Photo Finish

Digital cameras are the latest thing, but is it time to put away your film?
By Steve Morgenstern | From Raquel Welch, Jul/Aug 01
Photo Finish

No question about it -- film is amazing stuff. The roll you buy for a few bucks at any corner drugstore can reproduce what you see with exquisite detail. What's more, sophisticated film cameras are a great value. Then why do I shoot with a digital camera instead?

Instant Gratification: I can see my pictures seconds after taking them.

Digital Darkroom: After transferring digital images into the computer, I can fiddle with them to my heart's content, turning flawed originals into wonderful photos.

Peace of Mind: With a digital camera, I know whether I've captured that key photo at a once-in-a-lifetime family gathering or event -- and, if not, I can keep trying.

No Per-Shot Cost: With film, I hesitate before ¿wasting¿ a shot. With digital, I can shoot till my shutter finger is sore, eliminating the shots that didn't work as I go.

Kid-Friendly: I hate handing a roll of film to a child who promptly takes 36 expensive photos of the cat running away. With digital, they can take picture after picture, and maybe learn something in
the process.

Internet-Ready: Digital photos can be shared with family and friends within minutes, via e-mail or posted to a free personal album on the Web.

Privacy: I don't know about you, but sometimes I'd rather not share my photographic masterpieces with the pimply-faced kid at the one-hour photo lab.

If you share my enthusiasm for electronic snapshots, here are the six variables you should consider to buy smart, along with my six favorite high-end camera picks.

Resolution Resolution is the raw material of your digital photograph -- the number of colored dots that combine to create the image. Higher resolutions deliver greater detail and better-looking printouts. That doesn't mean you'll always want to shoot at the highest resolution possible -- as resolution increases so does file size. Fewer images may be stored in the camera when the files are larger. Furthermore, you may not want to e-mail Mom a photo of the baby that will take her all day to download. In choosing a camera, though, there's no downside to going with the highest resolution available -- you can always choose to shoot at lower-resolution settings when appropriate.

Each colored dot is called a pixel, and digital camera resolution is measured in megapixels -- one of which is equal to a million pixels. While a million sounds like a whole lot of dots, a 1-megapixel camera is actually fairly limited -- fine for taking pictures to be displayed on a computer screen, but suitable only for small print sizes. Spring for a 2-megapixel camera, though, and you can print a handsome 8 x 10. Today's quality leaders in consumer and professional gear are the 3-megapixel models. They provide plenty of resolution for oversize prints, and, equally important, enough detail to let you crop away extraneous areas, or zoom in on the heart of the image with enough resolution left over for high-quality printing.

Lens The key difference here is the zoom. To maximize the number of pixels in your final image, you'll want to frame your shots as tightly as possible while taking the picture, instead of relying on enlargement later on. The more you can zoom in the better.

There's an important distinction between optical zoom and digital zoom. An optical zoom is the real deal -- just like a standard film camera, it uses moving lenses to get closer to your subject. Digital zoom is mathematical magnification within the camera's processor, which leads inevitably to a loss of detail. With a few pro-oriented exceptions (such as the Fuji FinePix S1 Pro reviewed here), digital cameras don't have interchangeable lenses, so you'll want a camera that comes off the shelf with at least a 2x, and preferably 3x or larger optical zoom built in.

Size and Shape You can't take great pictures if you're not carrying your camera, right? While cameras in the tried-and-true 35mm shape do feel solid and secure in your hands, you pay a price in bulk and visibility. That's why I lean toward more compact camera formats that fit neatly in a shoulder bag, briefcase or even a pocket.

Storage Film is cheap -- digital storage isn't. Most digital cameras store photos on memory cards in one of three formats: CompactFlash, SmartMedia or Memory Stick. While all work equally well, the best value is CompactFlash -- it's available in larger sizes and costs less per megabyte of storage.

You can rest assured that, if you buy a camera that uses memory cards for storage, the card provided with the camera will be barely sufficient -- probably 8 or 16 megabytes. My advice: pick up an additional card, somewhere in the 32- to 64-megabyte range (depending on your budget) right away.

Batteries It's one of those features that most people overlook when choosing a digital camera, but remember this -- a digital camera with a dead battery has about the same photographic capabilities as your average brick. Some digital cameras require custom-size rechargeable batteries. Yes, you save money by using rechargeables, but if the battery dies while you're out shooting, you're out of luck. A better solution is AA-size rechargeables. That way, if you run out of juice, you can run into the nearest convenience store and pick up replacements to get you through the day.

Price Most of us want to pay less, but if you get into digital photography for around $300 today, with a camera in the 1-megapixel-plus range, I can guarantee you won't love it for long. The following models are pricier, but each has the technological sophistication and photographic capability to give it some staying power.

Nikon CoolPix 995

Nikon has taken its industry-leading CoolPix 990, made a few key improvements, and unleashed the CoolPix 995 on the waiting world. First things first: the company didn't mess up anything major that was right in the first place, which is surely a rarity. The size and shape of the 995 is a bit trimmer than the 990, so it's easier to carry without hauling around a camera case. You still get a genuine Nikkor lens, and the zoom has been boosted from 3x for the 990 to 4x for the 995 -- that extra magnification makes a big difference. The camera still delivers 3.34 megapixels of resolution. Another significant improvement: the new camera has a pop-up flash. Like many small cameras, most digital models tend to produce red-eye when shooting people in low light. (The red comes from the flash bouncing off the blood vessels in the back of your eye.) By raising the flash above the level of the lens, the CoolPix 995 reduces red-eye significantly.

So, what's not to like? Nikon switched from using four AA cells (rechargeable or otherwise) in the 990 to a harder-to-find specialty camera battery. On the other hand, the manufacturer includes a rechargeable battery with the camera, and even with a host of improvements the price has dropped $100 from the previous model.

