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Big Sensors, Shrinking Cameras

Thursday, 12 Nov 2009 | 10:57 AM ET

Why can’t someone just build the perfect camera? I mean, come on — we’re not asking for the world, just a handful of prerequisites:

Panasonic Lumix GF1
Source: panasonic.com
Panasonic Lumix GF1

1. Small enough for a pants pocket. 2. A big sensor. 3. Interchangeable lenses. 4. Simple, well-laid out controls. 5. Full manual controls. 6. Canned scene modes for beginners. 7. Superfast start-up. 8. No shutter lag (the annoying delay after you press the button). 9. No blur in low light. 10. An eyepiece viewfinder. 11. Huge screen. 12. Image stabilization. 13. Face recognition for perfect portraits. 14. The ability to take RAW photos (a format beloved by photographers because it lets them, in effect, change camera settings after the fact, using Photoshop). 15. Excellent burst mode — say, 5 shots a second. 16. Wide-angle lens. 17. Superzoom lens. 18. Customizable buttons. 19. Hi-def video capture. 20. Low price.

Is that so much to ask?

All implausible feature-lust aside, though, the main obstacle to attaining all of this in a single camera is a little nuisance called physics. For example, you can’t have both a big screen and an eyepiece viewfinder in a small camera. You can’t have a low price and superfast start-up (faster circuitry is expensive). And you can’t have a big sensor in a little camera, because — hey, wait. Maybe you can.

This is a review of two new cameras that have had camera aficionados’ palms sweating for months: the Canon PowerShot S90 ($412) and the Panasonic Lumix GF1 ($870). Those prices are much higher than for similar size cameras, but these models represent huge, technologically amazing steps along the camera size/sensor size continuum.

And why should we care? Well, we want a big sensor because it’s the single most important determinant of photo quality. A big sensor generally means better color and clarity, and less grain and blur in low light. S.L.R. cameras have enormous sensors, which is why professionals use them. But S.L.R.’s are also enormous cameras, which is why 92 percent of consumers still buy pocket cameras.

Canon’s S90 doesn’t offer S.L.R.-quality photos, but it comes closer than any pocket camera ever has, because of three advances.

First, it’s got a big sensor: 0.59 inches diagonal, 37 percent larger than most pocket cams. And it’s only 10 megapixels, so each individual light-sensing pixel is much larger, for better light-gathering ability. (In fact, the S90 has the same sensor and electronics as the much bulkier Canon G11.)

Second, the S90 has an eyebrow-raising f/2.0 lens. It lets twice as much light through the glass as most pocket cameras.

Third, the S90 has a big clicky ring around its lens barrel, which lets you make quick photographic adjustments without burrowing into menus. Which adjustment? That’s up to you. With one button press, you can redefine the ring’s function: zoom, manual focus, exposure adjustment, white balance, ISO (light sensitivity), shutter speed or aperture. You can turn the dial, snap, turn some more, snap, and never take your eyes off the screen, learning all the way.

Now, like all pocket cameras, the S90 has a tough time creating that sharp-subject, blurred-background effect that’s such a hallmark of professional S.L.R. photography. And, for some reason, the S90 can’t capture hi-def video-only standard-definition. Very odd.

But come on: Halloween night without a flash? No problem. Indoor portraits? You’re all set. I even took the S90 through the darkened tunnel rides of a theme park, and had to delete only a small percentage because of blurriness.

The S90 may not offer every single item on the Master Camera Wish List, but it offers more than any other pocket camera: 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 18 and 20.

In fact, I’ll come right out and say it: This camera takes better photos than any other pocket camera on the market.

That’s not an easy feat, considering its rival: Panasonic’s Lumix LX3 ($480), which has been available for a whole year now. That pocket camera introduced much of what makes the Canon special: the f/2.0 lens, the big sensor (0.61 inches), RAW-format images and so on. But the LX3 also captures movies in hi-def and has a hot shoe where you can attach an external flash. The photos are generally terrific.

On the other hand, the S90 is thinner and narrower. It costs $65 less. The zoom is much more powerful (3.8X versus 2.5X). The lens cap is automatic and built in — not a detached plastic thing, as on the LX3. And the photo colors pop more. (Canon’s research indicates that Western shoppers prefer extra-vibrant colors, even if they don’t reflect reality.)

Camera shelf
Photo by: Eric Schmuttenmaer
Camera shelf

Panasonic is hardly out of this game, however. In 2008, it teamed up with Olympus to introduce a radical new hybrid camera format called Micro Four Thirds. These cameras are a lot like S.L.R.’s (interchangeable lenses, high burst mode, low shutter lag, big sensor), but without the “mirror box” between the lens and your eye. The camera can therefore be much smaller than true S.L.R.’s, while maintaining a sensor 80 percent as big.

With its new Lumix GF1, Panasonic has finally started to exploit the potential of its own camera format. At 4.7 x 2.8 x 1.4 inches, the GF1 is the world’s smallest interchangeable-lens flash camera. It fits in a coat pocket even with its 3X zoom lens. (You can also get it with a nonzooming 20-millimeter “pancake” lens that adds no depth to the body.)

The GF1’s 0.89-inch sensor, still isn’t the size of an S.L.R.’s, so it still doesn’t have quite the same light sensitivity. It focuses fast but not instantaneously, as an S.L.R. does. And there are still only six Micro Four Thirds lenses so far.

On the other hand, the GF1 has a few stunts of its own. Its smaller bulk is less likely to intimidate subjects. It can fit into a coat pocket, even with the zoom lens.

And the GF1 is a hi-def video superstar. It can change zoom and focus while you’re shooting video — something S.L.R.’s can’t do — although the refocus takes a second or so. Videos aren’t length-limited, either; you could record the entire school musical on, say, a 16-gigabyte memory card. And there’s a dedicated record button, so you never have to change modes to flip between stills and videos.

The GF1 offers features 2 to 9 and 11 to 18, not to mention a slew of more unusual features like person recognition (“Uncle Bob”) and terrific battery life.

You’ll note that none of the three cameras includes an eyepiece viewfinder; camera shoppers, alas, have clearly indicated that they prefer big screens to eyepieces.

The photos tell the happy ending; have a look at the slide show that accompanies this article at nytimes.com/tech.

Or just read the bottom line: These cameras proudly establish brand-new spots on the spectrum between little shirt-pocket cameras and great big S.L.R. cameras. None of them may offer Desirable Features 1 through 20, inclusive — no camera ever will. But if you’re willing to pay nearly double for better photos and less bulk, they come closer than any cameras have before.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.