I am a big fan of digital point-and-shoot cameras, and usually have one with me wherever I go. Most of today's pocketables feature 3- or 4-megapixel resolution, quality optics, lots of handy functions ... and an annoying dose of shutter lag. You know, the demon that delays capturing the decisive moment until it's no longer decisive. Shutter lag is the number one complaint I receive about pocketable digicams in my photo workshops.
My hope has always been that shutter lag is just an annoying stop along digital photography's evolutionary path. It's like that coffee shop in the middle of nowhere where the service is way too slow.
Fortunately, the pace is picking up. All of the big camera makers seem focused on improving performance. At the moment, Kyocera has forged ahead of the pack with a technology called RTUNE that not only shortens shutter lag, but enables you to capture images at more than 3 frames per second until the memory card is full. As an added benefit, you can record 640 x 480 QuickTime movies at 30fps. They've packed all of this power into cameras that barely bulge the shirt pocket.
When I attended the Photo Marketing Association show in Las Vegas last month, a stop at the Kyocera booth was high on my To Do list. I spent some time testing the cameras that have RTUNE, including the FINECAM SL300R, the FINECAM S5R, and my personal favorite of the bunch, the Contax SL300R T*, which is the subject of today's testing.
The Contax SL300R T* is a 3.2-megapixel shirt pocket digicam that weighs 4.4 ounces (125 grams). In addition to RTUNE technology, the camera includes a Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* zoom lens (38mm - 115mm equivalent), 1.5" DayFine LCD (works in bright sunlight), SD memory card capability, filter adapter, lens hood, and a magnesium alloy body that twists for a variety of camera shooting angles. It is almost the exact same length and width as an iPod, but thinner and weighs less.
The electronics in the Contax are essentially the same as the Kyocera FINECAM SL300R. If you find yourself tempted by this review of the Contax, but don't want to pay the premium $499 price tag for it, you can buy the Kyocera model for over $100 less. You don't get the Carl Zeiss lens and the leather exterior, but you do get the body design and RTUNE image processing. Kyocera has also announced a 4-megapixel version of the FINECAM "twister," so you might want to investigate that one, too.
I will talk more about the specific camera features later in the article, but to begin I want to explore RTUNE and see if it indeed leaves shutter lag in the dust.
Apparently the Contax is an adept multitasker. Kyocera's Rapid Tuning technology takes advantage of parallel processing to essentially eliminate the need for an image buffer. As you take pictures, the information is processed in real-time and sent to both the memory card and the LCD monitor. That's right, as you're clicking away at 3+ frames per second, the image is displayed on your monitor at that same rate. There isn't monitor blackout while the camera processes the image. This is incredible to experience firsthand. I found myself shooting a few hundred frames just for the fun of it.
An important component in this process is the memory card itself. To reap the benefits of RTUNE, you need to use a high-speed memory card such as the SanDisk Ultra II SD card that has a sustained write speed of 9 MBs per second. Kyocera states that any SD card that can maintain a speed of 7.7 MBs per second will work with their RTUNE technology. Lexar and Panasonic also make compatible memory for the Contax.
The card literally becomes part of the equation as data is pipelined to it from the processor. The bad news is that you have to add the price of one or more of these high-speed cards to the overall cost of the camera. I've been using 256MB Ultras ($85 each) because I can get two of them cheaper than one 512MB card ($200 each). In fact, Contax doesn't bother to include any media card with the camera (I guess there's no such thing as a high-speed 16MB card), so be sure to figure in one or two Ultras for the total price of this camera.
RTUNE provides more than just fast frame rate. The camera processes much of the image information at the analog stage first, before converting it to a digital signal. Kyocera claims that this improves how the picture looks, too. Image noise, for example, is reduced by first adjusting RGB colors at 16 bits before outputting it digitally at 12 bits.
In my own informal testing I found that there seems to be some truth to this claim, as long as you keep your ISO setting to 100. When you boost the ISO to 200, 400, or 800, image noise seemed about the same as most other high-end digicams.
Take a look at this picture I took at the O'Reilly campus recently, on a beautiful day following a Pacific storm. The image was captured by hand-holding the Contax at ISO 100 with the aperture set at f-7.5.
