Is it finally time to buy a digital camera? The digital camera market is already several years old, early adopters are now old pros, and more people consider the switch to digital photography every day. In part one of this article, I asserted that this year really is the year to buy a digital camera, whether it's your first or a successor to an earlier model, and I offered a checklist of features that you should look for in the current crop. In part two, it's time to pull away the curtain and give you my list of best picks for beginners for this year.
If you want to see pictures of the digital cameras described below and check out a comparison chart that lists their features, click on over to my site, the Digital PhotoCorner.
The "Model A" of Digital Cameras -- The Fuji MX-1200 is the first-ever blister-packed digital camera, but don't let plain-clothes packaging put you off; this camera will deliver excellent pictures. Even though it doesn't have autofocus, its f-4.5 to f-11 lens (38 mm equivalent) will keep objects sharp over a large range and its top shutter speed of 1/750 second will stop most action. When you want to get in really close (like up to 4 inches), flip a switch to Macro mode. It has excellent low-light capabilities, a manual mode to control white balance and exposure compensation, five flash modes, and has about the easiest menu of any digital camera I've ever used. It's ready to go in about 2 seconds after you turn it on, and you can click off shots every 3 to 4 seconds. It's a good-looking digital camera, too, and will take 32 MB SmartMedia memory cards (4 MB included). The MX-1200 marks a defining moment in the history of digital cameras. Street price: about $250.
The Low Light Champion -- The Olympus D-450 Zoom has a 3x optical zoom lens, autofocus, and a fast shot-to-shot time of about one second thanks to its big buffer that stores shots as they're being processed. It includes a whole slew of features including video out, two light metering modes, and a choice of three ISO ratings: 160, 320, and 640. I've shot pictures with this digital camera at night where the camera recorded details I couldn't even see. It can also store uncompressed TIFF images, has a fast sequence mode of up to 2 frames per second, 5 flash modes, shutter speeds of 1/2 to 1/1000 second, and a fast f-2.8/f-8 lens which is needle-sharp. Olympus is one of the most experienced optical houses in the world and has been in the forefront of photographic innovation (including digital photography) for more than 80 years. A nice feature is that distances can be pre-set to capture fast action so the camera isn't slowed down by having to focus. If big prints are what you're looking for, this camera will deliver. Included are Adobe's PhotoDeluxe, Enroute Quick Stitch Panorama software, and an 8 MB Smart Media memory card. Street price: about $390.
Finally, Big Yellow Scores! The Kodak DC240 Zoom is one of the first Kodak digital cameras I found to be just right: solid and well built. Its shot-to-shot time is fast for the first two images, and then slows to a still-creditable four seconds or so between shots. But its simple and elegant controls and menus are where this charcoal and silver beauty excels. If you can't figure them out in less than five minutes, give up on digital cameras. In essence, Kodak has reverted to their roots in that you need only to push a few buttons and the camera does the rest. The LCD monitor is a bit grainy in low light and a tad jerky when you move it quickly from one scene to another, but since you're not shooting movies, it's tolerable. It has a 3x optical zoom, an aperture range of f-2.8 to f-16, shutter speeds of 1/2 to 1/755 second, and four flash modes. It also comes with four AA alkaline batteries so you can get going right away, while the included charger juices up the four NiMH rechargeable batteries that also come standard. Also supplied: an 8 MB Compact Flash memory card and Adobe's PhotoDeluxe and PageMill. For video out you can toggle between NTSC or PAL and, along with its standard serial port, the DC240 Zoom features USB. Street price: about $395.
A Voyeur's Dream Cam -- The Minolta Dimage EX1500 Zoom costs more than the others and will take you longer to learn to use, but it has one feature no other digital camera in the world (that I know of) offers: the entire lens assembly can be detached from the camera body and placed in any imaginable position you desire. A five foot optional cable allows you to hold the LCD monitor in a comfortable position while poking the lens around a corner, over a fence, or even into a hole in the ground. I found it great for cat photography; the small handheld lens part becomes very non-threatening and allows for some unusual angles. It does have a few quirks: the lens cuts slightly into the optical viewfinder's field of view at its widest setting; you have to open the battery compartment to insert or remove the memory card; and its LCD monitor is jerky when you move the camera to frame your scenes - all annoying, but not fatal. With a 3x optical zoom, f-3.5 lens, 1/4000 second shutter speed, five flash modes, a burst rate of up to 7.5 frames per second at high resolution, and its detachable lens feature, this is a one-of-a-kind digital camera. Street price: about $550.
The Scrunch Eliminator -- The Canon PowerShot A50 Zoom has a unique optical 2.5x zoom which, at its widest setting, it is the equivalent of a 28 mm lens on a 35 mm camera. Although most people crave more telephoto power, it's the wide end of the zoom that produces the most visually interesting shots, with great depth of field and dramatic spatial relationships between objects in the foreground and background. You can also get more of a crowd into the picture at close quarters without having them scrunch together. In its miniature brushed duraluminum case, it looks like it was designed not only to see, but to be seen. It has an f-2.6 lens, shutter speeds from 2 to 1/750 second, four flash modes, and is able to capture uncompressed images if you need the highest quality. It has an interesting feature that forces the camera to shoot at the slowest speed commensurate with good exposure which, among other things, will let you pan with a moving subject or object to keep them sharp while blurring the background. If you choose this digital camera, plan on spending another $80 or so for a kit containing a rechargeable Lithium-Ion battery and a charger/AC power combination because it comes with only a disposable battery. Street price: about $325.
Hi-Res & Smokin' Fast -- The Toshiba PDR-M4 is the only 2.1 megapixel digital camera in this group. Alas, it doesn't have an optical zoom lens but it does have 2x digital one (which, unfortunately, lowers resolution when used). Nevertheless it's a speed demon: two seconds from power-on to ready, less than a second between shots, a burst-rate - at its highest resolution - of four shots in two seconds, and some super-slow shutter speeds (up to eight seconds) to allow great, special effects night photography. It's a mini-camera (the most compact of the group) and if you have big hands you'll have to adjust somewhat, but that's a small price to pay for the quality of images you'll get. The camera includes a Lithium-Ion battery which can be charged in-camera or with an optional external charger. (Put a spare battery on your shopping list, though, to have as a backup.) With an aperture of f-3.2 or f-8, a normal shutter speed range of between 1/4 and 1/1000 second, 4-inch macro capabilities, five flash modes, NTSC video out, and an 8 MB SmartMedia memory card included, this is quite a package for the price. It comes with both serial and USB. If you need super-high resolution and speed, and can forego the zoom lens, this little jewel could be a good choice. Street price: about $400.
A Digital Tomorrow Today -- All of the cameras above are good values with outstanding features and realistic prices: the flexibility of digital photography has finally come down to earth for a wide range of consumers.
[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 currently Contributing Editor of Digital Camera Magazine.]