A manufacturer of computer printers who is also very active in releasing digital cameras at regular intervals is Hewlett Packard. Their latest release, the HP Photosmart 945, is a 5-megapixel model with an 8x Fujinon zoom lens (300 mm equivalent) and several innovative features that make this camera very interesting for snap shooters who want an uncomplicated camera that delivers the goods.
HP have incorporated a unique feature called Adaptive Lighting Technology. This feature enables photographers to produce photos that look more like what they see with their own eyes. Brightness in images is balanced by compressing harsh contrasts while preserving smaller contrasts. The result is that some areas in photos are lightened while other areas are left alone. The effect is based on the same "dodging and burning" technique as used by conventional photographers in their darkrooms. By giving more exposure to lighter areas in an image and less exposure to darker parts, contrasts are levelled out to deliver a well-balanced print. This advanced feature, which is exclusive to HP's 945 camera, is called "digital flash". It has three user selectable settings "low", "high" and "off" based on the level of contrast in a scene. We have tried the feature several times and we have to admit that it really works.
Using the camera
When you pick up the HP 945, you will notice that the body is made of black plastic. The feel of the controls however is not plasticky or cheap at all. All buttons and controls have a solid feel to them and are very comfortable to use. Especially the shutter button is a pleasure to work with. Half pressing the shutter activates the auto focus and metering systems and a further light touch takes the picture. Only very light pressure is needed for this, eliminating the risk of camera shake through using the shutter button. Very good indeed. The large rounded grip on the right fits the hand quite well with he shutter release automatically falling under your index finger while your thumb rests on the zoom control on the back of the camera.
On the back there is a large 2" LCD for reviewing images and checking camera settings. The same information is displayed in the Electronic Viewfinder, which switches on automatically when you look through the eyepiece and gives a clear, through the lens view of the subject. Its coverage is almost 100% and what you see is exactly what you capture in the image. Its position on the upper left side of the camera means your nose won't hit the LCD screen when you are using your right eye. Electronic Viewfinders are a mixed blessing though. On the one hand they provide real through the lens viewing just like an SLR, however capturing moving subjects is somewhat hit and miss as their action is typically rather jerky and grainy. The refreshment rate of the screen is not real time, which makes action photography with fast moving subjects a little difficult.
The camera can be used in fully automatic mode with the camera selecting both shutter speeds and aperture as well as ISO speed. In addition there are three programmed auto modes, Action, Landscape and Portrait, selectable by the comfortably placed mode dial surrounding the shutter button on the top of the camera. For more experienced photographers there are Aperture and Shutter priority but not full manual mode. Especially the Av and Tv choices will provide ample possibilities for creative photography as any shutter speed between 16 and 1/2000 or any aperture between f2.8 and f13.4 is selectable, contrary to some earlier HP models, which only allowed users to select two or three predetermined apertures.
The HP 945 has an automatic flash that will only fire when you tell it to. You have to manually pop up the flash using the little button on the top of the camera. Then there are the usual flash modes like auto, night mode and flash on, each with or without red eye reduction. The fact that the flash only fires when you choose it to has the advantage that you will never be surprised by flash going off unexpectedly, thereby scaring subjects away or drawing unwanted attention to you as a photographer. Shutter speeds on the camera range from 16 to 1/2000 sec. Automatic noise reduction kicks in with speeds longer than 1/15 - at least that is what we suspect, as there is no information about this in the manual or elsewhere. What we do know however is that it works by shooting a blank frame right after the exposure, then subtracts the noise in the blank exposure from the real exposure thereby eliminating any noise present in the actual image.
Powering on the camera takes about 4 to 5 seconds as the lens has to be extended before the camera is ready to go. Shutter lag is almost non-existent. After pre-focusing by pressing the shutter half way, the image is taken instantly. When you have taken the shot, you can press the OK button to delete it before it is written to the memory card. If you do nothing the image is saved and the camera is ready for the next shot.
