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You knew it would make a great snapshot the instant you saw it. Unfortunately, your camera didn't. The resulting photo was blurry. And the moment -- a child blowing out the birthday candles, a dog catching a Frisbee, a waterfall shot from the car -- has passed.
Chances are your camera, and your photo, was the victim of your own hand. It's tough to hold a camera steady enough to get a flawless shot, especially one of those slim and stylish ultracompacts. That's especially true if you're shooting under less-than-perfect conditions. Indoors, say, or outdoors at dusk. At night, in the shade, or on cloudy days. In a church or museum where you can't use a flash. From an awkward position or a moving vehicle. For extreme close-up or telephoto shots. Get the picture?
In fact, the biggest complaint that amateur shutterbugs have about digital point-and-shoot cameras is fuzzy photos, and camera makers are starting to listen. Now, virtually every major company has or shortly will have at least one compact outfitted with what's generically called image stabilization, a feature that somehow reduces blur. I collected models from eight manufacturers (Kodak and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ) are absent from this part of the market) to see how -- and how well -- they did it. The cameras all had resolutions of 5 to 8 megapixels and a 3x to 4x zoom lens. Prices ranged from about $300 to $500.
I found that most of these cameras made for a noticeable difference in the sharpness and quality of the picture under different shooting conditions. I now think image stabilization is the new must-have for compact cameras -- more so than big screens or resolutions of more than 4 or 5 megapixels, decisions you can make after you narrow your choices to stabilized models. That's especially true for the casual shooter, someone who's more interested in 4x6 snapshots instead of 16x20 framed portraits, someone who wants to grab a lot of shots on the go and have them all look good.
To understand how these cameras work, you need to know what causes your snapshots to be blurry. It might be that you don't know how to use the auto-focus feature: Usually, you should be squeezing the shutter down halfway to engage the focus and then all the way down to take the picture. You should make sure that the camera is focusing on the subject, usually the object in the center of the picture (although Nikon cameras can now find a human face anywhere in the frame and focus on that).
More often, though, it's because you can't hold the camera still while the shutter stays open long enough to take the picture. As cameras have become smaller and more convenient, they've also become harder to steady. Their small lenses collect less light than larger cameras, which means their shutters have to remain open longer. Most compacts no longer have an optical viewfinder, either: You're not bracing the camera against your face but holding it with your arms -- or worse, arm -- extended to frame the picture, exaggerating the shaking effect. (Of this batch, only the Nikon Coolpix P4 and the Canon (CAJ ) PowerShot SD700 IS have a viewfinder.) Experts will tell you to use a tripod, but that defeats the purpose of a tiny camera, doesn't it?
You can combat the shakes two ways. Traditionally, makers of cameras with long telephoto lenses, where even the tiniest movement will blur the picture, have used a mechanical optical image stabilization system. A gyroscopic sensor in the lens or camera detects any horizontal or vertical movement and corrects it by signaling tiny motors to adjust a floating element in the lens. Such cameras as the Canon and Nikon, Sony's (SNE ) Cyber-shot DSC-T9, and all Panasonic Lumix cameras use the same technique. The Optio A10 from Pentax uses a variation: The motors move the image sensor instead of the lens to compensate for any camera movement.
The other way is to increase the sensitivity of the sensor: It will collect light faster so that the shutter doesn't stay open as long, essentially freezing the motion before any shaking is registered as a blur. That's how the Stylus 710 from Olympus (OCPNF ), Fujifilm's (FUJIY ) FinePix V10, and, to a lesser and less effective degree, Casio's Exilim EX-S600 do it. The advantage is that the increased sensitivity, indicated (as with film) by a higher ISO rating, stops the action of not only a shaky camera but also of the subject, such as a fast-moving child or pet. Mechanically stabilized models can't do that. The disadvantage is that images shot at higher ISOs traditionally have looked grainier -- it's called noise on digital cameras and also shows up as color speckles -- than those shot at slower speeds. I printed out some prints from these cameras, though, and that kind of noise wasn't much of a problem.
Most of the cameras make it easy to find and use the stabilization feature. The Nikon, Panasonic, Pentax, and Sony models have a button on top so you can turn the feature on or off without hunting through menus; on the Olympus, it's a setting on the dial. In any case, I recommend turning it on and leaving it on (although on cameras where it's implemented mechanically, that will drain the battery a little faster).
For their slim size and stylish good looks, I liked the Casio, Olympus, and Sony models. If you want a big screen to show off your pictures to friends, Fujifilm's FinePix is, at three inches, the biggest. If you want an optical viewfinder, useful for very dark or very bright conditions where it's difficult to see the screen, pick the Canon. It's the only one that will let you steady your camera the old-fashioned way -- by holding it, with both hands, up to your face.
By Larry Armstrong