The IMAGING RESOURCE DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY
NEWSLETTER


Volume 6, Number 13 25 June 2004

Copyright 2004, The Imaging Resource. All rights reserved.

Welcome to the 126th edition of the Imaging Resource Newsletter. We go into orbit with Paint Shop Pro while Dave test pilots the Z2 and dreams about Maha's sophisticated new charger.


TOPICS

SPONSORS
This issue of The Imaging Resource News is sponsored in part by the following companies. Please tell them you saw their ads here. And now a word from our sponsors:
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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: Paint Shop Pro -- Image Cowboy

As we worked with Paint Shop Pro, we couldn't help but recall Space Cowboys, the 2000 film whose tagline was "Boys will be boys."

Frank Corvin, a software engineer played by director Clint Eastwood, is dragged out of retirement to rescue a failing satellite, which just happens to be loaded with Soviet warheads. He's a little ticked when he discovers his heroic gesture will save his former boss's butt, so he rounds up his old test pilot buddies. They'd all wanted to be astronauts, the first, but the old boss passed over them in favor of a monkey. Frank finds Jerry O'Neill (Donald Sutherland) designing roller coasters, Tank Sullivan (James Garner) preaching and Hawk Hawkins (Tommy Lee Jones) giving biplane rides. In the end, they all get their ride into space and, like cowboys, save the world.

PSP is no spring chicken either, dating back to those heady days when wrestling with color images could bring powerful desktop systems to their knees. It got the job done then and it does now, just like those competent space cowboys in the movie.

Of course, PSP is no Tom Cruise. And, yes, there's at least one fatal diagnosis. Still, you want to root for the old bugger and if you don't shed a tear by the end of this review (http://www.imaging-resource.com/SOFT/PSP/PSP.HTM), why, you just ain't paying attention, pardner.

A PIONEER

It seems like test pilots were breaking the sound barrier and scraping the ceiling of our atmosphere when PSP.EXE was the flagship product of Jasc Software (http://www.jasc.com) in 1991. It was among the first image editing programs available and ran on surprisingly modest systems.

PSP was the brainchild of a commercial airline pilot with a background in computer science who began developing graphic utilities and posting them on computer bulletin boards. Before the Internet, there were bulletin boards. You'd use your modem to dial into the bulletin board modem and log in to read messages and download files. The guy who ran the bulletin board was called the sysop. We were the pseudo sysop for the longest running bulletin board devoted to the DEC Rainbow, in fact.

Over the years, Jasc has continued to develop PSP in retail versions at modest prices and minimal (if no longer modest) hardware requirements with public beta testing. The company claims PSP's evolution has been the result of feedback from its 40 million customers.

We've been testing PSP 8 (version 8.1), available for Windows at $84 download or $94 boxed. A suite of Jasc products -- including PSP 8 and Paint Shop Photo Album, the company's asset manager, plus Paint Shop Xtras and Jasc AnimationShop for GIFs -- is also available for just $119 boxed, a smart buy. Free trial versions are also available.

SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS

PSP runs on Windows 98/NT4/2000/ME/XP with 128-MB RAM and 400-MB free disk space. You only need a Pentium-class processor with 16-bit color display adapter and a monitor that can display 800x600 pixels. The Help system requires Internet Explorer 5 or later and the Macromedia Flash Player.

The recommended configuration, however, is a 1.0-Ghz Pentium with Windows XP, 256-MB RAM and a 32-bit color display with a 1024x768 monitor.

INSTALLATION

We've installed several versions and updates over the course of our prolonged testing under Windows XP.

While installations went smoothly, the update to 8.1 required that we uninstall 8. There is a patch that can be run on 8 to update it to 8.1, but Jasc sent us the full install CD. Not a complaint, just be aware of your options.

ABOUT EIGHT

PSP 8 is a complete rewrite of the product, establishing a platform the company said "will allow us to continue offering you the most exciting new features available in digital photography software."

The user interface, with configurable workspaces, has been redesigned, superbly integrating tutorials and reference materials. Notably Jasc offers free unlimited tech support and not just online. You can actually talk to a human being at the other end of an 800 number. And the product does include a nice 438-page printed manual that repeats text where you need it, rather than suggest you flip somewhere else to find it.

