Digital for under a dime

Digital cameras have come a long way recently, to the point that analysts are now calling digital photography a maturing market.

Weymouth, MA-based InfoTrends goes so far as to predict that it will peak in North America this year at just under 28 million cameras shipped, and growth will begin to decline. Household penetration was 42 percent in 2004, and was expected to hit 55 percent in 2005. By the end of the decade, the firm says, nine out of 10 buyers will be previous digital camera owners.

This bodes well for manufacturers, who will be able to market higher-end units to replace consumers’ entry-level point-and-shoot cameras.

The brand names we see will be familiar to photography buffs. Many manufacturers of traditional film cameras have made the transition to digital.

InfoTrend’s top seven 2004 U.S. market leaders were Kodak, Sony, Canon, Olympus, Fuji, HP and Nikon.

With these trends in mind, we contacted digital camera manufacturers and asked for their best camera under $1,000. Since only one digital single-lens reflex (Nikon) slips under that price point, we asked for non-SLRs.

Two types of camera arrived: ones that look like the digital cameras we already know and ones that more strongly resemble SLRs. They ranged in price (all list, in Canadian dollars) from a penny under our $1,000 threshold to a low of $400, and in weight from 4.5 ounces to over 24 ounces. All are capable of shooting video as well as stills.


Price: $499.95
Megapixels: 6
Optical zoom: 10x
Digital zoom: 4x
Warranty: 2 years

The S4 looks like a basic digicam until you notice that the lens cap is on top. To use the camera, you have to swivel the lens, and it will go either up to 180 degrees forward or 90 degrees backward (self-portrait, anyone?).

It uses two AA batteries, so you can revert to alkalines if the included NiMH batteries run down. They’re rated at about 290 shots per charge. You do have to tell the camera which battery type you are using.

The Nikkor lens is a 38-380mm zoom with shutter speeds of two seconds to 1/1000 of a second. A 2.5-inch LCD is your viewfinder and viewing space. There’s 13.5 MB of internal storage and a slot for an optional SD card.

Because of that large (but sadly, low resolution) LCD, there’s virtually nowhere to put your right thumb except on the top corner of the display. Expect fingerprints.

Lots of “assist” modes help you set up shots like portraits and sports pictures, but there’s very little manual intervention possible. This is not a camera for those who like to twiddle with settings.

On the other hand, the images are of reasonable quality, though missing some fine detail. A napping black cat, for example, came out as a furry black lump with no distinguishable head.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30-EDITOR’S CHOICE

Price: $899.99
Megapixels: 8
Optical zoom: 12x
Digital zoom: 4x
Warranty: 1 year

Panasonic’s unit is a substantial beast that is lighter than it looks. It’s the size of a full SLR, with sturdy handgrip on the right, and ample space for the beefiest photographer’s thumb on the back, complete with a non-slip pad. The button population is minimal – just four (including delete) on the back, plus a four-way controller whose arrows double as buttons as required. On top, there’s a mode dial and buttons for optical image stabilization (to stop blur due to camera shake) and burst mode. A flash pop-up button and focus options appear on the left, and focus and zoom rings are on the lens. When you turn the camera off, it reminds you to close the flash.

The lens is a mega-zoom: 35-420mm, with shutter speeds from 60 to 1/2000 of a second. The 2-inch high-resolution LCD swivels closes on the back for protection, or can be twisted and tilted for viewing in awkward positions. The viewfinder has a diopter wheel. The Lithium Ion battery provides about 280 shots when using the LCD, 300 with viewfinder. You get a 32MB SD card for image storage.

Image quality was great at lower ISO sensitivities, but at 200 and above it became rather noisy and unsuitable for enlarging. I also had to back off on the zoom to allow auto-focus to work in one case; it just couldn’t focus on the highly zoomed subject. Backlight compensation and image stabilization improved some other tricky shots.

Canon PowerShot Pro1

Price: $999.99
Megapixels: 8
Optical zoom: 7x
Digital zoom: 3.2x
Warranty: 1 year

This is a button-rich camera, with a relatively small clear space on the back for your thumb. It’s fairly heavy, too, thanks to its hefty, but very powerful proprietary Lithium Ion battery that is rated for 420 shots.

It has a swivelling 2-inch LCD as well as an electronic viewfinder with a diopter adjustment. Zooming is performed by twisting a ring on the lens. On a 35mm camera, the lens’ equivalent would be a 28-200mm zoom. Shutter speeds range from 1/4000 of a second to 15 seconds.

