This article originally appeared in TidBITS on 1999-01-25 at 12:00 p.m.
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The Second Generation of Digital Cameras, Part 2

by Arthur H. Bleich

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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.]