Point and Shoot
It isn’t easy to make a great point and shoot camera. These cameras have to take any scene you give them and focus on the part you’re interested in. There may be lots of depth to the scene, with potential subjects in the foreground or an impressive background that you want to capture. Once they’ve done that, somehow, they need to expose the shot for the details that you care about. They must blow the highlights to capture detail in the shadows or give up shadow detail to capture the highlights. How do they do it? Well, sometimes they don’t, but they’re getting better every year. The Canon PowerShot A590IS
was my favorite for quite a while now, but the newer Panasonic Lumix DMC-LZ8K edges out the Canon with its more versatile lens and more detailed view screen. Both combine great image quality with a low price in an easy to use camera. They are terrific at shooting scenes automatically, but what sets these two apart from most other budget models is full manual control. This makes each of them a great way to learn about photography.
You can get a much better camera by spending about $300more on the Canon Powershot G10 or other high end compact cameras. The extra money really does buy you much more camera, but its still hard to justify buying one of them when entry level SLRs, like the Canon Rebel XS, are at the same price point.
You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned how many magapixels it’s got or how close it can zoom, and I won’t. Camera manufacturers are way past the point where squeezing ever more megapixels into tiny sensors does anything to improve image quality. And the reality is that a big zoom lens with great optics is expensive. One feature I will talk about is image stabilization (that’s what the “IS” stands for), and this is becoming more common even at the low end. Both of these cameras have it and I wouldn’t buy a camera without it. Nobody holds a camera perfectly still. We twitch, we shift, we breath, and every time we do the camera gets jostled. Suppose the camera could shift it’s internal components in the opposite direction, just enough and at just the right time, to perfectly counteract each of our movements? Well it can’t quite do that but it comes close enough to dramatically improve your pictures. This feature matters a lot.
These cameras aim to deliver compact, light, inexpensive long zooms. I don’t think any of them really do that very well because great optics and high magnification are expensive. Camera manufacturers try to do it by using small sensors, which allow them to build smaller (cheaper) lenses. These small sensors are noisy (electrically noisy like a garbled phone call, not like a loud radio), however, and have a tough time producing clean, crisp images. It doesn’t help that the manufacturers cram ever more pixels, into the same cramped space, with each new model. So what to buy if you really want a long lens? Your best bet is a digital SLR with a fixed length telephoto lens. Even if you go the economical route, it will still set you back quite a bit. For example the Canon Digital Rebel XTi with the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L Lens will lighten your wallet by over $1600.
So if that’s too much for your budget and you really want a super zoom, then I’d recommend the Canon PowerShot Pro Series S5 IS. It pushes current technology to the limit and handles the compromises between image quality, size, cost, and zoom better than any other. Competing models have longer lenses, but they pay for a more versatile lens with poorer images. The S5’s lens is rated at 432mm f/3.5 (35mm film equivalent), at the long end, and will give you all the zoom you could want (12X) with the best image quality you could expect. Buy the S5; it’s the best of the super zoom digital cameras.
You can get remarkable image quality in a very small package in today’s ultra compact digital cameras. They cost more, have shorter battery life (because the battery, like the camera is physically smaller), and no manual controls. If these trade offs are worth it to you, then put a Canon PowerShot SD950IS in your shirt pocket. The titanium shell isn’t the only thing that sets it apart from some of the other ultra compacts; it’s sensor is physically larger than most cameras in this class, so it can deliver higher resolution images without the noise that you would see in smaller sensors.
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