(12/01/2000) – In October Top 5 Digital Cameras debuted with models that cost less than $750. This time around we take on models costing $750 or more. With prices soaring to more than $1800, this group is definitely not for your “funny pictures of the dog” shots. But some offer the flexibility, better optics, and higher resolution typically found in 35mm single-lens reflex cameras. For businesses or individuals who need more than snapshot-quality photographs, one of these cameras should be what you’re looking for.
These higher-end digital cameras are as diverse in their shapes, sizes, and features as they are in their prices. (Note: We call them “higher-end” because there is yet another class of truly high-end, professional-quality digital cameras that are too expensive and too niche for this review.) Most higher-end models let you override the automatic exposure and focus controls that come standard in today’s cameras, thus returning to you the creative control lost in cheaper point-and-shoot models. Aperture-priority and shutter-priority exposure settings–and even totally manual control–are common, letting you compensate for difficult lighting conditions that may confuse a fully automatic camera. But beyond those features, higher-end cameras branch into many choices.
Take focal range: Nearly all higher-end digital cameras provide an optical zoom lens. However, some give you a relatively short zoom range, from around 28mm to 107mm (wide-angle to slightly telephoto), while others stretch up into fairly powerful telephoto ranges. The new Olympus America Inc. Camedia C-2100 Ultra Zoom, for example, gives you 38mm to 380mm–a 10X zoom.
Storage is another area that requires you to pick from many choices. On one hand, you can get a camera with a simple 16MB SmartMedia or CompactFlash card that will hold 1 or 2 images at the best setting. At the other extreme you’ll find models like the Casio QV-2300UXplus, which comes with a 340MB Microdrive that holds hundreds of images despite its being the size of a pack of matches. (Canon Inc.’s new PowerShot G1, reviewed this month, offers the Microdrive as an option.) But the undisputed winner for unusual storage has to be Sony Corp.’s new Mavica MVC-CD1000, which also came under review this month but failed to make the chart because of its budget-melting $1999 price tag. The MVC-CD1000 has a built-in CD-Recordable drive that holds 156MB of data; as you shoot, the camera writes your photos straight to the disc. A truly novel concept, it lets you pull out its custom 3.5-inch CD-R discs and hand a pile of shots to nearly anyone with a modern PC.
You must also consider whether you want to record sound or short video clips on your digital camera. Some cameras allow both, some limit you to sound, and some allow neither. Resolution is another consideration: Most people can stick with the cheaper and more common 2.1-megapixel resolution (fine for most business imaging), but you may want to move up to 3.1- or 3.3-megapixel resolution if you’re planning for either big enlargements or severe cropping. Also, cameras’ sizes and shapes vary significantly. The Olympus Camedia and the Sony Mavica both have the shape, feel, and heft of a 35mm SLR model. The Casio QV-2300UXplus, on the other hand, has the look and feel of a point-and-shoot, with the added flair of a rotating lens.
Best Buy for $750 or More
As we did in last month’s review of digital cameras under $750 and in our December 2000 print-magazine story on digital cameras, “Sharp Shooters,” we ranked the higher-end models based on the quality of the images they produced, as well as their price, features, ease of use, battery life, and technical support. Our Best Buy from “Sharp Shooters,” Epson’s $1499 PhotoPC 3000Z, remains at the top because it delivers impressive images, is exceptionally easy to use, and tops it all off with battery life that can make the Energizer bunny turn green.
The newest camera to make our $750-plus chart is the $1325 (street price) Olympus Camedia C-2100 Ultra Zoom, which landed at number three. Flexible, powerful, and easy to handle, the Camedia’s high points included its 10X zoom lens and great battery life. However, its image quality in our tests rated in the middle of the pack overall. On-screen images looked considerably better than what we saw on photo paper.
Two other cameras we tested this month did not make the chart. The aforementioned Sony MVC-CD1000 is interesting, but costly for a 2.1-megapixel camera. Meanwhile, the 3.3-megapixel Canon PowerShot G1 is a sturdy-feeling camera with an unusually flexible LCD viewfinder. Unfortunately, we were not especially pleased with the controls, and its image quality was middling.
For write-ups on the other cameras that made this month’s chart, see ” Sharp Shooters.” Next month we’ll return with low-cost models.
