Canon has as usual constructed an entry-level camera that performs as if it is at the top of the class. The new eight million-pixel Powershot A580 has a 4x optical zoom and a bunch of useful scene modes, as well as facial recognition.
The body shape is all smoothed corners, with a bulging battery housing that acts as a comfortable grip. The flowing lines give it an almost retro look, with rounded edges on the flash like the eyes of a ’50s robot. It is comfortable to hold with one hand when viewing the 2.5-inch screen, or when clutching it with both hands and viewing through the optical viewfinder.
Unlike your car’s economy, the last thing you will have to worry about with the A580 is how hungry it is on batteries. Like all the A series cameras it operates using AA batteries. Alkaline batteries are supplied, but it is wise to invest in rechargeable NiMh batteries for the most images, and it is so much greener too. Part of this camera’s success is the use of SD or SDHC cards, as they use less power to read and write images.
Facial detection is a wonderful feature on any camera, but Canon has enhanced this function so it works almost faultlessly. It is only baffled when your subject’s face is obscured or turned past profile. It will also let you select and track one person. You can still select the focus area to be in the middle, or Canon’s slick AiAF (artificial intelligent auto-focus) instinctively knows where your subject is in the scene. This last option doesn’t always get it right, but it does an impressive job 90 per cent of the time.
The Canon A580 is a clever little camera with a handy dial on the top for selecting modes. For once Canon has followed Panasonic by including not only the user-friendly green auto setting but also a little red heart (easy) setting that assumes you want to know nothing about taking a picture other than pointing the camera at your subject and pressing the button. For a little more experimentation you have a series of scene modes as well as a movie setting.
Viewfinder versus Screen
There’s an alarming trend to do away with the viewfinder, but thankfully Canon has retained this little hole. It isn’t perfect, and for most of us it will come a poor second to the big 2.5-inch screen, but if your eyes are failing like mine it is handy to have one to fall back on in bright conditions.
The Powershot A580 is almost perfect as an entry-level camera. It has a decent 4x optical zoom, produces sharp images in almost any lighting conditions and has a viewfinder for the visually impaired.
I’m even impressed by the length of time a set of AA rechargeable batteries lasts in it. The SDHC card support makes it a winner, as does the fast start-up time, but it does struggle to give sufficient flash coverage when zoomed out, and the higher ISO range produces grainy (noisy) results. Canon has a strong design and a proven track record that pushes this camera up the rankings.
Model: Powershot A580
Effective Pixels: Eight million
Lens: 5.8-23.2mm (35mm film equivalent 35-140mm)
Viewfinder: Real Image optical viewfinder
Monitor: 2.5-inch TFT LCD (115,000 pixels)
Shutter: 15 to 1/2000 sec
Aperture: f2.6 — f5.5
ISO: Auto, Hi ISO Auto, 80, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600
Shooting Modes: Auto, Easy, Manual, Portrait, Landscape, Night Snapshot, Kids and Pets, Indoor, Night Scene, Sunset, Foliage, Snow, Beach, Fireworks and Aquarium, Movie — Standard or Compact.
Exposure Metering: Evaluative, Centre Weighted Average, Spot
Focus Modes: Face detect, AiAF (nine points), Centre.
The latest Panasonic Lumix DMC LZ8 may only be an entry-level compact, but it comes with a big 8.1 million-pixel sensor as well as a 5x optical zoom that covers from 32mm wide-angle to 160mm telephoto. Mix this up with an intelligent auto setting that knows what you are shooting, as well as face detection, and you have a wonderful start to your image making.
Fizzy from the start
It’s not often I open a box and get overwhelmed with the contents, but this little Lumix is wonderful to hold and use. As a first camera this wee minx will do all the work in the intelligent auto setting, and when your confidence and curiosity grow it has aperture and shutter priority as well as full manual control so you can take over.
Intelligence beyond its years
Scene modes are cool. They let you look at what you are shooting and choose the right scene from a list that will suit the situation. There are 19 separate modes to choose from, but for someone who doesn’t know a portrait from a close-up then the intelligent auto will be a godsend, as it selects from Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Night Portrait and Night Scenery, and does it perfectly. It almost makes the need for other scene modes redundant, but this compact will breed inquisitiveness and you’ll want to delve into the array of scenes that include Sport and the long exposure Starry Sky. The Kids and Pets modes let you set the name and date of birth of your babies and pets, then informs you of their age and name each time you take a picture.
