Summary: "The photographer is responsible for the picture, not the equipment". We're going to test that statement by comparing two 8 megapixel digital cameras: a $600 Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30 and a $1400 Canon EOS-20D backed by over $4000 worth of add-ons, tested in Kauai and San Francisco.
In this first "camera clash", we are comparing two cameras worthy of FiringSquad's Editor's Choice award, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30 with a wonderful Leica DC 12x zoom lens that extends to 420mm at f/3.7 and the Canon EOS-20D, considered by many to be the pinnacle of the performance/price ratio in a digital SLR. For our test, we'll be pairing the EOS-20D with several thousand dollars worth of accessories.
Regular FiringSquad readers also know that we prefer using real-world tests whenever testing equipment. Digital cameras are no exception. Instead of the boring discussion on camera menus and what comes in the box, we're going to take these cameras on a photo safari to the island of Kauai and then to San Francisco's Fleet Week 2005. Our goal will be to capture the best images possible with the equipment. This will help you see what the equipment is capable of and where the equipment becomes the limiting factor. This approach will help you decide the best camera for you in a fashion better than a traditional review can. Nevertheless, we'll still start this article traditionally with an overview of digital technology and then take a closer look at why we chose these cameras for the competition. Once we get that out of the way, we'll move onto a diary-format to compare the two cameras.
The last bit of detail I want to impart is that all of our camera equipment was purchased at retail. You can rest assured that we have no conflict of interest with Panasonic or Canon – they did not supply us with any review equipment.
[Editor's Note: This is one of our longer articles, but it's definitely worth reading cover to cover. It's not your typical camera review.]
SIDEBAR: Kauai is the oldest of the five main islands of the Hawaii archipelago.
In the original "A Tale of Two Cameras," I explained that the critical first decision to make when buying a digital camera is not your budget, or the megapixel rating, but deciding whether or not you want a camera with a large imaging sensor (i.e. a digital SLR) or a standard point-and-shoot digital camera with a small imaging sensor. Sensor size plays a big role in the price difference between these two camera types.
Both of the cameras we will be using are 8 megapixel cameras, but the EOS-20D has a sensor that has about 9 times as much surface area. To use the diamond ring analogy, both cameras are like rings with 8 diamond stones. The more expensive EOS-20D, however, has diamonds that are around 9 times as large, and are several grades better in clarity and color. Like diamonds, price does to increase proportionally to size. A 4.5 carat diamond is not 9x as expensive as a half-carat one. For photography, a larger sensor translates into improved dynamic range and tone, and reduction of noise. Often overlooked are the additional consequences on lens design and depth-of-field.
Dynamic Range, Tone, and Noise
Larger sensors sizes have better dynamic range and tone. Digital SLRs will be able to capture more nuanced shadows, texture, and the fine gradations of tone and color better than a regular digital cameras can. In practice, a large sensor digital camera should be able to better capture the soft details hidden in shadows or the texture that makes clouds look fluffy and have mass rather than white blobs.
Sensor Size and Lens Design
The lens of a digital camera is just as important as the sensor when it comes to final image quality. A smaller sensor allows you to use a smaller lens. This affects you in several ways. First of all, it's cheaper to produce a smaller lens. Not only is there less raw material to deal with, it's also technically easier to design the optics. Therefore, digital SLRs are substantially more expensive because not only do you have to pay for a larger sensor, but you need to pay more for a lens with the same level of quality. This also means that lenses for digital SLRs are considerably larger and heavier, which can be problematic when traveling. More importantly, differences in lens design and sensor size have consequences on the type of pictures you can take due to differences in depth of field.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30 is the fourth generation of the "FZ" line of digital cameras and represents our all-in-one 12x super-zoom point-and-shoot camera of choice. From a usability standpoint, the Lumix is a great camera. In addition to good ergonomics, it has a brisk startup time of just 1 second, burst rates of 2 to 3 frames per second, and a non-extending 12x zoom that covers 35mm to 420mm at f/2.8 to 3.7 with image stabilization. The fit and finish of the camera is also robust with enough heft so that the camera feels like a precision instrument yet still retains its portability. What makes the FZ30 special is that it strikes a superb design balance between the lens, the on-board computer, and the imaging sensor.
A Real Leica Lens
One of the key selling points for the Lumix DMC-FZ30 is that it has a real Leica DC lens and not simply a "Leica-branded" lens that's a result of collaborative marketing. This statement may cause a lot of consternation among photographers and Leicaphiles. Clearly, anyone who thinks that the Leica DC 7.4-88.8 mm f/2.8-3.7 VARIO-ELMARIT lens on the Lumix DMC-FZ30 comes close to the Leica 400mm f/4.0 APO-TELYT-R lens which goes for $8500 used is deluding themselves. Nevertheless, the Leica lenses in the Lumix line-up are unequivocally using real Leica technology.
Since light has characteristics of a wave, the reflected light can be cancelled out by another wave in opposite phase – just like noise canceling headphones. The idea behind lens coating is to use the reflection from the coating to cancel out the reflection from the glass. So, for any given wavelength you can get perfect cancellation of reflection of glass by applying a wavelength divided by 4 thick layer of material that had a refractive index halfway between air and glass.
