The IMAGING RESOURCE DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY
NEWSLETTER


Volume 5, Number 15 25 July 2003

Copyright 2003, The Imaging Resource. All rights reserved.

Welcome to the 102nd edition of the Imaging Resource Newsletter. News editor Michael Tomkins sizes up Nikon's new D2H against the Canon EOS-1D. And Dave takes a look at Pentax's 5-Mp digicam, which makes yet another point about the state of the art. Our regular features return next issue.


TOPICS

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Are you in the digital photo business? This newsletter is read by approximately 55,000 combined direct and pass-along subscribers, all with a passion for digital photography. For information on how you can reach them, contact us at editor@imaging-resource.com.

Feature: Nikon Unveils Long-Rumored D2H dSLR

By Michael R. Tomkins

(Excerpted from the full coverage at http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/D2H/D2HB.HTM on the Web site.)

Nikon last announced a professional-level digital SLR camera in February 2001. That changed this week with the introduction of a new model aimed squarely at Canon's EOS-1D.

Canon announced the EOS-1D on Sept. 25, 2001, a little over six months after Nikon's D1x and D1H cameras were introduced. The EOS-1D raised the bar. With an effective resolution of 4.15 megapixels, a burst-rate of eight frames per second up to 21 JPEG or 16 RAW frames, 45-point TTL-AREA-SIR focusing and a body with weather seals to keep out dust and moisture, Nikon's closest model noticeably lagged behind in several areas.

During the last year or so, we've seen recurrent rumors of a new camera from Nikon. And this week, the company unveiled the camera that will replace half of its existing professional digital SLR lineup. The Nikon D2H, as the name suggests, is a successor to the existing D1H.

SENSOR BY NIKON

Perhaps the most important part of any digital camera is its image sensor and the Nikon D2H's imager marks a departure for the company. Past Nikon digital SLRs have, to the best of our knowledge, been based on third-party image sensors -- a different approach from Canon, which has been designing its sensors in-house right from the beginning. (Canon's digital SLRs have mostly used CMOS imagers, although the EOS-1D was CCD-based).

The Nikon D2H is Nikon's first camera to be based on a sensor designed in-house. It's unlike those in past Nikon cameras, which have used standard CCD image sensors. The D2H sensor is based on a new "Junction Field Effect Transistor" image sensor and a new technology called "Lateral Buried Charge Accumulator and Sensing Transistor Array."

The resolution of the D2H sensor is 4.26 megapixels (2484x1636 pixels), of which 4.1 megapixels (2464x1632 pixels) are effective in the final image -- an almost identical number to the EOS-1D. A high signal-to-noise ratio, says Nikon, gives a maximum ISO rating of 1600, matching the default on the EOS-1D. The maximum ISO of 1600 can be boosted two stops to 6400, beating the EOS-1D's maximum of ISO 3200 but the D2H's minimum ISO is 200 rather than the EOS-1D's ISO 100. Nikon claims the new LBCAST sensor will offer more accurate and consistent color, as well as visibly better edge definition (partly due to the sensor design and partly the algorithms used to process images). A new ASIC design is claimed to reduce color artifacts and "jaggies" on oblique lines.

Burst speeds are extremely good. Nikon rates them at eight frames per second, the same speed as the EOS-1D, but with a significantly larger burst depth, presumably due to more buffer memory. Where the EOS-1D has a burst depth of 21 JPEG or 16 RAW frames, the D2H pretty much doubles this to an impressive 40 JPEG or 25 RAW frames before it must write images to your flash card. Nikon says the D2H's frame rate of 8-fps will remain consistent regardless of what combination of focus points is selected or when using older non-CPU based Nikkor lenses.

Nikon selected an imager size of 23.3x15.5mm, what the company refers to as "DX format." Like previous Nikon digital SLRs, this yields a focal-length multiplier of 1.5x. The imagers in the EOS-1D and EOS-1Ds are larger, which allows wider-angle photos and has the potential to decrease image noise, since more light hits the sensor. That Nikon has settled on a specific sensor size, though, means that photographers can use any of their professional digital SLRs and the lenses should behave the same. If you primarily use telephoto focal lengths, you might also appreciate the stronger focal-length multiplier, since it allows the same effective focal lengths with a smaller, lighter and less expensive lens.

