Solid choice for vacation snapshots

October 17, 2002|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

I have used digital cameras at family gatherings for years, but I've always been squeamish about depending on one to record our vacations.

And not without reason. Until recently, digital cameras that cost less than a thousand dollars couldn't deliver the quality of film cameras that sell for a fraction of the price. When you're spending hard-earned vacation time and money to visit the most spectacular locations in the country, you want to bring back the best possible photos.

Also, what do you do with your digital pictures on the road? Digital cameras record images on flash memory cards, which are reusable - but only after you've transferred existing photos to a computer. Flash memory is still expensive - too pricey to buy enough storage for the equivalent of a dozen rolls of film, which is what I expect to shoot during two weeks of sightseeing. So to make a digital camera practical on a trip, you have to travel with a PC.

But the quality of digital cameras is improving rapidly and prices are dropping, so I decided to give one a try this year when my wife and I visited the Pacific Northwest. Yes, it meant carrying a laptop PC to store my photos. But this was a fly-and-drive vacation, so long-haul laptop lugging would be limited to the airports on each end. I also admit that I've gotten used to keeping in touch via e-mail and Web.

The digital camera I toted was a Hewlett-Packard PhotoSmart 812, a point-and-shoot designed for people who don't want to be bothered with anything but pressing a button. With a 3-to-1 zoom lens and 4-megapixel resolution, it was functionally close to the Nikon Lite-Touch 130 film camera I carried as a backup.

The HP 812 sells for about $400 on the street, compared with $200 for the Nikon, so there's still a substantial price gap, especially when you consider that the Nikon has an optically superior lens with a longer zoom. The question is whether the HP would be good enough.

From a traveler's standpoint, the best thing about the 812 is its size and weight - only 3.7 by 1.6 by 2.7 inches and 7 ounces. It was small enough to fit easily into my jacket pocket, which meant I didn't have to fiddle with a case or neck strap.

One reason the 812 is so compact is that it uses SD Memory cards, which are about the size of a postage stamp but, unfortunately, almost twice as expensive as larger flash media.

The skimpy, 16-megabyte card that came with the 812 holds only 14 pictures at full 2,272-by-1,712-pixel resolution, so I spent an additional $80 for a 64-megabyte card, which holds about 56 shots. That's the price equivalent of buying and processing a dozen rolls of film.

The 812 proved remarkably easy to use, although there were a few annoying design flaws. It offers only three operational modes - still photos, still photos with a 10-second timer delay, and full-motion video, which can capture up to 60 seconds of action (a waste of time and memory, in my opinion). Unfortunately, the mode selector is on a ring surrounding the shutter button, and it's too easy to switch modes accidentally, which can ruin a good shot.

The optical viewfinder was crisp and clear. If you prefer seeing exactly what you're shooting, you can turn on a 1.5-inch liquid crystal display on the back of the camera, although it's hard to see in bright light. The LCD is also used to review your pictures and displays a menu that allows you to change settings and delete photos you don't want - a major advantage of digital cameras over film.

Like many inexpensive digital cameras, the 812 responds with an annoying delay after you press the shutter button - sometimes several seconds - before it takes the picture. On the other hand, my little Nikon film camera didn't do much better. It uses zone auto-focusing, which doesn't set the final focus until you've pressed the shutter. So neither camera is good for action photography.

As far as settings are concerned, there aren't many. Aside from choosing the resolution and general compression ratio of your photos, there's almost nothing to do. There's no way to override the camera's automatic focus and exposure. Luckily, the 812 is very good at setting both - my photos were generally sharp and well-exposed. But if you want to adjust your exposure to capture motion or deal with backlighted scenes, you'll be better off with a more sophisticated camera.

The built-in flash does a competent job up to about 8 feet. After a while, I learned to use it in daylight when I was shooting people posed against a bright background - the fill flash kept their faces from being in shadow.

Transferring photos to my Windows 98 laptop through a USB cable was easy with HP's software. When you've transferred photos, HP launches a browser that lets you view your pictures as a contact sheet or in full-screen slide show mode. If you're using Windows XP, you don't need the transfer software - XP automatically recognizes the camera and launches a wizard to handle the upload.

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