The problem is that light is not made up of one wavelength -- it is a continuous range from 400 to 700 nm. Moreover, both film and digital sensors have some sensitivity to infrared and UV light beyond that range. With a single antireflective coating targeting 550 nm, you'd get great anti-reflective properties for that wavelength but lose the effect the further your wavelength deviated from that central point.
This is where multiple anti-reflective coatings, or multi-coating, comes into play. It's the same idea of canceling out the reflection from the glass with the reflection from the coating, but each layer of coating targets a different wavelength. It's substantially more complex to decide which wavelengths to target, what material to use for each layer, and even how many layers to apply. The high-end lens manufacturers all have their own formulas and approaches which ultimately results in the Leica sparkle, Carl Zeiss glow, or Sigma yellow. Going from a simple multi-coating to a higher-end multi-coating can double the cost of each coated element in the lens.
All of the Leica lenses used in the Lumix line-up use identical multi-coating to that found in the M- and R-mount Leica lenses. In comparison, most of the Carl Zeiss lenses used in Sony digital products do not use the famed T* coating. Since the Panasonic Lumix cameras use Leica's multi-coating, it is in fact a real Leica lens.
Skeptics may point out that Leica lenses used in Lumix cameras are manufactured in Japan rather than Germany. The country of manufacture shouldn't affect what is real and what is not. No one reasonable would ever claim that the Carl Zeiss T* lenses from Contax, or the five lenses for the new Zeiss Ikon rangefinder manufactured by Cosina were somehow only a collaboration of marketing. Others will point out that the lenses in Lumix line don't have the same image quality as M- and R-mount Leica lenses. This is true.
SIDEBAR: When it comes to eyeglasses, there's also a wide range of quality between anti-reflective coatings. Most of the differences deal with durability and the ease of cleaning. Crizal D'Alizé is considered to be the best coating on the market, but it's not available in the US. Our best pick would be the standard Crizal Alizé. Among the budget AR coatings Zeiss ET and Pentax SMC are pretty good.
At the end of the day, the lens in the Lumix DMC-FZ30 is still limited by the target price point. So, while the FZ30 still has a well-designed lens with 14 elements in 10 groups with one extra-low-dispersion (ED) element and 3 aspherical elements, it is not up to the apochromatic standards of Leica and it is not going to have the edge-to-edge sharpness of the Leica R-mount zoom lenses with non-linear movement of the internal elements. However, this is where design synergy comes into play. Although the lens still has chromatic aberration and vignetting, Panasonic applies additional digital processing to further correct these flaws via the on-board processor they've marketed as the Venus Engine II. Likewise, the smaller sensor works to mask focus errors that can occur from relying on conventional optical compensation with linear motion of elements.
What about the noise?
Unfortunately, the smaller sensor has its own problems. Having a superb lens and the Venus Engine II means that Panasonic has had to make sacrifices elsewhere. In comparison to other point-and-shoot 8-megapixel digital cameras such as the Sony DSC-F828, Canon PowerShot Pro1, Olympus C8080, and Nikon Coolpix 8800, the Lumix FZ30 has a sensor that's about 30% smaller. This translates into increased noise (film grain).
We'll leave further discussion of noise to the hands-on part of this article. Let's take a look at the Canon EOS-20D.
SIDEBAR: Panasonic is one of the few companies who produces the imaging sensor and lens used in their digital camera. Sony, Canon (SLR), and Fuji are other members of this club. Most camera manufacturers use Sony imaging sensors.
The Canon EOS-20D is the 4th generation of Canon's CMOS based 1.6x crop digital SLRs and it almost needs no introduction for any photography enthusiast. It is truly an impressive product and if I had to summarize the camera with a one liner, it’d be: “professional-grade engineering priced below its true value.”
It may come as a surprise to some, but when it comes to picture quality, the Rebel XT ($900) and EOS-20D are virtually equivalent under controlled conditions. With the same lens and good light, not even the most dedicated of photographers or perfectionists will be able to tell the difference. Both feature virtually identical Canon-custom-developed CMOS imaging sensors that produce clean images with minimal noise/grain. The difference between the two cameras is the responsiveness, specifically auto-focus and frame rate.
The Canon EOS-20D can take up to 5 shots per second for a 23-shot JPEG burst. This means that with a fast memory card and judicious use of the shutter, you will almost always find the camera ready to take the shot whenever you are. The closest competitors only do 3 frames per second. The extra 2 fps doesn’t seem like much but it’s a 67% increase in performance that’s very noticeable in use. The speed of 5 fps mated to an 8 megapixel CMOS imaging sensor means that the EOS-20D stands in a class of its own. Upgrading to something better than 5 fps at 8 megapixels means spending $4000 on a Canon EOS-1D Mark II/N or $5000 on the Nikon D2X (12.4 megapixels).
Of course, the speed of the imaging system of the 20D needs a fast and accurate auto-focus system. Again, the EOS-20D stands in a class of its own. The EOS-20D features nine auto-focus sensors that are quick at acquiring initial focus and tracking moving objects. When paired with a lens such as a 300 mm f/2.8L IS USM lens, the EOS-20D is reportedly able to track objects coming head-on at 186 miles per hour, 66 feet away. This makes the EOS-20D perfect for sports and wildlife (even wild toddlers). The $4000 and $5000 cameras mentioned earlier are unequivocally better when it comes to autofocus both in terms of speed and precision, as they should be for that price. The only camera with better autofocus than the EOS-20D anywhere near its price range is the Nikon D2H at $2000, however that camera only has a 4 megapixel sensor.