LENSES

Lens compatibility is still somewhat of a bugbear for Nikon users compared to Canon users, although to be fair this may be because the company still supports lenses that are much older. A digital EOS user can expect to pick up and use any of the Canon EOS lenses produced since the EOS line was introduced in 1987. The same is true for many of Nikon's AF Nikkor lenses, including the AF-S, DX, VR and D-/G-type, but there are a range of provisos for certain lenses as to which camera functions are possible.

AUTOFOCUS

Another improvement over past Nikon pro digital SLRs is the new autofocus sensor. A Nikon Multi-CAM2000 autofocus module -- newly designed for the D2H -- offers 11 focus sensors, of which nine are cross-type sensors. The Multi-CAM2000 functions from EV -1 to +19 (ISO 100 equivalent, at normal temperature). This is a phase detection sensor, which doesn't "scan" if the lens is way out of focus, but rather knows which direction it must go to achieve proper focus and goes directly to the correct focus position.

This is pretty important. With most cameras, if the lens is focused on a very close object and then switched to infinity, it will frequently scan across the entire focusing range, moving all the way to closest focus, then out toward infinity before finding the correct focus setting. This can take quite a while, resulting in lost pictures.

According to Nikon, a typical camera can detect focus "up to a certain 'defocus' limit," before it begins scanning through its entire focusing range. "The D2H's autofocus system can detect focus in scenes with about twice the defocus limit of other cameras," the company claims.

It's worth noting the EOS-1D has a TTL-AREA-SIR phase detection autofocus sensor with 45 focusing points -- so on paper it might appear Canon still has the advantage here. Nikon makes the point that having so many AF sensors is only going to slow down your AF processing, with little real benefit in terms of frame coverage. Also, 9 out of the 11 sensors are cross-type, where only 7 of Canon's 45 sensors are cross-type. Doubtless at the end of the day, both focusing systems are extremely sophisticated.

Certainly, Nikon rates the D2H's focusing system as very fast indeed. The company says the D2H has a 37ms shutter lag, which it says is the shortest in the industry and comparable to the Nikon F5 film SLR. Incidentally, the mirror blackout time is rated at just 83ms. (By comparison, the EOS-1D has a 55ms shutter lag and an 87ms mirror blackout.)

The 11 AF sensors are laid out with 9 cross-sensors, consistent with the "rule of thirds," and two sensors asre placed at the horizontal ends of the frame. This gives a total coverage of over 75 percent horizontally, which Nikon says is the widest cross-type sensor coverage in its class. AF Nikkor lenses with f5.6 or larger minimum apertures will give uniform sensitivity across all the AF sensors. AF sensors can be selected individually, combined into groups by the photographer or used all at once. The D2H offers an enhanced Dynamic AF function, which automatically shifts from one focus area to another to keep track of moving subjects. It also has a new Group Dynamic AF detection option, which we're presuming will operate as the Dynamic AF function but only within the enabled sensor group, as well as the company's trademarked "Focus Tracking with Lock-On" feature which holds focus on subjects momentarily blocked or out of the AF sensing area altogether. The shutter used in the D2H is an F5-level unit tested to a 150,000-cycle lifetime.

FAST START-UP

Focusing is not the only area in which Nikon has considered the importance of speed. An extremely unusual idea allows the camera to be ready to capture photos almost instantly after it is turned on. Digital cameras, at their heart, are computers -- and anybody with a computer will doubtless be aware of the "POST," or "Power-On Self-Test." This test is where the camera checks its various systems, lens, etc. and confirms that they are all working correctly -- a process that takes a certain amount of time. With most cameras, the POST test must be run each time they are turned on -- before they can take a picture. The D2H defers the POST test until the camera has some spare time in which to complete it.

This might sound illogical at first, but when you consider it, it actually makes sense. What's the worst that can happen if you turn your camera on and there's a fault with it? It fails to take the photo or takes it but fails to write it to the CompactFlash card. Well, if you have to wait for the camera to start up, you're going to fail to get that photo anyway -- so why force the photographer to wait even if the camera is working perfectly? By allowing a little flexibility, the POST test is still performed shortly after the camera is started, but the photographer is less likely to miss an unexpected photo opportunity.

IMAGE DUST OFF

Another interesting addition to the D2H -- which users of the D1H, D1x and D100 will also be able to benefit from -- is an "Image Dust Off" feature which works in concert with the included Nikon Capture 4 software. The D2H has a setting for capturing a "dust image" showing the location and size of dust specks on the image sensor. Nikon Capture 4 will then be able to automatically identify and remove dust from your images, using the stored "dust image."

