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A Quintet of 'Tweeners'

Point-&-Shoot Sensors in DSLR Clothing

By Allan Weitz

When it comes to digicams, it seems most people – myself included – tend to go to the extremes, which is to say we talk about either point-and-shoots or 'real-deal' DSLRs. The reasons are fairly straight forward and are mostly based on two criteria, namely convenience vs. performance. And although there are many point-and-shoot digicams capable of knocking out exceptional imagery, most people buy them based on size, and to a lesser extent, color options (wasabi anyone?)

Often lost in the shuffle are digicams I call 'in-betweeners', or 'tweeners', a group of digicams that pack all-and-more of the bells & whistles found in pocket-sized digicams into camera bodies that approach the size and heft of real-deal compact DSLRs.

For the longest time I truly couldn't understand why anyone would buy a point-and-shoot camera that's the same size – and in a few cases larger than - a compact DSLR. After all, if a camera's large enough to warrant a neck strap, it should be a 'real' camera. And if it isn't 'real', why not go the extra yard and pony up the extra shekels for a Canon Rebel, Nikon D40x/D60, or Pentax K10D. Right? For the longest time I thought this way too. It was only after taking a few test-drives with a few of these tweeners that I began to appreciate where they fit into the scheme of things.

To the non-pro eye, tweeners can easily pass for real-deal compact DSLRs as they have all the telltale humps, bumps, grips and menus common to typical DSLRs. And out of all these physical features, only the prism 'bump' is somewhat of a facade (there's no prism… it's an electronic viewfinder), though it does house the pop-up flash. Tweeners also feature hot-shoes for attaching an accessory flash.

As for glass, all tweeners come with fixed, relatively fast zooms that from a focal-range and aperture speed point-of-view beat the pants off the zoom ranges of the average point-and-shoot or DSLR kit lens. Most every tweener also features the ability to focus intimidating close to the front element of the lens.

While earlier electronic viewfinders (EVFs) tended to be somewhat hard on the eyes, the latest generation EVFs are less prone to blurring and image smear when panning. They also respond better when shifting between dark scenes and brightly lit scenes and in general are far easier on the eyes.

If there's an Achilles heel remaining it would have to be critical focusing in manual mode. Though higher resolution LCDs (up to 230,000 pixels) are a vast improvement over LCDs found on earlier models, it's still somewhat difficult to confirm critical focus, especially if you're shooting at wider apertures or under low light conditions. With newer LCD's containing over 900,000 pixels coming to market, this too shall pass.

FujiFilm FinePix S100fsThe FujiFilm FinePix S100fs is the brawniest of the bunch. It's not only larger than many compact DSLRs, but actually feels better in the hand than comparably priced DSLRs. Solid feel aside, the Fuji S100fs packs an 11.1Mp (2/3") Super CCD HR sensor, which in conjunction with Fuji's RP III image processor, delivers an impressive range of tone, color, and noticeably less noise than we're used to seeing from digicams in this category. And in case you're curious, the 'fs' in the camera's name stands for 'film simulation', which according to the nice folks at Fuji means the new sensor will deliver dynamic range comparable to negative film. So far, so good.

One of the neater tricks the S100fs brings to the table is the ability to emulate the look of FujiFilm's most popular slide films, specifically Provia and Velvia, as well as what Fuji calls a 'Soft Mode' for “soft, fine, smooth tonality".

Aside from a choice of film emulations, the FinePix S100fs also offers dynamic range bracketing (100%, 200%, and 400%) to better maintain shadow and/or shadow details in a broad range of lighting situations. Exposure times can also be bracketed plus or minus one stop.

The Fuji FinePix S100fs has a fixed, optically stabilized 14.3x, 7.1 to 101.5mm (28 to 400mm equivalent…whew!) zoom with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 at the wide end and f/5.3 on the long side. If you plan on flying off on an African safari and don't want to check any bags you might want to tuck this puppy among your carry-ons.

Along with uncompressed RAW files, JPEGs can be captured at 5 compression ratios (3840 x 2880 to 640 x 480). ISO ratings go from a native 64 through 3200, and when push comes to shove, the ISO can be 'oomphed' to 6400 @ 6Mp and ISO 10,000 @ 3Mp (another Whew!).

