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Digital Still Cameras

Sony DSC-707

By Carter B. Horsley

Digital still cameras have come a long way fast and have reached the threshold of really being able to replace traditional film cameras for most users.

They come in many shapes and sizes and a rather bewildering array of controls and features.

When they first began to appear on the market a few years ago, consumers were faced with relatively simple choices between low-cost point-and-shoot models that offered pretty low resolution that was fine for use on the World Wide Web or for small snapshots and expensive and bulky units that often offered the option of interchangeable lens and resolution good enough for medium-size prints.

In 2001, several manufacturers, such as Sony, Minolta, Olympus, Fuji and Nikon introduced models that were capable of sufficiently high enough resolution, 5 megapixels or more, to produce 11-by-14-inch prints of good quality. Canon and Contax were also planning similar models.

These digital cameras are capable of producing 8-by-10-inch prints that are virtually indistinguishable from traditional film cameras, assuming the user has the right computer software and printer and the results at 11-by-14 and 13-by-19-inch are quite acceptable generally.

The main trade-off now is that traditional film cameras offer a much broader and better quality range of lenses, but Canon, Nikon and Contax offer expensive models that can use their extensive line of lenses. The technology, however, has been moving so quickly in the last couple of years that many users are postponing such purchases and getting less expensive, although not cheap, models that have limited capabilities in terms of optics but can still take care of most requirements.

There are many factors to consider in buying a digital still camera: resolution, zoom range, the "speed" of the lens, memory storage, ergonomics, size, battery life, accessories, special features and price.


Digital cameras offering 1 to 1.5-megapixel resolution can now be bought for about $300. This resolution is fine for the Web and can produce, with some computer manipulation, nice 3-by-5-inch prints. The next level of about 2-to-2.5 megapixels can now be bought for about $500 to $800 and can produce very good 4-by-6-inch prints and not bad 8-by-10-inch prints. Digital cameras in the 3-megapixel range sell for about $800 and up and produce very good 8-by-10-inch prints and cameras in the 4-megapixel range sell for about $1,000 and up and produce good 11-by-14-inch prints. The 5-megapixel cameras generally sell for about $1,000 to $2,000 and produce very good 11-by-14-inch prints.

Virtually all these cameras are capable of taking pictures are lower than their highest resolution, which means that more pictures can be stored on their storage media and less time is involved in transferring the images into, and working on them in, a computer.

Some new printers from Sony, Epson, Hewlett Packard and Olympus, among others, can permit users to bypass transferring images from a camera and print directly from the camera's storage media. Not all these printers, however, accept all storage media and some only print snapshots and others are limited to 8-by-10-inch prints.

While there is no question that more resolution is better because it offers greater detail and less "jaggie" artifacts, it also results in substantially larger computer files. Some of the first digital cameras only were capable of producing 640-by-480-pixel resolution at 72 pixels-per-inch, a resolution that was adequate for displaying images on the Web, but not very good for printing. The new five-megapixel cameras actually produce images, and files, that are about 20 times bigger before they are resized. While these cameras offer various modes of file compression, the difference in loading and manipulating such images is substantial, especially when one considers that one may be working with 10 to 20 such images at a session.

(There are several types of "resolution": lens, sensors, computer monitor, and printer. Lens resolution is determined by testing its ability to clearly distinguish test patterns and these results, published in some photography magazines, are not generally advertised by manufacturers. Sensors are the electronic devices within the cameras that "capture" the image and they come in different sizes, usually measured in inches, and resolutions, usually measured in "megapixels." Most sensors are considerably smaller than the traditional 35-mm film size and as a result the lens are generally smaller and the lens size usually has to be "translated" into its 35-mm equivalent and not all "multiples" are the same. A larger sensor does not necessary mean higher resolution but there can be a difference in the size of the "pixels" and larger pixels generally result in better pictures. Manufacturers usually do not specific the size of the pixels but do provide information on the size of the sensor and the number of pixels. Today's computer monitors are capable of many different resolutions. Originally they were 640-by-480, but 800-by-600 soon became the standard although larger monitors, 19 inches and more, are capable of showing considerably higher resolutions that most people can read easily. Images displayed on the monitor vary in size depending on the resolution setting for the monitor. Printer resolution is measured in dots-per-inch, or dpi, and most images are printed at 150 dpi or more and many printers are capable of 720 dpi or more. One may view an image at 150 ppi on the monitor but chose to print at 720 dpi, which is confusing but the higher the dpi setting the sharper the image will look, although it will take longer to print. The printer, in such cases, extrapolates the additional information in such cases and is not actually making the computer file sharper.)

