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Diggin’the New Digital

Camera Manufacturers Say It’s Time to Throw the Kodachrome Away
Charles De Luca

Charles De Luca, product manager for Nikon USA, demonstrates the ‘Face Focus’ feature on a new digital model

When Paul Simon immortalized Kodak’s Kodachrome slide film in his 1973 hit of the same name, it’s unlikely that he realized the tune would eventually serve as a swan song for an entire medium.

Indeed, the days of film photography are nearly over, and Paul Simon fans of tomorrow will soon be Googling ‘Kodachrome’ to find out what the heck that song is about.

Like all personal electronics, new camera offerings for 2006 are trending toward smaller, sleeker styles with more capability and finer picture quality, at increasingly affordable prices, but film doesn’t even enter the picture, as this review of new camera techology reveals.

Compact, or point-and-shoot, digital cameras have eclipsed film camera sales, and sales of digital single lens reflex (SLR) cameras, those with interchangeable lenses, are expected to reach their highest rates yet this year.

Kodak itself might serve as the best illustration of the shift. Once synonymous with film, the company’s future was grim, until it caught the digital wave and secured the top sales spot in the U.S. earlier this year, topping 2004 numbers by 41%. Other companies, including digital giants like Sony and photographic staples such as Canon, Fuji, and Nikon are seeing similar success.

That’s because in terms of both cost and ease of use, digital cameras have reached the point at which they’re accessible to just about everyone. Unlike the first few digital cameras to hit the market more than a decade ago, they’re simple to operate and designed to take a beating. They come equipped with autoflash, autofocus, and red-eye reduction, use memory cards that include up to 1 GB of storage space, and nearly all include both optical and digital zoom.

They also start as low as $99, rising in price depending largely on zoom capability and the number of effective megapixels – most newly released digital cameras are capable of shooting at 5.0 megapixels or more.

Extra features also play a role in price, although many are becoming the norm as photo technology progresses. Many new digital cameras, for instance, come equipped with more than a dozen different shooting modes (portrait, landscape, and close-up or macro modes are some of the more recognizable settings; newer offerings include backlighting, panoramic assist, and dawn/dusk modes).

‘Capture modes’ are also advancing – in addition to simply snapping one photo at a time, most new digital cameras include options such as multi-shot – taking several photos with one press of a button – movie modes, which allow for digital video, and color options, which allow the photographer to take a picture in full-color, black and white, or even with sepia tones.

And photo-editing options are being seen more frequently on new camera models, and allowing for immediate red-eye correction, cropping, image sharpening, or voice memos, among other tools, before a photo is downloaded to a computer or printer. “Give Us Those Nice, Bright Colors”

A Glossary of Digital Terminology

Combined Zoom
Refers to the total zoom capability of a camera, when the optical and digital zoom are combined. Optical zoom means that mechanisms within the camera are actually moving to zoom in on the subject; digital zoom is a digital enhancement of the optical zoom.

Liquid crystal display; refers to the screen on the back of most digital cameras. The larger the screen, the easier it is to see the image and navigate through menu options.

Matrix Metering
The camera measures optimum exposure automatically, by comparing 256 areas of the frame.

One megapixel equals one million pixels, the tiny dots that create a digital photo. The more megapixels a camera is capable of using to shoot and save a photo, the better an image’s quality will be when printed, and the larger a print can be made. On a camera or in its literature, megapixels are typically denoted in numerical form, such as ‘3.1’ or ‘5.0.’ A camera with 4.0 megapixels will yield prints up to about 8×10. Most new cameras on the market have at least 5.0 megapixels.

Megabytes and Gigabytes – refer to the amount of memory available on a digital camera’s internal memory or on a memory card. A memory card with 1GB of storage space will hold hundreds of photos at a time.

Noise-reduction Mode
Reduces the ‘busy factor’ in photos taken with a long exposure – makes for a clearer photo, especially at night.

Panorama Assist
Allows you to take several side-by-side photos, then combine them later using photo editing software.

Nikon, for example, recently unveiled five new models in its Coolpix collection that offer many of the new features that are quickly becoming standard among digital cameras.

One feature common to all five models is Face Priority AF, which automatically focuses on a subject’s face to ensure clear, crisp portraits.

But the new models also add to three different series of cameras – the ‘L’, ‘S,’ and ‘P’ series, which are geared toward different types of photographers and tailor new features toward those audiences.

The P series appeals to consumers looking for the latest in advanced technology, and as such, includes one of the newest offerings among digital cameras – Wi-Fi, which allows for the wireless transfer of photos and digital video from the camera to a nearby computer or printer, and is available on the new P1 and P2 models ($549 and $399*).

“These are the first cameras to offer wireless technology,” said Charles De Luca, product manager for Nikon. “It’s a great feature if you’re, say, shooting photos at a party – the photos can be printed and ready for you without ever having to leave the fun.”

The technology also allows for the creation of slide shows, complete with music, and wireless printing with the use of the PD –10 wireless printer adapter (which De Luca said is about the size of a lemon), and a printer enabled with PictBridge, the industry standard for printing photos without the use of a computer.

