Eight boundary-busting digital cameras hit the market with features that include ultra-zooms, low-light sensitivity, better flexibility, new connectivity choices, superior durability and even 3-D images
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Want to grab a photo from an unusual angle? The 3-inch LCD screen pulls away from the camera body and pivots up and down—great for overhead shooting. Need to capture a fast-action sequence? You can grab eight full-resolution images in a second. Special shooting modes handle low light as well as heavy backlight and let you capture ultrawide panoramic images by simply pressing the shutter and panning the camera from side to side. When video shooting, the HS20 offers full 1080p high-def recording, along with slow-motion video capture (perfect for analyzing your golf swing).
The image quality isn’t going to match what you’d get with a full-fledged SLR, particularly when you start pushing the envelope with low-light conditions or big enlargements. On the other hand, given the extraordinary zoom range, you can get 16-megapixel photos that just wouldn’t be possible with a less feature-rich camera, particularly with long-range shots outdoors. A close-up of the bird perched on your fence? Got it.
A screen-filling shot of the singer in a band onstage? No problem. And unlike on some ultrazooms, the controls are smooth and easy to use, the controls for tweaking photo settings are extensive and you’ll find the special features actually have practical value.
Pentax Optio W90
When we see ads for weather-resistant cameras, most of us think about underwater shots, and that’s about it. While today’s rugged camera models are fine for tackling chlorinated conditions, they work in many other situations that would quickly turn your ordinary camera into a digital paperweight. Seaside sand, for example, is more of a threat to a standard camera than a dunk in the drink, but no threat to a weatherproof model.
Want pictures of a family snowball fight, or your mind-boggling ski run? A rugged camera is able to resist both melting snow and freezing temperatures. And let us not forget the fumble-fingered of all ages. If you can hand a camera to your kids and let them enjoy snapping away without having your stomach clench when it happens to fall, that’s a win for everybody.
The Pentax Optio W90 is a fine choice among tough cameras—a bit more compact and lightweight than many competitors, with a unique close-up feature I find genuinely useful. As for iron man credentials, we’re talking waterproof to 20 feet (no scuba diving, but fine for snorkeling), shockproof against a four-foot drop, dustproof and coldproof to 140 F. You get 12.1-megapixel resolution for stills and 720p high-def video, as well as special underwater still and movie modes that adjust for lighting conditions when submerged. The 5x zoom is a decent range for a small (4.2 x 2.3 x 1.0 inch, 5.1 oz) camera, and while manual controls are limited, you do get a selection of Scene Modes that tailor the camera to varied conditions (portraits, high-contrast surf and snow, even shooting text pages).
The extra bit of goodness I alluded to earlier is tied to one of these special modes called Digital Microscope. Lots of cameras have a close-up macro mode but, when they get really close to a subject, you block out the illumination in the camera’s shadow, preventing a decent photo. The W90 has three little LED lights arrayed around the lens that let you take finely detailed close-ups of objects as small as a postage stamp—a fine feature for collectors, eBay sellers, or anyone who’d like to get up close and personal with a ladybug.
Sharing your digital pictures usually requires plugging the camera into a computer, transferring files to the hard drive, then uploading to an online photo site or editing them to get the file size down and sending them via e-mail. The Samsung SH100, though, lets you handle the task computer-free thanks to built-in wireless networking. And in a new twist on the Wi-Fi camera concept, those with an Android cell phone will enjoy unprecedented remote control capability with the SH100.
The Wi-Fi system lets the camera connect even to password protected wireless networks, allowing direct e-mail and photo uploading. The camera automatically resizes the images before sending them, so you don’t waste your time (or your battery power) trying to send full-resolution photos. The system currently supports uploading photos to Picasa, Facebook and Samsung’s own photo site, and videos to YouTube. You can save recipient e-mail addresses in the camera memory, so you don’t have to tap out lengthy instructions each time you send grandma another snapshot.
