Faster, smaller, cheaper, better. That's the incessant drumbeat of digital electronics, and cameras march to the rhythm. Several years ago buying a digital camera was a definite maybe. Today it's hard to make a case for film. Amateurs are learning the secret that great photographers always knew: If you want great pictures, take lots of them. With digital photography, doing that costs almost nothing, and today's cameras are easy to use and produce photos nice enough to satisfy almost anybody.
Faster: Digital cameras have traditionally made you wait too long between the time you mash down the button and the time the camera snaps the picture, and then before you can take the next shot. Now those waits are getting shorter.
Smaller: Today's entry-level models weigh less than half a pound, including batteries and memory. Some full-featured models are smaller than a deck of playing cards.
Cheaper: Four years ago a 1.3-megapixel camera that could deliver so-so 4-by-6 prints cost about $400. Today $250 will buy you a 3-megapixel model with a zoom and output good enough to make decent 8-by-10s.
Better: Overall image quality keeps improving. Entry-level cameras now come with usable LCDs and special adjustments that improve your picture-taking.
Head to a camera or electronics store or the Web, and you may be bewildered by the ever-expanding crop of cameras. Do you really need to spend $1,000, or will a $200 model suit you just fine? Cheaper models from name-brand makers can be remarkably good, but it's also possible to buy a lemon. Here's a look at 16 cameras in four categories that cover the gamut.
If you mostly take snapshots and rarely blow them up as big as 8-by-10, you'll do fine with a basic 3-megapixel camera and a 3X optical zoom lens. (Ignore digital zoom specs; they're essentially useless.) Anything less amounts to a toy, a gadget or a fashion statement. Good low-end models have been slimming down; their front-to-back dimensions of about an inch and a half allow them to fit easily into pockets and pocketbooks.
Today you can find the Olympus D-540 Zoom for $180, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LC50 for $250 and the Canon PowerShot A75 for $300. They all produce good pictures, but I found the Panasonic to be the best deal of the lot. It delivers the sharpest photos at point-and-shoot settings and has the simplest user interface of any digital camera I've ever tested. The Canon is a bit more complicated, and the Olympus D-540 Zoom, like most current Olympus cameras, is downright awkward to use. And though the manuals for the Panasonic and Canon are surprisingly clear and thorough, Olympus offers only a simple manual on paper and supplies the details on CD-ROM -- not exactly useful when you're out in the field trying to master a subtle effect.
These cameras are fairly slow. The Olympus is the pokiest, forcing you to wait about 3 1/2 seconds between shots. Panasonic comes in at 2 1/2 seconds, Canon about 2. All three offer a burst mode that lets you hold down the shutter and fire off several shots in a hurry, but the Olympus does so only in a low-quality mode. If you want a camera in this price range, go for the Panasonic or the Canon. Or check out the Konica Minolta Dimage Xg in the Little Wonders section.
Pay a bit more and you can get a camera that's downright lilliputian, with even better resolution. That makes it far more likely you'll take your camera wherever you go.
The slim $400 4-megapixel Casio Exilim EX-Z40 is an interesting idea for a camera. As it recharges in its cradle, you can set the largish screen to display a slide show of your favorite snaps. Its clever onscreen menu has special modes for shooting things like portraits and landscapes. But after the first couple of shots the camera slows to a crawl, and the unit I tried had a show-stopping defect: The left sides of pictures were visibly out of focus.
Nor was I taken with the somewhat bulky $350 Olympus Stylus 410. The clunky interface, a slight reddish cast to its shots and some awkwardness with the water-resistant sliding-door design made me want to say "Cheese" -- but didn't make me want to smile.
The little $300 Konica Minolta Dimage Xg is as thin as they come, thanks to a lens that resides entirely in the case and doesn't need to telescope outward. But the lens aperture in the upper-left-hand corner makes the unit awkward to hold; the photos I've taken with its very similar predecessor often feature a view of my left thumb. Though the unit starts up quickly, it can be a bit slow to autofocus, and its 3-megapixel images are somewhat soft. But it's very easy to tote around.
I tested late prototypes of Sony's DSC-W1 and Cyber-shot DSC-P100, which may differ a bit from final versions. Both cost $400 and use the same image-processing system I liked in Sony's excellent DSC-T1, which makes for the shortest shutter lag I've seen in anything under $1,000 -- basically, you press the button and less than a third of a second later you get the picture. Both have excellent burst modes and can shoot good video at 640x480 pixels. But I found the W1 much faster shot-to-shot than the Cyber-shot P100. (Sony says that final models should perform identically.) And I liked its bigger screen.
With its now-classic Elph design, the $500 Canon PowerShot S500 seems like an old friend. It has most of the capabilities of the Sony, plus some extras like a clever "stitch assist" mode that helps you align shots for computerized merging into wide panoramas. But the delay between clicking the shutter and taking the picture feels significantly longer than with the Sony, and it's slower shot-to-shot than the W1. Still, the 5-megapixel images seem to deliver color and sharpness a bit better than Sony's prototypes. Close call here between the T1, the W1 and the S500.
