Ricoh is addressing one of the biggest issues keeping digital compacts off the radar for professionals – the limited dynamic range of very small sensors.Digital compact cameras don’t regularly make the pages of this magazine even though most professional photographers own one… or are still searching for a model that delivers a little more imaging performance than the average snap-shooter.
Even in the 35mm era, there were really few compact cameras that found any great favour with working photographers – Ricoh’s R/GR-series models perhaps, the short-lived Nikon 35Ti and 28Ti, and the hard-to-get Minolta TC-1. The digital list is equally short – the G-series Canon PowerShots, Ricoh’s GR Digital models and perhaps the Olympus mju-Tough models by virtue of their extra ruggedness. The big drawback with any digital compact camera is its tiny sensor which, in turn, means tiny pixels and lots of problems with noise… even at quite low ISO settings. The D-SLR makers have been addressing both the noise issue and an imaging sensor’s inherently low dynamic range for a while, but it’s only just starting to happen in the digital compact camera world. Ironically, two models offering solutions have appeared almost simultaneously – Fujifilm’s FinePix F200EXR and the Ricoh CX1. Each manufacturer has taken a slightly different approach and, in terms of professional appeal, it’s probably the Ricoh that attract more interest, both by virtue of its more elegant styling and its rather more comprehensive approach to dealing with the problems inherent in very small sensors.
Externally, the CX1 continues very much in the vein the GR Digital II and the GX200 with a very smart-looking brushed aluminium body (available in three colours), but the really interesting aspects of the camera are the ‘smarts’ on the inside which start with a CMOS sensor. More common in D-SLRs (at least those wearing a Canon badge), CMOS devices are still quite rare in the digital compact camera world, but they offer a number of benefits primarily associated with on-chip processing for things like noise reduction, but also faster clearing of the image data.
Noise Works The CX1’s CMOS sensor is matched with a new processor – called the Smooth Imaging Engine IV – to deliver a number of important capabilities, including noise reduction that’s performed on the 12-bit RAW image data (i.e. prior to compression) and something called ‘Pixel Output Interpolation’. The colour noise reduction processing works by using correlations with surrounding pixels – to more precisely balance suppression with saturation – and the same principle is employed by the pixel output interpolation, but to restore highlight detail. It does this by using information from the surrounding red and blue pixels to interpolate any green pixels that have become oversaturated in high contrast situations. This oversaturation results in a “whiteout” and, of course, a loss of tonality and detailing. Ricoh estimates that pixel output interpolation gives another stop of dynamic range, but it’s not the only trick in the CX1’s repertoire. There’s also a double shot mode in which two exposures are captured at very high speed – something that’s made possible by the CMOS sensor.