Zoom Range

Whereas the debate over the quality of zoom lenses versus single, fixed-length lens waged for decades with traditional film cameras, most digital still cameras, apart from the very expensive "pro" units that can accept interchangeable lenses, come with zooms. Today, there are many very high quality traditional film camera zooms. The digital still camera zooms, however, are generally of much shorter range than is now widely available in traditional film cameras, and, more importantly, most only range from semi-wide-angle to semi-telephoto, a range that became popular with many traditional, inexpensive, "point-and-shoot" cameras for amateurs not fully aware of the wonders of wide-angle and telephoto lenses.

Whereas many digital camcorders offer zooms of 10-power (10x) or more, most digital still cameras offer only 3x and virtually all of them have their lower setting in the equivalent range of a 35-mm semi-wide-angle traditional film camera lens. In contrast, many of the newer traditional film camera zoom lenses today can go from 24-mm to 200-mm, or so, which is very wide to 4-power magnification at the telephoto end whereas most digital still camera 3x zooms have a top telephoto equivalent of about 115-mm. Olympus offers a model with a 10x zoom, but it is relatively slow and also has a low megapixel count.

Lens Speed

A faster lens, that is, one with a lower f/stop number, is able to gather more light and therefore able to stop action better and result in less blurry pictures. While some of the better and more expensive 35mm zoom lenses have fixed apertures, such as a 70-210 f2.8 lens, many have variable apertures that decrease in ability to capture light as more telephoto ranges are used, such as 28-200mm f/3.8-5.6 lens. Most digital camera zoom lenses have variable apertures and some of the less expensive models are actually quite "slow" and have apertures of f/3.7-8.0 or the like. Some of the better and more expensive models, however, have fairly "fast" zoom lenses, some of which start at f/1.8 and several at about f/2.4. While the difference between f/1.8 and f/2 is only half a stop, the difference between f/2 and f/3.5 is one-and-a-half stops and a definite difference. In video, some blue can be tolerated, but still photography is much more demanding, so the faster lens aperture range the better.

Memory Storage

When digital still cameras were first introduced, they were not capable of taking pictures in great detail and memory storage choices were limited. Remarkably, the pace of technology has advanced rapidly in just a few years in both the megapixel and storage area. There are several memory cards/cartridges/microdrives now available that can store scores of megabytes and even a gigabyte of memory and Sony has introduced its own proprietary "memory stick" that is much smaller, about the size of a stick of chewing gum, and which has steadily increased in capacity, up to 128 megabytes in early 2002, and lowered in price, about $90 for a 128-megabyte "stick" in early 2002.

Most of the better digital still cameras offer users the ability to switch between different resolutions using the same memory "device." A user could take a bunch of low-resolution pictures that are fine for use on the World Wide Web of the Internet or just a few uncompressed "Tiff" files that take up almost 12 megabytes a pictures but offer resolution could enough to print a detailed 11-by-14-inch image. They also offer several other in-between settings so that a sizable memory device might contain a score of high resolution pictures or hundreds of low-resolution pictures.


Up until a decade or so ago, camera shapes were quite similar: either boxy, or T-shaped. Now, they run a very wide and strange gamut. There are tall, vertical format cameras, softly curved pocket cameras, and asymmetrical and rather ungainly shapes. Apparently, manufacturers feel that style is less important than features for many users, but also some apparently feel that young consumers may not remember that the classic and traditional Nikon F or Leica M-series camera styles that dominated camera styles for decades and may also prefer "hipper" styles.

Digital still cameras are considerably smaller, by and large, than their full-featured 35-mm cousins. Indeed, one of the problems users are encountering is that they are all almost too small, at least for those with fat fingers and dim eyesight.

