The Digital Doing At PMA
Digicams, Printers And Scanners A Plenty

The Digital Doings At PMA

This year's PMA Show posed a number of cliché-ridden questions about the present and future of digital imaging: "Are all pixels equal?" was something Foveon asked last year. But the big question this year was surely "Does size matter?"

Half A Chip Is Better Than None
For readers looking for a Nikon response to Canon's EOS-1Ds at PMA, you got new DX-series lenses (see details elsewhere) and excuses. When I asked if Nikon felt 5.27 megapixels was adequate for professional use, their response was interesting: "Nikon's DX 12-24mm Nikkor lens indicates that Nikon acknowledges the inherent benefits of using the DX format CCD sensor, which is smaller in size to a 35mm negative." And you were wondering what Nikon did with those old Pronea lens designs. What they seem to be saying is that size doesn't matter and smaller chips are good, which is a ploy Olympus tried at photokina with their Four-Thirds System, but I wasn't buying it then (see Shutterbug, December 2002) and I'm not buying it now. The Nikon spokesperson went on to say, "With the D1X, it is now possible to interpolate all NEF (Nikon Electronic Format) files to 10 megapixels, using raw data from the CCD." Interpolate? As Beavis said to Butt-Head, "He said interpolate."

The truth is there was so much digital stuff at PMA 2003, that I'll just be able to hit the highlights; those products that grabbed my attention and will ignore the "worn out old has-beens"--hey, the NASCAR race was in town that weekend--"in the back of the pack." Any cool stuff I accidentally missed will turn up in my next few Digital Innovations columns that returns in July at the same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.

The Earnest E. Mau Memorial Award
As digital imaging goes mainstream, consumer digicams have become more and more homogenous, with various manufacturers slavishly copying other's more innovative ideas. For those companies who've taken the extra step of producing clever and exciting cameras, I would like to present the "Ernie" award for digital innovation. The late Ernie Mau was a photographer, computer pioneer, and friend who didn't live long enough to get his hands on a really good digital camera and it is awarded in his honor.

The first nominee is the Konica Revio C2, a digital camera I first became enamored of at photokina 2002. Now it's here. This under $200 stainless steel jewel of a digicam packs 1.2 megapixels in its CCD and stores image files on 14MB of internal storage to store 1280x960 images or video clips. The sliding lens cover activates the camera and uncovers the 35mm (equivalent) focal length lens. The svelte, elegant C2 has 14MB of internal memory and is powered by two AAA batteries. So why doesn't Fuji make a digital Nexia Q1?

The second nominee is Nikon's ( SQ, despite a company representative's insistence that he "would not recommend this camera...for your readers." He explained it was "due to the limited number of cameras available, the difficulty of getting one and the price point..." (It's $500; I guess he thinks Shutterbug readers can't afford it.) It's also Nikon's first attempt in creating a "boutique" camera that's "not a mainstream product," this again according to a Nikon spokesperson. The Coolpix SQ has a 3.1-megapixel CCD, 3x optical zoom that keeps the lens path in a straight line, without using prisms and connects to the computer through Nikon's Cool-Station Power Base (OK, a little Kodak and Fuji influence here) that not only transfers images to the desktop or the web, but charges the battery and a spare at the same time. I hope the overall design bodes well for future Nikon offerings no matter what the company itself thinks.

The third-nominated Pentax Optio S is so small (How small is it?) that it fits inside an empty Altoids can! Although debuting at the International Consumer Electronics Show in January, PMA was the first time the photographic trade got a peek at the 3.2-megapixel Optio S. The face of the Optio S is smaller than an average credit or business card, just over 3/4 of an inch thick, and has a 3x (12x when combined with the mostly useless digital zoom capability) zoom wrapped around a sleek aluminum alloy body. The Optio S' sliding lens mechanism allows the camera's 3x optical lens to fully recede into the camera housing, flush with the body. The camera includes features found only on larger models, including movie mode, voice recording, and a well-placed 1.6" LCD preview panel. Although the Optio S is small, even a big guy like me will find it easy to make photos. Unlike some other boutique designs the Pentax Optio S is being shipped to major camera retailers and should be available by the time you read this.