So, while the EOS-20D is still $1400, more than double the price of our Panasonic digital camera, it’s a relative bargain in comparison to other digital SLRs.
One thing to factor into the cost of the digital SLR is the cost of lenses. While there are some people who never use anything other than the bundled “starter” lens, part of the price premium for a digital SLR is the engineering required for interchangeable lenses. With a digital SLR, you can use specialized lenses for specialized purposes. You can purchase a dedicated lens for close-ups, portraiture, architecture, or even wildlife or sports photography. Accessory lenses can cost anywhere from $80 to $8000. The reason we like Canon digital SLRs is that Canon offers better lens selection in comparison to Nikon. There are more budget Canon lenses featuring high-speed autofocus motors (Canon's USM vs. Nikon's AF-S). In addition, while both Nikon and Canon offer a good selection of budget lenses ($100 to $400), and luxury lenses (>$1500), Canon offers more choices in the "semi-luxury" price range giving you greater freedom of choice.
With the 12x zoom covering 35 to 420mm, the Lumix DMC-FZ30 covers virtually all the territory I need. The FZ30 is truly an all-in-one camera. The proprietary Panasonic battery wasn't a problem in itself because proprietary batteries ensure longer battery life in a smaller package, but it became a problem because the FZ30 was so new of a camera at the time we obtained it that we had trouble finding a retailer with replacement batteries in stock. In comparison, the BP-511 battery that Canon EOS-20D uses has been around for close to half a decade and is used in Canon camcorders, point-and-shoot digital cameras and digital SLRs. If you can find a Best Buy, Circuit City, or CompUSA, you can find BP-511 replacement. I brought a bunch of Panasonic 1800 mAh NIMH AA batteries for my flash as well as an Energizer 15 minute NIMH charger.
While the appeal of the DMC-FZ30 is its all-in-one convenience, the appeal of the digital SLRs is the ability to use specialized lenses. As the saying goes, "horses for courses." We wanted to see how additional equipment would actually help us to take better pictures, so we brought along quite a few Canon accessories.
The 100mm f/2.8 Macro was protected by a B+W Multicoated UV filter ($55). The two Canon L lenses were protected by Hoya Super HMC UV filters ($40 + $55). All other lenses had standard Hoya HMC UV filters ($20 + $30). We had circular polarizers available for every lens other than the 400mm f/5.6L either through a direct mount or through a filter-step-up ring ($50 + $30). These were not multicoated.
The EOS-20D also has a sophisticated flash system which allows you to incorporate multiple units. So, we brought two Speedlite 550EX's ($350 x2), one Sto-Fen Omnibouce ($20) and one "Better Beamer" flash extender ($40).
That adds up to close to $3700 worth of accessories. That's a lot of money. Still, I wouldn't be surprised if we didn't get some reader feedback telling us that we weren't testing the EOS-20D with its full potential because we didn't bring a 17-40 f/4.0 L USM lens ($700) instead of the bundled 18-55 lens, or a ultra-wide lens such as the Canon EF-S 10-22mm ($800) or Sigma EX 10-20mm ($500), or that we should have gotten a standard zoom lens such as a $1250-ish Canon 24-105 f/4.0 IS L or 24-70 f/2.8 L. I've brought all that I can.
You can never have too much film, but in the case of "digital film" there's more to think about. In the past, we have recommended buying the largest memory card that can be filled on a single battery charge. The philosophy behind that was to ensure that the camera could be used for a "day of shooting" at a major event such as a wedding or graduation. We stick to this recommendation for proprietary memory formats such as Sony Memory Stick or xD Picture Cards.
A tripod should be an essential part of every traveling photographer. For the lightweight Lumix DMC-FZ30 with its image stabilized lens, we would have been very comfortable bringing a basic $50 tripod. Unfortunately, the EOS-20D and our large 400 mm lens would not have been stable on a $50 tripod. This meant that we needed to bring a higher-quality tripod, which unfortunately meant added weight. We opted to bring along our Manfrotto 3001 Pro aluminum tripod legs with a Gitzo G1337M magnesium ball-head with the Gitzo G1387B Arca-Swiss-type quick release. To compensate for the lack of image stabilization on our 400mm lens, we also brought a Gitzo G1564 Mk2 monopod. The cost of tripod and monopod essentially matches that street price of the DMC-FZ30…
The Fine Print
In order to keep bandwidth costs reasonable, we will only be offering full-resolution samples for a limited selection of our images. These are typical examples of the image quality from each camera. The resized images were saved at JPEG Level 7 and full-sized images were saved at JPEG Level 8 using Photoshop.
We landed in Lihue, Kauai shortly after noon and immediately headed out to the east side of the island to check out Wailua Falls. The most important lesson to be learned was that it wasn't the camera or the photographer that would ultimately be responsible for good vacation pictures -- it was whether or not nature would cooperate and if we could actually get to the optimal point-of-view. Wailua Falls unfortunately happens to be one of the cases where we were unable to position ourselves to get the best shot possible.