There are a great many ergonomic factors to consider: Does it feel comfortable and balanced? Are the most important controls easily identified and conveniently placed? Does it work equally well for left-handed persons as right-handed? Is it easy to load and/or change batteries and memory devices, and attach accessories such as flash units, lenses, filters, and tripods. Does it have convenient inputs and outputs? Does it have both a LCD and a viewfinder and are they both in color and have adequate resolution? Are the LCD and/or viewfinder adjustable and viewable in different positions? Is the viewfinder representing what the camera sees or merely an approximation that may have parallax problems? Are some controls too close to others and too easy to accidentally press? Is the information legible on the LCD and/viewfinder?


Minaturization is marvelous, usually, but there comes a point when too much is crammed into too little space, especially for some of the "prosumer" models that offer many features of interest to professionals such as manual control, white balance settings and the like.

Taking a cue from the popularity of LCD panels on camcorders, most digital still cameras offer a small LCD, usually less than 2 inches. (Most camcorders offer 2 1/2 to 4-inch LCD panels, many of which are hinged so they can be seen from the front of the camera for those important self-portraits with timers.) There is a very big difference between a 1.8-inch and a 4-inch LCD panel in terms of being able to see details and the 3-plus-megapixel digicams are capable of capturing considerable detail, most of which, however, does not show up in the LCD panel. Most digicams have quite good autofocusing but many also have fairly long "warm-up" times and blurred shots do occur.

There are basically three categories of size: pocket, medium and professional. The pocket size digicams are like point-and-shoot 35mm cameras and are extremely small and very convenient, but are usually quite limited in capabilities such as zoom lens. Nonetheless, there is a wide and impressive range of quality in the pocket category and these cameras are priced according to the quality of construction and features.

The medium category more closely resemble traditional 35-mm camera design but are more compact. Olympus and Minolta have very slick and well-designed cameras in this category and the top models are in the $2,000 and $1,500 range, respectively. Nikon has a line of "twist" cameras in the under $1,000 price range that are not as full-featured as the Olympus and Minolta top-of-the-line and which also are a bit too big for most pockets. Sony's top-of-the-line "cybershot" digital still cameras are rather large with a huge cylindrical lens/flash component that is hinged to the left edge of a small panel that is perpendicular to it. Its top model is full-featured and has a list price of $999.

The "prosumer," top-of-the-line digicams from Nikon, Canon, Kodak and Fuji are generally bigger than their 35mm counterparts and are very expensive, usually starting at $4,000. They have the great advantage, of course, of being able to use most, if not all, of those manufacturer's 35mm lenses. The use of the 35mm lenses is wonderful for special purposes, although it should be remembering that they are scaled for different image capture and therefore users have to apply a "multiplier" factor to determine the actual 35mm equivalent of the lens.

In considering camera size, one should not forget accessories such as lens hood, flash unit, auxiliary lenses, storage devices, cables, filters and the like. Some of the wide-angle lenses, for example, are surprisingly huge and many cases that stores sell do not have room for all the accessories.

Battery Life

Some of the "pocket" digicams operate on normal and easily obtainable small flashlight batteries, but others use rechargeable lithium batteries that are bigger and last longer. The latter, however, are small because the manufacturers want to keep the size of the camera down and as a result have relatively short battery life, requiring almost all users to purchase at least one extra battery. Many of these batteries only last for about an hour and half. The LCD panels consume a fair bit of energy so many users turn them off and use the viewfinders, which consumer less energy. Turning the camera on and off frequently usually uses more energy than continuous use. Whereas battery technology has advanced fantastically in recent years with camcorders to the point where some batteries can operate for up to 8 hours, these are much larger batteries.

Most cameras are sold with a battery recharging "kit" but usually these are plugged directly into the camera and therefore render its use during recharging quite limited. Furthermore, these "kits" are generally not "speed" chargers. Most manufacturers, however, offer separate "speed" battery chargers that are considerable faster and do not have to be plugged into the camera and also some provide readouts of how much time is remaining to fully charge the battery. Such "speed" chargers are excellent but can cost as much as $150 and are often about as big as the camera itself.


