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Digital Cameras
Your next electronic imager will let you shoot photos faster and better.


If you’re shopping for a digital camera, chances are it isn’t your first. And if you’re like many camera buyers, you’re looking for a model that addresses the biggest gripes about your current digital camera.

Many new point-and-shoot cameras--compact models and the growing crop of pocket-sized subcompacts--have made progress on problems including sluggish shooting and excessive power consumption. SLRs, the digital descendants of single-lens-reflex film cameras, avoid those and other problems.

But despite those advances, don’t join the SLR stampede too quickly. There’s no escaping the convenience of pocket-sized subcompacts, the sports cars of cameras, or the value and versatility you’ll find in midsized compacts--akin to the family sedans of photography.

If you already know the features you’re looking for, you may want to skip ahead to our Ratings (available to ConsumerReports.org subscribers).


WHAT’S AVAILABLE

The leading brands are Canon, Casio, Fujifilm, HP, Kodak, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, Pentax, Samsung, and Sony. Other brands come from electronics, computer, and traditional camera companies. General Electric is a recent entrant.

The smallest cameras we tested recently, subcompacts, weigh 5 to 8 ounces and can fit in a pocket. Price: $200 to $350.

Mainstream compacts are too big to pocket, but small enough for most handbags and glove boxes. The ones we tested recently weigh 7 to 14 ounces. Price: $150 to $300.

More serious cameras have the versatility and power to capture fast action or create photographic art under the most demanding light conditions. SLRs (single-lens reflex), the largest and heaviest type, offer the most versatility and power, including interchangeable lenses. Price: $600 to $1,700 for consumer models; professional models can cost thousands of dollars.

SLR-like is what we term a growing category of cameras offering SLR benefits for a lot less money. They feature a more versatile lens than other point-and-shoots, although it’s built in rather than interchangeable.

Most SLR-like cameras lack some SLR features, such as large image sensors and an optical through-the-lens finder, and aren’t as fast off-the-mark when the shutter is pressed. Price: $250 to $600.


IMPORTANT FEATURES

Digital cameras are distinguished by their resolution--how many pixels, or picture elements, the image sensor contains. One megapixel equals 1 million picture elements. A 5-megapixel camera can make excellent 8x10s and pleasing 11x14s. There are also 6- to 10-megapixel models, including point-and-shoot ones. Those are well-suited for making larger prints or for maintaining sharpness if you want to use only a portion of the original image. Professional digital cameras use as many as 16 megapixels. Price: $100 to $400 for 4 megapixels; $150 to $500 for 5 and 6 megapixels; $300 to $1,000 for 7- to 10-megapixel point-and-shoot models, and up to $1,700 for 10-megapixel SLRs.

Most digital cameras are highly automated, with features such as automatic exposure control (which manages the shutter speed, aperture, or both according to available light) and autofocus.

Instead of film, digital cameras record their shots on flash-memory cards. Compact Flash (CF) and SecureDigital (SD) are the most widely used. Once quite expensive, these cards have tumbled in price--a 1-gigabyte card can now cost less than $30. Other types of memory cards used by cameras include Memory Stick Duo and xD.

To save images, you transfer them to a computer, typically by connecting the camera to the computer’s USB or FireWire port, or inserting the memory card into a special reader. Some printers can take memory cards and make prints without putting the images on a computer first. Image-handling software, such as Adobe Photoshop Elements, Jasc Paint Shop, Microsoft Picture It, and ACDSee, lets you resize, touch up, and crop digital images using your computer. Most digital cameras work with both Windows and Macintosh machines.

The file format commonly used for photos is JPEG, which is a compressed format. Some cameras can save photos in the uncompressed TIFF format, but this setting yields huge, storage-hogging files. Other high-end cameras have a RAW file format, which yields the image data with no processing from the camera and might also be uncompressed.

The optical viewfinder is becoming increasingly rare, replaced by larger, color LCD viewers. (Some are now as large as 3.5 inches.) These displays are accurate in framing the actual image you get--better than most optical viewfinders--but they might be hard to view in bright sunlight. You can also see shots you’ve already taken on the LCD viewer. Most digital cameras provide a video output, so you can view your pictures on a TV screen.

Most models let you capture video and sound. Some let you record video in high-quality MPEG4 format, up to 30 frames per second, up to the memory card’s capacity. The ability to record video in high-definition (though not in the MPEG4 format) is starting to show up.

A zoom lens provides flexibility in framing shots and closes the distance between you and your subject--ideal if you want to quickly switch to a close shot. The typical 3x zoom on mainstream cameras goes from a moderately wide-angle view (35 mm) to moderate telephoto (105 mm). You can find cameras with extended zoom ranges between 8x and 18x, giving added versatility for outdoor photography. Other new cameras go down to 24 or 28 mm at the wide-angle end, making it easier to take in an entire scene in close quarters, such as a crowded party.

