You may have your holiday traditions: carolling, stockings, candles, whatever. But here at The New York Times Institute of Gadgetology, we have a tradition of our own. Every December since 2001, we’ve asked: “How much digital camera can you get for $300?” For years, that low price pretty much guaranteed low picture quality. Camera makers spent all their effort grovelling at the altar of megapixels, in hopes that the public would associate megapixels with picture quality.
But the manufacturers are finally turning their attention to features that really do help your photos, such as image stabilization (reduces blur in low light) and face recognition (ensures proper focus and exposure on human subjects). They haven’t eliminated shutter lag (the delay before the picture is snapped)—you’ll have to buy one of those big digital SLR cameras for that luxury—but there’s some improvement this year.
Here they are, then, presented roughly in order of photo quality. Except, as noted, they’re credit card size, 8-megapixel models with 3X optical zoom, SD memory cards and no eyepiece viewfinder.
Casio Exilim EX-V8 Price: $240
With high-end features such as a 7X zoom lens, image stabilizer and the ability to zoom while shooting movies, you’d think that this camera would get the highest marks. But no such luck; its photos consistently trailed the pack. In low light, some were truly awful: murky, sepia-toned, blurry. You can do light years better.
Pentax Optio Z10 Price: $219
This sleek camera can help you recover photos you’ve deleted accidentally. And its 7X zoom lens is astonishing, considering that it’s completely contained inside the camera. Unfortunately, that zooming apparatus eats up a lot of space. There are other problems, too: no image stabilizer, no autofocus-assist lamp for low light and severe graininess indoors or at night.
Samsung i85 Price: $266
This is the only camera here that comes with ear buds. That’s because it doubles as a basic MP3 music player and even acts as an e-book reader; it can page through text files that you copy on to it from your Mac or PC. The Samsung is a looker too—shiny stainless steel wrapped around an enormous 3” screen. Its photos usually look good, and the flash is powerful. But because there’s no image stabilizer, flashless indoor or night-time photos are blurry and doomed.
Nikon Coolpix S700 Price: $280
The S700’s stabilizer virtually banishes blur, and graininess is a problem only in night-time shots. The camera itself looks great, too. Unfortunately, in sunlight, the 2.7” screen turns into a slab of onyx; without an eyepiece viewfinder, you can’t see well enough to take any pictures at all (the Pentax has the same problem. The screens on the other cameras here are bright enough even in direct light). And this camera’s 150-shot battery life is the worst of the batch.
Kodak Z812IS Price: $245
This camera won’t fit in a pants pocket; it’s shaped like a miniature SLR, complete with a sculptured hand grip (and, alas, a detached lens cap). The pay-off, though, is the amazing 12X zoom, which is enormously useful in shooting sports, school plays and anything surreptitiously.
The camera takes great movies, even in high definition (at a full 30 frames a second). In fact, the Z7812 can both zoom and refocus while you’re filming, which is a rarity in still cameras. Nice. Most of the photos came out great. There is an eyepiece viewfinder on this camera, but it’s not a true optical one; it’s electronic, meaning that you’re peering into another screen, and a somewhat coarse one at that.
Sony Cybershot DSC-H3 Price: $270
This camera, like the Kodak, is also shaped like a mini-SLR and has a stabilized superzoom lens (10X). It feels wonderful in your hand. Other goodies: With a $40 component cable, you can display your photos in spectacular high-definition on an HDTV. And the H3 has the clearest, easiest, smartest button and menu design of the year. The only question: On a bigger camera like this one, why not include an optical viewfinder? Like many Sony cameras, this one sometimes produces a slight bluish cast. But otherwise, it does a terrific job, even indoors, without the flash.
Panasonic Lumix FX55 Price: $300
The Lumix has an enormous wide-angle view. Compared with the narrow fields of view on other cameras, these photos are practically panoramas. And the Lumix’s photos are nearly impeccable. They’re grain-free, smoothly toned and perfectly exposed.
Canon PowerShot SD850 IS Price: $256
This camera’s awesome predecessor cost $360 last year. Now, you can get the same vivid photos and movies for $256. But that’s not all. Yes, folks, you also get image stabilization, face recognition, 4X optical zoom, and a genuine optical eyepiece viewfinder. It’s the only optical viewfinder of these $300 cameras, in fact.
Fujifilm Finepix F50d Price: $234
The 12 megapixel photos of this camera are delightful, indoors, outdoors, with the flash or without. One probable reason: The F50d’s sensor is more than 50% bigger than those on most of the other cameras: 0.625” diagonal, versus 0.4. Now that’s a statistic—not megapixels—that matters in a camera. The F50d accepts standard SD cards in addition to the proprietary, expensive XD memory cards. How can this be the second-least-expensive camera of the batch?
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you want a pocket model, consider the Lumix for its wide angle, the Canon for its 4X zoom and optical viewfinder, or the Fujifilm for its amazing natural-light performance. If you’re willing to pack something bigger, you can get a lot more zoom for your buck with the Kodak or the Sony.
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