April 3, 2003
Photography Is Easy; It's the Shopping That's Hard
PRING has sprung, bringing with it the usual rewards: the cheery warmth of sunshine, leafy green tendrils poking up from the damp ground, and about 65,000 new digital camera models.
The new models are better and less expensive than ever. They are not, however, getting any easier to understand. Camera makers only add features each year, never subtract them. All you have to do is decide whether a camera with diopter adjustment but no DPOF support is better than one that saves uncompressed TIFF's but uses a noninterpolated CCD array. No problem.
I invited manufacturers to send me their best cameras under $400 for review. As the FedEx man's chiropractor can tell you, the resulting shipment made an impressive stack; it included the Canon PowerShot A70, the Casio Zoom EX-Z3, the Fujifilm FinePix 3800, the Hewlett-Packard Photosmart 812, the Kodak EasyShare 443, the Minolta Dimage S414, the Nikon Coolpix 3100, the Olympus Digital Stylus 300, the Samsung Digimax V3, the Sony CyberShot DSC-P8 and DSC-P72, and the Toshiba PDR-4300.
All 12 cameras have excellent lenses, flash, a screen that shows the photo before you take it (and lets you review your shots later), and a U.S.B. cable that transfers your masterpieces to a Mac or PC. Most also include a cable that lets you show your photos and short digital movies on TV, a dose of instant gratification that can be fun at parties, weddings and criminal trials.
So how do they differ? Mainly in important criteria like these:
RESOLUTION For most people, three megapixels is a satisfying sweet spot. That means that each photo is composed of about three million color dots, enough resolution for terrific 8-by-10-inch prints but not so much that the memory card fills up after three shots.
Still, a four-megapixel camera gives you a lot of flexibility. You can either make prints up to about 13 by 19, or enjoy the luxury of cropping out unnecessary background (or unnecessary relatives) and still having enough dots for a decent print. The Kodak, HP, Samsung, Minolta and Toshiba models are four-megapixel cameras.
SIZE How small, self-contained and pocketable is the thing? All the features in the world are useless if a camera is so bulky that you don't carry it with you.
The Sony P8 and the Samsung are full-featured entries in the pocketability pageant, and the glamorous Casio Zoom EX-Z3 is so small it would be dwarfed by a brownie. But even they must bow to one of the most beautiful digital cameras ever: the shiny, tiny Olympus Digital Stylus 300. It's so chic, it could pass for an expensive cellphone when you need a quick status fix in public. Better yet, its sealed design lends itself to photography in the rain, yacht races or diving competitions. Too bad about its memory format (read on).
MEMORY CARD A digicam stores photos on a reusable memory card. You never have to pay for film or developing. (You do, however, have to buy a bigger card with your camera. If all you have is the tiny 16-meg starter card, you had better hope that your vacations, sporting events and picnics are shortened on account of rain.)
The best card format is CompactFlash (CF): an inexpensive, rigid, Triscuit-size card available in capacities up to two gigabytes - big enough to hold every photo in every shoebox in every attic on your block. The Canon, Nikon and Minolta cameras use CF cards.
The HP, Kodak, Toshiba, Casio and Samsung models accept Secure Digital (SD) cards instead, with capacities up to 512 megabytes. The Sonys use Memory Stick or Memory Stick Pro cards (up to one gigabyte).
Unfortunately, the Fuji camera and that juicy Olympus use a new, proprietary Olympus-Fuji format called XD - a card that currently offers lower capacity than its rivals (256 megabytes at most), at higher prices and dimensions so inconveniently small that the manual warns that "they can be accidentally swallowed by small children."
Worse, XD cards are incompatible with all existing equipment that accepts memory cards: card readers, printers, printing kiosks at drugstores and camera shops, and, of course, any past or future cameras you may own (unless you commit to Olympus or Fuji forever).
BATTERY FORMAT The problem with a proprietary, rechargeable battery (as in the Casio, the Olympus, the Kodak and the Sony P8) is that if you're only an hour into your day at Disney when it dies, you can't exactly duck into a drugstore to buy a new one.
The other cameras reviewed here accept AA-size batteries instead. But don't take that to mean AA alkalines, which, in digicams, have the life span of soap bubbles.
Instead, use nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) batteries. They last much longer than alkalines, and because you can recharge them, they are far less expensive. A charger and a set of NiMH AA's cost about $30. (With its P72 camera, Sony generously includes NiMH batteries and a charger.) The best part is that in a Disney World pinch, these cameras still accept alkaline AA's from a drugstore for 15 minutes of emergency use.
SHUTTER LAG Here's a feature you hope your camera doesn't have: an infuriating focusing delay between the shutter-press and the image capture. Shutter lag will drive you absolutely bonkers whenever you try to photograph children, sports or children playing sports.
Here, the Casio and the Canon stand out. Their faster circuitry whittles that delay down to about half a second. (On some cameras, like the HP, the lag is more than one second long.)
MANUAL CONTROLS Most cameras offer canned settings for special shooting circumstances: twilight shots, portraits, and so on.
The more ambitious shutterbug, however, may want to turn off autopilot mode. The Canon, Fujifilm, Minolta, Samsung and Toshiba cameras, for example, offer what's called aperture-priority mode (for sharp portrait subjects with blurry backgrounds) and shutter-priority mode (to freeze sports action or blur babbling brooks). The Minolta S414 goes the extra mile with full manual focus, ISO settings, and shutter speeds as long as 15 seconds for, say, tripod-mounted nighttime star shots.
DESIRABILITY These are all great cameras, but a few leap out of the crowd. The utter shutterphobe will appreciate the supersimple 4-megapixel Kodak EasyShare 443, whose included recharging dock makes transfers to your computer effortless. The screen is slow to play back photos, but there is nary a bell or whistle to confuse you.
At the opposite extreme of flexibility, the bulky, traditionally shaped 4-megapixel Minolta Dimage S414 is inexpensive (about $310) and sophisticated. The S414 offers full manual controls, a powerful 4X zoom, and a top-mounted readout that reveals your settings, shots remaining and so on. Don't try ramming this baby into a pocket unless you know a good tailor - but wow, what a value.
If those big, boxy cameras don't quite fit your image, consider the Casio Zoom EX-Z3. It's an experiment in paradoxes: it's about the size of a credit card, yet its two-inch screen is much larger than its rivals'. It's as thin as your pinkie, yet offers a 3X zoom lens that when extended is 50 percent longer than the camera is deep. It's extremely simple, yet its arsenal of canned settings (Candlelight, Party, and so on) work like a charm. (The amazing Coupling Shot preset even lets you create a trick photo of you and a companion standing together, without involving a passer-by to hold the camera. You take turns shooting each other, half the photograph at a time.) Short battery life is the Casio's only drawback.
But if your primary objective isn't simplicity, manual controls or jewelry potential, the most well-rounded new cameras are the Canon A70 and the Sony CyberShot P8.
Both cameras offer an autofocus-assist lamp, which permits focusing in low-light situations where other cameras futilely "hunt." (The Kodak camera offers this, too.) The inexpensive Canon offers full manual controls, uses the best kind of memory and batteries, and nearly eliminates shutter lag; the diminutive Sony can capture smooth digital movies at full TV-screen size (length limited only by your memory card), and it's small and capsulish enough to slip easily into a pants pocket.
Both cameras are well priced, too. Making such a shrewd purchase this spring will surely ease your pain next spring, when even better digicams poke their leafy green tendrils up through the damp ground.