Version 8 also provides new photo enhancement tools and warping brushes, advanced image composition options, new filters and special effects, more accessible illustration and text tools, plus a variety of options for sharing your images.

We're great fans of scripting and Version 8 includes a new scripting engine based on the Python language. You don't need to learn how to write scripts, either, because PSP can record what you do for playback later.

INTERFACE

We like simple interfaces that run deep. We complained, for example, that Adobe Photoshop Album's interface was cluttered. Well, PSP has a clutter all it's own. The clutter of a space shuttle dashboard, perhaps, because this clutter runs deep.

Below the standard title bar is the standard menu bar with File Edit View and Help options. The menu bar expands to include Image, Effects, Adjust, Layers, Objects, Selections and Window when you open an image.

File is an interesting case study. It has some intriguing commands: Workspace (load, save or delete them), Import (from scanner, camera or TWAIN but also brushes and screen captures, oddly), Script (to run, edit and record) and a command to launch batch processes. But it exhibits the jumbled organization of the old way of doing things. We wish Recent Files was up with Open rather than Workspace (a less frequently tapped option). We're not really thrilled about how these commands are organized with an image open, either. Save is jumbled with Workspace, Delete and Send (for emailing).

Under the menu bar is a row (or three) reserved for tool bars. There are several you can choose to display or hide from the View menu. Browser, Effects, Photo, Script, Standard, Status, Tools and Web toolbars are available.

There are so many toolbars, though, that they span more than one row and even slip down to the bottom and side of the screen. At first, we found that annoying, but since you can put them anywhere (they switch orientation when you dock them from top/bottom to a side), we were charmed.

If the toolbars are confusing, the palettes are even more so. Brush Variance, Histogram, Layers, Learning Center, Materials, Overview, Script Output, Tool Options are all palettes. They can be anywhere, of course.

But they aren't easily resized. The Layer palette, for example, is so handy for dealing with tonal and color correction, we almost always have it handy. In Photoshop it can be resized to fit in a corner of our screen. In PSP it takes up a lot of real estate. Yes, you can drag the bottom left corner to make the palette any shape you like, but that crops much of the information away, as if the palette were hidden to begin with.

To sum up, there's hardly any component of the interface you can't customize. But the lack of a display architecture (think how iLife extends the same model through several different applications) is not design. It's disorienting.

PHOTO TOOLS

When we describe a technique in our beginner and advanced columns, we discuss the steps generically so no matter which image editing software you use, you can figure out how to get the effect. We test the procedures using Photoshop and PSP, in fact. We know if it can be done, those two will do it.

So, yes, we were able to build a contrast mask using layers in PSP just as we do in Photoshop, manipulating the mask with a Gaussian Blur filter and Opacity setting. And we can use the Histogram Adjustment to color correct each channel, as we've previously described. And, yes, there is a Curves command to convert color negatives the way we like to do it. The old bugger can really fly.

In fact, some dialog boxes display more options and controls than their Photoshop equivalents. The Histogram Adjustment provides a great deal more than you need, in fact, although the Help button is a real blessing. Where Photoshop provides a simple popup menu to pick the channel or a composite, PSP uses a radio button to select Luminance (Composite) or Color (the Red, Green or Blue channel).

This is more than a matter of style. When you fiddle with the Composite, you are dealing with luminance. But that's all a histogram shows, really. When you change the luminance in a single channel, you affect the color balance. But that's still just altering luminance. There's a certain pretension in bifurcating the histogram. And we find that off-putting.

On the other hand, PSP makes an effort to wrap into its sophistication the simple usefulness for which Elements is famous. The Photo toolbar's drop-down menu includes One Step Photo Fix, a series of individual fixes and Red-eye Removal. The individual fixes (which One Step steps through automatically) include Automatic Color Balance, Automatic Contrast Enhancement, Clarify, Automatic Saturation Enhancement, Edge Preserving Smooth and Sharpen.

Also included in the Photo toolbar are buttons to correct distortion (barrel, fisheye and pincushion), a color correction group (Fade Correction, Black and White Points and Manual Color Correction), a pairing of Histogram Adjustment with HSL adjustment and a final group of JPEG Artifact Removal and Unsharp Mask. The distortion tools are fabulous additions.

