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Long lens on digital cameras

At the risk of oversimplifying things, it seems to me that there are three basic types of digital cameras: little ones, big ones and ones in the middle.

By little I of course mean all of those pocket-sized “point and shoot” cameras that are so popular with consumers. Most of these cameras give you great-looking shots at close range. Typically they have a 3x optical zoom and these days they have more than enough “megapixels” to produce excellent photos up to 8 1/2 by 11, even if you do a bit of cropping. Small cameras have small sensors which means that they’re not going to be terrific in low-light conditions and they often have very few manual controls which is OK by most people who are happy to rely on the automatic settings.

Then there are the big cameras. These are the Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras sometimes called “D-SLR” or just “SLR.” If you’ve ever seen a professional photographer at work, chances are he or she was holding a D-SLR camera along with a bag containing two or more lenses. Today’s digital SLRs have evolved from the old film SLRs with their removable “interchangeable lenses” that let photographers switch from a wide angle to a telephoto or more specialized lens as the situation dictates. Their name comes from the fact that the optical view finders used to preview the picture get the image from the camera’s lens via a mirror so that a photographer sees exactly what the film or digital sensor picks up.

There are other advantages to D-SLRs. They tend to have larger digital sensors which makes them better suited for low-light conditions and they tend to be a lot faster than smaller cameras. If you’ve ever tried to record the action of a soccer game or even an active toddler with a point and shoot camera, you may have experienced the pain of lag time between shots, especially if you were using the flash. They also have a nice feel to them. There is something reassuring about the physical “click” you get when you press the shutter as opposed to that simulated clicking sound coming from the little speakers inside smaller cameras.

SLRs are of course more expensive than point and shoot cameras but they’re coming down in price. If you search online retailers you can find excellent D-SLRs like the Canon Digital Rebel XT or the Nikon D40 with a starter lens for under $500.

But there are other catches. The starter lenses that come with these cameras are usually 18-55mm which is roughly the equivalent of a 3x lens. If you want a wider angle or to really zoom in on the action, you’ll need to buy and carry around extra (and expensive) lenses.

So this leads me to the other category – cameras in the middle. There are super zoom cameras which are smaller than a point and shoot yet still too big for a pocket. These use a fixed (not interchangeable) lens that with a very large zoom factor. Lately I’ve been playing with the Kodak Z812 that has a 12x optical zoom, which is the equivalent to a 36 to 436 mm lens. By optical, I mean that the lens itself does the zooming. Don’t confuse this with digital zoom which is simply software inside the camera that blows up an image and degrades the quality. I also took a look at Canon’s S5 IS, which also has a 12x optical zoom.

Both cameras have a lot in common, such as 8 megapixel sensors (more than enough for most uses) and image stabilization. Image stabilization is very important in a long-zoom camera because the more you zoom, the more any movement will cause your picture to blur. The technology inside these cameras adjusts the settings of the camera when it detects motion, helping to create a smooth shot. Both cameras also have automatic settings and manual settings so you can either rely on the camera to make all the adjustments for you or manually set the aperture, shutter speed or ISO. Both cameras can also do 30 frames per second video, though the Z812 gets an extra star because it can do 720p high-definition video which is roughly equivalent to what some networks are using. Still, don’t expect to shoot a sitcom on a digital still camera. These are designed for short clips, typically under a minute long.

Both cameras can also accept rechargeable AA batteries, though the Kodak gets far more shots per charge if you opt for a rechargeable lithium ion battery. The Canon takes 4 AA batteries for an estimated 450 shots between charges. With the Kodak I got about that many shots with a lithium ion rechargeable but when I used two rechargeable AAs, I got fewer than 100 shots between charges.

Both cameras have both an LCD monitor and an LCD viewfinder. The viewfinder, which is missing on a lot of today’s cameras, lets you put the camera up to your eye. In addition to avoiding having the image wash out in bright sunlight, it also allows you to stabilize the camera against your head while you shoot. Holding a camera at arm’s length while looking through the monitor tends to increase the shake factor. Canon’s LCD monitor pulls out from the body of the camera so you can face it toward you or hold the camera over your head or at any angle and still see the monitor – a nice touch.

One difference between the two cameras is price. You can find the Kodak online for about $210 compared to about $335 for the Canon. The Kodak is also noticeably smaller (though still too big for a pocket) and lighter at 10.6 ounces compared to 15.9 ounces for the Canon.

I tested both cameras in a variety of situations including close-ups, long zooms and both with and without flash and I found the quality of the picture roughly equivalent, so based on price, size and weight, I would go with the Kodak. Overall I was extremely impressed with both the usability and results from this camera and consider it a big step up from a small point and shoot. While not as fast as a D-SLR, it can nevertheless give you great pictures from a distance thanks to its 12-1 optical zoom lens.