Digital photography continues to advance. In TidBITS-461, I talked about what to look for in a digital camera, and what has changed in terms of resolution, image storage, and printing since I first wrote about the field in TidBITS-407. If you need to come up to speed on some of the terminology below, check out those articles.
Now it's time to focus on specific cameras that merit serious consideration. To make my short list, a camera must feature an optical viewfinder or reflex viewing in addition to its LCD screen. However, I've also listed an acceptable few without viewfinders, but which include LCDs that pivot so you don't have to hold the camera at arm's length. Cameras must also have an integral flash, a street price of $1,000 or less, and high marks from Internet users. All cameras come with transfer software - usually Adobe's PhotoDeluxe and a plug-in - and some also include other software.
All the cameras listed below will please you, and I've noted my personal favorites. I've been involved in photography for over 40 years, and my picks usually ignore bells and whistles that some folks like but seldom use, serving only to complicate camera operation.
Here's how current cameras stack up, grouped in order of increasing resolution and then street prices, rounded off to the nearest couple of dollars as of 15-Jan-99. Remember, though, you may want to pay a few dollars more to buy from a reputable dealer.
Low Resolution Cameras -- Don't assume low resolution means low quality. For Web design and images not intended for print, lower resolution cameras can be an excellent value.
Agfa ePhoto 307 (internal storage only, no LCD screen; $180): Built like a Panzer tank, this fixed-focus camera with a 43 mm equivalent lens has two resolution modes, shutter speeds up to 1/10,000th of a second, and an excellent software package. Internal memory stores 36 images at 640 by 480 pixels or 72 images at 320 by 240 pixels. The ePhoto 307 uses little power and batteries last a long time. Agfa has just discontinued this model, but they're still available and they've received nothing but high praise from users. Consider it plain vanilla, but oh, so good!
Fuji DX-5 (removable storage, no LCD screen; $195): Sized at 4.5 by 1.5 by 2.5 inches, this compact pocket camera has a fixed-focus lens, a pop-up flash, and a 640 by 480 pixel resolution. Fuji recently redesigned this camera, dropping the original LCD screen in favor of a bright optical viewfinder; there are also two manual aperture settings for different lighting conditions. The DX-5 is a great travelling camera, using SmartMedia storage and requiring only two AA batteries.
Olympus D-220L (removable storage, autofocus, LCD screen, and video out; $235): This is a sweet, compact, traditional-looking camera loaded with premium features, including a choice of 640 by 480 pixel or 320 by 240 pixel resolutions. Three user-selectable compression modes and superb glass optics give it better-than-expected images considering its pixel count. SmartMedia storage also makes this a gem for the price.
In a Class by Itself -- It's hard to place the $300 Agfa ePhoto 780 in any category, since it shoots 640 by 480-pixel images which its software can interpolate to 1,024 by 768 - something akin to digital alchemy in which extra pixels are spun out of thin air (for more information, see the previous article in this series). It's the fastest, slickest, and most usable advanced-feature digital camera in its price range. It has a bright optical viewfinder, simple controls, and takes just over a second to recycle between shots. Its LCD can also be used for viewing, and it brings up stored pictures as fast as you can press the button. It features removable SmartMedia storage, three focus positions (macro, portrait, and group), and a sexy, seductive design. And the pictures print out fine up to about 5 by 7 inches. To top it off, the ePhoto 780 comes with great software and video out. Who could ask for anything more? This camera is one of my personal favorites.
Medium Resolution Cameras -- When you need higher-quality images, but don't want to pawn your valuables to get them, turn to these medium resolution models. Each one uses removable media.
Olympus D-320L (autofocus, LCD screen, video out; $325): This camera features 1,024 by 768 pixel high resolution, and 640 by 480 pixel low resolution, offering absolutely brilliant images up to about 6 by 8 inches. The D-320L takes SmartMedia storage cards, features fine glass optics, and delivers finer picture quality than its resolution would indicate.
Sony MVC FD91 (optical zoom, LCD screen, viewfinder; $855): With a new progressive-scan charge-coupled device (CCD) producing a 1,024 by 768-pixel resolution and using almost-ubiquitous floppies, Sony seems to have hit the mark with this Mavica model. Multiple resolution choices, in-camera disk-to-disk copying, audio support, a phenomenal lithium-ion battery good for hundreds of shots before recharging, a rapid-fire mode, aperture and shutter priority choices, macros, and numerous other features make it almost too good to believe. It will even shoot up to one minute of MPEG-compressed video. Of Sony's new FD series, only the FD91 has a color viewfinder and an LCD viewer- the other Mavicas will still give you the feeling that you're holding a rifle at arms' length as punishment for not spit-shining your shoes. With a humongous 37 mm - 518 mm optical zoom, this camera should become a favorite of sports and nature photographers.
High Resolution Cameras -- So you want to grab as much image information as you can? Look no further than these high-powered models. (All use removable storage cards.)
Fujifilm MX-700 (also Leica DigiLux; autofocus, digital zoom, LCD screen, video out; $455): Looking like something built for James Bond, this miniature silver beauty captures images in 1,280 by 1,024-pixel resolution with 640 by 480 as an alternative. Wildly loved by its users, its main drawback is a low-resolution 2x digital zoom. It needs five seconds to recycle between images (12 with flash), offers three compression modes plus SmartMedia storage, macro capabilities, and a lithium-ion battery that can power over 150 shots between charges.
