Sunday, July 16, 2006

Choosing a Camera

July 15, 2006

I finally ordered a camera (Canon Cybershot A620) this morning, after spending several days exhaustively (and exhaustingly) reading online reviews. There are several sites that review in more depth than most people could ever want. I googled digital camera reviews (did you see that google as a verb is now being included in new dictionaries?), and came up with at least these:

plus Cnet, and several others.

To tell the truth I'm not quite sure what I was looking at all times. There may be some overlap in the above addresses. I also tapped into some discussion forums, but they tend to be pretty scattered. I found Steve's (at least a name to latch onto on that one), and one of the DC sites to be excellent (reviews by Jeff and maybe others). In fact, I think I'll go back and print the reviews of the camera I bought. Some of them also have online tutorials, and you could practically use the sites as manuals (no printed manual for this camera) since they show every button and dial and tell how each is used.

I printed pages and pages of stuff, and went through a long question/answer routine which was supposed to pick the best camera for me, but I don't think the camera I picked was on any of those lists, although I changed my answers several times to see what different recommendations would come up. My other choices did tend to come up as one of the 20 cameras, but never at the top of the list.

Finally I narrowed my choices to four possibilities: the Canon A620 (and possibly the A700), the very small Canon Powershot SD700 IS (a beautiful little thing, costing close to $500), and in the similarly priced Canon Powershot S3 IS 12x zoom, and the very similar Sony Cybershot DSC H5. Two salesmen at Circuit City, who were very helpful, preferred the Sony to the Canon. I rather liked the simplicity of the button arrangement on the back of the Sony. There were several other differences, and ratings were very close. The Canon had an articulated LCD display, which was quite small. But, I loved the idea of having one of those to play with (shooting over a high fence, or in a crowd, or even something over your shoulder), and the ability to close it up so the display area doesn't get scratched. However, I wasn't sure I was really crazy about either of those two cameras -- they are pretty big -- a bit bigger than my defunct Olympus C3040 with its 3x optical zoom -- although the 12X stabilized zoom was a real temptation. However, when I picked up the Canon A620, which I finally found to handle at CompUSA, it felt very good in my hands, and when I looked through the viewfinder, it was very sharp.

The SD700 IS was quite wonderful, but when I thought of spending that much money, I had the feeling I wanted something that felt more like a "real" camera. I did look at the SLRs, but decided there is no way I'm ready for them at this point -- nor do I want to go backpacking with them. I was also considering the somewhat newer Canon A700, which has a 6x zoom and a larger LCD display. In truth, I've never used the LCD display for photographing, only for playback. I can see its advantages, but after a lifetime of holding cameras up to my eye, that feels best to me, and I feel it is so much easier to hold the camera steady. The tiny, not very sharp viewfinder was one thing that turned me away from the small SD700 IS, plus, as some reviewers pointed out, when you do put it up to your face, your nose smudges that beautiful large LCD display. The A620 had a great viewfinder, and what I am excited about is the articulated LCD display -- maybe I now will use it. It also will show grid lines so you can level your horizons. As I read further in reviews I found out that the viewfinders on most cameras is slightly askew, which is why I keep having to edit pictures to straighten them -- so if it looks straight in the viewfinder, on Ed's Canon A75, for example, it is actually leaning a bit to one side, so everything will be tilting a little in the picture. For some reasons, putting together all these slide shows, these crooked pictures have been driving me nuts. I really notice them. It is like walking into a house and feeling compelled to straighten all the pictures hanging on the walls.

Using the LCD would help with that. I also like the articulated LCD because when it is closed up, there's no surface to scratch. Also the lens closes up when you turn the camera off -- no lens cap to worry about, so I will be able to just throw the camera into my purse or backpack or suitcase, or stick it in the bag with the binoculars, and I won't have to worry about anything getting scratched. I like that. No extra case is necessary. The lens cap on my Olympus never wanted to stay on, and I was always forgetting to take it off before I turned the camera on. The nice leather case for that fit so tight -- forget ever getting the camera into it.

I have compromised on a kind of middle-of-the-road camera. I hope it will feel small enough so that it will be as easy to take along as to leave home (although not as small as the cell-phone, pack of cards-sized SD700), and that the 4x zoom and 700 mega pixels will be enough to keep me fairly happy. If not, since I've just paid $229 for this camera (online from, I can still afford to buy one of the 12X zooms -- and maybe in another few months or a year, they'll have made a few more improvements and have some of the bugs worked out. One drawback with the Sony was that at high zoom it got "purple fringing." The example is not nice -- but then that probably won't happen that often. It also fell down on the "burst" shooting when you can set it to do many pictures in a row. On the plus side, it had Sony TV quality video capabilities with the ability to zoom while shooting a video, which would be nice, and a very long flash, which one reviewer put as a negative, however. The Canon had the articulated, although smaller, LCD, and Canons do have an excellent reputation..

Batteries: Another factor in my decision was battery type. The very small cameras cannot, of course, use AA batteries. The others I looked at do. This means you can pick up substitute batteries anywhere, anytime, if you accidentally run out of power (as I did once in a tiny village in Switzerland), and in a pinch you don't have to wait for batteries to re-charge. The cost of AA batteries is much less than the $50 (typical price) for proprietary batteries, of which you would, of course, want at least 2. The Sony 12x takes just 2 AA batteries, which would lessen the weight a bit. The Canon A700 also takes just two. The others all take 4.

Shutter Lag: The shutter lag has apparently improved on almost all digitals. The lag time is reported to be .7 of a second, which sounds pretty good to me. It turns out the A620 is a #1 camera in popularity on several lists, and was at the top of the list in Consumer Report's ratings of compact cameras. I suppose I could have stopped research after reading Consumer Reports and saved myself several days of work. Ed says, "That's the camera I suggested you buy about 2 weeks ago!" But, of course, I had to look at everything.

The two 12x zooms are too new to be listed in CR. The predecessor to the Canon (which lacked image stabilization -- a very good thing to have) got very high marks. I still may spring for one of the 12xs in the future if I feel a need for a 12x zoom. The cameras are not nearly as bulky as SLRs, and will do several things SLRs will not do. As for differences in quality, I suspect that for most of us, in most instances, we are not going to see the difference. I did read what the NYTimes news photographers use -- top end professional Canons that cost $7,000 to 10,000. I think that is moving into another realm. I read a "professional" review of another SLR that costs "only" between $3,000 and $4,000. It was judged well worth the price and would "pay for itself" in no time. I guess if you want the ultimate in high zoom plus high light-gathering lenses, and high speed, and high resolution, which you would want for news photos, and maybe not too much weight, you have to pay for it.

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