$899,, 1-800-645-6689

Olympus C-2100 Ultra Zoom

When you want to get up close and personal without sticking your camera in someone's face, this is the camera for you. The C-2100 boasts a 10x optical-zoom lens, the equivalent of a 38-380mm lens on a 35mm single lens reflex (SLR) camera -- the kind that lets you see through the lens you're using instead of a separate viewfinder and easily swap lenses. Major telephoto power is only half the story. Mount a 38-380mm lens on a 35mm camera and it's going to be a behemoth, virtually impossible to use without a tripod. By contrast, this camera weighs a modest 1.38 pounds, making it easy to handle. And finally, the Olympus engineers have incorporated a very effective digital-image stabilization system that compensates for wildlife with this camera, stopping action nicely and maintaining consistently sharp focus.

What would I improve on this camera if I could? Higher resolution would be nice -- 2.1 megapixels is very good, but not great. It uses SmartMedia cards for storage, which again is OK, but limited. And it's pricey for a 2.1-megapixel camera. But those are mere quibbles when talking about a camera that's this much fun to use.

$900,, 1-800-622-6372

Canon Powershot S300 Digital ELPH

Maximum portability is the point of the new PowerShot S300 Digital Elph, a handsome stainless-steel camera that crams all the photographic features you're likely to need into a trim 8.5-ounce body. The 3x zoom lens is impressive for a camera this size, producing 2.1-megapixel images with accurate color reproduction and nice detail, even in shadowed areas. The LCD viewfinder is small at 1.5 inches across, but it's bright and sharp, and the camera controls are so simple you'll only have to browse the manual once to learn all you need to know.

I especially like the quick recycle time between shots -- without flash, you can squeeze off 2.5 shots per second, an important capability when you're trying to photograph fast-action scenes. I'm not so crazy about the battery, a rechargeable with a life span claimed to about 120 shots. It would also be nice to include a higher-capacity memory card at this price (you get only an 8-megabyte CompactFlash card). And speaking of price, I have to say the manufacturer's suggested retail on this camera is out of line with current trends. However, you do expect to pay a premium for the combination of small size and good looks.

$599,, 1-800-848-4123

Sanyo IDC-1000Z IDSHOT

This revolutionary camera is tailored to the needs of a plugged-in, computer-savvy user. Most of the cameras reviewed here include some capability to shoot brief video clips as well as stills. Why haven't I dwelt on this earlier? Because it's basically a gimmick -- the video clips you can capture are very short (due to storage-capacity limitations) and distinctly low quality. This Sanyo is a very different story, though -- it shifts effortlessly from digital photos to digital video, producing handsome results in both modes.

To accomplish this feat, Sanyo employs a new kind of storage solution, a 2-inch disk that holds an extraordinary 730 megabytes of information (a bit more than a standard CD). That means you can store up to 12,000 images, or two hours of video, on a single reusable disk. For practical purposes, we need to throttle those numbers back a bit, since they're figured at the lowest quality settings, which you're not likely to use often. Still, even taking photos at the maximum quality setting, you'll fit 1,200 images on a disk, or eight minutes of video -- a very impressive achievement.

There are a few trade-offs in selecting this hybrid system over a more traditional digital camera. The 1.5-megapixel resolution isn't top-of-the-line, though the tremendous storage capacity means you can store images in a high-quality uncompressed file format that's not practical on other cameras. The camera's also fairly bulky, but here again there's a compensating factor -- excellent design makes it very comfortable to work with. Packed with sophisticated features, the cutting-edge IDC-1000Z is both very practical and lots of fun to use.

$1,300,, 1-888-337-1215

Fuji Fine Pix S1 Pro

Many of us shoot 35mm film using SLR cameras. Digital SLRs haven't reached consumer price yet (that is, sub-$1,000), but if you're willing to dig a little deeper, this professional-quality model from Fuji accepts standard Nikon F-mount lenses and feels like a million bucks in your hands for about three grand.

This 6.1-megapixel camera is a photographic power tool offering sophistication you won't find elsewhere. It can nail five frames in a row at 1.5-second intervals, provides five different exposure modes, eight white-balance settings and even a histogram display (which the pros use to monitor exposure). But all that doesn't mean you have to be Ansel Adams to enjoy using the camera -- the automatic focus and exposure work flawlessly, making it easy to point and shoot at will. There's even a built-in flash for indoor snapshots. The menu system, including both a slim backlit LCD panel and a brilliant 2-inch screen, is surprisingly easy to maneuver considering the range of options at your disposal. And Fuji recently made the FinePix S1 Pro a significantly better value by bundling a 1-gigabyte IBM Microdrive with the camera (valued at about $500), letting you take more than 900 high-resolution digital images without reloading.

$2,999,, 1-800-800-3854

Kodak DC4800

The value leader among 3.1-megapixel cameras, this Kodak model offers a 3x zoom lens (equivalent to a 28-84mm lens on a 35mm SLR) in a compact, comfortable body. Instead of concentrating on professional-level, photo-tweaking features, Kodak stresses practical controls any user will appreciate. For example, you can immediately erase a disappointing shot with just two quick button presses. I especially like the settings that let you switch between normal and saturated color mode (like switching between Kodachrome and Ektachrome film) and, for black-and-white photography, settings that mimic the effect of red and yellow filters. Kodak's done a nice job with the little touches on this camera, too. For example, the motorized zoom lens moves quickly and responsively. The inclusion of a 16-megabyte card instead of the typical 8 megs is another nice touch.

All told, the DC4800 is a pleasure to use, and a lot of camera for the money.

$599,, 1-800-235-6325 

Steve Morgenstern writes on technology issues.