The controls include a mode dial, six buttons and a pointer control on the left rear, a button to switch between viewfinder and LCD on the right back, flash and macro button on the left shoulder, an odd power control, three more mode controls, a dial and the shutter on the right top.

The integrated flash has no visible release mechanism, but pops up when needed. If you need yet more light, the hot shoe syncs to Canon flashes. USB port, power and A/V out (for output to a TV) live on the back, protected by a sturdy plastic door.

Storage is on an included 64 MB Compact Flash card.

Colours were good on images, though some exposures were a bit out of focus, possibly due to minor camera shake- there’s no image stabilization.

Fujifilm FinePix S9000

Price: $899.99
Megapixels: 9
Optical zoom: 10.7
Digital zoom: 2
Warranty: 1 year

The S9000 accepts both xD Picture cards (a 16MB card is included) and CompactFlash Type I and II, which means you can use microdrives.

The lens is a 28-300mm zoom, with shutter speeds from 30 seconds (in manual mode) to 1/4000 of a second. There’s both a viewfinder with diopter correction and a 1.8-inch LCD.

The camera uses four AA batteries, so if your rechargeables die, you can resort to a set of standard alkalines and get about 140 shots.

A button pops up the integrated flash, and there’s also a hot shoe. If you don’t want to use flash, Natural Light mode kicks the ISO rating up (80 to 1600 is supported) to allow a reasonable shutter speed and prevent blurring. The anti-blur mode does the same thing. Of course, you suffer the trade-off that higher ISO shots are also noisier (grainier), so they won’t enlarge well.

This camera is a bit button-happy, but the controls don’t interfere with hand placement. The hand grip is substantial, with a thumb rest on the back, and the controls on the left of the camera don’t get in the way when you hold the lens zoom ring.

Unlike the Canon, which has a delete button, on the S9000 you have to navigate menus to erase an image you’re not happy with.

Image quality was very good, and red-eye was virtually non-existent.

HP Photosmart R817

Price: $399.99
Megapixels: 5.1
Optical zoom: 5x
Digital zoom: 8x
Warranty: 1 year

The R817 is the least expensive in our roundup, with the lowest megapixel rating, but that isn’t bad. It’s just a pocket-sized unit for people who don’t want to have to fuss with settings.

The lens is a 36-180mm zoom with shutter speeds from 16 seconds to 1/2000 of a second. The 2-inch LCD is your only choice for framing or viewing because there’s no traditional viewfinder. 32MB internal memory can be supplemented with optional SD or MMC cards.

The zoom control is arc-shaped, and fits nicely above the thumb on the back. You just need to rock your thumb to alter the zoom. Other controls are unobtrusive crystal buttons under the LCD (there’s no delete button, alas). There are all sorts of shooting modes, including portrait, beach, action and panorama. Full manual mode is also available. There’s even a camera shake warning.

It’s a small camera with, therefore, a small battery – a Lithium Ion rechargeable that gets about 135 shots. The camera mates with a little dock (included, or you can buy one of HP’s Photosmart docks) for recharging or transfer of images to a computer.

Despite slight redeye (and there’s in-camera red-eye removal available), image quality was good until exposures got long. Then they were extremely noisy.

Kodak EasyShare P880

Price: $749.95
Megapixels: 8
Optical zoom: 5.8x
Digital zoom: 2x
Warranty: 1 year

The P880 is another SLR-like camera with 24-144mm zoom lens. It’s solidly built and easy to hold, despite 16 control buttons. However, the placement of some almost guarantees an accidental wrong setting.

The Lithium Ion battery is good for roughly 285 shots.

The 2.5-inch LCD is a good size, but actually has lower resolution than the viewfinder.

Shutter speeds range from 16 seconds (in manual mode) to 1/4000 of a second, and ISO ratings can go up to 1600, but only at low resolutions.

The integrated flash must be manually opened. The P880 also has a hot shoe and sync port. There are connections for USB, external power and A/V Out, and a port for Kodak’s EasyShare printer.

Although low light images were quite noisy, other shots were crisp and clear, with good colour saturation.

Olympus SP-500UZ

Price: $479.95
Megapixels: 6
Optical zoom: 10x
Digital zoom: 0
Warranty: 1 year

The SP-500UZ is a comfortable handful, with both a 2.5-inch LCD and a viewfinder (without diopter), and a 35-380mm zoom lens. Four AA batteries run it.

