Everywhere you look, ads for software and computers celebrate the benefits of doubling: “Double the processing power!” “Twice the capacity!” “100 percent faster download times!” Yet somehow, once you’re sitting at your desk, these leaps don’t translate into equivalent increases in personal efficiency: you don’t work twice as fast, nor is your work twice as good as it was before.
This isn’t the case with digital cameras. When a digital camera captures twice as many pixels, you
the results. You really do get twice as much information, two times as much detail, and double the clarity. There’s nothing theoretical about itthe results are right there in the photograph.
When we looked at digital cameras last year (see ”
Focus On,” October 1998), the first of the $1,000-and-under cameras had just broken the so-called megapixel barrier, capturing 1 million pixels or more per shot. This year, the number of pixels keeps climbing. One camera in our roundup, Nikon’s $999 Coolpix 950, packs more than 2 million pixels into each picture. Although earlier cameras have claimed to capture 1,600 by 1,200 pixels, they did so with the help of digital interpolation (adding pixels they hadn’t really captured). The Coolpix 950 is the real thing, the first two-megapixel camera that costs less than a new iMac.
This is a bigger deal than you might think. Nikon’s 2.11 million-pixel CCD (charge-coupled device) contains as many light-sensitive electrodes as do the image sensors in some professional-level cameras. For example, Kodak’s popular DCS 520 captures several thousand pixels
than the $999 Nikon, yet it costs $14,995. Admittedly, the DCS 520 and its ilk offer features the simple Coolpix 950 lacks, but it’s safe to say the Coolpix 950 breaks new ground. It’s as if, despite their differences, the Coolpix 950 and professional-level DCS 520 used the same kind of film. Instead of supporting wildly divergent technologies, these cameras boast similar basic components packaged differently. This is good news for buyers on a budget.
Weighing and Measuring
The Coolpix 950 isn’t the only new camera on the market. In all, we looked at 14 megapixel cameras from 11 companies and priced between $400 and $1,200 (see the table, “”14 Megapixel Cameras Compared”,” for details). The cameras ranged in weight from the stripped-down, 12-ounce Olympus D-340R ($399) to the relatively gargantuan, 29-ounce Canon PowerShot Pro70 ($1,199). Alas, none of these babies are small enough to fit in a shirt pocket; however, you can tuck all except the PowerShot Pro70 and the slightly smaller $999 Olympus D-620L into a fanny pack or purse.
In addition to evaluating size and expense, we graded the cameras based on image quality, resolution, innovation, and ease of use. After all, if you’re buying a camera for professional work, it’s important that it capture crisply focused details and accurate color transitions. You also need a responsive camera that powers up and shoots pictures with few delays (see the benchmark, “”Snap to It””). At home, the last thing you want to do is wage war with yet another machine, so convenience is king. Straightforward controls, flexible image transfer, and spiffy image quality even in low-light conditions are paramount.
This bushel is not without its bad apples, but although you may want to avoid a few, the group as a whole appears to be heading in the right direction. Two cameras in particular stood out from the crowd. The $699 D-400 Zoom, from Olympus, is a first-rate camera for home use. Meanwhile, Nikon’s Coolpix 950 is perfect for professionals.
Resolution and Interpolation
Five years have passed since Apple released the $749 QuickTake 100, the first camera under $1,000 to capture 640 by 480 pixels in 24-bit color. Thankfully, the state of the art has improved dramatically since then. The least-equipped camera in our roundup, the Olympus D-340R, costs about half as much and captures four times as many pixels as the old QuickTake. The higher concentration of pixels means you can print an image at larger sizes without revealing noise, compression artifacts, and other digital defects.
Sizing Your Snapshots
Of the 14 cameras we looked at, 7 are solid megapixel devices. Their photosensitive CCDs, the digital equivalent of film, capture 1,280 by 960 pixels for a rough total of 1.2 million pixels per image. (The CCD actually captures
pixels than this, but some are masked out and don’t make it to the picture.) What does this mean in practical terms? At 256 pixels per inch, roughly equivalent to the commercial standard for offset printing, you’ll be able to print the pictures you take with these cameras as big as 5.0 by 3.75 inches. Go any larger than that and blocky pixels become visible.
