2. YOUR CAMERA HAS A BRAIN. USE IT.
The scenes we photograph seem singular and personal but fall into general categories that can be reduced to algorithms that instruct a camera how to behave. Better math and more processing power have made possible a proliferation of "scene modes" (beach, fireworks, museum) in the newest hardware.
Manufacturers claim they optimize photography under tricky light conditions.
Landscape mode, for instance, is designed to turn off the flash, adjust the focus to infinity, lengthen the shutter speed, and decrease the aperture. In auto mode a camera might mistakenly focus on a foreground object (such as a tree) for a shot of a sunset, fire the flash to illuminate the object and render the rest of the shot dark.
We pitted auto against scene modes on five cameras in three difficult lighting situations: backlight, low light and action. Not every camera had the same menu of scene modes for all three settings. No single camera performed flawlessly. But the test demonstrated that digital cameras do benefit from the new math.
—Suzanne Kantra Kirschner and John B. Carnett
TEST A: BACKLIGHT
Light pouring in behind a subject often causes cameras to close down the aperture, leaving the foreground dark. A flash will be needed. Balancing flash and natural light, foreground and background, is the goal.
Only the Canon chose to use its flash in auto mode, yielding a well-lit foreground while retaining some details out the window. Shots from the other cameras were dark.
The Nikon's backlight mode manages to illuminate the subject while retaining a lot of background detail. Other cameras tended to blow out the background with the flash.
TEST B: LOW LIGHT
Our subject sits in a dimly lit room, away from windows. To accurately capture the difficult scene and avoid under- or overexposure, the camera will have to find the right balance between ambient light and flash.
The Canon gives the best auto performance (left). The image is clearly exposed but lacks warmth. Three other cameras underexposed it; one blasted too much flash. In party mode, the Nikon delivers a warm mix of flash and ambient light (right).
TEST C: ACTION
The goal: to shoot just as the front wheel passes the cone. The camera must focus, read the light, and assign aperture and shutter—then capture the data. Even in this fairly easy test, auto mode is too slow in some cameras.
In auto mode the Nikon (left) and Canon take too much time. The HP and Sony do better, but the Minolta misses the bike entirely. In action mode, the Sony (right) and Canon win: The tire almost exactly aligns with the cone. Close third: HP.
Canon PowerShot S50; HP Photosmart 935; Nikon Coolpix 5400; Sony Cybershot DSC-P10; Minolta Dimage F300
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.