Zoom lenses gained in popularity sometime in the 1980’s. It was during this time that manufacturers often touted their “basic” 35-70 mm zoom lenses as covering the range used by 80 to 90% of all photographers. The question they never answered was if this focal length represented the optimal range for picture taking or if that simply was a statistical artifact caused by cost considerations in the "typical camera" a consumer would buy.
With our inability to position ourselves further away from the waterfall, the Lumix’s widest zoom at 35 mm became a problem. Without a wider angle, it was difficult to get a shot capturing the full size and impact of the waterfalls.
With the EOS-20D's ability to shoot longer shutter speeds with no significant increase in noise, we were able to capture the flow of the water by stacking two polarizers. This would not be as effective on a small sensor digital camera due to the noise from the long-exposure. One detail to note is that the wood railing seen in the lower right corner of the 20D image is blurry – there wasn't enough depth of field. It would have been more difficult to achieve that first image with the sign and waterfall with the digital SLR.
This was also the first chance for me to use the Lumix DMC-FZ30 under real conditions. What I immediately noticed was the Lumix's balance and build quality. Unlike many digital cameras in this price range, the Lumix didn’t flex or creak with use, and was small and light, even compared to something like a Nikon Coolpix 990 which uses AA batteries. Whereas the digital SLR offers a true optical viewfinder, the Lumix FZ30 uses an electronic viewfinder similar to the color screen found in most camcorders. The difference is that the Panasonic’s is a high-resolution design that's exceptionally sharp with relatively accurate color. There's a bit of lag to the viewfinder which seemed to be more annoying than intrusive. The clip-on lens hood does require more effort than a typical screw-on design. While it doesn't sound like much, I can imagine missing a few shots while mounting the hood.
By the time I reached Opaekaa Falls, the clouds had already started to roll in. If I wanted overcast days, I could have stayed in San Francisco! The view of Wailua River, Kauai's only navigable river, across the street from Opaekaa Falls ended up being a nicer photo-op.
Both cameras handled the overcast days fairly equally although neither picture was particularly good. What was interesting to note was that the Lumix seemed to very capture a substantial component of "Leica hues." Classic Leica images were typically characterized with warm hues, richly saturated greens, and cyan skies. This was due to the combination of the typical formulation of Kodak film of the era as well as the Leica glass. The Lumix seemed to mirror some of that essence. Although the Canon image was processed with the color-enhancing landscape picture style (mirroring Fuji Velvia film) the Lumix was still producing greener-greens.
After the quick stops at Wailua and Opaekaa, I finally checked-in at my hotel and reviewed the day's images on my laptop (which I had color calibrated prior to departure). The added green saturation in the above image was surprising given that I had set the camera for low-saturation based upon initial testing in San Francisco. Despite the highly saturated greens, after reviewing all of the morning's images, I decided to increase the saturation on the Lumix FZ30 from low to standard. While this may be less accurate, it should result in more pleasing pictures for this trip.
The evening was spent in Poipu which seemed to be a ghost town when I arrived at 5pm. The light was no longer any good, and I didn't bother with any photos. The highlight of the day was stopping by Safeway and picking up authentic made-in-Hawaii Passion-Orange-Guava fruit juice. To say that the first day ended up as a bit of a dud would be an understatement. There just isn't that much to photograph. If the rest of the week follows this pace, I'm going to be in trouble!
SIDEBAR: Wailua Falls is normally seen as two smaller waterfalls. When there are heavy rains, however, the increased flow creates the single large spout.
With the relative disaster that was yesterday in terms of the weather, I started the day early, hoping to get some photos of the sunrise shortly after 6 AM. Yep, that's right, I'll wake up early even on my vacation when I'm also on assignment. I drove to Lydgate Park on the east side of the island and reached there shortly before sunrise.
Things weren't looking so good initially, with the coast looking no better than what we see in San Francisco
But after about 10 minutes, I could tell that things were changing for the better
Based upon these pictures, there is no question that the EOS-20D even with thousands of dollars of accessories was losing to a $600 point-and-shoot digital camera. Even with the EOS-20D's images being processed in the landscape picture style for added color saturation, the Lumix still offered more saturated colors appropriate for vacation photos.
The added depth of field available with a small sensor also played a key role in producing the picture with the silhouetted palm tree. On the EOS-20D, stopping down to an aperture of f/8.0 was inadequate for keeping both the palm tree and the clouds in the distance in sharp focus. The sunrise picture in my imagination needed a high depth-of-field that the large sensor couldn't easily deliver.
I was already at the widest 70mm (110mm equiv.) on the lens I had mounted on the 20D. Given the position of the palm tree, knowing the hyperfocal distance wouldn't have helped me in any way. Closing the aperture further would only introduce diffraction artifacts, blurring the picture as well. Given the position and the lens I had mounted on the 20D, it would be impossible to achieve the same picture was done with the Lumix. That said, in retrospect, I could have mounted a wider-angle lens (and then walked closer to the palm tree) or used a tilt-shift lens ($1200) and used a horizontal tilt.
