Five pro-level digital cameras shoot it out

Olympus E-20N

Sony DSC-F717

Minolta DiMage7i

Fujifilm FinePix S2 Pro

Nikon DIX

Although professional digital cameras still have drawbacks, even skeptics are swapping their 35mm film for 256M compact flash cards.

The GCN Lab asked the leading digital camera vendors to send us their latest models for a comparison of image quality, battery life, features and ease of use. We also asked GCN graphic artist Michael J. Bechetti to tell us which images would need the least color correction to bring them up to publication quality.

Viewing the images in Adobe Photoshop 6.0, we measured levels of cyan, magenta and yellow in the whitish and grayish areas. The CYMK scale helps an artist adjust color balance for crisper, more realistic images.
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In the neutral-color test, the ideal balance is equal percentages of yellow and magenta with 3 percent to 10 percent more cyan. Exact proportions depend on whether the neutral area is white, black or gray.

Our neutral-color test subject was a black bowl of fruit on a white cloth, photographed under office lighting without flash, and at the highest quality of the cameras' programmable automatic settings.

For the flesh-tone test, we photographed a Caucasian model outdoors with the sun behind the camera.

Digital cameras have always had a tough time capturing skin tones correctly. In our tests, some of the cameras needed careful manual adjustment whereas others hit the mark by themselves.

The ideal image of fair-skinned flesh tones should have a cyan level about one-fifth that of magenta, with yellow just slightly higher than magenta, according to digital photography pioneer and consultant Dan Marguilis.

Although we invited numerous camera vendors to participate, including Eastman Kodak Co. and Canon USA Inc., only five companies with high-end products chose to meet our submissions deadline. To our surprise, the cameras that won the highest marks were not the expensive single-lens-reflex models.

We looked for a camera that had it all'wide-ranging shutter speeds, resolutions and apertures. We also wanted a camera that could do it all'take great pictures under common lighting in automatic mode.
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We started out assuming that SLR cameras could deliver high quality in automatic mode, and that fixed-lens competitors would require skilled hands to achieve the same performance. We were wrong.

Good color rendition

The Olympus E-20N captured our Reviewer's Choice designation by hitting the mark for professional images without a professional photographer on hand.

In the neutral-color test, the E-20N's white images averaged 2 percent cyan, 2 percent magenta and zero yellow.

In black areas, the E-20N's output measured 74 percent cyan, 68 percent magenta and 67 percent yellow. The ideal for black is equal parts magenta and yellow with cyan 10 percent higher.

The E-20N's gray images were 44 percent cyan, 35 percent magenta and 36 percent yellow. The ideal gray is equal portions of magenta and yellow with cyan 5 percent higher.

As we soon learned, few of the other cameras could come so close to the ideal levels. But neutrals weren't the only colors at which the Olympus excelled. It also captured fair skin tones the best, averaging 5 percent cyan, 23 percent magenta and 23 percent yellow. That's as close to perfect as most cameras get.

The E-20N also seemed well-balanced and sturdier than its fixed-lens competitors.

It accepted 1G IBM microDrive cards as well as SmartMedia flash cards. Shutter speeds up to 1/18,000 of a second in electronic mode cut the pixel count to 2.5 megapixels. The minimum shutter speed in standard mode was 1/1,400 of a second.

The built-in flash had several modes to fit most lighting environments, plus a hot-shoe port for adding flash attachments.

The 9mm-to-36mm lens was the only drawback. At $1,699, the E-20 was far from the costliest camera in the review and well worth the price.
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(If you look hard at the accompanying pictures, you'll notice that the white cloth shows spots of pink. They're stains from a toner cartridge accident in our recent color printer review.)

All the test cameras were reproducing the cloth as pure white, until we tried the Sony DSC-F717. Remarkably, it picked up the slight pink hue on portions of the cloth. We first thought the camera naturally made images heavy on magenta. To make sure, we photographed a new, white T-shirt in the next set of pictures.

Sure enough, the pink still showed up on the cloth, whereas the white reading on the T-shirt was picture-perfect: 5 percent cyan with 2 percent each of magenta and yellow. Grays and blacks were very good, and the DSC-F717 scored equally well on the skin-tone tests, coming in a close second to the Olympus.

