(This is the second of three articles looking at whether there s any real benefit in replacing that old 4 or 5 megapixel compact camera from yesterday with one of today s many ultra-modern high megapixel cameras. Part one looks at what matters in a camera. Part three draws some conclusions, and includes my choice of photos from the day’s shoot.)

To decide for myself whether or not it’s worth upgrading from an older four megapixel digital compact camera to a modern day high-megapixel replacement, I decided to pit two such cameras head to head for a day out at the National Botanical Gardens of Wales. The premise is simple: one day, two cameras, and every shot taken with each camera in turn. It’s the venerable Canon Digital IXUS 400 versus the only-just-released Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX33. Which photos would end up being uploaded to Flickr … and why?

The National Botanical Gardens of Wales are a hidden treasure out in the south west of the country. Featuring the world’s largest single-span biodome, this former millennium project stands on the site of the former Middleton estate. The first national botanical garden created in Britain in 200 years, and one of the very few not built in a city centre, the Gardens are dedicated to the research and conservation of biodiversity and its sustainable utilisation. As the UK’s millennium projects go, this has to be one of better ideas, and one that our children will truly be glad that our generation did.

The Opportunity To Take Photos

Shooting in low light. The day started off dull and overcast, making it difficult to shoot at all both indoors and outdoors. Like most modern compacts, the DMC-FX33 has built in optical stabilisation and an F/2.8 lens, and together they made this no contest at all. I lost track of the number of shots where the older IXUS (which doesn’t have optical stabilisation, but it does have the F/2.8 lens) simply didn’t take a clear picture because it was too dark for the older camera’s ability.

Battery life. Switching between the two cameras on each and every shot, not only must I have looked quite mad to everyone else wandering the gardens, but the constant switching on and off of the cameras put more strain on each battery than usual. Both cameras coped just fine over a five-hour day, which is good enough for me. I’ll call this one a dead heat 🙂

Screen quality. The screens on the two cameras are worlds apart. Although a great screen in its day, the Digital IXUS 400’s screen is tiny by comparison to modern cameras, and it’s harder to use in harsh light and odd angles. Throughout the day, I found myself using the DMC-FX33’s screen to compose each shot first, and then using the IXUS second. The modern camera was definitely the more enjoyable to use.

Score so far: older camera 1; modern camera 3. Overall, both the superior low-light capabilities and the improved screen are compelling reasons to upgrade from an older camera. Although modern cameras appear to have shorter times between battery recharges, battery life wasn’t a problem at all for a single day’s photography, which is all that I need.

Enjoying Using Each Camera

This was as much a tale of two brands as it was a tale of two generations of camera.

Handling. That large screen on the DMC-FX33 brings one problem with it … there isn’t really anywhere on the back of the camera to hold it. I constantly found myself swearing at the camera because I’d caught one of the controls whilst trying to take a shot, especially when trying to shoot portrait, and when holding the camera high up and low down. Because the back of the Digital IXUS 400 is mostly casing rather than screen, Canon was able to tuck the controls away where it’s much more difficult to catch them accidentally.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Panasonic have put a lot of work into the way that the mode wheel on the DMC-FX33 works, and it shows. Macro mode, “normal” mode, and full-auto mode are all next to each other on the wheel. Moving from shooting a plant up close and personal to shooting the biodome was as effortless as I could imagine it. With the older IXUS, by contrast, you have to remember to switch on macro mode or landscape mode, and it’s easy to forget to do so. This round is a dead heat.

Seeing The Shot. It’s not just that the more modern Panasonic Lumix has the larger, brighter, sharper screen (although all of those things help a great deal), it’s that the DMC-FX33 offers both a wide-angle lens and a widescreen option. These are modern features that suit me personally, and are as much to do with what’s important to the brand as they are to do with the generational gap. Panasonic are proud that they offer the wide-angle lens across their entire camera range, and I can see why. It’s a bit harsh on the older IXUS, maybe, but this round goes to the newer camera.

Getting In The Way. I’ve already mentioned my problems with constantly caching the controls on the back of the DMC-FX33. The Panasonic also got in the way with its focal point system. I personally like placing my photograph’s subject off centre – something the IXUS sometimes (but not all the time!) spots. Try as I might, throughout the day I struggled to get the Panasonic to focus on anything that wasn’t dead centre frame. More of a brand thing than a generational thing, but the older camera comes out on top here.

Scores so far: older camera 3, modern camera 5. Modern cameras are an improvement on older cameras in this area, but it’s also an area where the relative values of each brand also makes a difference.

Image Quality

This is where the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX33 faces its hardest challenge. My wife describes my Canon Digital IXUS 400 as the very best camera we’ve ever owned when it comes to image quality. She tells me that I produce better colour shots with the IXUS than I ever did with my Nikon D100, and its replacement the Nikon D200. The strength of Canon’s entire digital range has always been the DIGIC processor line at the heart of each camera. Even a much more modern camera like the DMC-FX33 has its work cut out to try and match the excellence of the DIGIC processor.

Colour. Well, I was shocked. The whole reason why I decided to do this test was because, after my earlier test shots with the DMC-FX33, I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with its colour handling. Not any more! On nearly every shot, the DMC-FX33 produced the same richness of colour that we love from the IXUS 400. I say nearly, because when it came to the really rich colour shots where I’d have backed the IXUS to win, the DMC-FX33 actually came out on top. This wasn’t what I expected, and I’m delighted to award this round to the newer camera.

Highlights and Shadows. The Panasonic has two handicaps here. First of all, it has a tendency to do whatever it can to avoid shadows, which results in more highlights than perhaps there should be. Unfortunately, that’s combined with what appears to be a smaller dynamic range than the older IXUS enjoys, which made it difficult for me to photograph some of the outdoor areas as the sun came out mid-afternoon. (I bet, though, that the DMC-FX33 is fantastic in pubs and at parties, which is where a lot of folks use their compact cameras). These are the real issues behind my concern about the colour handling, and its as much a brand thing as a generational thing. This round firmly goes to the older camera.

What’s In Focus. I’ve already mentioned the Panasonic’s preference for the subject to be centre frame, no matter what focusing mode is selected from the menu (although I have to say the face recognition mode is excellent; it’s just not a feature that’s really useful in a botanical garden!). The other frustration with the DMC-FX33 is that it seems to have a preference for larger apertures, even when setting the camera explicitly in landscape mode. This results in a shallower depth of field, throwing more of the photo out of focus. Although I don’t like it (in fact, I’d love to see a firmware update that tunes the Panasonic to tend away from F/2.8 more), it didn’t actually spoil the images enough for the IXUS to win on this. This one is a dead heat.

Scores so far: older camera 5, modern camera 7. Image quality is Canon’s turf, and it’s difficult for other brands to wrestle this away from them. But this is the ground that Panasonic really wants to dominate in the minds of the paying public. Trying to build better sensors than Canon is a tall order; they have been the clear leader in this field for many years now (and I’m a hardened Nikon fan saying this). There’s a lot more to overall image quality than just the sensors. This is where Nikon succeeds in taking on Canon, and it’s where I think Panasonic must focus their efforts if they’re to do the same.

Should You Upgrade?

Head to head, the scores suggest that it’s a close-run thing. But numbers in a review never tell the full picture. In Part 3, we look at the actual images from the shoot, and at just how many shots the more modern Panasonic DMC-FX33 handled better than the older Canon Digital IXUS 400, plus my personal conclusion on whether or not it’s worth upgrading from an older camera.

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