A close scrutiny of the full-size images will show substantial noise with the Lumix FZ30, even at ISO 80. What's important to realize is that at 8 megapixels, you are capturing almost enough detail for an 8x12" print at 300 dpi. If you had a 19" LCD monitor running at 1280x1024, you would have to resize the image down to 30% of the original. Simply put, if you're making prints less than 8x12" in size, the noise is not going to be an issue. For this sunrise, the Lumix FZ30 out-shot the EOS-20D, plain and simple.
On the way back to the car, I ran across a Red-crested Cardinal. Fortunately I had the 400mm lens mounted on the EOS-20D. I increased the ISO to 1600 allowing me a 1/640 second shutter. To keep noise reasonable, I kept the Lumix DMC-FZ30 at ISO 80. This meant a shutter of only 1/40. Here the 20D flexed its muscle and really showed off what the extra technology could achieve.
The 100% crops speak for themselves
Image stabilization helps with low-light photography, but it doesn't replace high ISO capabilities. With a high-ISO, you also decrease your shutter time. This not only minimizes the effect of camera shake, but it also works to "stop the motion" of the subject. Likewise, the 20D had a much easier time focusing in the low-light than the FZ30.
Still, I'd have to say that it was a pyrrhic victory of the EOS-20D. I'd much rather have a nice sunset shot than one of a cool looking bird.
SIDEBAR: Many of Kauai's beaches are closed to swimming in the Winter season. The waves are mellow – it's not Jaws or Mavericks.
With the weather cooperating today, I returned to the Opaekaa Falls. Here, the difference in dynamic range is prominent. Although the forest and river are similar in brightness/exposure, the skies look very different between the two cameras. This is because the "lack of dynamic range" from the smaller sensor means that the camera was not able to capture any of the detail in the very bright parts of the scene.
Except for the differences in dynamic range, which may be small to many viewers, both cameras were producing very similar images with similar levels of detail. Still, the EOS-20D does allow you produce more sophisticated photographs due to superior exposure capabilities. By stopping down to f/32 and dragging the shutter 3/10ths of a second, I was able to get a superb shot of Opaekaa Falls without having to bring along a neutral density filter.
After the two quick stops in the morning, I made my way to the west side of the island to Waimea Canyon.
The Grand Canyon of the Pacific
Waimea Canyon is 10 miles long, 1 mile wide, and more than 3,500-feet deep. Although it's smaller than the Grand Canyon of Arizona, the climate of Kauai results in pleasant green foliage among the deep rouge colored dirt. Thanks to Kauai's microclimates, the west side of the island is much drier which made for good photographic light. Unfortunately, I happened to show up on a day that was fairly cloudy and fairly hazy.
The picture really highlights the limitations of a shallow depth of field. While the sign is sharp, the canyon in the back is not. I would have needed a tripod and closed the aperture even further. With a Lumix FZ30, I wouldn't have run into this problem at all.
Both cameras did a good job in capturing the colors of Waimea Canyon
Running both RAW images through Adobe Camera Raw under similar settings also achieved similar results
One limitation of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30 that I encountered was its metering. Some of the images from the Lumix looked washed out because the FZ30 was overexposing scenes with dark colors more so than other cameras were. The EOS-20D did very well with these scenes; Nikon's 3D Color Matrix Metering would have been even better.
SIDEBAR: The Grand Waimea was the name of the fictional hotel on Fox's now-cancelled North Shore. The hotel in the TV show was in fact the Turtle Bay Resort on Oahu.
Next Stop - Poipu
I spent Monday afternoon in Poipu, where I had a chance to check out the Spouting Horn. This is a lava tube that was formed when the top layer a stream of lava was cooled and hardened by the cold atmosphere producing an insulating roof that allowed the lava underneath to continue to flow. Now, when waves force water into the cavity, the air that is already in the space is compressed resulting in a pressurized air/water jet. The jet is accompanied by a moaning-sound because the pressurized air/water jet also drives air through small fractures in the lava.
The wide angle capabilities of the Canon EOS-20D made for some excellent shots of the Spouting Horn, and deep, rich blue skies were made possible with a polarizer. The Lumix DMC-FZ30 also produced great pictures. White balance during a sunny day is typically very easy for manufacturers to deal with. Thus, the differences in color seem to be intentional with Panasonic tuning the Lumix line of cameras to produce the hues characteristic of classic Leica lenses and classic Kodak film. While the colors are less accurate, the creative decision to produce warm hues with cyan skies is also characteristic of the images produced by the $10,000 Leica R9/DMR with a 35-70mm f/4 lens and Flexcolor 4 software.
Monday's Closing Thoughts
Yesterday, I had almost no luck with the photography, but today was a completely different story. Between the two cameras, I shot over 8 GB of data. What has been most impressive is how good the Lumix FZ30 is in practice. Although the EOS-20D images offers more nuanced colors with a more three-dimensional look thanks to a wider dynamic range, the greater depth of field offered by the Lumix FZ30 has come in very handy. It's true that the Panasonic also has more noise than the Canon EOS-20D, but it shouldn't be a problem in prints up to 8x12." Moreover, forcing myself to ISO 80 with the FZ30 has not been much of a hindrance – the only missed shot was the Red-crested Cardinal. The EOS-20D did well today, but the FZ30 gave up almost nothing against the 20D even outperforming it at times. The fact that the DMC-FZ30 was a fraction of the cost is of course a nice benefit.
