My last article talked about the various accouterments you'll need for a digital camera, and it should have given you some ideas that you'll find useful when researching which camera is perfect for your needs. Now let's look at some digital cameras that would make exquisite holiday gifts. These are my opinions of some of the best I've used; if you want details on every nut and bolt, check out the links page on my Web site for descriptions of the best digital photography sites offering detailed reviews. Although I also do camera reviews - for Digital Camera Magazine, CNET, Wired, and others, I keep cameras around for a long time - much to the chagrin of some manufacturers. I want to use them as a serious photographer would, so my impressions may be quite different from reviewers who do what I call "autopsy" reviews and then move on to the next camera. Also, this is the third year in a row I've written about digital cameras for TidBITS; check back on some of my previous articles for general advice and explanation of different aspects of digital photography.
Finally, after you've read all the detailed reviews (which may be a mind-numbing experience if you're not seriously into photography), it's worth checking out the model you like best on price-comparison services like DealTime, StoreRunner, and MySimon. Also, if you have some time, watch the special deal sites like Dealnews and Techbargains.com to catch short-term specials.
Here then are my three favorite digital cameras that I have used extensively and would highly recommend. They range from two megapixels to four megapixels and are priced accordingly.
Nikon CoolPix 800 -- I've used this little two-megapixel wonder for almost a year [it's being replaced by the higher resolution CoolPix 880; see Outpost.com's deal in the sponsorship area at the top of the issue. -Adam] and the image quality is outstanding. It costs about $500 (there's a $75 rebate through the end of the year), it's easy to operate (although the initial set-up menus require attention), and you can hang a lot of accessory lenses and filters on it. It's also the best digital camera I've found for shooting infrared pictures; just put on a Tiffen #87 infrared filter and the image shows up clearly on the LCD display. (The CoolPix 800 will a shoot an infared image at 1/30th second at f-4; most IR-sensitive cameras measure exposure times in full seconds.)
You cannot make many adjustments to exposure - the CoolPix 800 is basically a sophisticated point-and-shoot camera with reasonably fast shot-to-shot time and very fast shot-to-shot playback. Its moderate zoom range, 38mm to 76mm, can be easily extended in either direction to 28mm or 152mm by using Tiffen auxiliary lenses and an adapter that brings its small diameter lens threads up to a more-standard 37mm.
The CoolPix 800 will also focus to an unusually close 2.8 inches for macro shots, has video out so you can display images on a television (great for when you're visiting relatives), offers fast shutter speeds for capturing action pictures, and uses Compact Flash memory cards. One downside is that it's restricted to slow serial transfers unless you use a USB-based reader or PC Card adapter to access its Compact Flash cards.
Kodak DC4800 -- This beautifully designed three-megapixel digital camera packs more punch into a small package than anything on the market today, and all for about $800. Image-wise, it'll equal or beat the pants off the best that other manufacturers have to offer and is so well-thought-out, if you buy one, you're likely to keep it for years.
The outstanding virtue of the DC4800 is simplicity, but lurking behind that mask are a plethora of professional features you can ignore until you're ready to take them on. There isn't a reviewer that didn't catch his or her breath when they received this little beauty and started to shoot with it. All the controls are logically laid out, and the menus are the simplest you'll find. If you want more control, you'll find niceties like a mechanical flip switch right on top of the camera for the exposure compensation control - no need to dive into a menu. You can also change aperture on a simple mode dial so you have depth of field (range of sharpness) control at your fingertips
The zoom range is a perfect 28mm to 84mm - perfect because with an inexpensive Tiffen MegaPlus wide (.75x) or telephoto (2x) add-on, you can shoot really wide at 21mm or extend the focal length to 168mm. Kodak made a perfect choice there- it's a professional range, yet excellent for beginners who, if they need to take a group shot, won't have to back off a cliff.
Although shot-to-shot time isn't great (about one second), the DC4800 shines in playback mode. You can flip through images as fast as you can press the button. It uses a lithium-ion battery, so you'll probably want to buy an extra one. The DC4800 has a wide range of shutter speeds and lens opening settings, includes video out, uses Compact Flash memory cards, and can connect to your computer via USB. So much potential packed into a digital camera this well-designed and inexpensive is indeed a find.
Olympus Camedia E-10 -- Olympus's $2,000 answer to the semi-pro Nikon D-1, Canon D30, and Fuji FinePix S1 is the four-megapixel Camedia E-10. Big, heavy, and built like a traditional 35mm SLR (single-lens reflex) camera, the Camedia E-10 proves that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Despite an awesome array of buttons, the Camedia E-10 is one of the easiest-to-use digital cameras on the market because it mirrors traditional single-lens reflex cameras in both form and function. It has a fast f-2.0, 35mm to 140mm (equivalent) zoom lens - a huge hunk of light gathering glass that produces incredible images. You can zoom in by turning the lens barrel and can manually focus the same way. Either look through the lens or at the image on the LCD monitor to preview your shot - the LCD swivels in two directions to simplify photographing at odd angles.
The most outstanding feature of the Camedia E-10, though, is that it has evened the playing field with traditional cameras on shutter lag - there's virtually none. It does its pre-shot song and dance so adroitly, you can simply press down and you've got the shot - not what came after what you saw. If the cat yawns you'll capture tongue, teeth, and throat, not closed lips and a peeved expression. It can also do automatic bracketing of exposures and time lapse photography.
There are a few minuses. Forget fast action shots, because Olympus failed to crank up the shutter speed up faster than 1/640th of a second (slower than both of the two other cameras I've discussed so far, which can hit 1/750th of a second and 1/1000th of a second, respectively). But on the flip side, you can do extremely long exposures - up to 30 seconds. Playback is annoyingly (but not fatally) slow, with about a second between images. Olympus has never gotten this right - it's a genetic flaw.
Finally, although money is not your main issue with a $2,000 camera, the Camedia E-10's lens add-ons and filters are going to be pricey since the lens is threaded for 62mm accessories; to get an aperture of f-2.0 on a zoom lens, you need a lot of glass diameter, so high prices just go with the territory. Finally, that same big lens might make it difficult to find accessory lenses to widen the field of view. Olympus makes a 62mm add-on but it only converts the lens to 28mm - not wide enough for dramatic shots.
The Camedia E-10 has an aperture range of f-2 through f-11, can use optional lithium-ion batteries (although a Unity Digital ProPower Pack battery will do even better), and has video out for image display on a television. Unlike most smaller cameras, the Camedia E-10 accepts Compact Flash, Compact Flash II, and SmartMedia memory cards, plus you can connect it to a computer via USB. All in all, this is the digital camera many serious photographers have been waiting for- the one that will challenge and smash old prejudices about the superiority of film images compared to digital (I can hear the purists out there gnashing their teeth and I'm ready to take them on). In short, the Camedia E-10, even with its minor flaws, is a tiger.
Although these three are my picks for 2000, there are plenty of other good cameras out there, and I'll have some more short recommendations soon. [They'll appear in this week's holiday gift issue. -Adam]
[Arthur H. Bleich is a photographer, writer, and educator who lives in Miami and is Feature Editor of Digital Camera Magazine. He has done assignments for major publications both in the U.S. and abroad, and conducts Digital Photography Workshop Cruises for Zing.com. Arthur also invites you to click in to his Digital PhotoCorner for more on digital cameras.]