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Test-driving SLR-wannabe compact cameras

You can't fit an SLR replacement in your jeans pocket, but some small cameras such as the Ricoh GX-100 and Canon PowerShot G series are steps in the right direction.

Update: This posting previously included an incorrect picture next to a caption. It has been replaced by the intended photograph of the Canon PowerShot G7.

In the course of writing a story about compact cameras that have some characteristics of higher-end SLR (single-lens reflex) cameras, I informally tested some cameras to see how they fared.

The bad news is that I was a bit disappointed, though I recognize the impossibility of affordably reproducing the full abilities of a bulky, big-sensor SLR in a pocket-size package.

The good news is that there's progress on the horizon. In the month since I tried a handful of models--the Ricoh Caplio GX100, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2, the Nikon Coolpix P5000, the Canon PowerShot G7 and the Olympus SP-550 UZ--the last two have been replaced by more capable successors.

Overall, I liked the GX100 for its high image quality, raw support and serious feel. My other top pick was the G7--although it's bulkier and doesn't support raw images, it produced solid photos and is probably better suited to mainstream shooters.

The most promising new arrival is the Canon PowerShot G9, the newest member of the G series that's specifically targeted at the discriminating crowd. It remedies the most unfortunate omission in otherwise capable G7, the removal of support for raw images. Reviews aren't yet in on the G9, but it looks promising.

Raw images are the unprocessed data from the camera's image sensor. They retain information that's lost in the conversion to JPEG, but they transfer that conversion hassle to photographers. Some enjoy it--it resembles hobbyists' darkroom tinkering--but when faced with hundreds of images, it can be a significant burden.

The Ricoh GX-100, Olympus SP-550 UZ and Panasonic LX2 all support raw images, but I encountered one reason why raw isn't easy to shoehorn into compact cameras: the bulky file sizes--triple or more that of corresponding high-quality JPEGS--means that it can take a long time to record them.

Here are my impressions about the cameras.

Ricoh GX-100

Ricoh Caplio GX100 with electronic viewfinder Ricoh

I enjoyed the 10-megapixel GX-100, the most surprising of the models I tried. The line shows promise, though it's quirky, not as polished as some of the others and, at $600, is the most expensive.

The highlight is great image quality--noticeably better than all of its rivals, especially given its diminutive size. It supports raw files, and even better, the raw files are encoded in the nonproprietary DNG (Digital Negative) format from Adobe Systems, which eases compatibility and software support issues. However, it takes about 3 to 5 seconds to record a raw file, so don't expect to take lots of snapshots of fast-moving kids. An electronic viewfinder can be attached to the flash hot shoe on top of the camera, but it bumps the price tag up to $700, and the protrusion makes the camera hard to pocket.

The standard model has a 24mm-to-72mm equivalent zoom, a narrower 3x range than one might hope for, but the Ricoh is very compact, and large zoom ranges are hard to fit into trim designs. The lens cap is an awkward removable model, but that's excusable; a built-in one would hamper the optional wide-angle add-on lens.

Autofocus and exposure worked fairly well, but the whirring of tiny motors can be distracting. I didn't like the zoom control on the rear of the camera, which I found awkward to operate with my right thumb, and the hatch covering the battery-flash card compartment was difficult to use.

Ricoh is hard to find in North American stores, but the Japanese company is building distribution channels and can be found online at Adorama and Popflash.Photo.

Canon PowerShot G7

Canon PowerShot G7 Canon

This sturdy, blocky, 10-megapixel camera was satisfying to use, but even with the G9 on the way, it still costs about $500. It certainly is chunkier than many of its competitors, but not so chunky that it wouldn't fit into a purse or pocket. Image quality was good, the camera is snappy to use, and the 6x zoom lens with image stabilization is handy.

The lack of raw image support was a glaring omission, but its JPEGs were solid. It offered good manual controls governed by a handy scroll wheel, and I loved the ISO knob on top: changing sensitivity is one of the most frequent changes I make in dealing with changing shooting conditions, and burying the setting within menus slows me down.

