A Bumper Crop of Digital Cameras

By Eric Grevstad | Posted September 01, 2006

Marketing mavens typically refer to this time of year as the "back-to-school" or even the "holiday" shopping season. But that doesn't mean smart small-business owners can't take advantage of the fact that this is a favorite time for digital camera manufacturers to introduce their newest and most-improved products.

Not surprisingly, this fall's first wave continues the category's rush to higher resolution at lower prices (can you even buy a two- or three-megapixel camera anymore?). But other technological advances, such as image stabilization to help offset shaky hands or long exposures, are showing up in every market segment.

Let's take a look at some of the sharpshooters now reaching or about to reach retail shelves. Remember, any reference to zoom is to the real thing, an optical zoom lens. Software-enhanced digital zoom is essentially worthless.

CSI: Your Town
We can't resist starting with a specialized model from Fujifilm: At $1,800, the FinePix S3 Pro UVIR is pricey even for a sophisticated digital SLR, but then again it can see things that can't be seen by the human eye. The letters at the end of its name indicate the camera's ability to take photos in the ultraviolet and infrared light spectrums, as used by law enforcement agencies to collect otherwise invisible evidence from crime scenes.

Fujifilm says the 12-megapixel camera will also see duty in scientific and medical facilities, but that its primary audience of forensic photographers will appreciate its easy focus (though manual instead of auto focus is recommended with dark IR or UV filters over the lens) and ability to cut some infrared films' exposure times from hours to well under a second.

Fujifilm is serving another good cause by offering a special version of its FinePix Z3, a shirt-pocket compact with 5-megapixel (2,592 by 1,944) resolution, 3X zoom, and a 2.5-inch LCD monitor: The camera's pink case indicates that its $280 price includes a donation to the National Breast Cancer Foundation. A Picture Stabilization button uses heightened sensitivity (up to ISO 1600) and fast shutter settings to reduce blur, while a feature called I-Flash recognizes scene conditions and adjusts flash intensity to fit.

Another new FinePix, the SLR-styled model S9100, combines 9-megapixel (3,488 by 2,616) resolution with 10X zoom (the equivalent of 28mm to 300mm for a 35mm film camera lens). The $600 camera shares the Z3's Picture Stabilization and I-Flash features and has a tilting 2-inch LCD.

Also pretty in pink — though white, black and silver models are also available — is Sony's 7-megapixel Cyber-shot DSC-T10 ($400). According to Sony, not only are more and more households acquiring digital cameras, but the number of cameras per household is also increasing to as many as three or four. Under that scenario, the T10 fills a niche as a fashion accessory.

Equipped with a 2.5-inch LCD, the Cyber-shot promises up to 250 shots on one charge of its NiMH batteries, with 56MB of internal memory holding some of those images for owners who haven't sprung for a Memory Stick Duo or Duo Pro memory card yet. Super SteadyShot optical image stabilization detects camera movement and sends compensating signals to a stabilization lens. In addition to its 3X optical zoom, the T10 offers a Smart Zoom feature that Sony claims crops into the center of a scene to deliver effective 14X magnification without the image degradation of most digital zooms.

An iPod Alternative?
Samsung continues its push into the North American digicam market with three deluxe cameras dubbed the NV series — one of which is also an MP3 player with stereo speakers and supplied ear buds, not to mention a video player, voice recorder, e-book reader and camcorder that captures 640 by 480-pixel video at 30 frames per second and TV-resolution 720 by 480 at 20 fps. As a camera, the Samsung MV3 ($350) offers 7-megapixel resolution, 3X zoom, and an Advanced Shake Reduction feature that both uses proprietary algorithms to interpret low-light color and sharpness data for images that look like they were taken with the flash.

Both Advanced Shake Reduction and Optical Picture Stabilization, the latter physically adjusting the CCD sensor to combat camera shake, keep Samsung's NV7 OPS looking sharp. The $450 camera squeezes 7 megapixels (3,072 by 2,304 resolution) and 7X zoom (38mm to 270mm equivalent) into a 4.2 by 2.5 by 0.8-inch body. Automatic and super macro modes allow 10- and 4-centimeter close-ups, respectively.

The NV10 is a 10-megapixel (3,648 by 2,736) model with 3X zoom; its 1.8-inch LCD is accompanied by a Smart Touch user interface with a menu touchpad on the back of the camera instead of a dial on top. Along with Samsung's Advanced Shake Reduction, the $400 unit provides 640 by 480-pixel, 30 fps MPEG-4 video recording with in-camera movie editing, plus 11 preset scene modes ranging from Portrait, Landscape, Sunset and Children to Text Recognition. The last lets you shoot book or magazine pages for transformation into editable text by provided optical character recognition (OCR) software.

