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Digital Camera Chronicles

43 -- With so many megapixels for so cheap, what separates digital cameras these days? (December 2006).

By Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

For those shopping for a digital camera in the 2006 holiday season and into 2007, there's never been a better time. There's also never been a more confusing one. Never a better one because the prices of digital cameras have come down so much that many high quality digital cameras from major manufacturers are now priced below the traditional US$299 "pain threshold." Never a more confusing one because with so many cameras available for so little money, how do you decide which one you want and need? It's gotten to a point where the inflated list price of a lesser model is often higher than the discounted price of a much better camera. And even if buying from the same source, consumers are often faced with figuring out what, if anything, they give up or gain by paying as little as US$20 less or more for this model or that.

It used to be easier. In the olden days of megapixel scarcity you paid a premium price for cameras with a higher megapixel count than for the bargain basement models that still offered last year's pixel resolution. And even those cost quite a bit, several times more than equivalent film models. But film is virtually gone by now and almost everything in the stores is digital. Five megapixel used to be high-end a couple of years ago. Now it is low-end. Your average digital camera now has betwen five and seven megapixel, and there are a good number that go above. Yes, you can get very reasonably priced eight to ten megapixel cameras. This is where megapixel become about as academic as the clock speed of a computer's CPU chip.

With computers, clock speed used to be the number one marketing tool. You had to have the latest, fastest processor or you were left behind. Clock speed is still mentioned today, but often just in parenthesis; it's become one of many characteristics of makes a processor useful and powerful. Same with megapixel. Unless ever dollar counts, you don't want to buy a three megapixel camera. But if you're willing to spend a reasonable amount of money to get a reasonable digital camera, you find many dozens of five to eight megapixel cameras within a rather narrow price range. Sometimes the same manufacturer offers several models in the same megapixel range, and even for roughly the same money. The cameras are usually offered in different "series," with each "series" emphasizing certain features or appealing to certain customers. Unfortunately, we found in our lab tests that even the "series" approach often seems rather arbitrary, as if the manufacturers had decided to test various approaches and features and then see which one customers respond to.

With all that said, let me tell you a few things that CAN make a difference in a digital camera. You may place more emphasis on some features than on others, but by and large, these are the things that differentiate the cameras now available:

LCD -- yes, screen size matters. Just as we gravitate to larger and larger computer monitors and larger and larger TV screens, the LCDs on digital cameras are becoming larger and larger also (oddly, this at a time when PDA and smartphone screens appear to go in the opposite direction). Over the past year I've often looked at the seemingly small LCD of a new compact digital camera with dismay, just to find that it actually measured 2.5 inches diagonally. That would have been considered huge just two years ago. Today it is what I expect, as a minimum. I can no longer tolerate those dinky 1.8 and 2.0 inch displays that really don't display much of anything. This year, I marveled at Casio's "wide" 2.8-inch displays on impossibly small cameras such as the Exilim S770, and totally enjoyed the 3.5-inch display on a big Samsung longzoom, the Pro815. Bigger is definitely better with digital camera displays. That's because larger displays simply let you see more, and that is especially important during playback where one of a digital camera's most important feature comes into play, that of being able to immediately see if a picture is in focus and worth keeping.

However, screen size is not all that matters. We've seen LCDs that were large enough but had such low resolution that the extra size didn't help at all. A 2.5 inch display with 85k pixel of resolution simply won't cut it; you need 150-250k pixels to really see things when you zoom in. So not only go for a screen large enough to see things, but also one with enough resolution to be sharp. All this is especially important as fewer and fewer compacts still offer optical viewfinders as backups. We regret that as even the best LCDs are only marginal outdoors and sometimes even a dinky optical viewfinder is better than the best LCD, but apparently we can't have it all.

Zoom -- Those who remember the glory days of film cameras will remember that film compacts rarely had optical zooms. Digital cameras, on the other hand, have had zooms almost from the start. I attribute that entirely to the initially low resolution of digital cameras. If you only had a mere megapixel at your disposal, you really needed to expend all those precious pixels on your subject; there was little room to crop and still end up with a meaningful pixel count. The answer, of course, was zooming in so you had to crop less. And so it became standard for digital cameras to come with an optical zoom.

