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Pocket DigiCam Shootout

by Derrick Story, speaker at the O'Reilly Mac OS X Conference

Until recently, the digital-camera battle cry was, "Damn the appearance, full megapixels ahead!" Camera prestige was measured in millions of pixels rather than size, looks, or even feature set. Then camera makers began to notice that many people seemed perfectly content with compact 2-megapixel point and shoots that were easy on the wallet as well as the shirt pocket.

Adding to the mix are new applications such as iPhoto that simplify organizing and sharing digital photos. Now that images are as easy to manage on the computer as they are to take, more people are taking interest in portable cameras that produce quality pictures.

But once you decide to make the digital leap, how do you figure out which camera to buy?

Four of my favorite digital camera brands are Canon, Nikon, Olympus, and Sony. Lots of other great brands line the shelves at CompUSA too, but this quartet seems to consistently produce good models that I can recommend. In this article I'm going to show you the ins and outs of two of my favorite 2-megapixel models: the Canon PowerShot S200 and the Nikon Coolpix 2500. Both cameras take good pictures, cost around $300 U.S.D., and have dynamite looks.

Overview of the Canon S200 and Nikon 2500

Even though both cameras use 2-megapixel sensors, that's about the extent of their image-capture similarities. Even their physical appearances are different.

The Canon PowerShot S200.
The elegant Canon PowerShot S200 packs a lot of features into its 6.3-ounce, stainless-steel-clad body. All photos by Derrick Story.

The Canon S200 is a squarish, stainless-steel-clad compact that measures 3.4 by 2.2 by 1.1 inches (W by H by D) and weighs in at 6.3 ounces (or 87.0 by 57.0 by 26.7 millimeters and 180 grams), without battery and memory card. The lens retracts into the camera body and has a cover that protects it when not in use. The lens zooms from 5.4mm (wide angle) to 10.8mm (mild telephoto), and is the equivalent of a 35mm to 70mm lens in 35mm photography. The Digital Elph includes both an optical viewfinder and an LCD monitor. To help focus in less than ideal conditions, the S200 provides an effective focus-assist light that projects a bright beam onto the subject when you press the shutter button halfway. The Canon is powered by a rechargeable Lithium ion battery and uses CompactFlash for its removable memory.

Nikon Coolpix 2500.
The stylish Nikon Coolpix 2500 features an innovative design and a swivel lens in a svelte 5.8-ounce package.

The Nikon 2500 is two-toned, rectangular-shaped camera with roundish corners that measures 4.5 by 2.3 by 1.2 inches and weighs in at 5.8 ounces (or 114.0 by 59.5 by 31.5mm and 165g), without battery and memory card. The ingenious lens mount swivels within the frame of the camera providing for a variety of shooting angles, plus it secures in the "up position" to protect the lens when not in use. The lens zooms from 5.6mm (wide angle) to 16.8mm (telephoto) and is the equivalent of a 37mm to 111mm lens in 35mm photography. The Coolpix features an LCD monitor but does not include an optical viewfinder or a focus-assist light. The Nikon is powered by a rechargeable Lithium ion battery and uses CompactFlash for its removable memory.

Picture-Taking Prowess

Both cameras rely on programmed auto exposure to control the aperture and shutter. For basic point and shoot, leaving the camera in auto mode, is all you'll need to do to capture good photos in most situations. But each camera also has a set of more advanced functions partially hidden from view until you unlock them by switching to Manual mode, which isn't really manual at all (in the sense that you manually set the aperture and shutter speed). Manual mode on these two cameras should really be called extended auto mode.

On the Canon, for example, you only have three flash modes in auto mode: flash off, red-eye reduction, and auto flash. But if you switch from auto mode to manual, suddenly two more flash options appear in the menu: fill flash and slow synchro. Same goes for exposure compensation and white balance--you can't get to those adjustments unless you're in manual mode.

Just in case you can't decipher the instruction booklet to find these settings, simply turn on the camera and make sure the LCD monitor is active and it's ready to take a picture. Then push the SET button once to reveal the custom menu. use the right jog button to move the red circle one position to the right, then push the SET button again, and you're now in manual mode.

The Nikon is equally coy about enabling functions such as white balance adjustment, continuous shooting mode, and image sharpening selection. To access these features you need to (once again) switch from auto to manual modes. To do so, simply put the camera in picture taking mode, press the "down arrow "on the jog dial once to reveal the menu, then press the "down arrow" one more time to move from auto to manual mode. For both cameras I recommend that once you find manual mode, you just leave it there.

Now that you've seized control of each respective camera, picture taking becomes really fun. The Canon allows you to frame your shot with either an optical viewfinder or the LCD monitor, which is extremely accurate on the S200. With the Nikon you're forced to use the LCD monitor all the time because it doesn't have an optical viewfinder. This isn't a problem except in bright sunlight when the LCD is nearly impossible to see. I had reasonably good luck framing the shot by using the open area around the lens as a gun sight of sorts, but I would much prefer an optical viewfinder for these bright situations. Plus, having the LCD on all the time drains the battery power faster that I'd like.

The Nikon redeems itself with the outlandish swivel lens that rotates up and down, and even all the way back pointing directly at the shooter--a narcissist's dream! If you like taking low and high angle shots, you'll really appreciate the flexibility this lens mount offers.

The Nikon's rotating lens.
Coming or going? The Coolpix 2500 can rotate its lens all the way around so you can point it right at yourself and see the image in the LCD monitor. Self-portrait heaven!

Both cameras have firm two-step shutter releases that allow you to hold the button half way down to lock-in focus and exposure, then continue pressing to take the picture. The Nikon has a 3x optical zoom lens that is controlled by two buttons on the back of the camera. The Canon's 2x zoom lens is controlled by a "rocker ring" that surrounds the shutter button.

I'm impressed with the array of controls squeezed into these compact cameras. Here's just a few of the functions that you'll find on both cameras:

  • Continuous (burst) mode to fire off a sequence of shots.
  • Digital zoom to extend the reach of the optical lens.
  • Exposure compensation to override the auto meter reading.
  • Landscape mode (infinity setting) for those situations that might fool the auto focus sensor.
  • Macro mode for exceptional close-up shots.
  • Movie mode to capture short QuickTime clips (15 seconds).
  • Multiple flash settings including slow synchro-mode for low light photography.
  • Resolution and compression settings.
  • Self timer for delaying the shutter release so you can get in the shot.
  • White balance to for clean existing light photos in a variety of lighting situations.

The Canon S200 display.
The S200 display has a few tricks of its own, including a super information mode that gives you tons of picture information, including a graphical histogram.

The Canon S200 also is equipped with a spot meter, selectable ISO speed settings, AF assist beam, panorama mode, an outstanding image information view in the LCD monitor that even provides a graphical histogram of the image you're reviewing, and an array of photo effects including a Black and White option.

The Nikon has a couple of extras too including a Quick Review function that provides you with mini thumbnail of the last picture you captured that's inset in the viewfinder while you're lining up the next shot. It also has a SMALL PIC button that allows you to create a 320 x 240 pixel copy of any image you've captured, which is handy for sending as an email attachment without having to open your image editor.

When it comes to picture-taking prowess, both cameras distinguish themselves with sharp, saturated images. But I have to give the nod to the Canon S200 in this category because of its impressive array of useful controls that will satisfy the most savvy of photographers.

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