Canon PowerShot Pro1
Canon's "Other" 8 Megapixel Camera
Photo Courtesy Canon USA
In early February of 2004 Canon announced two new 8 Megapixel cameras on the same day — the $4,500 ID Mark II and the $995 Powershot Pro1. Now, in early April, Canon is getting ready to ship both cameras. This review, and my companion review of the Mark II, were done over a 10 day period in mid-March using early production cameras. I used them on a wildlife shoot in Nebraska. for some local shooting, and also tested them in my studio and lab.
Petite & Ergonomic
The first thing that you notice when picking up the Pro1 is how small it is. If you've only seen it in pictures it appears much larger than it does in the "flesh". But Canon has done a fine job on the ergonomics, and with only a few exceptions the controls are very well placed.
The body is of an all-new design, and it's apparent — to me at least — that a lot of thought has gone into the human factors engineering.
As but one example, the button for switching between the EVF and the rear LCD is placed by itself on the left side of the camera, where the left hand can reach it. Most cameras place it somewhere on the rear panel close to a myriad of other buttons.
The shutter release is placed in the perfect position in terms of ones finger angle, but the length of finger press needed is much greater than I've seen on almost any other camera. You get used to it, but I would have preferred a lighter touch before autofocus engages.
The battery and compact flash compartment is a sliding door on the side of the camera under ones palm, similar to that found on the 10D. Unfortunately I found it all to easy for the door to open accidentally, which doesn't happen on the 10D design. You notice this when the cameras fails to turn on and you can't figure out why. On the plus side of the ledger, unlike some hyperthyroid designs when the card release button is pressed the card doesn't shoot across the room, or worse yet needs a set of tweezers to extract.
Differing from Minolta's design, which features both a top mounted and rear mounted control wheel for adjusting two variables, such as shutter speed and F stop, the Pro 1 has a single vertical wheel mounted behind the shutter release. By pressing downward on it though it changes to the second function, so that one can adjust both quickly without more than a rotate and press. Nicely done!
The On/Off control is also of clever design. It's a lever that falls right under ones right thumb. Swivel it to the right and the camera goes into shooting mode. Swivel to the left and you're in review mode. Right above it is a recessed OFF button, and in front of that a bright green (or yellow) power LED. There is also a card activity red LED on the right/rear of the body. No doubts with this camera as to its operating state. Also, even if the camera is placed in playback mode, just touch the shutter release and you're ready to shoot; no levers to move or switches to reset. Nice.
What I didn't care for is that when the camera shuts itself down automatically at the end of the user set timeout (to save battery), the lens retracts and the camera is completely off. Most similar design leave the lens extended and the camera in a stand-by mode. This is preferable for two reasons. Firstly, because the lens can accidentally snag on something as it retracts, and secondly because it lengthens re-start-up time.
Build quality and materials choice appears to be first rate. Though small, it is all-metal, and has real heft. The balance is also near perfect. People with large hands may find it a bit too small though.
EVF and LCD
Both the EVF and LCD are of high quality. Of course the camera switches to the LCD when it is folded out. The best design of all though is Minolta's patented automatic switching when the camera is placed up to ones eye.
The Canon's swiveling LCD design is similar to what we've seen before, and is almost identical to that on the Nikon 8700. I'd guess that these companies have shared patents, as the physical design of the mechanism is almost identical. The nice thing about this design approach is that the mechanism can be folded closed to protect the screen, reversed so that it can be flush against the body, or rotated so that it is either to the side or facing forwards. Compared to the limited positioning capabilities of the Olympus, Minolta and Sony approaches, there is a lot more versatility here.
The electronic viewfinder (EVF) has a solid rubber eyecup and diopter control. I found that the diopter wheel isn't firm enough, and during normal handling was frequently being turned out of position. It needs to either be stiffer or more recessed.
The EVF is good (though not great) quality. It appears close and large, unlike the Nikon and Olympus designs where the screen seems to be at the end of a tunnel.
Inexcusably, there is no live histogram. There is one available on instant review, but really Canon — get with the program. An optional live histogram should be de-rigeur on all digicams.
