Cameras Get Cheaper, but at a Price
Something wonderful has happened to digital cameras in the past few years. They've become enough of a commodity for manufacturers to start acting a little silly in their quest to find some new feature to set their hardware apart from everybody else's.
To look at the selling points of some higher-end models, you'd wonder how anybody ever managed to grab a snapshot without such things as in-camera editing that can make people look thinner and different picture-mode settings for shots taken at sunset and dawn.
At this point in the evolution of digital cameras -- can't we just call them "cameras" now? -- it can make more sense to start shopping at the low end. Forget about what you get if you spend a lot; what do you give up if you spend a little?
A trial of three cheap cameras suggests an answer: not much, but you have to watch for some pesky details.
One of them, Canon's $199.99 E1, is that manufacturer's cheapest new model this season. Offered in white, baby-blue or pink, the E1 also may be the industry's most obvious attempt to appeal to . . . let's call it a fashion-minded market. (Personally, I can't stand any of these colors.) Another, Olympus's FE-360, goes for $129.99 but at 0.7 inches thick is barely stouter than many pricier models. And a third, Kodak's C813, debuted back in the spring at just $99.95.
All three models make one thing clear -- we can declare victory in the camera-resolution war. None offers less than 8 million pixels of resolution, more than enough to yield a sharp 8-by-10 printout even if you crop photos with a chain saw. The Canon provides a full 10 megapixels, massive overkill for casual use. With this sort of power, these three cameras all took quality shots in indoor and outdoor settings, with correct colors, and, except for some close-ups that confused their auto-focus systems, with sharp detail.
But the race for more resolution has left out other useful features. Just like computer manufacturers who battle to include the fastest processor but neglect such finer points as the software bundled on their machines, camera vendors are overlooking some important ingredients.
Many veteran digital photographers would, correctly, put shutter lag -- the wait between pressing the button and the camera recording the picture -- at the top of this list. All three cameras can grab a shot in a fraction of a second, but then bog down as they process the large files created by their high-resolution sensors. In their default settings and without using a flash, they could only take 16 to 22 photos per minute. The Kodak and the Olympus also lacked the continuous-shooting option that let the Canon bang out six no-flash shots in less than five seconds.
Another untapped option is the reach of their lenses. All three offer a 3x or, in Canon's case, a 4x optical zoom, not just the weak substitute of digital zoom (the equivalent of holding a magnifying glass up to a print). But they ignore the wide-angle end of the lens range; if you can't fit the scenery in the frame, you'll have to back up.
Battery life was an issue with the Olympus in particular. The company says its proprietary, rechargeable battery will only last for 160 shots, a weak number that held true in my own tests. The Canon and Kodak use plain old AA batteries that ran for far longer, though these still-pocket-sized models were about twice as thick at their fattest point.
Olympus also desperately needs to ditch its proprietary xD-PictureCard format, which costs more than the SD Card storage most cameras use and which doesn't work in some PCs' memory-card slots.
The greatest room for improvement, though, lies in these cameras' ease of use. Their designers' ability to pack in new photo-taking options has outpaced their ability to make these options discoverable and approachable.
Take the Kodak and Olympus cameras' digital image stabilization, an immensely valuable feature in which the camera processes the shot to smooth out any jitters caused by a shaky hand or a long exposure. It's not on by default, so you need to turn a dial atop the camera or navigate to an onscreen menu. The Canon offers optical image stabilization, a more effective technology, and has it on full-time.
Then consider all the different scene modes available. The Canon is particularly bad in this respect: It has nine available on the dial atop the camera (including the apparently redundant "Auto" and "Easy" modes), with another eight available in a menu if you choose "SCN" from that dial. And this model, like the other two, is on the simple side, without manual control of settings like aperture or exposure. How many people will get around to exploring these options, let alone remember to use them in the field?
These and other cheap, point-and-shoot models are largely made for people who photograph to create souvenirs, not art. These people wouldn't mind getting better results, but not if they have to stumble through a manual first. For many of them, it may already be too easy to fall back on a camera that yields lesser quality but is simpler, paid for and waiting in a pocket or purse: the one in a cellphone.