative to the USB port.)
I have no great beef with the cable (other than that the connector on the base of the camera is without a cover) but not providing an outboard battery charger means that the camera itself must be used when charging. Most inconvenient in many situations.
The camera's 720P video is fun, especially coming from such a small camera. But given how poor the still image quality proved to be I wasn't terribly interested in extensively testing the video. Samsung does get brownie points for using the new H264 codec, which is very efficient in compressing video without quality loss. I found the video that I did shoot to be "OK" for family style fun, but that's about the extent of it.
Image quality is regrettably where the Samsung lets us down. It's not terrible by any means, but it's not all that great either. As we'll see below, the Sony simply beats it hands down at all ISO's, and even the NV24's HD video capability can't make up for this. Samsung has had the bad luck of introducing their new 10MP camera at a time when Sony has introduced their almost 14MP one, and with the exception of HD video capability the Sony beats it hands down in all aspects of picture quality.
Left: Samsung NV24 ------------------------------------------------
Right: Sony W300
This ISO 100 shot tells the tale. Though
noise is low, detail on the Samsung is smeared
and it only gets worse at higher ISO's
A Wolf in the Sheep's Pen.
My first thought when I read about the W300 was – Good grief – 13.6 Megapixels from a 1/1.7" sensor on a body the size of a tin of Altoids. Will the madness never end?
But then, after just a few hours of shooting with the W300 my thoughts were – How come nobody is talking about how astonishingly good this little camera is? Image quality is really fine up to ISO 400 on Super A3 sized prints, or even larger. Quite remarkable.
In addition to the highest resolution sensor found on any shirt pocket sized camera to date, the W300 features an f/2.8 – f/5.5, 7.6 – 22.8mm Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens, offering the equivalent in full frame 35mm terms of a 35 –105mm focal length. Fast enough at the wide end, but if the camera went to 28mm I wouldn't complain. 35mm is just a bit restricting.
Image quality from this lens is very good, right out to the corners. There is barrel distortion at the wide end, but this is to be expected, and for its intended applications shouldn't' be a big issue. Somewhat more of an issue is some chromatic aberration, which can be noticeable on large prints. I'm not terribly concerned about this as it's easy enough to fix in post, particularly with the CA correction tool in Lightroom.
Sad to say the W300 is JPG only; no raw mode, though there are no other cameras of this genre that offers raw either. More's the pity. Given how good the JPGs are raw files would potentially be quite special.
Above – full frame.
Below – 100% crops from right edge of frame
Left: Samsung NV24 ------------------------------------------------ Right: Sony W300
Not to make too big a deal of this comparison, but the Sony
simply trounces the Samsung
in almost every aspect of image quality. The most obvious is resolution, with the NV24 producing
a watercolor mush while the Sony is able to nicely differentiate leaf patterns at over 100 feet.
Joy of joys, the W300 has an optical viewfinder. Yes, it's small, and only shows about 80% of the taken frame. But it's there, it zooms with the lens, and it means that one doesn't have to shoot with the camera at arm's length the way middle aged people have to read menus in restaurants when they've forgotten to bring along their glasses.
Unlike the Samsung NV24 the little Sony has a live histogram, and allows locking of infinity focus. Add to this the ability to set the camera at up to ISO 3200 (with acceptable quality at all speeds except the latter), a decent built-in flash, self capping lens, smart lithium battery, a stand-alone battery charger, lucid user interface, and very nice large LCD screen. Quite a package given its size and price, at less than $350 retail. (Like the Samsung, the Sony has a proprietary multi-cable that attaches to an unprotected socket on the camera's base, but since a separate charger is provided this is much less of an issue).
The Starbucks Noise Test
All frames taken with auto WB, auto exposure, lowest saturation,
lowest sharpening, lowest NR, and lowest contrast in camera.
No post processing has been applied.
The 100% crops seen above tell the tale. To my eye the Sony
W300 simply trounces any other small camera of its type
when it comes to high ISO noise, particularly when one considers that this is an almost 14MP camera.
My experience thus far is that speeds between 100 and 400
produce good looking usable images at any
appropriate print size. No additional noise reduction is needed. At ISO 800 noise is still not too bad, but apparent
resolution starts to deteriorate, likely due to in-camera noise reduction. ISO 1600 is usable, and cleans up fairly well
with some additional external noise reduction, while ISO 3200 is not usable except for strictly documentary purposes.
There is a video mode that allows 640X480 shooting at 30FPS, average for this type of camera. Hopefully a future version will give us 720P resolution and the H264 codec as found in the Samsung.
What's not to like? Very little actually. I have always disliked Sony's proprietary Memorystick cards, which have long been overpriced and of smaller capacity than SD cards. But recently Sony's prices have dropped, and a high speed 4GB Pro Duo card is only about $55, so there's less to complain about. A 4 GB card, by the way, will hold some 750 14MP JPGs, so even a week-long vacation can be managed on a single card unless one is also shooting videos.
I often use my pocket camera to record curiosities that I
This second story tableau was a bit far away to frame properly, even at 105mm,
but with 14MP available, tight cropping was no problem.
Sony W300 @ ISO 125
Along with some considerable cropping, a bit of
" interpretation" was
all that was needed to create
an image of some interest,
and for it to still remain large enough and of high enough quality to make
a crisp 13X19" print .
The above few paragraphs and images should be enough to show you that I am quite taken with the Sony W300. I've only had it for a short while, and if it wasn't for my disappointment with the Samsung NV24 HD (whose size and features I quite enjoyed, but whose image quality was found unacceptable for my needs) I might not have started to look around and have found the W300. But I'm glad I did, and I'd suggest that if a shirt-pocket sized camera is on your shopping list, the Sony W300 needs to be considered as a serious contender.