Buyer's Guide 2007: Advanced Compacts
High-end features in a portable design
Advanced compact zoom cameras combine extended zoom ranges, large LCDs and key SLR-like functions into small, highly portable packages. They're easy to use, easy to carry and easy on the wallet. As a class, they provide more performance per pound than any other type of digital camera and, thanks to innovative features like image stabilization, produce results that rival any system.
Although zoom cameras don't have interchangeable lenses, and therefore don't fit into the D-SLR category, they do allow users to view the subject through the lens via an EVF (electronic viewfinder) or on an LCD monitor. Real SLRs allow direct viewing through an optical viewfinder, but it's not possible to preview the subject or compose the image on the LCD (with the notable exception of the Olympus Evolt E-330).
An EVF makes it easy to shoot in both bright and extremely dark conditions. And it allows you to preview digital effects like color shifting, black-and-white mode conversion, contrast adjustment and so forth—the things that can't be seen through a D-SLR's eyepiece.
Today, you'll find cameras with 10x, 12x and now even a boundary-busting 15x zoom. But the "x-factor" doesn't tell the whole story. Check the wide-angle specification as well as the telephoto. A zoom range that begins at 28mm (equivalent coverage) can be more useful than one that begins at 35mm-even if the latter has a longer overall range. A 10x zoom is typical, but go with a 12x or longer if you're photographing wildlife or sports. When comparing cameras, look for the 35mm-equivalent specifications, which will translate the zoom factor into a focal-length range, such as 35-350mm for a 10x zoom.
Samsung is the current leader in the "longest" category with a whopping 15x Schneider lens on its Pro815 model. The Sony DSC-R1 has a Carl Zeiss zoom that's "only" 5x, but it covers a range from an extra-wide 24mm to 120mm, making it the ideal choice for many situations.
Image stabilization, whether optical or electronic, is most useful when shooting with a long telephoto. It's one feature that truly enhances the performance of any zoom camera. But this feature will help you achieve better results in more situations than you may at first imagine. It's very handy in low-light conditions, when shooting macro or at any time you want to keep the ISO setting low. If you normally can shoot handheld at 1⁄125 sec., you'll be able to drop down to 1⁄30 sec. (or so) without ending up with a soft image. Roughly half of all available zoom cameras have image stabilization. For the other half, use a tripod or monopod.
These days, you have more choices than ever when it comes to resolution. The baseline is set at 6 megapixels, and cameras like the Sony DSC-H2 and Canon S3-IS produce outstanding results. But you can go all the way up to 10 megapixels with the Sony DSC-R1. Keep in mind that as resolution increases, so does file size—particularly if you intend to shoot a fair amount in the RAW format. Big files mean you'll be filling up memory cards—and maybe your hard drive—quickly. We're not selling high-resolution cameras short, just pointing out that sometimes "bigger is the enemy of big enough."
If your biggest prints are typically 8x10 inches, a 6-megapixel camera will be more than sufficient. However, if you're interested in creating larger prints or want the flexibility to crop into an image and still maintain quality, a higher-resolution camera would be recommended.