Guide to digital cameras
This year's digital-camera makers have introduced some fascinating features.
Nikon has GPS reception in its P6000 camera, so it can record exactly where photos are taken. Nokia has packaged a seriously good five-megapixel camera into its 6220 mobile phone (also with GPS reception).
Fujifilm's FinePix Z20fd has an "auction" mode designed to make it easier to take photos of your stuff to sell it on eBay. Ricoh and Olympus have waterproof and snow-proof models. Kodak, Panasonic and Nikon have all released cameras that can shoot high-definition video.
How can you choose between the endless similar-looking models? One thing's for sure - not by the megapixel rating. Higher megapixels do not equate to better photos - just larger files in the camera and the possibility you'll be able to enlarge printed photos a lot.
But with more people looking at photos on their computers and email rather than printing them out, high-megapixel resolution is taking a back seat to lens and image-sensor quality, and in-camera features.
Video - Don't discount the virtue of high-quality video-recording options - many digital cameras are now rivalling or bettering dedicated camcorders, especially now giant memory cards are so cheap.
Look for a camera that can record at least 640 x 480 at 30 frames a second or, better, 1280 x 760 at 30 frames a second, which is enough resolution to fill a high-definition television screen.
Low-light performance - Dim light really tests digital cameras. The last thing you want to do is turn on the flash and have blown-out faces and dark backgrounds.
Good low-light performance comes from a few things: optical stabilisation, which moves either the lens elements or image sensor to counteract hand shake, and a more sensitive image sensor with a higher ISO rating, which can pick up scenes in lower light, allowing fast shutter speed. Ignore claims of "digital stabilisation".
Optical zoom - Pay no attention to "digital zoom", as that simply crops the photo in the camera and results in lower quality. Optical zoom is what matters as it uses the lens to magnify the image.
Manual control - Most people think they don't need manual control in their cameras but some basic manual controls actually make things a lot easier than fighting a camera's automatic settings to get the shot you want.
It's very useful to be able to pick the point that the camera focuses on so you can choose to lock on to something near or far in the picture; easy-to-access white balance controls are also very important as digital cameras will frequently get it wrong, causing your shot to be very blue (in sunlight), very green (in fluorescent light) or very yellow (under regular light bulbs).
Autofocus performance - Most cameras have "live-view" - where you can preview the picture you're about to take on the back of the camera. But in digital SLRs, check how good the autofocus is while in this mode. Many cameras only have very basic autofocus in live-view mode.
Viewfinder - Sounds obvious, but does the camera have a viewfinder you can put your eye up to? Many compacts no longer have one but composing a shot using the LCD screen isn't always ideal.
Speed - As each digital camera is a small computer, make sure you have a chance to try it out in the shop navigating the menus and taking consecutive photos. Does it feel fast or a little sluggish?
Ruggedness - Some cameras are waterproof and snow-proof - consider whether these aspects might be useful for future holidays.
What doesn't come in the box
It goes without saying that a good camera bag makes a big difference, especially if you're using a digital SLR camera or an advanced compact with a big lens.
It's also worth investing in a tripod - and for smaller compact cameras you can now get nifty tripods with bendy legs that allow you to position your camera on an uneven surface for a steady shot.
If you're buying an advanced compact or digital SLR camera, an external flash can be a handy tool - but you'll want to practise with it a lot to find out how best to use it. Aiming it directly at the subject is a very bad idea. Flash is best bounced off walls in a room to create diffused light.
If you're buying a digital SLR camera, consider buying the body only and starting out with a fixed-length lens. They provide exceptional value compared with zoom lenses.
For example, you can buy a Nikon F/1.8 50mm lens, which is an ideal length for portraiture and floods the camera with light, allowing you to take great shots in all conditions, for only about $260. Of course, the drawback is you have to move yourself, not the lens, in order to zoom in and out.
Pick a card, an SD card
Memory cards of all shapes and sizes may soon disappear as the SecureDigital format becomes the industry standard.
Thankfully, most digital-camera makers are abandoning the plethora of memory-card formats that existed a few years ago, with most settling on the common Secure Digital (SD) format. Shops still stock all the other cards but mostly they're for cameras already out in the market.
Low-end Sony cameras still use Sony's pricey-for-no-good-reason MemorySticks but Sony's higher-end digital SLR cameras are exempt from this daft policy. The other proprietary memory-card maker, Olympus, now accepts SD cards alongside its proprietary xD-Picture cards in most of its cameras.
Even digital SLR cameras, which have long been a hold-out of the larger-sized CompactFlash format, are moving towards SD memory cards in consumer models.
Greater production volumes of SD cards have pushed prices through the floor. You can now get a 4GB SD card for as little as $18. That's enough for more than 1600 photos at 10-megapixel resolution or thousands at a lower resolution.
The speed of the card is now the key differentiating factor. Faster cards allow your camera to save photos faster, allowing more consecutive snaps per second. If you want to shoot high-definition video on your camera, a card faster than 10 megabits a second is also essential.
A faster card also allows you to download pictures onto your computer faster. Don't get sucked in by the most expensive cards offering 45Mbps speeds though. These are only needed by professionals shooting RAW format files at fast-action sports events. For ordinary photography, 10 to 20Mbps is plenty.
