Pixel perfect

Dec 6, 2000 at 12:00 am
How many rolls of film do you finish during the holiday season? Most people blast through a few, at least, and that inevitably means processing, sorting out the prints, getting copies made and finally mailing them, come April or so, to all the friends and family members you promised copies to.

So this year, why not think digital?

Digital cameras have advanced a lot in the last few years, in part because there are more potential uses for the images they produce, and the images themselves have become easier to obtain. Photorealistic color printers, ones that produce better pictures than those that cost up to $1,000 a few short years ago, can now be had for as little as $69. And practically the whole world has an Internet account now — and once you get the hang of it, it’s much easier to e-mail a picture than to mail it.

The range of digital cameras available has expanded too. From cheap ones under $200 (some of which come with kids’ software packages so they can make greeting cards with their own pictures on them) to top-of-the-line professional quality cameras, to pen-cams and watch-cams — there are dozens of digital picture-taking options.

To keep things simple, we’ve focused on just four digital cameras. Two, the Olympus D-360L and the Fuji FinePix 1300, are in the relatively affordable $250-$300 range. The Kodak DC 3800 is in the moderate $400-$500 range, while the Olympus C-2100 is available for $800-$1,000. Price ranges are based on buying from local camera dealers, appliance stores or Web discounters. We avoided the cheapest models, the ones priced below $200, because of the high level of customer dissatisfaction with them reported by merchants.

Choose your weapon

Picking a camera is like finding a relationship; there’s no universally perfect mate. Each has pluses and minuses, depending on your preferences.

All of the reviewed cameras come with 8 MB removable media cards on which to record your images, and all allow you to use larger-capacity cards so you can capture a whole vacation’s worth of pictures without downloading.

All of these cameras, except the C-2100 which has a wonderful long zoom, have a fixed focal length (as opposed to a zoom) lens, equivalent to a moderate wide angle 33mm lens on a 35mm film camera. This isn’t an altogether bad thing — many professional photographers refuse to use zoom lenses in general, as those with single focal lengths tend to be sharper.

All cameras except the Olympus D-360L have USB cables or a reader so you can easily download pictures to a Mac or PC. The D-360L has a serial cable for use with PCs or older Macs with serial connectors and accepts an optional adapter for USB-only Macs. All come with appropriate software.

Two for the money

On the lower end of our price scale, there are two perfectly reasonable options for first-time digital photographers.

The FinePix 1300 and D-360L each come with everything you need to get started, except for rechargeable AA NiMH batteries (an absolute necessity with these cameras, as they drain standard batteries in a heartbeat).

Depending on how high a resolution (image quality) you require, the 1300 produces 12 to 47 pictures on its included (and yes, reusable) 8 MB memory card. The D-360L fits in 18 to 121 images on the same size card. Picture quality for photos taken on either camera, at the same resolution, should be comparable. Both will produce a high quality 4-inch-by-5-inch print or a large e-mailable image.

The D-360L felt nicer to use, to me, but a friend liked the 1300 better. Both have color LCD viewfinders, but the D-360L’s is larger.

Neither camera’s viewfinder, however, has diopter adjustments for photographers without perfect vision. You can still wear glasses or use the LCD viewfinder.

The D-360L has a video output, so you can view your pictures on your TV. Overall, it seemed the D-360L produced sharper pictures with better contrast than the 1300.

Cute cam

The Kodak DC 3800 is downright cute. It’s a tiny, pocket-sized digital with simple, no-hassle controls for people who want higher quality pictures without the bother of a lot of setting choices.

If you want them, however, the 3800 does give you numerous options, such as shooting a burst of three closely spaced pictures, various flash modes or a self-timer so you can get in your own pictures. You’re just not forced to make these decisions to get the excellent pictures the 3800 produces, which can be printed as large as 8 by 10 inches (or any size on the Web).

The 3800 also supports a digital print order format, which allows you to pick which pictures, and how many of each, you want to print so that, should you go to a photo lab instead of printing on your computer printer, the lab can easily and accurately satisfy your request. The 3800 also lets you view images on your TV.

As for travel-worthiness, the 3800 comes with a pouch, which is great if you carry a purse or want to keep the camera in your pocket. The pouch would be handier with added belt loops for the rest of us. But the 3800 is the only one of the cameras to take two AA batteries; the rest take four.

Professional zooming

The Olympus C-2100 is a versatile full-featured camera with a few unique features that stand out from similarly higher-priced cameras.

For one thing, until now consumers could not get digital cameras with a zoom longer than 3X. The C-2100 provides a 10X zoom (equivalent to a 38-380 mm on a 35 mm camera), which makes a huge difference. While zoom lenses tend to be less sharp than single focal lengths, you can’t tell that from the C-2100. The images it produced were extremely sharp, with good contrast throughout the entire zoom range.

Speaking of sharpness, the C-2100 has an image stabilization system to compensate for shaky camera operators or low-light situations where the camera is using a slow shutter speed and no flash.

The camera does have a built-in pop up flash, though, and its automatic fill flash was the best I’ve ever seen (and believe me, I’ve tested dozens of digital cameras). The camera was also my personal favorite for recording low natural light pictures without flash. But if you’re a hard-core flasher, the C-2100 supports an optional larger off-camera flash and bracket for higher end flash photography in numerous modes.

Though the C-2100 can be used as a point-and-shoot for your holiday snapshots, there’s no question that it’s a photographer’s camera. Even though it’s the heaviest of the four cameras, its well-balanced design makes it feel light. It also comes with four rechargeable NiMH batteries and a charger.

Casual users will appreciate the several programmed exposure modes, such as portrait, action, people with landscapes and night shots. You can also control the aperture or shutter speed, if you like, and the camera produces high quality images that can become 8-inch-by-10-inch prints or Web images of any size.

Speaking of the Web, you can use the C-2100 to shoot Quicktime movies to play on your Web site, TV or VCR, and it even comes with a remote control for shooting or playback (especially handy for use with the TV). Maybe it sounds like a lot of technological integration and gadgets — but isn’t that why you want a digital camera in the first place? Larry Kaplan is a Detroit-based reporter and photographer. E-mail him at [email protected]