Samsung has bolstered its point-and-shoot lineup with the 7-megapixel model S700 ($250) and 10-megapixel S1000 ($350), each offering a 2.4-inch monitor and 3X zoom in both still and movie modes (MJPEG for the first, MPEG for the second). Seven scene modes include Dawn, Beach & Snow and Backlight, while a Photo Frame option saves images with one of nine styles of borders. A Special Effects button can give a red, blue, green, or sepia hue to a scene or highlight a subject with the rest of the image in soft focus.

From Water to Wi-Fi
It seems there's a camera for every photo buff or market niche. For swimmers and snorkelers, Pentax's Optio W20 needs no special waterproof case to work for up to half an hour at depths up to five feet. Besides underwater still and movie modes, the $300 Optio offers scene modes that span from Portrait and Landscape to Self-Portrait, Pet and Fireworks — some taking advantage of nine-point tracking or face-priority auto focus. Light sensitivity up to ISO 1600 helps reduce blur, while 7-megapixel resolution, 3X zoom, and 0.6-second startup with 0.05-second shutter lag contribute to getting good shots on land or sea.

For penny pinchers, Norcent says its 8-megapixel model DC-820 can be found at retail for as low as $179. Even at that price, you'll find 3X zoom, a 2.4-inch LCD, nine scene modes, VGA video capture and basic choices such as automatic or red-eye-reduction flash and white-balance settings for sunny, cloudy, tungsten or fluorescent lighting conditions.

Nikon boasts that its $200 Coolpix L6 can take a whopping 1,000 pictures before its included Energizer e2 Lithium AA batteries give out. The 6-megapixel (2,816 by 2,112), 3X zoom camera backs its 2.5-inch LCD with what Nikon calls In-Camera Image Innovations including face-priority auto focus, built-in red-eye fix, and D-Lighting that corrects images with insufficient light. Other features include 15 scene modes and a Best Shot Selector that quickly takes and then saves only the sharpest image in a series.

Another 6-megapixel camera, the Coolpix S10 ($400), steps up to 10X zoom (38mm to 380mm equivalent) with Vibration Reduction that compensates for image-sensor movement with results comparable to shooting at shutter speeds up to two stops faster. A swiveling 2.5-inch LCD is the theater for Pictmotion, an invention that lets you merge images and video clips into audiovisual shows accompanied by one of three music files of your selection (or one of five pre-installed tunes). More seriously, a One-Touch Portrait button gives direct access to the face-finding focus, red-eye reduction and lighting adjustment mentioned above.

Finally, Nikon calls its Coolpix S7c the company's most technologically advanced compact camera. Besides the portrait shortcut and Best Shot Selector of the other Nikons, the $350 camera offers an Anti-Shake mode that adds electronic vibration reduction while setting optimal ISO (up to 1600).

Seven-megapixel (3,072 by 2,304) resolution and 3X zoom are at your disposal, as is built-in 802.11b/g Wi-Fi for wireless image transfers — to your PC as soon as the picture's taken, to a printer with optional Wi-Fi adapter, or to a Coolpix Connect service that stores up to 30 addresses in the camera to e-mail images to your friends or to a Web site that stores up to 50MB of photos for up to two weeks. As a final bonus, Nikon throws in one year of T-Mobile's Wi-Fi hotspot service.

Widescreen and Dust-Free
Canon boasts that its PowerShot A710 IS ($400) is the first in its coat-pocket, point-and-shoot A series with Image Stabilizer technology for steady shooting across its 6X zoom spectrum. An optical viewfinder, nine-point auto focus, and 2.5-inch LCD compliment a choice of two 7-megapixel-image formats — a standard-aspect-ratio 3,072 by 2,304 or widescreen 3,072 by 1,728 resolution.

The PowerShot A630 ($300) and A640 ($400) are 8- and 10-megapixel siblings with similar wide-aspect-ratio capabilities. Each offers 21 scene modes plus manual, shutter priority, and aperture priority as well as automatic operation. The My Color modes seen on earlier PowerShots offer playback with vivid red, green or blue tones or with lighter or darker skin tones, with the ability to retouch captured images as well as apply the filters while shooting.

At the higher end of the market, Canon brags that its EOS Digital Rebel XT has set digital-SLR sales records — and that its successor EOS Digital Rebel XTi raises the ante with more features at a lower price ($800 for the body only, $900 with an 18mm to 55mm zoom lens). In burst mode, the 10-megapixel (3,888 by 2,592) SLR can capture up to 27 JPEG or 10 RAW images at max resolution at three frames per second.

The EOS Integrated Cleaning System uses an ultrasonic vibrating unit to shake dust off the sensor at camera startup and shutdown. If that's not neat enough for you, a Dust Delete Data function maps the size and position of dust particles revealed when photographing a white wall or piece of paper, then adds metadata to subsequent image files to delete the specks. So thoughtful is the XTi that it automatically — if temporarily — turns off its 2.5-inch LCD when you raise the camera to your eye, both to save battery power and to save you from distracting brightness at the edge of your field of vision.

Adapted from hardwarecentral.com.

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