The Sony differed mechanically from any other digital camera we've reviewed. Its memory consisted entirely of Sony Memory Sticks. The frame was small, and the 10X, 9.8mm-to-48.5mm lens dwarfed the body.

In true Sony fashion, the DSC-F717 was completely electronic, from digital viewfinder to flash release. We weren't crazy about the electronic viewfinder or the fact that the review unit had low-capacity, 128M Memory Sticks, but otherwise the Sony outperformed almost every other camera in the review.

Not only could it record MPEG video, it also took pictures in pitch-black darkness. Navigation was easy. Battery life, however, was short'only about 100 minutes, as you might expect from a totally electronic camera.

With so many features and such quality for a low price of $1,000, the Sony was a shoo-in for our Reviewer's Choice and Bang for the Buck designations.
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Only Minolta Information Systems Inc. has an electronic viewfinder that activates from a motion sensor. That kind of ingenuity plus good images earned the Minolta DiMage 7i a solid B grade.

The images looked a little washed-out next to those taken by the Olympus or the Sony. But the neutral-color numbers were well above average, and the skin-color tests showed a big improvement over last year, when the Minolta DiMage 2300 gave the subject a bogus sunburn.

The DiMage 7i lists for $1,099, although online prices run as low as $500.

A couple of drawbacks: The Minolta was less user-friendly than the Olympus and Sony models, and its batteries needed changing after about an hour. Much of the power drain came from the digital viewfinder and high-resolution LCD in back. I found the digital viewfinder detracted somewhat from the photographic experience, seeming more like TV.

I was, however, impressed by the exposure control. That advance came in part from a proprietary Minolta technology called Digital Effects Control, which can alter the magenta or cyan in color images as well as tones in black and white to achieve crispness.

The Minolta had an impressive 7X, 7.2- to 50.8-mm lens, which is the equivalent of 28mm to 200mm in a 35mm film camera.

Fast action

At maximum resolution'a whopping 3,008 by 1,960 pixels'the Nikon D1X could process nine pictures at a blazing three frames per second.

But, although the D1X had higher resolution and faster processing than any other camera in the review, it didn't take pictures as well, even at top resolution and in the basic programmed auto-exposure mode with automatic white balance setting. Pictures taken in brightly lit environments had extremely high cyan levels.

The elevated cyan'28 percent versus 5 percent for the Sony, indicated a white balance problem in automatic mode. That was disappointing in view of the 5.34 million effective pixels available.

With shutter speeds that run from 30 seconds to 1/16,000 second, it's no wonder the D1X is regarded as one of the most versatile cameras on the market. And its body had the best feel in the review. But images, though large and detailed, lacked the good color composition of some smaller competitors'.

When Nikon introduced the D1, it was the first sub-$1,000, professional digital SLR camera. The $6,300 D1X cost more than twice as much as the $2,399 Fujifilm FinePix S2 Pro.

Last year we reviewed the FinePix S1 Pro, which turned in the best performance of three professional digital cameras. This year, although we enjoyed the Nikon-like feel of the S2 Pro, its quality was below par compared with the Olympus, Sony and Minolta.
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The S2 Pro's images were high in yellow and low in cyan, particularly in the flesh-tone tests, which made skin look red and sunburned. Photoshop placed the skin test results at 37 percent magenta, 42 percent yellow and zero cyan.

Despite these difficulties with automatic white balancing, the S2 Pro had the highest megapixel rating and resolution in the review.

It's a good thing it had a FireWire port, because downloading large image files with such resolutions would take far too long over Universal Serial Bus 1.1.

Processing also was slow. On average, a command to Delete or Zoom took 20 to 30 seconds to execute in fine-quality mode.

This year's professional digital cameras were more portable and more automatic than last year's, with programmable apertures, lighting, shutter speeds and effects.

They're no longer SLR monsters, and they deserve respect from pros and amateurs alike.

Post Newsweek Tech Media photographer Henrik G. de Gyor contributed to this review.

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