Canon Powershot Pro1 Review
Welcome to 2004, the year of the 8-megapixel consumer digicam. SONY were the first to market in 2003 with their 8-megapixel 7x optical Zoom DSC-F828. Joining SONY in 2004 are the 8-megapixel 8x zoom Nikon Coolpix 8700, and the 8-megapixel 7x zoom Canon PowerShot Pro1, the subject of this review. The Pro1 is the third of Canon's PowerShot Pro series, following the Pro 70 we reviewed in 1998 and the Pro 90 IS reviewed in 2001. While Canon's 3-year product development cycle for its PowerShot Pro series might seem a bit long, each model has been a big improvement over its predecessor. The Pro1's 8-megapixel imager is only the beginning; improvements have been made in the resolution of both the LCD and Electronic viewfinder, shooting performance, and lens quality. The PowerShot Pro1 is clearly targeted for the advanced amateur photographer, but the point-n-shoot simplicity of its automatic and scene modes will allow even the beginner to get terrific results.
The advanced photographer will enjoy using the Pro1's full-featured exposure system. Exposure modes include Shutter speed-priority AE with settings ranging from 15 seconds to 1/4000 second, Aperture-priority AE with settings ranging from f2.4-8.0, Programmed Auto, and Manual Mode. Programmed Auto produced consistently well-exposed images, but had a propensity to shoot at an aperture of f/4 to f/4.5 in bright sunlight, varying only shutter speed to accommodate the lighting conditions. The Pro1 does have a program shift function, allowing the photographer to select different combinations of shutter speed and aperture, but this feature is awkward to use - requiring you to first press the * button and then rotate the main dial to make your selection. Manual exposure mode offers independent control of both shutter speed and aperture; it assists the photographer with choosing appropriate settings by displaying a numeric indication of over, under, or good exposure in the viewfinder.
In any mode other than Automatic or Scene, a rich set of exposure controls can be used. ISO settings of 50, 100, 200 and 400 are available, but you'll prefer to use the low-end of that range. The noise at ISO 400 is unacceptable even at fast shutter speeds. The noise at ISO 200 is noticeable, and at ISO 100 it's detectable. The Pro1 provides a choice of metering modes, including Evaluative, Center-weighted, Spot and Spot linked to AF Point. A unique feature of the Pro1 is its menu-selectable Neutral Density (ND) filter; its use reduces the magnitude of light reaching the image sensor by a factor of 8, or 3 f-stops. The ND filter can be used to increase lens aperture, blurring the background, or to eliminate overexposure when using flash during macro photography. Rounding out the set of exposure controls are Exposure compensation (+/- 2 EV in 1/3 EV steps), manual White Balance settings, and Exposure Bracketing (3 shots, +/-2 EV in 1/3 EV steps). The Pro1 also offers a rich set of in-camera image processing functions called Photo Effects, including Vivid, Neutral, Low Sharpening, Sepia, Black & White, and Custom Effects for Contrast, Sharpness and Saturation. Noise Reduction is performed automatically for exposures longer than 1.3 seconds; it worked quite effectively in our long exposure testing.
The Pro1 allows you to save frequently used shooting modes and camera settings in Custom mode. Two independent storage areas, C1 and C2, are provided, allowing you to set and later recall Shooting mode, Record menu settings, Manual focus setting, and zoom focal length.
The Pro1's shooting performance is very good. From power-on until the first shot was captured measured just over 3 seconds. Shutter lag, the elapsed time between depressing the shutter and capturing an image, measured 1/10 second when pre-focused and 6/10 second including autofocus time. About 1/10 second of shutter lag is attributable to the delay in the live image presented on either of the Pro1's viewfinders; if you are able to compose the shot, pre focus, and time the shutter release without using the viewfinder, the Pro1's response is nearly instantaneous. In Single shot mode, the Pro1 captured 8-megapixel Fine images at the rate of one every 1.5 seconds without flash; with flash, the shot-to-shot rate was one every 2 to 5 seconds, depending on the distance to the subject. In RAW mode, Shot-to-shot performance slows to an interval of 2.3 seconds for a depth of 4 images, then a delay of about 13 seconds before the next image can be captured. It took about 30 seconds for the Pro1 to flush the entire buffer to its CF memory card. The Pro1 does not record images in the TIFF format.