Three camerasthe $599 Fuji MX-600 Zoom, the Olympus D-620L, and the $599 Toshiba PDR-M3add a few pixels vertically, nudging the print size to 5.0 by 4.0 inches. Minolta’s $899 Dimâge EX Zoom 1500 snaps 5.25-by-3.9-inch photos.
The three remaining cameras provide more-substantive enlargements. Canon’s PowerShot Pro70 and Kodak’s $999 DC265 capture 1,536 by 1,024 pixels, equivalent to a 6-by-4-inch print. The Nikon Coolpix 950’s 1,600 by 1,200 pixels translate to a 6.25-by-4.7-inch photographthat’s 50 percent more picture than you can get from the 1,280-by-960-pixel crowd.
Sometimes it’s not so easy to figure out how many pixels a camera can capture. Agfa’s $799 ePhoto CL50, Epson’s $799 PhotoPC 750Z, and Sanyo’s $899 VPC-Z400 all claim to support resolutions as high as 1,600 by 1,200 pixels, but these cameras are in fact limited to 1,280 by 960 pixels. They all use interpolation to achieve their inflated resolutions. None of the interpolated images held up to the authentic pixels the Nikon Coolpix 950’s higher-resolution CCD captured.
Innovations and Blunders
Three years ago, Casio proved its digital camera could go where no film camera had gone before by including a color LCD screen. The LCD showed you the exact image projected onto the CCD inside, giving you a more accurate preview than an optical viewfinder would.
This trend continues with advances in LCD, flash, and focus. For example, in addition to providing ultrasmooth LCD image previews, the Agfa, Epson, and Sanyo models allow you to pop the top of the LCD so that sunlight can shine in and backlight the screen. Not only does this conserve powerthe LCD is the camera’s biggest power drawbut it also brightens the LCD screen when you’re shooting outdoors in direct light, conditions under which a synthetically lit LCD is too dim to be visible.
Sordid LCD Tales
Given the importance of a good LCD preview, you’ll want to think twice before buying the Casio, Kodak, or Minolta models. The screens on these cameras are both grainy and unusually sensitive to movement. Each time you shift the camera to a new position, the subject blurs or separates into its RGB components, making it difficult to frame moving and still targets alike.
The $699 Casio QV-7000SX exhibited another problemthe framing shown before and after snapping a picture didn’t match, so the perimeter of the shot appeared to get cropped away. Given the fact that the Casio is the only model that lacks an optical viewfinder, such a ratty LCD is unforgivable.
Finally, note that the Olympus D-620L lacks an LCD preview altogether. Because the camera’s SLR (single-lens reflex) design lets you frame the shot through the same lens the camera uses to shoot, Olympus deemed an LCD preview unnecessary. If your eye becomes quickly fatigued squinting through a tiny viewfinder, you may not agree.
New Ways to Flash
Strobe flashes have hardly been a high point for digital point-and-shoot cameras in the past, but the new models are making important headway. Every camera but the Canon PowerShot Pro70 includes a built-in flash. Canon forgoes the flash in favor of an accessory shoe that allows you to slip on a standard detachable flash unit. This means less-severe light, with reduced risk of red-eye and other snapshot spoilers. You can even select from predefined aperture settings to accommodate different brands of flashes.
Three other camerasthe Kodak DC265, Nikon Coolpix 950, and Olympus D-620Loffer a hot-sync port to trigger an external strobe, which means you can shoot under more-balanced light in a studio setting. In each case, you must purchase the hot-sync cable separately from the manufacturer.
Sometimes you may not want to use a flash at all. For example, low-light shots often look better with no flash than with the harsh lighting of a consumer strobe. In this situation, one camera outperformed the others. When shooting neon at night in Las Vegas, the Olympus D-400 Zoom did the best job of capturing colorful, sharply focused images without the help of a flash or tripod.
Forays in Focus
LCD and flash aren’t the only areas of innovation in digital photography. If you’re looking for a camera that can take extreme close-ups, the Olympus D-400 Zoom is good and the Casio QV-7000SX and Olympus D-340R are even better, focusing as close as a finger’s length from an object. The best of the bunch is the Nikon Coolpix 950, which can focus from just 0.8 inch awayclose enough to capture the individual dots on a computer screen.
