Point & Shoot Blur: Another Opinion

January 22, 2010

I frequently include links here to specs and test reports over at DPReview.com. Of all the photo websites around, they’re the ones who put digital cameras through the most exhaustive, in-house testing.

Unfortunately as the rising tide of interchangeable, me-too point & shoots became a tsunami, they elected to concentrate their efforts on the “enthusiast” side of the camera market. Now they only review compact cameras in an occasional group roundup.

One of the final times DPReview put a point & shoot model through an in-depth review was in February 2008. The subject was the Canon “Elph” SD1100 IS.

Canon Elph SD1100

An 8 Mp Canon compact, from 2008

The little Elph was a very svelte, 8 Mp model. It is discontinued now—replaced by a higher-megapixel version, of course. Packing in 32 Mp per square centimeter, its pixels nonetheless had about 50% more area than today’s worst-case 14 Mp models.

So it’s worth taking a look down memory lane, and seeing what DPReview found when they tested its noise and sharpness at various ISO settings.

The key thing to notice here is that when the camera’s sensitivity is raised to higher ISO settings, it is “cranking up the volume” on a fainter signal. This inevitably would tend to add noisy speckles to the image; and so the camera’s processor must take desperate measures trying to smooth over them again.

You can see how badly blurred the image becomes at higher ISOs. Scroll down to the hair detail sample, and notice how much fine texture is obliterated, even at just ISO 400. (That speed is about the minimum you’d need to take photos indoors without flash.)

With this kind of blur, more megapixels are clearly not delivering more detail.

For comparison, lets see a similar test on a well-rated current DSLR, the Pentax K-x. Despite being a 12 Mp camera, this gives immensely cleaner and more detailed images. Even ISO 1600 looks quite decent here (to change the ISO selection, mouse over the numbers below the images).

The difference is that the pixels on the Pentax sensor are almost 10 times the light-gathering area of the Elph’s pixels.

In DSLR terms, the K-x is nothing exotic—it’s considered an “upper entry-level” model. It costs about $550 with lens.

But in the world of point & shoots, I’d love to see how a typical current model would do, under DPReview’s standard test regimen. I think the results would be quite illuminating.

However, we can just use common sense. Looking at the Canon images, do you think it would be a good idea to make the pixels any smaller?


2 Responses to “Point & Shoot Blur: Another Opinion”

  1. I have a Canon SD1200 IS, very simular to the one you picture. I like the pictures it takes. My Nikon D80 takes great pictures, but I like the fact I can carry the Canon in my purse all the time and still get good photos. I like the fact I can take videos with it too. It does not take great zoom pictures though, but it does take good close up photos. The picture of the flashlight on my blog was taken with the Canon.

    • petavoxel Says:

      Sure—we all need pocket-sized, take-everywhere cameras. I own one of the earlier Elph models myself, and it has held up to an impressive amount of abuse.

      But chances are, you would have been just as satisfied with Canon’s SD700 IS, from 2006. That’s a very similar camera with a 6 Mp sensor; and in the amount of actual detail resolved, you scarcely lose anything.

      Even a 2.3 megapixel image would completely fill the (rather large) monitor I’m writing from; and 6 Mp is plenty to produce quite a decent-sized print.

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