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Point, Shoot, Share

Superzoom digital cameras are changing the face of amateur photography.

By Ben Rehder

I’m not a “real” photographer. Let’s get that straight, right up front. Until recently, the most challenging photos I’d ever taken were of my family sitting down to Easter dinner — and I considered it a successful shoot if I didn’t lop the top of somebody’s head off. But there have also been times when I’ve thumbed through this very magazine, admired the spectacular photography within, and wished I could somehow manage to capture comparable images. Well, I’ve learned that I can do just that, and so can you. All you have to do is spend thousands of dollars on top-of-the-line equipment and commit years to studying the craft. Oh, and some God-given talent doesn’t hurt.

Don’t let that discourage you, though, because there is a more realistic — and more attainable — alternative. Today’s casual outdoors photographer can achieve surprisingly good results without investing a lot of time and money. And you can do it — promise not to laugh — with a point-and-shoot camera. No, really. I learned this fact when I finally retired my ancient digital camera and bought a spiffy new Canon with a powerful telephoto lens.

I started slowly, taking simple close-ups of my dog, my wife and the deer that congregate in my backyard. The shots — even those from 50 feet away — turned out crisp, clean and vivid. It didn’t take long to realize that this camera was capable of much more than I’d been expecting. I decided to see how far I could push it.

Within days I’d snapped some superb shots of the painted bunting that visits our yard every spring and summer. The colors were truly impressive. Then I nailed a hummingbird in flight. I could practically count the feathers. It’s an understatement to say that my new camera totally blew me away. It seems that while I was paying no attention at all, point-and-shoot cameras — like other technology-based products — were enjoying a steady escalation in quality and performance. As a result, they are useful for much more than birthday parties and backyard barbecues.

“The image quality is very good,” says Ed Gonzalez, president of The Camera Exchange in San Antonio. “Every six to eight months, we have new models out, and each time, they’re better. Higher resolution, better color, better sharpness, faster performing.”

Note that point-and shoot cameras are generally divided into three categories: subcompact, compact, and superzoom. For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll concentrate on superzoom models, meaning those with telephoto capabilities ranging from 10x up to a whopping 20x. After all, if you plan to shoot a great blue heron across a creek or a whitetail jumping a fence on the other side of a pasture, you’re going to need plenty of zoom.

Okay, so you’ve narrowed it down to the superzoom category. But that doesn’t necessarily make your choice easy. There are dozens of superzooms out there, most in the $200 to $400 range, from leading manufacturers such as Canon, Casio, Fujifilm, HP, Kodak, Nikon, Olympus, Samsung and Sony. Before you arbitrarily choose one based on a proven brand name, it pays to carefully consider all the ways you’ll be using the camera. For example, in addition to outdoors and wildlife photography, will you be using the camera to capture portraits at your daughter’s upcoming wedding? For action shots at your son’s baseball games? During your once-in-a-lifetime trip to Europe? With a little due diligence, you can find a model that will deliver superb performance in all of these scenarios.

You will find, as you do your research, that your decision will likely hinge on features. Most of these “simple” cameras are loaded to the gills with all sorts of bells and whistles, such as image stabilization, face detection and exposure bracketing. Some of these features you might use regularly. Others you might never use at all. For example, even if you have the ability to record audio memos to go along with your photos, will you ever really use it? I know I won’t. Same with a feature on my camera called Stitch Assist, which allows me to shoot several horizontally overlapping photos and merge them later into a seamless panoramic image. Nifty, but nothing I’ll use on a regular basis.

It makes more sense to pay attention to the key features and performance issues that will have a direct impact on your photography. Here are a few items to consider:

The menu system

Operating your camera shouldn’t remind you of trying to solve a Rubik’s cube. Look for a menu system that’s intuitive, brightly lit and easy to navigate. It’s an added bonus if there are a couple of buttons dedicated to often-used functions, so you don’t have to access the menu system at all.

An optical viewfinder

Virtually every superzoom camera comes equipped with an LCD monitor to frame and review your shots, but the basic optical viewfinder — that little window you look through — is no longer a given. You’ll likely want one when shooting in bright sunlight, as an LCD monitor can be hard to see. Look for a camera that offers both.

