26 April 2005

Review: Canon 350D (Rebel XT)

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Canon 350D Rebel XT

When the Canon EOS 300D (or Digital Rebel in the US) came on the market in late 2003 it revolutionised the camera market. It was the first decent DSLR that was (just) affordable enough for real people; a highly capable camera that didn’t require you to mortgage your house and your family. The 300D has gone on to become one of the biggest selling cameras of all time, and rightly so. It’s a good camera that takes very good pictures.

But a year and a half is a long time in the digicam world. A raft of more advanced competitors has come on the market and the 300D has started to look a little long in the shutter. And let’s face it, it was no up-market technological marvel in the first place. It suffered from a crippled feature set and plasticky build and oozed ‘cost-cutting’ rather than ‘premium quality’.

There can be do doubt that the new 350D (Digital Rebel XT) is an advance on the 300D in many ways. It boasts an excellent 8 megapixel sensor with Canon’s newer DIGIC II brain; it no longer suffers from deliberately crippled functions, and it’s smaller, lighter and much more responsive. Better quality, more features, reduced form factor, same price-point. A winning formula, surely?

Maybe, but I’ve spent a little time with the 350D, and frankly, I can’t help feeling that Canon have really missed an opportunity here. In many areas, the 350 still trails, or at least fails to better, the Nikon D70, its main competitor:
  • It has a small viewfinder, much like the D70. It’s not unusable, but it’s not exciting either.
  • It has a smaller CCD, despite the added resolution. That means a 1.6 multiplier on lend focal length. Good news if you are a telephoto photographer, but not for the average shooter looking for wide angle pics.
  • It has poorer battery life.
  • It has a smaller frame buffer.
  • Menu visibility is poorer and less intuitive.
  • It still has that annoying backplate control LCD. It’s undoubtedly less practical than a top-plate display and much more prone to scratches.
  • The standard zoom lens is really soft and more than negates any possible image quality improvement from the increase to 8 megapixels. It's not a subtle thing which would be obvious only to an expert—this lens is just downright poor.
  • It still feels cheap and plasticky. If this was my prime criticism of the 300D, the 350D is not much different. And however much Canon resellers try to push that as a feature, this is a camera which simply does not exude the near-professional image that the D70 manages to. The Nikon looks at the very least like a professional camera’s sibling. On several occasions it has helped me take photographs in situations where only credentialed journalists would ordinarily be allowed. The 350D improves on the 300D in this regard, but in the ‘prosumer’ world, it’s still less ‘pro’ than ‘sumer’.
All these weaknesses, as I see them, are almost certainly deliberate placement decisions by Canon so as not to dent the market for the EOS 20D. But up against offerings from Pentax, and Nikon, the 350D seems rather a disappointment, from a manufacturer whose offerings I generally have very high regard for. Of course, many people will buy it solely on the basis of the higher pixel count. But the bottom line is, in order to take advantage of that, you’ll have to upgrade from the standard kit lens, which will make the package relatively poor value, and knocking on the door of the far more desirable 20D.

If you are in the market for a DSLR and small size is a particular criterion, then the Pentax *ist DS is still my first recommendation. But the new Nikon D50, due to hit shops any moment now, appears to be simply a smaller D70 with almost all the features. If that’s the case, Nikon deserve to have a winner in this market segment.

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24 April 2005

New Canon S2 IS—one of the world’s most desirable compact digicams?

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Canon_S2 IS

It may only have had a 3 megapixel sensor, but the venerable Canon S1 IS was close to compact digital camera perfection. The compact 10x optical zoom was coupled with a vibration reduction system which really worked (see my previous review, Shock results with long zoom digicams), a functional, albeit small, swivelling LCD screen, excellent movie mode, good handgrip, and let’s face it, very cool styling.

The only problem was that 3 megapixels seemed like a fairly low spec for the price. But megapixels can be deceptive, and my experience was that the S1 IS took very fine pictures, better than many 4 and 5 megapixel cameras.

It has seemed a long time coming, but a replacement camera was inevitable, and now the new S2 IS is here. It’s now a 5 megapixel style machine, with an improved 12x optical zoom, larger 1.8” LCD, 2.4 fps shooting speed and added focus assist lamp. It still has an excellent movie mode, the LCD still swivels, and the camera still has Canon’s excellent Image Stabilisation system. Regular readers will know that I consider Canon’s system better than Minolta and Panasonic’s offerings. Canon have simply been doing image stabilisation for longer, through their excellent video cameras, and have become pretty good at it.

The only area in which the S2 IS is not improved over its predecessor is in size and weight. Unusually in this world of increasing miniaturisation, the S2 is a little bigger and heavier than the old S1. At 113 x 78 x 75 mm and 405g it’s no back pocket special. It’s about the same size as Minolta’s Z5, and rather smaller than the Panasonic FZ20, its main competitors. And there’s another competitor in the wings, Sony’s new DSC-H1. The Sony has an impressive 2.5” screen (although it doesn’t swivel), but is heavier than Canon and Minolta.

I have to admit, the long zoom, anti-shake digicam market segment my favourite, and it’s certainly hotting up. But I have a feeling this new Canon will be the front-runner.Go to eebahgum!