WHITE BALANCE

The Nikon D2H also gets an all-new hybrid white balance system that incorporates input from three different sources. First, the image sensor itself is used to measure color temperature during the exposure and this is combined with an incident meter similar to that in the EOS-1D, although Nikon situates it centrally on top of the camera's prism. A third source is a 1,005-pixel RGB color meter sensor inside the camera.

Between the three sources, camera algorithms determine the white balance to be used in the photo. Nikon says that the white balance system has a range of 2,500 to 10,000 Kelvin and can both detect and compensate for artificial light flicker such as that caused by fluorescent lighting. Five custom white balance settings can be stored in the camera and alphanumerically named, allowing the photographer to quickly select a white balance setting for frequently encountered situations. White balance settings can also be extracted from a picture stored in the camera -- and not only that measured from a gray card, but literally any picture.

The D2H has a built-in, 2.5-inch diagonal screen with an anti-scratch surface, which Nikon says is 50 percent larger than previous models. By comparison, the EOS-1D has a 2.0-inch LCD display. The user interface has been overhauled with larger, clearer fonts and a new 8-way multi-selector control that allows diagonal panning over images. The D2H can also detect its orientation and label images as landscape or portrait for automatic rotation in Nikon View.

The Nikon D2H stores images on CompactFlash cards of either Type-I or Type-II, including Microdrives. It complies with Lexar's "Write Acceleration" technology. Audio clips up to 60 seconds can be stored as annotations with each picture and can be recorded before, during or after the exposure. Files can be saved as NEF Raw, RGB TIFF, JPEG or both NEF and JPEG simultaneously.

USB & WI-FI

Connectivity is via USB 2.0, which is potentially faster than the IEEE-1394 FireWire used in the EOS-1D. That said, both have advantages and disadvantages; you're probably more likely to find a USB 2.0 port than a FireWire port on a newer computer. USB 2.0 is also backward-compatible with USB 1.1. On the downside, USB 2.0 relies heavily on the host computer's processor for its speed whereas FireWire relies on a processor in the card. This means that if your PC is fast and not being used for anything else, USB 2.0 should also be nice and fast -- but if your computer is slow or is busy on a CPU-intensive task like processing RAW files whilst you're transferring images, FireWire would probably be as fast, if not faster. The D2H can be controlled remotely by Nikon Capture 4 using the USB 2.0 connection.

Interestingly, the D2H also transmits using 802.11b wireless LAN technology courtesy of an optional bolt-on pack that attaches to the camera's tripod socket and connects to the camera via a USB 2.0 cable. The pack draws its power from the camera's battery, with normal usage shortening battery life by 20 percent. As with the camera itself, the wireless LAN pack has a magnesium chassis and water-resistant connectors. With the supplied one-inch antenna, the setup has a wireless range of 30 meters; an optional longer antenna extends this to 150 meters. A wide range of setups is possible. The camera can be set so that images are stored on the CompactFlash card before transmission, so that even if it is unsuccessfully transferred, the original image isn't lost. The system confirms successful transfer, allowing images to be deleted and free up card space. RAW, JPEG or WAV files can be transferred, as can entire folders or groups of files. Sending can be automatic, delayed or completely manual. The camera can also be set to save both NEF and JPEG images, then transmit only one -- for example allowing JPEG images to be transmitted immediately and NEF files saved as "digital negatives."

Configuration information can be saved on a CompactFlash card as a text file and then loaded into multiple cameras to quickly set them all up for wireless LAN access. Transfer is via FTP and the standard methods of security for 802.11b LANs are available -- ESS ID validation, MAC address linking and WEP encryption (we're not currently aware what encryption level the WEP uses). Thirteen channels are available for the 802.11b transceiver (to avoid interference with other devices such as microwaves, 2.4GHz phone systems, etc. that use the same frequencies as 802.11b).

The Nikon D2H draws power from a new Lithium Ion battery system that indicates remaining battery life as a percentage in five percent increments, while a meter indicates the number of pictures that can be taken on a single charge. Overall battery life is also indicated in five stages, letting you know when to dispose of one that will no longer properly hold a charge. Nikon says the new batteries are lighter, have a reduced memory effect and provide improved performance in cold weather.

The camera will make its first appearance late next month at the Ninth annual IAAF World Championships in Paris. It will be publicly available in the last quarter of this year. Pricing was not announced in the press materials but is expected to be about $3,500.

Return to Topics.

Feature: Pentax Optio 550 -- Top of the Line

By DAVE ETCHELLS
(Excerpted from the full review posted at http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/O550/O55A.HTM on the Web site.)