Casio showed an entire class of card-sized Exilim (I know, it's as dumb a made-up name as Dimâge) cameras that deserves to be nominated but I selected the CES-introduced Exilim EX-S3. It combines 3.2 megapixels with a 2.0" LCD monitor screen and wraps it in a .46" thick Porsche-like design. The case is made of lightweight magnesium alloy, with a body that weighs a mere 2.54 oz (without battery), all for a mere $349.99.

Fuji's FinePix F410 has a design that borrows heavily from Minolta's Dimâge X, but at least they're stealing from the best. The camera uses Fuji's Fourth-Generation Super CCD HR sensor allowing you to make prints up to 11x14" in size at Fujifilm's Digital Camera Developing services. The camera captures AVI digital video with sound and can record 98-second 320x240 pixel movies on a 16MB xD-Picture Card or 5.6 minutes at 160x120 pixel. The FinePix F410 is bundled with an NP-60 lithium ion battery, a puny 16MB xD-Picture Card, and has a suggested list price less than $500. An optional cradle--get one, they're cool--is available for recharging, file transferring, and provides a stable platform for the camera's webcam function.

Argus offers a fashion accessory called the SL2800 (rolls off the tongue doesn't it?) but looks like it should be under glass at Cartier's. It's as thin as my wallet after trying to win a H2 Hummer by playing dollar slots in the casinos, thanks in part to a lack of LCD preview panel. (If you absolutely, positively must have a preview panel get the slightly more expensive--and thicker--SL2820.) Argus showed me a sexy mother-of-pearl version. The 2-megapixel SL2800 delivers 1600x1200 pixels so digi-snobs might pass it by, but those who know that your camera says as much about you as the kind of car you drive will want one, especially with a price tag that's less than $200.

And the winner of the 2003 Earnest E. Mau Memorial Award for Digital Innovation is (drum roll please), the Pentax Optio S.

Trendsetting Digicams
While companies such as Olympus and Nikon have embraced the "small is good" philosophy, others remember the old hot rodder's axiom that "there is no substitute for cubic inches" or in this case--pixels.
Proving that point mightily is Fuji's FinePix F700, the first 6.2-megapixel consumer digital camera (isn't that much better than the loathsome prosumer?) on the market. This is based on the use of the Fourth-Generation Super CCD SR chip, which Fuji claims doubles the number of pixels on the chip. Here's how it works: The SR sensor offers 3.1 million large pixels (S) with high sensitivity to light, and 3.1 million smaller pixels (R) with low sensitivity to light, resulting in a dynamic range that's four times that of previous Super CCDs. The FinePix F700 has 2832x2128 pixel resolution, a metal body, 1.8" LCD screen, 3x optical zoom, and mostly useless 2.2x digital zoom. The FinePix F700 also allows users to capture their images in RAW files as well as JPEG and is bundled with a cradle for downloading and recharging. In addition to color images, the FinePix F700 offers black and white and "chrome" (is that for photographing cars?) settings. The suggested list price is $599.95.

Samsung's new V Series includes the 4-megapixel Digimax V4 and Digimax
3.2-megapixel V3 that break new ground for the company in design and imaging capabilities. While the styling is certainly trendsetting for Samsung, the back is both attractive and functional. An easy to use four-way key and OK button allows users to navigate the options menu and provides quick and easy access to a variety of features including flash, self-timer, MIC, and metering. The brightness level of a vibrant, 1.5" color TFT LCD monitor on both models is adjustable to ensure easy viewing and reviewing of images in any lighting condition. Both cameras support nine different power sources (CR-V3 lithium, AA alkaline, Ni-Mn, Ni-Zn, Ni-MH, NiCd, SRB-1437, or SBP-1103 rechargeable li ion batteries), three customizable user profile settings, and sport a macro feature that lets you get as close as 2.36". Both V Series cameras feature single, continuous, and auto-bracketing shooting modes. The high-speed auto-bracketing feature lets you capture fast-moving sequences, while bracketing at the same time. Additional features include a Schneider 12x zoom (3x optical, 4x mostly useless digital), automatic and manual shooting modes, and the ability to record up to two hours of audio. The Samsung Digimax V Series cameras have approximate street prices of $449.99 and $329.99, respectively. Samsung also offers waterproof housing for the new V4 and V3 camera that are waterproof to depths of up to 70 meters (230 ft) and are made of polycarbonate material.

