Photo Finish: How The "Filmless" Cameras Stack Up

They can enlarge, delete, and remember. But they aren't picture perfect

For years, the music industry has been battling over the virtues and failings of analog and digital sound. A similar fight is now sweeping the photography world. Major companies such as Canon and Nikon are now offering digital "filmless" cameras that look and handle like familiar point-and-shoot models. First offered in 1991, digitals have improved greatly and now are worthy rivals to film cameras.

To find out exactly how good they are, we put a bunch of high-end digital cameras through their paces (table, page 140E6). Chris, a BUSINESS WEEK senior editor, is an enthusiastic amateur lensman, while Andrew is a seasoned BUSINESS WEEK photo editor and professional photographer. We found that while the new digital cameras are compact and unprepossessing, they're packed with fancy features. But if you go digital, you'll still have to make some important trade-offs, especially in image quality.

Digital cameras resemble their film-carrying cousins, up to a point. Instead of putting an image on film when you click the shutter, you record it electronically and store it on a memory card smaller than a credit card. You need a viewfinder because you don't look through the lens, as with traditional 35mm single-lens reflex cameras.

But with the better digital models, you can view the picture you took within a few seconds on an LCD screen on the back of the camera. At the expense of battery life, you can also use the screen to compose shots, as you would with many video cameras.

PLAYTIME. Once you've shot your digital image, you're ready to play with it in a way you could never do with film. You can easily delete or edit any shots right in the camera. With some cameras, you can even put on a kind of slide show, annotating pictures with text or sound that you've recorded in the camera. You can watch your show on the camera's LCD screen or a video monitor. Editing, though, may test your computer literacy or motor skills. And watch out for confusing menus and tiny control buttons.

With software supplied by the camera's manufacturer, you can transfer pictures from a memory card to a PC. Then it's up to your imagination. You can print an image or put it on a video monitor. Or you can send an image over the Internet, incorporate it in presentations and Web sites, transmit it to a newspaper or magazine, or simply put it in a document file or in an archive.

All these digital features don't come cheap. High-end cameras sell for around $500 to $1,300, vs. $200 to $400 for the better point-and-shoot film cameras. You'll need to shell out more if you want the back-end features, like memory disks and readers. On the other hand, you don't have to pay for film and developing, or worry about long-term storage of slides and negatives.

As for the quality of the images, even digital camera makers admit that, in a side-by-side bake-off, film gets the nod. Digital camera-maker Ricoh concedes, in a press release, that "there is no question that prints made from a digital camera are somewhat less crisp [than those] from a conventional camera.... For the crystal-clear prints and subtle mood shadings of art photography, conventional cameras really cannot be beat." Indeed, we shot pictures of the Statue of Liberty with the Canon PowerShot Pro70 and a conventional film camera. Then we enlarged Lady Liberty's face. The film version was substantially sharper than the digital one.

Still, digital is gaining ground. A year ago, a print any larger than 3x5 inches would have shown tiny dots, or "pixels." Today, pixellation becomes evident in a print of about 5x7 inches. Such factors as lens quality and the steadiness of the camera will also affect quality.

In our test, we examined six digital cameras--the Canon PowerShot Pro70, Fujifilm MX-600 Zoom, Nikon Coolpix 700, Minolta Dimage EX Zoom, Olympus C-2000 Z, and the Ricoh RDC-5000. All of the cameras were at or near the top of the line. Our findings:

Styling and Design. Most models attempt to follow reasonable ergonomic and esthetic standards. But the video LCD screens on most models are too exposed, inviting smears and scratches. Many of the buttons and controls are confusingly labeled. Nikon's, Canon's, and Fujifilm's labeling was best.

Pixellation. Digital manufacturers measure resolution in "megapixels," or millions of pixels. But the actual size may be slightly smaller than they say. Before you buy, check the measurements in the owner's guide. For example, Ricoh advertises that it is a 2.3-megapixel camera, but the picture dimensions are only 1,792x1,200 pixels maximum, for an image of only 2.15 megapixels.

