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Sunday, May 20, 2007

On P/S High-ISO Noise

In a stroke of serendipity given our recent conversations here, Simon Joinson at dpreview has posted a primer article on digital point-and-shoot noise at higher ISOs. (He calls 'em "compact cameras," probably a better term.) Conclusion? Basically that only the Fuji F10-F20-F30-F31fd series offer usable high ISOs in a compact camera, with good performance to ISO 800 and a usable (if barely) ISO 1600—and pretty much everything else is marketing hype and wishful thinking.

Although it's discontinued, the best buy in this series, the F20, is still available from many retailers. At only $142, it's almost $100 cheaper than the newest F31fd ("fd" stands for "face detection," which might be useful if you're unable to recognize faces for yourself. Forgive sarcasm). That seems very cheap for a walk-around pocket camera that will give you a real ISO 800.

Do read the whole article if you're thinking of getting a point-and-shoot / compact camera—it's sure to be the definitive word on the subject for the foreseeable future.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON with thanks to David Bennett

19 Comments:

Blogger Bromley said...

i wish they'd make every compact with a fuji sensor - they just seem so much better than everyone elses - i suppose the problem is that the main market for compacts is your average consumer who isn't really too critical of image quality - they just want specification...

10:35 AM  
Blogger Mitch Alland said...

Basically that only the Fuji F10-F20-F30-F31fd series offer usable high ISOs in a compact camera, with good performance to ISO 800 and a usable (if barely) ISO 1600—and pretty much everything else is marketing hype and wishful thinking.

Not having used the F30 myself all I can say is that it doesn't have RAW file capability. However, Jeff Spirer, an excellent photographer whose judgment I respect, has written the following:

QUOTE
I bought the F30 and used it for a couple weeks. My wife now uses it for her undemanding business photos. The image quality is nowhere near as good as the [Ricoh] GRD. Purple fringing is unbelievably bad, the noise reduction softens the image at high ISO and the images are over-sharpened at low ISO, and the images tend to be contrasty. I bought a GRD after ten days.

The problem is that many companies optimize their products for tests, not usage, and this gives great results from cameras that have problems during actual use. A company can take the same type of testing the dpreview does and work with the camera until it gives great test results. The noise tests on the F30 appear to be the result of some very specific optimization that really doesn't give great images.
END QUOTE

—Mitch/Bangkok

10:42 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Mitch,
Like I said orginally, they're all sh*t (being circumspect as I know you don't like that word...).

--Mike

11:23 AM  
Blogger Mitch Alland said...

Mike:

No, I'm not afraid of words: I just wanted a somewhat more articulate statement from such a good writer as you rather than playing to the gallery. My view is that the Ricoh GR-D and the Leica D-Lux 3 are serious, small semsor cameras. With the GR-D I've not had any problems making prints as large as 40x52 inches (100x133cm) even at ISO 800, but then I like grain and fairly high contrast. Even wit the D-Lux 3 I've made 24x36 inch (60x90cm) prints. But the RAW file capability is essential for me.

I haven't been attracted to the Leica M8 becuse, on the one hand, the gestalt reasons that you wrote anout and, on the other, because the files it produces are similar to medium-format film — and that is look of an exquisitiveness that I do not, at this stage, want.

I suppose I'll eventually try something like new Olympus E410/E510 cameras...but I have all those Leica-M lenses gathering dust (and humidity)...

—Mitch/Bangkok

12:59 PM  
Blogger Paul Leidl said...

Hi Mike:

If I recall correctly, in your initial essay on "point and shoots" you said you would soon author a commentary on inexpensive DSLRs.

Is that editorial still in the offing?

-Paul

2:47 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

what happend to TOP being one of the only photo-related blogs that did not concentrate on gear? that's one of the main reasons I love to read this blog, but lately it seems all anyone wants to talk about is P/S (is that point and shoot or piece of...oh forget it) cameras...now i actually happen to be in the market for one right now but am getting very worried and discouraged with the direction of the content of the site...

i like to talk gear as much, if not way way more, than the next guy, and that is one of the reasons for my concern, once the ball starts rolling in a certain direction it's usually pretty hard to change it's course...

2:54 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Brian,
Have no fear. We only talk about gear for as long as my patience holds out, which is seldom all that long. I do admit to having gotten interested in p&s cameras in recent days, mainly because a) I know very little about them and b) I find them so completely unsatisfying as cameras that I suppose I really needed to pry open my mind just a tad.

But this won't be permanent. (Er, maybe that didn't come out quite right....)

--Mike

4:21 PM  
Blogger rochkind said...

The Panasonic LX2, frequently criticized in reviews for its poor high-ISO performance (anything above ISO 100), comes across extremely well in the ISO 800 comparison. Arguably second only to the Fuji among the compacts.

Can anyone explain? Perhaps the reviewers are using it at 10MP instead of 8MP, which is how Joinson set it for his article?

Also... the LX2 is one of the few compacts that can shoot raw (at 10MP only), which is how I use mine. It would have been nice to see that comparison thrown in.