There is an annoying wrinkle in the upload process when it comes to public Wi-Fi networks like those found in hotels and Starbucks. These require you to accept a legal agreement before logging in, which is no big deal for a computer with a browser, but a potential deal-breaker for a camera without one. Samsung’s workaround is support for Boingo, a national subscription network of Wi-Fi providers that runs $8 a month.
The wireless remote control app for Android phones is very clever, and very practical. You can look at the phone screen and see what the camera is seeing, making it possible to line up self-portraits and group shots perfectly. Not happy with the way a shot’s framed? Use the phone to zoom the camera lens.
When it’s all just right, trip the shutter by pressing the on-screen button. This neat trick works equally well if you’re holding your camera high overhead or down low—no more point-and-pray photography. Your phone’s built-in GPS will let you attach location information to photo files shot using the remote control app.
And if a little geek-speak doesn’t freak you out, DLNA support is another intriguing option. DLNA is an industry standard for sharing media files between devices. Some AV receivers and TV sets now support DLNA, along with Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 game consoles. Turn on the camera’s DLNA function and you can browse your photos on a big-screen TV without connecting a single wire. You can even set up a slick-looking on-screen slide show. Master this simple trick and even your kids will grudgingly admit you’re kind of cool.
Beyond its unusual wireless proclivities, the 14.2-megapixel SH100 is a photographic mixed bag. There’s a 5x zoom lens, but no mechanical image stabilization, the system that keeps blur to a minimum in most current digital cameras. The LCD is a relatively low-res 3-inch affair, and it’s touch-sensitive. Some people like touch-screen camera controls, and it’s easy to see the charm of focusing on a particular point in a scene by tapping on it.
Personally, though, I prefer good old-fashioned buttons. They let you work faster, without having to search a screen full of icons every time you want to change a setting, and respond more reliably. Then again, the SH100 isn’t the right camera for those who yearn for precise manual control anyway.
There are adequate adjustment opportunities for the basics, but it’s really designed for the point-and-shoot crowd. And given the camera’s extensive wireless capabilities, and the fact that Samsung’s previous wireless model sold for a hefty $399, the price for the SH100 came as a very pleasant surprise.
Fujifilm FinePix REAL 3D 3W
I’m inclined to see 3-D as more of a gimmick than must-have technology, but when it comes to gimmicks, it’s kind of fun. It gets a whole lot more interesting when it becomes a do-it-yourself project, which is precisely what the groundbreaking FinePix REAL 3D W3 camera does best.
The expertise required to build an inexpensive handheld 3-D camera is not to be taken lightly. Fujifilm combined two separate, independently controlled and precisely aligned lenses with two 10-megapixel sensors to capture the separate left-eye right-eye images required to create the 3-D effect.
To give you an idea of the complexity involved, Panasonic recently delivered a $1,400 3-D camcorder that won’t let you zoom the lens at all when shooting in 3-D. Fujifilm mastered the parallax problem, thank you very much, in a $500 camera that shoots both 3-D stills and high-def 3-D video. And unlike the Panasonic, the REAL 3D W3 has a built-in 3-D LCD so you can preview the 3-D effect while you’re shooting.
One of my favorite features goes beyond its 3-D capability. You have two lenses, two sensors—in effect, two cameras in one—and Fujifilm uses this setup for innovative 2-D shooting strategies. Can’t decide whether you want to shoot a wide angle or zoom in? What the heck—why not take both shots at once with the lenses at different settings? Want to experiment with black-and-white photography but don’t want to sacrifice the color shot? Again, take ‘em both at the same time and figure it out later.
This is Fujfilm’s second 3-D camera; the first was barely marketed to the public because it lacked the ability to display your stills and video on a 3-D TV (of course, the fact that there were barely any 3-D sets in people’s homes didn’t help much either). The new model connects to a 3-D TV by HDMI cable, allowing the entire family to put on stupid-looking glasses and enjoy the 3-D experience together.
Steven Morgenstern is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.
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