Canon gets it. Their new PowerShot S50 is a 5-megapixel digital camera that features a high-resolution 3x f/2.8 optical zoom lens together with a compact, cool-looking black brushed aluminum alloy exterior. The S50, like all of Canon's new digicams, including the insanely cool 10D, includes Canon's DIGIC Imaging Processor with iSAPS (Intelligent Scene Analysis based on Photographic Space, aren't you glad to know that?) technology to provide enhanced image quality, and increased processing speed. Other features include a nine-point autofocus system for faster and easier focusing; nine-position White Balance; selectable metering modes for precise exposure in almost any shooting condition; selectable Second-Curtain sync flash; an improved Movie Mode that captures clips up to three minutes apiece with sound; and Direct Print capabilities with Canon's Card Printer CP-100 dye sublimation printer and several Canon Bubble Jet Direct printers. The PowerShot S50 has a suggested price of $699.

Konica knows that size matters, too, and its Lexus-styled KD-500Z captures 5-megapixel images that can be stored in its dual slots (Memory Stick and SecureDigital); the camera is also bundled with a S32MB SD card. Its dark gray stainless steel surface is highlighted by gold-colored accents, further emphasizing its luxury finish. But the camera is available for less than $600.

Polaroid, who many people did not expect to see at PMA because of their financial troubles, was all over the show in many incarnations. Certainly one of the coolest cameras on display was the iON series aimed at "soccer moms, working women, and college students." I don't fit any one of those categories but thought the slim, attractive design makes for a camera you can toss in your pocket and be able to capture picture opportunities when they happen. There are three models--130, 230, and 330--and all feature an LCD preview screen, built-in memory, zoom lens, and come with a docking station.

The Argus DC3810 doesn't look as much like an Argus C3 but the Leica Digilux 1 does, and has more megapixels to boot! At 5 megapixels and 2560x1920 resolution, the Argus DC3810 is an uncomplicated camera that does one thing well: take great pictures. It has all the stuff you expect, 3x optical zoom, multifunction built-in flash, self-timer, and a 1.8" LCD preview screen. Not expected stuff includes 16MB internal memory, 32MB CompactFlash cards, instead of the SD card I predicted was going to become de rigueur for point-and-shoot digicams. It does all this stuff and more for less than $500.

Looking more like Luke Skywalker's digital binoculars in Episode 4 than the any knock-off found at SciFi conventions, Vivitar's Binocam is a set of compact binoculars with built-in digital camera. Ideal for birdwatchers (or busybodies) who need a 10x magnification binocular with the added benefit of being able to transfer still images or movie clips to your computer. Center focus with an individual right eyepiece adjustment allows the user to easily compensate for vision differences, while the compact 25mm objective lens keeps the size small enough to use at a concert or on the trail. The digital function offers VGA 640x480 resolution, 8MB of built-in memory, 10-second video clip capability, self-timer, auto White Balance, LCD status display, and a USB cable interface. The suggested retail price for the Binocam binoculars is $91.95.

Kyocera showed the photokina-debuted Contax Tvs Digital, now also available in black, surely the most excruciatingly beautiful digital point-and-shoot camera ever manufactured and the perfect companion beside you, along with Monica Belluci, while cruising in a BMW Z8. While not as elegant but still nice, their Finecam L4v has a gigundo 2.5" LCD screen wrapped up in a svelte 4-megapixel digicam, while the L3v delivers 3.2 megapixels. It's kinda long in a stubby Xpan kinda way, but simple to use thanks to great ergonomics and a wonderfully practical 38-115mm (equivalent) zoom lens. If you're worried about power consumption, Kyocera claims the included CR-V3 lithium battery will deliver three hours plus battery life, even with that bad boy LCD turned on.

