"Declaring the glory of God
through photography of His created world"
copyright 2007 by Joseph LaQuiere
Panasonic DMC-FX01, Shirt Pocket Digicam
Well here it is, my personal pick as current best all around shirt pocket digicam.
Often I am asked by friends and family what small camera to get for casual picture taking. With the age of digital many of us, even though we may have extensive SLR gear also carry with us a small pocket camera. I am no exception and always have one of these little digicams with me. As with most things digital these days nailing down a specific brand or model is a moving target. However every 3-6 months one of these cameras usually comes to my attention and falls into my "favorite shirt pocket camera" category, till the next batch of cameras are released.
The latest pocket camera that has caught my attention is the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX01. I have tried several Panasonic cameras in the past, and frankly, was not too impressed. Recently I picked up an FX01 as an open box at a local big box store and quickly grew fond of it.
THE GREAT MEGAPIXEL RACE
In relating to the previous paragraph let me talk a little about megapixels and noise.
Because of the minute sensor sizes used in these miniature cameras and the reckless race for the most megapixels in the smallest case, pocket cameras have seen little improvement in ISO performance.
ISO & NOISE
For those wondering what ISO is and how it affects cameras here it is plain and simple. ISO equals the image sensors ability to pick up light. A higher ISO number means that the sensor is more sensitive to the available light, just the same as film. The more sensitive the sensor is to light the faster the shutter speed can be which translates to pictures that are less likely to suffer from motion blur. Unfortunately higher sensitivity comes at a price and that is called noise. Noise in a picture looks like thousands of specks all over your pictures giving the picture a very coarse and grainy look. As manufactures push to cram more and more pixels onto very tiny chips the problem is exacerbated. As each pixel becomes closer together and smaller noise becomes increasingly harder to reduce.
BETTER PIXELS, NOT MORE OF THEM
A pixel is like a tiny piece of film which records one dot of the image. Put enough of these together and you can form a picture. On each digital image chip are millions of these little sensors, hence the term megapixel. The more of these little dots there are the more a picture can be enlarged without seeing the dots. There is a point at which more pixels are only needed to produce larger prints or to crop the image and still maintain a high enough resolution so that you cannot see the dots that make up the image. In my view 4 megapixel is very sufficient for prints up to 8X10 and for any type of monitor display.
The perception of the consumer market is that more megapixels are better. Let me be very plain MORE MEGAPIXELS ARE NOT AN INDICATION OF A BETTER CAMERA. HIGHER MEGAPIXEL COUNTS ARE NOT ALWAYS BETTER THEN LESS. Camera companies produce and develop what sells and it is the "How many megapixels does it have" question that has manufactures engaged in the reckless pursuit of more and more pixels on a single chip. If a manufacturer makes a camera that has a 5 megapixel chip but it is 10 times better at producing a good picture than one rated at twice the pixel count it will be the higher megapixel camera that will sell, even though it produces an inferior picture. So they have to play the megapixel game until everyone is at the top of the hill in terms of what is technically possible until the dust settles and then they can concentrate on improving features performance noise etc. I think we are finally getting there (to the top of the hill) with pocket digacams sporting ridiculous pixel counts of 8 and 10 megapixels. Don't get me wrong all things being equal more megapixels are a fine thing to have but not at the expense of a better sensor to begin with. For 99% of the consumers that purchase this type of camera mega pixel count means absolutely nothing to them, yes let me say it again most consumers receive NO benefit from more megapixels. Most people that purchase these cameras including me, an avid photographer, produce nothing more than 4x6 prints with an occasional 5X7 or 8X10. What we do need is less noise and higher shutter speeds, better faster lenses and longer, more useful, zooms.
Ok now let me get back to the camera. The FX01 is a 6 megapixel camera and the noise performance here is slightly below average but for Panasonic this is a big step forward. In the past Panasonic's well thought out designs have been like a distance runner in a sack race because of high noise levels at anything but the lowest ISO setting. The FX01 is a much better performer, at ISO80 and 100 images are clean and almost noise free. From ISO200 to 400 the camera still produces plenty of nice pictures as long as proper exposure can be attained.
