I’ve been shooting with a Canon S100 Digital Elph since 2000, and after seven years the camera was looking very long in the tooth, with dead pixels and starting to fall apart, it was time for an equally tiny replacement. For serious still shooting I’ve got a Canon 10D w/ an EF 24mm-70mm f/2.8 lens, and for video, a Sony HVR-A1U HDV camcorder, and even though the images from both of these puppies are spectacular, I don’t always want to deal with the weight and bulk of these cameras. I like having a small digital camera I can take with me wherever I go, that I can wear on my belt and forget it’s there. But I also would like to shoot short movie segments, so I’ve been waiting for something with at least 1280 x 720 (720p) video capability in the Digital Elph form factor. Finally Canon introduced the TX1 that fits the bill, so after years waiting and considering, yet not purchasing, many alternatives, I settled on the TX1.
In a subsequent post I’ll Post and discuss some of the movie clips I I’ve shot with the camera, as far as stills go, check out the May 6, 2007 Boston Media Makers Meeting Photo Set I recently posted to Flickr, all of these images in the set were shot with the TX1. I’m not going to go over the features and specifications of this camera in great detail, that information is readily available in Digital Photography Review’s review of the camera. In this post I’m going to focus on my qualitative experience of the camera and summarize the strengths and weaknesses of the camera.
The camera is small and easy to handle after a short aclimation period. The LCD viewfinder is bright and crisp, and shows grid lines to make it east to keep your photos aligned nicely.
I was pleased with the overall quality of the still images I shot under good lighting conditions or using flash. Photos taken with the flash were sometimes over-exposed, and I got the occational red-eye (even through red-eye reduction was set on) more often than I expected. When you shoot without Flash, if you set the ISO on auto or to 800 and above, the images are really noisy, as you would expect. I still prefer to use my Canon 10D w/ 24-70mm f/2.8 lens for hand-hend phtography in low-light, often with a monopod, not only are the high ISO results better, but the auto focus is much better. It’s not fair to compare a $1,500 D-SLR and a little $500 point and shoot, but someday I hope it is. Some of the TX1 photos in the above set were shot with a monopod to offset the effect of camera shake so I could shoot at a lower ISO rating.
The camera uses a 7.1 megapixel CCD imager with a 6.5-65mm f/3.5-5.6 (35mm equivalent 39” “390mm) 10x optical zoom lens, but that’s the price you pay for such a tiny lens. My gripe is that the wide is not as wide as I would have liked, I do lots of close-in shooting. The OIS (optical image stabilization) worked reasonably, and Canon claims the camera uses their Digic III image processor. The camera is capable of shooting in very low light if you don’t mind lonts of noise in the image, with an ISO rating of up to 1600.
Video quality is reasonable for such a tiny camera, however, even though video can be recorded at a resolution as high as 1280 x 720 at 30fps, it’s not anywhere near as good as video shot with an HDV (MPEG-2) or AVCHD (MPEG-4/H.264) camcorder. The TX1 uses Motion-JPEG, an older format with a much higher bit rate for the quality compared to H.264 or MPEG-2. The only real advantage of Motion-JPEG is low processor overhead, and in such a tiny camera, it’s an issue. I suspect, over time, we’ll see the move towards using better codecs in this form factor. The 1280 x 720 movies look much better when reduced to half-size 640 x 360, but I’ve not been shooting the smaller size movies because starting with the larger image gives you some flexibility in terms of zooming if you need it.
My greatest disappointment with the camera is that even though I found the face-detect auto focus worked reasonably well, the problem for me is that the camera does not offer an easy way to quickly switch between face-detect auto focus and standard auto focus. Sometimes the face-detect auto focus works well, but when it’s not working, you want to be able to turn it off in an instant, and turn it back on when you think it’s going to work well and then back off when the situation changes, and so on and so forth. Instead the mode switch has to be done by going into the menu. The camera offers one assignable button and this switching should be assignable to that button, but it is not. Although the camera automatically switches to AF mode when it can’t detect a face, the problem is when it detects the wrong face or you want something other than a face focused upon. The 9-point auto-focus is only available in single shot mode, in continuous mode it’s based on a center point. There is also no maunal focus. This would be nice, but I don’t exect it in a camera like this.
In a nutshell, the strengths of this camera lie in the small form-factor, and ability to shoot both stills and video, the use of high capacity and high performance SD memory cards, and reasonably good image stabalization.
Weaknesses include the widest lens setting is not very wide, there is no quick on/off face-recognition auto-focus button (you can’t quickly turn it on and off), long shutter lag, lack of manual focus, and very noisy low-light results.
Great camera if you want something small and need both stills and video. I suspect as memory prices continue to drop and tiny embedded processors get faster and faster, we’re going to see a growing number of hybrid camera/camcorders on the market, I think the TX1 is just the beginning of a whole new wave of tiny HD cameras.