Mega Pictures

Companies unveil their latest digital cameras, promising sharper pictures Digital cameras sharp

September 18, 2000|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,SUN STAFF

For years, the Holy Grail of digital photography has been a camera that can match the clarity, sharpness and color fidelity of film.

With their latest 3-megapixel models, the industry is coming closer, good news for serious photographers and casual snapshooters alike.

At the same time, the industry has improved on the longstanding advantages of digital photography, including instant review of snapshots, easy transfer of images to a computer and the creation of photo-quality prints with a home ink jet printer.

While digital camera sales remain behind film camera sales, Americans are impressed enough with electronic imaging to buy digicams in increasing numbers.

Last year, 3.1 million digital cameras were sold, according to Ron Glaz, program manager for IDC consulting firm's digital imaging program. This year, 5.1 million are expected to be sold and next year, 7.1 million.

About 5.4 million of 103 million American households had digicams at the beginning of the year, says Andrew Johnson, an analyst with the Gartner Group. By comparison, almost every household had a film camera, if you include disposable cameras. But digitals are selling well, Johnson says. "And with prices coming down and the holiday season soon starting, things will get really busy."

Meanwhile, digicam owners can share their images over the Internet or buy them through such services as Club Photo, Zing and Shutterfly, adding to the convenience factor. Much of that online activity, digicam market analysts say, is because of the improvement in digicams.

The newest offerings from digital camera-makers improve quality in part by capturing more pixels - the tiny dots of information that combine to form an image. For example, a camera that records an image 1,600 dots across by 1,200 pixels deep is storing 1.9 million megapixels. More pixels mean a sharper, clearer image.

Earlier this year, 2-megapixel cameras were state-of-the-art in the consumer market, producing images that were realistic in prints at sizes up to 5-by-7 inches. Now, digicam makers offer 3-megapixel cameras for consumers that produce even more brilliant results at sizes up to 11 x 14, and Olympus recently put a 4-megapixel camera on the consumer market for $2,000.

At the heart of these digital wonders is the CCD (Charge Coupled Device) image sensor, which gathers information electronically on a grid of light receptors to create a picture and converts each pixel to a number that can be stored in the camera's memory.

In addition to increasing the pixel count, manufacturers are improving the rest of the camera by using better glass in their lenses and adding automatic exposure overrides so that savvy customers can adapt to difficult lighting conditions. They've added the ability to capture short videos with sound, and some cameras now come with a hot shoe or an outlet for an add-on flash.

Most come with USB cables for quicker transfer of pictures to a computer, although owners of memory card readers for their PCs won't have to worry about that.

You'll pay for these hot features: $1,000 or so. But that's good news for those with tighter budgets because capable 2-megapixel cameras have dropped into the $500 to $700 range.

To survey the state-of-the-art, I looked at three cameras with 3-megapixel ratings and one that claimed even higher resolution. What we found was technology that could render sharp portraits and small group shots but still can't deliver the detail required for very large group shots and landscapes.

Here are the results:

Epson PhotoPC 3000Z

The Epson PhotoPC 3000Z ($1,000) took top honors in our review. Slicker and lighter than its older brother, the PhotoPC 850, this 3.34-megapixel camera never took a bad picture. Image color was accurate and at higher resolution settings, the photos were super sharp.

An enhanced resolution mode, called HyPict, boosts the size of the image file by increasing the amount of information in each pixel. The enhanced mode produced images that were 2,544 by 1,904 pixels, the best of the cameras reviewed here. For the average user, that means a crisp shot with details in the highlights and shadows. For the digital camera enthusiast, it means a shot that can be blown up to 12- by 17-inches without noticeable degradation.

Epson ships the camera with a 16 megabyte CompactFlash card, four rechargeable Ni-MH batteries (good for 200 to 300 shots) and a power cord to plug into an outlet when the batteries go. The freedom from batteries made a major difference in how I shot photographs indoors - I reshot as many pictures as I wanted to because I never feared running out of battery power. The lens is the equivalent of a 34-mm to 102-mm lens on a 35-mm camera.

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