The Pro1 has two Continuous shooting modes, Standard and High Speed. In Continuous H, the Pro1 captured 8 images in 3.7 seconds, then continued to capture images at a rate of one every 3.5 seconds. The viewfinder blanks during Continuous H image capture, so you will be unable to follow a moving subject in this mode. In Continuous Standard, the Pro1 captured between 12 and 15 shots at one second intervals, then continued at a rate of one shot every 3.5 seconds. In this mode, the viewfinder briefly displays the live image between shots, helping you to follow a moving subject. The Pro1 can capture RAW images in Continuous mode; Standard Continuous taking 4 shots at 1.8 second intervals while briefly displaying a live image between shots, and High Speed taking 4 images at 1.5 second intervals but blanking the viewfinder for the entire sequence. Performance measurements were made while using a Sandisk ultra CF card, shooting 8-megapixel images in Superfine quality.
The Pro1 prioritizes shooting over other functions. In review or menu mode, it just takes a tap of the shutter button to return to Record mode. Overall, the Canon PowerShot Pro1 is a fine performer considering its shooting priority, responsiveness, viewfinder management in Continuous mode, and the ability to record RAW images in Continuous mode.
While you won't mistake it for an optical viewfinder, the EVF's resolution, brightness, and refresh rate make it quite easy to view. Camera settings and exposure information can be seen along with the live image, allowing you to keep your eye at the viewfinder while you make exposure changes. It is as fully-functional as the LCD viewfinder, but easier to use when following a moving subject. The large 2" LCD viewfinder is equipped with a very good anti-reflective coating and a brightness control; it is very easy to view outdoors in bright sunlight. Both the LCD and EVF brighten, or "gain-up", in low ambient light, allowing you to compose shots in dimly-lit interiors. Switching between the two viewfinders is accomplished by depressing the Monitor Selector button to the left of the EVF.
The 7x zoom Canon L lens is a great piece of glass and gives the user a versatile range of focal lengths from wide angle to telephoto; the focal length range of 28mm to 200mm (35mm-equivalent) provides plenty of field-of-view for interior shots or landscapes, and enough telephoto magnification to bring your subject closer. Canon attached their L-series designation to this lens, and while it doesn't have quite the quality of the Canon EOS L-series lenses, you'll be pleased with the color and sharpness it produces. The Pro1 offers excellent macro performance, focusing as close as 1.2-inches in Super Macro mode (at a reduced image resolution.) The zoom is operated by a ring on the lens barrel, a motorized fly-by-wire affair; there's a slight delay as you turn the ring before the focal length changes. Movement is nearly-continuous through the zoom range; I counted more than 30 steps between the wide angle and telephoto extremes, more than adequate for shot composition. There is only a slight amount of Chromatic Aberration (purple fringing) present in high-contrast areas at wide angle; it diminishes at the telephoto end of the zoom range. There is also noticeable barrel distortion at full wide angle and a bit of pin cushioning at the telephoto end of the zoom range.
The Pro1's autofocus system complements the lens nicely in producing sharp images. The AF Frame can be precisely positioned within the composition, allowing focusing on off-center subjects. The AF system worked very well outdoors in bright sunlight. Unlike most of its PowerShot siblings, the Pro1 is not equipped with a focus-assist lamp. Although its low-light autofocus performance is remarkably effective at the wide angle end of the zoom range, it is less effective than the competitors that do include focus-assist. The Pro1 can also be focused manually, the zoom ring becoming the focus ring when the MF button is depressed. It provides an on-screen distance scale graduated even into inches for macro photography, and enlarges the AF frame area on the viewfinder to help you determine critical focus. Manual focus is further assisted by the Pro1's Focus Bracketing mode, which takes a series of 3 images while varying the focus distance within a menu-specified range.
