These Digitals Could Really Sink Film

Two cameras have closed the gap on performance for everyone but the pros

Although it has been at least three years since I shot a roll of film, I remain painfully aware of the shortcomings of digital photography. The biggest drawbacks are cameras that aren't ready when I am and shutters that don't trip the instant I press the button. But I have been trying out two cameras that change the game -- and that could torpedo most reasons to use film.

The Kyocera (KYO ) Finecam SL300R and the the Olympus (OLYOY ) E-1 are as different as two digital cameras can be. The $400 Kyocera is a small, light, point-and-shoot consumer model. The $2,000 Olympus is the heart of a professional single-lens reflex system.

Kyocera SL300R
The Kyocera weighs just under 5 oz. and is not much bigger than a pack of cards. To keep the camera thin and the lens design simple, the unit is hinged so the half that contains the lens and flash rotates to a horizontal position, while the right side, which holds a 1.5-in. LCD display, remains vertical. There is no optical viewfinder, but the LCD is bright enough for use in sunlight. The surprise comes when you turn it on and it's ready to shoot without any boot-up time. You can snap 3.5 pictures per second until you run out of memory, and there's no perceptible lag between pressing the button and the shutter firing. (Achieving the maximum speed requires high-speed SD card memory, which costs 15% more than standard memory. Using the flash also will slow the rate.)

OTHER FEATURES OF THE KYOCERA are fairly typical for the category. The camera features a 3-to-1 zoom lens that ranges from moderate wide angle to short telephoto. The 3-megapixel sensor is ideal for 4-in.-by-6-in. snapshots and suitable for enlargements to 8-by-10. I disliked only a couple of things. The lens is covered by a glass plate that is nearly flush with the front of the camera. So I kept touching the glass when I twisted the lens into position. As on most very small cameras, the proximity of the flash unit to the lens means that a lot of pictures will need red-eye repair. Since even the simplest of photo programs includes one-button red-eye repair, it's an annoyance, but not a big deal.

The 5-megapixel Olympus is as fast as the Kyocera, but you expect that in a camera of this class. The E-1's distinction is that it's a professional SLR designed as a purely digital camera. When Nikon and Canon began offering digital camera bodies, they wanted to protect professionals' huge investment in lenses. So they designed the digital gear for compatibility, which forced compromises in optical performance. Olympus' base of professional photographers is much smaller, and the company decided to make a clean break. Only a new line of Zuiko Digital lenses -- five, starting at about $400 -- work with the Olympus E-1.

The 25-oz. Olympus is smaller and lighter than the comparable Nikon D1X. Because it's a professional camera, the E-1 is a complex beast, with a myriad of settings explained in a thick manual. (Olympus plans to bring out a simpler and cheaper version of the E-1.) I found the most commonly used controls were well laid out and intuitive to use. One advantage of the pure digital approach is that the lenses are smaller and lighter than their 35mm equivalents. The 14-54mm and 50-200mm zoom lenses (equivalent to 26-108mm and 100-400mm on a film camera) were a delight, and I could hand-hold shots with the long telephoto that would have demanded a tripod with film.

The bottom line is that digital cameras are getting so good that there's not much room left for film. Professional photographers want film, especially in large formats, for artistic and studio work for as long as they can get the stuff. And it will hang on for a while at the low end of the market, in disposable cameras, although these will ultimately be replaced by digital cameras that you turn in to have your pictures printed. That's pretty much how the first Eastman Kodak consumer camera worked in 1888, so the mass-market film business may end the same way it began.

By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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