One aggravation we never overcame was the default preview magnification in the dialog boxes. These typically show a before and after panel but they default to 100 percent, which is helpful for some corrections (like noise removal) but inappropriate for others (like Fade Correction) which need a view of the whole image. There are buttons to zoom out but it takes a lot of clicks and quickly becomes a nuisance. You can maximize the window, but all we wanted was a fit-to-size option. Can't teach an old dog new tricks, apparently.

RED-EYE REMOVAL

It isn't possible to cover such a multi-faceted tool comprehensively, but we can demonstrate how it behaves with an example. And none finer, we think, than red-eye removal.

We've already revealed our preferred method of attacking red eye. The problem is artificial illumination of the back of the eye, so the solution is simply to desaturate it. Build a brush that does just that, size it and one click (per eye) solves the problem.

At the other end of the spectrum you have PSP's red-eye removal with no fewer than 37 controls. These are grouped into Presets, which you can load or delete or reset; the Preview we love (but this time the enlargement is handy); Proofing buttons; a Method pull-down menu (Auto Human Eye, Auto Animal Eye, Freehand Pupil Outline, Point-to-Point Pupil Outline); a set of numeric values (pupil lightness, iris size, glint lightness, glint size, feather and blur) with a center glint checkbox and a Refine slider; a Hue setting and a separate Color setting; a Delete eye button (which actually deletes the new eye PSP intends to paint); and OK, Cancel and Help buttons.

You start by picking a Method (auto methods use circles or ellipses and the others allow you to manually select the area to be worked on), then you select a hue (aqua, blue, brown, green, gray, violet) and a color (about 22 variations of the hue). You can Refine an Auto selection (but we weren't too thrilled with this) and change the size of the iris (the colored part) as well as the glint. In short, you build a new eye.

We're big glint fans. Our own method preserves any existing glint. We're not big fans of fake glints or changing the iris size (which depends on the available light). But we're not going to debate the subject either. The real point of red-eye removal is to make unnoticeable an unnatural artifact of small camera flash photography. That's why so many alternative approaches work. They all avoid drawing attention to the image editing. We're not sure we can say that about PSP's approach. It's not so much eliminating red-eye as making colored contact lenses.

But PSP can do it our way, too. We clicked on the brush tool, set the Blend mode to Saturation and set the size to cover the pupil (not the iris) and clicked once in each eye. Presto, no red-eye. Naturally.

IN CONTEXT

The great argument for PSP is that it saves you money on hardware and software to do the very same things more expensive software running on fancier hardware does. There's a great deal of truth to that.

But like the controls of the space shuttle in Space Cowboys, if you're new to this stuff, PSP isn't an easy way to learn. We recommend Adobe Elements, primarily for its excellent reference material about image editing (not Elements). PSP can do more out of the box, but Elements can easily be enhanced to match it in the things you need to do to your photos.

PSP offers simple one-step photo fixes, don't misunderstand, but you're not reading this because you want to know which buttons to click. You'll learn more about image editing with Elements than PSP. And if you aren't anxious to learn more, programs like Kodak EasyShare and Adobe Photo Album have enough one-click corrections to satisfy you while offering a way to manage your collection.

The scripting left us a little underwowwed. We were delighted it was recordable, but we weren't impressed with what it recorded. As we built a contrast mask, we recorded a number of missteps that were all played back. Rather than recording the final value for, say, opacity, the recording engine recorded every opacity setting we tried.

Much of the new interface seemed inspired by Photoshop 7. The Tool Options palette, the docking palettes, tool flyout menus, preset tool or filter settings and saved workspace configurations (Dynamic Personalization), for example. You end up building your own aircraft dashboard.

Finally, while PSP can read and save Raw file formats, it does not support 16-bit channels. Even with a digicam that only produces 8-bit files (24-bit color), 16-bit channels are useful, as we've demonstrated in our Optipix reviews. But as digicams evolve toward a universal Raw format (which Adobe has begun championing), an 8-bit image editor will be a liability. It's one of those things that's a lot more important than it may at first seem.

CONCLUSION

So where does PSP fit into the image editing software landscape?

Sort of where Clint Eastwood's Frank Corvin fits into Space Cowboys. He's good, real good, but not too modern (despite the user interface face lift). He can still get the job done, even if it's the old fashioned way. And he doesn't have to worry about getting the girl -- he's already been married for years (to 40 million users).