--Marc

4:43 PM  
Blogger Dr Hiding Pup said...

Yeah, but a maximum aperture of f5 on the telephoto end? I'd take an additional two f-stops over the sensor equvalent any day...

6:38 PM  
Blogger Ken said...

Mike,

Face Detection, at least as implemented on my G-7, is actually pretty useful. The camera will recognize a face anywhere in the frame, and choose that focusing point -- which is way faster than me trying to choose the correct point manually. (It's also faster than using the center point and recomposing.) The face has to be looking at the camera, so no profiles, but it does actually work.

Of course, we're not talking high end photography here -- but then, it's a P+S.

7:03 PM  
Blogger DaveF said...

Hi - I'm new to the group!

Having done lots of research on p&s models before purchases for myself and friends/family (my regular cameras are Canon/L-series lens) …. The fuji F models fit the bill where intended use included things like get-togethers and birthdays. Where lighting is often poor, and use of a disruptive looking SLR is highly frowned upon. The fuji’s L-ion battery (F30) seems to last forever, so it is always ready to go.

For the Fuji's, the purple fringing is a problem in tests, but I rarely see it. In our usage patterns - only 1% of pics would be considered for 8x10 printing or extreme cropping, so fringe defects are just too small to notice on a small 4x6 or even 5x7. Fringing woes are offset by the higher percent of usable indoor prints… due to the fuji’s extreme indoor flash range made possible with the iso 800/1600 settings. Btw: The purple fringing seems to be much less of an issue on the newer fuji Z5 models.

Also the Fuji’s F camera’s “movie mode”: Movies that were useless on previous p&s models here, are clear as day on the fuji.

Warts: image browsing and delete are atrociously slow. xd cards. No raw. (wouldn’t it be nice if the cellphone-type hacks could start getting applied to p&s firmware, to get those raw images!)

I had looked at some of the other legendary p&s models, like the Ricoh. But they all seemed to cost 2x more, therefore were out of budget for most people here. Also Ricoh = harder to get in US.

In looking at my image catalog, I am finding that the “Fuji” folders hold pictures that are of higher personal value, verses the SLR pics; which are client based work. So for adhoc events, it is important that the p&s gets the image “usable” out of the box, for the family album -without spending weeks messing with bits just to print a pile of 4x6 snaps that may see the light of day 10 times in the next 50 years.

Fuji is one of the few to come up to the "1995" iso-800 film technology for the p&s masses. So far.

Dave

7:25 PM  
Blogger ShadZee said...

I have the Fuji F20

Bought it for high ISO and price. But I'm much more impressed with it's speed of operation.

IMO, these Fuji's are the BEST in class. High ISO performance, Great Flash, very good metering, and fast, fast, fast.

They are the prefect family/take everywhere camera for people who appreciate good images.

And as you mentioned at $120 ... they are a Bargain as well.

8:47 PM  
Blogger Seungmin said...

FYI: The Fuji F31fd is being supplanted by the F40 now. This camera has the advantage of now taking SD cards (no telling what the write performance is like--p/reviews just seem to be trickling in now). However the sensor's resolution has been increased (8MP) so Fuji has restricted the top ISO to 2000 on this particular model.

@rochkind
Would you consider the performance of the LX2 better than the Sony and the Canon at ISO800? They seem to be in about the same ball park to me. The Panasonic has a bit lighter noise reduction the Sony has a bit more, the Canon seems to strike the best balance of the three.

8:49 PM  
Blogger pbizarro said...

I would live with a bit more noise any day, as opposed to the already mentioned shortfalls of the Fujis. I would love to know what is the actual percentage of shots that people take at ISOs higher than 100 or 200, or even 400.

I think this high-ISO thing is way overrated anyway, unless you spend your time photographing moving subjects in dark alleys or shady bars. Or do you shoot landscapes at ISO 800, instead of using ISO 100 and a tripod?

Give me the controls and capabilities of the GRD, LX2, or GX100 any day, over the noise reduction smearing detail approach of the Fujis. Not to mention the other issues reported above in Jeff Spirer;s quote.

RAW and Neat Image are way better than low-noise Fuji.

12:31 AM  
Blogger tedm said...

Hi Mike, I've never posted here before, but have been enjoying your writings and reviews for quite a while.

I've had the f30 for about 6 months, and 5K photos, and it's about my 5th digital P&S. The lens isn't that great, and the purple fringing is there in several lighting conditions or under certain pixel peeing conditions.

The camera is still extremely usable and I don't believe that it was designed simply to do well on high iso tests. I haven't noticed the over-sharpening mentioned at low iso settings either.

I think the f30 is great for the price, and for the the high iso, 800 for color (=~200 ISO with any panasonic I've used) and 1600-3200 for b&w works very well for me. I haven't missed the raw mode. One tip, get xd "H" cards which are faster, but a tad more expensive than the "M" cards.

I've posted many high f30 photos on my blog - tedmphoto.blogspot.com

12:34 AM  
Blogger MartinC said...