The LZ8 has a wonderful menu system with a shortcut button that gives you quick access to file size, ISO, white balance, AF mode, burst shooting, image stabilisation and LCD brightness. The default settings are good, but at some stage of using this camera you will want to make adjustments. There is also a zoom shortcut that instantly zooms out to maximum optical zoom with one touch of the button, then maximum digital zoom with a second press, while a third touch will bring the lens back full circle to the wide-angle setting. The zoom control on the shutter release allows you to zoom to where you want in smaller steps.
Inbuilt versus Cards
Having eight million pixels at your disposal will quickly gobble the 20MB of on-board memory, so it makes sense to get a memory card to go with this camera. Even here you have a choice, either SD or SDHC, and with the capability to make decent movies the SDHC card will be the better choice.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC LZ8 sports a beautiful Leica 5x optical zoom complete with Mega Optical Image Stabiliser, and an 8.1-million-pixel sensor. The intelligent features include intelligent ISO, which automatically detects motion and selects a higher ISO to lessen the chance of camera shake. This entry-level camera can be used as simply as you’d like in the intelligent auto setting, or you can take over completely with full manual exposure. What more could you ask for in a camera?
When Olympus announced it would up the standard zoom on its entry-level models from 3x to 5x I got excited¦ then it built the FE-340 with the bigger zoom, as well as face detect and a huge 2.7-inch screen. Now I’m delirious.
Olympus’s jump in zoom range gives you the bonus of a whopping 180mm telephoto as well as the moderate wide angle of 36mm. The big telephoto sucks in subjects from further away and makes shooting sport or taking candid shots of the kids much easier. The screen has also been inflated in size, that 2.7-incher bulging with a credible 230,000 pixels for a very impressive image. The refresh rate is phenomenal, making flipping through reviewed images like watching a slide show.
I am generally unimpressed with huge hikes in ISO sensitivity, but with the FE-340 the 3200 setting actually makes images that are almost useable. Usually the noise associated with high ISO is disastrous, but Olympus has finally figured out a logarithm that offers smoother rendering of the image without too much unsightly mosaicing. It still should only be used as a last resort, since images taken with this setting will only print without noticeable imperfections to 6×4.
Bigger, better movies
Olympus has struggled with video on most of its models, largely due to the inadequacies of the xD card, which can’t handle large doses of data at frantic rates. The company is trying to remedy this with yet another card with faster transfer rates, but we’ll have to wait and see how successful it is. This camera has a 640×480 30fps VGA movie setting that delivers smooth motion pictures, but for the limited time of 10 seconds. Slip the setting back to the 320×240 QVGA setting and you’ll fill a card with YouTube-quality video.
The beauty of this little camera is the ease of use, a simple control dial and a great range of scene modes. These little pictorial scenes also come with an explanation of what they will do. If all else fails you can even use the guide that gives a series of picture ideas and hints, then directs you to the right setting. It will also shoot as close as 50mm in the Super Macro mode or 100mm in the standard macro setting, so every shooting situation from distant images to close-ups is covered.
The FE-340 has a superb screen and a very useful 5x optical zoom range. Marry this with the eight-million-pixel sensor and you have a starter camera to be proud of. The disappointment would have to be the xD card and its inability to record a decent amount of high-resolution video. The useful scene modes and easy-to-use control dial make operating this model a breeze. For most of us the quality of the images this little Olympus produces will be excuse enough to buy it.
Effective Pixels: Eight Million
Lens: 5x optical 6.3-31.5mm (36-180mm in 35mm terms)
Over at the input side of photography, engineers push ever onward to offer higher megapixel counts; while on the output side, printer boffins seem to be equally eager to increase the number of ink cartridges.
Three ink cartridges used to be enough. Then we went to four. Soon we had six, then eight colours became common on consumer-level printers. Now Canon’s PIXMA Pro 9500 offers no fewer than 10 14ml pigment-ink cartridges. The idea is to help produce better prints, just as the megapixel arms race helps enhance the quality of image capture.