Olympus Camedia C-2100 Ultra Zoom
WHAT’S HOT: The Camedia C-2100 Ultra Zoom, Olympus’s latest 2.1-megapixel model, offers two big field advantages over most other digital cameras: extra-long battery life and a 10X zoom lens. Compared to other high-end cameras, the C-2100’s four rechargeable AA nickel-metal batteries proved remarkably durable, lasting 2.7 hours (237 shots) in our tests.
As one of the few 10X digital cameras around, the C-2100 gives nature and close-up photographers a welcome edge. And by taking advantage of the camera’s 2.7X digital zooming capability, you can enlarge faraway subjects up to 27 times (although digital zooming makes the picture grainier). Despite its 3-inch-long lens barrel, the 1.2-pound C-2100 is relatively compact and easy to handle. Thanks to its large grip and electronic image stabilizer, we were able to snap sharp telephoto pictures one-handed.
WHAT’S NOT: Too bad Olympus chose not to overhaul its arcane nomenclature and Byzantine menus with this new camera. The C-2100 has a total of 12 possible combinations of resolution, compression, and file format that you can program into the four text labels (“SQ,” “HQ,” “SHQ,” and “TIFF”) displayed in the status LCD. That gives you a fair amount of flexibility, allowing you to switch quickly between the four combinations you use most often. But you also must remember what specific settings you entered for each text label. “SQ,” for example, has six possible combinations while “TIFF” has four. (“HQ” and “SHQ” have one combination each.) You have to drill through so many menus, with choices branching off into confusingly highlighted boxes, that sometimes the only way to be absolutely certain of the settings is to view the picture information after you’ve taken a shot. The 8MB SmartMedia card is also small for a higher-end digital camera; you’ll probably want to add another card to your shopping cart.
WHAT ELSE: In most other respects, the C-2100 is easy to use. Like its predecessors, it gives you one convenient lever to zoom in and out of both live and captured pictures. This design is a great time-saver, especially when you’re replaying shots: You can view thumbnails nine to a screen, quickly enlarge one to full-screen, and then press the lever once more to magnify the image up to 300 percent.
Whether in aperture priority or shutter priority mode, changing the shutter speed or aperture is easy with a simple thumb pad. And if your tweaks will result in a shot too under- or overexposed, the camera warns you by displaying the settings in red. Among the C-2100’s big bag of extras are special effects such as black-and-white and sepia tones, continuous focusing, and the ability to capture short movies (you can even attach an external microphone to get better audio).
The C-2100 produced test images that rated about average for this class of digital camera. Viewed on screen, they were among the best we’ve seen–color details were especially good with flash shots. Printed samples, on the other hand, were less pleasing. Although subtle colors were nicely reproduced, flash shots tended to be a bit overexposed, and natural-light photos seemed somewhat dark. We also noted some color banding and blurring on groups of fine lines.
The C-2100’s 8MB SmartMedia card holds 82 lowest-quality pictures or one high-resolution TIFF. Olympus includes two CD-ROMs of software, including the company’s own utility software for downloading and tweaking photos, as well as Adobe PhotoDeluxe 4.0.
BEST USE: A comfortable, flexible camera for digital photographers who take both wide-angle and fairly powerful telephoto shots.
Olympus Camedia C-2100 Ultra Zoom
2.1 megapixels, 1600-by-1200 maximum resolution, 38-380mm focal range, f2.8-f11 aperture range, shutter speed from 16 seconds to 1/800 second, self timer, optical and LCD viewfinders, USB and serial connections, video output, bundled 8MB SmartMedia card, rechargeable AA NiMH batteries with external charger, 24 ounces with battery, Adobe PhotoDeluxe 4.0 software. One-year parts and labor warranty; toll-free support for 13 hours on weekdays.
Canon PowerShot G1
WHAT’S HOT: Canon’s 3.3-megapixel PowerShot G1 is a handsome black-and-silver unit packed with most of the features we would expect in a $1350 digital camera, including both optical and digital zoom. But the real star of the show is the LCD screen, which can swing open like a camcorder’s and twist on its hinges into more positions than a gymnast. You can point it up, down, or in the same direction as the lens, useful for self-portraits or remote-controlled shots. At the end of the day, it locks face in on the back of the camera, thereby eliminating worries about damage to one of a camera’s most vulnerable parts.
