Digital Cameras

Thanks for the memories: Goodbye, fragile film! Hello, valuable digital images ready to send to your PC.

March 13, 2000|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,Sun Staff

If you've ever wanted to say goodbye to photo finishers who lose your film, print pictures with pale-green skin tones, or scratch your negatives, now is the time.

The age of imaging has arrived, with affordable digital cameras that give photographers unprecedented control over the how their pictures look.

Don't like the photograph you just snapped? Review your work immediately, delete it and take another one. Is a picture too dark or too light? You can make it better with an imaging program.

FOR THE RECORD - A caption for a photograph that appeared with an article on digital cameras in the March 13 edition of Plugged In incorrectly identified a harbor seal as a sea lion. The Sun regrets the error.

With digital cameras cheaper and easier to use than ever, it's not surprising that the industry sold 2.5 million of them last year and expects that to increase to 3.4 million this year.

All is not picture perfect, however. Digital cameras eat batteries like Rottweilers snacking on Puppy Chow. They use "digital film" in incompatible formats, including floppy disks, IBM's tiny microdrive and several types of memory cards, including CompactFlash, SmartMedia, and Sony's Memory Stick. One storage medium won't work in a camera designed for another. Finally, many of the cameras we tested need an extra flash to keep photographs shot in larger rooms from going blue.

But the technology is getting simpler. Most cameras ship with software and connecting cables to make getting photos from the camera easy.

The newest cameras use USB ports to transfer images to your personal computer, a fast and reliable method. A few require memory card readers that start at $50, while Sony's popular Mavica line takes a retro approach, using 3.5-inch floppies. They don't store many photos, but they're cheap and don't require an external hookup.

To check the latest models, we tried seven popular digital cameras priced between $260 and $900, representing the middle of today's market.

Generally, more money gets you higher resolution, measured in the number of dots a camera can record, along with features such as zoom lenses, increased storage, and more control over your images. A higher-resolution camera records more detail and produces better prints than a cheaper model.

Low-resolution cameras such as the KB Gear Interactive's JamC@m and the Ixla PhotoEasy Deluxe start in the $100 range and provide relatively small, 640-by-480-dot resolution images for decent online viewing but marginal printing.

Cameras good enough for 4-by-6-inch prints start around $300. At the top end, in the $1,000 to $1,800 range, you'll find cameras that produce excellent images suitable for 8-by-10s.

The average mid-range camera ($600 to $700) is a 2-megapixel shooter that provides brilliant color, good contrast and sharp detail. Buy one that includes a Universal Serial Bus (USB) connection and uses either regular AA batteries or rechargeables and you'll enjoy your digital experience.

That said, here's what we found:

Kodak DC290 Zoom

At $850, this is the most sophisticated camera we reviewed. Easy to hold, thanks to small rubber finger grips, and pleasant to shoot with. The 2.1-megapixel camera and its 35-to-115 millimeter zoom lens rendered wonderful close-up portraits with flash and did a good job of reproducing the faces of a group of people in a small room. Outdoor photos were crisp, clear and colorful, but indoor action photographs were not. As with most of these cameras, the DC290 would benefit from off-camera flash.

While the DC290 adjusts exposure and color balance automatically, a manual override will please serious photographers. Nerds will like the camera's ability to download small programs called DigitalScripts from the Internet to create customized photo albums in the camera or arrange a time-lapse photography schedule. You can e-mail pictures directly from the camera or upload them directly into a Web page.

Epson PhotoPC 850 Zoom

Offering the most for the dollar of this bunch, the $700 PhotoPC's ability to deliver sharp action shots with brilliant color inside a gym made us believers. And while it's bulkier than some digitals, it felt most like a 35mm SLR film camera.

With the equivalent of a 35-to-105 millimeter zoom and 2.11-megapixel resolution, it offered picture quality comparable to the more expensive Kodak 290. It doesn't have as many bells and whistles, but you can manually override its automatic settings to adjust white balance, shutter speed and lens aperture.

We liked the PhotoPC's ability to switch resolution settings quickly by pushing a button that displayed one, two or three stars in the camera's LCD. Two out of three stars was more than adequate for a high school fashion show we shot. You can shoot short snippets of video or record a quick message through the camera's microphone for playback later.

A hotshoe allowed for a flash unit to be added. A USB connection cable provided fast download of the photographs, and you can print directly from the camera to some Epson printers.

Ricoh RDC-5300 Zoom

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