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Survey: 10 stabilised digital cameras
by Vincent Alzieu
Published on May 18, 2006

The new compacts
Summer vacation is on its way and with it the urgent need to buy a new digital camera. Last year, in our “2005 summer survey” we said that the compact digital cameras that were so in fashion made it possible to capture memories, rather than make photo art. This is partly true this year but we are now a little more demanding and want to reduce the number of defective pictures. It’s frustrating to find a series of blurred pictures or with so much noise that it’s impossible to print them. So in this test we expected products to produce clean and sharp results, quickly, not be bulky and colors to be natural. We selected the following cameras:

1.Canon Ixus 800-IS
2.Casio Exilim S600
3.FujiFilm FinePix F11
4.Konica Minolta Dimage X1
5.Nikon Coolpix P4
6.Olympus Mju 720 SW
7.Pentax Optio W10
8.Panasonic DMCFX01
9.Ricoh Caplio R3
10.Sony DSC-T9

They all have stabilization devices. Be aware though that some have optical image stabilization and others use software (adjusting sensitivity). We sometimes discovered that only the video mode was stabilised. Each camera deserved an in-depth look and we always asked the question, “Is this the ONE, the camera that we’ve waited so much for?” Some are ultra compacts (16 mm thick for Casio), others have bigger zooms (7x for Ricoh !) and two are waterproof. The Pentax and Olympus are functional at a reasonable depth and for snorkelling at the beach and swimming pool they are perfect.

Who should be interested in this survey?
Photo amateurs, for which this is actually the true concept of these compacts. We are looking for handy cameras that are easy to use and capable of responding to all situations. We aren’t Dpreview and our objective isn’t to compete with them, so our approach is radically different from photo specialised websites. They pay a lot of attention to distortion and the noise/signal ratio on test patterns. We chose to make more practical tests that are more representative of our every day use. From our point of view these cameras haven’t reached a level of perfection where you would need a test pattern to establish differences between products. You just need compare pictures to see the differences. We can measure distortion and vignettage, but focusing on this would be a mistake because no one (our intended readers, anyway) would be handicapped by these factors on the cameras selected.

What does image stabilization do
All the compacts tested are automatic and it isn’t possible to adjust speed or the aperture. Only the sensitivity is modifiable, which isn’t much. In consequence, photos are sometimes taken without the flash with a high level of sensitivity and noise, or with the flash with overexposed areas, flattened volumes, and red eyes.

Here is the result obtained with a good compact camera (Canon Ixus) without image stabilization, indoors, with automatic mode with and without flash:

The shutter speed is 1/60 of a second for the picture with flash with a standard aperture of F/5. This is standard, because cameras are the most efficient with this type of aperture and they are less subject to distortion. The image is sharp but colors aren’t natural. Our top model is no longer tan, she is completely burned. Her hair, which isn’t real from the start, reflects the flash. The volume in the face is also lost and the curve of the cheek, for example, is no longer visible. It looks like she has a flat face with a very small nose. The photo is sharp but at what cost. If in automatic mode the flash is off, the camera acts a little hazardously. The photo Exif parameters report a shutter speed of 1/8 of a second with an aperture of F/5. The camera doesn’t specify the sensitivity it just says “auto”. If you have really bad eyesight the picture on the right is blurry and it’s unusable.

Automatic cameras have a P mode, however, in which the sensitivity can be adjusted. It’s simple. Each time sensitivity is doubled the camera doubles the shutter speed. In short, the closer you get to 800 IO, the faster the camera will shoot and the sharper the photos will be.

Speed diminishes proportionally to sensitivity and as well as noise (parasite pixels) and photo sharpness.

To compensate for this, manufacturers introduced an optic or sensor image stabilization (the result is quite similar). This reduces much of the shaking and makes it possible to take sharp pictures at a much lower speed. Here are a few figures to give you an idea. Everybody will take a sharp picture at 1/60s. If you have a firm grip and concentrate you can take a sharp picture at 1/30s. With the best stabilization devices you can be sharp at 1/5s. Here is the result of its activation on the Ixus 800-IS.

The improvement is obvious. Stabilization makes it possible to gain two speeds. The 400 ISO picture isn’t perfect, as it has some noise, but it is much better than the one at 800 ISO without stabilization and (look above) the one with a flash!

We chose the Canon Ixus 800-IS to illustrate this change, the additional comfort added by stabilization. We have to say, however, that the popularity of this very handy function is mainly due to Panasonic and Konica Minolta. Just try it and you will find it indispensable. All manufacturers claim its implementation on some of their cameras but you should know that there are two types of stabilization; mechanical and software. Is this the same type of software stabilization as with camcorders? No. It is only an automatic modification of the camera’s qualities to a higher sensitivity and in consequence a higher level of noise. If we look at the package, it’s difficult to know which one it is. If you try it out, however, it’s obvious.

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