The G1 features plenty of other bells and whistles, most easy enough for a user to pick up without cracking open the manual. It offers ten picture-quality settings, including three resolutions, three levels of compression, and a “raw” option. (Raw images are compressed, but not completely processed within the camera. Unlike JPEG photos, which lose some image data when compressed, “raw” photos can be uncompressed in your PC without any loss of data. In theory, you get better control over white balance, contrast, and other parameters, giving you higher-quality results.)
WHAT’S NOT: Unfortunately, lots of little annoyances would make us think twice about paying so much for this camera. It’s relatively heavy at a little over 1 pound and has a boxy shape, which makes gripping it with one hand difficult. The dials are overly stiff, and we found some tasks a hassle to perform. For instance, to use the same resolution or picture-quality setting across modes–in shutter priority and landscape as well as in full automatic, for example–you must enter it in three different menus.
Digital zooming is also a pain: Unlike most cameras, which make a smooth transition from optical to digital zooming via one toggle, the G1 makes you hold down a second button while you continue to press the telephoto lever. Also, instead of automatically displaying the shutter speed when you change aperture and vice versa, the G1 makes you press the shutter halfway to see both settings. Manual focusing, dicey on any consumer digital camera, seems especially fruitless using the G1’s limited, unmarked gauge, which lacks distance numbers.
Finally, we were disappointed in the G1’s limited playback options. It doesn’t number thumbnails, so you can easily get lost when you view one screenful after another, and it doesn’t let you mark specific images to delete–it’s one at a time or all at once. The only options for reviewing videos are forward and pause–no reverse, frame by frame, or slow motion, which our favorite cameras do offer.
WHAT ELSE: In our test shots, the Canon’s image quality fell at midpack. High-resolution images gave fine details, but at 640 by 480, we found severe distortions with small converging lines. Natural-light shots produced images with mostly accurate coloring and balanced lighting. Flash shots, on the other hand, tended to be a bit too dark. In both cases, images lost subtle color shading. The G1 makes good use of its single rechargeable lithium battery: It lasted 2.2 hours in our tests.
The G1 operates in semiautomatic and manual exposure modes as well as full automatic. And for quick shots, there’s continuous focus: During normal shooting the camera focuses only when you depress the shutter button slightly. But with continuous focus the camera constantly refocuses as you pan around. You can snap off faster shots, but you also use up your batteries faster. Other options include panorama, landscape, or portrait modes. Slick button shortcuts make tweaking exposure a snap. To set automatic exposure bracketing, for example, you simply press a button to launch an on-screen exposure value gauge, and then use arrow buttons to widen or narrow the exposure increments.
This camera also shoots black-and-white photographs and short video clips with sound. Canon offers optional telephoto and wide-angle accessory lenses to expand the camera’s basic focal range. The G1 comes with two CD-ROMs of software, including Canon’s ZoomBrowser EX for arranging, editing, and printing images, along with Photoshop 5.0 LE, a limited version of Adobe’s well-regarded image editor.
BEST USE: A solid choice for anyone looking for a relatively compact, highly flexible, high-resolution camera.
Canon PowerShot G1
3.3 megapixels, 2048-by-1536 maximum resolution, 34-102mm focal range, f.2.0-f8 aperture range, shutter speed from 8 seconds to 1/1000 second, self timer, optical and LCD viewfinders, USB and serial connections, video output, bundled 16MB CompactFlash card, rechargeable lithium ion battery pack, AC adapter, 17 ounces with battery, Canon’s Digital Camera Solution Disk and Adobe Photoshop 5.0 LE software. One-year parts and labor warranty; toll-free support for 11 hours on weekdays.
Sony Mavica MVC-CD1000
WHAT’S HOT: Sony’s new Mavica MVC-CD1000 is the world’s first digital camera to use optical discs to record pictures. It’s an appealing concept. The MVC kit includes five 3.5-inch CD-Rs, which mount inside the camera; they’re much like the standard 5-inch discs you use with your PC. You simply swing open the camera’s back to snap in a disc, take your best shots, and then pop the disc into your PC to view the results in any image editing program (MGI PhotoSuite 8.0 comes bundled with the camera). The economics can’t be beat: One MVC-CD1000 disc holds 156MB (about 160 pictures taken at the camera’s highest resolution of 1600 by 1200, or more than a thousand saved at 640 by 480) and costs less than a buck. A 160MB CompactFlash card, by comparison, costs around $525. Other notables include a 10X optical lens and an image stabilizer, which seemed to help steady our shots when we used this heavy camera.