However, there is no hot shoe, and the zoom is motorized and rather difficult to get to settle on the right magnification. Maximum sensitivity is ISO 400.

There are six buttons on the back. On top, there’s a mode selection dial and two more buttons. The zoom lever wraps around the shutter. All other functions are handled through menus. There’s a basic user manual in the box and an advanced manual on CD.

Storage is in 10MB internal memory (which holds one image at highest resolution) or on an xD Picture Card (not included). Image quality was pretty good. The aforementioned napping black cat could be distinguished as feline.

Pentax Optio S6

Price: $429.99
Megapixels: 6
Optical zoom: 3x
Digital zoom: 4x
Warranty: 1 year

The Optio tucks neatly into the palm of your hand, yet there are spaces where you can grip it without untoward pushing of buttons (there are only three on the back). Your thumb sits neatly on the zoom rocker. The 2.5-inch LCD is brilliant, with great resolution. There’s 23MB memory, and a slot for an SD card (not included).

Battery life is about 130 shots per charge of the Lithium Ion battery.

The lens is a 38-114mm zoom, with shutter speeds from 4 seconds to 1/2000 of a second – not spectacular, but pretty good for a camera of this size. There’s a bit of shutter lag, though, and the size of the camera means it’s easy to introduce a bit of shake.

Image quality was not bad. There was a tiny hint of red-eye in portraits and some blurring, which could have been poor focus or just a shaky hand. A flash shot across a room was a bit grainy – these little flashes don’t have quite enough oomph in that situation. Colours were good, however.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-N1

Price: $699.99
Megapixels: 8
Optical zoom: 3x
Digital zoom: 0
Warranty: 1 year

The Sony’s 3-inch touchscreen LCD can also be a picture viewer that can produce slide shows set to music. Every photo is automatically added to an album. Even if you delete them from the camera (or think you did), they don’t go away unless you separately clear the album (it holds 500 shots).

It has 26MB internal memory, and uses Sony’s proprietary Memory Stick Duo for additional storage. The Lithium Ion battery is good for about 300 shots.

The lens is a 38-114mm zoom with shutter speeds from 30 seconds to 1/1000 of a second. Sensitivity goes up to ISO 800, but things got grainy at about 200.

The huge LCD eats up most of the real estate. A small zoom rocker sits at thumb level, with a slider switch on the side controlling basic modes. Two buttons at the bottom control menu and display; everything else is run through the touchscreen.

Aside from some red-eye – predictable from a camera with the flash so close to the lens – image quality was good.

The Bottom Line

None of these cameras took truly bad pictures under good circumstances. Each, however, had its strengths. And some of those strengths were in usability. But be warned: There’s little storage in the box.

The adorable little Optio is a great shirt pocket camera at a low cost per megapixel. However, its restricted optical zoom and indifferent battery life cost it in the ratings.

Sony’s cost overrode its excellent battery life, but the huge touch-sensitive LCD could be a major plus.

Kodak’s P880 is a lovely camera with great battery life. Its weaknesses were the many buttons and some issues with image quality.

HP’s R817 fell down on battery life and zoom, despite excellent pricing and great ease of use. It’s good for those who just want to point and shoot.

Canon’s offering is a prosumer’s delight. Great battery life and usable storage, however, were offset by high price and too many buttons.

Fujifilm paid the price for inadequate initial storage despite its excellent image quality and powerful optical zoom.

Olympus fell down on warranty and storage, but picked up on price. It’s usable, despite its odd zoom, and provided decent images.

Nikon, which tied in points with Panasonic, won points for its 2 year warranty, battery life and zoom. It lost on image quality. It may be a relatively basic camera, but it will do the job.

Panasonic’s multitudinous plusses got clobbered by its price. I really liked its hand grip and button layout and the way the camera reminded you to close the flash at shutdown. Image quality was very good. It is by no means a pocket camera, however.

Would you recommend this article?


Thanks for taking the time to let us know what you think of this article!
We'd love to hear your opinion about this or any other story you read in our publication.

Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

Featured Download

CDN Staff
CDN Staff
For over 25 years, CDN has been the voice of the IT channel community in Canada. Today through our digital magazine, e-mail newsletter, video reports, events and social media platforms, we provide channel partners with the information they need to grow their business.
Previous article
Next article

Related Tech News

CDN in your inbox

CDN delivers a critical analysis of the competitive landscape detailing both the challenges and opportunities facing solution providers. CDN's email newsletter details the most important news and commentary from the channel.