The Nikon also boasts the most-sensitive autofocusing, with more than 4,000 steps of focus, sufficient to distinguish each millimeter of depth from the next. We spent a lot of time fighting with the autofocus of the Canon PowerShot Pro70 and the Olympus D-620L. The Canon camera permits you to take close and long shots alike in its “macro mode,” but it frequently gave warnings and failed in low-light environments. The Olympus absolutely refuses to shoot a picture if the autofocus can’t lock on the subject, which happens as often as not.
Design and Usability
Whether you are shooting a product out in the field or capturing your kid’s birthday party, you need a camera that’s ready to take pictures whenever you are. This means a reliable power supply, quick and easy zoom controls, and lots of expandable storage. Take away any one of these, and you risk having the perfect shot slip off into fleeting memory.
Never-Ending Need for Power
Unlike film cameras, digital cameras can’t work without electricity. Mercifully, eight of the cameras ship with rechargeable batteries, which means you’ll not only spend less on disposable cells but you’ll also be able to shoot longer on a single charge.
The Epson PhotoPC 750Z, Kodak DC240 and DC265, Minolta Dimâge EX Zoom 1500, and Olympus D-620L ship with four AA NiMH cells and a charger. The Canon, Fuji, and Toshiba models rely on custom batteries. The Fuji and Toshiba cameras let you charge the battery by simply plugging the camera into a wall socket. But the AA cells represent the more flexible solutionif the rechargeable batteries run out of juice, you can toss in a set of disposable ones.
All but the Olympus D-340R offer a telephoto lens. The Casio zooms by 200 percent, the Canon by 250 percent, and the others by 300 percent. All zooms are motor-driven, but some are more responsive than others. The Casio and Kodak cameras suffer from “leaping” zooms; the slightest touch of the zoom control has a dramatic effect on the focal length, making fine framing adjustments difficult.
Storing Your Shots
All 14 cameras provide expandable memory in the form of a SmartMedia card or the more durable CompactFlash card. More memory means you can take more pictures at high-quality settings before you have to return to your computer and transfer the images to disk.
Kodak’s DC265 bests the others by shipping with a 16MB CompactFlash card. Epson’s PhotoPC 750Z comes in second with an 8MB CompactFlash card and 4MB of flash RAM on board. Canon’s PowerShot Pro70 includes an 8MB CompactFlash card and permits you to plug in an optional second card at the same timehelpful if you want to shoot lots of pictures without swapping media.
Most of the other cameras include 8MB of removable memory. The exceptions are the Fuji MX-600 Zoom, Olympus D-340R, Sanyo VPC-Z400, and Toshiba PDR-M3, each of which bundles a 4MB SmartMedia card. The $399 Olympus D-340R is inexpensive enough to justify the reduced memory, but the others are just plain skimpy. The Sanyo VPC-Z400 is particularly miserly; despite costing $100 more than its twin from Agfa or Epson, it lets you shoot fewer pictures at a time.
Giving Serial the Slip
These memory cards are also important for a different reasonthe new Macs’ lack of a serial port. However, the cardsand the adapters that let you use them with your Macare not hassle-free.
The FlashPath adapter lets you transfer pictures from a SmartMedia card using a standard floppy-disk drive. Unfortunately, it’s incompatible with Imation’s SuperDisk drive, which rules it out for many iMac and new-Power Mac G3 owners.
If your Mac has USB ports, you can purchase a $99 memory drive. We tested SanDisk’s ImageMate (888/216-2489,
), which reads and writes CompactFlash cards, and Hagiwara Sys-Com’s FlashGate (800/358-7267,
), which does the same for SmartMedia. Both worked fine with every machine on which we tested them.
For PowerBook owners, the best and least-expensive solution is a PC Card adapter. You can purchase a CompactFlash adapter from SanDisk and several other vendors for $19. Canon includes a free PC Card adapter with its PowerShot Pro70. A SmartMedia adapter from Olympus, Fuji, or Toshiba costs $79. None of these require any special drivers or other software.