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9 April 2005

Nikon D70 real-life review

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> related review: Nikon D70 Firmware upgrade 2.0

In 4 months my Nikon D70 has boiled in the 100 degree heat of Adelaide, sweated in the Singapore humidity, frozen on the ski slopes of Poland, been rained on in Berlin and snowed on in Disneyland Paris. On the way it has taken about 8,000 photos. Plenty of ammunition for a review. Of course, there are already many on the web that go into such extreme detail that I would add nothing. They are all based on the premise that minute differences in image quality are really critical and worth discussing for 20 pages. And I have read them all voraciously. This premise is, of course, largely nonsense. For example, I can't believe how many reviews have criticised the D70 for problems with moiré. In taking thousand of shots of every conceivable type, I have not seen moiré problems once, but I had been whipped into a frenzy of worry about it because of all the reviews.

The sad truth is that camera reviews, typically so influential on our purchasing decisions are seldom based around the question which is ultimately most important—what is the camera like to live with and use day-to-day?

To cut a long story short, the D70 is generally great, but still has several minor annoyances and a few major ones. I'll summarise the good, bad and ugly in this post. In the next few days I'll also post on how the D70 compares with the new Canon EOS 350D (or Rebel XT as they call it in the US) and the DSLR v top end compact digicam dilemma (which isn't really a dilemma at all).

The good
  • The D70 feels great in the hand. Sure it's big, but feels substantial, solid and secure. That’s a real benefit with a long lens.
  • It is responsive and fast. Power on to first shot is virtually instant. It has a large frame buffer, decent shooting speed in continuous mode (expect as noted below) and is always ready to shoot.
  • Image quality is generally superb.
  • Controls are generally well-placed and intuitive, except as noted below.
  • Top plate displays are nice.
  • The 18–70 lens is excellent.
  • The 70–300 costs next to nothing and feels light and plasticky (because it is) but actually pulls in some superb photos. It's a little soft, but for the money it's incredible value.
  • The built-in flash is pretty reasonable. This is something I have generally disliked about previous Nikon digicams I have used.
  • The little protective cover for the back panel LCD is great. It gets very hacked up and needs to be replaced regularly, but imagine your LCD taking that beating. The cover does tend to flip off a little easily though.
  • Battery life is fantastic. An amateur with pretensions like me will never run out of juice if even vaguely organised. In 4 months of heavy shooting I have only had to dig out my backup battery twice. On occasions I have shot 500 pictures or more over 3 or 4 days without a battery change, even though I have been using the flash occasionally and the LCD screen all the time.
The average
  • The viewfinder is too small.
  • I seldom use the depth of field preview any more because the button is just too far away from my pinky to be comfortable and maintain a firm grip on the body.
  • There's a tendency to underexpose from time to time. My pictures have got better; —it just seems to take a while to get used to how the exposure system thinks.
  • I find the image selection/viewing system a little unintuitive. In thumbnail mode using the left/right arrow keys navigates through images, but in full screen mode that toggles other functions and you need to scroll up and down. I'd also like to be able to magnify more so that I can actually see sharpness and noise.
  • The menu system could be simpler. You get used to it, but I think new users will find the little Pentax DS superior in this regard.
  • As I have experienced in the past, Nikon's battery status indicators leave a lot to be desired. They show full for ages, but when they show only slightly less than full you are going to be in trouble very soon. The same has been true of my Nikon 35 mm SLRs and all the Nikon digicams I have used.
  • The remote receiver on the camera body is quite directional. If you are standing on the wrong side of the lens it's often hard to get the shutter to fire.

The downright bad
  • There's no obvious way of seeing what ISO setting you're on without actually checking. Many a good photo has been rendered average because the previous night I had been shooting in low light and had cranked the 'film speed' up to 800 or 1600 ISO and forgotten to return it to 200. Next morning's beautiful shots turn out too noisy and have to be tweaked in a noise reduction package such as Neat Image or Noise Ninja. I'd like to see the ISO setting in the viewfinder and LCD panel all the time.
  • If you want Nikon's software with noise reduction capability (Nikon Capture) you have to fork out extra. That's a rip-off and an argument in favour of P2P file sharing if ever there were one.
  • You have to pay extra for the remote. It's quite cheap, but apparently hard to get in some markets. It should be in the box to start with.
  • Nikon's Picture Perfect software looks good, but in use it sucks. The older Nikon View was much more competent and I believe it can still be downloaded from Nikon websites.
  • My D70 does not shoot at 3 fps. And neither did my previous one. Out of the box it was fine, and then in a week or two seemed to have forgotten how to shoot fast. The camera store and Nikon could shed no light on the problem so they simply replaced my camera body. And now this one has the same problem. Is it something I have set? Probably, but no-one seems to know what.

For the money the D70 is a superb piece of kit. If you are looking at a camera in this price range, then buy one unless you absolutely must have something smaller, in which case the Pentax *ist DS, unpronounceable name aside, is excellent, as is the new Canon 350D (Rebel XT).

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5 April 2005

Clive and Jonathan on Brighton pier

Dusk at the seaside resort of Brighton in Sussex, unretouched

Walking like an Englishman

Could someone please explain to me why the English, who drive on the left, prefer to walk on the right? When walking towards someone in Australia, most people instinctively move to the left and allow the other person to pass on their right, as they would drive. In England, expect the opposite. Go figure.

For that matter, where did driving on the left come from? I'm told it goes back to the Middle Ages, where armed men would pass each other on the 'non-sword' side so as to avoid attack. That seems sensible enough. Why then did Europeans and Americans choose the opposite way? Ah, the great questions of existence...
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