We are, as you may have guessed, not the uber-tech guys who comprehend...
If you’re an electronics fan, you have plenty to be grateful for this holiday season: the dawn of easy-to-use touch-screen gadgets. A sensible CEO at Hewlett-Packard. Angry Birds.
And if you’re a camera buff, you can give thanks for the arrival of three of the best cameras ever made: the Sony NEX-7, the Samsung NX200 and the Canon S100.
Why are these cameras so spectacular? Because they provide the best possible photos from the smallest possible device. They’re not about goofy gimmicks; they’re about putting bigger image sensors into smaller bodies.
Sony’s year-old NEX series has turned a lot of heads and sold a lot of cameras. The daring concept: Stuff a pro-size sensor (APS-C size, the same thing you’d find in, say, a Canon Rebel) into a camera whose body could fit in a jeans pocket.
Even with the lens on, the result is half the size and weight of a traditional SLR, while producing the same stunning photographic results. (The NEX cameras are even smaller than the popular Micro Four Thirds cameras from Panasonic and Olympus – yet the sensor is 60 percent bigger.)
Now, there have always been sacrifices. On all previous NEX models, you lost the built-in flash. You lost the eyepiece viewfinder, too – you had to compose your shot using only the screen. And you lost a good deal of usability; with so little room for physical buttons, the NEX cameras required crushingly inefficient on-screen controls.
Sony went back to the drawing board and came up with the NEX-7, whose arrival in the United States has been delayed by floods in Thailand. (Sony says it’s working around the clock to get the manufacturing up to speed.) T his camera is gorgeous. Black metal, like something James Bond might carry. Yet here is, yes, a built-in pop-up flash. It won’t exactly illuminate a football stadium, but it’s fine for subjects up to about 2.4 meters away.
More important, there’s now an eyepiece viewfinder. It’s an electronic type – you’re not peering through glass, but rather into a tiny screen – but it’s amazing. It’s the sharpest, clearest electronic viewfinder you’ve ever used. With three times the number of pixels that the usual LCD viewfinders have, looking at it comes breathtakingly close to looking through a pure glass viewfinder. Yet it has all the advantages of electronic; for example, you get to see the effects of your settings changes before you snap.
And yes, there are more physical controls. There are, in fact, three control wheels, ingeniously and conveniently placed, and you can assign useful simultaneous functions to them. For example, in manual mode, one can control aperture, another shutter speed, a third ISO (light sensitivity). Imagine being able to adjust all of those settings on the fly, without having to open a single menu – or even take the camera away from your eye. Fantastic.
There are now nine lenses available for the NEX series: macro, fisheye and telezoom among them. One of them is available only with the NEX-7: a gorgeous, nonzooming f/1.8 Zeiss lens. That f/1.8 business means it lets in a lot of light and creates a deliciously blurred background.
The NEX-7 is an astonishing piece of engineering. Its screen tilts up or down for easier angles. It takes magnificent 24-megapixel photos under almost any conditions. It’s infinitely customizable (and a lot to learn).
It also preserves the most frustrating quirk of its NEX siblings: You still can’t change modes, even from Auto to Program, without diving into the on-screen menus. That’s a particularly inefficient if you love to jump in and out of Sony’s amazing Sweep Panorama mode.
Like the NEX models, the Samsung NX200 has a pocketable body, yet contains a full APS-C sensor inside; it, too, takes sensational pictures and 1080p videos. But here, the on-screen controls aren’t a liability – they’re the best part. For example, one button press summons the Smart Panel: a grid of 16 setting options that you can change with a quick turn of a dial. Many of the Samsung’s 10 available lenses offer an iFunction button right on the barrel – one press lets you change a setting of your choice, like aperture, shutter speed, exposure adjustment and so on.
The NX200 can shoot 30 pictures a second at 5 megapixels each, or seven photos a second at the camera’s full 20-megapixel resolution. And it offers (hallelujah!) the same sweep-panorama feature that Sony cameras do so beautifully.
Unfortunately, here again there’s no built-in flash or eyepiece viewfinder. (A clip-on flash comes in the box.) And the lenses are big – bigger than Sony’s. In essence, though, you’re getting a package comparable to the Sony NEX-5N, but paying extra for the superior menu system. Think hard about that choice.
The Sony and Samsung cameras are fantastic micro-SLR cameras, but their lenses keep them from being pants-pocketable. So far, physics have rendered it impossible to put a full-size sensor into a coat-pocket camera.
Instead of having a full-size sensor in the smallest possible body, Canon’s new S100 contains the biggest possible sensor in a pocket-size body. Like its amazing predecessors, the S90 and S95, you’d never know that this sleek, black, metal compact is hiding a sensor with 88 percent more area than most pocket cameras’ sensors. And it has an f/2.0 lens, a rarity among pocket cameras, which offers you better low-light shots and, sometimes, that blurry-background effect.
(Unfortunately, you get f/2.0 only at the camera’s impressively wide-angle 24mm position. As you zoom all the way to 5X, you drop to a disappointing f/5.9.)
This camera costs more than double the usual pocket camera price, but its picture quality blows other cameras off the map.
What’s new in the S100? Speed. A new processor that can pop off eight frames in a second or deliver 120-frames-a-second slow-motion movies. A new 14-megapixel sensor that does better in low light. You can now zoom in while you’re shooting video. Since this camera also packs a 5X zoom and captures 1080p video with stereo sound, there are even fewer reasons to own an actual camcorder anymore. More to love: a digital neutral-density filter that cuts down light in superbright scenes; the famous lens ring (controls your choice of setting – exposure, aperture, shutter speed, whatever), and a GPS chip that location-stamps each photo.
As with its predecessors, the painful price you pay for all of this magic (in addition to the steep financial price) is battery life. You get only 200 shots on a charge, which is rock-bottom for cameras. Carry a spare.
But holy cow – what a photographic instrument! What color, clarity, tonal range! There are days when the S100 seems incapable of muffing a shot.
Like the Sony NEX-7, Sony NEX-5N and Samsung NX200, the S100 delivers picture quality that used to require much bigger, bulkier, heavier cameras. Let us give thanks for that.
- David Pogue © 2011 New York Times News Service
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