I got up bright and early again today looking for another sunrise photo opportunity. The skies were overcast, so I decided to head north to the Kilauea Lighthouse. It's the northernmost point of the main Hawaiian islands and is home to the world's largest second-order, bivalve Fresnel lens ($12,000 in 1912 dollars, so about $230,000 today). Lighthouses always make for a picturesque scene and should always be on any vacation stop wherever you may be.
Things were still cloudy when I got there, so I took a few shots and made plans to return later in the day. Both cameras had very similar appearances.
My next stop on my trip was the Guava Kai Plantation which produces more than half of all the guava produced in Hawaii. Did you know that a guava is actually a berry with fleshy seed cavity and thick skin? It even has three times the vitamin C of an orange.
Up until this point, most of my shots have been wide sweeping vistas in which the small sensor size of the Lumix DMC-FZ30 had been an advantage rather than a disadvantage. In this garden, it was macro photography that would be stressed.
On the DMC-FZ30, the closest focusing distance of the lens at the full 420mm tele is always 2 meters. At full 35mm wide, the camera normally can focus as close as 30 centimeters. Going into "AF Macro" mode allows you to bring the wide angle focus point to 5 cm. Macro mode on the EOS-20D means swapping out the lens for a dedicated macro lens. The 100mm Macro f/2.8 is capable of 1:1 reproduction. This meant that an object 1 centimeter in size would be 1 cm in size when reproduced on a 35mm slide. The minimum focusing distance is 35 cm, however this is at 100mm. This results in better "working distance." With the FZ30 it can be tough to frame the image as you've intended because the minimum focusing distance at that zoom level is too long.
Whereas the FZ30 won the day with extended depth of field yesterday, the EOS-20D won today's battle with an impressively shallow depth of field.
Of course, the shallow depth of field doesn't always work in your favor, in this image, only the eye of the reptile is in focus. It's artistic but it would have been tough for me to capture the entire reptile in focus.
With the sun coming out, I decided to return to Kilauea Point.
SIDEBAR: When it comes to fresh fruit, nothing beats a Clementine
It was with better light that the differences between the two cameras became more apparent. The FZ30 was able to do fairly well but the limitations of the smaller sensor were becoming a problem. Without sufficient dynamic range, the clouds in the picture took on an artificial appearance. Processing the RAW allowed correction of the white balance and an increase in saturation, but had worse effect on the clouds
With the light in a slightly different position and the lens zoomed in further to reduce the difference between the brightest and darkest areas, the Lumix FZ30 did substantially better when there was fewer extremes of brightness in the picture.
In terms of color, the EOS-20D outclassed the FZ30. Although the lighting was similar, the ability for the EOS-20D to capture the nuanced differences in color tone meant that processing with the landscape picture style allowed rich colors to be reproduced without any of the posterization. The dynamic range of the sensor also meant that clouds looked appropriately wispy.
That said, although colors were better on the EOS-20D the open aperture meant that there was insufficient depth-of-field. So, the lighthouse isn't as sharp on the EOS-20D's image in comparison to the Lumix FZ30's. This is operator error, but still reflects the reality of digital SLRs versus point-and-shoots.
SIDEBAR: The tallest lighthouse in the world is the Marine Tower in Yamashita Park, Yokohama, Japan.
The next leg of my trip took me further north as I entered the city of Hanalei. I stopped to appreciate the six-mile long and one-mile wide, Hanalei Valley. Most of Hawaii's taro is grown here.
I had lunch at Polynesian Café, "Gourmet food on paper plates". The food wasn't bad.
Looking back, if I had not run out of batteries with the Lumix FZ30, I would have brought the better camera to bring. Thus far, with charging the batteries each evening, I had never needed to replace the EOS-20D battery. This is because the power-hungry LCD screen is only used for reviewing images. On the Lumix FZ30, you're always using an LCD screen to preview and compose your shot. I still wouldn't fault the FZ30 for running out of batteries – it's my fault for not bringing a spare battery.
The hike was strenuous, but what kept me going was the knowledge that I had made plans for dinner at the Cafe Hanalei in Princeville.
This of course gave me several opportunities to try the low-light capabilities of the two cameras.
SIDEBAR: Canon’s brightest lens is the 85mm f/1.2L. They used to have a 50mm f/1.0L for EOS cameras, and even had a 50mm f/0.7 in the past.
The challenge of low-light photography is that eventually the shutter speeds required exceed your ability to handhold your camera. So, if you don't want to use a tripod, there are only three options 1) artificial lighting 2) image stabilization or 3) increasing ISO sensitivity
Since flash photography can often cause an artificial appearance, or may not be allowed at the venue, low-light performance can be very important through image stabilization and/or increased ISO sensitivity. The Lumix FZ30's image stabilization goes a long way to improving images, but it's still no panacea.
Since the Lumix DMC-FZ30 has a larger aperture of f/2.8 compared to the f/5.6 of the EOS-20D shot, the effective difference in sensitivity was only about 2-stops in these sets of pictures, with the advantage going to Canon. The 1/5 second shutter speed and my weary arms from the hike were simply too much for the Lumix's image stabilization to handle. The FZ30 also seemed to have trouble with white balance under the low-light conditions.
Dinner was excellent.
SIDEBAR: The Princeville Hotel runs its own airport too.