The Pro1's lens is a 7.2 - 50.8mm f/2.2 - 3.5L optic. This is equivalent to 28-200mm in familiar 35mm terms. This same zoom range is seen on the Sony and Minolta offerings. The Sony lens is a full stop faster (and commensurately bigger), while the Minolta's is a half stop slower at the wide end. The Olympus' lens only goes to 140mm equivalent at the long end, and the Nikon doesn't go as wide (35mm equiv) but goes longer (280mm equiv). The Nikon lens though is a lot slower.
The big news here is that this is an "L" Series lens, the first time that Canon has applied this designation to any lens other than pro-level lenses for its SLR cameras. We'll see in the DxO test results whether this is just a marketing designation or really means something.
The lens is provided with the usual petal-shaped lens shade. I'm not crazy about its design though. It doesn't fit firmly. When twisted into place it locks, but then a bit more firm pressure and it continues to rotate. During field testing I was always nervous that it would fall off. Also, the front of the lens is not threaded for filters. Instead Canon provides a filter adaptor which bayonettes on and which then can take 58mm filters. But, the provided lens shade does not then fit. This is simply not an acceptable design. Canon needs to make the filter ring part of the lens, and the shade big enough to fit over it. Back to design class on this one.
The lens manually zooms with a wide rubberized ring, but it's not mechanical. The zoom is motorized — which I am not a fan of. But, it is the smoothest and nicest motorized zoom that I have yet seen, and it allows for quite fine motion if moved slowly, and rapid focal length change if turned quickly. The problem that I have is that I don't understand the benefit of this design. Though it's far better than the lever operated zooms on the Olympus C8080 and Nikon 8700, it lacks the ultimate speed and direct control of the fully mechanical zoom of the Minolta A2, or the buttery smoothness of the Sony F828's lens mechanism. Other than providing for the possibility of remote control, I see no advantage and several disadvantages to this design approach.
Interestingly, the zoom control also changes image magnification during playback. One can also do this with a separate button (the flash pop-up button during Record mode), but I find that zooming the lens during review is a very clever and handy method. Interestingly, the Pro1 is able to magnify RAW files on review, something that the Minolta A2, for example, can't.
Button and Knobs
The usual plethora of buttons and knobs is found on the Pro1, but in typical Canon style they are well laid out. Some button do double duty, performing different functions in record and playback modes, but when this is the case they are labeled in white for record and blue for their playback function.
There is a button marked FUNCtion which causes an on-screen menu to appear. It allows ISO setting, special effects, bracketing and flash exposure compensation to be set quickly.
The four-way controller offers access to additional setting functions when in shooting mode. Press it upward and exposure compensation becomes available. Press it downward and white balance options appear.
I won't list the rest of the more than a dozen buttons found on the Pro1, but I found them to be generally logically placed, straightforward to use and (with the exception of the eyepiece diopter control), to not operate unless one intends them to.
Doorway — Toronto, April, 2004
RAW and Fast
The Canon Pro 1 joins the Minolta A2 in being able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Buy this I mean that it can shoot more than one RAW frame in succession without freezing up until the buffer has been written to disk. The A2 can shoot 3 frames in under two seconds. The Pro1 can shoot four RAW frames before the buffer is full, but the speed is slightly over a second per frame. But whereas the Minolta alows just about any function to be set or changed during the saving of RAW files the Pro1 does freeze for a brief period between frames. Still, this is a real plus, and it separates these two cameras from the competition.
Many newcomers to digital photography simply don't understand why this is such a big issue, and so I'll explain it here briefly.
RAW images are what the imaging chip saw. They do not have any processing (usually) done to them by the camera. In other words, no white balance, no sharpening, no noise reduction. If you shoot RAW you don't need to make any of these settings in the camera and if you do they're ignored. You are therefore free to processes these files as you see fit, now or again at some later date. Because these files have not been fiddled with by the camera they are of much higher quality when it comes to making any additional changes to them. Also, JPG files have lossy compression, which means that some data is lost, and again each time the file is opened and resaved as a JPG. A RAW file may also be compressed, but no data is lost. Once you load it into Photoshop or some other image processing software you can change it to an uncompressed lossless format.