Accessories really drive up the cost of a digicam. Many first-time users may think they do not need, or want, many of the accessories, but they will discover their usefulness pretty quickly.

A skylight filter is a must to protect the more expensive lenses, especially since only the "prosumer" models have interchangeable lens capability and damage to a non-interchangeable lens pretty much destroys the camera and can be very expensive to replace/repair. Skylight filters fortunately are not too expensive, especially those made by independent manufacturers. Polarizing filters, which are very helpful in removing unwanted reflections although they make a lens "slower" by cutting down on the light it can transmit, are also wonderful and are a little more expensive than skylight filters.

Most of the digicams come with built-in flashes, many with red-eye-reduction-strobing features. These flashes, however, are usually good only for short distances and also have a fixed position and cannot be "bounced" and aim only directly forward. Most manufacturers have separate flash units that can be attached to the digicam that are stronger and also adjusted to "bounce" their light upwards to provide softer lighting and avoid much of the red-eye problems. In addition, the separate flash units, which are usually mounted in a "hot" shoe atop the digicam also enable the user to shoot flash with a large wide-angle lens attached that would normally block much of the light from the built-in flash. These separate flash units can cost $100 or more.

Most digicams come with limited zoom ranges, usually from medium wide-angle to portrait. Many manufacturers also sell wide-angle and/or telephone auxiliary lens that screw into the front of the digicam's lens. Independent manufacturers also sell a variety of such lenses. Some of these lenses, it should be noted, are quite large and significantly alter the balance of the camera. Most of the wide-angle lens permit users to get about 0.7 or 0.8 magnification which results in the equivalent of about a 28mm 35mm lenses, which is quite good for party pictures and landscapes, but not sufficient for extreme panoramas. Similarly, the telephoto lenses usually are limited to 1.4 to 2.0 magnification which extends into the semi-telephoto range 35mm equivalent of 150-200mm. For many photographers, wider and longer lenses are very desirable and these really are only available with the expensive "prosumer" models.

Special Features

Over the past two decades, many photographers have gotten use to a bewildering array of control options on their 35mm cameras that affect aperture and shutter and program modes as well focusing points, exposure bracketing, rapid shooting, and the like. Many of the better digicams now offer similar controls although usually the list of features is not quite as extensive as the top-of--the-line 35mm cameras. Most users rarely access most of these features once they have set up their cameras for normal shooting, but they are of great importance to many professionals who confront difficult shooting conditions often and cannot afford to miss the shot. The transition to film-less, digital photography is now accelerating, however, due to the advances in resolution and memory storage and the inherent advantages of digital photography and as a result more and more features are being crammed into the high-end digicams including some that are quite novel.

Some of the digicams now permit users to record very short videos with sound, usually only about a dozen or so seconds and some, like the Sony cybershots, permit "nightshot" infrared pictures that are greenish but can be taken in total darkness. Time-lapse photography is also available in some models as well as "macro" modes for extreme close-ups.


By and large, you get what you pay for, which is to say that the more expensive the digicam the better features it has.

When they were first introduced some of the prosumer digicams cost upwards of $30,000 and now only a few years later they can be had for $4,000 to $6,000 (for the basic camera, not a "complete" outfit.)

For those who acquired the early prosumer models, the drawback was that the resolution technology was still far from ideal and many only were capable of 2- and 3-megapixel resolution, barely enough for good 8-by-10-inch prints. In early 2002, Fuji and Contax were offering 6-megapixel models and Nikon and Canon 5-megapixel models, good enough for pretty good 11-by-14 prints and excellent 8-by-10-inch prints. The Contax model even offered a capture device that was just about the same size as a normal 35mm image meaning that no "translation" was necessary and that its light-gathering capabilities were vastly improved. Nonetheless, many professional photographers will not be happy until resolution ascends up to the 8- to 16-megapixel range that should be capable of great detail in pretty large prints. Such units will eventually appear most likely but they will not be cheap.

For most users, however, the 5-megapixel digicam is fine, permitting very nice, popular-size enlargements and the ability to easily switch to lower resolutions when the end use does not require as much detail.

Users should remember, however, that the cost of accessories can almost double the acquisition cost of a digicam and that technology is moving so quickly that new models with better features often are introduced at the same price levels.

