It's remarkable how quickly digital cameras have matured.
Four years ago, the image quality was barely comparable to videotape. Now, with the recent introduction of 3.3-megapixel cameras, 35mm film is being given a run for its money.
Equally remarkable has been the (admittedly dwindling) persistence of naysayers. Though short-sighted, the "digital cameras will never replace film" sentiment made sense in 1996, when most digital photos were at a lower resolution than your Windows desktop. But I was astonished when, earlier this year, a passerby interested in the Kodak
DC290 I was using made that very same comment.
My feeling is that the technology may have progressed a little too quickly; so much so, there are those whose preconceptions still have yet to catch up. I wish I could have shown that passerby a photo I took later that day: a friend, recently returned from Morocco, had intricate henna tattoos covering her hands which I photographed from about three feet away. When I later downloaded the photos, I was surprised to see not only the details of the tattoos, but of the lines of her palm--and the DC290 isn't even a true 3.3-megapixel camera, as it interpolates from a 2.1-megapixel CCD.
If the DC290 was surprising, the three 3.3-megapixel cameras I've since played with (the Canon PowerShot S20, the Casio QV-3000EX, and the Olympus C-3030 Zoom) are downright stunning.
Serious photographers will be happy to note that the 2048 x 1536 images can be reproduced at 10" (25 cm) wide--maybe more, depending on the paper and the JPEG compression settings--and remain indistinguishable from a 35mm snapshot. All three cameras turned in sharp, colorful images, picking up fine details in woven material and even the stubble on my seemingly clean-shaven jaw.
They will also be happy that all three cameras fared equally well when I used them in a variety of environments: indoors, outdoors, sunny, cloudy, well-lit and dark. Unlike some of the basic, no-frills cameras of yesteryear, these cameras provide some of the same controls as a traditional single-lens reflex (SLR) camera such as manual focus, aperture, and shutter speed. The Olympus camera wins here, as every such option can be manual or automatic independently of each other. The Casio meets you halfway by allowing you to give priority to either shutter speed or aperture (when one is fixed, the camera will automatically adjust the other), and the PowerShot S20 provides a limited range of control over these settings (for example, shutter speed can be either "fast" or "slow").
Where things get interesting is in actually using these settings. While I appreciate the increasing influence of computer technology in photography, I am always frustrated that the unnecessarily obtuse design choices that still plague some software packages have crept into digital cameras. A good case in point is the QV-3000EX; after pressing the Mode button, the LCD screen presented me with a 3D dial with which I could select one of the eight recording modes. The icons are perplexing enough at that resolution that I didn't even notice the mode name at the top of the screen. When I did, the grouping was confusing enough that I wasn't sure of how things worked. What happens if I'm in Landscape mode and I switch to Night Scene? Does that preclude a nighttime landscape? Although only a minor speed bump on the learning curve, the distraction from the important stuff (the photo I wanted to take) rankled me just enough. I found the Canon had the best system, using predominantly text with a minimum of icons. The Olympus came a close a second.
The QV-3000EX is also the most annoying when it comes to transferring images to a PC. The PowerShot S20 and the C-3030 Zoom both use a simple thumbnail system, from which you can select any or all of the images to download. The QV-3000EX Photo Loader software, however, works with your Web browser to navigate through the images. This isn't a bad idea in and of itself. In fact, I think it's a great idea. It's just but the execution that leaves a little to be desired. Photo Loader manages your images as libraries, adding an extra layer of organization and, consequently, clicking. For instance, selecting Photo Loader's View option gives you only five thumbnail images per library; you can then select the library you want to view, giving you the rest of the thumbnails. Downloading the images themselves from the browser is also counter-intuitive and tedious.
Stacked against the image quality and the breadth of features, these are minor flaws. Choosing a favorite among these cameras is difficult, as each has something to recommend it over the other. Personally, I would choose the Canon PowerShot S20 or the Casio QV-3000EX because my photos tend to be more spontaneous; I'd want to quickly change a few basic settings and fire off a couple of shots before the moment's lost. For more careful compositions, I would recommend the Olympus C-3030 Zoom, if only for the complete control you have over everything.
Another deciding factor for the undecided consumer might be the extras, but to truly delve into each camera's features would require far more space than I have here; just detailing features like movie capturing (the Olympus and the Casio) and built-in photo-stitching utilities (the Casio and the Canon) could easily double the size of this article. Suffice it to say that each model comes with a reasonably sizeable manual which should be read cover to cover to appreciate how advanced these cameras have become.
These three cameras are merely the opening salvo for the next generation of digital cameras.
And while people revise their perceptions, so too will collateral devices and software need to be revised. The QV-3000EX and the PowerShot S20 can both accept IBM 170 MB or 340 MB Microdrives, presenting a clear upgrade path for shutterbugs who don't want to manage a few dozen memory cards for extended projects. On the flip side, ThumbsPlus
4.1--my favorite image-management utility--regularly choked on my directories full of 2048 x 1536 photos. It looks like we'll all have some adjusting to do; after all, it's now a 3.3-megapixel world. We all just live in it.