Optical zooms are superior to digital zooms, which merely magnify the center of the frame without actually increasing picture detail.

Sensors in digital cameras are typically about as light sensitive as ISO 100 film, though many let you increase that setting. (At ISO 100, you’ll probably need to use a flash indoors and in low outdoor light.) A camera’s flash range tells you how far from the camera the flash will provide proper exposure. If the subject is out of range, you’ll know to close the distance. But digital cameras can tolerate some underexposure before the image suffers noticeably.

Red-eye reduction shines a light toward your subject just before the main flash. (A camera whose flash unit is farther from the lens reduces the risk of red eye. Computer editing of the image might also correct red eye.) With automatic flash mode, the camera fires the flash whenever the light entering the camera registers as insufficient. Some new cameras have built-in red-eye correction.

More and more cameras, including many with powerful telephoto lenses, now come with some form of image stabilizer. Optical-image stabilizers are the best type; some cameras use simulated stabilization to try to achieve the same effect. Stabilizers compensate for handheld camera shake, letting you use a slower shutter speed than you otherwise could for following movement. But an image stabilizer won’t compensate for the motion of subjects.

Most new 6- to 10-megapixel cameras come with full manual controls, including independent controls for shutter and aperture. That gives serious shutterbugs control over depth of field, shooting action, or shooting scenes that have tricky lighting.

Face recognition is a handy new feature that makes sure faces are in focus and properly lighted.


HOW TO CHOOSE

Get the picture by brand. Before diving into specific models, consider some characteristics by brand, culled from our years of digital-camera tests. For example, Fujifilm offers image sensors with proprietary technology that produce high image quality at high ISO settings. Kodak emphasizes simplicity and ease of use. Canon and Olympus offer full lineups to address every type of user.

Nikon has lines to address specific users, such as those interested in performance or style.

HP offers such innovative features as in-camera retouching and a “pet-eye” fix that removes the glow from a flash. Casio specializes in ultraslim models; Samsung offers cameras with high styling and multimedia features. Panasonic uses image stabilizers throughout its line and Leica lenses. Sony uses Zeiss lenses, a brand well known in the camera world.

Beware the megapixel wars. Despite the increasing prevalence of 7- , 8- , and 10-megapixel cameras, a model with 6 megapixels will give most people all the image resolution they need. Higher resolution doesn’t necessarily produce better prints. Lenses and other design factors are important, too. In our most recent tests, several models with 4 or 5 mega-pixels had excellent print quality, while several with 7 to 10 megapixels had fair or good quality.

How much control do you want over exposure and composition? Cameras meant for automatic point-and-shoot photos, with a 3x zoom lens, will serve casual shooters as well as dedicated hobbyists much of the time. The full-featured cameras in the SLR-like category offer capabilities that the more-dedicated photographer will want to have. Two of the more important capabilities are an optical zoom range of 5x to 10x or more, which lets you bring distant outdoor subjects close and also lets you shoot candid portraits without getting right in your subject’s face, and a full complement of manual controls that let you determine the shutter speed and lens opening.

Once you’ve established the performance priorities that you need from a camera, consider these convenience factors:

Size and weight. The smallest, lightest models aren’t necessarily inexpensive 5-megapixel cameras. And the biggest and heaviest aren’t necessarily found at the high end. If possible, try cameras at the store before you buy. That way, you’ll know which one fits your hand best and which can be securely gripped. In our tests, we found that some of the smallest don’t leave much room even for small fingers.

Battery type and life. All digital cameras run on rechargeable batteries, either an expensive battery pack or a set of AAs. In our tests, neither type had a clear performance advantage. The best-performing cameras offer at least 250 shots on a charge, while the worst manage less than 100. We think it’s more convenient to own a camera that accepts AA batteries. You can buy economical, rechargeable cells (plus a charger) and drop in a set of disposable lithium or alkaline batteries if the rechargeables run down in the middle of shooting.

Camera speed. With point-and-shoot cameras like the ones we tested, you must wait after each shot as the camera processes the image. Most models let you shoot an image every few seconds, but a few make you wait 5 seconds or more. That may frustrate you when you’re taking photos of a very active subject, such as a child or pet.

Your other cameras. If you own a film camera with interchangeable lenses, you can probably use the lenses on digital SLRs of the same brand. Some new Olympus digital SLRs require a special $100 adapter to use film lenses, but you’ll only be able to focus those lenses manually.

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