Chippewa Herald * April 21, 2007  

Digital cameras offer more choices than ever

by Tom Arneberg, Community Columnist

Wow -- I just realized that it's been almost TWO YEARS since I've written a column on digital photography! There is a lot of catching up to do.

When I last wrote, in May 2005, I was excited about the long-awaited emergence of image-stabilized "superzoom" cameras in the $500 price range. I ended up going with the Panasonic FZ20, a great camera with a 12X-zoom Leica lens and a 5-megapixel sensor. (I created a quick FZ20 web page for a couple friends, that now has over 20,000 hits and is in Google's top ten search results.)

That camera is not worth talking about any more, however, as it's already obsolete. In fact, in the last two years Panasonic has come out with not one but TWO replacement models!

Their latest superzoom camera is the FZ50, which is a modest upgrade from the FZ30 that I now own. But before I get into details of those models, let's briefly explore the lower end of the market.

My exploring was involuntary. While traveling over Christmas, my FZ30 blew a fuse. Stranded without a camera halfway through a 4200-mile road trip made me break out in cold sweat. (My motto: "If you can't produce a photo of an event, you can't prove it happened.")

Fortunately, we were near Miami, so I made a bee-line to Best Buy to look for a temporary replacement.

I didn't have time for a lot of research and evaluations, but I knew I wanted a Panasonic simply so that it would have the same controls that I was used to. And I didn't want to spend too much, since I planned on getting the FZ30 fixed.

I walked out with a Panasonic LZ3. I was surprised at what you can get for that price these days! This baby sported a retractable 6X optical zoom and 5 megapixels, and can fit in your pocket.

The LZ3 performed admirably for the rest of that vacation, as well as for a weekend with the Boy Scouts in January. It has many of the same controls as more expensive cameras.

Before I glow too much over it, however, my wife might be reading this, so I'd better answer the obvious question: If this camera is so good for $150, why would I spend $500?

The main answer to that question is that a higher-end camera like the FZ50 has a much larger lens. This makes it heavier and more expensive, but allows more light to get in, which greatly increases your flexibility in composing shots (and even makes some possible that otherwise wouldn't be).

There are other advantages, such as double the zoom range, more megapixels, and a hot-shoe for an external flash. Also, the lithium-ion battery of the FZ30 cycles much faster than the NiMH of the LZ3.

Still more advantages of the larger camera are a better built-in flash (greater strength to cover more distance, and placement farther from the lens to reduce red-eye), focus-assist light, rapid-shoot ability, lens-barrel zoom and focusing, and an easier-to-hold body.

Are those features worth the $350 price differential? I guess it depends on what you want. If you just take snapshots outdoors, the $150 camera may be all you ever need. But if you like very close zoom shots, or take photos of indoor events, then the extra amount will be money well spent.

What about the high end? Digital SLRs have come down near the price of superzooms: you can get a Canon Digital Rebel with a 3X-zoom lens for $600. SLR stands for Single-Lens Reflex, which means that you can see what you're shooting through a mirror and an optical viewfinder. The main advantages of SLRs are the larger sensor size and the ability to swap lenses.

Swapping lenses gives you the ultimate flexibility -- if you can afford the cost and weight. I don't miss my old 35mm lenses at all when I'm out biking, canoeing, or hiking with my Boy Scout troop. Further, changing lenses can introduce dust into the camera internals, which is a bigger problem for digital cameras than it is for 35mm, due to the smaller sensor size.

While the sensors of most SLRs are smaller than those of old 35mm film cameras, they're still much bigger than sensors in superzooms or compacts. If I ever buy a digital SLR, the larger sensor will be the main reason. A large sensor allows a higher shutter speed to stop the action (or the camera shake). Or it means you can take photos in much lower light without a flash -- that's the feature that most appeals to me, as I take thousands of photos of musicals, concerts, and marching bands in low light.

The downside of a larger sensor size, however, is that you'd need a much bigger lens for long zoom ranges. It's hard to find more than a 3X-zoom on an SLR (without spending hundreds of dollars just for the lens), whereas my FZ30 has 12X lens built-in.

In an ideal world, I'd buy both a mid-range superzoom and a high-end SLR, and use each for what it's best at. For now, I'm sticking with my FZ30 superzoom -- it has a lot of great features over the compact cameras that I find quite useful, without the expense and lens-swapping and lower zoom range of the SLRs.

And I won't get in trouble with my wife.

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