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Shoot for the sweet spots

Get the most for your money in the digital camera market

By Mike Langberg

Knight Ridder Newspapers

Digital cameras come in a bewildering array, but you can cut through the confusion by sticking with one of two "sweet spots" where you get the most for your money.

The first sweet spot is for budget shoppers: two-megapixel cameras with 3X optical zoom lenses at $200 to $250.

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The second sweet spot is for the extravagant: pocket-size four-megapixel cameras, also with 3X zoom lenses, at $450 to $600.

You can spend less, but you'll run the risk of buyer's remorse from fuzzy images or losing shots that don't work without a zoom. You can spend more, but you'll probably get features you don't need unless you're a serious photo hobbyist.

I've been a relentless digital-photography cheerleader for five years; I took my last film picture in 1998 and have no regrets about making the transition. Among the reasons I love digital cameras:

The freedom to take as many pictures as you want. Pushing the shutter button on a 35-millimeter camera costs as much as 50 cents for film and processing; digital pictures cost nothing once you've paid for the camera. I've often taken 20 or 30 pictures of my 2-year-old daughter Sara and saved only two or three that perfectly captured her smile or laugh -- images I would have missed if I were thinking about film cost and limiting how many shots I took.

Instant results. With a film camera, you're never sure whether the moment has been preserved. With a digital camera, you see the picture immediately on the color LCD screen. On many occasions I've asked people to pose for a second or third shot when the first attempt didn't work.

Easy editing and sharing. Once you've transferred a digital picture into a computer, amazing transformations can take place. With inexpensive photo editing software, faces emerge from dark shadows, acne disappears and dull colors become bright. Through electronic mail or personal Web pages, pictures can be widely and quickly shared with family and friends.

Consumers, so far, are coming out ahead in digital photography as competitors from three big industries -- film, computers and consumer electronics -- try to dominate this rapidly emerging category. The result is continually improving technology and continually declining prices.

If anything, we're seeing too much of a good thing, with so many models on store shelves that buyers get rattled.

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To stop the insanity, stick with a few basic guidelines.

The single most important detail about a digital camera is the resolution, measured in millions of pixels, commonly known as megapixels. Two megapixels are enough for 4x6 and 5x7 prints that are virtually indistinguishable from 35-millimeter film; I've even made sharp 8x10 prints from a two-megapixel camera. Three- and four-megapixel cameras allow bigger prints and, more important, extensive cropping to make 4x6 or 5x7 prints.

The second most important detail, as with a film camera, is the quality of the lens. This is hard to evaluate unless you're an optics expert, but common sense should prevail: Cheap digital cameras inevitably have low-quality lenses.

Otherwise, make sure the camera you buy offers the standard checklist of features: 3X optical zoom lens, color LCD screen, flash and movie mode for shooting short video clips.

If you just want to dabble in digital photography, there's nothing wrong with buying one of the many "toy" digital cameras offering one-megapixel or less resolution and selling for well under $100. The pictures you'll get may be good enough for sharing via e-mail or the Web, but won't match 35-millimeter film when printed.

But perhaps the best deal in digital cameras today are the many pocket-size four-megapixel cameras. These diminutive point-and-shoot cameras are typically 31⁄2; to 41⁄2; inches wide, 2 to 3 inches high and 11⁄2; to 2 inches thick, weighing 8 to 10 ounces.

I've found 11 models in this class: the Canon PowerShot S40 (replaced this month by the PowerShot S45); the Casio QV-R4; the Hewlett-Packard Photosmart 812; the Kodak EasyShare LS443; the Konica Digital Revio KD-400Z; the Kyocera Finecam S4; the Minolta Dimage F100; the Nikon Coolpix 4300; the Olympus D-40; the Pentax Optio 430; and the Sony DSC-P9 Cybershot.

Two manufacturers are upping the ante to five megapixels: Kyocera with the Finecam S5 and Olympus with the C-50.

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I borrowed the Kodak LS443 and was immediately taken with the sleek silvery design and the camera's portability -- you wouldn't notice the extra weight carrying the LS443 all day in a purse, briefcase or backpack.

Image quality was good, with rich colors and sharp images. The LS443 applies a lot of compression in turning images into JPEG files; pictures shot in "Best" mode are just under one megabyte, about half the size of the best shooting mode offered by competing four-megapixel cameras. This somewhat restricts how much LS443 pictures can be enlarged, but shouldn't be a concern with typical snapshots.

Where the LS443 shines is ease of use. Newcomers to digital photography won't need to spend more than a few minutes with the instruction manual to start taking pictures; controlling the camera is made simple through plain-English menus on the LCD screen.

The LS443 also comes with a dock that both recharges the camera and connects to a Windows or Macintosh computer. Pushing a button on the dock launches photo-transfer software for moving pictures from the camera to the computer, while Kodak's EasyShare program provides an intuitive home on the computer for organizing, simple editing, printing and e-mailing.

Photo hobbyists who yearn to manually control every element of exposure, add accessory lens and attach external flash units won't be happy with many of the pocket-size four-megapixel models and should go for full-sized models ranging from $600 to $2,000. The rest of us can be happy knowing how much quality we're getting in such a small package.

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