I started Wednesday morning by going to Wal-Mart. I seemed to have run into a bad-batch of DVD-Rs and coastered 6 in a row trying to backup the previous day's shots. After picking up a spindle of DVD-Rs from Wal-mart, I was back in business.
I started by heading out to the Menehune Fishpond. Legend has it that the large pond was built 1600 years ago by hundreds of Menehunes or tiny people. These tiny people supposedly built the 900 feet long pond in one night by lining up an entire village and handing each stone from villager to villager over a 25 mile supply chain.
And after lunch at the McDonalds, I spend the rest of the afternoon on a cruise to the Na Pali Coast of Kauai.
By this point, I'm beginning to repeat myself when discussing the differences between the two cameras. The usability of the FZ30 has been top-notch and the 2GB Corsair Secure Digital card has made it easy to shoot RAW with camera. In terms of image quality, the EOS-20D consistently has the ability to capture finer differences in color, tone, and texture, and its superior dynamic range results in better looking skies. Still, the Lumix FZ30 still comes "pretty close" in terms of performance and it's substantially more portable and easier to attain critical sharpness thanks to a higher depth-of-field.
That said, rain makes for great garden shots, so I headed to the south side of the island to the National Tropical Botanical Garden, the only tropical botanical garden chartered by the US Congress.
Both cameras did excellent work here. If I had made 8x12" prints of this pictures and didn't label the images, it would be tough to tell which camera had taken the image (except for the f/2.8 shots with the shallow depth of field).
Summary of Kauai
When it comes to vacation photos, the Lumix FZ30 has been able to keep up with the EOS-20D "most of the time." The thing about vacation photos is that they're often posed shots where the photographer has time to say "1,2,3…" What about action photography?
San Francisco's Fleet Week 2005 provided a perfect opportunity to challenge the two cameras. Fleet Week is an annual show put on by the US Navy in which the main attraction is an air show over the San Francisco Bay performed by the Blue Angels. It's free and is a blast for everyone, young and old.
For Fleet Week, the Lumix FZ30 cried uncle. The Canon EOS-20D with the 400mm f/5.6L completely outclassed the Lumix FZ30 in every which way or form. In Hawaii, the FZ30 kept pace with the EOS-20D. In San Francisco, the EOS-20D completely eclipsed the FZ30. There was simply no comparison, no contest. Over the entire weekend, I took about 700 shots of the Blue Angels with the Lumix FZ30. None were any good. I took about 2000 shots with the EOS-20D. About 90% were good.
Of those 700 shots from the Lumix FZ30, here were the two best shots:
At web resolutions these pictures look pretty good, and when you look at the second one at full size, you can tell that the person in the rear seat of # 7 is looking toward his right side.
These pictures from the Lumix FZ30 look good until you see what the EOS-20D is capable of.
With the FZ30, I can tell that two F/A-18's had number 7 on their tails during the practice runs. With the EOS-20D, I can tell that Steve, John, Ted, Matt, Max, and Craig must have the greatest job in the world. (Take a look at the full resolution picture. Make sure you click on “click for high-res version” after the window opens up).
The planes are very similar in size between both images which is to say that the F/A-18's were closer to the camera when I took the Lumix FZ30 shot; focal length does not account for the difference in sharpness. Even if you downgrade the EOS-20D image to only 2 megapixels, you will still be able to make out the pilots' names. I wish I had better pics from the FZ30 to show, but again, of the 700 shots, I've already shown you the two best.
Of the 2000 I took with the EOS-20D, about 90% had critical sharpness. Here's another typical example:
Why the big discrepancy?
As I mentioned earlier, the EOS-20D has an exceptional 5 frames per second shot buffer along with an impressive 9-point predictive autofocus system. The Lumix FZ30 had none of these. I tried using both high-speed and standard single-point auto-focus modes on the FZ30 with little luck. In high-speed auto-focus, the electronic viewfinder pauses for a moment as it locks on. During this split second, you'll lose sight of the Blue Angels. I tried continuous AF, non-continous AF, manual focus, without any success. I tried Mode 1 IS, and disabling imagine image stabilization without any success.
How good is the EOS-20D's autofocus tracking? Here's an F/A-18 flying near the speed sound to produce Prandtl-Glauert clouds.
SIDEBAR: A few years ago the Canadian Snowbirds participated at San Francisco's Fleet Week.
The Lumix FZ30 is a remarkable camera, and at $600 it's the best camera on the market if you want a full 12x zoom. On a typical summer vacation, the FZ30 handles most of the shots with aplomb. The Leica DC lens on the Lumix FZ30 is superb with good sharpness, even at the corners. At 420mm, the FZ30 is better than third party 300mm f/4.0 prime lenses (resulting in 480mm on the EOS-20D) and is almost as good as a 320mm shot taken with a EOS-20D and a 70-200 f/4 L at f/5.6. Still, the camera is limited by the realities of the budget and the mediocre imaging sensor. Although noise is easy to identify in the Lumix FZ30, it's not a problem in prints 12x18" in size. The presence of noise in images from the Lumix FZ30 should not be a deterrent at all.