What do you call, a small pocket-sized device that records video clips, plays MP3 tunes, and is a VGA digicam? I dunno. But Panasonic calls it E-Ware. There are two models but the coolest is the SV-AV30 (I guess Btfsplk was already taken) which captures still images (VFA) and video clips, as well as plays back MP3 tunes in a tiny handheld device with rotating-flipping LCD screen. You can plug this into your home entertainment system and record that special episode of Enterprise you missed while at PMA.

And finally, the biggest surprise of the show was the LS633 from Kodak. Oh sure, it looks nice and has a 3x Schneider-Kreuznach Variogon lens, delivers 3-megapixel resolution images, and features the ruby-red Share button that will be on every new Kodak camera hereafter. It's a nice little camera but its most important feature is the OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) screen that changes the playing field for every amateur or professional digital camera from this day on. At 2.2" the screen is large, but more importantly is richly saturated and can be viewed through 165Þ of camera tilt or direction. After today, nobody will want any camera without an OLED screen and Kodak has formed a new division to market the technology to the world. OLED might be the secret weapon that saves Eastman Kodak from oblivion. If that's not enough, the LS633 is available with an optional dock that lets you make 4x6 borderless dye sublimation prints without requiring a separate printer. This is the best solution from beginning to end ever delivered by Kodak, maybe by anybody, but Eastman Kodak must remain true to its idiosyncratic self and the LS633 will (initially) only be available in Europe, Asia, and Australia. When asked when the camera would be available in North America a Kodak spokesperson told me, "We do not have a date for US availability."

Point And Just Shoot Me II: The Sequel
Nikon's Coolpix 2100 and 3100 are sibling cameras that include a Scene Assist function that's supposed to "guide users toward the ideal shot and make picture-taking faster and easier for beginning digital photographers." Here's how it works: When taking an off-center portrait using Scene Assist, a graphical overlay visible on the LCD helps you compose the shot, while the camera automatically adjusts focus and exposure. The Coolpix 2100 offers 2 megapixels while the Coolpix 3100 incorporates a 3.2-megapixel CCD imaging chip. (Remember kiddies, Nikon thinks that size does not matter.) Both cameras can use the new
One-Touch Red-Eye Fix built into the bundled NikonView 6.0 software, not the camera. With a resolution of 1600x1200, Nikon claims the Coolpix 2100 can print "crystal clear" pictures up to 8x10". The more powerful Coolpix 3100 should make larger prints of up to 11x14" and I've produced great-looking prints that size with the late, lamented Coolpix 990. The Coolpix 2100 has a (equivalent) zoom range of 36-108mm while the Nikon Coolpix 3100 features a 38-115mm lens.

SiPix who make some of the most charmingly designed digicams, surpassed their previous way-cool designs with their new offering. The StyleCam Groove is a five-in-one digital camera that captures still images, full motion video, high quality audio, and works as both a PC camera and a video conferencing camera. It also includes 16MB of built-in memory. The StyleCam Groove costs $69.99. The $129.99 StyleCam Extreme is a 2.1-megapixel camera that offers high-end features with a point-and-shoot design and features a 4x digital zoom, macro mode for extreme close-ups, and a 1.6" TFT color LCD monitor.

Rollei's d210 motion offers 2.1 megapixels, movie mode, and manual control for creative picture making. It's fitted with an f/2.8-5.6 D-Rolleigon lens. The mostly useless 2x digital zoom can be used both for shooting and during playback. The focusing range lies between 2.25 ft and infinity, macro focusing between 11.8 and 31.5". Shutter speeds range from 1/2 to 1/500 sec. White Balance settings include Auto, Sun, Shade, Tungsten, and Fluorescent, and the built-in flash offers Auto, Fill-in, Off, and Redeye Reduction settings. Camera settings are displayed on an LCD and 1.6" TFT color preview panel. Still images are recorded in JPEG, EXIF, and DPOF formats, video clips in AVI Motion (M-JPEG), either in the camera's 8MB internal memory or an SD card. The camera has a USB interface and video output that can toggle between NTSC and PAL.

