Nowadays, I always have a digital camera on hand. Many of the new digital cameras have become so small you hardly notice that you are carrying them. The batteries now last so long you rarely have to recharge them. The digital storage cards have become large enough that, if you pay attention to what you are doing, you probably can go for quite a while before you need to download the images. Digital imaging software has become vastly improved so downloading, archiving, sharing, and fixing imagery has become easy. So here is a round up of several new digital cameras we think you will like plus some software and storage hardware you probably will find useful down the road.
Canon S500 Powershot
For full disclosure, I must confess that as a digital camera nut, my favorite "big" digital, is the Canon digital 10D EOS I bought so I can use all the great EOS lenses I've gathered over the years (plus a decent 6.3 mega pixels sensor and a rechargeable battery that usually lasts for more than 500 shots!) But, just the camera body costs over $1,000 and for most sensible folks, that's an awful lot of camera. To the rescue, Canon's new S500 Powershot, the newest addition to the respected digital Elph family. This handy ultra-compact camera offers an impressive 5 megapixel sensor plus a decent 3x optical zoom. The camera also records decent videos with sound on compact flash cards. Think convenience, style, and terrific image quality that fits in your pocket, priced about $500.
I've been consistently impressed with Casio's breakthrough line of inexpensive and hyper-thin Exilim cameras. Casio has done it again with a new 4 megapixel EX-Z40 with superior battery-life and a 3x optical zoom lens. These cameras record onto the SD card format which I like because I can quickly show images I've taken on my camera on my Palm device. This new Casio EX-Z40 is somewhat wider than my favorite slim standby, the EX-S3, mentioned above, but that additional width is mostly a function of the enhanced battery and the impressive zoom lens. You do get a lovely 1.5" x 1.75" bright screen. Casio promises the new battery can take more than 340 images between recharges, which is more than twice what earlier versions could take. And the price will be $399 when models hit the streets at the end of April.
Olympus Stylus 410 All-Weather Camera
If you plan on being outside this year, then get this camera today. It's the second generation of Olympus' all-weather camera, which means it doesn't mind getting a little wet. It's a four-megapixel, metal-bodied little beauty that is small enough to go just about anywhere. We tested our model on the slopes of Mount Killington in Vermont, spanning two days that saw temperatures in the single digits, as well as warm-weather (read that as very wet) skiing. The camera fit nicely in a ski jacket, and is powered on by the simple opening of its lens cover. There are 10 shooting modes, including video clips with sound. The pictures we shot came out beautiful, and the camera took all the abuse our mediocre skier could dish out. Now, "all-weather" doesn't mean you can take this puppy scuba diving. It'll take a splash, but don't try shooting those tropical fish on your next dive, you'll be pretty sorry. It retails for about $380, but you can probably find it a lot closer to $300 with minimal effort. A great investment.
Canon Powershot Pro 1
For those more demanding, Canon has introduced a very intriguing camera, the Powershot Pro1 Digital camera. Here you have a whopping 8 megapixel camera with a built in 28 mm wide zoom lens. Canon is making quite a big deal about this "L" (read "luxury") lens because it does clean the clock of other cameras with similar built-in lenses. Personally, at $999, I wouldn't trade the versatility of my EOS 10D (where I can put on any darned lens that I choose) for the "do it all" quality of this Pro 1, but some of the features do make me jealous. The camera has a rugged feel, yet it is the opposite of clunky. For one-handed operation, the camera pretty much has all the features of the more expensive "professional" Canon camera bodies. For people who like to make large blow-ups and who "need" the extra mega-pixelage, this Powershot Pro is an interesting choice. The moveable 2 inch screen seems like a bit of show-offy over-engineering, but perhaps I'm just a little bitter that my more expensive Canon camera doesn't have the feature? Anyway, I must confess that I only had a few hours of play with this Powershot Pro 1 and, in the brief time I had with this hot new higher-end unit, I've been impressed… but not to the tipping point where I'll trade in my bigger Canon 10D. The Powershot Pro 1 will soon be available at about $999.
