Olympus Stylus SH-1: Aimed at the point-and-shoot user.
IMAGINGIn today’s review of the Olympus SH-1 we get a bit overheated about jpegs with excessive noise reduction applied in-camera. So, what is a JPEG? What is noise? And how can you have too much reduction?When the first digital camera was demonstrated in the Kodak laboratory it produced low-resolution black-and-white images and the files were recorded on a modified audio cassette tape. It was obvious that even this crude prototype was generating files that were too large for convenient, portable storage. In 1992 a group of standards-setting organisations was formed to work on a useable file storage format.
Flashback: Kodac chief executive George Fisher explains Kodak’s new digital imaging technology to the media in San Francisco in 1995.
The group called itself the Joint Photographic Experts Group – JPEG – and its members agreed on a method of file compression that is now universally used in digital cameras, and most camera users are happy to save files as JPEGs and not think about what is happening.
A JPEG is a compressed version of the information coming from the camera sensor. It is called ‘‘lossy’’ because it throws away information that, in theory, does not affect the subjective quality of the picture. The compression is done inside the camera in the image processing engine.The compression algorithm is universal but other aspects of JPEG conversion – colour, white balance, sharpening and noise reduction – vary according to camera make and model.Image ‘‘noise’’ is a spurious signal that is generated by the sensor, even when no light is falling on it. It shows up as either black, grainy or randomly coloured specs. The crude way of removing or reducing noise – which becomes worse as the ISO sensitivity is increased – is to blur the image. Doing this smudges fine detail, such as hair or feathers, and post-camera sharpening won’t fix the image.The best way to reduce noise is to capture the raw information in the camera, transfer that uncompressed file to a computer and apply the conversion and noise reduction there. But you probably don’t want the hassle; so what can you do to get better photos?First, make sure the JPEG compression setting – usually marked as Quality in the menu – is set to its highest point. Choose the largest Size in the menu. Then, if it is an option, turn down Noise Reduction (it will probably be marked NR in the menu) to Low or Off. A little noise (grain) is better than a little noise reduction (blur). Put the Mode dial on P and set the ISO to 400.The problem with the Olympus tested today is that there are only two quality options and NR cannot be turned off. That obviates the need to think, but at what cost in picture quality?REVIEWOLYMPUS STYLUS SH-1Price: $405 (street)For the un-fussyTHE LOWDOWN: This 16-megapixel compact camera has a zoom lens with a film-equivalent range of 25-600mm. It has 5 axis optical stabilisation. The 75mm LCD is non-swivelling and touch enabled. Focus and shutter can be activated with one-finger touch on the critical point. Wi-Fi makes remote control from a smart phone accessible with the Olympus app – free for iOS and Android but not for Windows phones. Controls are small but well laid out and easy to use. The menu options are basic and the camera is clearly aimed at the point-and-shoot user, although the P and M Mode options do give limited control.LIKE: The 5 axis image stabilisation lives up to its promise. Even at the full focal length extension, images are reasonably sharp.DISLIKE: The noise reduction cannot be turned off and its application is heavy handed. Even at low ISO settings the effect of noise reduction can be seen as a muddying of detail, and there is no RAW option, so there is nothing that can be done to override the in-camera processing. We are being fussy, and for Facebook, Flickr or Instagram it won’t matter.VERDICT: Olympus has vacated the entry-level compact camera business and is concentrating on the premium end with its Stylus range. Most of the Stylus models are fixed-lens versions of their excellent compact system cameras, but not the SH-1. This is a perplexing odd-camera-out in the range. With its small size and smartphone connection it is an ideal social-media camera for the un-fussy snapper, but for a few dollars less you can buy the brilliant Olympus XZ-2, one of the very best compact cameras in the shop. That’s the way to go if you care about ultimate image quality.