Truth be told, the zoom is much less needed these days than it was in the early days of digicams. When you have seven megapixel to play with you can crop an awful lot and the remaining picture still has plenty enough resolution. Most people these days display their pictures on a monitor and very few print out huge enlargements. So look at the math: even a high res computer monitor generally displays just 1600 x 1200 pixel, not even two megapixel. And even if you print out an 8x10, that doesn't require more than three or four megapixel.

What this means is that today, zoom is for fun and creative photography; it is no longer a necessity. Yet, zoom size and technology can make a big difference. How?

Well, your average digicam comes with a 3X optical zoom. That's nice, but really doesn't get you very close. Some come with 5X zooms and that is definitely a differentiator. A 5X optical zoom definitely gives you more flexibility and so, other features being equal, I'd always go for the longer zoom.

If you need a really long zoom, the compacts won't have them. For that you'll need to look at larger, bulkier cameras that offer up to 8X zooms, or "SLR-style" cameras that are really large, but offer optical zooms between 10 and 15X. THAT gets you close. And adds a few headaches as well, mostly image stabilization. But before I get into that, here's another consideration: "folding" versus conventional zoom mechanisms. What does that mean?

A "conventional" optical zoom means the lens barrel motors out when you start up the camera. This means a slender little sliver of a digicam all of a sudden isn't so handy anymore and you have to constantly be aware of the lens barrel. It takes time for it to motor out when you start up. And then you have to turn the camera off before you can casually stick it into your pocket again. No real big deal, but something that always annoyed me. The alternative is a "folding" zoom, which must be one of the most stunning accomplishments in lens mechanics. Using a "folding" zoom mechanism means that a 3X, and at times even 5X, optical zoom lens remains entirely inside the camera. Nothing sticks out. Even at full magnification, no lens barrel sticks out. Sweet. That can make a big difference.

Image stabilization -- Often referred to as "anti-shake," image stabilization techniques seek to minimize the impact of shooting pictures without a tripod. That is not generally an issue, but it becomes one in situations where you simply can't hold the camera still or, especially, when you zoom in. Imagine you're standing there, trying to capture a race horse using a 5X zoom without a tripod. Or, worse, a speed boat with a 10X zoom from another boat. Those are extreme examples, but even if you're just sitting in the passenger seat of a car and try to capture some of the scenery, image stabilization comes into play. So what is it and how does it work?

Well, there are two kinds and, again, they go by many different names. They can be called "digital" and "optical," or "passive" and "active," or even "fake" and "true." The difference is that one kind simply "stabilizes" by reducing shutter speed and boosting sensitivity. It can work, but often results in a grainier picture or one that doesnt quite show what you had in mind. The other kind -- the active, optical, true kind -- uses much more elaborate mechanisms that actually sense and track lens movement and compensate for it. The mechanical and electronic challenges to doing that can be staggering, but some work extraordinarily well. "True" and "fake" image stabilization is, for example, the sole difference between the Olympus Stylus 740 and 750. The cameras and boxes are identical for all practical purposes, but the 750 costs more. And can take much better pictures under certain circumstances.

Cards and internal storage -- Like everyone else, I wish for more standardization. It's just so annoying to have to put up with different formats and never quite knowing what fits where. Unfortunately, that's the way it is, and that is why we now have 16-in-1 card readers for our computers. And need them, too. By and large, a couple of years ago most digital cameras used the Compact Flash format and today most use the postage stamp-sized SD Card format. Most, but not all. Sony, as usual, goes it alone with its Memory Stick format, and as if that weren't bad enough, they now have several types of Memory Sticks. Fuji and Olympus use the xD-Picture Card format in most of their cameras, though their higher end models may have two slots.

Internal storage means little. If you're shooting 7-megapixel images, not too many will fit into the eight to perhaps 32MB of onboard memory of current digital cameras, so it's more sort of an emergency feature for when you run out of space on the card. Still, with memory so cheap, it would be nice to see some digital cameras offering much more. Hey, if cheap music players offer a gig or two, why not higher end digital cameras? Me, I'd love to have the insurance of having an extra gig of internal storage.

