The new 8-megapixel cameras offer tremendous versatility and impressive image quality together in one handy, lightweight package. With their wide range of built-in focal lengths and system capabilities, they're a real alternative to lugging a heavy and expensive SLR or D-SLR system.
Each of the cameras featured here boasts a resolution of 2448 x 3264 pixels. That's enough to make razor-sharp 8x10s and, with proper photographic technique, beautiful 16x20-inch prints or even larger.
Designed For Advanced Photographers
Although they include auto-everything modes, these cameras are built for serious shooters. They have full manual operation, as well as aperture- and shutter-priority auto-exposure. Metering choices typically include multi-pattern/evaluative, center-weighted and spot. The cameras' autofocus systems provide selectable focus zones similar to those found on SLRs and D-SLRs.
In spite of their compact proportions, every camera in the group has a 35mm-equivalent focal length range of 28-200mm, either with its built-in lens alone or with no more than one compact auxiliary lens. Each of the cameras has notable macro capability to boot.
Since the zooms are permanently mounted to the cameras, lens quality is all-important. All of the zooms are premium optics with aspherical elements, low-dispersion glass and high-tech coatings. The lenses have as much to do with the outstanding quality of the finished images as the high-resolution sensor does. The lenses in these models are sharp and fast, and give bulkier SLR lenses with comparable focal ranges a run for their money.
Like the D-SLRs, the 8-megapixel compacts offer RAW file capability. RAW files are unique in that they're essentially a digital negative. Little or no in-camera processing is applied as is done to JPEGs and TIFFs, so you're getting the "raw" data from the image sensor.
The advantage to RAW is that you have more control over the final image and can make your own decisions about exposure adjustment, saturation, sharpness and other details rather than letting the camera do the first round of processing for you automatically. RAW files are increasingly popular with photographers because of this additional control, although the trade-off is that you'll spend a lot more time at the computer before you have a usable image.
It's nice to have the option of both RAW and JPEG files, and some cameras will even capture one of each every time you click the shutter. That's especially helpful, as you have a ready-to-go JPEG that requires little adjustment for immediate use, and a RAW file that you can later tweak to your heart's content for the ultimate fine-tuned photo.
These cameras are part of larger photographic systems that afford much of the capability of their bigger D-SLR relatives. These systems include accessory lenses that go over the front of the cameras' built-in optics, with most offering both a teleconverter and a wide-angle adapter. Nikon even makes a fisheye lens for its Coolpix 8700. Like the cameras' own optics, these accessory lenses produce tack-sharp images.
Typically, the telephoto accessory extends your focal length by 1.5x, so your 200mm (35mm equivalent) lens becomes a 300mm or your 280mm becomes a 420mm. The wide-angles expand your field of view as they shorten your focal length, usually multiplying it by 0.8x. With a wide-angle accessory attached, the 28mm (35mm equivalent) focal length found on most of these cameras is shortened to about 22mm. While a compact system's average range of about 22mm to 300mm still can't match a manufacturer's full line of 35mm lenses, the range that they do have is extraordinarily easy to transport.
The 8-megapixel cameras' photographic systems share the powerful hot-shoe-mounted flash units developed for SLRs and D-SLRs. These strobes provide a longer flash range than the cameras' onboard units, with noticeably greater punch for fill-flash in bright sunlight. Many systems allow sophisticated off-camera lighting to improve the look of natural features you encounter in the landscape.
Some of the systems also supply professional-quality macro flash gear, like ring lights or dual flash tubes that can be positioned separately as main light and fill. Both types of close-up flash communicate with the camera's TTL metering circuitry for perfect exposures. The camera can blend the light from the sun and flash, letting you adjust the relative exposures from both, so that either light source can function as main, fill or rim lighting.