So if you're looking for Mr. Right, it probably isn't going to be PSP. Something a little friendlier, maybe. But if you've been married to the guy all these years, hey, you knew a good thing when you saw it. Unfortunately, he won't be much help if you start shooting images with 16-bit channels.

Return to Topics.

Feature: Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z2 -- New & Improved

By DAVE ETCHELLS
(Excerpted from the full review posted at http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/Z2/Z2A.HTM on the Web site.)

INTRODUCTION

The Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z2 is the latest in a long line of Konica Minolta digital cameras featuring uncommon innovation, aggressive pricing and superior optics. The original Minolta Z1, the company's first long-zoom digicam for the consumer market, has been one of the most popular cameras on the Imaging Resource site since its introduction. Refreshed with a new, slightly larger and higher resolution 4.0-megapixel image sensor, the new Z2 shares most of the other features of its predecessor with more resolution.

CAMERA OVERVIEW

Looking like a shrunk-down 35mm big lens SLR, Konica Minolta's $449 Z2 offers a full 10x optical zoom and manual exposure in a compact, user-friendly package. Measuring 4.3x3.05x3.15 inches and weighing 14.9 ounces with the batteries and SD memory card, the Z2 is quite compact for such a long-zoom camera, but too chunky for a shirt pocket. Covered in silver and charcoal-gray plastic body panels, the Z2's body is built around the large lens barrel. A substantial handgrip provides a solid hold, but the rest of the camera is fairly compact. The Z2 features a 4.0-megapixel CCD for making sharp prints as large as 8x10 inches, as well as lower resolution images for email distribution.

The Z2 is equipped with an impressive 10x, 6.3-63mm lens, the equivalent of a 38-380mm lens on a 35mm camera. This lens replaces the Z1's 5.8-58mm lens (the effective focal lengths being identical due to the Z2's slightly larger sensor size) and is not quite as bright at telephoto as that lens. Maximum aperture ranges from f2.8 to f3.5, depending on the zoom setting. Focus ranges from 1.6 feet to infinity in Normal mode and 3.9 to 47.2 inches in Macro. There's also a Super Macro setting, to get as close as 1.6 inches. Though the Z2 normally judges focus from a large area in the center of the frame, Spot AF is also available, using one of three possible hotspots across the middle of the frame.

The Z2 offers manual focus, as well as a Full-time AF mode which continuously adjusts focus whether the shutter button is pressed or not. In addition to the optical zoom, the Z2 offers as much as 4x digital zoom. For composing images, the Z2 has a 1.5-inch LCD monitor, as well as a smaller, electronic optical viewfinder LCD display that actually uses the same LCD display, flipped up to face the inside of the camera instead of the rear panel. The LCD is quite sharp and, during manual focusing, the central portion of the display is magnified by about three times.

The Z2 is quite unusual in its use of the same LCD screen for both eye-level and rear-panel displays. When the eye-level viewfinder is enabled, an internal mirror/shutter mechanism simply blocks the rear-panel viewing port and directs the LCD's image to the eyepiece. I'm not sure of the rationale for this, but it's possible that the mirror/shutter arrangement costs less than would a second, tiny LCD just for the eyepiece. In any event, the approach seems to work well enough.

For eyeglass wearers, the Z2's eye-level viewfinder is a bit of a mixed bag. It has a dioptric dial with a fairly broad adjustment at the nearsighted end of its range, accommodating even my own 20/180 vision. On the downside though, the eyepiece has a fairly low eye-point, making it hard to use while wearing glasses. I could see the entire frame with my own glasses on, but had to press the eyeglass lens right up against the eyepiece, something I'd prefer not to do, for fear of scratches.

When it comes to exposure, the Z2 offers a wide range of options, including Auto, Program AE, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual modes, with five preset Scene modes and a Movie mode available as well. In Auto mode, the camera handles everything, leaving only the zoom, drive mode, etc., for the user to set. Program AE sets aperture and shutter speed, but allows the user to adjust all other exposure settings. Aperture and Shutter Priority modes provide partial manual control, letting the user adjust one variable while the camera selects the other. Finally, in Manual mode, the user has complete control over the exposure. Aperture settings range from f2.8 to f8, with the actual maximum and minimum values depending on the lens zoom position.

