Tough Digital Camera Decisions

By Scott Koegler | Posted March 23, 2004

I don't envy your decision process if your small business is shopping for a digital camera and have set your budget in the $500 range. The field is crowded and getting more so every day. What's worse — or better, depending on your point of view — is there are so many great choices that deciding which digital camera to buy based on price really isn't appropriate. A case in point is the choice between the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T1 and the Nikon Coolpix 5700. Both are 5 megapixel digital cameras from respected manufacturers, but are vastly different in size and shape, even though they can both be bought for less than $500.

Granted, the manufacturer's recommended price for the Coolpix is about double the Cyber-shot's $599 list price, but I've seen both advertised as low as $449 recently. Deciding on which digital camera to buy will likely have more to do with how your small business will use the camera, than on image quality and price.

Very Different
As customers, we've become used to looking at single numbers to represent a product's place in a competitive arena. For computers that usually means processor speed in terms of Gigahertz. For digital cameras, it's about resolution capacity in terms of megapixels. So, both the Coolpix 5700 and the Cyber-shot DSC-T1 are described as 5 megapixel cameras. Beyond that similarity and their street prices, they are vastly different digital cameras.

How So?

The DSC-T1 is a compact, maybe pocketable camera, which makes it a natural for people who need great shots as part of their daily work. Real estate professionals and the like will appreciate the relatively wide-angle view when the 3x zoom lens is set to its widest view of 6.7mm. On the other hand, the DSC-T1's maximum optical zoom of 3x will make it less than appealing for bringing subjects like sporting activities and animals up close. I stay away from digital zooms since they typically do no more than crop the picture, something you can decide to do later, when you print. Still, Sony wisely elected to limit the digital zoom to 2x, which can still deliver a relatively good resolution of around 2.5 megapixels.

The Coolpix 5700 is shaped more like a traditional 35mm SLR camera, and so unlike the DSC-T1, you won't be sliding into your pocket. Like the Cyber-shot, the 5700 handles focusing and exposure automatically, but offers a wider choice of exposure measuring methods — center-weighted, spot, matrix, and spot/auto focus area. The Coolpix's zoom offers more range on the telephoto side with an 8x optical range, though its wide angle setting at 8.9mm isn't as wide as the Sony's 6.7mm. There is a 4x digital zoom that combines with the 5700's 8x optical for a total of 32x magnification, though I still caution against considering any digital zoom truly useful.

Small Business Buyer's Guide to Digital CamerasWhile both cameras will do an excellent job on a wide variety of normal picture situations, it's the more unusual opportunities that will make you glad you picked one over the other. In terms of sheer technical aptitude, the Coolpix 5700 is clearly ahead of the Cyber-shot DSC-T1. Here's a rundown on the comparative issues, but keep reading because bigger numbers don't necessarily mean you'll get the photo quality you want.

The Coolpix has features that will let you take night time exposures with its 8-second shutter speed, and shot in rapid succession at 3 frames per second. It also has a "macro focus" mode that lets you take extreme close-ups. On the other hand, you're more likely to have the Cyber-shot with you at any given moment because of its size. And while the Cyber-shot's liquid crystal display is a monster at 2.5-inches in comparison with the Coolpix's 1.5-inch screen, but you're limited to previewing and composing your picture on the Cyber-shot's LCD because it has no optical viewfinder. On the other hand, you can have your choice to view the Coolpix's LCD or look directly through its lens. Viewfinders tend to be much more convenient than LCDs for action shots and in bright light settings.

Extra Costs
Nikon includes a 16MB Compact Flash card, and Sony a 32MB Memory Stick. They're both useless since neither will hold more than a few images. So when you're pricing your cameras, know up front that you'll want to budget another $100 or so for memory cards or sticks. I've seen 256MB Compact Flash memory cards for as little as $45, and Sony's Memory Sticks run a little higher at around $70 for 256MB.

What do you like?

If I am spending $500, I would prefer to get something that would let me exercise the maximum amount of "creative freedom" and be able to shoot under a wide variety of conditions, even if it is at the expense of having to carry a larger camera with me, so I would choose the Coolpix 5700.

At the same time, I would spend another $150 for a slim-line camera that I could carry in my pocket. I'd also make sure whatever camera I get can use the same memory type, so I don't need to spend double for memory and will be able to swap the memory between cameras when necessary.

But if you need high quality images of "normal" subjects, and need a camera you can carry inconspicuously so it will be readily available, the Cyber-shot is your best bet.

Scott Koegler has been in the technology field for more than 25 years, and has written a book about systems integration as well as hundreds of articles about computers, software, digital photography, and networking over the last 12 years. He has been an IT executive in industries as diverse as health care, printing, and custom apparel.

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