Megapixels of resolution

How many megapixels do you want? That depends on your individual needs and how you’re going to use your images. “If they just want to make eight-by-tens, four megapixels is more than adequate,” says Gonzalez. But if you’d like to be able to enlarge a small portion of a shot, you’ll want at least six to eight megapixels. “The advantage of having a higher-resolution camera is that you can take a very large image and crop a lot, and take an eight-by-ten segment out of it.”

Shutter lag

Point-and-shoot cameras still have a drawback: a small delay between pressing the shutter-release button and the actual capturing of the image. “That’s the biggest complaint I hear,” says Gonzalez. “It’s a little frustrating sometimes when you press the shutter release button, and you’re shooting something moving, and it moves out of your image area.”

Performance in low-light conditions

When you’re shooting in dim light without a flash — common when photographing wildlife — your camera might automatically raise the ISO sensitivity. Quality can begin to suffer at higher ISO settings. You can end up with a shot that is grainy, fuzzy or full of “noise.” So it pays to do your homework and read reviews about specific cameras. Know which ones have ISO limitations.

Optical zoom versus digital zoom

Don’t confuse the two terms. Optical zoom is superior, because it indicates “true” telephoto capabilities, with a moving lens inside the camera. Digital zoom, on the other hand, essentially simulates the telephoto function electronically — cropping and enlarging a portion of your shot, much as you might do later with image-editing software — which results in a coarser photo. Many cameras zoom both optically and digitally, and the manufacturers tout the combined total zoom. You’ll want to read the fine print and know what you’re really getting.

Video capability

Many cameras now come with built-in video, though you shouldn’t expect the quality to match that of a dedicated video camera. Still, this feature can be useful and fun, and with a large flash-memory card, say two or four gigabytes, you can record up to a few hours of video. Note that transferring the video to your computer can be a time-consuming task that eats up a good bit of space on your hard drive. I prefer to view the video on my TV (using included cables) while simultaneously recording it onto a DVD.

As you can see, there are many factors to consider when selecting a superzoom camera. In fact, it’s easy to get intimidated by the advanced features and functions, in which case you should also consider this: I’ve toyed with most of the performance settings on my camera, and none of the resulting photos have surpassed the ones I’ve taken by simply dialing it to Auto and letting it rip. No fuss and no muss. After all, they call them “point and shoot” cameras for a reason, don’t they?

Photo Sharing Sites

You’ve snapped some great shots, and now you want to share them with friends and family, or you simply need a convenient way to manage your collection. This aspect of photography has also changed for the better. Now there are dozens of Web sites — Shutterfly, Webshots, Snapfish, Flickr and many others — to help you store, organize, print, distribute and even edit your digital photos. Membership is usually free; only when you order prints or other products will you rack up any costs.

The fact is, the majority of photos never make it to print nowadays. But for those that do, these sites deliver a level of quality that meets or exceeds that of in-store labs, kiosk processing, or desktop printing. The prices? Four-by-six prints generally cost 10 to 15 cents apiece or more. (Some sites offer a generous quantity of free four-by-sixes when you create an account.) Five-by-seven prints run well under a dollar, with price breaks on larger orders. Eight-by-tens typically cost two to three bucks.

Even better, you can invite others to access and download your entire collection, or just a particular album or slideshow, and they’ll have the option of ordering prints or other products. For instance, after you’ve had a family reunion, you can use the site to e-mail attendees with an invitation to view photos from the event.

Most of the sites offer premium services you might not expect, such as the ability to order framed prints, photobooks, DVDs, mugs, calendars, greeting cards, or even postage stamps featuring a selected photo.

All in all, these services sure beat a shoebox of prints gathering dust under the bed.

How to Choose a Site

Make sure the site uses archival-quality inks and photo papers. Also, do they offer a quality guarantee to back up their work? Read consumer reviews.

  • If you plan to order prints regularly, shop around for the best prices, or for the best sign-up incentive.
  • Ease of use for photo management varies. Most sites offer free tools or software for batch uploads. Some provide the simplicity of drag-and-drop, some don’t. Is the site easy to navigate?
  • Know whether the site will be a hassle for friends and family members. Can they download your images for free? Will they have to create an account?
  • Shipping can, in some cases, exceed the cost of your order, so check those prices before you join up.
  • If you’d like to pick up your photos rather than waiting for the mail, select a site that is affiliated with a retailer such as Target, Walgreens or Costco.
  • When in doubt, create free accounts on several different sites and explore. You’ll soon have a favorite.

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