Shutter speeds range from 1/1000 to 15 seconds in Manual and Shutter Priority modes, with a true time-exposure setting permitting exposures as long as 30 seconds. Maximum exposure time in Program AE and Aperture Priority modes is four seconds and two seconds in Auto and Digital Subject Program modes.

The true time-exposure option on the Z2 is a very unusual and welcome feature on a digicam. Most digicams with long-exposure options have a Bulb mode, in which the shutter is kept open as long as you hold down the shutter button. The disadvantage of this approach is that it can cause camera shake. With a true time-exposure mode, you press the shutter button once to open the shutter and then again to close it. With the camera mounted on a tripod, the momentary minor jiggling as you press the shutter button to open the shutter dies away quickly, allowing very sharp images with very long exposures. Kudos to Konica Minolta for this feature, which I wish other camera makers would adopt.

For longer exposures, the Z2 features a Noise Reduction setting, which uses dark-frame subtraction to reduce image noise resulting from long exposure times.

In addition to the various automatic, semi-automatic and manual conventional exposure modes, the five Digital Subject Program modes include Night Portrait, Sunset, Landscape, Sports Action and Portrait modes, for shooting in common, yet sometimes challenging, situations. Night Portrait allows use of the flash in conjunction with longer exposure times for more even illumination. Sunset mode sets white balance to daylight and biases the exposure to produce saturated colors in sky shots. Landscape mode uses a small aperture to produce greater depth of field. Sports Action mode biases the exposure system toward faster shutter speeds. And Portrait mode uses a larger aperture to decrease depth of field, slightly blurring the background behind the primary subject.

By default, the Z2 employs a Multi-Segment metering system. You can opt for Spot or Center-Weighted metering modes, too. The right and left arrow keys on the camera's back panel control the Exposure Compensation, adjusting it from -2 to +2 exposure values in one-third-step increments. Light sensitivity is adjustable to ISO values of 50, 100, 200 or 400, with an Auto setting as well. White Balance is also adjustable through the settings menu, with options for Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent and Flash light sources, as well as a Custom setting for manually adjusting the color balance with a white card. The Record menu also offers Sharpness and Contrast adjustments, as well as a Color setting with Natural, Vivid, Black and White and Sepia color options.

The Z2 features a built-in, pop-up flash with Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Fill-Flash, Suppressed or Slow-Sync modes and intensity settings from -2 to +2 EV. It also has a proprietary external flash connection for Konica Minolta accessories, including the Maxxum Flash 2500, 3600HS and 5600HS units, but an adapter unit is available (if nearly impossible to find) that provides a standard PC-style sync connector.

In Movie mode, the camera captures 800x600, 640x480, 320x240 or 160x120-pixel resolution moving images with sound, about the highest movie resolution of any digicam. With garden-variety SD cards, maximum recording time is about 30 seconds at 800x600, 15 fps and about 50 seconds at 640x480, 30 fps. It's limited only by available memory card space at all lesser combinations of image size and frame rate. With a fast memory card though, movie length is limited only by card capacity, regardless of the resolution and frame rate. Very impressive. You have an option for Standard or Night movie modes and can set the frame rate to either 15 or 30 fps (except at 800x600 pixel resolution, which is limited to 15 fps).

In movie mode, you can zoom digitally at the 320x240 and 160x120 image sizes but not at 640x480. Most digicams don't zoom during recording (to prevent noise from the lens motor from affecting the sound track). By default, the Z2 won't either but you can override that with a menu option. I'd like to see more manufacturers take this approach. Some users may find that the noise captured by the microphone is less objectionable than being limited to digital zoom, particularly in loud environments where the lens noise may not be a factor.

Self-Timer mode provides a 10-second delay between the time the Shutter button is pressed and the time that the camera actually takes the picture.