I then opened the picture to 100 percent in Photoshop and cropped out a 320 x 240 rectangle from the sky. As you know, sky is one of the easiest areas to detect image noise, especially when viewing the picture on a high-resolution computer monitor at 100 percent. If you look at the cropped segment of the sky, you'll see that there isn't much image noise, and that the quality is quite good.
Another area where I noticed this robust image-processing was when analyzing the 640 x 480 movies shot with the Contax at 30fps. Video captured in good lighting revealed tremendous detail in each frame. Quite an accomplishment for a camera only 6mm thick that fits in your top shirt pocket.
RTUNE also shortens startup time to what Kyocera claims is less than a second. I have to admit startup is darn fast. In fact, one of the great ironies is that you have the option to set a custom startup screen for the Contax. The only problem is that the startup screen is subliminal at best, and only appears for the blink of an eye before the camera is ready for action.
But the real biggie is shutter lag itself. Kyocera says that they've reduced shutter lag to 0.07 seconds. Technically that may be true, but in real-world use the camera still has to focus and determine exposure before recording the image.
I decided to put the Contax up against the Canon PowerShot S400, an excellent pocketable digicam in its own right. The Contax has faster startup time and definitely outperforms the Canon in burst mode (including not blacking out the monitor as the Canon does during firing), but the shutter lag competition was a closer contest.
The S400's 9-point AiAF auto-focus system combined with DIGIC processing enabled the camera to lock in on the subject quickly and fire off a fast exposure, sometimes beating the Contax to the punch. A good performance indeed by Canon.
This scenario changed however when I turned off auto-focusing, by putting both cameras in Landscape mode (locking the focus at infinity). This is when RTUNE processing power prevailed and the Contax consistently fired off an exposure before the Canon S400.
The bottom line, however, is that there's more to shutter lag than just image processing. How fast the camera focuses and determines exposure seems as important as image processing speed. Maybe this is one of the reasons that Kyocera has included a full manual focusing mode for the Contax, enabling you to set and lock in the focus at any distance. Once you do this, RTUNE takes over and produces extremely fast performance.
But for everyday shooting with auto-focus turned on, high-end digicams such as the Canon S400 compare favorably with the Contax. All of today's top camera makers are striving to provide relief from shutter lag. To do so requires improvement in all areas of the picture-taking sequence. If for example, you could combine Canon's speedy focusing with Kyocera's image processing, you'd have one hot little digicam.
I've been carrying around the Contax to test its performance in different lighting situations. But along the way I've enjoyed getting to know some of its other features.
This camera definitely has personality. Here are some of the things that I find quite charming.
Quick Side Note -- In my new book, Digital Photography Hacks, I show you how to edit the QuickTime video these cameras produce, manage the audio, and even create rolling titles with just your text editor and a few simple tags -- and that's only a handful of the 100 industrial strength hacks I include. These new pocket digicams have so much capability for you to tap into once you have the knowledge.
The Contax SL300R T* certainly takes its share of risks, and most of them pay off handsomely. But it also has a few quirks. Here are the items that you should be aware of if you're considering giving this camera a spin.
The Contax SL300R T* has certainly rekindled my enthusiasm for pocket digicam photography. It is responsive and the images are crisp. I've found myself shooting with it at waist level a lot, which enables me to hold the camera more steady and minimizing camera shake. Movie mode, voice recording, in-camera editing, and compatibility with SD card PDAs put a lot of power in your hand for not many ounces.
As for the specific issue of shutter lag, I'd say this camera has great potential, depending on how you use it. If you pre-focus, it certainly is a speed demon. But the auto-focus system does slow down the effectiveness of RTUNE technology. Rapid firing at over 3 fps is amazing, however, as is full-frame-rate movies.
We may finally be entering an era where shutter lag in pocket digicams is fading in the rearview mirror. The Contax SL300R T* and the other RTUNE models made by Kyocera provide a glimpse into what is possible, and hopefully, what will be commonplace among all digital cameras very soon.
Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit www.thedigitalstory.com.
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