Of the cameras I tested, only the G7 and Nikon P5000 offer an optical viewfinder, and the G7's was superior, even if it cropped off large swaths of the image actually captured by the sensor. Its grip was a bit slippery.

Image quality was pretty good, and it fared better at higher ISO settings than most of its competitors. Don't expect ISO 1600 to be as useful as on SLRs, though.

Olympus SP550-UZ

Olympus SP550-UZ Olympus

This 7.1-megapixel, $360 camera is the second one that's been updated; Olympus last week announced the SP560-UZ. Olympus promises that the new model fixes what I found most unpleasant about the SP550, its pokey performance.

This camera is one of the bulky superzoom models; others are available from Panasonic, Fujifilm, Sony and Canon. It won't fit in your pants pocket, so it doesn't have a major portability advantage over lower-end SLRs. But certainly, these types of cameras appeal to the more excitable buyers, who want to do more with their cameras than take party snapshots--the kind of people who might be in the SLR market. The zoom wasn't perfect, though: autofocus was extremely slow when the camera was in full telephoto mode, unless it was very bright out.

The camera shoots raw images, but it takes a long time--40 seconds in several cases, with low light and 6 to 8 seconds under the best of circumstances. More demerits for the plastic tripod mount and an inferior latch on the battery compartment hatch. The electronic viewfinder was helpful for shooting in bright light; optical viewfinder fans should realize that it's pretty hard to build one into a camera with an 18x zoom range.

Image quality left me cool: the chromatic aberration was significant, and noise showed up soon. The ISO 5,000 setting was more entertaining than actually useful. The option for raw images is good, though: you can bypass the in-camera noise reduction and apply settings of your own.

My personal preference is to leave more noisy speckles and keep the edge detail, for example, than to grapple with images that have been noise-reduced into smeary watercolor-like shots. One property I liked about the Olympus is that its sensor produced fairly evenly distributed noise, not the fabriclike patterns of some sensors, so converting to black and white for a retro grainy look can be a nice way to sidestep some noise reduction issues at a high ISO.

The SP550 benefited from Olympus' camera heritage, I felt. The manual zones worked smoothly for me, and the live histogram was very helpful in keeping exposure set right.

Nikon P5000

Nikon Coolpix P5000

The 10-megapixel Nikon P5000 has many of the right ingredients--manual controls, a flash hot shoe, optical viewfinder and the lowest price, $340--but it fell short of my SLR-esque hopes. Its body was small and sturdy, but overall, it felt more like an enhanced point-and-shoot than a watered-down SLR, wide-angle and telephoto add-ons notwithstanding.

For example, the optical viewfinder is teensy-weensy and crops out a large amount of the frame. I like optical viewfinders because they lets photographers shut off the display and get more shots out of the battery on longer trips, but the viewfinder should work better to permit that style of shooting.

The camera doesn't support raw shooting. Image quality wasn't stellar, either, though at ISO 100, it handled high-contrast scenes better than some compact cameras I've tried. High ISO settings are unusable or nearly so, as is common with compact cameras.

Panasonic LX2

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2 Panasonic

Panasonic's $400 10-megapixel LX2 was a reasonable but uninspiring camera. Manual controls, a 4x zoom range that begins at 28mm, and raw image support give it promise, but its performance wasn't snappy. Like the P5000, it felt more like a beefed-up compact camera.

I didn't find its image quality astounding--I'm in the camp that would prefer sensors with fewer, larger and more sensitive pixels to one with a high megapixel count but a requirement for aggressive in-camera noise reduction. I do like the 28mm-equivalent wide-angle setting, though, perhaps because I like pictures of landscapes, people in rooms, and buildings I can't back away from.

Tinkering with the raw files shows that raw isn't a holy grail for compact cameras. Raw-processing software on a beefy PC might reduce noise better than a Venus III image-processing engine in this camera, but fundamentally, there's still a lot of noise to reduce, even at relatively low ISOs such as 400.

The LX2 is solidly built and had reasonable manual controls. But the camera is about a year old now, so it's probably best to steer clear until its successor arrives.