1. CAMERA CHOICE: HOW MUCH DATA WILL DO?
Digital cameras record light as digital data. If you've always been a snapshot shooter and don't need much enlarging, today's 3-megapixel pocket cameras represent the tempting sweet spot between price and data-capturing power. But if you're the sort who likes a turbo under the hood, plasma on the wall, and flat-panel speakers for SACD sound, consider moving directly to a 6MP digital SLR. This is especially true if you plan to resume a serious hobby—if you have darkroom habits in your past and more than one Nikon F1 body in the drawer. The combination of high resolution, fast operation and lens choice is unbeatable.
The Tech Right Now
Three-megapixel pocket cameras offer a huge range of features; more expensive 5MP models are also available in the same general configurations with more manual controls.
New-generation 6MP SLR digitals have advanced dramatically over recent top SLRs.
Capacity of removable storage media continues to rise as prices plunge. As little as $60 will get you 256 megabytes. For SLRs, up to
4-gigabyte capacity is available in
a matchbook-size card.
A proliferation of scene modes and other assists makes shooting easier in tricky light conditions.
Some digital cameras can still suck battery juice faster than frat boys drain Budweisers—carry backup.
These cameras can be slow thinkers: If you push the shutter when Johnny rounds third, you may get a picture of third without Johnny in it. Take advantage of action-shot settings designed to correct the problem.
Some cameras are cluttered with menus, cryptic icons, buttons and
toggles. We suggest not buying a
camera online until you've handled it.
Even at the 5MP level, image pixelation, which is much more irritating than film graininess, remains a problem in tight enlargements. Always shoot at the highest-resolution setting.
For the Snapshot Shooter: 3MP Cameras
We tested four of the best 3MP models: Minolta's Dimage Xt, Nikon's Cool-pix 3100, Olympus's Stylus 300 Digital and Sony's Cyber-shot DSC-P8. All feature 3X optical zoom and removable memory cards. With each on full auto mode, we took several photos, then asked Popular Science photographer John B. Carnett to rate the results.
In our Coolpix test shot of a spool of thread, each strand was visible; the camera also produced the most natural flesh tones. The Minolta delivered accurate color, but details were less distinct. The Sony's images had subtle magenta shading and the Olympus's were slightly yellow. (Manually adjusting the Sony's and Olympus's settings would have improved these results.)
The Coolpix also stood out for simplicity of use (not a trait shared by all Nikon digital cameras). It offers the most scene modes (14), which automatically adjust the camera for difficult-to-take photos, and provides clear labels like "Snow/Beach" or "Night Portrait." The Sony Cyber-shot, by contrast, identifies its seven scene modes with ambiguous icons.
Three of the cameras come with rechargeable lithium-ion batteries; buy a spare ($50 to $100) and bring a charger when you travel. The Nikon comes with disposable batteries, but will take rechargeables. Sony's Memory Stick, Nikon's CompactFlash card and Minolta's SD may be easier to find on the road than Olympus's xD-Picture cards.
Our overall favorite was the Nikon Coolpix 3100, for the beautiful color and sharply defined details of its shots.
Real Digital Power: The 6MP SLRs
Today's 6MP SLRs are nearly as good as many pro-level models were not long ago. Three years ago $3,500 bought you a camera that had resolution no better than the current 3MP pocket cameras and somewhat slow shot-to-shot time. The new "prosumer" cameras achieve the fast-paced firing that pros require, and their sensors allow for stunning 8x10 inch blowups of tight crops.
Manual controls—shutter speed, aperture, contrast, data processing and lens type—give you more options as you frame pictures directly through the lens. Because these SLRs are compatible with standard 35mm lenses, photographers may even be able to use old glass on the new digital bodies. The price has plunged to just over $1,000 for a body. Right now, the Nikon D100 and Canon EOS 10D own the market, along with the Sigma SD9, which employs the new Foveon X3 sensor.
To test the cameras, we fitted each with a 28â€70mm lens from the manufacturer, as well as a Sigma 17â€35mm, and took a series of shots designed to evaluate ability to capture color, detail, edge sharpness and highlights. Thanks to advanced processing algorithms in the camera's firmware, the Nikon D100 took the sharpest pictures straight out of the box. But that's not the end of the story: SLRs allow you to manipulate raw image data on your computer using the camera's acquisition software.
In our test we converted the data into uncompressed Tagged Image Format Files (TIFFs) to adjust sharpness, color and other attributes. Sigma's software is the easiest for neophytes, thanks to clear graphics that take you step by step through each process. To adjust color in an image, you merely click on a color wheel display and drag the cursor across the wheel until you reach the shade you want. Overall, though, we found that Canon's acquisition software included the most sophisticated tools for experienced enthusiasts.
Next we imported each picture into Photoshop to make further enhancements. In Photoshop, the Canon 10D's shots overtook Nikon's, producing the best combination of color, sharpness and detail. When we added Canon's new 24â€70mm f/2.8 lens to the 10D's body, the photos got even better (as they should; the lens costs about $1,300.) Image quality is everything, and the Canon 10D is our top pick.
Be aware that the sensors used on these cameras aren't large enough to capture the full image that a 35mm lens yields on film; you lose around the edges. At the pro level, we suggest the $8,000 Canon EOS-1Ds, mainly for its full-frame, 11MP chip.
In the next couple of years, 6MP SLRs will capture full-frame images. You'll also see cameras based on a new standardized 22.5mm sensor, which will mean smaller lenses and camera bodies. Then watch as 10MP models become the SLRs of choice at the prosumer level.
—Suzanne Kantra Kirschner
The Future of Digital Cameras: A Discerning Eye
Cameras have already been wedded with cellphones. The next step: a fully wireless digital camera system. Sanyo has already demonstrated a prototype that allows photographers to instantly upload pictures to the Internet—as long
as they're in a Wi-Fi hot spot—giving the camera unlimited "storage" capability. That's just the beginning. While cameras have always functioned as a sort of artificial eye, before long they'll be supplementing your brain as well, coming loaded with intelligent image-processing software that will be able to identify what—and who—is in the picture. Your camera will know it's Grandma in the viewfinder and will be able to automatically index
all the photos in which she appears. Smal Camera Technologies, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is already working on a proof-of-concept "smart camera" system with built-in image-recognition algorithms such as human motion detection and