JPGs, which most amateurs shoot, have had all of the above adjustments applied to them by the camera. If you then make changes to the file — say brightness, contrast, colour balance or sharpening, you are reworking an already processed image, and quality will therefore deteriorate quickly. JPG files are also in 8 bit mode, while RAW files are in at least 12 bit mode in a 16 bit space. This allows for a much greater ability to "massage" or correct the files down the road.
It seems to me that anyone going to the bother of buying a full-featured 8 Megapixel camera for $1,000 is interested in obtaining the best image quality that they can. Unless there is some compelling reason not to, shooting in RAW mode rather than JPG is the way to maximize that quality.
So, now we see the issue. If a camera freezes up for 10-15 seconds after taking each frame while the file gets written to the memory card because the camera lacks a powerful enough microprocessor or big enough buffer, it really suffers as a useful photographic tool. Of the current crop of 8MP cameras, the Canon Pro 1 and the Minolta A2 are the only ones that qualify. Sony, Olympus and Nikon need to understand the issue and make their cameras more capable in this area.
There is little to say about image quality other than that all five of the competitors in this category use the same imaging chip and similar high quality lenses, and therefore produce similar results. More to the point though is how the camera handles.
The Pro1 is good, but not great. Maybe because Canon has generally done such a fine job with its DSLRs I was expecting better. The biggest problem is that the autofocus seems slow to lock on. It works moderately well under most lighting conditions, but is really lethargic. There is a convenient method to use manual focus capability. Simply press a rear-mounted button and turn the zoom ring. The center of the screen will automatically be magnified. But unfortunately neither the EVF nor the LCD really has enough resolution to make this a particularly accurate means of achieving focus.
I was pleased to see that the Adobe RGB colour space is provided for, and ISO can be changed quickly and conveniently. There is also Auto-Exposure bracketing available along with Auto-Focus bracketing, though I really don't see the usefulness of the latter. Like the Minolta A2 the Pro1 offers a built-in Intervalometer for time-lapse and event monitoring applications.
Otherwise the usual plethora of features and gimmicks, some useful, some not, are available. This is not to disparage the Pro1, because all manufacturers seem to add a wide range of electronic capabilities, not so much because they're particularly useful, but seemingly simply because they can. Among the useful ones are audio recording capabilities as well as movie mode. There are also two custom setting memory locations and a Neutral Density filter — something that I'd like to see more digicam makers provide.
As always with viewing colour charts online, please go by what I say, not by
what you see.
Even if you have a profiled and calibrated screen, because this file has been
converted to sRGB
from Adobe RBG there will be differences between what I see on my Sony Artisan
monitor and what you may see.
The Canon Pro1 produced one of the most accurate reproductions of the Macbeth Color Checker that I have ever seen. Only the Red square was slightly undersaturated. Otherwise this is out-of-the-box colour that could well have come from a profiled camera. The RAW file was converted with a Beta version of Camera RAW for Photoshop CS, and only the gray point was adjusted.
The Bottom Line
In just about every area the Canon Pro1 falls mid-pack as compared with the Sony F828, Olympus C8080 and Minolta A2. The built-quality is right up there with the Sony and Olympus. In terms of interface and responsiveness it's not as good as the Minolta in my opinion, but better than the rest. With regard to features and usability, again it's mid-range, and when it comes to "feel" it also falls in the middle.
This is a pleasant camera, but is exceeded by the Minolta A2 when it comes to features and the Sony F828 when it comes to "feel". As seen in the DxO Analyzer report the Pro1 also falls mid-range when it comes to optical measurements.
My biggest complaint lies with the often unresponsive autofocus, which can lead to a delayed shutter release. Many shots can be missed, more than with most of its competitors, while the camera decides that it has found focus and is willing to release the shutter. My other concern is with the manually actuated but electronic zoom control. It's better than the nasty lever zooms on the Olympus and Nikon, but just not as smooth and responsive as the fully manual zoom controls on the Minolta and Sony. I just don't see its benefit.
The Pro1 is a good camera, and like its brethren is capable of very good image quality at low ISO settings. At ISO 200 and above it gets quite noisy and is much less useful when used at these speeds than a 6MP DSLR would be. But given its light weight, small size and high image quality at low ISO, many photographers will find it appealing.