Digital Cameras Are Coming Into Focus

Prices have fallen, and there's more variety

I've always found the whole notion of digital cameras exhilarating. It's as if you had received a lifetime's worth of film and processing for free. You can shoot as much as you want, see each shot immediately--and erase any instantly if you don't like them. Creativity counts even after a picture has been snapped. The cameras come with software that allows you to fiddle with special effects, crop for tight portraits, or stitch together panoramas. You can even fix mistakes, grabbing faces from different snapshots to make sure that everybody has their eyes open and a winning smile in the finished portrait.

These days, digital cameras are more affordable than ever, with prices about a third of what they were three years ago. More often than not, the price is determined by the number of pixels, or picture elements, that the camera's image sensor can record. Pixels are the tiny dots that form an image--look at a newspaper photograph with a magnifying glass and you'll see them.

Just a few years ago, a camera with a resolution of 640x480 pixels, or about 300,000 pixels--good for e-mailing snapshots to grandparents--would set you back $500. Today, for around $300, you can buy a camera that can shoot with resolution of at least 1 million pixels (a megapixel). That's powerful enough to produce good-looking 4x6-inch snapshots, and even acceptable 5x7 enlargements. Good choices in this price range include the Fuji FinePix 1300 ($250), the Kodak DC215 Zoom ($300), or the Olympus Camedia D-360L ($300).

Even better are the 2-megapixel cameras, which can turn out great 8x10s. These cameras, from such makers as Nikon and Olympus, start around $500. The top of the line are the 3-megapixel models in the $800-$1,000 range. Their big advantage? You can crop and print only part of an image and still have enough resolution left to produce a satisfying photo.

Besides cheaper prices, the other good news is that camera makers are now segmenting the market. That means you'll be able to get the features you want without paying for the stuff you'll never use. Manufacturers are developing new cameras for buyers with very specific needs. You may simply prefer to have the smallest, coolest camera on the block, or you may want to have the one that can click off the fastest series of shots, capturing the split-second your kid tips in the basketball to win the game.

I've sorted through this year's crop to find the best of some unusual features that can make a difference in your photos. I also checked out a nifty way to get in at the bottom of the market. For $129, you can snap Kodak's PalmPix onto your Palm organizer. The screen is abysmal as a viewfinder, and the snapshots are low-resolution, but it's a clever toy that'll let you play around with digital photography without dropping a bundle.

This year's coolest camera has to be the Canon PowerShot s100, or Digital Elph. This tiny, precision-made stainless-steel box is the size of a pack of cigarettes, and only slightly thicker. At $499, this fully-featured 2.1-megapixel camera, complete with an optical zoom lens, is one of the cheapest and by far the most compact digital camera in its class.

My personal favorite is the slightly larger $699 Coolpix 880 from Nikon. It's a stripped-down version of Nikon's top-of-the-line 3.3 megapixel Coolpix 990, but sells for $200 less. It's designed for amateurs who are beyond the point-and-shoot stage but who don't want to deal with the intricacies of a fully or even partially manual camera. I loved the dozen or so "scene" modes that set the camera up to handle automatically those difficult shooting situations that I always blow, such as sunsets, fireworks, parties at night, and beach and snow scenes.

At the other end of the heft scale are a couple of cameras whose size and weight---about two pounds, vs. a half-pound for Canon's Elph--might not be worth it but for the single unique feature that sets them apart from their smaller siblings. One simple-to-use camera is the Camedia C-211 from Olympus. It's a full digital camera with a Polaroid camera inside. When you take a snapshot you like, press the button and a baseball-card-size instant print pops out.

In the same league are some of the Sony Mavicas, the line that has made Sony the top seller of digital cameras in the U.S. Mavica was the first to use everyday floppy disks to record photos, and this year Sony augmented its top-of-the-line MVC-FD95 with the MVC-CD1000, a camera that uses a built-in writeable CD-ROM drive. Besides being a cheap way to store pictures--each $4 CD disk will hold 160--it makes viewing them on a computer a cinch. There is no software to load or cables to connect; you simply pop the disk into any CD-ROM drive.

A big problem with many digital cameras is the lag time between recording one picture and getting ready for the next one--a range from two or three seconds to more than 10 seconds in cheaper cameras. Olympus has solved that with its new Camedia E-100 Rapid Shot model. It's pricey at $1,499, but it's faster than most film cameras, shooting off 15 high-resolution frames a second. What's more, it will grab up to five shots even before you fully depress the shutter, ensuring that you always get the one that got away.

Whatever camera you end up buying, I have a few tips to keep in mind. The first is zoom. Optical zoom lenses are among the most used features of cameras, allowing you to compose a shot without much jockeying for the best place to shoot from. Most of the better digital cameras have a two- or three-times zoom lens, and some expensive ones, such as the Sony or the Olympus Rapid Shot, have a 10X zoom that can bring distant objects breathtakingly close. Some cheaper cameras advertise "digital zoom," which is nothing more than enlarging the center of the picture--what used to be called cropping. Use them and you'll lose as much as half the resolution of the image, resulting in blurry prints. If the ability to zoom matters to you, buy one with an optical zoom lens.

The real power hogs of digital cameras, and also their biggest lure, are the tiny color displays that allow you to view photos immediately. If you're not careful, you can spend on batteries what you save on film and processing. Unfortunately, camera makers and dealers see AC adapters and battery chargers as a profit center, so they're increasingly leaving them out of the box. If they're not included, it will cost you an extra $50 or so to buy them separately.

Finally, don't be afraid to buy more camera than you think you can handle. All digital cameras are fully automatic and easy to use right out of the box. You can learn the more advanced features as you go. And remember, with digital cameras the "film" is free, so all a photo costs is a little time. As for the mistakes you'll make, erase them on the spot. There's no more need to relegate them to a shoebox on the closet shelf.

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