One of the great things about digital cameras is that, freed from the need to house and handle film, they can be much smaller than film cameras and still pack in lots of features and excellent picture quality. You can literally keep in your pocket a point-and-shoot digital camera whose pictures can’t be distinguished from those taken by larger point-and-shoot models, digital or film.
And the camera makers keep turning out attractive new pocket digital models. Over this past Memorial Day weekend, my assistant Katie Boehret and I tested five of the newest pocket digital cameras from Nikon, Fujifilm, Kodak, Canon and Konica Minolta. These cameras range in price from $349 to $499; all weigh six ounces or less, not counting their batteries; and all are an inch or less thick. (Except for the Konica Minolta and Canon, these are official list prices; buyers may be able to find the cameras for less.)
Each of these cameras has a maximum resolution of about five megapixels, except for the Canon, which is $100 more than any of the others, and can capture up to 7.1-megapixel images. Unless you do very heavy editing of photos, or make prints larger than 8×10’s, five megapixels is more than enough for any casual photographer.
They all have the capability to record short video clips. And all have 3x optical zoom, which is sufficient for casual shooters. But only two of the five cameras — the Kodak and Canon — have lenses that physically protrude from the camera body. The others use internal zooming technology, which means that the camera face always remains flat, even when completely zoomed in on an object. All five use proprietary batteries and seemed able to sustain an average day of shooting.
Four of the five models, all except the Canon, have huge, 2.5-inch LCD screens on the back, up from the 2-inch or smaller screens common in pocket cameras only a year ago. But, to make room for the bigger screens, three of the five have omitted an essential feature, the optical viewfinder, which is a far better tool for framing a shot than the screen is.
Only the Canon and the Kodak have optical viewfinders. That means you can easily frame shots even when bright sunlight washes out the LCD screen, and your shots can be steadier than when you rely on the screen alone, which requires you to extend the camera away from your body.
In our tests, all of these cameras took rich, sharp pictures, indoors and out. You wouldn’t go wrong with any of them. But, because I consider optical viewfinders so important, I recommend the Canon or the Kodak. And of those two I lean toward the Kodak because it is $100 less, is thinner and lighter, and manages to combine both an optical viewfinder and the larger 2.5-inch screen. The Konica Minolta, which I have recommended in the past, is no longer my favorite because it has lost its optical viewfinder in its latest iteration.
The Kodak also benefits from being able to dock with the company’s snapshot printers and with nonprinting docks that work with Kodak’s EasyShare software to allow users to easily share pictures via email on a PC or Mac.
We should note that the Kodak that we tried out was a preproduction unit. In our tests, it was slower than the other cameras to ready itself to take the next shot. By contrast, the Canon seemed the fastest at shot-to-shot speed. But Kodak claims that the shot-to shot speed is much faster in production units.
The $400 Fujifilm FinePix Z1 caught our attention because of its sexy appearance. Instead of taking on the typical look of a digital camera, the front of the FinePix Z1 looks (in its closed state) like a simple black rectangle with silver-accented buttons and edges. A thin piece that covers the entire front side of the camera slides across to reveal the camera’s lens and flash, while simultaneously turning the camera on.
The Z1 measures just 0.7-inch wide, making it the slimmest of the five cameras that we tested. A generously sized 2.5-inch LCD viewing screen takes up most of the back side of the camera, but it lacks an optical viewfinder.
We snapped photographs using the Z1 and found a few helpful features. An indicator lamp directly to the right of the LCD viewing screen blinked green when we held the shutter button halfway down, and then glowed steadily once the image was in focus, so we knew when to take the picture. The FinePix Z1 also is one of three cameras we reviewed that comes with a handy docking cradle for charging the camera’s battery and transferring its photos onto your computer.
The $380 Nikon Coolpix S1 also comes with a docking cradle, and it, too, earns points for its stylishly sleek appearance. Its most striking feature is how quietly it operates. When we pressed this silver camera’s “On/Off” button, a small metal circle instantly and almost noiselessly moved, revealing the camera’s lens like something out of a James Bond movie.
When using the Nikon, we especially liked a feature built into the camera called D-Lighting, which allowed us to improve the lighting of a photograph after it was captured. We simply pressed the “OK” button while reviewing a captured image, and two small shots appeared on the screen — one that showed the image as it was, and one that showed how it would look after D-Lighting brightened the image, thus allowing us to choose to lighten it or not. We found that most of our pictures benefited from this in-camera editing process, especially shots that were taken indoors.
The buttons on the back of the Nikon proved a bit tough to operate. In keeping with the coolness of the camera, the Menu, Playback and Delete buttons are all tiny, smooth circles. But we found ourselves pushing them extra hard to get results, which was annoying. The Nikon lacks an optical viewfinder, forcing users to rely solely on its LCD screen for capturing photos.
The chunkiest of the cameras that we tested was the $500 Canon PowerShot SD500. But even though it weighed the most and was thicker than the rest that we tested, the SD500 is still a rather compact pocket camera.
We were impressed by the Canon’s quick start-up time, which seemed to be almost as fast as the 0.5-second start-up time of the Konica Minolta Dimage X60. And its mode dial — which many other Canon cameras also have — helps users easily switch between playback, video camera and photography modes.
The Canon offers a way to adjust color tones in photos by using a My Colors mode that allows you, for instance, to turn grass red or blue. But this seemed more of a gimmick than the Nikon’s genuinely useful D-Lighting feature.
And, unlike the stealthily quiet Nikon, the Canon seems to announce its presence with noise — its zoom lens whirs as it moves in and out, and special “click” sound effects can be heard whenever you take a picture.
The $400 Kodak EasyShare V550 combines its large screen and optical viewfinder in a slim, black matte body that has etched buttons on the top that light up blue, like the metal keypad on the iconic Motorola Razr cellphone.
It’s laced with touches of Kodak’s user-friendly approach, which we liked, including a blurry-picture alert and explanations of what picture-capturing mode you’re currently using (i.e. “Auto — use for general picture taking”). This camera also comes with a dock for charging the camera and transferring photos. This camera’s control buttons flank the left and right sides of its large LCD screen, and the optical viewfinder is oddly situated on the left side, which took a little getting used to.
Taking pictures with the Kodak was easy, and we liked the view screen better than any of the others, because it showed very rich colors. You can adjust the screen’s brightness by simply pressing the left or right arrows.
The last camera that we tested was the $350 Konica Minolta Dimage X60, the follow-up camera to the company’s Dimage X50, which is one of mine and Katie’s favorite digital cameras. The X50 had a 2-inch viewing screen, but still had an optical viewfinder. This new X60 has a 2.5-inch LCD screen but is the first Dimage X model we tested that ditches the viewfinder.
The Dimage X60 still has the same simple user interface that made its predecessor so popular, but because of the larger viewing screen, its buttons are much tinier. Its super-fast start-up time is a real boon for those who want to capture an image quickly. But, without the viewfinder, it’s no longer our top pick.
Overall, the quality of the images from all five cameras was impressive. Most of the colors seemed true to the actual subject, though the Konica Minolta’s images tended to have slightly rosier hues, which showed up in skin tones, and the Nikon had a somewhat yellow tint in some of our shots.
The Canon and Konica Minolta seemed to start up almost instantly, while the other cameras were a little more sluggish. But the shot-to-shot time for the Canon and Fujifilm cameras seemed to be the fastest overall.
There’s plenty to choose from in this crop of new pocket cameras, depending on your budget, tastes and needs. But the Kodak EasyShare V550 and the Canon PowerShot SD500 are the best of this lot, all in all.
With reporting by Katherine Boehret
Write to Walter S. Mossberg at email@example.com