Katherine Boehret

Giving Your Pictures Some Va Va ‘Zoom’

Are you ready to take a step closer to the digital-camera big leagues? Many people who have used a basic point-and-shoot camera for several years are ready to bring it up a notch.

The next logical category of camera after basic point-and-shoots (and before digital single-lens reflex, SLR, cameras) are the so-called megazoom cameras, capable of zeroing in on a subject with around 20x optical zoom strength. They also have fairly high megapixel counts, capturing about 10 to 12 MP each, and offer several automatic and manual settings for capturing photos.

The Nikon Coolpix P90

Most of the cameras in this category resemble SLRs, with bulkier builds and protruding zoom lenses. But they cost somewhere in the $400 range—significantly less expensive than SLRs, which often cost over $1,000 for the camera body alone (lenses are typically sold separately). If you don’t want to spend the money or you aren’t completely sure you want to commit to learning the ins and outs of an SLR, this midrange model is a sound compromise.

Of course, these cameras have some downsides. Serious photographers who have grown accustomed to the high-quality photos of SLRs will point out the comparatively poorer photo quality of megazooms. But for average users like me, the quality of photos captured using a megazoom digital camera is a welcome upgrade from a point-and-shoot.

Another significant difference for point-and-shoot users will be adjusting to the size and overall bulk of megazoom cameras. Users can’t toss them into a small purse or pocket on the way out the door like they do with compact point-and-shoots. Instead, megazooms are usually seen hanging from neck straps or stowed away in camera shoulder bags.

Canon's PowerShot SX20 IS

Some smaller cameras are categorized as megazooms, including the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS1K and Casio Exilim EX-H10BK, though both look more like thick point-and-shoot cameras. These Panasonic (PC) and Casio models cost between $250 and $300 and offer 12x and 10x optical zooms, respectively. But they aren’t capable of some of the more advanced features found on expensive megazooms—like 24x optical zoom or some manual settings and shooting modes.

This Christmas, I was fortunate to receive one such megazoom camera, the Nikon Coolpix P90, which costs around $400. Though I’ve used other cameras in this category, I was especially struck by how the capabilities of this megazoom altered my photo-capturing behavior.

In the Snow

Granted, not everyone will react as I did, but I took my camera and set out on photography jaunts around my neighborhood in Washington, D.C., scaling piles of snow to capture just the right angle, and using tree branches to frame shots of the Capitol in the distance.

The details and colors in the photos that my camera captured were so much more vivid than those on my admittedly older point-and-shoot that I wondered what took me so long to make the upgrade.

I spent the first week with this camera using it in its Auto setting—an old habit that carried over from my point-and-shoot days (also because I didn’t have time to read through the manual).

But even in the automatic mode, photos looked astonishingly good—prompting compliments from family and friends. A week later, I delved into the camera’s user manual and learned how to use many more features.

A Downside

One big downside: Though the Nikon Coolpix P90 weighs only 16.2 ounces, its bulky shape prohibits it from being carried along on a whim.

I brought the camera on a family vacation, but left it in my room rather than trying to fit it in my bag during a trip to the beach and on a zip line ride through the rain forest. A compact point-and-shoot would’ve easily fit into a pocket.

But then I have my BlackBerry Curve 8900’s camera—with 3.2 megapixels, auto focus and a built-in flash—for snapping photos on the go. (Plus, I can instantly share the shots via email, Facebook or Twitter.)

As more mobile devices include good quality cameras, like Google’s (GOOG) new $179 (with T-Mobile) Nexus One super-smart phone with five megapixels and a flash, fewer people will need to carry point-and-shoots for quickly capturing digital memories.

A Pleasure to Edit

Editing photos captured by a megazoom is a real pleasure. I cropped and zoomed to my heart’s content, noticing more details in photos after looking at them on my computer than when I initially took the pictures. When I needed to trim someone or something out of a shot, I didn’t worry about degrading the photo’s overall quality. And because of their high resolution, my photos can be enlarged with very little quality or color compromise.

The Casio Exilim EX-H10BK

In addition to Nikon, many other companies make cameras for the megazoom category. Some examples are Canon’s $400 PowerShot SX20 IS, Sony’s (SNE) $480 Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 and Casio’s $400 EX-FH20. These offer several shooting modes, as well as scene modes for common settings like sunsets, backlight, night portraits, burst mode and panoramas. They have optical and/or digital-image stabilization to thwart shaky hands, settings for focusing in on a subject manually or automatically, and ways to save frequently used manual settings.

Flash Features

Some megazooms have built-in flashes, while others use an external mount so that a flash can be snapped on or off for use. (My Nikon came with a built-in flash.) They often have more than one flash that fits in the mount, leaving users with the choice of which one to use.

The digital cameras include LCD viewing screens as well as optical viewfinders. (The latter is commonly left off of many small point-and-shoot cameras, but it’s really helpful for people who want to hold the camera up to one eye for steadier shooting.)

Some LCD screens, like the Canon’s, swing out and swivel around. The Nikon’s can be adjusted up 90 degrees or down 45 degrees for shooting below or above a subject.

No matter which model, the megazoom category of digital cameras offers a combination of advanced features and affordability that could entice people who are ready to take the next step into a world of more serious digital photography.



Write to Katherine Boehret at mossbergsolution@wsj.com

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