8-MP Compacts Vs. 6 MP D-SLRs And 35mm
Image Quality. Naturally, you'll be curious how the 8-megapixel cameras stack up against your trusty 35mm SLR or D-SLR. Compared to slow, fine-grained 35mm slide film, the 8-megapixel cameras are more than a match in ISO, flexibility and image quality. Users of color negative materials will find that the 8-megapixel cameras' dynamic range is still narrower than their film, but the ability to review and correct exposures on the fly helps mitigate this.
While the 8-megapixel compacts offer sensitivities up to at least ISO 400, image quality isn't ideal when shooting at higher equivalencies—these cameras perform best between ISO 50 and 100. The speed difference between the 8-megapixel compacts and color negative materials is balanced by fast optics on the compacts, however, especially toward the telephoto end of their zoom range.
The 8-megapixel cameras achieve sharpness comparable to that of 6-megapixel D-SLRs, but that's not the whole story. Although the compacts record more pixels, the D-SLRs' larger imaging sensors provide cleaner data overall, with fewer image artifacts and markedly less noise. That makes the D-SLRs' images simpler to interpolate and sharpen in the computer when making big prints.
To put this in perspective, a carefully exposed image from a D-SLR using its lowest ISO for best quality displays little or no noise in 16x20 enlargements. In the strikingly grainless clarity of their images, D-SLRs rival 4x5-inch view cameras. By comparison, the 8-megapixel compacts' best 16x20s display a noise pattern reminiscent of 35mm film grain.
Like the D-SLRs, the 8-megapixel compacts achieve their optimum performance at their lowest sensitivity settings of ISO 50 or 100. D-SLRs, on the other hand, have minimum ISOs between 100 and 200. D-SLRs hold the same nominal advantage in ISO speed over the compacts as does 35mm color negative film.
Performance. The 8-megapixel compacts use an electronic viewfinder (EVF) instead of the familiar ground glass of an SLR or a D-SLR. EVFs can do some things that an SLR finder can't, and vice versa. An EVF's chief advantage is that it can provide a live image from the camera's CCD, letting you see exactly what your image will look like before the exposure
The ability to pull data from the CCD beforehand extends to the histogram, which the EVFs of several of the cameras can display. The live histogram can be a real boon in fast-changing light outdoors because its graph of exposure values throughout the tonal range of the images tells you for certain if you've got correct exposure before you release the shutter. On a D-SLR, that confirmation only comes after you review the recorded image, and with film, well...
An EVF's disadvantage is that it can't yet match an SLR's ground glass for clarity, or for the speed with which the displayed image updates. Visually confirming focus or checking depth of field with most of the EVFs here is difficult at best. The electronic viewfinders also black out for much longer than the flicker of an SLR's instant-return mirror. That last characteristic makes it difficult to follow a moving subject for a second or third shot.
Shutter lag with the 8-megapixel compacts also is noticeably longer than the instant response we're used to with SLRs and D-SLRs. That's partly because the compacts' AF systems aren't as quick or sure-footed as those on the larger cameras. Lag shortens considerably with pre-focusing, but the simple fact is that these cameras aren't as fast on the draw as an SLR or a D-SLR.
The Bottom Line
I'll never forget the forlorn face of a friend as he stopped to rest on the long trail up to the top of Yosemite Falls. There, about halfway up the 2,400-foot ascent, he unloaded his heavy 35mm system, which included a large 300mm telephoto. Gone were thoughts of making beautiful images; at that moment, he just wanted it all to be over.
The new compact digital camera systems weigh just a fraction of what that heavy gear did in Yosemite. With an extra auxiliary lens or two, the cameras have as much ability to shoot stunning landscapes as my friend's pro system, yet they fit handily into a small satchel, easily carried anywhere.
I've been using the 8-megapixel compacts for some months now, effortlessly making images far up trails where I used to struggle carrying my D-SLR system. By saving even more weight with my carbon-fiber tripod, bringing a full photographic system along on the trail has become a non-issue instead of a challenge for the determined. I won't be trading in my D-SLRs, but I'll be adding a new compact to the arsenal.