Zoom Lenses. Zooms come in two configurations. Optical zooms, like those on film cameras, provide greater detail and magnification. Digital zooms magnify electronically. They show the central area of the image with magnification but without increased resolution. Some cameras have both optical and digital ranges. But your computer can replicate what a digital zoom does.

Shooting Delay. You may miss your kid's jump shot if you're not careful. After you push the shutter on a digital camera, you may have to wait as much as two seconds until the picture is taken. The delay is not always noticeable or easy to predict. In our test, Nikon performed best, while Olympus was the laggard.

Battery Life. Digital cameras slurp up a lot of power, making alkaline batteries quickly go dead. Using the LCD is especially draining. For convenience, you should consider pricey rechargeable nickel cadmium, nickel-metal hydride, or lithium cells. The thriftiest model we tested was the Canon.

The six cameras we tested had plenty to like, but there were two clear favorites--the Canon and the Nikon. Canon's entry is the bulkiest of the lot, almost the size of a typical 35mm single-lens reflex. But it has the capacity for two memory card slots. We filled one 8-MB card with 30 images, one of which is the Statue of Liberty on the first page. The zoom control, located on the lens, is very handy. We really liked Canon's ingenious LCD screen swivel mount. You can position it to shade the screen in bright sun and even take your own picture. The swivel also protects the LCD by folding it against the camera's body. But we found the Canon a little ungainly and didn't like its lack of an internal flash. The oversized lens cap is unconnected and is awkward to carry in a pocket.

Nikon's offering feels much like what you'd expect from this prestigious maker--solid, heavy, tough, but compact and packed with lots of traditional photo features. It has a sharp lens and high-quality LCD screen. In one mode, Nikon lets you shoot a burst of images, then automatically selects the best. The camera also has a black-and-white mode, not standard on most digital cameras. But it has only a digital zoom.

PLAIN. Fujifilm's entry is a different animal. It's plain, convenient, easy to use, and relatively lightweight. Its startup, though, sounds like a tiny hydraulic forklift as the zoom lens moves into position. The control dial turns a bit too easily, allowing you to slip into the wrong mode. But the power and display switches are easy to find and operate, promoting frugal battery use. The 35-105mm zoom lens is also a plus, giving you a wide range of composing options. But powering the camera causes the zoom lens to push up, often knocking off the lens cap. We also found the Fujifilm's LCD screen not bright enough and its control hard to find.

The Minolta has some intriguing features, especially an interchangeable lens module that lets you shoot around a corner. Using available software, you can also create panoramas and multiple images--a feature adopted by several digital- camera makers. It also has an unusually long optical zoom lens, 38mm-115mm. If you take a vertical picture, the camera senses that and displays the image upright, rather than sideways, on the monitor. On the other hand, the camera's controls are confusing, and the power switch is easy to turn on or off by accident with a slip of a finger.

The Olympus is comfortable to hold and handle and sports a retro look harking back to an earlier era of small-camera design. The camera even comes with a tiny remote control. But the zoom--it has both optical and digital ranges--is jerky and hard to control precisely. Worse yet, in our field test, the camera overexposed unpredictably, giving us a number of washed out frames.

The Ricoh, meanwhile, is solid, sensible, and functional. It boasts a high 2.15-megapixel resolution. It has a practical, low-tech sliding power switch that also operates a hard cover for the LCD screen. Its Living Album software, included in the package, creates and posts instant photo Web pages. Still, we found it surprisingly easy to erase the memory card accidentally, causing us to lose some frames we wanted to save.

While digital cameras still trail behind film cameras in image quality, the top-of-the-line models are certainly coming closer. And from creating Web pages to producing instant slide shows, these digital cameras can do a lot of tricks you'll never be able to attempt with your single-lens reflex film model or point-and-shoot. As impressed as we are with today's digital cameras, though, we're a long way from tossing away our film models. When you're talking about making a 16x20 print, there's no contest between an image shot on film and one stored on a digital memory card. For now at least, low tech trumps high tech.

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