For shooting fast action subjects, the Z2's Standard and Ultra High Speed Continuous Advance modes capture a rapid series of images while you hold down the Shutter button. UHS mode captures up to 15 frames at the 1280x960 resolution at a rate of 10 fps, while Standard mode captures frames at about 1.75 fps. The actual frame rate and maximum number of images in a series depend on the resolution, subject matter and the amount of available memory space. Besides the normal Continuous Advance modes, the Z2 features Progressive Capture, which continuously acquires images when you hold down the shutter button, saving the last few when you release it. At maximum resolution, standard Progressive Capture will save the last five images, while UHS Progressive Capture will save up to the last 12 1280x960 images. Progressive capture is very helpful when you don't know exactly when the critical moment will arrive.

The Z2's action-capture capabilities are further enhanced by its shorter than average shutter lag times, ranging from 0.59 seconds at wide-angle to 0.82 seconds at telephoto. And its pre-focus shutter delay is a blazing 0.09 seconds. Finally, Auto Exposure Bracketing captures three consecutive frames at different exposures, varying by 0.3, 0.5 or 1.0 EV steps.

The Z2 stores its images on SD memory cards and a 16-MB card accompanies the camera. The camera also works with MMC cards, which used to be slightly less expensive, but which have now for the most part disappeared from the market. I highly recommend picking up a larger capacity card right away, so you don't miss any important shots. These days, a 128-MB card represents a good tradeoff between capacity and cost.

Connection to a host computer for image download is via USB. The Z2 is a storage-class device, which means it doesn't require separate driver software for Windows 2000 and XP or for Mac OS 8.6 and later. The camera uses four AA-type batteries for power. The optional AC adapter is also useful for preserving battery power when reviewing and downloading images or when viewing images and movies on a television, via the supplied A/V cable.

TEST RESULTS

Color: The Z2 produced good color, although its Auto white balance tended to leave a slight warm cast. It was a little prone to oversaturation, particularly with red tones. Its affinity for reds was most evident in the Outdoor Portraits, where Marti's skin tones were a little reddish-orange and in the DaveBox test, where the red swatch was a little over-bright. Strong blues tended to oversaturate slightly as well. Indoors, Auto white balance had a hard time with household incandescent lighting, but its Incandescent and Manual white balance did very well. Overall, the Z2's color was clearly within an acceptable range, but I would prefer to see a bit more neutral white balance and a more restrained response in the red portions of the spectrum.

Exposure: The exposure system performed well in most cases, though it had a tendency to produce high contrast. Outdoors, the camera required quite a bit less than average positive exposure compensation under the high-key lighting. The contrast adjustment evened out exposure somewhat, although I would have liked to see more impact from the low-contrast setting. Indoors, it required slightly less than average positive exposure compensation as well, producing good exposures both with and without flash. Despite slightly high contrast, the Z2 had no trouble distinguishing the subtle pastel tones on the Q60 target of the Davebox. Shadow detail was typically good, though the camera had limited dynamic range on the outdoor house shot.

Resolution/Sharpness: The Z2 performed very well on the laboratory resolution test chart. It started showing artifacts in the test patterns at resolutions as low as 800 lines per picture height vertically and around 650 lines horizontally. I found strong detail out to 1,200 lines in both directions. Extinction of the target patterns didn't occur until about 1,400 lines. While it did very well on the laboratory target, I felt that shots of more natural subjects were a bit on the soft side. Still plenty of detail to make great-looking 8x10 prints, but the difference between its res-chart performance and its more ordinary images was more evident than I expected.

Image Noise: The latest round of 4-megapixel digicams seem to have similar noise behavior. The Z2's noise is visible but moderate at its lowest ISO settings, but becomes obvious at ISO 200 and rather distracting at ISO 400. I'd really like to see less noise in its images at low ISO settings, but for most users it won't become an issue until ISO 200. Surprisingly though, image noise on long exposures under dim lighting actually isn't bad. The Z2 won't be your first choice for normal shooting at high ISO (a strike against it for sports usage, where the higher ISO would permit faster shutter speeds), but for low ISOs in the daytime and long exposures at night, most people will find its results acceptable.

Close-Ups: The Z2 performed very well, capturing a minimum area of only 1.43x1.07 inches. Resolution was very high and detail was strong in the dollar bill. Details were soft in the coins and brooch from the close shooting distance (but depth of field is naturally very shallow when shooting this close) and were slightly soft in the dollar bill as well. There was a lot of softness in the corners on the left side of the frame, a not uncommon limitation of digicams' ultra-macro modes, caused by curvature of field in their lenses. The position of the Z2's flash directly above the lens results in a dark shadow in the lower portion of the frame, so plan on using external lighting for your closest shots.

