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Death of the Digital Happy Snap?

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

I'm seeing the same trend in consumer grade digital cameras that I first saw in analog point and shoots years ago: cheaper camera bodies surrounding some pretty sophisticated – perhaps even too sophisticated – electronics.

In fairness to the camera makers, consumers seem bent on preferring lightness over all. God forbid someone should have to shoulder a prehistoric behemoth like a Nikon F2 and a motor drive. Flimsy camera bodies may be easy to carry, but they never will be able to sustain a knock, a hit or a fall, which in the long run may suit manufacturers just fine since all that means is that they'll sell more replacement cameras to fumble-fingered amateurs. That's why serious photographers, whether pro or avid amateur, will always prefer a bit of protective heft in their equipment.

More troubling to me, though, is the degree to which manufacturers are tarting up their digital point and shoots to look more like Star Trek phaser guns than like simple little boxes to make electronic happy snaps. (Here, let me make a pointed exception of the Canon digital Elph series. These beautifully engineered little cameras are rugged and blessedly free of electronic frippery. It's no wonder they are so popular. So too are the Olympus Camedia and Nikon CoolPix digitals justifiably praised for their user-friendly design.)

A friend recently showed me his new digital camera, which he used with fairly good success on a vacation trip to Europe. In looking at several of the images he had printed out I remarked that a few of the indoor shots might have been improved with a little bit of fill-flash.

"Well actually," Jim said sheepishly, "I haven't been able to get it to work."

Was the camera defective? Beats me. All I know is that I couldn't get the flash to work – and I'm paid to know this stuff.

As I struggled through all the permutations and button pushing, the LED screen on the back of this camera portrayed something that looked like a cross between a flying saucer and a Las Vegas roulette wheel. I'm sure whatever computer whiz designed this was delighted with the look, but I found it terribly confusing when it came to the basic question of making the camera go.

And please: I am not against multiple controls and settings. I am not instinctively averse to pushing buttons. In fact, I am largely delighted with my high-end Canon PowerShot G1 (recently superceded by the somewhat sleeker G2). But that camera is much more than a point and shoot digicam. It is made for the more advanced photographer who actually wants every so often to manually set aperture and shutter speed, and who even may want to use off-camera strobe lights. It's a "complicated" camera, but only in the sense that a Hasselblad 501 C/M or a Nikon F100 is complicated.

In all this I have a sense of déjà vu. For years, camera makers put out fairly simple point and shoot film cameras, and then slowly, inexorably, they added features the average tourist couldn't care less about. Things like a spurious "panorama" mode that just cut off the top and bottom third of the photograph. Or woefully inadequate zoom lenses that became more blind as the lens extended. Anyone with walking around sense would know that a zoom lens offering a maximum working aperture of f.9 or thereabouts is worthless. But most amateurs wouldn't know this; they'd just bellyache about their underexposed telephoto shots.

And never mind the fact that by their nature point and shoots were supposed to be much smaller than conventional 35mm film cameras. This meant an even smaller set of buttons to see, much less push – all, of course, bearing pictograms instead of words.

Is it any wonder that so many people wound up hating their cameras?

That's why when my stepson Dan asked me to recommend a fairly decent, not too expensive, digital point and shoot before an upcoming business trip to Japan, I tried to weed out the cameras that (1) seemed too flimsy to live in the real world and (2) were so complicated even an electrical engineer (and inveterate button-pusher) like Dan might be put off, especially with only a limited time to learn the basics before his trip.

I didn't do any especially thorough market research. In fact, I did hardly any research at all. Having been pleased with the performance of my G1, I briefly looked at a few other cameras, then settled on the more amateur version of my camera, Canon's PowerShot A20. Instead of the $750 or so that I paid for the G1, the A20 listed for around $400 and went for much less. It had an agreeable non-flimsy heft, was compact enough to fit into a shirt pocket – and didn't require a degree from MIT to operate.

Dan got some wonderful pictures in Japan (see right), but couldn't believe how quickly the camera ate up double-A batteries. Even when I substituted the cheapos he bought in Tokyo with the extended performance alkalines I routinely use in our Nikons, the camera still didn't have the kind of staying power I preferred.

This was a classic conundrum. I had avoided suggesting to Dan a camera like my G1 precisely because he was leaving the country. The G1 boasts a high-performance proprietary rechargeable battery, but that, of course means having to recharge with local AC, which can be a problem abroad without adaptors and converters. Having a camera powered by the world's most popular battery (the ubiquitous double-A) seemed the right idea, and it was, up to a point. But man, could it eat up those suckers.

Rechargeable double-A's? Sure – a great remedy in the States, but you face the same recharging dilemma once you head overseas.

Until now.

Olympus, makers of the great Camedia line of digicams, has just come out with an unheralded little gadget that turns things around. It's a simple portable recharging unit for four nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) double-A's ($49.95 at local camera stores, including batteries). Nothing special there, on first glance. But read the specs and you will see that this unit is happy at voltages ranging from 100-240. That means it can be used in not only American 120-volt outlets but most overseas outlets as well (usually running 220/240). Thus, in Europe, Japan, wherever, all you would need would be a prong adaptor for the recharger and your batteries could safely be re-juiced.

I bought this little unit for Dan, but he hasn't gotten it yet. I packed it away for Judy's and my latest trip to Venice, where I plan to use it to recharge the batteries I'll use in a portable flash unit – thereby avoiding the hassle of having to lug a bulky external high-voltage battery for a more sophisticated flash, as well as the battery's own recharging unit and an equally bulky transformer to make the whole rig work.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

©Dan Goodman
Dan Goodman made this great shot of a crowded electronics counter during a business trip to Japan, using his sleek Canon PowerShot A20. He wasn't happy about battery drain, though.

Olympus just came out with a battery charger for four NiMH batteries, but the real news is that the charger can be used with both American and foreign voltages.

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