The 9500’s manifest comprises cyan, magenta, yellow, photo cyan, photo magenta, red, green, matte black, photo black and grey, the last three suggesting that this might also be a competent monochrome printer. It’s capable of a maximum resolution of 4800x2400dpi using a three-picolitre droplet size.
Canon engineered the $1365 Pro 9500 robustly and its build quality is high. It sits lower than some competitors, but requires a reasonably large bench area when set up for work ” about 70cm wide and 80cm deep. This is because the paper goes in at the back and comes out the front and larger sizes need pull-out supports. In addition to sheets of up to A3+ and 2mm thick, it prints on suitable CDs and DVDs in a special tray.
Setup was straight, clean and simple, although I found myself cursing Canon for not including a USB cable in the box. Also missing is a comprehensive printed manual; it’s all on screen.
The Pro 9500 will print directly from a digital camera via PictBridge and a USB cable that plugs into the printer’s front panel.
When evaluating a printer, I like to start with A4 glossy paper and move on from there. The first prints on Canon paper using Canon ink and the appropriate Canon profiles ” with colour management by Photoshop CS3 ” oozed ¨˜wow’ factor.
It was the richness of the colours rather than just being contrasty that made these prints stand out. This was evident in a Hong Kong street scene, a small part of which showed a sheet of plastic wrap in a rubbish bin. The gradation from light grey to white in the plastic was outstanding.
Moving to monochrome, the Pro 9500 gave the stellar performance hinted at by the contents of its ink cradle. It was particularly good on glossy paper; I needed to make small tweaks to get a little more punch from matte and flat specialty media.
Canon generously supplied a range of its Fine Art papers to try. These were Premium Matte, Photo Rag and Museum Etching. I wasn’t able to warm to the Rag ” others probably will. However, I have nothing but praise for Premium Matte and Museum Etching. The latter is a thick, luxurious paper that’s a pleasure to handle and print on. It will enhance almost any type of image.
The Pro 9500 is a particularly quiet printer, though not the fastest on the block. It’s feature-rich, easy to use as produces gorgeous prints in colour or black and white.
Here’s a printer that showed huge potential, went astray, then proceeded to redeem itself.
Out of the box, the $1499 Hewlett-Packard B9180 seemed promising. A good-looking unit, its footprint is smaller than some rivals. The eight Vivera inks load easily in a compartment on the left side and the cartridges hold a reasonable 27ml, so you won’t be changing them quite as often when doing lots of big prints.
The inks are photo black, matte black, light grey, cyan, magenta, yellow, light magenta and light cyan.
The box includes an easily followed installation and start-up guide and a helpful 70-page printed manual. Installing the inks and four replaceable printing heads was easy. But then it started going bad.
The setup software wouldn’t recognise my copy of Photoshop CS3, so a potentially useful Photosmart Pro print plug-in couldn’t be installed. However, an updated version of the software was downloaded and all was fine.
After going through its closed-loop self calibration procedure and asked to print, the B9180 repeatedly warned that no paper was loaded, causing it to stall, even though its mechanism was picking up the sheets.
After triple checking everything and turning the unit and computer on and off several times, I turned the printer off and let it sit for half an hour. This must have reset something because it finally acknowledged the presence of paper.
Then the next gremlin struck. The printer kept reporting that the light cyan ink cartridge was faulty. This was temporarily remedied by removing and shaking it vigorously, then re-installing. It might then work for another print, maybe not, but it was chewing through paper and becoming annoying. Eventually, light cyan decided to settle down and it was time to see what the printer could do.
As if apologising for the glitches, the HP turned out print after print of outstanding quality; rich, pleasing colours with eye-stopping blacks and impeccable detail.
But there’s more. HP has a reputation for making printers that do good black and white prints, a stumbling block for some consumer-level products. True to reputation, the B9180 gave me some of the best monochromes I’ve made on a printer. Who’d mess around in a wet darkroom when you can get excellent results in the office?