WHAT’S NOT: Better sit down before picking up the price tag: The MVC-CD1000 costs just under $2000. As you might expect, this digital camera is huge. At over 2 pounds and measuring 8.2 by 5 by 3.7 inches, it’s the size of a small camcorder. It’s also agonizingly slow. Recording or playing back one picture takes 3 or 4 seconds; an animated disc icon spins on the LCD while the 4X-write/8X-read mini-CD-R drive inside whirs away. Impatient photographers–or those who simply want to catch a subject before it gets away–will find these waits interminable. And not everybody with a PC can just pop in a disc and see the contents; only CD-Recordable or CD-Rewritable drives can read the discs straight out of the camera. For use in older DVD-ROM or CD-ROM drives, that discs must first be “finalized,” a process that creates a table of contents and allows the images to be read. Finalization is easy to perform but consumes over 13MB of disc space and requires that you leave the camera undisturbed on a flat surface for about
a minute. (A third alternative is to install the bundled software and connect the camera by Universal Serial Bus cable to your PC.)
Moreover, because you can write to CD-R discs only once, it’s possible to end up with a pile of CDs that have little on them–especially if you like to experiment a lot with high-resolution shots. You can erase pictures you don’t want to keep, but you can’t reuse the space. Of course, the discs are so cheap it may not bother you to toss used ones.
WHAT ELSE: Its unique storage solution and jumbo size aside, the MVC-CD1000 stacks up fairly well to similarly priced digital cameras. You might think a camera equipped with a CD-R drive would chew up batteries, but the MVC’s big lithium pack lasted a respectable 2 hours on one charge. Its picture quality was about average for the higher-end cameras we’ve looked at. We saw a green tint in some of our still-life photos. Gloria, our test mannequin, was well exposed, but lost some of the color details in her red scarf. The camera suffered the same pattern distortions we’ve seen in many other digital cameras when reproducing fine lines. Although you’ll need both hands to hold it, the MVC-CD1000 is sensibly designed, with a big right grip and a scattering of easy-to-reach buttons and switches for frequently used features, such as white balance and landscape mode.
The extra-large 2.4-inch LCD screen (nearly twice as big as most cameras’) and a rocking button make navigating the simple pop-up menus a pleasure. The feel and sound effects reminded us of the controls on a game console. One of the MVC-CD1000’s slickest extras is the motion-detecting viewfinder that activates when raised to your eye; if the LCD turned off simultaneously, this feature would be perfect. We also liked the battery timer, which shows the remaining time in cold, hard minutes, not as an icon. The playback features are pretty good; you can view six thumbnails at once and select specific ones to delete, a feature many competitors lack.
The 2.1-megapixel MVC-CD1000 supports three resolutions, including one that takes pictures in the traditional 3:2 aspect ratio, which yields prints that fit conventional picture frames. You can choose from ten picture-quality settings, two of which save stills and movies in smaller sizes for e-mailing. The MVC-CD1000 even gives you two ways to edit pictures inside the camera: You can resave an entire shot in another resolution, or save a zoomed portion at 640 by 480.
You can’t fully control exposure with the MVC-CD1000; it offers only the semimanual aperture- and shutter-priority modes. We found the manual-focus ring (a rare perk even among cameras in the MVC-CD1000’s price range) easier to use than the buttons found on most digital cameras.
BEST USE: This is possibly the ultimate digital camera for professionals and serious amateurs who blaze away huge numbers of photos during a photo session. Its recording speed, however, is too slow for most action photography.
Sony Mavica MVC-CD1000
2.1 megapixels, 1600-by-1200 maximum resolution, 39-390mm focal range, f2.8-f11 aperture range, shutter speed from 8 seconds to 1/500 second, self timer, optical and LCD viewfinders, USB connection, video output, bundled 156MB CD-R media, rechargeable lithium ion battery, 35 ounces with battery, MGI PhotoSuite 8.0, MGI VideoWave SE+, Sony PictureGear 4.1. One-year parts warranty, 90-day labor warranty; toll-free support for 15 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Prices listed are in Cdn currency.