Night Shots: The Z2 produced clear, bright, usable images down to the 1/16 foot-candle (0.67 lux) limit of my test, at all four ISO settings. At ISO 50, the exposure was somewhat dim at the lowest light level, but the image was still usable. The Z2's auto white balance system produced warm color casts under dim lighting, with decreasing color cast as the light level increased. The Z2's Noise Reduction system did a reasonable job of suppressing image noise, though noise was still present. Compared to the results from the camera under daytime light levels though, the image noise in long exposures was really surprisingly low. The Z2's LCD/electronic viewfinder is usable at light levels quite a bit darker than average (down to the limits of my low-light test) and the Z2 is also unique for having one of the only true "time" exposure modes I've seen on a digicam. The Z2 also managed to focus almost all the way down to the limits of my test, even without an autofocus-assist light. Very impressive.

Viewfinder Accuracy: The Z2's optical viewfinder was very accurate, showing 96 percent frame accuracy at wide-angle and about 97 percent at telephoto. The LCD monitor was also very accurate, showing about 99+ percent accuracy. The two displays actually use the same LCD, the difference in accuracy most likely simply being a minor difference in the cropping and/or optics as the LCD flips up into its EVF position.

Optical Distortion: Optical distortion on the Z2 was quite a bit lower than average at the wide-angle end, measuring approximately 0.3 percent barrel distortion. The telephoto end fared very well also, as I couldn't find even a full pixel of pincushion or barrel distortion. Chromatic aberration is moderate, showing several pixels of color on either side of the target lines, but the color itself not being as strong as on many long-zoom cameras.

Shutter Lag and Cycle Time: Overall, the Z2 is a pretty fast camera, surprising for a long-zoom model. It's full-autofocus shutter delay ranges from 0.59-0.82 seconds, pre-focus lag is a blazing 0.09 seconds and full-resolution single-shot cycle time averages about 1.8 seconds. Better yet, it has a variety of continuous-shooting and movie-mode options that make it one of the better cameras on the market for capturing action.

Battery Life: Despite a fairly high resolution CCD and a fast processor, the Z2 showed very good battery life, with a worst-case run time of three and a half hours.

CONCLUSION

One of the best long-zooms on the market, the Z1 was also one of the most popular cameras on our site last year. The DiMAGE Z2 carries on that tradition, adding a higher-resolution CCD, expanded continuous shooting and movie mode options plus a few minor enhancements, while selling at about the same price. This time it has a little more competition, but still nothing within $50 of it -- and more likely within $100 when you consider all the features packed into it. All in all, there's very little to fault about the Z2, apart from the somewhat Buck Rogers-style case, which I don't personally care for. Definitely recommended for those in the long-zoom market and definitely a Dave's Pick.

Return to Topics.

Feature: Inside Maha's New MH-C204W Charger

By DAVE ETCHELLS

If you've read my digicam reviews, you know the Maha MH-C204F has been my favorite battery charger. It does a good job of quickly and completely charging NiMH AA batteries while keeping the maximum temperature within acceptable limits. And it also incorporates discharge-conditioning circuitry.

Discharge-conditioning is useful for revitalizing batteries that have seen a lot of charge/discharge cycles or sat on the shelf a long time. While there are a lot of other chargers on the market, I'm not aware of any with the combination of features, performance and component quality of the MH-C204F. The discharge-conditioning capability in particular seems to be pretty rare.

Now, Maha (http://www.mahaenergy.com) has updated the MH-C204F with a new product, the MH-C204W. I'm waiting for a review unit to arrive for testing, but the initial list of features and capabilities is pretty impressive. Here's what's new and why it matters:

The MH-C204W offers significant enhancements over the MH-C204F while continuing to offer its rare but highly useful discharge-conditioning. It looks like the MH-C204W may become my new favorite.

Maha products are also sold online by Thomas Distributing (http://www.thomasdistributing.com), our longtime supporter. Check them out!