When you go 'click', the FinePix S100fs can eliminate red-eye on the fly and save both the 'before & after' versions. Face Detection 2.0 can focus on faces at profile angles of up to 90° as well as heads tilted to angles up to 135°, which makes the FinePix S100fs the perfect camera to use if you have friends or relatives who look like they stepped out of Picasso's Guernica.

In the viewing department the S100fs's EVF contains a healthy 200,000 pixels, while the rear-mounted swiveling LCD contains 230,000 pixels. Shutter speeds go from 30-seconds to 1/4000th. As for power, a NP-140 lithium-ion rechargeable battery runs the show and an optional AC adapter is available.

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50 (in black or silver) has quite a few strong points going for it, starting with a Leica DC Vario-Elmarit, 7.4 to 88.8mm (35 to 420mm equivalent) zoom lens. Using Panasonic's Mega O.I.S. (Optical Image Stabilization) to smooth out any bumps along the way, this 12x Leica zoom delivers crisp imagery across an impressive range of focal lengths.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50The Leica DC zoom opens up to a maximum aperture of f/2.8 – f/3.7 at the long end - and contains three aspherical surfaces and one ED element. Being an internal focus design, the Vario-Elmarit doesn't jump out at you like a snapping turtle when you zoom out towards the longer focal lengths.

A particularly neat feature found on the DMC-FZ50 is a 10x magnification of the center portion of the viewing field that pops up when you rotate the lens' focusing ring in Manual mode. If you've ever tried fine-focusing a lens using an EVF and/or LCD you'll appreciate this handy feature. The camera's 2" LCD display (207,000 pixels) can be swiveled to any number of positions, and can be programmed to display a real-time histogram. Composing images can also be performed using the camera's 235,000 pixel EVF.

In addition to RAW capture, the DMC-FZ50 can capture JPEGs at 5 levels of compression at 4:3 aspect ratio, 4 levels of compression at 3:2 aspect ratio, and 3 levels at 16:9 aspect ratio. For video capture the DMC-FZ50 delivers 2 levels of compression at 4:3 aspect ratio and a single level if you shoot at a 16:9 aspect ratio.

Still images can be eyeballed at 1x, 4x, and 10 x magnifications. Both still and video clips get filed away in SD, SDHC, or MMC memory cards.

The shutter range of the Panasonic DMC-FZ50 tops out at 1/2000th and goes as long as 8-seconds in Program, Aperture, and Shutter Priority, and up to 60-seconds in Manual mode. There are 16 shooting modes and a quartet of color modes that include Cool, Warm, B&W, and Sepia. ISO sensitivity ranges from 100 through 3200 at Hi-Mode.

Included with each camera is a copy of ArcSoft PhotoImpression, ArcSoft PanoramaMaker, Lumix Simple Viewer, and Photo Fun Studio software, along with a rechargeable lithium ion battery (good for about 360 shots), a charger, lens cap, shade, AV and USB cables, a strap, and a 32Mb SD card.

Rather than repeat myself, if you want to know all of the nuts and bolts about the Leica V-Lux1 simply re-read the previous seven paragraphs and you'll know most everything you need to know about Leica's contribution to the tweener club. As you might have guessed by now, the Leica V-Lux1 and Panasonic's DMC-FZ50 are maternal twins, but the difference between the two cameras is more than a paint job, a fancy red badge, and a few hundred dollars less in your wallet.

Leica V-Lux1Cosmetic differences aside, the firmware in Leica's version is tuned to render colors in a more natural, i.e. neutral palate in keeping with Leica's longtime philosophy of keeping things 'real'.

In practice, side-by-side images taken with the two camera's did indeed have a different 'feel' to them, with Panasonic's image files having a 'punchier' feel to them as compared to the Leica's more neutral color palate. Which is 'better'? It's all a matter of choice. You can goose the saturation of a neutral image as easily as tame a 'punchier' color palate. A better question is which palate you want to start from… neutral or buggered?

Your choice of JPEG compression has also been expanded on the Leica V-Lux1 as compared to its Panasonic sibling. And then there's that sexy red Leica badge…

Other differences between the two cameras include a larger SD memory card with the Leica (512Mb vs. 32Mb), twice the warranty coverage (2-years vs. 1-year), a copy of Photoshop Elements & QuickTime Movie Player, and lest we forget, that sexy red Leica badge.

