December 13, 2007

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Inside your digital camera
A holiday guide that’s actually useful
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

It’s a credit to their continuing improvement that digital cameras remain one of the top gifts each and every holiday season.

Whether you’re Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Wiccan, Zoroastrian or agnostic, chances are that you or someone you know has one on their wish list. Heck, I’ll bet even the Amish love ’em.

There’s such a range of choices now that it’s easy to get confused. What makes that $300 model worth twice as much as the $150 one advertising itself as “budget-minded”? And does that make the $60 deal you picked up really lousy?

As with every kind of gift, the same features won’t necessarily appeal to everyone. If you know what all those marketing phrases mean, you can make a better choice for your giftee. Or, let’s be honest, for yourself.

I’ll start with a review for experienced digital camera shoppers and move on to some new features that have become widespread in the past few months.

• Megapixels: It’s hard to find a camera being sold now that doesn’t have an adequate number of these. Unless you’re set on printing huge posters of your snapshots, anything above 5 megapixels will be more than adequate, and might even be overkill if you’re unwilling to spring for a big memory card. More important to picture quality is the camera’s lens; generally speaking, glass is better than plastic and large is better than small.

• Zoom: Optical zoom mechanically manipulates the camera’s lens, enlarging a picture before it’s recorded. That’s good. Digital zoom simply inflates the pixels that are already there, making a small, blurry picture a larger, blurrier picture. That’s stupid. Most decent cameras have a 3x optical zoom. Ignore the digital zoom.

• Image stabilization: Sort of like zoom, in that the optical variety is far preferable. Some cameras mount the lens or recording chip in a type of shock mount, minimizing the effect a shaky hand has on photo sharpness. Those with digital stabilization use various electronic tricks to achieve a vaguely similar effect. Samsung, for example, touts their “Advanced Shake Reduction” (ASR) feature, when all it does is step up the shutter speed and light sensitivity. That results in less blurry pictures, sure, but they’re also grainier.

• Face detection: Great for portraits. Not so great if you want to take a picture of Aunt Mabel’s bizarre purple Christmas tree rather than Aunt Mabel’s bizarre purple makeup job. Some cameras are capable of recognizing multiple faces in one frame.

• Shooting modes: More and more cameras are taking the difficulty out of taking beautiful shots by pre-programming key settings and assigning them an icon or name on a dial or menu. If your giftee (or you) wants this camera for a particular kind of shot (sports, food, real estate, scenic vistas, etc.) but doesn’t want complex manual controls, see if there’s a model with a preset that seems to fit.

• Free printers: Whenever you’re buying a digital camera, look for rebates on photo printers. Canon, Epson and HP often have rebates that are good with the purchase of any brand digital camera. How cool will you be when you present not one but two gift-wrapped boxes?