One of the lessons we are learning is that, when it comes to digital cameras, you often pay for image quality and then pay again for the storage you need to achieve it. Getting more pixels from a camera comes at a very clear price. Large capacity compact flash, SD cards, and even (as I also use) IBM's cool micro drives, come at exponentially higher price points. When budgeting for a camera, my wise friend and certifiable camera nut Tim Culp generously suggests you factor in the cost of the memory card with the cost of the camera. (For example, I believe it makes little sense to get anything less than 128 Meg card for any camera taking better than 4 megapixel images.)
Here's more of Tim's truisms:
"When setting out to buy a digicam, set a top-dollar budget and stick to it. This should allow for the camera, additional storage (the manufacturers NEVER, repeat NEVER supply enough), as well as an extra battery or two and a charger if the camera uses AA NIMH type batteries."
Tim maintains "four megapixels should be enough to satisfy even the most discriminating amateur photographer who cannot print larger than 8.5" x 11" prints. Better to shoot more carefully composed shots" than to rely on more megapixels and cropping to get good pictures.
I don't completely agree with Tim and am happy that I record my pictures at the highest rate possible. This is partly because I'm not as good at composing shots as he is and because, well, more is more and I'm a picture hog. To deal with my piggish data storage needs, I've purchased several one gigabyte compact flash cards (the best are made by Sandisk and Crucial) and even now have a fabulous 4 gigabyte Microdrive from IBM. This big bad boy, selling at about $499, stores so many pictures that my camera can't tell me how many more images I have left "999…999…999..." it keeps saying as I happily click away. Which leads me to a larger problem: I've run out of disk space on my computer hard drive after taking a year's worth of images.
So, as you descend into the depths of the digital photographer's insanity, you too will inexorably come to a moment when you have no more space. Also, if you have lived in the computer age for more than a nanosecond, you should realize that not backing up your digital images guarantees they will disappear faster than an Airborne Express package in Raleigh. (Inside joke on that for my producer Bob, nearly in tears after losing a loved one… technology that is.) Our solution is instead of backing up your images on cheap CDs which you then lose or scratch, is to store all images on the mother-of-all-hard drives. Several times a day, I introduce anyone who will listen to my 300 Gig Maxtor external one touch Firewire and USB 2.0 hard drive. This is the answer to all your data storage needs… and you can, as I have, jerry rigged six of these (you can connect up to 64 of these!) for almost two terabytes of memory. Doctor, take me away.
Two More Things…
Two final notes: For those of us who have gone broke buying photo paper for our color printers, good news is at hand. Anyone who went to school knows that Hammermill is the first name in paper. They have been making photo paper for many of the other companies out there and finally are selling reams of the stuff now at considerable discount. So that's one blessing.
Another cool development is that Krylon has solved a problem I never realized I had: they've created a protective sunscreen spray for your digital images. It's true that with digital photography you can always print another image. But say you give a gift of your treasured image to someone and want to insure they don't come back a year later asking you to print it again. Krylon's new "Preserve It!" is a spray on clear protectant that keeps digital images looking bright and new at least twice as long as without it.
Some other quick tidbits to remind you: if you get a digital camera, plan on getting good digital archiving and manipulation software. If you have a Mac, it's a no-brainer, iPhoto is a stand-alone organizer that integrates lovingly with the rest of the iLife suite. For the rest of humanity using software from the "evil empire" (you know, those bright "Windows" folks), you will thank me forever when you plunk down $49 bucks and get Adobe Photoshop Album 2.0… which we have reviewed in this general area before. One nice thing I must say about Microsoft is that they have done a really good job on a photo editing software "Digital Image Suite 9." I would still use Adobe Album for storing and sharing images, but Microsoft's Digital Image Suite is far easier to use than Adobe's other widely know photographic software programs, like Photoshop, which is still somewhat user-hostile.
By Daniel Dubno and Bob Bicknell