One last device, Iomega’s $249 Clik drive (800/697-8833,
), lets you copy images from a CompactFlash or SmartMedia card to a 40MB Clik disk. The 6-inch-long drive is smaller than many cameras, making it easier to haul around than a PowerBook. A Clik disk costs about $10compared with about $150 for a 40MB CompactFlash cardso you can store more pictures at a fraction of the price. The problem is that in order to get the images from the Clik to your hard disk,
you need a PC
. Iomega plans to release a Mac-compatible USB docking station later this year.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
Canon PowerShot Pro70
Olympus D-400 Zoom
Nikon Coolpix 950
It really makes our job easier when one camera thoroughly trounces its competition. It’s not that the other cameras are badthe Kodak DC265 and Olympus D-620L in particular take great picturesit’s just that the Nikon Coolpix 950 is truly exceptional. It captures as many pixels as cameras costing 15 times as much; it can focus on absolutely anything; and it’s a whiz at metering light, even in high-contrast settings. The Coolpix 950 is so good, in fact, that it will easily stand up against many of the competing two-megapixel cameras scheduled for release later this year.
If convenience and ease of use are paramount, several cameras fit the bill. We really appreciated the solar-aided LCD, wealth of memory, and rechargeable batteries the Epson PhotoPC 750Z provided. It’s also the only device to include a power lock, so you can’t accidentally turn it on. The similar Agfa ePhoto CL50 lacks rechargeable batteries, but its menu and zoom controls were easier to work with.
But if you had to pick one camera to take on a social occasion, it would be the one that would get the right shot without any fuss: the Olympus D-400 Zoom. Its compact design, smooth LCD display, low light requirements, and first-rate image quality give it an edge. Plus it ships with a FlashPath adapter, making it the only camera other than the Canon and Kodak models to provide a way to download pictures to your computer without resorting to the serial connection.
After all, the days of tethering digital cameras to a Mac are over. Now you can shoot your picture, remove the film card, and stick the card in your computer. At last, the camera works just like any another removable-media driveone that sees and records the world.
EDITORS’ CHOICEBest Professional CameraBest Personal Camera
Olympus D-400 Zoom
Of all the cameras tested, this
one was the most likely to get a good shot with the least amount of fuss.
Company’s estimated price:
Reviews you can trust
Macworld rates only final shipping products, not prototypes. What we review is what you can actually buy.
Contributing Editor Deke McClelland is the author of Real World Digital Photography (Peachpit Press, 1999).
The Proof Is in the Pictures
The most important measure of any digital camera is the quality of its photographs. Unfortunately, this also happens to be the hardest criterion to judge.
If you shoot a scene with a group of cameras and compare the images uncorrected, all you’ll discover is the camera that works best with one particular computer setup. Whether that camera will work equally well with your system is anyone’s guess.
Because none of these cameras automatically embeds color profiles, there’s no way for a piece of software to “develop” the photograph automatically so it looks its best from one system to the next. I did the next-best thing: After shooting five photographs of a still life with each camera at its highest-quality setting, I selected the best image from each and developed it manually inside Photoshop. I limited myself to gamma adjustmentsapplied equally to all channelsand uniform applications of Unsharp Mask. The results, shown here, better represent what a reasonably informed Mac user can expect to achieve.
Even under controlled conditions, the images developed quite differently. Several cameras read the grape iMac mouse as blue instead of violet. Also worth noting, the mouse pad should be emerald green, not teal. The background contains the grays and browns shown in the Kodak DC265 photograph, not the yellow of the DC240 photo or the reds the Fuji MX-600 Zoom and Toshiba PDR-M3 invented.
More worrisome than these color shiftswhich are to varying extents correctableare occasional omissions of detail. The Kodak DC240 was the worst offender, erasing the border between the cup and the neighboring daffodil petals. The image from the Canon PowerShot Pro70 is rife with flat hot spots. The Casio and Minolta images suffer from too much contrast; each sacrifices definition in the shadows behind the cup and the light areas inside the flowers.
The Agfa, Epson, and Sanyo models all performed very well, with the Olympus D-340R just a bit soft. The Olympus D-400 Zoom deserves special commendation for outstanding attention to crisp detail and tactile modeling, as does the Olympus D-620L, although its colors are slightly jaundiced.
The Kodak DC265 is the champion of color accuracy, nailing the distinction between the warm white of the daffodils and the cool white of the cup. But the clear overall winner is the Nikon Coolpix 950. If you enlarged each of these images to poster size, you’d see an attention to authentic form and detail in the Nikon photograph that the others can’t match.
Picture Perfect Cameras
For the high resolution version of the image use the links below the thumbnails.