Sony DSC-707

This is sony's top-of-the-line digicam as of early 2002 and with a list price of $999 it is the best buy in the medium-size prosumer category because of its very fine Zeiss lens and its many features.

The Zeiss lens is a 5-power zoom with a 35mm equivalency of a 38-190mm lens. This camera also has a 2-power digital zoom capability that theoretically extends the zoom to a 380mm equivalent although most experts agree that the digital zoom extensions degrade quality considerably. Zeiss makes lenses for Hasselblad and Contax and their lenses are widely regarded as unsurpassed. The lens is quite fast with a f/2-2.4 maximum setting.

This 5-megapixel digicam can take uncompressed TIFF files that are almost 12 megabytes in size at 2590x1920 resolution, and are good enough for enlargements in the 11-by-14-inch range. It is also capable of taking pictures at lower resolutions to fit more images onto its memory sticks, which come in 4- to 128-megabyte size, with large capacities planned as of early 2002.

This is an ungainly beast. The very large lens barrel, which also contains the built-in, pop-up flash and numerous controls, is hinged to the left end of a perpendicular and quite small body. The lens barrel can be moved up and down to permit a pretty wide range of viewing conditions although its LCD panel on the rear of the body is not hinged so that it cannot be swung totally around to permit self-portrait viewing.

The rocker button for the wide-angle/telephoto zoom is located on the left side of the lens barrel requiring two-handed use of the digicam, which is a little inconvenient compared to some other digicams and camcorders that permit single-handed operation. Furthermore, the wide-angle settings are on top and telephoto settings are at the bottom of the rocker, which is a bit counter-intuitive.

The camera sports a 1.8-inch LCD that is quite bright but still do small to make out the many details the digicam is capable of. The camera also has a fixed-position color viewfinder and users may switch between it and the LCD panel by pressing a "display" button just to the right of the viewfinder.

A rotary dial atop the body has settings for taking pictures, reviewing pictures, shutter priority, aperture priority, manual, programming scenes, and set-up. Each different setting has its own "menu" that is accessed by pressing the small "menu" bottom at the rear of the body just to the left of the five-directional rocker select button. This circular button enables the user to navigate up and down and left and right on the menus shown on the LCD panel and also to press inwards to select a menu choice. The button takes a little while to get used to but works well and is well constructed as is the camera.

This camera has controls for auto- and manual focus, white balance, auto-exposure lock, and spot-metering and it also has a ten-second self-timer.

It also has two unusual special features, "nightshot" and "hologram" focusing. The former is a feature Sony has long used on its high-end camcorders and it permits greenish monochrome shots to be taken in total darkness, à la spy cameras. The latter feature uses lasers with "gentle radiation" Sony claims "maintains higher safety for human eyes" that is good for 4.5 meters as an aid in focusing in low light. It emits a grid pattern of red lights that focus the lens in very low light conditions. Although the Zeiss lens is quite fast, the quality of images that appear on the LCD panel in many low-light conditions is very dim, and very hard to focus with. When the hologram focusing function is enabled in the "setup" menu to "auto" the function works automatically when necessary and is very helpful, although it delays the taking of the picture a bit. This function also does not work in certain camera modes such as nightshot or landscape or when the wide-angle lens is attached.

There are three small holes on the perimeter of the front of the lens barrel. The two are the top are for the "nightshot" function and the one at the lower right is for the hologram focusing. The nightshot function is turned on by a switch on the top of the camera body. The same switch also can turn on a "nightframing" function that enables you to check a subject even at night and then record with natural colors using the flash.

The 707 can also record moving images with audio for about 15 seconds in MPEG format although the image size is only 320-by-240 in its high-quality setting.

The camera has a USB connection for computers. It also has a jog wheel at the front of the camera body for changing values manually.

The camera can also be set to take sepia, negative and solarized images and it can record time and date.

Sony makes a very large but thin wide-angle lens for this camera that significantly broadens the view and does not manifest as much barrel distortion as some wide-angle camcorder lenses.

This is a very high quality camera of considerable complexity that takes some time to learn but gives fine results.


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