INTRODUCTION

Early on, Pentax co-developed several cameras with Hewlett Packard, but have since stepped out on their own, making a niche for themselves with well-designed, stylish compact models. Their latest addition, the Optio 550 extends the high end of the line, with a 5.0-megapixel CCD and 5x zoom lens, in addition to a very well-rounded feature set.

CAMERA OVERVIEW

Compact if just slightly more bulky in appearance than the rest of the Optio line, the $599 Pentax Optio 550 features a rugged, metal body that can withstand a lot of wear and tear. Boasting a 5.0-megapixel CCD and 5x SMC Pentax lens, the 550 is a capable digicam with a very nice selection of features. Control layout is similar to other Optio models, though the 550 model is slightly larger than the more portable 430 RS. At 3.9x2.3x1.6 inches and 8.8 ounces with the battery and memory card, the Optio 550 is a bit large and heavy for most shirt pockets. As with the preceding Optio models, the 550's compact design includes a built-in, shutter-like lens cover, which opens when the lens telescopes out. At 5.0 megapixels, the 550's CCD produces high resolution, print quality images, with options for lower resolution, email-friendly images as well.

The Optio 550 sports a 5x, 7.8-39mm SMC Pentax lens, equivalent to a 37.5-187.5mm lens on a 35mm camera. The "SMC" in the lens name stands for Super Multi Coating, Pentax's name for their advanced lens coating process. From past experience in the film world, I've observed that Pentax's SMC lenses did indeed have very good flare and contrast characteristics. Apertures range from f2.8 to f7.9, depending on the zoom setting and can be automatically or manually controlled. Focus ranges from 1.97 feet to infinity in normal shooting mode, with a Macro option covering from 6.0 inches to 1.6 feet. Super Macro mode lets you focus even closer, from 0.8 inches to 2.13 feet. Normal Macro mode is available throughout the zoom range, while Super Macro is only available with the lens set to its full wide-angle position.

The Optio 550 offers both manual and automatic focus control, with Spot and Wide AF modes. Spot AF mode bases focus on the very center of the frame or on one of five AF points around the center of the frame (selected via the Four Way Arrow pad). Wide AF mode judges focus from a larger area in the center of the frame. There's also an Infinity/Landscape fixed focus setting, particularly handy when shooting distant subjects at night, when there's not enough light for the camera to focus normally. In addition to the optical zoom, the Optio 550 offers up to 4x digital zoom, for an overall zoom capability of 20x. Using digital zoom decreases image quality, since it simply enlarges the center pixels of the CCD image.

You can choose between the real-image optical viewfinder or the 1.5-inch, color TFT LCD monitor to compose images. The LCD monitor offers an informative display in Record mode, reporting not only shutter speed and aperture settings, but also a wide range of basic exposure options. Additionally, the 550's LCD monitor features a grid display for aligning shots and a histogram display for checking exposure.

In my tests, the 550's optical viewfinder was a bit less accurate than average, showing between 77 and 81 percent of the final frame area, depending on the zoom position. By contrast, the LCD viewfinder is very close to 100 percent accurate. Kudos to Pentax for providing an optical viewfinder at all on a 5x-zoom camera. Many manufactures give up on optical viewfinders at this zoom level, resorting to electronic viewfinders instead. I personally prefer optical viewfinders, as they tend to give a much clearer view of the subject and are usable at light levels far lower than most EVFs. I'd still really like to see better optical viewfinder coverage than that offered by the 550. Most digicams have 85 percent viewfinders, which I still consider quite a bit too low -- 90 percent should really be considered the minimum. On a positive note, the 550's viewfinder has both a high eyepoint and a diopter adjustment control, making it particularly suited to use by eyeglass wearers.

Exposure can be manually or automatically controlled, a nice feature for novices wanting to learn more about photography. The 550 gives you the convenience of automatic exposure when you want it or full manual control when you'd like to experiment. An On/Off button on top of the camera controls the power and a Mode dial lets you select between Manual, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Program, Picture, Movie, Panorama Assist, 3D, Digital Filter, User and Audio modes. Most exposure options are controlled through the LCD's on-screen menu system, which offers very straightforward navigation. That said, you can control focus mode (Auto, Macro, Landscape or Manual), the self-timer, drive mode, exposure compensation and the flash mode externally, reducing the number of times you'll have to enter the menu system in the first place. In Manual exposure mode, the user controls aperture and shutter speed (from 1/4000 to eight seconds), in addition to all other exposure variables. Aperture and Shutter Priority modes give the user control over one variable, while the camera controls the other. Program mode keeps the camera in charge of the basic exposure, though the user maintains control over the rest of the available settings.