The Pro1's controls are ergonomically located with the exception of the MF button located just below the power switch at the top right corner of the back side of the camera body. In normal use your right thumb rests near or on this control. It's far too easy to inadvertently push the button and put the focusing system into manual mode, ruining the next and subsequent shots until you discover the mistake. Most of us are concentrating on framing the subject, not monitoring the information status displayed in the EVF. The Pro1's data LCD can be illuminated, allowing it to be used at night. The zoom control is in a place familiar to SLR users, but I miss the responsiveness and precision that only a mechanical zoom control can offer; there was a slight delay using the Pro1's fly by wire control, and it frequently over-shot the desired focal length. The Vari-angle LCD can be placed in virtually any position, allowing you to shoot from overhead, waist or ground-level, and even facing forward for self-portraits.
Power is provided by Canon's BP-511, a 7.4v 1390mA lithium rechargeable pack. The Pro1 managed to capture an average of 200 shots before exhausting its battery, including a lot of time spent testing and exploring the camera's menu system. This same battery is used to power Canon's 10D and Digital Rebel dSLR's, routinely achieving 400 shots before exhaustion; I suspect that the Pro1's EVF and LCD are a greater drain, resulting in the lower shot capacity per charge. An extra BP-511 would be a very wise first purchase and is highly recommended. Your use of the internal flash, continuous-AF, and motorized zoom will determine battery life. The BP-511 battery pack is charged outside of the camera with the supplied CG-580 charger; it takes about 90 minutes to fully recharge.
Indoor shooting is facilitated by the range of the built-in flash (16 feet at wide angle) and the generous field of view produced by the 28mm focal length of the lens at its widest zoom setting. Although you won't be able to capture an entire dance floor, you'll get good results shooting portraits of moderately large groups and rooms. If your indoor shooting needs exceed the Pro1's abilities, the attachment of an external Canon speedlight to the built-in hot shoe will increase flash power. The Pro1 does exploit the E-TTL and motorized zoom features of its compatible flash products, but not the focus-assist lamp.
Image quality is always the bottom line, and the Pro1 provides few disappointments. As I've already discussed, there's some lens distortion at wide angle and telephoto, purple-fringing in high-contrast areas, and noise present at higher ISO's. But sharpness and color saturation are excellent, and it's 8-megapixel images will produce 16 X 20 inch prints or larger.
But in a world where most digital images are viewed on-screen or printed at 4x6 inches, are 8-megapixel images really necessary? Is the megapixel marketing war improving our enjoyment of photography, or simply selling more high capacity memory cards? I like to draw an analogy to film; stepping-up to a higher resolution digicam is similar to increasing the format in film cameras. You never know when you'll need the extra resolution for that big print, or, more likely, need to do a massive crop to enlarge a small portion of the original image. In this case more is better, especially when the cost of today's 8-megapixel digicam is less than the 5-megapixel models at their time of their introduction.
And what of the seemingly shrinking difference between the high-end 8-megapixel prosumer digicam and the low-end digital SLR? If it's features you crave, the family-friendly prosumer digicam like the Pro1 is your answer; you'll not find a dSLR with the Pro1's VGA-sized movies, built-in macro capability, Focus bracketing, or flexible vari-angle LCD viewfinder. But the Pro1's feature advantages are less important if you need the versatility of interchangeable lenses, dSLR shooting performance, an optical thru-the-lens viewfinder and superior image quality (especially at high ISO).
Like the Nikon 8700, the Canon PowerShot is a worthy competitor in the prosumer digicam market. Its features are rich and the image quality excellent. A beginner will get terrific results in automatic mode, while the advanced photographer will be able to push the envelope; it's a camera that will grow your photographic skills. Please have a look at our sample images, some having comparables taken under identical conditions with the Sony DSC-F828 and the Nikon Coolpix 8700.
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