A new 8-megapixel image sensor has created an entirely new category: the single-lens-reflex that's not. These cameras have the look and heft of a traditional SLR, but though you still compose shots through the lens, you use an electronic viewfinder in place of the old mirror-and-prism one. And though the lens is not removable, it can typically zoom over 7X from wide angle to telephoto. Cameras in this class generally cost about $1,000 and include the mammoth Sony DSC-F828, Canon's relatively compact PowerShot Pro1, the boxy Olympus C-8080 Wide Zoom and Nikon's Coolpix 8700 (which I didn't test). Konica Minolta's Dimage A2 goes for $1,100. And the $900 Fujifilm FinePix S20 has a similar design that's built around the company's own 6-megapixel sensor.
Unfortunately, every one of these cameras has the same drawback: that electronic viewfinder (EVF), a second LCD that shows you the image when you put your eye to the glass. In theory it should be great because it displays camera settings and frames pictures almost perfectly on its hundreds of thousands of pixels. In practice it's awful because the magnified image looks grainy to the point of losing significant detail and creating annoying shimmers and moiré patterns that won't appear in the final shot. Moreover, the sensors are slow to respond to changes of light, rendering them temporarily useless if you pan from a dark room to a bright window or vice versa. And none of these models has a particularly large LCD on the back.
If you can get past the EVF problem, you could be happy with any of these models, which all deliver top-notch results. With 3-megapixel cameras, a test shot showed what looked like a well-groomed lawn; with 8-meg models, the lawn was revealed to be an unruly mess of weeds.
Each of these cameras has its quirks. The Sony's giant lens can swivel up and down, but it tends to feel top-heavy in your hands. The Canon stuffs its features into a compact package, but the zoom ring lacks smoothness. The Konica Minolta includes electronic image stabilization that helps minimize shake at telephoto settings, as well as a viewfinder and LCD that can tilt to let you hold the camera at lower angles. The Olympus has a tiltable LCD along with a power zoom. The Fuji offers power and manual zooming in the same box.
You definitely need to try before you buy. These cameras feel very different from one another and, thanks to those pesky viewfinders, different from almost anything else you may have tried.
The classic single-lens reflex is still around, only now it has gone digital. And digital models are getting cheaper. The first to hit the $1,000 price point was Canon's EOS Digital Rebel. Now comes Nikon with its D70 -- a bit of a cheat, because its $1,000 price does not include a lens, but Nikon will throw one in for $300.
The big advantage of the traditional SLR design is that it lets you use interchangeable lenses, including those from film SLRs. But if you want a truly wide-angle lens, you might have to buy a special one. Proud scions of their film forebears, these SLRs don't handle audio or video, and they have big batteries, bright optical viewfinders, and fast, sophisticated autofocus and exposure algorithms that you can override at the touch of a button.
They also have speed to burn, and you can leave them on without draining the batteries so that they're ready to shoot whenever you are. Their 6-megapixel sensors deliver excellent images; in side-by-side comparisons using both makers' cheapest zoom lens in point-and-shoot modes, I found that the Canon delivered slightly richer color and greater sharpness. But the Nikon has a greater range of features, including such subtleties as the ability to minutely regulate the built-in flash. And both cameras let you tweak images almost infinitely. For many people the choice between the two will be a matter of which lenses they already own. About the only thing wrong with these SLRs is their mass. Trudge around dangling one from your neck for a day or two and you may long for something smaller. The industry will be happy to oblige.
Three more things you'll need
- Batteries: Digital cameras have a way of guzzling electricity, so you definitely want a backup. The smallest cameras typically get their slimness from using proprietary rechargeable batteries, which means you have to buy a pricey extra battery if you want to be sure of having juice when the first runs out. But bigger cameras often offer double-duty choices -- rechargeables for everyday use, disposables in a pinch. Cheaper models typically come with disposable alkalines and let you bring your own rechargeable NiMH cells if you like; top-shelf units like Nikon's D70 come with a rechargeable battery but can accept disposable CR2 Lithium cells.
- Memory Cards: Cameras come with undersize cards or, increasingly, with no card at all. Get the biggest card you can afford. Some high-end cameras let you choose between two formats, but most force you to use one particular style. If you have a collection of decent-size cards from an older camera or a device like an MP3 player, look at compatible cameras first. With high-end cameras, consider buying high-speed memory. Older, slower memory will usually work, but it can momentarily delay you from shooting, and with slower memory, some functions, like recording the highest-quality video, may be unavailable.
- Details: Two good Web sites for comprehensive camera reviews are imaging-resource.com and dpreview.com. If you want to find out what a camera will feel like and what its images will look like, these sites will give you more information than you ever knew you wanted.