What makes the FX01 a great pocketable camera? Of course the previously mentioned image stabilization is one of the biggest but along with this is a very nice little lens that provides true wide angle and has a zoom rate of 3.8Xwhich is almost 1X more range than most cameras of this type. This equals 28-102mm in 35mm terms where most comparable cameras have 35-105mm lenses. To me this is the first zoom lens on any pocketable digicam that when combined with the image stabilization is truly as useful as it should be. Even on indoor and low light shots, with stabilization on, many shots turn out usable. With most previous cameras, I have had, you could just about forget using the zoom in any lower light situation, even with flash.
Wide angle has been a real joy to have and is the main reason that I have picked this camera as my current carry along. For me I find that most of my pictures with my pocket camera are scenery shots or group shots where the extra wide angle provides very nice perspective.
The FX01 is very sleek and fits nicely in the hand or shirt pocket. It sports a very nice finish and is especially nice in black. The black is almost like a rubber covering not a paint and has the most wonderful and solid feel in the hand. The camera turns on very quickly and feels responsive and shot ready. It also has good flash cycle time without much of a pre-flash delay that is sometimes very annoying to me. This is particularly true of cameras from Olympus. To me a camera that is rated very well shot to shot but feels like you have to wait a second or two after you press the shutter button when using flash because the camera flashes a pre flash to determine proper exposure, is very frustrating. The flash on the FX01 is not particularly strong but I would say about average. When indoors and using flash plan on being about 5-7 feet away for good flash pictures.
Pictures that are taken with these little cameras tend to be spontaneous, quick, off the cuff and after all the comparisons are made what matters most really is how many of the shots that you were trying to capture were you able to keep and use. On this score the Panasonic DMC-FX01 does very well indeed. Less than 5% of what I took did I have to discard due to blur, noise or focusing issues.
So what makes the FX01 my current pocket camera choice?
Optical image stabilization that works
Wide angle lens with 3.8 zoom
Quick turn on and shot to shot times
Reasonably thin and easy to carry
Nice pictures with a high percentage of keepers
Now after all this I have to tell you that Panasonic has recently announced two new replacement models for the FX01, the FX07 and the FX50. These new models have of course upped the megapixel rating to 7.1 and feature Panasonic's new Venus Engine III which claims to improve image processing. Other than that the only difference between the two models appears to be the addition of a 3" high resolution LCD on the FX50. I expect to get the FX50 sometime in the near future and will report on how it compares. In the mean time prices are sure to fall on the FX01 and if you get one I think you will enjoy it, I did!
Click the link below for some samples of every day snapshots taken with the FX01
IMAGE STABLIAZATION IN YOUR SHIRT POCKET
This feature has been showing up more and more in a number of new pocketable digacams and I predict that by the end of 2007 we will see very few offerings that do not include some form of stabilization. I have always seen a problematic issue with small digicams in the way that they beg to be used. Most of the time pictures are snapped with the camera held in one hand away from the body, many times at arms length. The current trend from manufactures has also been to eliminate the optical view finder so that the camera must be held away from the eye. While the live view LCD has a number of advantages in taking pictures at odd angles it also means that one does not benefit from the natural stabilization that occurs when a camera is held up to the eye. All this ads up to a breeding ground for blurry images. If you add to this, the use of, even a moderate 3x zoom along with the slow lenses, these cameras often have, pictures in even the brightest of light many times do not come out sharp. Another factor that adds to this problem is poor high ISO performance which in turn means, either low shutter speeds, or very noisy pictures.
Finally now we are seeing many cameras that bring welcome and much needed counteractive measures in the form of some type of image stabilization. If it be optical as in the case of the FX01 or sensor based or even, the least desirable electronic method to steady the image. Panasonic's implementation of optical stabilization, in this camera, works great resulting in a much higher percentage of "keeper" pictures.
Panasonic DMC-FX01, 1/60, f/5.6 @IS080