Since the introduction of zoom lenses, consumer digital cameras have had one consistent restriction: at best, they've offered only a 3X optical zoom. Though slightly more powerful, digital zooms tend to provide problematic results, since all they do is magnify the camera-generated image. For the digital photographer who needs a little extra reach, the only options have been expensive, professional-quality digital cameras that are based on 35mm camera bodies and can accept interchangeable lenses. However, Canon and Olympus are changing that with the PowerShot Pro90 IS and the Camedia E-100 RS, respectively; these two new digital cameras pack a 10X optical zoom.
One striking characteristic of these cameras is that both the PowerShot Pro90 IS and the Camedia E-100 RS use an electronic viewfinder that is essentially a smaller version of the main 1.8-inch LCD display. Both companies state that a true optical viewfinder isn't a reasonable option because one that could accommodate the 10X optical zoom would result in a much larger and less-flexible camera body. The current design, however, creates several problems. For example, you can use either the viewfinder or the LCD display to frame the image, but not both. When you capture an image in single-shot mode, the viewfinder and LCD display lock up with that captured image while it's being written to the storage media. If you switch to continuous mode, both cameras will immediately jump to the next frame captured without showing the most recent live image. Furthermore, it's very difficult to use the viewfinder indoors or in low-light conditions, so you may find yourself capturing some images on faith alone. Even if viewed outdoors on a bright day, the image on the LCD display can take a few seconds to adjust from shadow to sunlight and back.
Because both cameras rely on an electrical viewfinder rather than a true optical viewfinder, they'll drain batteries much faster than cameras equipped with an optical viewfinder. The PowerShot Pro90 is especially hard on batteries. With its proprietary battery, the Canon didn't last 100 shots on a full charge, whereas the Olympus is still going strong on its first full charge using the included NiMH batteries.
That aside, both the PowerShot Pro90 and the Camedia E-100 offer some intriguing features. In addition to spot metering, manual exposure modes, and auto bracketing, both cameras are equipped with an image-stabilization mode, which helps compensate for a shaky hand or a slow shutter speed. For critical action shots, both cameras feature a continuous mode that fires off multiple frames in rapid succession. The Camedia E-100 allows you to shoot as many as 15 frames per second. The drawback is that it can only produce images in JPEG format (1,368 by 1,024 pixels) in the continuous mode; the TIFF format is not available. In comparison, the PowerShot Pro90 has a different kind of limitation: its continuous mode is significantly slower, capturing one frame every 0.7 seconds. However, unlike the Camedia E-100, the PowerShot Pro90 can capture high-quality images in the proprietary RAW format (1,856 by 1,392 pixels), even in continuous mode. These relatively speedy capture rates do come with a compromise in CCD resolution. Breaking the trend toward more and more pixels, the Camedia E-100 is equipped with only 1.5 million pixels on its CCD, while the PowerShot Pro90 has 2.26 million pixels.
Another difference between these cameras is the design of the zoom control. On the Camedia E-100, you can zoom in or out using a standard wide-angle/telephoto toggle located at the base of the shutter release button. In this case, the zoom lens behaves no differently from previous Olympus consumer digital cameras. In contrast, you can zoom in or out by turning a ring that is conveniently located at the front of the camera lens on the PowerShot Pro90. As a result, you can simply cradle the camera in your left hand, naturally placing the zoom ring at your fingertips.
Image quality isn't dramatically different from the standards set by other one- and two-megapixel cameras introduced over the past year. When viewed in an image editor such as Adobe Photoshop, images from both the PowerShot Pro90 and the Camedia E-100 suffer from obvious noise problems that require correction, especially in the red and blue channels. Fortunately, images from both cameras seem to clean up well. One pleasant surprise was how accurately both cameras reproduced color. Moreover, images showed no degradation at any zoom setting.