Chippewa Herald * May 7, 2005

What to do when it's time for a new digital camera

by Tom Arneberg, Community Columnist

A socialite was marveling at the photographs on display at an art show. "What wonderful pictures you took," she exclaimed to the photographer. "You must have a great camera!"

Later that evening, the photographer was at her house for a dinner party. "What a delicious meal you have prepared," he said to her. "You must have top-notch pots and pans!"

Of course photography, like cooking, requires more than just good equipment. But equipment does matter. Fortunately, digital cameras continue their inexorable march toward higher quality and lower prices.

I wish I had a nickel for every time someone asked me what kind of digital camera ("digicam") to buy. That question begs another: What do you want to DO with your camera? If you just want snapshots, almost any modern digicam will be fine.

At the other extreme, I have friends who own digital "single lens reflex" (dSLR) cameras, and love them. The dSLRs that used to be $1500-$2000 a couple years ago are now under $1000. There's no question that a dSLR, with its larger sensor and better lenses, will give you the highest quality image. If I were shooting weddings or doing other professional photography, I would buy one in a second.

However, there's a price to pay for that quality. First, if you want a lot of focal length options (different magnifications), you'd have to buy several lenses. Suddenly that $800 would grow to $2000 or more. Even if money were no object, the weight and bulk of the larger body and extra lenses would make it a show-stopper for me, since I take my camera backpacking, canoeing, hiking, and just about everywhere I go. (I have been accused of having my camera case surgically attached to my hip.)

I love the digicam I've used the last three and a half years. My Olympus c2100uz is not a dSLR, but its 10X stabilized zoom lens covers every situation I need, and it weighs only 18 ounces. Its 2.1 megapixel resolution, wimpy by today's standards, is still enough for nice 8x10 color prints. I snapped it up for $500 when it was discontinued in 2001, a considerable discount from its $1300 list price.

Unfortunately, my trusty Oly is on its last legs. The 45,000 shots I've taken with it haven't slowed it down as much as the several times that I've dropped it. With a broken battery door, a broken media door, and a broken zoom lever spring, it is a delicate act nowadays to coax a photo out of it before I "lose the moment."

Because of the types of pictures I take, I can never go back to using a camera with a zoom range of less than 10X. I love taking close-up photos of people's faces without being next to them, whether it's a hiker on the trail, a player at a game, a musician in concert, or just a child laughing. (You can see some of the photos I've taken at "".)

With a long lens like that, I have also been spoiled by the image stabilization (IS) of the c2100uz. IS allows you to hand-hold your camera at slower shutter speeds at long focal lengths, so that's another requirement for me, as I rarely lug along a tripod.

I am thrilled to report that there are finally new cameras coming out that feature big IS zoom lenses, like the Sony DSC-H1, Canon S2 IS, and Panasonic FZ20. Each of these has a 12X IS zoom lens, 5 Megapixels, and a price of around $500.

In the reviews I've read so far, the Panasonic, while less known, has a slight edge with me for a few reasons. First, it has a manual focus ring and a hot shoe for an external flash. Second, it has been out for a few months, while the other two won't be available until June (which is a problem for me, since we'll be on a three-week family road trip in June -- talk about photo-ops!).

There are many other factors to consider; read some of the excellent reviews on the web to get a feel for all the trade-offs. If you don't need a long zoom, you can get a very good digicam for under $300. It all comes down to what you want to do with it.

Happy shooting!

( Author's note: after writing that article, I bought the FZ20. You can read about my experience with it on my FZ20 web page. )


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