Digital snapshot

Introduction

This year’s crop of 3.34-million pixel (megapixel) digital cameras marks the point where professionals and keen amateurs can take these sub-£1,000 devices seriously. Last year’s 2.1-megapixel devices were nearly there, but fell between two stools: too much resolution for Web images, but not enough for decent prints. The benefit of higher resolution is that more detail can be captured, meaning you can print pictures larger before fuzziness and pixelation creeps in. A 3.34-megapixel image gives an 8.9MB RGB file once decompressed. This is fine for A5 or 5-x-8-inch prints on a 600/720dpi photo-quality printer, and more than enough for the smaller 5-x-4-inch ‘enprint’ sizes that conventional photo processors offer. You could even stretch it to A4, at the expense of some sharpness. There’s more to a good digital camera than its pixel count, though. All the cameras here, except the Fuji, use the same Sony-made 3.34-megapixel CCD (charge coupled device), yet image quality varies widely. Factors include lenses, signal processing and file-compression ratios used. The best lenses are found on the Nikon, Olympus and Casio. These new-generation cameras offer genuinely useful electronic features. All but the Canon and Ricoh have manual-exposure overrides that use the conventional values of shutter speeds in fractions of a second and apertures in f-stops, rather than vague +/- EV settings. A selectable choice of light-meter patterns is now common, including spot-metering for precise readings of small areas. Several have manual-focusing overrides. All have automatic white-balance controls to avoid colour casts, and one or two include a manual feature, set by placing a white object in front of the lens. Function buttons
All but the Canon S20 can capture short, low-resolution video sequences for export as MJPEG files. The frame rates and image quality are poor compared with a proper DV camcorder, so you’d only use this for visual note-taking. Dedicated function-buttons are also important. You often need to change settings quickly on a camera to capture fleeting events, and the last thing you want is to have to wade through layers of on-screen menus. The lure of digital cameras is their immediacy, thanks to built -in TFT monitors. Being able to preview images and play them back seconds after pressing the shutter means you know right away if a pic has worked, or if it needs to be re-shot with different settings. If you’re photographing people, they like to see results straight away. You can also download pics directly into a computer, with no waiting time or paying for film processing. Any images you want to keep can be stored on a computer disk or CD, so you can wipe and re-use the camera’s memory card. Although cards are expensive, you actually save money, as there’s no film and processing costs. On the other hand, these 3.34-megapixel models are expensive, given that the £500 to £800 you’ll pay would buy a high-end 35mm SLR film-camera with one or more interchangeable lenses, and a powerful external flash gun. No digital camera in this price range offers interchangeable lenses, though some take screw-on wide-angle and telephoto adaptors. Only the Epson, Nikon and Olympus models can control external flashguns, which is important to keen photographers. If quality matters more than immediacy, it’s worth considering sticking with film and buying a dedicated 35mm film-scanner to digitize your pictures – many offer six-megapixel resolutions. Some film processors now offer scanning as part of the deal. All cameras tested come with either 8MB or 16MB CompactFlash, or SmartMedia removable memory cards. An 8MB card will hold only about 12 full-res images, and just one image if compression is switched off. Extra cards cost between £16 and £32. These cameras come with built-in USB ports, which plug straight into USB Macs. Slower serial cables are included for older Macs by all except the Fuji 4700 and JVC GC-X1. PCMCIA adaptor cards are available for laptop Macs. Some printers can now accept memory cards directly, with no need for a computer to open them. All these cameras can also display stills on a PAL television.
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