No matter what type of paper fed to the printer, the results were impressive. If monochrome tickles your digital fancy, the B9180 is worth having just for that purpose alone.
I really liked the HP Photosmart Studio program that makes organising and printing photos about as easy as it can be. But most of the prints were made from Photoshop using the profile for the particular Hewlett-Packard paper, and letting Photoshop do the colour management.
Despite the early glitches, I’d be really happy to have a B9180.
Don’t forget, you can always improve your printer’s ink management skills by using ink-saving software like PretonSaver over here.
Epson’s Stylus Photo R1900 brings to the party a set of new pigment-based UltraChrome Hi-Gloss2 inks that includes an orange cartridge to help deal better with skin tones. There’s also a gloss optimiser cartridge that sprays a clear overcoat on top of glossy paper to enhance the appearance that users of that medium favour.
This newest member of the Stylus Photo range is no shrinking violet. With input and output trays extended, the $1299 printer measures 60 x 41 x 78cm, so it needs a good workspace, especially as Epson suggests you put it at least 100mm from the wall when using longer papers.
Within that generous footprint lies a versatile machine. It can print on a wide range of paper types and sizes, either sheet-fed or on a roll; it can print directly onto suitable CDs and DVDs; it’ll print web pages; print from a scanner or directly from a digital camera that has PictBridge or USB Direct-Print.
Setting up was so simple I kept thinking I’d missed a step. But no, 20 minutes after pulling the big boy from its box, I was ready to push the button. It wasn’t supposed to be quite that quick. I had scoured the box for an instruction manual but there wasn’t anything beyond a fold-out setup guide.
Epson puts all its user information on a CD, and very clear it is to. But I miss a printed manual, which can be quicker and easier to use ” and I was going to read it in bed that night to become a total expert before committing the first sheet of that big A3 paper. Printing the 59-page guide is always an option.
Whole books (and a good part of the Epson guide) have been written on colour management; it can be a huge and involved subject, but I wanted none of it. I get frustrated by the minutiae of colour profiles and related matters; I want a printer that gives the best possible result with the least fuss ” in other words, instant gratification.
So I was delighted when the first print rolled out of the printer about 80 seconds after pushing the button. I had printed a TIFF from Photoshop exactly as it sat on the computer, except for assigning Epson’s glossy paper profile, letting Photoshop do the colour management.
The colours and contrast in the print were spot on, but overall the print was a little light. I tweaked the levels, tried again and got a print worth framing. It pays to take your time to save wasting paper and ink.
Some colours sometimes seem hard for inkjets to render well (blues and purples for example), but the R1900 with its new inks and a wide colour gamut took them in its stride.
Epson provided three types of its paper to try: Premium Semigloss, Premium Glossy, and Acid-Free Cotton Rag Velvet Fine Art in A3+. Each has its place but working with the thick (260g/m2) and luxurious Velvet was a tactile as well as visual treat. The prints were lovely, even though the R1900 is said to be optimised for glossy paper.
The simplest way to print is straight from a suitable camera via a USB port on the front. Epson makes the process simple and intuitive and I mostly couldn’t fault the quality of the prints that it sucked from the JPEGs in my dSLR.
Canon has taken the idea of a medium range 6x optical zoom, added an image stabiliser and given it a flourish with huge 12.1 million pixel sensor and articulated 2.5-inch screen with enough manual control to please any keen photographer
The A650’s build quality is faultless. Control switches and buttons are all positive in action with icons that are easy to decipher. The back of the camera is dominated by the swivelling 2.5-inch screen that folds out for viewing and away to protect the screen when not required.
If you shoot architecture or landscapes where vertical and horizontal lines need to be straight then the grid lines are a handy assistant. You can also get the camera to show you a 3:2 ratio ghosting so you know when you’ll crop heads off in a 6×4-inch print.
The A650IS runs on AA batteries. It comes with two Alkalines but you’ll want to invest in rechargeables if you plan to use this camera a lot. Power consumption isn’t huge thanks to the use of SD cards, and you can use the new SDHC models for more capacity.