Canon's PowerShot S5 IS is the latest upgrade of Canon's flagship PowerShot digicam. Centered around an 8Mp (1/2.5") CCD, the S5 IS features an image stabilized 12x, 6.0-72.0mm zoom lens that has the field-of-view of a 36-432mm lens on a 35mm camera. Maximum aperture varies from f/2.7 to f/3.5 as you zoom from wide to telephoto, with (Super) macro focusing down to 3.9". Shutter speeds can be set from 15-seconds to 1/3200th.

Canon's PowerShot S5 IS
Canon's PowerShot S5 IS

Viewing and editing can be performed via the S5 IS's 2.5" TFT LCD screen (207,000 pixels), which tilts and swivels every which way, or the camera's electronic viewfinder. ISO sensitivity can be set from a native ISO of 80 and increased up to 1600. There's a choice of 6 preset White Balance setting in addition to Auto and pre-set. The pop-up flash can be set to 4 settings (plus 'off') and there are over a dozen exposure settings available to meet the needs of most any occasion. Continuous exposures can be captured at a rate of approximately 1.5 f/p/s.

JPEG stills can be captured in 6 compression formats ranging from 640x480 through 3264x1832 (widescreen). Video can be recorded at a choice of either 640x480 (30 fps/30 fps LP) or 320x240 (60 fps/30 fps) up to 4GB or 60 minutes, whichsever comes first. Playback is possible in both NTSC and PAL. For editing and focus checking the S5 IS features a handy 2x-10x zoom function.

The Canon PowerShot S5 IS captures still and video imagery onto SD, SDHC, or MMC memory cards, and is powered by 4 AA batteries (alkaline or NiMH), as well as an optional AC adapter (CA-PS700). According to Canon you can expect to capture about 170 shots with alkaline batteries and about 450 with NiMH batteries.

If a ridiculously wide zoom range is a high priority on your digicam checklist, the Olympus SP-570 UZ wins hands-down. The SP-570 UV sports a 20x, 4.6 to 92mm (26 to 520 mm equivalent…gasp!) zoom that contains 14 elements (including 4 aspheric and 2 ED) in 11 groups, all while maintaining a maximum aperture of f/2.8 at the wide side and f/4.5 at the long end.

Olympus SP-570 UZWhen you go 'click' your pictures are captured by a 10Mp CCD (1/2.33"), which records your photos in RAW form, 6 levels of JPEG compression, and 3 levels of video (with sound). To best ensure sharp images, the SP-570 UZ incorporates a combination of Sensor-Shift Image Stabilization and ISO-boosting (up to ISO 6400) to meet the demands of the moment. The SP-570 UV's shutter has a range that covers 1/2000th to ½-second in Auto, 15-seconds in Manual, and up to 8-minutes in Bulb. And to help maintain clean imagery noise control kicks in automatically when exposure times go beyond a half-second.

Shooting modes? Is 31 enough? And Olympus' Master software (included) will stitch up to 10 shots when recorded onto an Olympus-brand xD Picture card. Burst-rates are also high on the SP-570 UV's list of bragging rights; 13.5 f/p/s up to 30 frames @ 3Mp, 7.2 f/p/s up to 30 frames @5Mp, and 1.2 f/p/s up to 7 frames @ 10Mp.

As with other cameras in the class, composing and editing images can be performed using the camera's EVF or rear LCD, which contains 230,000 pixels and can be adjusted to 5 levels of brightness to match ambient light levels. As a bonus, the Olympus SP-570 UV contains 45Mb of built-in memory. Power for the Olympus SP-570 UV is courtesy of 4 'AA' batteries (alkaline or NiMH) or the optional C-7AU AC adapter.

Parting thoughts…

As you can probably tell I've found a soft spot in my heart for tweeners. Are they perfect? Well, let's just say once you get used to composing images on what are essentially small TV screens, tweeners are lightweight, easy-to-tote, and easy-to-use digicams that offer an optical flexibility far beyond the abilities of interchangeable zoom lenses, kit or otherwise. That said, though I still strongly prefer peering through a 'real' optical viewfinder, if I was heading on an adventure and was limited to a single camera & lens combination, tweeners would have to be at the top of my list.

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