WiFi?? -- Yes, WiFi, as in wireless LAN. As is, all digital cameras ship with a set of cables to connect them to a computer and often a TV set as well. And, of course, you can take the memory card and stick it into a notebook's card slot or PC's card reader. But with almost all notebooks now having wireless LAN onboard, and more and more households having wireless LANs, why not add wireless to digital cameras? Well, it's been tried. The Nikon Coolpix P3 has onboard 802.11b/g wireless. The camera wirelessly communicates with computers (it shows up as a disk on the desktop) and can even communicate directly with printers attached to a computer. At this point I am not sure if that is really necessary as anything wireless can be a pain, and it's so easy to just stick a card into a reader.

Does size matter? -- I used to equate size with quality and assumed that a relatively hefty digital camera simply must offer more. I mean, there's more room for optics, zoom, electronics, battery power and what all. But that seems less and less true. We've had in our lab hefty digicams that seemed unable to autofocus under anything but ideal conditions, or mar pictures with artifacts or unacceptable purple fringe. And we've had some impossibly small ultra-thins capable of taking terrific pictures. When going on trips we used to bring along "the big camera" so as to get quality shots. No more. Sure, a large, high quality camera will likely outperform an ultra-thin, but unless you take very specialized shots, those little jobs that fit anywhere can do stunningly well.

Buzz words and gizmos -- With the megapixel count becoming largely meaningless as a marketing tool, what is taking its place to lure customers? Well, good optics always resonate, and so most of the big digicam manufacturers have licensing deals with some brand names that conjure up optical excellence. Examples are "Carl Zeiss" or "Schneider Kreuznach." Such a lens simply must be good, right? And yes, usually it is.

It gets more difficult with tech buzzwords describing some electronic circuitry that speeds things up or makes for better image quality. I have no doubt that the likes of Canon and Sony and Kodak are well capable of cooking up electronics that give them an edge, and that is why the digital camera market is increasingly dominated by electronics giants. But what exactly the advantage is, well, that is harder to quantify. Fuji, for example, pushes its Super CCD HR and SR technologies that arrange different kinds of pixels in different ways, thus supposedly achieving better sharpness and a richer pictures than a simple grid. It makes theoretical sense and the cameras so equipped certainly take nice pictures, but what of the impact is psychological and what is real?

Digital SLR or compact? -- Only a few years ago digital SLRs were outside the price range of most consumers. And those who spent a few thousand dollars to get an early dSLRs are now stuck with one and two megapixel leviathans that are essentially useless. But that all has changed. Ever since Canon and others broke the $1,000 barrier, digital SLRs have become affordable. These days you can get amazingly powerful ones for well under a thousand bucks. Most can accommodate older, existing lenses, and so a photographer's investment in expensive optics is not necessarily wasted. Digital SLRs have definite advantages, but also some drawbacks, and so they remain a type of camera that requires a definite decision. More so than in the days of film where there wasn't the lure of those tiny, powerful ultra-thins that can get 80% of the quality in a package that fits absolutely anywhere.

Among digital SLRs' advantages are exchangeable lenses, the ability to see exactly what the lens sees, and instant shutter response (yes, that is still an issue with digicams). Disadvantages are getting dust into the system when you exchange lenses and the sheer bulk of an SLR. Still, with prices so much lower, any digital photographer should at least educate him or herself on the latest generation of affordable dSLRs.

Controls and menus -- That is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of digital cameras. In a world that is routinely dazzled with examples of industrial design brilliance -- witness the iPod and such -- digital cameras simply bite. How an entire industry can do no better for its control systems than a garish, ugly, illogical mix of colors, tiny text, cryptic icons both on the camera bodies and in menus truly boggles the mind. And no two are the same. Virtually every camera you buy has a different menu system. None has a simple "ESC" key to back you out of menus and choices. It is infuriating. Oddly, while the companies apparently refuse to standardize in any way, they ape each other in controls layout whether it makes sense or not. Overall it's a mess. And one I hope they clean up soon.

So there. I hope the above has given you a bit of an idea of how to decide and what the differentiators are. And don't feel bad if you're still a bit lost. Hey, sometimes we literally have to study some cameras for hours before we see any meaningful differences. And even then, we may have to put them through their paces in some pretty specific settings to see if it all has an impact on picture quality. Here at Digital Camera and DigitalCameraRoundup.com, we're always on your side. We'll always point out what makes sense and what does not. Ultra-detailed lab reports are valuable, no doubt, but for everyday photography, it's more important to know what a camera does and whether the manufacturer got it right.

-- C. H. Blickenstorfer



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