Photo Opportunities

Digital Cameras

Generation 6: Bigger, Faster, Better (2001)

When Olympus released the C-2020Z, I bought one to replace my 2000. In most every respect the 2020 was the camera the 2000 should have been. The things I liked about the 2000 were still there; everything I disliked was gone. And I was happy once again, ignoring Olympus's ongoing efforts to entice me with new models. The 3030 arrived with higher resolution, USB connectivity and a burst mode that let you take multiple pictures without waiting for the camera to write them to the memory card. The 3000 came, a cheaper 3030 with the resolution and a better price. Then came the 2040 and 3040, new versions of the 2020 and 3030 with a faster lens and a USB connection that lets a computer treat the camera like an external disk. And still I was unmoved.

The C-4040Z was the camera that convinced me it was time to upgrade. This is a beautiful little device, packing more into that small but substantial package than I would have thought possible. Higher resolution, more than double that of my 2020. A new user interface that's convenient, elegant and even customizable. And it even takes okay pictures!

While I waited impatiently for my Australia trip and the chance to put the new camera through its paces, I decided to run a little experiment and determine just how much one gives up to get a little more light sensitivity. The pictures below were taken using room light. The camera was at its widest angle setting, to get the benefit of the F1.8 lens opening. At ISO 100 the exposure time was almost a second, dropping to a quarter of a second at ISO 400. Needless to say, all three pictures were taken using a tripod. I also used the remote control to operate the shutter, so even my shaky hands couldn't affect the experiment.

All pictures were taken at the camera's maximum resolution of 2272x1704 pixels. The top row of clips are linked to 640x480 images cropped from the middle of each picture. Aside from a slight loss of resolution during saving, they are identical to the original images. The second row shows a bit of detail at the actual resolution of the camera, so you can see the effect changing the ISO rating has on the image.

ISO 100 ISO 200 ISO 400

The results are what one would expect: there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. Increase the camera's ability to work in low light and you increase the noise in the sensor. As the ant in the detail clip clearly shows, the smooth detail at ISO 100 becomes positively pixelated at ISO 400. Interestingly, the size of the files increases with the increase in ISO rating. That too is logical; the more noise in the image the less smoothness for the JPEG compression algorithm to use in shrinking the file.

Among the many, many features Olympus tossed into the 4040 is in-camera noise reduction. It's intended to reduce the noise that builds up in the CCD during long exposures. I decided to reshoot the same images with this feature enabled to see what effect it would have on the fine detail of our little Antz friend. Although these exposures weren't all that long, would enabling noise reduction make any visible difference?

ISO 100 w/NR ISO 200 w/NR ISO 400 w/NR

There are two differences visible between the two sets of images: the reduction in pixelation in the fine detail; and an increase in brightness in the pictures taken with noise reduction enabled. I have to attribute this second difference to NR. All the pictures were taken within the space of a minute, with no change to available lighting or the position of the camera or tripod.

Clearly, noise reduction can improve image quality on long exposure images. The difference is most pronounced on the ISO 400 image, which isn't a big surprise. We can still see some pixelation, although there's a lot less than in the picture above. The camera did a pretty good job of cleaning up after itself. Although if I really care about the image I'd probably prefer to leave that task to software running on my computer.

I also wanted to give the 4040's closeup capabilities a good workout. The four pictures below are some samples of the flora I found on my visit to western Victoria. They were shot at 2272x1704 and then cropped to 1920x1440 for the full size images. Aside from the application of a bit more JPEG compression to reduce the file size, they are unchanged from the files produced by the camera. I've also provided half size (960x720) and one third size (640x480) versions of the images.

Full Size (184k)

Half Size (60k)
1/3 Size (32k)

Full Size (236k)

Half Size (84k)
1/3 Size (48k)

Full Size (280k)

Half Size (92k)
1/3 Size (52k)

Full Size (208k)

Half Size (72k)
1/3 Size (40k)

As you might imagine, getting the focus right is the most critical aspect of taking good closeups. I discovered the hard way that the viewfinder is useless; thanks to parallax, I'd inevitably end up focusing on something other than the flower. But the LCD was bright enough for these situations. If the focus is better on one picture than on another, it says at least as much about my lack of patience than it does about the camera.

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 Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California