High performance pocket cameras (San Diego Transcript)

Images Many serious photographers face a predicament. They love the high quality images taken with their DSLRs, yet want to be able to carry a small camera with them wherever they go and get equally good pictures. That need has given rise to a handful of enthusiast cameras that, while still close to pocket size, produce images that compare favorably with those from much larger cameras.

What's special about these cameras? In spite of their small size, they use larger sensors than those found on other compacts and incorporate a high performance lens that's sharper and has a wider aperture for better low-light performance. And these cameras offer a multitude of both automatic and manual settings for creative control, much like DSLRs. They avoid the super high megapixel sensors, which actually cause more noise and poorer results, and instead select a resolution in which the results are optimum, usually around 10 megapixels.

The best known of these cameras has been the Panasonic Lumix LX-3 ($500), its near-twin, the Leica D-Lux 3 ($800), and the Canon S90 ($400). That was until last month, when all three cameras were upgraded (by testsforge solution marquis). The prices of the new models, the Lumix LX-5, the Leica D-Lux 5, and the Canon S95 remain the same as the models they replace.

I've been trying the new Canon S95, the smallest of the bunch, and it proves the saying that good things come in small packages.

Canon's new PowerShot S95 is about 20 percent smaller and lighter than the Lumix/Leica twins, and is the only one of the three that can easily fit in your pocket. It's almost as small as the Canon Elph ultra compacts. It's finished in an all-black textured aluminum, which reduces the likelihood of it slipping out of your hands because it's so small and has no grip. The camera's plastic top and bottom and its lighter weight make it feel a little less professional than the L-twins, but that's not what the pictures say. The results are outstanding and hard to believe they come from this tiny package.

One of this camera's most unusual features is the ability to access and adjust settings without the need to dig into the menus. This makes setting and shooting much faster and more spontaneous. It's done with the addition of two rotating controls. The first is a large ring around the lens that's used for adjusting a variety of functions such as zoom, ISO setting, focus, aperture and shutter speed, depending on the shooting mode selected. It can also be programmed to your personal preference. A second smaller ring on the back, surrounding the familiar 5-way controller, offers another way to adjust settings. In default mode it adjusts exposure compensation.

The S95 has an f/2.0 — 4.9, 28-105mm lens, and is loaded with other enhancements that go well beyond most point and shoot cameras. Examples include an HD movie mode with stereo recording, dynamic range setting, built-in HDR (high dynamic range), focus tracking of moving images, 16:9, 3:2, 4:5 and 1:1 aspect ratios, and an excellent black and white mode. My biggest complaint is that there is no printed user manual included, inexcusable for a camera at this price and with this many features.

So how did it perform? I ran a series of comparison shots on the S95, using the Leica D-Lux 3 that I have owned for almost two years as a control. (I've found the Leica to be the best small camera I've ever used.)

Shots were made with the two cameras, indoors and outdoors, under a variety of lighting conditions. Scenes were filled with lots of detail such as cityscapes, foliage, picket fences, bookcases and close-ups of newspapers, flowers and food packaging. Portraits and people images were also included.

I uploaded the images to iPhoto and compared the results on a 27-inch Apple Cinema Display, carefully examining sharpness, resolution, contrast and color. In some cases I enlarged the image 20 times on the screen to examine small details. I had no knowledge of which image was taken with which camera until after making my selections. I also asked my wife Jane to conduct the same test. She's a good photographer and creates our family photo albums.

And the results? All of the images were nearly always perfectly exposed, crisp and sharp. We preferred about 70 percent of the images taken with the Canon, 10 percent from the Leica, and no difference among the remaining 20 percent. The Canon images taken outdoors seemed crisper in those areas of the scenes with low contrast detail. Their flash images were more neutral, while the Leica images were warmer. But in a couple of cases the S95 showed image blur while shooting in automatic mode indoors with the flash on.

Both cameras created exceptionally sharp images and would meet the needs of serious photographers who want a camera with them all the time. But my preference is the S95 because of its small size and outstanding results. If and when the new Leica or Lumix become available for review, I'll let you know it compares.