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New on the Site

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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: iView Media Pro

I read your review on iView Media Pro where you compared it to a few other programs. I know you cannot compare it to everything out there. But I would really like to know how it stacks up against a program like ACDsee, which is about the most popular, and ThumbsPlus version 7, which is very very powerful. I am glad you said what you did about Cumulus. I am not that computer literate, but I can open up files in any of the programs I try and Cumulus seems to speak another language. After many attempts I just gave up.

-- Allen Mankin

(ACDSee is a very competent product, as is ThumbsPlus. Not for Mac users, however, and to make our life a little simpler, we prefer to review cross-platform solutions. That's the only reason you haven't read a review of these products. -- Editor)

RE: Rock On

We do scientific image enhancement of rock art images to try to see information not otherwise visible (http://www.infomagic.net/~rockart).

Photoshop's best quality JPEG compression has not been a problem, but the best JPEG compression of the digital cameras I have seen produce serious artifacts. Do any digital cameras provide compression equivalent to Photoshop's best?

-- Bob Mark

(Digicams tend to compress rather aggressively, indeed. But most (perhaps all of the high-end) models offer an uncompressed capture mode, either TIFF or Raw format. If you subsequently require JPEG-formatted images, they can easily be converted in batch mode in Photoshop to a less aggressive level than the digicam offers. -- Editor)

RE: Canvas Prints

Regarding the request for "third party professional printers to get (single copy) large format prints on watercolor paper or canvas," I have used Kinko's (Boston) to print up to 2x4 feet on primed canvas for $10 per square foot. Excellent. They say they can do larger, but I have not tried.

-- Charles W Vaughan

(Thanks, Charles! -- Editor)
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Editor's Notes

Acoording to Reuters, Nikon will increase production of its D70 dSLR nearly 30 percent, from 70,000 to 90,000 units monthly. Nikon Corp. managing director Makoto Kimura told Reuters he expects to produce up to 100,000 units monthly by next year, depending on what products Olympus, Konica and Pentax unveil. Nikon expects its dSLR sales in the year to March 2005 to reach one million units, more than triple its figures for March 2003-2004. In the same period, it expects total digicam sales to climb 44 percent to 7.8 million units.

Nikon's compact film camera sales have dropped from a peak of 1.9 million units annually in 1994 to a projected 50,000 units worldwide in the current business year. Kimura-san said Nikon doesn't plan to stop producing film SLRs, but may drop its compact film camera line next year, claiming there "really is no region in the world where you can do good business in compact film cameras anymore."


Alien Skin (http://www.alienskin.com) has released its $99 Eye Candy 5: Textures, a Photoshop plug-in collection of 10 texture generators to quickly create backgrounds, skins, seamless tiles and more.


Alera (http://www.aleratec.com) has introduced its $99 DVD/CD Shredder Plus to cut DVDs, CDs, Floppy Disks and Credit Cards into small unusable strips.


Zonic (http://www.zonic.co.uk) has released its $19.95 Chameleon 1.0 [M] for processing digital photos with 18 filters that apply painterly effects, including Oil Painting, Chalk Drawing, Halftone, Mosaic and Stubble Brush.


Kepmad (http://www.kepmad.com) has released its $19 ImageBuddy 3.0[M] to view, grade, layout, crop, mask and overlay digital photos with drag-and-drop support from iPhoto. New tricks include support for rotated text, transparent background images, punch offset on page layout, higher resolution printing, scroll wheel support and more. ImageBuddy is $19 for Mac OS X.


Sigma (http://www.sigmaphoto.com) has announced two new prime lenses for dSLRs. The Sigma Macro 50mm F2.8 EX DG has 10 elements in 9 groups, a 55mm filter thread and a minimum focusing distance of 18.9cm. The Sigma Macro 105mm F2.8 EX DG lens has 11 elements in 10 groups, a 58mm filter thread and a minimum focusing distance of 31.2cm. Both lenses have a minimum aperture of f32.


NewTech (http://www.ntius.com) has released its $49.95 Dragon Burn 4.0 [M] with a $9.99 promotion upgrade offer. New features include video mastering, Picture CD burning, DVD+R double layer support and enhanced dynamic drive support.


Name Boinx Untitled App (http://www.untitled-app.com), the $79 slideshow program for Mac OS X 10.3 and win an Apple iSight, licenses to other Boix software and a mention in the About box.

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Signoff

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Happy snapping!

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

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