By DAVID POGUE
Most people buy their digital cameras in one of two broad categories: compact (tiny, pretty, with snapshot-quality photos) or digital SLR (black, bulky, with magazine-quality photos).
Choosing between them is an agonizing task.
You're far more likely to have the compact camera with you when a photo op pops up -- and yet in a battle of photo quality, as an Internet commentator once put it, an SLR takes better pictures with its lens cap on.
There is, however, a narrow category of in-between cameras -- too big for a shirt pocket, but still small enough for a coat pocket. At heart, these midsize models are still point-and-shoots, with features you generally don't get with SLRs, like a movie-capture mode, a "live" back-panel screen while you're framing a shot, and a price that's often under $350. And yet they offer some of what makes SLRs so great, like an eyepiece viewfinder, full manual controls and powerful telephoto lenses.
The midsize Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8, Sony DSC-H5 and Canon PowerShot S3 IS, in fact, offer 12X zoom lenses, which blow away the feeble 3X zoom of most compacts. And the new Olympus SP-550UZ breaks records with an 18X lens. It's the most powerful zoom available on any camera, compact or even SLR.
Why is a powerful zoom such a big deal? Because so many of life's great photographic moments happen at a distance: on a stage (school play, graduation ceremony, dance recital, wedding), a playing field (soccer, baseball) or some other kind of field (lion, elephant, buff-bellied pipit).
Now, when you're zoomed in that far, it's very hard to get a steady shot without a tripod; your hand-held jitters are magnified, resulting in blurriness. That's why these cameras all have optical image stabilization, which makes their otherwise impractical lenses far more practical.
Despite a price range from $307 (the Panasonic) to $500 (the Olympus), these cameras are amazingly alike. All are chunky little gadgets with large-diameter telescoping lenses. Each has a pop-up flash, which provides flattering light that minimizes redeye. On all but the Sony, the flash does not, however, pop up automatically; you have open it manually or by pushing a button.
All of these cameras except the Panasonic use AA batteries. You use AA rechargeables most of the time -- and yet, if they die while you're on the road, you can always pop into a drugstore, pick up some new AAs (lithiums or even a gross of AA alkalines), and keep right on shooting.
Midsize cameras also have room for another disappearing luxury: an eyepiece viewfinder, which comes in handy when the sun washes out the back-panel screen. These models, however, employ electronic viewfinders -- that is, a tiny TV screen inside the eyepiece, rather than a clear piece of glass. It shows exactly what you're about to shoot, but the image isn't as clear, nuanced or smooth as a see-through viewfinder.
Finally, the photo quality from these cameras has more in common with compacts than with SLRs. Outdoors, or with copious light, all four take terrific clear shots with vivid colors. But indoors and after dinnertime, it's another story. You'll probably have to throw out a significant number of your indoor no-flash photos, which are often victims of horrible graininess or blur. Yes, blur; the stabilizer helps, but can't perform miracles.
One reason is all four cameras contain a tiny sensor (0.4 inch diagonal). That's not much light-gathering area, especially when compared with the much larger sensors in SLRs (1.1 inches, for example).
Another reason: These cameras crank up their own light sensitivity, known as ISO, automatically, in a further effort to reduce blur. Unfortunately, extremes in ISO mean extremes in "noise" (grainy speckles). Check out the sample photos at nytimes.com/technology.
Not everything about these cameras is identical, however. Here's what makes each one special.
CANON: The PowerShot S3 IS ($338, 6.0 megapixels) may be the closest thing you'll find to a hybrid camcorder and camera. You can zoom or change focus while shooting video, a feature that's extremely rare in digital cameras; snap a photo while you're recording; capture superb stereo sound; and start recording while still in still-photo mode. The movies look fantastic, although a 2-gigabyte card holds only about 18 minutes of video.
The S3's screen is tiny by today's standards: 2 inches. On the other hand, it swivels and rotates, like a camcorder's screen, so you can shoot over your head, down low, and so on.
To make photographic matters even better, this camera can take 2.3 shots per second in burst mode, and macro shots as close as 0 inches away -- yes, you can photograph things actually touching the lens.
OLYMPUS: In addition to the first-ever 18X zoom lens, the ambitious SP-550UZ ($500, 7.1 megapixels) is loaded with unusual goodies. Its burst mode can capture incredible numbers of shots per second at lower resolutions -- seven shots at 3 megapixels each, for example. Oddly, if you want full 7-megapixel shots, you get only a slowish one frame per second.
There's a super-close-up mode for subjects only half an inch away; a 2.5-inch screen that brightens up in dim light to help you see what you're seeing; and a remarkable on-camera tutorial that teaches you by operating the relevant controls in real time, as you hold the camera.
The zoom is astounding (28 to 504 mm, in film terms); you can practically peer up the nostrils of someone standing at the other end of the football field. But the stabilizer is effective only in the brightest light, when you're doing your best not to breathe or blink. The rest of the time, it's not quite up to ironing out the blur from fully zoomed-in shots.
The menu design is another disappointment; it leaves you groping to find your way through that lengthy feature list. And then there's the price tag: $500. Discounts will surely kick in once the camera has settled in stores, but another $40 could buy you a proper digital SLR (the Nikon D40, for example), complete with lens and phenomenal results.
PANASONIC: The Lumix DMC-FZ8 ($307, 7.2 megapixels) doesn't offer any special tricks like the Canon and the Olympus. But it's a consistent performer without any annoying design quirks. And no "7 megapixels" logo appears on the camera body; Panasonic gets points for breaking ranks with its rivals, who still want you to think that more megapixels means better photo quality.
Standout features include an actual sliding on-off switch; a rock-bottom price tag; and the ability to save pictures in RAW format, a rarity among non-SLRs. (RAW-format photos use far more space on your memory card than traditional JPEG files. But professionals love RAW files because specialized software can virtually reshoot them with different settings -- after the fact. The Olympus offers RAW shooting, too.)
SONY: The first thing you notice on the DSC-H5 ($365, 7.2 megapixels) is its huge 3-inch screen, which makes the 2.5-inchers on the others (and the 2-incher on the Canon) look undernourished. Another bonus is the included set of rechargeable batteries, with charger -- a thoughtful touch.
Otherwise, alas, there's not much to write home about on this year-old model. Most features work well, but the camera could use some caffeine; its early-2006 processor is slow, slow, slow. Burst mode is only one frame per second; during playback, pictures appear coarse and take about a second to sharpen up; the claustrophobic electronic viewfinder can be jittery in low light; and the recharge time for the flash can take an excruciating 8 seconds.
If you're after a midsize superzoom, in other words, you can do much better. You could get the Panasonic for its low price and solid design; the Canon for its remarkable split camera/camcorder personality; or the Olympus for its mind-boggling zoom. You won't be slipping any of them into a pants pocket -- but when you bring home that prizewinning shot of the wedding kiss, the soccer goal or the buff-bellied pipit, all will be forgiven.