Most digital cameras today have megapixels galore, a large LCD and a fairly long battery life. And, of course, they take fine pictures in good light. Still, there are significant performance differences among models, according to Consumer Reports' latest tests.
To stand out, new models are adding features and style, and are trying to improve performance in more difficult photography. These cameras claim to conquer such challenges as shooting a birthday cake with only the light from its candles and freezing the winning swing in a baseball game.
CR upgraded its tests to address those more ambitious claims and higher expectations. The results reveal a wider range of performance than in past reports, with some models that rise to the challenges and a number that fall short.
CR's tests also reveal a blurring in performance between point-and-shoots - comprising subcompact, compact and superzoom cameras - and SLRs, the bigger and pricier cameras that use interchangeable lenses.
Consumers who want a pocket-sized camera with the best image quality should consider a subcompact model. The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W200, $300, topped CR's ratings of subcompact cameras and is well-suited for shooting in low-light without a flash. It also performed above-average in CR's battery life tests. CR also recommends the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T70, $280, which was the best subcompact for first-shot delay and had the biggest (3-inch) LCD display.
How to choose
¢ Select the right type. If pocketability is a priority, choose a lightweight subcompact. For better image quality, consider a compact that will also provide more control over images.
¢ Look for features that meet needs. There are lots of useful but nonessential features such as a large touch-screen LCD and slideshow features.
¢ Consider the design. How a camera looks and feels is important.
CR's recent test of 16 single-lens reflex cameras found that even the lowest-cost models are faster and can handle the most challenging conditions better than point-and-shoot cameras. SLRs have also adopted some features from point-and-shoot cameras, including live view, which can be found on half of the tested SLRs, and face detection, which can be found on one tested SLR model, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-L10, $1,300.
The Nikon D80, $900, is a basic SLR camera that stood out in CR's tests and was noted for its all-around performance. Almost as impressive and far less expensive was the Olympus Evolt E-410, $450, which came close to maintaining image quality up to ISO 1600.
For a more advanced SLR user, CR recommends the Canon EOS 40D Digital, $1,300, which has excellent image quality and dynamic range at an attractive price.
How to choose
¢ Select an SLR level. A basic SLR is a good place to start when switching from point-and-shoot cameras. Advanced SLRs are more rugged, weather-resistant and versatile, but also bulkier and heavier.
¢ Know the system and brand. When purchasing an SLR, consumers are essentially buying into a family of lenses and integrated accessories, which will be compatible and allow the user to take full advantage of the camera's features.
¢ Don't scrimp on performance. Narrow choices to models that are at least rated very good by Consumer Reports for image quality and versatility, and can shoot to at least 800 SIO without image flaws. Battery life is important, too.
¢ Know about ALL the features. Many SLRs have a variety of unique features. Consider image stabilization for a steady shot or a swiveling LCD and live view to see shots taken from hard-to-reach angles.
¢ Get some hands-on experience. Go to the store and make sure the camera is comfortable to hold, not too heavy and that all the buttons and controls are intuitive and logically positioned.