Several camera, camcorder, printer, and mobile phone manufacturers are now creating PictBridge-compatible products, including Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Fuji, Kodak, Olympus, Hewlett-Packard, Panasonic, and Sony.

“The wireless capabilities open up a whole new set of options for people,” De Luca said. “With the ability to automatically create a live slide show or transfer photos to the computer, people can get their prints faster as well as send them right away to others – imagine getting a slide show of an event you can’t attend, while the event is still going on.”

Increasingly, digital cameras are being tailored to enhance those moments when they are most commonly used – during family functions, vacations, and at special events in general, and that includes the incorporation of new technology such as wireless transfer, digital video, and other features. But manufacturers have not lost sight of the style factor – many shoppers rate the look of a piece of equipment right up there with capability and durability.

Nikon’s Coolpix L series, for example, caters to the novice photographer, and the new L1, ($329) with 6.2 megapixels, features a large, 2.5-inch LCD screen set in a small, pocket-sized body.

The S series tends to appeal specifically to those in the market for stylish, designoriented electronics, and the new S3 ($379), dubbed ‘beautiful in black’ by Nikon, adds to that line, previously made up of only silver cameras.

New cameras in the Canon Digital Elph series, one of the most well-known product lines among all digital cameras, also lean heavily on design as a major selling-point.

All of the Elph models in the PowerShot line measure just a few inches, are slim in width, and come in a variety of finishes. The new PowerShot SD30 ($399) includes 5.0 megapixels and a 10x zoom, but also comes in four different colors with names like ‘Rockstar Red,’ ‘Tuxedo Black,’ and ‘Glamour Gold.’

Similarly, Fuji’s new additions to its digital line include the FinePix Z1, a product designed specifically with aesthetics in mind. Retailing for about $400, the Z1 includes a U-shaped cover that conforms to a palm, a sliding body that protects the camera’s lens while enhancing its look, and comes in both silver and black.

It also measures about 3.5 inches x 2.2 inches, following the trend toward smaller, more lightweight design that all digital camera companies are following.

Camera Ready?

B.J. Adams, a product and market analyst for Pentax, explained that it’s not typically the technical explanations of digital cameras that most shoppers find attractive, but rather the features that augment those capabilities, including compact, easy-to-use design.

That has been one goal for Pentax’s Optio line, which includes a number of cameras designed to appeal to various lifestyles. Most new digital cameras only weigh between five and seven ounces – the Optio WPi ($349) weighs in at only 4.2 ounces, and that has become one of the camera’s main selling points.

“It’s all about taking a lot and putting it in a very small package,” Adams said, noting however that while bells and whistles and snazzy design are important to many consumers at the point of sale, most will come to appreciate the capability a camera has that allow them to simply take better photos, and more of them.

The WPi is waterproof – able to take photos in five feet of water for up to 30 minutes. Perhaps more important, though, is the 6.0 megapixel camera’s versatility in many situations – during a romp with a slobbery dog, a child’s bathtime, or hike through misty mountains.

Adams dubbed it “life-proof.” “It tracks people very well,” he said, noting that not only is the camera durable, but it can also take a clear action photo and a well-framed portrait shot using a nine-point autofocus system that includes ‘sport’ and ‘pet’ modes.

The WPi was also designed to include an optical and digital zoom, like most digital cameras, but with a unique twist – while most optical zooms require a lens that extends from the camera body and can pose an added risk for damage if given a good whack, the optical zoom on the Optio WPi is actually encased within the camera. “All of the optics are inside the camera,” Adams explained, “and actually turn a corner within the camera in order to allow that design.”

Pentax is also currently featuring two other cameras as part of an overall marketing push for their ‘lifestyle’ cameras – the Optio S60, an inexpensive beginner’s model, and the istDL, a digital SLR.

“The S60 retails for $199, and is a great starter camera for anyone who is not familiar with digital photography or even with photography in general,” Adams said. “It has a help-mode incorporated into the camera that gives step-by-step directions, and the menu has a zoom, which is especially helpful for people with poor eyesight.

“There’s also room to grow and learn with this camera,” he continued. “As people learn, they can try new things, and included software allows them to share their photos online with friends and family.”

Additionally, the istDL ($799, which includes a standard lens) is marketed toward more sophisticated photographers, but includes some of the same features that many consumers are looking for – lightweight design, diverse capabilities, and durable manufacturing.

“The istDL is a great traveler’s companion,” Adams said. “It takes great photos and is compatible with a whole pool of Pentax lenses, so photographers can get creative. But it’s also one of the smallest, most lightweight SLRs out there, and that’s what people are looking for.”

…Forget About Rewind

And for those people still frightened by the prospect of a camera that doesn’t require loading those small, cylindrical canisters into the back, Adams said today’s camera manufacturers are more sensitive than some might expect.

“This is our business,” he said. “We understand completely how many changes have occurred in the photography arena, and our products are very consumer-centric. There is a bridge from film to digital, and all are welcome to cross.”

* – Manufacturer’s suggested retail price. Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]