Pentax Optio W60
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
It's very light at just 125g and, at 98 x 55mm, it's as small as a business card, yet it is waterproof to four metres, capable of operating below freezing point and packs a 10-megapixel sensor and 5x optical zoom. And if you have an impossible family where someone always blinks in a photo, the W60 has a blink-detection mode that warns you if someone blinks when you snap your photo.
A similar feature, smile-detection mode, automatically fires the shutter for you when it detects people are smiling. What's not to like? The body is plastic, so it won't necessarily survive drops as well as its main competitor, the Olympus Tough 1050SW (see page 4).
Sony Cybershot DSC-T700
Rating: 4 out of 5
Sony has caught on to the popular habit of using digital cameras as portable photo albums and this latest super-slim camera (just 16.4mm thick) packs an extraordinary 4GB of internal memory. This is enough for 1000 pictures at the camera's full 10.1MP resolution or (as Sony likes to optimistically claim) up to 40,000 images at 0.3 megapixel VGA resolution.
You can also supplement the camera's internal memory with a Sony MemoryStick. The camera has a great photo-album mode, which shows photographic events plotted onto a calendar. The enormous 8.9cm touchscreen dominating the back of the camera rounds out an impressive package.
The face-detection feature on this model is interesting - not only does it focus for optimal sharpness across all faces in a photo (like virtually all compact cameras now) it allows you to look at each face individually, close-up, after the photo is taken to allow you to check it yourself.
In other respects, the 90IS ticks all the boxes - it's thin, at about 21mm, and its metal body is solidly built. It has an optical viewfinder, which is rare in compacts (though it's a small, pinhole-style one), 10 megapixel resolution, 3x optical zoom, optical image stabilisation and a big 7.6cm screen on the back.
Nikon Coolpix S210
Rating: 3 out of 5
The Coolpix S210 isn't exactly feature-rich - but does look great in its super-thin 18mm aluminium body with rounded ends. Its 8 megapixel resolution, 3x zoom and 6.9cm display make it competitive but otherwise there's not a lot to say - it has standard compact-camera features like face-priority autofocus, red-eye correction and basic video capabilities.
You can also shoot macro photos as close as 10cm from the subject. One downside, though, is that there's no remaining battery indicator - at all; a very odd oversight on Nikon's part. It's also a little sluggish to take photos.
Nikon Coolpix S710
Rating: 4 out of 5
RRP: A$549 (NZ$650)
This is a premium-priced compact camera but its specs are quite extraordinary. Despite being only 57 x 93 x 24mm in size, it has a 14.5 megapixel sensor, a 3.6x optical zoom lens and a large 7.6cm display on the back.
The camera features also leave room for people who have some experience with photography and want a compact camera as a travelling alternative to a D-SLR: they include aperture priority and shutter priority semi-automatic modes, as well as full manual mode, allowing good control of the camera. Given this camera's top-end calibre, it's a little surprising that it only saves JPEG, not RAW files, but it still has strong features.
Ricoh Caplio RR770
Rating: 4 out of 5
If you're really after a simple, good-value happy snapper, the RR770 fits the bill perfectly. It doesn't have any fancy features, you won't be able to blow the shots up to poster size and it won't win any style contests. But it has a 7.1 megapixel resolution sensor, 3x optical zoom and a big 7.6cm display on the back.
If you're holidaying somewhere where power points aren't common, the batteries are standard disposable AA, which are relatively easy to find even in Ulaanbaatar. It's also very light at 140g. But its quarter-VGA-size video is a novelty rather than a useful feature.
Canon IXUS 80IS
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
This is the staple model of Canon's popular compact-camera range - it's quite light at 125g, has 8 megapixel resolution and Canon's fast Digic III image processor for snappy performance. Optical image stabilisation is also a very good inclusion, as there are plenty of cameras around this price that only have software-emulated image stabilisation. The 3x zoom lens and 6.35cm display are competitive and video at 640 x 480 at 30 frames a second is good. Unlike many compacts, it has a small optical viewfinder, which is handy. But there are no manual exposure controls.
Rating: 3 out of 5
This could well be the first camera ever made with a world travel guide built in. The "Samsung World Tour Guide" provides info on 2600 tourist attractions in 30 countries. Being generous to Samsung, it's no replacement for a Lonely Planet, as it only offers a couple of lines of text on each location.
The i8 also doubles as a media player - it can play MP3 music and MP4 video files on its 6.9cm screen. But fancy features aside, how is it as a camera? Decent but not exciting - it has 8 megapixel resolution with software image stabilisation. It's a slow performer though - up to six seconds between photos.
Fujifilm Finepix z20fd
Rating: 3 out of 5
It's hard to decide if this funky compact from Fujifilm looks retro or modern. Did they have compact digitals in the '50s? Despite its kooky looks, it has impressive capabilities: 10 megapixel resolution, 3x optical zoom and a 6.4cm display on the back. It's also only 19mm thick.
There are some novel features: a one-touch movie record button next to the camera shutter button and auction mode, which lets you snap a few photos of an object and have them automatically compiled into a single photo montage in the camera - ideal for uploading to your favourite overcharging auction site. You can also beam pics to your blog (via your computer using an infrared link).
Sydney Morning Herald