If you've been reading Digit these past few months, you'll notice that more than a handful of my beloved test centre buddies have been bitten by the shutterbug. Just as birds fly south for the winter, we Mumbaiites migrate to cooler climes for the duration of the summer. Holidays mean special memories, which in turn need to be preserved, which quite simply means a digital camera should be on your things-to-pack list!
Now unlike what most people to this day believe (vendors included), a digital camera is not about the megapixel rating. I have gone blue in the face telling people that once you cross the five megapixel mark, more isn't necessarily better. A camera's performance in dim lighting is, for example, much more significant a parameter. A new trend I discovered is the use of the optical zoom specification as a selling point. Optical zoom is an essential feature of a digital camera (unlike the totally useless digital zoom feature), but just how much zoom you need depends on what kind of shooting you intend to do.
If you are looking at a compact point and shoot, then 4x zoom is enough. The ultra-zoom cameras with 12x and above are good for those who want the ease of use of a point and shoot, but zooming feature from an SLR.
Other features one should pay attention to include aperture ratings, white balance settings, and scene modes. Aperture controls the depth of field, so manual control of aperture gives you the ability to play around and experiment. Scene modes on the other hand are great if you don't want to mess around with the settings: switch to any predefined scene mode and take a great picture. Very useful when taking beach shots, night shots and such where lighting conditions-and hence complicated settings-determine picture quality.
I took a good friend along to a few electronics malls around Mumbai for his first digital camera. He wanted a compact model. Let's look at all the Sony models our journey first revealed. The W series included the W50 (Rs 12,500), W70 (Rs 15,000), W55 (Rs 13,000), W100 (Rs 18,000), and the W90 (Rs 19,500). This is Sony's high-performance series, and pretty much a flagship, with most models across this category offering good image quality, superb colours, and 3x optical zoom. The W50, W70, and W100 are older models (6, 7, and 8 MP respectively). The W55 and W90 are newer and feature optical image stabilisation, which the others don't. There was also a very attractive-looking Sony N2 (Rs 20,000); this beauty has an all-metal body (so do all the higher W series models), and a massive 10.1 megapixel sensor. Sony's S500 (part of their entry-level series) is available for Rs 8,500, which is about to be superseded by a model in the pipeline.
In the pseudo Digital SLRs (DSLRs) we came across, Sony's DSC H5, priced at Rs 24,500, features 10x optical zoom, and the newer DSC H9 has a larger sensor (8.1 MP) and an incredible 15x optical zoom (Rs 28,999). Sony offers an unmatched three-year warranty on all their cameras.
We also came across several Canon models-the gorgeous-looking A710IS (7.1 MP, 6x optical zoom) for Rs 19,500, and the all-titanium-body SD900, a great-looking, extremely functional camera at Rs 22,399. The A640, another 10 MP camera, is priced at Rs 21,999. The S3IS is available for Rs 23,500, and offers a 12x optical zoom-something for the outdoor aficionado. The S5IS-which I'd heard has been released-isn't available as of now. The G7 from Canon, a 10 MP monster that boasts of SLR-like functionality and 6x optical zoom, was also on display-Rs 32,999.
At this point my friend was inclined towards Sony's W55, but I advised him to take a proper look around before deciding. On that note, we came across two Kodaks: the C793 at Rs 10,999, a good entry-level buy with decent quality, and the V705 for Rs 21,499. The latter has two lenses, one each for wide angle and close-up shooting. Kodak's Z710, a pseudo DSLR reviewed in the Bazaar section in our April 2007 issue, was available for Rs 22,500, and is a direct competitor to the S3IS (Canon), H5 (Sony) and FZ-50 (Panasonic); I would say Panasonic's FZ series is good in the ultra-zoom category.
A solitary Casio, the Exislim EX-Z60 was available for Rs 14,999. It sports a 6 MP rating, along with 3x optical zoom. Pretty much standard now…
Then we came across a beautiful compact from Olympus, the FE-220, at Rs 12,000. Very functional, great build quality, and good overall image detailing. The TZ1 from Panasonic, a rather compact model with a spectacular (for its size) 10x optical zoom, was also on display. At Rs 17,000, however, this didn't strike me as a good deal.
I had my friend fiddle around with the things. Although we couldn't touch each and every model, we managed to get a good feel for at least one model in every category and every brand. My friend still wanted the W55; I was trying to steer him towards the A710IS-though I had to agree his choice was good for the price, and his budget wasn't flexible. We eventually managed to pick up a Sony DSC W55 for Rs 12,350 after much haggling. A 1 GB Memory Stick Pro Duo card later, he was happily unleashing the photographer inside him-starting right in the mall!