Zooming In On The Latest Crop Of Cameras

With its picture-postcard splendor, the Grand Canyon has been the subject of

many spectacular photographs. Yet the canyon's panoramic scope often yields images that are ho-hum, if not downright wretched, when taken by unschooled shutterbugs using mediocre equipment. So it was that a pair of colleagues and I--not an Ansel Adams among us--set out to do photographic justice to the South Rim. Our mission: to test informally some of the camera gear that may be on shopping lists this season.

Indeed, buyers face a bevy of fine choices this year. Several new point-and-shoot and single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras are available from the likes of Canon, Konica, Minolta, Nikon, Olympus, Pentax, Ricoh, and Samsung. Consumers befuddled by all the choices may want to consult a good 1995 buying guide such as those from Popular Photography or Petersen's Photographic Magazine before shopping.

Compact 35mm cameras range in list price from about $20 for a fixed-focus model to more than $500 for a zoom version with lots of bells and whistles. But most models are heavily discounted. During our Grand Canyon test, we took along two pocket-size point-and-shoot cameras: a $530 Minolta Freedom Zoom 135EX with a zoom-lens range of 38mm to 135mm and a $325 Olympus Infinity Stylus Zoom (35mm to 70mm). We also took Canon's EOS Rebel XS, an SLR costing $670 with a 35mm-to-80mm lens. Our snap-happy fingers produced decent pictures with all three cameras, but fickle late-afternoon shadows contributed to a few duds as well. The Rebel produced the richest and sharpest pictures by far, although the camera is too bulky to fit in a pocket and required the most peeks at the manual.

But before choosing a camera, decide how much effort you really want to put into photography. Many point-and-shoot cameras feature wide-angle and telephoto zoom lenses that should more than satisfy novices who merely want to record where they were and who they were with. Such cameras have automatic film loading, advancing, and rewinding. The cameras can also detect what speed of film is inserted and set the shutter speed and lens aperture. When necessary, a flash pops up and fires.

Depending on their model, point-and-shoot photographers still have decisions to make. On Minolta's Freedom Zoom, for example, you can choose the best settings for night portraits, close-ups, and other scenes from a menu of programs.

NO SHAKES. Most point-and-shoots come with some sort of red-eye reduction system--to counteract the devilish, reddish stare that has ruined many flash pictures. This may be accomplished by firing up a preflash or turning on a spotlight to make your subject's pupils contract.

Parents who want to monitor the growth of their children may appreciate models that let them brand the date and time onto their pictures. This feature can be turned off, so as not to mar an otherwise unblemished view of Niagara Falls. Other cameras are weather-resistant. And the $310 Canon Sure Shot

A-1 lets you take pictures underwater at depths up to 16 feet. Nikon's $495 Zoom-Touch 105VR QD is an autofocus 38mm-105mm camera with built-in vibration-reduction technology, to help neophytes eliminate the shakes.

One problem with point-and-shoots is that the viewfinder you peer into does not show quite the image the lens is framing. That can lead to chopped-off heads or off-center pictures. The $272 palm-size Pentax UC-1, however, is a sleek, 5.4-ounce "spy" camera with an "actual-image" liquid-crystal-display viewfinder that helps the photographer compose the subject. The UC-1 also includes a midroll panorama view, which lets the photographer take normal pictures or switch to panorama mode on the same film roll.

Most serious hobbyists prefer SLRs. For one thing, the viewfinder displays exactly what the lens sees. And SLRs can handle a wide variety of interchangeable lenses, from fish-eyes to supertelephotos. That is ideal for, say, bird-lovers seeking extreme close-ups of rare species. What's more, SLRs "have gotten just as automatic as point-and-shoots," says Bob Kaufman, owner of Kaufman Photographs & Camera Shop in Hamburg, N.Y. Still, photographers can adjust the lens aperture and other settings manually.

Of course, a lens-filled camera bag may be a piece of luggage some folks would just as soon do without. Futz around too long finding the right lens, and the moment to zoom in on a bald eagle may disappear forever. Edward Baig

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