With Thanksgiving fast approaching, so, too, comes the start of the holiday shopping mayhem. Once again, digital cameras are rocketing to the top of wish lists, and once again, shoppers are tentatively entering electronics stores with bewildered looks on their faces.
To alleviate some of that shopping stress, I’ve compiled a buyer’s guide for different camera categories with prices and pointers to innovation. This year, manufacturers have improved photo-location tagging and are offering artistic photo alteration and clever ways to label images for future sharing on social networks.
Let’s Get Physical
Consumers are starting to understand that better sensors make it possible to do things like taking photos in low light, which can really make a difference in photo quality. Some high-quality sensors are making their way into affordable models, like the CMOS sensor in Nikon’s $300 Coolpix S8100. High megapixel counts aren’t overly important, though more megapixels per photo still make it easier to zoom in while editing and give higher resolution in a larger photo or poster. A 14-megapixel camera like the Olympus FE-47 costs just $100, but a recent Consumer Reports review gave it low marks in handling shake and liquid-crystal-display screen quality. Optical zoom, or the physically manipulated distance between the camera and a subject, is still more important than digital zoom, and it’s easy to find many models with 7x optical zoom or better. LCD screens on digicams are so large that they leave little room for optical viewfinders, thus making built-in image stabilization all the more important. Image stabilization comes on nearly all new cameras. And more digicams than ever are capable of recording high-definition videos.
Breaking It Down
Digital cameras can be divided into four broad categories: pocket-size, point-and-shoot, super- or mega-zooms and digital single-lens reflexes (D-SLRs). I’ll leave SLRs out of the discussion, since they’re still primarily aimed at hobbyists who don’t mind the cost and effort of buying additional lenses, filters, flashes and other accessories.
Most pocket-size digital cameras cost between $100 and $300, weigh no more than seven ounces and lack optical viewfinders, forcing users to look at LCD screens to compose pictures. Most of these LCD viewing screens measure between 2.6 inches and 3.5 inches diagonally. Samsung, however, has an even bigger touch-screen LCD, at 3.7 inches, on its CL80 camera priced at $350.
These small but powerful machines capture images with 10, 12 or 14 megapixels and their optical zoom lenses usually range from 3x to 7x, though a handful of manufacturers are boosting their cameras’ optical zooms. The $170 Casio Exilim EX-H5, for example, is equipped with a 10x optical zoom lens.
Today’s point-and-shoot digital cameras are sleeker and more stylish than they used to be, though they remain somewhat bulkier than their pocket-size relatives. The point-and-shoot size can allow for better optical zoom lenses, and these models sometimes cost less than the pocket sizes. The $300 Canon PowerShot SX210 IS and $280 Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS5 are equipped with 14x and 12x optical zoom lenses, respectively.
Super-zoom or mega-zoom digital cameras satisfy people who want the power of a great zoom and optional manual settings without the hassle and expense of an SLR. At a glance, you might mistake these models for SLRs due to their bulkier bodies, and, in some cases, detachable (or hot-shoe) flashes. Nikon’s $400 Coolpix P100 offers a 26x wide-angle optical zoom, and Olympus’s $350 SP-800UZ is the smallest camera with a 30x wide-angle optical zoom. Both cameras have built-in flashes, but the Nikon includes an optical viewfinder while the Olympus offers only an LCD screen for viewing and capturing photos.
Shaking It Up
Camera manufacturers are adding creative new features to these devices. Starting the week of Thanksgiving, Casio will provide Hybrid GPS on its $350 EX-H20G, which geotags (adds digital location information to) images indoors where GPS satellite signals can’t reach. This works using a combined GPS radio and motion sensor to measure the direction in which the camera has moved, and how fast. When you’re back in satellite range, the camera corrects the geotag by cross-referencing its own estimates with satellite-provided latitude and longitude.
Olympus now has art filters, which let you view your subject with special effects before capturing the photo. Some filters supply gentle sepia, soft focus or grainy film. There is also a drawing filter, which makes a subject instantly appear as a sketch.
Samsung’s $150 PL90 model has a pop-out USB arm that reminds me a lot of the pop-out USB connector on Cisco’s popular Flip camcorders. Samsung’s USB arm eliminates the need for messy wires, or the removal of a memory card to transfer photos from a digicam to a PC.
Many cameras have and continue to supply guides that appear on screen as a photo is being captured. Sony’s NEX-5 offers this, and the Olympus Live Guide let you preview photo adjustments—like brightness or color saturation—on the screen as you make them. Nikon’s Scene Auto Selector, found in the Coolpix P7000, Coolpix S8100 and Coolpix S80, will automatically adjust the camera’s settings so users can stop worrying about scrolling through menus to select the right scene from a list.
Fujifilm offers the only true (not simulated) three-dimensional digital camera in its $500 FinePix REAL 3D W3, which I reviewed in August. These 3D images can be seen through the camera’s LCD viewing screen but not on laptops or television sets unless they’re 3D-capable and you’re wearing 3D glasses.
Kodak is trying to encourage sharing with its cameras by including a Share button that, when pressed, digitally tags images and videos with labels for Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, Kodak Gallery or email, then automatically sends the photos to those places when you next plug the camera into a PC.
One last warning: Don’t be seduced by lower prices or better technology alone. Be sure you try a camera in the store before buying it. The way it feels or works for you is just as important as any technological specification.
Email Katherine Boehret at email@example.com.
Edited by Walter S. Mossberg