Focus on this
Face detect works brilliantly, picking up your subjects effortlessly and tracking them across the screen. Focus isn’t restricted to fancy tricks: you have the choice of putting the focus point wherever you choose with flexi-zone or using the AiAF to let the camera choose where your subject is ” a task it ¨¨performs with alarming accuracy. If you like to get in close then you’ll fall in love with the macro, which will bring you to within 10mm.
The built-in flash will only keep up with the zoom range if you bump up the ISO. The range can be adjusted manually up to 1600 or you can get the camera to do it automatically in the ˜Hi’ setting. To cover the whole telephoto distance of the zoom will require you to delve into scene mode and choose the ISO3200 setting. This setting will happily give you flash coverage but at a price: the noise is horrendous.
It’s a camera that your mum could use out of the box or you could give it to a seasoned photographer who’d play with the manual controls. Canon has neglected to give the flash enough grunt to successfully keep up with the fantastic 6x optical zoom and people will want to use this great range.Relying on ISO range to give good images isn’t the answer. The swivelling screen is worth its weight , though, as you no longer have to lie on the ground to get macro shots or blindly hold your camera above the head of some big goon in front of you at the rugby.
Nikon has gone supernova with the new D300, producing a camera that incorporates all the things we enjoy from competitors’ cameras but making this model better than anything else on the market today
Nikon’s latest dSLR uses a CMOS sensor ” like Canon ” instead of the CCDs used in the past. This alone is a turning point for Nikon. But the company has gone further than the competition with the D300 including a 3-inch screen with VGA quality (920,000 pixels) that is light years ahead of anyone else.
The 51-point focus system is superior thanks to the EXPEED processing motor and advanced 3D Matrix Metering II system with scene recognition. This results in an advanced focusing system that will recognise a moving subject by colour and notice faces in a scene.
Nikon users who have relied on the matrix metering of the past will happily switch to the 3D function as it works so well. There is still the option to select for yourself if you want to choose the focus point.
Live and let Live
Nikon has taken the Live View function that step further, giving you the choice of ˜Handheld’ or ˜Tripod’ options. In ˜Handheld’ it suffers the same frustrations as every other camera with Live View in that it has to lower the mirror to focus, but use the ˜Tripod’ setting and suddenly Live View almost seems a viable option.
Here you can move the focus point to wherever you want it on the screen, and when you get the camera to focus it uses contrast like a compact to focus. However, to get the camera to focus you must press the AF-ON button. It’s not as frustrating as having the mirror lower but it is still slower than using the viewfinder and pressing the shutter release.
Know your place
Nikon introduced GPS support on the D2x and this has filtered down to the D300. Plug in your Garmin GPS and each time you take a picture the longitude and latitude information is added to the EXIF data the camera gathers.
It also has a built-in intervalometer so you can set the camera to take a picture every two minutes or two hours. Combine this with the WT-4 wireless transmitter and you can join a network and send images to any computer on that network or control the camera remotely. You’ll need an MB-D10 battery pack too, but this gives you the joy of a second battery (EN-EL3e).
The built-in flash is useful and with a little ISO fiddling you can happily extend its range (the D300 can go as high as ISO3200 and extend to 6400) but an SB-600 or ultimately a SB800 will offer better images at lower ISO. Balancing daylight and flash is automatic with Nikon’s 3D Matrix Metering II system.
The Nikon D300 is a tool any keen Nikon user will happily embrace but it also has wide appeal. Anyone passionate about photography will love the 3-inch VGA screen complete with protective cover and impressive battery life. The Live View function with handheld or tripod options as well as the ability to focus by contrast is amazing, although slower than just picking up the camera and shooting. It does come at a price but the D300 is a workhorse that will happily provide years of service.
Effective Pixels: 12.3 million
Lens: AF-S Nikkor 17-55mm f2.8G ED
Viewfinder: SLR-type with fixed eye-level pentaprism, built-in diopter adjustment (-2.0 to +1.0 m-
When it comes to dSLR innovation, Olympus has led the field, introducing sensor cleaning and live view functions well ahead of the opposition. Now the company has released the E-3, a professional camera that is so easy to use it’s a crime
Sometimes when you receive a camera you ¨wish all the accessories had come with it too. ¨But when the Olympus E-3 arrived at my place it was like being an eight-year-old stepping into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. HE Perry, the New Zealand importer, sent it with the HLD-4 power battery holder and vertical grip plus the cool wireless flash FL-50R. They might look ¨like toys, but these two devices should be mandatory equipment.