By default, the 550 uses a Multi-Segment metering system to determine exposure, which reads multiple points throughout the entire frame and considers both brightness and contrast in order to arrive at the correct exposure. Spot and Center-Weighted options are also available, handy for subjects either much brighter or much darker than their surroundings. Exposure Compensation is adjustable from -2 to +2 exposure equivalents in one-third-step increments. You can also adjust the camera's sensitivity setting, with ISO equivalents of 64, 100, 200 and 400, as well as an Auto setting. The camera's Auto Bracketing mode can bracket either exposure, white balance, saturation, sharpness or contrast --an impressive range of bracketing options. Auto Bracketing mode captures three images at different exposure settings (or any of the other values) and you can adjust the step size. The camera's White Balance setting features an Auto mode for average lighting conditions, but also offers Daylight, Shade, Tungsten, Warm Fluorescent, Neutral Fluorescent, Daylight Fluorescent and Manual options. The Optio 550's built-in flash is rated as effective from 1.31 to 17.1 feet with the lens at full wide-angle or from 0.5 to 10.5 feet at the telephoto setting. Available flash modes are Auto, Off, On, Auto with Red-Eye Reduction and On with Red-Eye Reduction. In my tests, I found the 550's flash tended to underexpose the images slightly at all distances, but held roughly the same level of brightness to about 12 feet.

In addition to the standard exposure modes, the Optio 550's Picture mode setting offers nine preset "scene" modes for shooting under unusual circumstances. Once in Picture mode, you can choose from Landscape, Night-Scene, Flower, Portrait, Surf & Snow, Autumn Colors, Sunset, Fireworks and Text settings. Each mode addresses a specific shooting situation and optimizes the camera for the best overall results.

Panorama Assist mode lets you capture panoramic images, in either horizontal or vertical directions. Guide arrows appear on the LCD display to help you line up shots and the accompanying software "stitches" images together into one panoramic frame on a computer.

The 550 also offers a 3D recording mode, which debuted on the Optio 230 model and has since appeared on several models in the Optio line. In 3D mode, the camera produces three-dimensional "stereo pairs" of images similar to old-fashioned stereographs. The camera guides you to capture two images of the same subject (one just slightly off-center from the other) and then combines them as a "stereo pair" in a single frame of image memory. A transparent display of the first image captured remains on the LCD monitor, so that you can keep everything aligned as you move the camera over slightly and capture the second image. (Very slick, this eliminates one of the biggest problems with handheld 3D stereo photography.) A pair of 3D viewing glasses comes with the 550 and works whether viewing 3D images in the "Parallel" or "Cross" formats. Parallel means you view the stereo photo with your eyes looking straight on, while Cross means that you cross your eyes to see the stereo effect. Most people seem to have an easier time with the Cross format, but the 550 supports either method.

The 550 also has a nice range of creative tools, including a Digital Filter mode, which offers nine filters for special effects. Color filters include Black and White, Sepia, Red, Pink, Violet, Blue, Green and Yellow, while a Soft filter softens the overall image. Image contrast, saturation and sharpness settings provide further creative options, with minus/normal/plus settings available for each parameter. The User setting on the Mode dial lets you save a complete set of exposure adjustments so that they can be quickly recalled at a moment's notice.

In Movie exposure mode, the camera captures moving images with sound for a maximum of 10 minutes per movie (depending on the amount of available memory card space). Movies are recorded at a resolution of 320x240 pixels. Taking advantage of the disparity between the 320x240 movie resolution and the 2592x1944 resolution of the CCD, the Optio 550 provides a generous range of digital zoom in movie mode. This is one case where there really isn't a downside to using digital zoom, since the final image represents a significant cropping of the CCD's pixel array anyway. Because the digital zoom doesn't use the lens motor, it's possible to zoom during movie recording without worrying about zoom motor noise intruding on the soundtrack. Most digicams with audio capability in their movie modes disable zooming during movie recording, for this very reason.

