Here's news you already know: Digital cameras just keep getting sharper, more feature-packed, and more affordable. Point-and-shoot cameras with 2-megapixel resolution have all but been replaced by models with truly 8-by-10-inch-print-worthy, 3 or even 4-megapixel clarity. Cameras with 5-megapixel resolution and sophisticated mixes of automatic and manual controls are rapidly entering the mainstream. Price-wise, the mass-market sweet spot has slid from $500 to $300 to $200.
But you might still be surprised by the speed of price deflation and feature escalation. The annual Photo Marketing Association (PMA) trade show in Las Vegas earlier this month brought a flood of fabulous new digital cameras or at least fabulous new announcements, with most products not scheduled to reach store shelves until March, April, or May. Here's a roundup to bring you up to speed and launch your next camera buying plan; we ignore pixelation-prone interpolated or digital zoom, so unless otherwise specified, all references below to 3X, 7X, or whatever refer to "real" or optical zoom.
Power to the Pocket
Casio's Exilim models have helped spur the rise of ultra-compact, shirt-pocket- or credit-card-sized cameras. Now Casio is addressing user gripes that such units' itsy-bitsy batteries last for relatively few shots: The EX-Z40, a 4-megapixel (2,304 by 1,728) deck-of-cards camera with 3X zoom and 2.0-inch LCD monitor, promises 2.5 times the battery life of current Exilims 360 photos on a charge according to the standard procedure for measuring digital still camera battery consumption introduced by the Camera & Imaging Products Association (CIPA) last December. It'll ship at the end of April for $400.
Stepping up to the Exilim Pro EX-P600 gets you 6-megapixel (2,816 by 2,112) resolution, 4X zoom, a swift 2-second startup time and 0.01-second shutter release lag, and auto bracketing for one-press variations of exposure, white balance, and focus position. It's priced at $650.
Speaking of shutter lag, Kyocera Optics' favorite word for 2004 is RTune a high-speed, pipelined imaging technology that the company says eliminates lag time and other barriers restricting the transfer of digital images to the memory card.
In the upscale Contax SL300R T, it permits full-memory, full-image-size (3.2 megapixels or 2,048 by 1,536) continuous shooting at 3.5 frames per second. The magnesium-cased, black-leather-accented slimline offers 3X zoom, a 1.5-inch LCD, and a $500 price tag. The RTune implementation in the $400 Kyocera Finecam SL400R promises even faster 3.3-fps continuous shooting at even higher (4-megapixel or 2,272 by 1,704) resolution; the company says the SL400R is the world's thinnest 3X-optical-zoom digicam (3.9 by 2.5 by 0.6 inches).
Kyocera's Finecam M410R ($500) combines 3.3-fps RTune with a new autofocus mode that allows continuous AF shooting at 2 fps; it's a 4-megapixel camera with 10X zoom.
In (More) Living Color
The legendary Polaroid brand is now just a brand, rented by Hong Kong's World Wide Licenses Ltd. for digital cameras distributed by cordless-phone company Uniden America Corp. But photography buffs are still eager to see the Polaroid x530 slated to ship in June for $399, because the 4.5-megapixel camera is the first point-and-shoot model to use the Foveon X3 direct image sensor formerly found only in four-figure-price professional units.
Compared to traditional CCD image sensors, Foveon's technology uses three layers of pixels akin to color film's three layers of emulsion to capture red, green, and blue color values at every point. According to Uniden, this lets the x530 capture brilliant 8 by 10-inch images with warm tones and rich colors. The 3X-optical-zoom camera also captures 30-fps, VGA-resolution video and comes with Foveon software that lets users adjust the light balance in images after they've been captured.
Getting back to conventional CCDs, Canon USA's 2004 Digital ELPH compact lineup includes its first 5-megapixel model, the PowerShot S500. The $499 camera measures 3.4 by 2.2 by 1.1 inches and includes 3X zoom, a 2.2-frames-per-second burst mode, 1.5-inch LCD, and autofocus range from 2 inches to infinity.