Shot to shot time is fairly good. Although write times to memory card and internal processing on the HP 945 are quite slow, you don't have to wait to take the next image. It is only when the internal buffer is full after about 4 or 5 images that you will have to wait until the camera tells you it is ready to go once more. This lack of speed is more obvious when reviewing images though, as in playback mode it takes quite some time before an image appears on screen. Especially the magnifying function takes a good few seconds before it kicks in. To compensate for this though you get the possibility to enlarge an image by a factor of 150 times, which shows the image almost at pixel level. When in playback mode you can always return to shooting mode at the touch of a button. If you touch the shutter button, the camera will instantly be ready to take the next shot. Shooting mode always has priority so you can point and shoot at any moment without having to miss a photo opportunity.
Autofocus works well, though it is not as fast as on some other cameras. The speed depends as much on focal length and lighting conditions as on how much change is needed compared to the last image taken, since the lens stays in the same position after capturing an image. It follows that it takes more time to go from close focus to infinity at say 300mm than capturing several images at about the same distance from the lens. There is also a manual focus setting which can act as a focus lock. If you focus automatically and then switch to manual focus, the focusing distance remains unchanged. Ideal for candid photography or instant snapshots where you select a smaller aperture and fast shutter speed for large depth of field so that everything from a couple of meters to infinity will be sharp.
The menu system on the HP 945 is clear and well-organised. Basically there are three main menus of which the "Capture Menu" is the most comprehensive. This provides all the settings needed for adjusting image parameters at the taking stage. Among these are 5 predefined white balance settings and manual; average, spot and centre-weighted metering; exposure compensation in 1/3 EV steps; 2 resolution and 3 compression modes as well as saturation, sharpness and contrast settings. Plus of course the new "digital flash" feature, which incorporates the Adaptive Lighting Technology mentioned above. The "Playback Menu" allows you to delete or magnify an image, check image info, or record a 30 sec audio clip with each image.
In the "Setup Menu" several user selectable settings can be laid down. The most significant of these are determining automatic eye start of the electronic viewfinder, turning the focus assist light on or off, setting the LCD brightness for indoor or outdoor situations and the "remembered settings". This last feature allows the user to choose which settings the camera should remember next time it is used. Among these are flash or focus mode, exposure compensation or metering mode and white balance setting. All the menu choices have an on screen help feature, which gives clear and concise information about the effect a certain setting has on the resulting image. A nice touch from HP, which will certainly be appreciated by those amateur photographers who are just starting out and who need all the help they can get.
Typically of HP there are two further options which are worth mentioning here. On the back of the camera, just next to the LCD there are the "print" and "instant share" buttons. The former lets you tag images for direct print output with certain HP Photosmart printers while the latter, as its name already suggests, lets you share your images with loved ones and friends. When the camera is connected to a computer, selected images to share will be automatically mailed to e-mail addresses, online albums or other online services.
The camera uses 4 AA type batteries, and if you intend to use the camera regularly, your best option would be to buy a couple of high capacity NiMh rechargeables. Alkalines can be used if no other batteries are available, but since this is a high drain device they won't get you very far and should really be considered for emergency use only. Photo lithiums will be a good choice for the occasional camera user as they have a long shelf life, whereas rechargeable batteries lose a little of their charge per day even when not in use. Also lithiums have a 50 to 100% longer service life than rechargeables. Since HP do not include a charger in their basic package, the optional camera dock would be a good choice to buy as an accessory since it comes complete with 4 rechargeable NiMh batteries, an AC adapter, A/V cable and USB cable. The Photosmart 8881 dock makes it very easy to transfer images to the computer or send them to a printer or TV, while automatically charging the NiMh batteries.
In the box
The HP 945 package includes the 5.1 effective Megapixel Photosmart 945 camera, a dock insert, a 32Mb Secure Digital card, neck strap and lens cap, USB cables for computer and printer, 4 Lithium-Ion non-rechargeable batteries and a very helpful and user-friendly printed manual. Note that HP does not include an A/V cable in the standard bundle. This can be bought separately or you could buy the optional 8881 dock, which includes some other goodies as well.