Nikon CoolPix 900/900s (autofocus, optical zoom, LCD screen, video out): 1,280 by 960 pixel resolution with outstanding color and "right-on" exposure. These CoolPix cameras offer three metering choices, an optical zoom viewfinder with diopter correction, a see-through LCD shield that protects against finger marks, and a swiveling 38 mm - 115 mm (35 mm equivalent) Nikkor zoom lens with the closest focusing macro of all. A manual override mode, an external flash synch on the 900s for Nikon flash units only (using others will hurt the camera), and a host of other goodies make these cameras top-of-the-line choices and one of my personal favorites. The CP900 is $570, while the CP900s is $635.
Olympus D400Z (autofocus, optical zoom, LCD screen, video out; $665): This is a remarkable new camera incorporating both 3x optical (35 mm - 105 mm) with a 2x digital zoom boost (at any optical focal length). With a 1,280 by 920-pixel resolution, the D400Z is right up there in pixels. The package includes a FlashPath adapter for transferring images directly to your computer through the floppy drive. You can also shoot uncompressed TIFF images, a novel feature that eliminates JPEG artifacts- but don't expect to store more than a few on each SmartMedia card. Still, for special shots, it's a unique capability on a unique camera.
Agfa ePhoto 1680 (autofocus, optical zoom, LCD screen, video out; $740): An extraordinary camera that beats all other swiveling designs hands-down on ergonomics, the ePhoto 1680 offers an optical resolution of 1,280 by 960 pixels and can further interpolate an image to 1,600 by 1,200 pixels. Alas, it has no optical viewfinder, but I've not found that to be a drawback on this particular camera or its slightly lower-resolution cousin, the ePhoto 1280. A 38 mm - 114 mm tack-sharp optical zoom lens and some of the easiest-to-operate controls make this camera well worth a look.
Olympus D-600L/D620L (reflex viewing, autofocus, optical zoom, LCD screen): These cameras provide resolutions of 1,280 by 1,024 pixels with an alternative resolution of 640 by 512 pixels. (The new D620L allows fast shooting - up to 5 high-resolution images in 3.6 seconds - along with external flash synch for any brand of flash and some extra goodies.) Both have a 3x zoom lens (36 mm -110 mm equivalent) and support for SmartMedia cards. The size of their sensor array is directly proportional to an 8 by 10-inch print, which means no wasted pixels printing at that size. Even though they lack video output, they're among my personal favorites. The D600L is $705, while the D620L is $995.
Boldly Going Where No Digicam Has Gone Before -- My evaluation unit of the unusual Minolta Dimage EX Zoom 1500 camera hasn't arrived yet, so I can tell you mostly that it's a major upgrade from the lower resolution model I thought was pretty neat last year, priced at $735. Its uniqueness lies in its detachable lens unit, which you can place anywhere at the end of a five foot cable tether. I'm sure you can think of a few creative uses for this feature.
But that's just the beginning. I'm impressed with its high 1,344 by 1,008-pixel resolution (including uncompressed image capability) and compact flash memory storage, plus its ability to shoot 7 frames in 2 seconds at high resolution. The camera also offers manual control of f-stops and shutter speeds and an equivalent 38 mm - 115 mm optical zoom. It has both an optical viewfinder and LCD viewing screen, shutter speeds from 1/4,000th to 2 full seconds, a 640 by 480 low resolution mode, video output, and future optional lens units and resolution upgrades. As Agatha Christie's fictional sleuth Hercule Poirot would say, those little grey cells at Minolta were working overtime here. This camera is bound to become one of my favorites and - fair warning - Minolta may have to send out a SWAT team to get my evaluation unit back.
Depth of the Field -- Don't feel bad if your beloved digital camera isn't listed here - that means nothing as long as you're happy with it. Last year, I received multiple email messages from readers who entered into battle with me because the two Sony Mavicas then on the market weren't listed. Although those cameras produced awful low-quality freeze-frame video images and had horrible LCDs, they sold like hotcakes because users were enthralled by the cameras' use of cheap floppy disks. And so was I, until I realized I was homing in on one interesting feature that didn't make up for other shortcomings. And, believe me, I tried my best to include a Kodak camera this year, but their low-end models all come up short and their high-end ones are downright Mac-unfriendly.
There's no "right" camera; only the one that's right for you. And if it isn't, buy another. That's the point of my picks: to help you identify the wheat among all the chaff. Just as you'll buy more than one computer in your lifetime, you'll do the same with digital cameras. There will always be a better one just around the corner, and there are no fatal mistakes when it comes to buying digital cameras. Recognize that, and just build your picture-taking skills with the camera you choose (or already have). As your skills improve, you'll know exactly what features you'll want on your next camera.
More Information -- A wealth of resource material covering everything mentioned in this article, other digital photography sites, price comparison sites, and a major online merchant list may be found at the Resources section of Digital PhotoCorner. You'll also find other informative material relating to digital cameras and imaging at the site.
[Arthur H. Bleich is a photographer, writer, and educator who lives in Miami. He has done assignments for major publications both in the U.S. and abroad, and is Contributing Editor of Digital Camera Magazine. He invites you to visit his Digital PhotoCorner where, among other things, you can take an interactive course he'll be teaching called DIGIPHOTO 101.]