Metering / Exposure / Focus
Metering* (Advantage: Fujifilm S9000)
*Digital cameras are particularly sensitive to exposure errors, so cameras' metering systems are key to quality images. Digital sensors don't handle over-exposure well at all – overexpose something light-colored, and many cameras yield a featureless patch of white. To avoid this problem, many digital cameras under-expose.
Both cameras offer spot, averaging and pattern metering. Spot takes a measurement from a small area at the center of the frame. Averaging takes a single measurement that averages the entire frame – with extra emphasis on the center. Pattern takes separate measurements in several areas of the frame, and then evaluates them, using digital algorithms. Pattern systems are supposed to be able to detect back-lighting and other difficult situations.
We shot a few objects on white paper to see how the cameras' meters performed, and checked the exposures against a hand-held light meter. The Konica-Minolta Autometer VF in ambient mode, called for exposures of f/8 at 1/15 second. Both the FZ30 and the S9000 meters agreed in Program mode. We found these frames slightly dark – 1/3 stop more exposure brightened up the background and opened the shadows to show more detail, without blowing out the white background.
We expected the Center-weighted exposure to be worse – it should have been fooled by the white background, and darkened the image. The Fujifilm FinePix S9000 behaved just that way – at f/3.8 at 1/80, its Center-weighted shot was a full stop darker than the Pattern shot, and it looked pretty dull. The FZ30's Center-weighted exposure was exactly the same as its Pattern shot – apparently, the FZ30's Center-weighted mode is so heavily center-weighted that it ignored the light-colored perimeter of the image. When we zoomed the FZ30 out, it behaved the same way the S9000 did, darkening the image unacceptably in Center-weighted mode.
Fujifilm S9000 - Center-weighted
*Fujifilm S9000 - Pattern Metering
Panasonic FZ30 - Center-weighted*
Panasonic FZ30 - Pattern Metering
In Spot mode, the S9000 picked up a highlight at the center of the frame, and decreased exposure, while the FZ30's spot mode opened up from f/ 8 at 1/15 to f/ 6.3 at 1/15. It seems that the FZ30's spot is larger than the S9000's.
Fujifilm S9000 - Spot Metering* Panasonic FZ30 - Spot Metering* We shot our bag of potato crisps against a bright window, backlighting them severely. Each camera handled the extreme lighting as expected – Center-weighted provided dark exposures that were about right for the scene outside the window, Pattern increased exposure by about 1 stop, increasing the detail in the bag of chips, but not enough to make it look natural. The background out the window retains detail, but is too bright in both the FZ30's and the S9000's shots. Both spot metering shots get the exposure for the chips bag just right, which completely overexposes the window.
*Fujifilm S9000 - Multi Metering
*Panasonic FZ30 - Multi Metering
*Fujifilm S9000 - Average Metering
Panasonic FZ30 - Average Metering *
The window scene is so contrasty that it overwhelms the differences between the metering systems, while the scene with the white background is subtle enough to indicate differences between the two. It appears that the S9000 has a very tight spot meter pattern, while the FZ30's is larger. The S9000's Center-weighted system took the background into account more than the FZ30's – it's less weighted toward the center of the frame.
The difference in metering patterns between the FZ30 and the S9000 are significant. The S9000's patterns are more extreme – the spot is tighter, and the averaging setting is more broad. By zooming out or re-composing our images, we easily created scenes that each camera metered well and others that they metered poorly.
Exposure*(Advantage: Fujifilm S9000)
*We found that both the FZ30 and the S9000 under-expose when the background is relatively light. Given how common white walls are as backgrounds, careful users of either camera may want to use the cameras' exposure bias controls to add 1/3 of a stop to many exposures when shooting in automated modes, or to control exposure manually most of the time. However, the S9000’s more precise metering will provide more opportunity to control exposure through the various metering patterns without having to rely on an incident reading.
***Manual Focus (Advantage: Panasonic FZ30)
*Both the Panasonic FZ30 and the Fujifilm FinePix S9000 rely on electronic displays for framing and manual focus. The cameras have both LCD displays and electronic viewfinders – which are tiny LCDs with an optical magnification system. It’s really not possible to focus either camera precisely based on the full-frame view on either their LCDs or their viewfinders, so both cameras offer a magnified view of the center of the frame. The S9000 shows a magnified area in the center of the frame, while the edges of the screen show the unmagnified image, which allows the user to keep track of the image composition. The FZ30's magnified view takes up the whole screen, showing a larger magnified area but losing the composition reference that the Fujifilm system offers. In magnified mode, the FZ30 allows the users to navigate across the image with the 4-way controller.
Depth of field can both hurt and help the FZ30 and S9000 user – it makes it harder to get the cameras in perfect focus, but easier to cover up errors. Here's how:
Measured in millimeters, the two cameras' lenses run from extremely short to moderate focal length. The S9000's optic runs from 6.2 to 66.7 mm, and the FZ30's runs from 7.4 to 88.8 mm. Given the small size of the cameras' sensors, those lenses offer impressive zoom range, but they also influence depth of field – when the camera is focused at a given point, the image is acceptably sharp over a wider range of distances than it would be on a camera that uses longer focal-length lenses. It's a little more complicated than that, but in practice, that's what users experience at the viewfinder and in prints.
The problem is that it is hard to see the difference, in the LCDs or viewfinders, between a perfectly focused image and one that’s slightly out of focus. On both the FZ30 and the S9000, in manual focus the image drifts toward sharpness, while it snaps into focus more definitively on larger-format cameras. The problem is that "slightly out of focus" is harder to see on an LCD than it is in a large print – the sort of prints that the 8-megapixel FZ30 and the 9-megapixel S9000 should, and often do, justify.
In the end, neither the FZ30 not the S9000 provides an adequate supplement for manual focusing with an optical viewfinder; however, the FZ30’s moveable full-frame magnification offers a larger, more visible frame that makes it easier to observe subtleties in focus.
*Autofocus (Advantage: Fujifilm S9000)
*We found that both the Panasonic Lumix FZ30 and the Fujifilm FinePix S9000 achieve accurate focus even in relatively subdued room light. One problem we found is speed: our timing tests indicate that the S9000 and the FZ30 take between 0.35 and 0.9 seconds to focus. That's enough to significantly decrease the number of keepers we snagged while photographing a vigorous, precocious 1-year-old. The 0.38-second delay is long enough that we had to anticipate Bruce's expressions, not just his position, as he squirmed in his mom's lap. While neither system had adequate speed to parallel an SLR, the FZ30’s AF system had a much longer delay.
Both autofocus systems use through-the-lens contrast detection to establish focus, a system that relies on subject contrast to work. We found that the FZ30 functioned better with low-contrast subjects than the S9000.
Both the FZ30 and the S9000 have autofocus assist lights, and we found them effective at about 16 feet and under.
The FZ30's better autofocus performance in low contrast scenes is less significant than its longer delay. Though we don't have a ringing endorsement here, the S9000’s less egregiously-slow performance lets it edge out the FZ30.