Last August, I wrote about picture quality finally winning against macho marketing. In other words, it seemed Canon, Nikon and Sony were giving up the simplistic escalation: my camera has more pixels than yours, therefore it is better. In the P&S (Point & Shoot) category especially, the facts were that more pixels ended up producing mediocre pictures.

P&S cameras are the smaller (not necessarily simpler…) models you carry in your pocket and purse, as opposed to “superzooms”, bigger lenses with a wider range of focal length, or DSLR, bigger, heavier but also better, more flexible.
As discussed earlier, a look at DP Review’s excellent camera database will make the problem clearer: pixel density per cm² varies from 1.4 million, for high-end DSLRs, to 43 million for some P&S models. The smaller the pixel, the less photons received. The less photons per pixel, the less electrons they convert to in the sensor. This makes it harder to separate the “good” (picture) electrons from the “bad” (circuitry noise) ones. Everything else being equal, the result is higher pixel density means higher picture noise, that is worse picture quality, especially in low light when fewer photons fall on each sensor pixel.
(DP Review, arguably one of the 3 to 5 best photo sites on the Net, is now owned by Amazon. IMHO a smart move considering Amazon’s general reliance on user reviews to help its customers make good choices and, as a result, come back, and come back…)

So, I went out and bought one of the two cameras (Sony DSC-WX1 and Canon S90)mentioned in the August piece, the S90. Why this one? Because I could buy it locally while Amazon didn’t sell it directly, only through a third-party merchant. I pay a little more in Palo Alto, but I can walk in the store on a Sunday afternoon and get my “luser” questions answered. This saved me a great deal of time and money when I bought a Nikon D3: it mysteriously stopped displaying pictures when I moved the camera, such as in turning it towards the person standing next to me. Keeble and Schuchat features a real service department — and an amazing collection of “classics”, not limited to Leicas, unfortunately not for sale. They take the camera back, send it to Nikon. NTF, No Trouble Found. I retrieve it, the trouble starts again, demonstrated on the spot. No problem, they exchange the camera. Same problem, right in the store. All hands on deck, manual pages feverishly flipped. No solution, no explanation. I move my hand, the picture still disappears.
Finally, the most experienced sales person, who kept himself a little apart from the throng, grabs the camera and points to the source of the trouble, easily fixed.

See green circle pointing to the shutter button at the bottom right of the picture below?

This is the secondary shutter button you can use when holding the camera vertically, in “portrait” mode. Now, turn to the white dot, this is the lock/unlock indicator. When the two white dots are aligned, the button is unlocked and triggers the shutter. You turn the ring around the button, blue arrow, to lock it, to inactivate the shutter button.
We now come to the “luser” error: on most DSLRs, when you start pressing the shutter button, the display deactivates because you’re about to shoot the next picture, your face is already against the back of the camera as you peer, sorry, you compose through the viewfinder. If only I’d been left-handed… But, as I hold the camera in my right hand, the hell of said hand is dangerously close to the secondary shutter button. When I turn my hand to the right to show someone their picture just taken, I unwittingly do a pre-shoot press of the secondary shutter button, the picture goes away, the camera is “buggy”.
Unless, of course, I meet an experienced salesperson who shows how to lock the secondary shutter button…

Imagine trying to solve that problem by returning the camera to my good friends at Amazon, to say nothing of less customer-friendly e-tailers.

So, Keeble and Schuchat calls me, they got their first shipment of S90s.

In my case, I don’t like to use flash in “social photography” settings: dinners, meetings. Flash, unless you go high-end and indirect, is unflattering to people, ask your women friends. Put another way, better sensors mean more places and times where/when you can turn the flash off.

I’ll spare you more pictures here, I’ll just add it does a great job on California’s Route 1 and Big Sur as well, capturing delicate morning haze nuances.

As you can guess, I’m happy with my latest pocketable camera, a nice alternative to the big Nikon anvils. Other customers seem content as well, see the Amazon reviews.
One more thing, all picture have been taken in “
executive idiot mode”, the green setting, with one nuance: Flash Off.

Before we go…

The high-ISO (high performance in low light) race could be replacing the high-megapixel wars of yore. See the newest Nikon D3S. This announced but still not available camera “sports” a high-ISO setting reaching 102,400. See Rob Galbraith’s review here. In particular, compare the 102,400 ISO picture, usable but not much more, to the 6,400 ISO shot, nice. I don’t know if Keeble & Schuchat will give me a good trade, but this new Nikon and its Canon competitor are looking real products, as opposed to markitecture.

Actually, I’m not gone yet.

JLG@mondaynote.com

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