The Optio 550 also features an Audio recording mode, which records audio-only for as long as the SD memory card has available space. A 16-megabyte card can hold approximately 30 minutes of audio. The 550 also lets you record short audio clips to accompany captured images, like a voice caption. Fast Forward Movie mode records movies using a slower frame rate to capture lengthy periods of motion (such as clouds moving across the sky), with capture ratios (the amount the camera will appear to speed up the action) ranging from x2 to x100. Interval mode snaps from two to 99 successive photos at programmable intervals ranging from 10 seconds to 99 minutes. A Self-Timer mode provides a 10-second delay between pressing the Shutter button and the camera actually taking the picture, allowing you to get into your own shots. A remote control is available as an accessory, meaning you can take your time arranging the shot before tripping the shutter with the remote.

For shooting fast-action subjects, the Optio 550's Continuous Shooting mode captures a rapid series of images for as long as you hold down the Shutter button, much like a motor drive on a traditional 35mm camera. The space available on the memory card determines the maximum number of images the camera will capture in the series and details like resolution, shutter speed and the state of the camera's "buffer" memory determine the shooting interval. Finally, a Multiple Exposure mode lets you capture two images on top of each other, much like a double-exposure.

The Optio 550 stores images on SD/MMC memory cards and comes with a 16-megabyte SD starter card. I strongly recommend buying at least a 32- or 64-megabyte card at the same time as the camera, so you don't compromise any shots for lack of memory space. The camera uses a D-LI7 rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack for power and both a battery and external charger are included with the camera. Since the Optio 550 does not accommodate AA batteries (or any other form of commonly available battery), I also recommend buying an extra battery pack and keeping it freshly charged. The optional AC adapter might also be useful for preserving battery power when reviewing and downloading images, but I generally find that simply having a spare battery provides ample power capacity.

TEST RESULTS

For a full commentary on each of the test images, see the Optio 550's "pictures" page.

Color: The Optio 550's color was generally very good, producing pleasing results most of the time. All of the white balance settings typically produced very good results, with only very slight color casts. Colors were hue-accurate and appropriately saturated, neither too bright nor too dull. Skin tones were also very good and the camera's white balance system handled the very difficult household incandescent lighting of my Indoor Portrait test with aplomb. All in all, an excellent performance in the color department.

Exposure: While it performed well in my outdoor shooting (requiring only as much exposure compensation as other cameras I've tested), the Optio 550's exposure system tended to produce dim exposures indoors, especially in the studio shots. I typically boosted the exposure to either +0.3 or +0.7 to get a proper exposure in the studio, something that is quite unusual in my experience. Fortunately, the exposure compensation is very easy to set and the optional histogram overlay really helps judge if the exposure is set correctly. Still, I'd have preferred better exposure accuracy in the first place, from the camera's automatic system.

Resolution/Sharpness: The Optio 550 performed very well on the resolution test chart. It started showing artifacts in the test patterns at resolutions as low as 1,000 lines per picture height, in both horizontal and vertical directions. I found strong detail out to at least 1,200 lines. Extinction of the target patterns didn't occur until about 1,450 lines.

Close-Ups: In Super Macro mode, the 550 does indeed deliver "super" macro performance, with a tiny minimum area of only 1.04x1.38 inches (16x35mm). In normal macro mode, the minimum area is a slightly large 4.61x3.46 inches. Resolution was very high, with great detail in the dollar bill, coins and brooch. Details were also quite sharp, though with slight softness in the corners. Exposure was pretty good, though the corners of the frame were slightly dark. The Optio 550's flash had trouble throttling down for the macro area, overexposing the shot, and is completely unusable in Super Macro mode. Plan on using external illumination for close-in macro shots.

Night Shots: The Optio 550 has a maximum exposure time of eight seconds and a variable ISO setting, which serve the camera well in low-light shooting conditions. In my testing, the 550 produced clear, bright, usable images down to the 1/8 foot-candle (1.3 lux) light level, with good color at the 400 ISO setting. Though just slightly dim, you could arguably use the image taken at the 1/16 foot-candle, 0.67 lux, light level. Minimum usable light level closely tracked ISO all the way back to ISO 64, with which images were bright only as low as one foot-candle (11 lux). The 550's low-light Achilles' heel was autofocus performance though. It could only focus reliably down to just under one foot-candle (11 lux), as it has no AF-assist illuminator. Since average city street lighting at night equates to about one foot-candle, the Optio 550 will work well for city night scenes. It can bring back good-looking pictures from darker environments, but you'll need to plan on focusing manually in those situations. The Optio 550 does a good job managing image noise, too. There's no hot-pixel noise evident anyplace in these shots and while the noise level is generally higher than average, the grain pattern is very tight and uniform, making the noise that is present less objectionable than that from cameras with more open, blotchy noise patterns.