Other new Digital ELPHs include the 4-megapixel (2,272 by 1,704), 3X-optical-zoom PowerShot S410, priced at $399, and the 3.2-megapixel PowerShot SD110 ($299), Canon's smallest model to date with optical zoom (3.2 by 2.2 by 0.9 inches, 2X zoom).
For more sophisticated shooters, Canon's also adding a 3.2-megapixel, 10X-optical-zoom PowerShot S1 IS, whose image-stabilization technology permits shooting at shutter speeds two stops lower than would otherwise be possible. Instead of 30- or 60-second mini-movies, the $499 camera can capture up to an hour of 30-fps, 640 by 480-pixel video when fitted with a 1GB CompactFlash card.
Finally, Canon's new top-of-the-line PowerShot Pro1 ($999) combines an 8-megapixel (3,264 by 2,448) CCD sensor and 7X zoom lens the first of Canon's best-of-the-best "L-series" designation to appear in a compact digital camera with both TTL contrast-detection autofocus (like that of other PowerShots) and external triangulation autofocus (like the company's high-end 35mm SureShots). Shutter speeds range from 1/4,000 to 15 seconds, with automatic and custom mode controls similar to those of Canon's EOS digital SLRs. All the new Canon cameras are expected to reach retailers in April.
Pentax USA has bolstered its Optio compact line with a digital still/movie camera. Due in June for $400, the palm-sized OptioMX captures VGA-resolution MPEG-4 movies as well as 3.2-megapixel stills; it has 10X zoom and an ergonomic grip handle with articulating LCD monitor.
The 4-megapixel, 3X-optical-zoom Optio S40, aimed at digital camera newbies, is a 3.5 by 2.3 by 1.0-inch compact with not only prefab portrait, landscape, and night-scene but sunset, snow, surf, and art-museum (no flash) modes for various lighting environments and another mode Pentax says is "specially designed to bring out the vivid color and intricate detail of flowers." It has 11MB of built-in memory plus an SD/MultiMedia Card slot. The $200 Optio30 is a similar model with 3.2-megapixel resolution and even more "lifestyle-oriented" shooting modes Pet, Party, and Food.
Fuji Photo Film USA is bolstering its entry-level lineup with the 3.2-megapixel FinePix A330 ($200) and 4-megapixel FinePix A340 ($250). Both offer 3X zoom; 4-inch macro focusing; portrait, landscape, night, and sports mode settings; and standard 16MB xD Picture Cards.
Professional photographers can check out the Fujifilm FinePix S20 Pro ($999), a compact SLR-type, 6X-optical-zoom camera with a 6.2-megapixel (2,832 by 2,128) Super CCD sensor and both USB 2.0 (define) and IEEE 1394 (define) image transfer. A live-video function lets portrait photographers view their subjects on a monitor without having to rely on the camera's LCD or electronic viewfinder. If that's not impressive enough, the FinePix S3 Pro (price and ship date to be announced) will have a whopping 12.3-megapixel Super CCD sensor with a wider dynamic range to capture highlight and shadow detail often lost in high-contrast scenes, plus both horizontal and vertical shutter release buttons for portrait and landscape shooting.
Konica Minolta Photo Imaging USA's Dimage Z2 boasts the rapid autofocusing and both 30-fps VGA and 15-fps SVGA (800 by 600) movie recording of its predecessor, while adding 4-megapixel (2,272 by 1,704) resolution and a 10X zoom lens. The 4.2-ounce, 0.8-inch-thick Dimage Xg is a 3.2-megapixel slimline with 3X zoom.
The SLR-type Dimage A2 offers an 8-megapixel (3,264 by 2,448) sensor, 7X zoom, and a superfine, VGA-resolution viewfinder as well as a 1.8-inch LCD. It also incorporates CCD shifting technology that Konica Minolta says reduces the effect of camera shake up to eightfold.