The HP Photosmart M417 is the latest in a successful line of compact digital cameras from American computer and office electronics giant Hewlett Packard. Although as a 3x optical zoom 5.2 megapixel model it sits in the mid range in terms of specification, it has a couple of advantages that elevate it comfortably above the average, not least its remarkably low retail price of under £115.
HP has a long history of technical innovation in a number of fields, and has applied this way of thinking to the design of its digital cameras. While some manufacturers concentrate their efforts on ever-larger CCDs, super-powered zoom lenses or ultra-thin bodies, HP has focused on image processing, and in doing so has overcome one of the few drawbacks of digital image capture when compared to film photography, the problem of dynamic range.
Dynamic range is the ability to capture a wide range of shades in a single exposure. Digital sensors are not able to respond to wide variations of illumination as well as film does, resulting in either burned out highlights or black featureless shadows in high contrast images. Film is just better at capturing both shadow and highlight detail under identical exposure conditions.
HP’s solution to this problem is a process it calls “Adaptive Lighting”, a feature which is found on several of the company’s recent models, including the M417. When this mode is in use, the camera takes two shots simultaneously, one exposed for the highlights and the other exposed for the shadows. The camera’s processor then subtly and seamlessly combines the two images, resulting in one picture that combines both shadow and highlight detail. It’s simple, ingenious and it works extremely well. The only surprise is that nobody has done it before. I’m sure that HP has a patent on the idea, but knowing the ingenuity of most of the other major players in the digital camera market I wouldn’t be too surprised if subtle variations of Adaptive Lighting start appearing in competitor’s models.
The M417’s second party trick is automatic in-camera red-eye removal. If you take a face-on portrait of anyone using the built-in flash on any digital camera, chances are you’ll see the red-eye effect of flash light bouncing off the retina at the back of the eye. If you find this on a photo taken with the M417, a menu option in playback mode will automatically detect red eyes and correct them. Unfortunately it simply paints over the red highlights with rather sinister looking black dots, but it is a slight improvement.
Apart from this and the impressive Adaptive Lighting technology, the M417 is a fairly average camera, albeit a well made and attractively designed one. Despite its rather square shape it is a very comfortable camera to hold, thanks to the sculpted front panel and a handy indented thumb grip at the rear. It’s also a very light camera for its size, weighing in at only 150g. The control layout is extremely clear and logical, and although you need to use both hands to change modes or flash settings, the zoom control is comfortably situated around the aforementioned thumb grip.