Tested: Face-Detecting Cameras

New cameras can spot a face in a crowd--and focus on it

tested_485.jpg

The goal of autofocus is to make something in the picture come out sharp. But if you're taking a photo of people, it's not their hands you want in focus. Recently, camera makers have been adding the ability to detect faces in a scene, track them if they move, and optimize both focus and exposure to make everyone look their best. But not all face-detection systems are equal, as I discovered after testing several compact cameras
on patient friends who posed by indoor light, as well as on passersby rushing through Times Square.

How it Works

All face-detecting cameras compare the scene before them to a built-in library of features derived from images of real people, such as the distances between eyes, patterns of light and shadow, and skin colors. So far, no models can identify a face in profile, and they don't function well in low light, such as in bars or candlelit rooms. But they're not easily fooled: In our tests, none were thrown off by variations in skin tone or by accessories like eyeglasses.

Face-Tracking Face-Off

Fujifilm Finepix F40fd With the best photos and excellent face-tracking, the F40fd is our overall pick. It found faces quickly and accurately, although it sometimes dropped them and locked focus elsewhere. And, like other models, it could find no more than four faces in our snapshot tests (Fujifilm claims up to 10). But the F40fd stands out for its ability to detect faces in low light and produce crisp images up to a stratospheric ISO 2000 light-sensitivity level--allowing us to capture attractive portraits in soft room lighting.** $300 fujifilm.com ** Rating: 9/10
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W80 Although the best at face tracking, the W80's image quality across all shooting scenarios fell short of the Fujifilm's. The Sony located faces almost instantly and held onto them, even as people walked toward the camera. Along with improving focus, the camera's face detection often yielded better exposure and color balance. But the feature is available in just two modes: fully automatic and portrait. Plus, photos at higher light-sensitivity settings (above ISO 200) showed considerable graininess and less detail. **$250 sonystyle.com ** Rating: 7/10
Nikon Coolpix S200 The S200 was noticeably slower at detecting faces, failed to track them well if they moved around, and occasionally mistook high-contrast objects, such as neon lights, for people. Unlike the Fujifilm and Sony cameras, which have dedicated face-tracking circuitry, the S200 runs the software on its main image processor, which might explain the sluggish performance. Otherwise, it takes serviceable, but not stunning, photos. One nice feature: Its LCD can stay bright for framing shots in low light.** $250 nikonusa.com ** Rating: 5/10