Viewfinder Accuracy: The Optio 550's optical viewfinder proved quite tight, showing about 77 percent of the final frame area at wide-angle and about 81 percent at telephoto. Also, my evaluation unit seemed to have had a slightly shifted CCD, as the images framed with the optical viewfinder were tilted toward the lower left corner. The LCD monitor was much more accurate, showing approximately 97 percent accuracy at wide-angle and about 99 percent at telephoto. Since I like LCD monitors to be as close to 100 percent accuracy as possible, the Optio 550's LCD monitor performed well here.

Optical Distortion: Optical distortion on the Optio 550 is about average at the wide-angle end, where I measured an approximate 0.54 percent barrel distortion. The telephoto end fared about the same, as I measured a 0.62 percent pincushion distortion. The barrel distortion figure is a bit lower than the 0.8 percent average I've found among cameras I've tested (which is too high), but the pincushion figure is a fair bit higher than average. On the other hand, the 550 does have a 5x zoom lens, making for a tougher optical design than the typical 3x lens. Chromatic aberration is very low, showing only relatively faint color on either side of the target lines.

Battery Life: The Optio 550's battery life is quite a bit better than average for a compact digicam, with a worst-case run time of a bit over two hours. I still highly recommend purchasing a second battery right along with the camera, but the 550 does indeed do better than most in this key category.

CONCLUSION

The Optio 550 well deserves its place at the top of the Pentax digicam lineup. With a 5-megapixel sensor and sharp 5x optical zoom lens (with an optical viewfinder as well), the 550 delivers sharp, high-resolution images with excellent color and tone. Battery life is also surprisingly good for a relatively compact digicam.

My minor complaints include somewhat higher than average image noise, an optical viewfinder that's a bit too "tight" (although I'm happy to find an optical VF at all on a digicam with a 5x zoom lens) and an exposure system that slightly underexposed shots indoors and in the studio. The viewfinder and exposure quirks aren't hard to compensate for and the image noise, while high, is much better behaved than that on most digicams I test, with a uniform, tight "grain pattern."

All in all, the 550 is a great little camera, with a surprising range of features and capabilities. If you're in the market for a compact 5-megapixel digicam, the Optio 550 deserves close attention. Definitely a "Dave's Pick."

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New on the Site

At http://www.imaging-resource.com/NEW1.HTM you can keep track of what's new on our main site. Among the highlights since the last issue:

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In the Forums

Visit the Imaging Resource discussion forums at http://www.photo-forums.com to find out what people are saying about the latest digicams, hard-to-find accessories, friendly suppliers, clever techniques, you name it! Recent hot topics include:

Continue the Canon EOS 10D discussion at http://www.photo-forums.com/WebX?14@@.ee92fbe/351

Follow the Batteries & Power Solutions thread at http://www.photo-forums.com/WebX?14@@.ee86c1d/155

Read the Olympus C-750 Ultra Zoom discussion at http://www.photo-forums.com/WebX?14@@.ee913a3/90

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Dave's Deals

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We Have Mail

You can email us at editor@imaging-resource.com. You can read our Letters policy at http://www.imaging-resource.com/IRNEWS in the FAQ.

RE: Copy Cat

Your article on copying photos handheld in the kitchen made me want to share a system I've developed.

I often take my digicam with me to parties and art exhibitions. To copy glass-framed pictures and oil paintings where they hang, I shoot them with in-camera flash from slightly to one side to avoid flash back. This distorts them slightly, but later back home, in Photoshop, I use Ctrl A, Edit, Transform, Skew and "pull" the skewed shape back to normal.

Flash means the copy is razor sharp, exposure correct and color correct. I use my zoom to avoid getting too close so that the fall-off in light between the near and far sides of the copied picture is inconsequential. I minimize skewing by holding the camera level with the mid-point of the copied picture, which prevents it from skewing in every direction, though it is bound to do so slightly anyway. Lastly, because I want to shoot as close as possible to perpendicular, I take two or three shots, each time shooting less and less from the side.

It's amazing what you can get away with; and the good results I get with this system often astound me. The in-camera flash in digital cameras is notoriously poor, but for copying as I have described, it's first rate.

-- Ron Light

(Bravo, Ron! -- Editor)

RE: A Hoax?