This 10 million pixel 4/3 model is a handful in the true sense of a pro camera. It’s weighty and big and has buttons and dials, but it is the turning screen and image stabiliser that will woo you. ¨The motor drive will rattle off images at a slick 5fps up to 16 RAW files or the capacity of the ¨card in normal JPEG setting using a SanDisk Extreme III card.
If you aren’t happy with just one card slot then you have another reason to use the E-3: it has an xD card slot too.
Live View is easily accessible. No turning dials or searching menus, just a press of the screen button below the multi-angle LCD and you’re there. Olympus would like you to believe that its Live View is faster than the others but it is still a slow option compared with using the 100 per cent viewfinder.
Lens quality is stunning and the 12-60mm lens (24-120mm in 35mm terms) I was supplied with was beautiful to use. Olympus uses a Supersonic wave drive that helps the lens focus quickly but I experienced hunting in low light, even when using the big FL-50R flash with infrared focus illuminator that helps the camera focus in low light.
The E-3 is a fantastic camera to use; for once a manufacturer has made a camera where the LCD screen can be swivelled back out of the way so you can use the camera in its purest form, looking through the viewfinder.
Thankfully this articulated screen can be positioned anywhere, so no more lying on the ground or poking your head round a corner when under fire in hotspots like Kosovo or Kenya.
Olympus has surpassed itself with technology that modern photographers crave. An innovative dust reduction system, image stabiliser that moves the sensor so all lenses are in effect stabilised, and wireless flash that transforms flash images even when you use the built-in flash in conjunction with a gun like the FL-50R.
The size is big and lumpy and you will want to buy the battery booster so you have a comfortable vertical grip. But big is beautiful, and the E-3 is a big camera in anyone’s eyes.
Sony may have lost the war of personal music players, ¨but the company is more than happy to jump into the battle for ¨digital SLR supremacy with both barrels pumping. Sony’s ¨latest offering is the entry-level 10 megapixel Alpha 200
First impressions of this model are extremely positive. The body is small but has a large grip that makes it comfortable to hold, and the controls are clearly marked and visually accessible. The large 2.7-inch LCD has 230,000 pixels and the added size makes viewing images a delight.
In true Sony style the information on the screen not only gives you exposure information and how many pictures you have left, it also gives you a battery indicator that shows the percentage of power left, not just a series of bars. The big Lithium-ion battery produces bags of power and will happily fill a card or two before it needs recharging.
Image stabilisation can be turned on and off with a switch below the navigation control on the back of the camera. A standard function on Sony dSLRs, the Super Steady Shot stabiliser adjusts the CCD to compensate for movement you make. This means any lens you fit to the body ” no matter if you have the latest Sony lenses or one of the many Minolta AF lenses from the past ” the image is stabilised.
Sony has included an anti-dust system on this model to deter pesky particles from clinging to your sensor. You’ll feel a vibration when you turn the camera off and it performs its little cleaning chore.
Hits and misses
Sony adopted Minolta’s flash mount ” a mistake ” that requires you to buy a genuine Sony flash. It’s not a big issue as you’ll get the best results from this combination, but it is a minor handicap as you have very little choice.
If you’re a die-hard Sony user and you have Memory Stick Duo cards that you want to use then there is an adapter that will allow you to slip them into the CF card slot.
The processing motor is Sony’s Bionz unit, which offers increased speed of processing and rich colour and detail. A function that is also available is the D-Range Optimizer that gives increased dynamic range with Standard or Advanced options. The camera will shoot either JPEG or RAW files and comes with rudimentary software for processing the later.
The Sony A200 is a 10 megapixel entry-level dSLR camera that is offered at a price mark not that far above $1000. It takes great pictures and responds quickly for a starter camera. Thankfully, Sony has included a sensor cleaning system and the impressive Super Steady Shot image stabiliser. Those who still own Minolta lenses will appreciate the opportunity to be able to jump on the dSLR bandwagon.