The question is about the color rendition, the dynamic range, and the functionality of the camera. The standard color rendition of the Lumix FZ30 tends to lean toward warm hues and aqua skies, perhaps in an attempt to mimic "Leica hues." Unfortunately, due to the poor dynamic range, the skies often go too far cyan resulting in disappointing pictures. Shooting RAW and processing it with software such as Adobe Camera Raw is able to correct some of the white balance and color cast issues. Unfortunately, the RAW mode appears much like an afterthought. It only takes about three and half seconds to write a RAW image file. The problem is that the Lumix write a huge 14MB RAW file when it really only needs to be writing something around 8MB. That's what so frustrating about the FZ30 from a reviewer's perspective – just one more refinement, and the camera would have been substantially better. In addition, unlike Canon which offers Digital Pro Professional for processing RAWs, Panasonic offers no alternative at this time. This is something Panasonic will need to re-evaluate in their next-generation product.
The colors from the FZ30 aren't perfect but they're still pleasant. It's only when you compare them to the EOS-20D that you notice the difference. The limited dynamic range means that skies become unnatural, but how often are the skies the focus of your attention? The responsiveness isn't up to the level of being able to capture a F/A-18 screaming by at close to supersonic speeds, but any time you can be the photographer who says "Say cheese" or "1...2...3..." the Lumix FZ30 will be able to handle the situation. What about the ability to provide a shallow depth of field for portrait or macro photography? Are these improvements worth paying an extra $600 entry-fee for the EOS-20D and the extra hundreds to thousands when you factor in specialized lenses? For many passionate photographers, the answer is resounding yes. But the question is if it's worth it to you.
I'd compare the digital SLR to gourmet cuisine, fine wines, or exotic espresso machines. On the island of Kauai, I can get a rice plate with fresh grilled Ahi tuna and some potato-mac salad on the side for about $4.50 from a hole-in-the-wall snack shop in the town of Koloa. I can also spend $34 on seared lemongrass crusted Ahi with shrimp dumplings and a miso sesame vinaigrette. The second definitely tastes better, but is it 7.5 times better? You can't quantify that in terms like that. Or consider the choice between a Toastmaster drip coffee maker you can find for $10 at Sears versus the $3200 Jura-Capresso Impressa Z5 super-automatic espresso machine you can get from Williams-Sonoma. Any objective analysis will tell you that the Jura-Capresso Impressa Z5 is better, but that doesn't mean it's worth the extra $3190.
The decision between a digital SLR such as the EOS-20D and a superzoom point-and-shoot such as the DMC-FZ30 is not that simple. Although the more expensive digital SLR is better in many ways, the extended depth-of-field is a unique feature inherent to the lower-priced cameras with smaller sensors. It is both an advantage and a weakness. There is even a Magnum photographer (Magnum being for photojournalists what Elite is for models) who chooses to shoot with an Olympus point-and-shoot digital camera for that very effect.
The difference isn't like a fine gourmet meal versus a good home cooked meal either. At the end of the night, you only have memories of that meal. A digital camera is something tangible that should give you satisfaction for a long time. The difference isn't anywhere near the difference between the $10 drip coffee maker and $3200 super automatic. Those two products are in completely different price ranges. On the other hand, if you can afford a $600 digital camera then you can also, in strict economic terms, afford a $1400 digital SLR. That is, if you're ready to spend $600 on a camera as opposed to say $200 or $300, you can also spend $1400 with a little bit of extra saving without adversely affecting your ability to provide food, clothing, and shelter for yourself and those in your care. Rather, is that you may not find any value from spending the extra $800. Complicating the decision are cameras like the $900 Canon EOS Rebel XT or used digital SLRs which can be found for less than $600. The Rebel XT offers all of the image quality of the EOS-20D. The ability to capture fine differences in tone and extended dynamic range are all abilities that the Rebel XT shares with the EOS-20D. The difference is in the shot-to-shot speed and slower auto-focus. The Rebel XT won't be able to deal with those F/A-18 as well but is losing the ability to shoot high-speed action worth the $500 in savings? Again, only you can decide. It's an important decision because if it turns out that a digital SLR is the right camera for you and you've convinced yourself that you only want to spend $600 on a digital camera, you'll find yourself needing to spend $1400 later on a EOS-20D to be satisfied, and you've basically wasted $600. Equally true, if listening to me talk about dynamic range and tone bores you in the same way as listening to an espresso aficionado talk about crema, buying a digital SLR is a waste of money and will even make your photography a chore.
Digital camera reviews can't end with a simple list of pros and cons and score from 0-100. They're not commodity items and I won't give you a label to say whether I "recommend" or "highly recommend" something or if a camera is on my one of 40+ "picks". You have to choose the right technology for your needs. Both the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30 and Canon EOS-20D represent the best in their class. If I were in the market for a $1400 digital SLR, I wouldn't turn anywhere else and likewise, if I were in the market for a $600 point-and-shoot with a 12x zoom, the Lumix DMC-FZ30 would be my first choice.
The point of this article was to show you the difference between two classes of cameras and show you where the limiting factor in technology lies. "The photographer is responsible for the picture, not the equipment" is a false statement. At the end of the day, it requires both the photographer and his or her equipment working together. They are partners in this artistic endeavor. Expensive equipment won't make you a better photographer, but a photographer, like a surgeon, is only as good as his or her tools.
I'll leave you with some photos of Hawaii from a $300 Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX8.
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