I regret to inform you that the AAA!000 address tip for preventing spam seems to be misinformation. I can't explain why it apparently worked for Ian, but here is the information on one "hoax" site:

http://antivirus.about.com/library/weekly/aa082801b.htm

-- Charles

(Sorry if we mislead anyone about that, but as we told Ian, if it ever did work, it isn't a reliable method. Although, you know, considering that it's all in upper case, it may be a special tag used by the Nigerian soccer team to block all those Nigerian email scams (http://www.potifos.com/fraud). -- Editor)

RE: Card Error

I have an Olympus C2100 camera and am getting a "card error" when inserting any card. Of course Olympus tech support's help was to clean the cards and when that didn't help they said, "Send it in for repair; minimum $294!"

-- Pat

(Take a look at our "The Mysterious Death of SmartMedia" in the Archive, Pat. You probably just need to reformat the cards -- but not in your computer. -- Editor)

I reviewed the story and it was very helpful.

I have a PNY multi-memory card reader so I went to their Web site and found a SmartMedia Format Utility (which does a low-level format). I reformatted all the cards and now my camera is able to read all of them (128-MB and 8-MB).

Thanks much for your help and saving me $$.

-- Pat

RE: Who's Counting?

What a milestone now on your second 100 newsletters, FANTASTIC. Just wanted you to know you helped me purchase three Olympus digicams including the E-10 that I love and am sticking with. Now if only I can find a wide-angle lens I don't have to pay an arm and a leg for. Also found through you a good rechargeable battery site and a lot of software. Keep it coming, we REALLY enjoy it.

-- John Sheckells

(Thanks, John! Hitting 100 reminds us of a certain song having to do with bottles. The moral of which was to pass it around <g>. -- Editor)
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Editor's Notes

Sony (http://www.sony.com) announced the RGB+E image sensor, a new design which it says reduces color reproduction errors by a factor of 50 percent compared to its conventional sensors. Read Michael Tomkins' analysis at http://www.imaging-resource.com/NEWS/1058329666.html with sample images.


The Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industries Association (http://tsc.jeita.or.jp) has published drafts for Exif v2.21 and DCF 2.0. Exif 2.21 adds a new gamma tag and changes the definition of the color space and flash tags. DCF 2.0 removes the specification that image data in DCF basic files assume playback using the sRGB color space.


Tim Hewett (http://www.coolatoola.com) has released DVD Backup 1.0.3 [M] that turns your digital camcorder into a tape backup system. Version 1.1, expected at the end of the month, will include scheduled, compressed, incremental and multi-tape backups.


Hi-Touch Imaging Technologies (http://www.hitouchimaging.com) has announced a deal with Fry's Electronics to carry its line of digital photo printers and consumables.


ACD Systems (http://acdsystems.com) has released FotoSlate 3.0 [W], a $39.99 photo printing program. The new version creates greeting cards, calendars and contact sheets, includes color management and features ACD Clear IQZ to improve the print quality of low-resolution photos.


Photo San Francisco 2003 (http://www.photosanfrancisco.net), a photography fair at Fort Mason Center this weekend, features dealers from around the country and Europe offering thousands of collectible images.


MacKiev (http://www.mackiev.com) has ported Print Shop to Mac OS X. New features include: import iCal events list to a calendar layout, browse iPhoto libraries for import to a Print Shop project and import iTunes playlists for custom CD labels.


Epson (http://www.epson.com) announced two Perfection scanners scheduled for release in August: the $199 Perfection 3170 Photo and the $129 Perfection 1670 Photo. The 3170 offers 3200 dpi, 48-bit scanning and a built-in slide and film strip adapter, with Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0. The 1670 offers 1600x3200 dpi plus a built-in 35mm slide and film strip adapter.

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One Liners

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PhotoRescue: http://www.imaging-resource.com/SOFT/PHR/PHR.HTM

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Fast Ritz CF cards: http://imaging-resource.com/cgi-bin/nl/pl.cgi?ritzmem

Lockergnome's Free Digital Media Newsletter: http://www.lockergnome.com

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Signoff

That's it for now, but between issues visit our site for the latest news, reviews, or to have your questions answered in our free discussion forum. Here are the links to our most popular pages:

Daily News: http://www.imaging-resource.com/NEWS.HTM
New on Site: http://www.imaging-resource.com/NEW1.HTM
Digicam index: http://www.imaging-resource.com/DIGCAM01.HTM
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Tips: http://www.imaging-resource.com/TIPS.HTM

Happy snapping!

Mike Pasini, Editor
editor@imaging-resource.com
Dave Etchells, Publisher
web@imaging-resource.com

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