In my experience, the Fuji cameras are head and shoulders above the competition at high iso but I would still not want to use any of them above iso 100 iso. The appeal of the Fxx series of cameras for me is in the (relatively) high quality at low iso. My F10 does lend a rather peculiar quality to out-of-focus areas and you can see the noise reduction at work in shadows but the detail of in-focus bits is terrific. The main issue for me with Fuji is quality control - I had to shop around before finding one whose lens was sharp edge to edge and if you look at the gallery photos on, I think, dcresourse, you can see that their sample of the F40fd, which they have just tested, has a huge soft spot in the top left hand corner (which of course you can only see in the shots in which there is something other than sky present!

The only other P/S camera I have recent experience with whose output is not abysmal is the Panasonic LX2, which I use exclusively in RAW. Although it is noisy even at iso100, it produces an honest image, free from noise reduction artifacts and in many ways comparable, if not superior, to the output from my Oly E300. It cannot compete on dynamic range, but it its a genuine carry anywhere camera that can produce, in the right conditions, truly high quality output.

7:30 AM  
Blogger FN said...

Mitch,
I wish they made something like the GR-D for the price I want to pay for a pocket camera. $120 is a great price. $600 is what I paid for my SLR. It's what I paid for my best lens. If I could afford $600 for equipment, it would be another lens or perhaps two.
What interests me is what a pocket camera can do for me within a budget that doesn't approach my SLR gear. It's the camera for when I don't want to have an SLR around my neck.
I wish the Fuji didn't have the fringing problems...I was excited until then :-)

Joel

6:02 PM  
Blogger ctyankee said...

In reply to pbizarro:
"I would love to know what is the actual percentage of shots that people take at ISOs higher than 100 or 200, or even 400.

I think this high-ISO thing is way overrated anyway, unless you spend your time photographing moving subjects in dark alleys or shady bars. Or do you shoot landscapes at ISO 800, instead of using ISO 100 and a tripod?"

I can't speak for others, but I don't carry a tripod anywhere that I opt to carry a POCKET CAMERA over a DSLR !!! (And as we hear over and over in criticisms of anti-shake, high ISO is still needed to get faster shutter speeds needed to reduce motion blur).

My A610 has an f/2.8-4.5 lens, I think ... a tad faster than many, but still pretty slow. ISO 400 is very common; probably 25% of my shooting, and it would be more if it were better. One of the reasons it isn't higher is that I feel compelled to use my DSLR in low light. Pre-digital, my carry-everywhere camera had a fast (f/1.7) lens and I kept ISO 400 film in it always. Seriously always as in 100% of the time. Give me an f/2 slightly-wider-than-normal fixed lens and reasonably clean ISO 400 and I'd be perfectly happy. Sure, digital p&s's are better than the ubiquitous mammoth film p&s's with 35-140/8-12 lenses, but with film, there were better compact options.

C'mon Sony - build a compact fixed lens R1. Sigma, get the DP-1 on the market already, then put a faster, less wide lens on the followon. Oly - 4/3 is BEGGING to be put in a fixed lens compact. You should OWN the market for enthusiast fixed lens compacts !

11:00 AM  
Blogger dscarabeo said...

Hi I just signed on. I've enjoyed the none-gear photographic content of this site for a while, but I admit it's this compact camera talk that got me worked up enough to register. This and the political thing recently.

What does "useable" mean? Whatever Simon Joinson says? The dpreview camera police are great techies, but I've yet to see any photography worth a dang up there. Besides, that guy can't even spell his own name. Everyone knows it's Johnson.

The Fxx series Fuji COMPACTs, not P&S, pale in comparison to their own E900 for serious use, but all the hysteria about "noise" and the joy provided to the hysterics by the Fxx series quickly overshadowed Fuji's E900.

The E900 is superior, because it can shoot incredibly detailed, and NR free, RAW files, has a better lens, and even it's ISO 800 jpegs are "USEABLE" for larger prints. That opinion is echoed by imaging resources website, who've been doing detailed testing of these cameras for as long or longer than Askey and dpreview.

Anyway, with the F30 fuji and DSLRs the newly crowned "only game in town", we can all revel in this technical conformity. It's right up there with photo club contest criteria.

DSLRs, to me, are bulky pieces of sh*t. Which is why mine were sold for all-in-one digital cameras. DSLRs are anachronisms based on antiquated film camera designs that do little to advance or exploit the potential of digital cameras. And they do plenty ($$) to discourage further development of alternatives.

Talk about marketing hype and pressure..it'll be a cold day when we see innovative cameras like the Sony R1, or KM-A2 again, now that former innovators like Sony are on the DSLR bandwagon.

A great thing about Ricoh, is they always follow their own drummer, and are willing to produce something innovative like their GX series and the GRD. Small cameras designed for serious photographers. And kudos to Canon for the G7. Despite them dropping the ball regarding RAW, it's a camera that is a joy to use, and a great all around tool.

2:51 PM  

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