The CD-ROM containing HP Photo and imaging software for Mac and Windows is based around the HP Gallery programme, which lets you view and edit photographs. As mentioned in earlier reviews this sort of programme is mainly meant for basic image editing such as adjusting contrast and brightness or removing red-eye. More advanced manipulation requires dedicated programmes like Adobe's Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro.
The most impressive parts of HP's software are the photo sharing tools. The HP E-mail Portal makes it possible to select photos and send them as e-mail attachments. The programme automatically downsizes the images for easy and speedy transfer through the mail. Printing photos is very easy as well, as the software allows you to select which photos to print and whether you want them to be printed as greeting cards or put in albums.
Another nice HP addition is the Memories Disc Creator Software. With this you can make a video CD with your own photos presented as a slide show ready to share with family and friends. If you want you can even include your favourite MP3 song as background music. Although most computers can read the Video CD, you will need a DVD player to show them on TV.
The Memories Disk Creator programme can also be used to archive your images. You can store 200 to 400 images on one CD with the added option to create album pages or contact sheets. It works with all types of images including scanned photographs. So there are ample possibilities to be creative with your images
Looking at the pictures taken with the Photosmart 945 you will notice that the Fujinon f2.8 - 3.1, 7.6-61mm zoom lens (37 - 300mm equivalent) shows little distortion and chromatic aberration even at full wide angle or tele settings. The impressive zoom range allows for quite extreme close ups which all show nice saturated colours and good dynamic range. Exposures are accurate and the images are sharp although contrast is a bit strong sometimes. This can be altered in the capture menu and adapted to your own personal preferences though. One phenomenon that had me fooled sometimes was that images appeared to be too dark when viewed on the LCD, however once they were transferred to the computer they appeared to be perfectly all right.
Automatic White Balance does a great job too and we hardly ever felt it necessary to override the camera's choice. The manual white balance option works wonderfully. You just shoot a known white object with the HP 945 and the camera measures it and locks it into memory. Very handy if you shoot in mixed lighting conditions.
Some noise was present in images taken at higher ISO settings, but it's no worse than other camera models in this class and completely acceptable.
One of the most interesting features of this new HP 945 camera is the Digital Flash, which uses HP's new Adaptive Lighting Technology. It works by balancing out lighter and darker areas in an image and produces pictures that are more in line with what the human eye sees. Our eyes have a much larger contrast range than film or digital can record, so by levelling out contrast in a scene we can show details in dark and light areas and get a result that resembles what we think we actually saw.
Digital Flash has settings for "low" and "high" as well as "off". It works well in contrasty outdoor shots with brightly lit subjects and dark shadow areas, but also with indoor flash shots where the main subject is lit by flash and the rest of the image is dark. The series of sample images above show some results of using Digital Flash. A small side effect of this enhancement however is that sometimes it is noticeable that part of an image has been lightened since the effect can appear a little unnatural. Also the lightened parts will show a bit more noise than the rest of the image, although we would argue that this is a small price to pay for a better print with more detail in all areas.
HP have succeeded in producing an easy-to-use camera with user-friendly controls that yields very good pictures with vibrant colours. The zoom range is much greater than most other digicams on the market and the Digital Flash feature really makes a significant difference to your images. The Instant Share system makes it easy to send images to friends and relatives. Image quality is excellent for such a relatively inexpensive digital camera, making it ideal for point and shoot users who will appreciate the fact that the camera can be used on automatic all the time and still deliver quality images. For more experienced users there are several features that offer manual control but without the complexity often associated with more upmarket prosumer models.
On the other hand, the HP Photosmart 945 is not the fastest camera around with all the menus and controls taking their time to follow up commands. Advanced photographers will probably not find it their camera of choice since several advanced features such as external flash control or fully manual exposure are missing, though this is probably not the audience this camera is aimed at anyway. However, for the budding photographer who wants to take his hobby more seriously the HP 945 would make a very good choice indeed.