Friday, September 02, 2005

Getting a Digital Camera

I've been planning for quite a while to purchase a digital camera. I finally bought one this week. My only camera for a long time has been a $25 point-and-shoot Olympus film camera. It doesn't take very good pictures, it has no zoom, and it's a little expensive and a bit of a hassle to develop pictures.

I wanted a new camera to take pictures of two things: my friends and the beautiful views I see when I'm hiking. These two situations are quite different, photographically. Hiking pictures are non-action shots with lots of available light, where a wide angle lens, high detail, and correct color balance are important. In contrast, pictures of my friends are often indoors with less available light and more action, so it's important to have a fast camera with good light sensitivity.

A few weeks ago I started researching digital cameras online and quickly realized that there are a huge number to choose from. After a lot of reading and talking to people who have digital cameras, I decided that I wanted a camera with the following features:
  • Good picture quality. This is a combination of three things: good optics, high resolution, and good image processing. The optics are the most important, because without a good lens, even with very high resolution, all you get are very high-resolution bad pictures.
  • Small enough to take everywhere. What good is a camera if I don't have it with me?
  • Low shutter lag (the time it takes after you press the button for the camera to actually take the picture). This is important for taking pictures of things that move, like kids.
  • Low frame-to-frame delay. Some cameras make you wait five or more seconds after taking a picture before you can take another one. I'm not that patient.
  • Manual exposure controls, because the camera doesn't always know best.
  • A big LCD screen so that I can easily show pictures to other people.
  • A good movie mode. I don't have a video camera, so I'd like to be able to record video at at least 640x480 at 30 frames per second for as long as I have memory space to fill.
  • A good flash, since I'll be taking lots of pictures indoors.
  • Good battery life.
  • Quick and easy uploading of images to my computer.
I did most of my searching online. The sites that I found most helpful were Digital Photography Review, Steve's Digicam Reviews, Digital Camera Resource Page, and PC World's digital camera reviews. My parents have a subscription to Consumer Reports Online, but I didn't find it very helpful.

After a lot of searching, I came to the conclusion that the camera I want doesn't exist. The ones that seemed to come closest were the Nikon Coolpix 5900, the Olympus Stylus 500, the Casio Exilim Z-55, and the Fujifilm FinePix F10. I ultimately decided on the F10 instead of the Coolpix (too slow), Stylus (mediocre image quality), and Exilim (poor indoor photography).

The Fujifilm Finepix F10 is a pretty small 6.3 megapixel camera with excellent image quality, very fast response time, an incredible 500-shot battery life, and most of the other things I was looking for. One especially nice feature is that it can shoot with ISO 800- and ISO 1600-equivalent light sensitivity. This means that it needs to use the flash less often when shooting indoors (or out) and that the flash is much more effective when it is used.

There are a few downsides to the F10:
  • It doesn't have manual exposure controls. While I was home during the past couple of weeks I played with my dad's Nikon Coolpix 8800. Its manual controls are excellent and can be used to achieve some interesting effects. I'd love for my camera to have similar capabilities.
  • The F10's on-screen menus are poorly designed.
  • It's necessary to plug the camera into a terminal adapter box to be able to charge it, download pictures, or output video.
  • It uses xD memory cards, which work well, but are more expensive than the more-popular SecureDigital cards. Only Fuji and Olympus use xD.
I decided that I could live with these tradeoffs and decided to buy one, but I wanted to look at one in person first. I went to the mall one night and checked four or five stores, but none had an F10. In fact, I discovered that few stores carry Fuijfilm cameras at all. A couple days later I called almost every camera and electronics store in Portland (which is not exactly a small city), including the nationally-renowned CameraWorld, but no one except Fry's Electronics had an F10. Unfortunately, they're a 45-minute drive, their price wasn't very good, and their service is horrible.

I decided to buy the camera (along with a 1GB memory card) sight unseen from Amazon. I happily discovered that there's also a $30 rebate from Fuji if you buy the camera before 1 September, and that Amazon offers $20 in free prints from Shutterfly. It arrived on Tuesday. I'll write more about it after I've had a chance to play with it.

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