Toshiba's PDR-4300 combines point-and-shoot convenience with manual controls. The 4-megapixel PDR-4300 offers 2400x1600 resolution and a 2.8x optical zoom Canon lens. The PDR-4300 is equipped with a bright 1.6" polysilicon color LCD monitor, an optical viewfinder, and ships with a 16MB SD card capable of storing JPEG images at three compression levels. Priced at $379.

Concord Camera Corp. announced its plans to introduce a 2-megapixel digital camera using Bluetooth technology that will be able to transmits image files to specified Bluetooth compatible devices from as far away as 30 ft--without direct line of sight. The Concord Eye-Q Go Wireless is equipped with a mostly useless 4x digital zoom, 7MB of internal memory, and a SD/MMC card slot. Video Clip capability includes webcam capabilities. The Concord Eye-Q Go Wireless is compatible with Windows 98SE, 2000, Me, XP and Mac OS 9.0 and higher. It's expected to be available by the time you read this at a suggested retail price of $199.99.

The Pentax Optio S' slightly larger sibling, the Optio 33L features 3.2-megapixel resolution, 1.5" LCD preview screen (they like to call it a "monitor") that swings up and rotates a full 180Þ, making it ideal for self-portraits, group shots, and high or low angle photography. With a 3x optical (8x combined) zoom lens, a compact yet durable design, and a variety of shooting and picture modes, the Optio 33L is proof that Pentax gets it when it comes to digital point-and-shoot cameras. Continuing the trend of sibling cameras, the Optio 450 (4 megapixels) and Optio 550 (5 effective megapixels) have similar styling and characteristics, beginning with a 1.5" LCD monitor, a movie mode that captures up to 10 minutes of video with sound, a voice memo recording mode, way-cool panorama assist, full manual control, and a 5x optical zoom (20x when combined with the mostly useless--as it is on all digital cameras--digital zoom).

Print Me Out, Print Me In
Printing monochrome images with an ink jet printer has always been a challenge and most of us settle for some kind of warm or cool toned print as "close enough." Hey dudes and dudettes, it doesn't have to be that way. Lyson has lots of inks and papers for the fine art photographer using Epson, Canon, and other ink jet printers. One of the most popular archival printers for this group is the Epson Stylus Photo 2200, and now Lyson offers the first complete inkset with bulk-feed attachment for it. Some of the advantages of using a bulk inkset for the printer include a savings of up to 70 percent on ink costs vs. using cartridges as well as speed, workflow processing, and elimination of the time and hassle involved in changing cartridges.

The big news from Jon Cone ( is that his pigment ink hex-black system is now available for Canon printers, which he feels are "at least four times faster than Epson printers."

Epson whisked me away to a secret meeting to show me their new Stylus Photo 900. It is a six-color 5760x720 resolution ink jet printer that drops itsy-bitsy 4-picoliter drops onto--hold onto your socks, Daryl--not just paper but printable CDs! It has a built-in roll paper holder and will make edge-to-edge printing (nobody likes to say borderless anymore) for 4" rolls, 4x6, 5x7, 8x10, and panoramas. This under-$200 printer links to Mac OS (although some features are not supported under OS X) and recent Windows versions.

Konica, which makes some of the best ink jet paper out there, has rearranged its entire paper line to be less confusing. Now you'll be able to get Professional Photo Glossy, Professional Two-Sided Photo Glossy, Premium Photo Glossy, Premium Photo Self-Adhesive, and Matte Everyday paper, which I've never tried. While Konica remains the thickest ink jet paper available, there have been some changes in the Professional
Glossy and it feels different to me, more like "real" photo paper. The older style actually felt better than real photo paper. Konica says their ink jet paper is water-resistant and contrary to tests in other publications that produced water spots with some ink jet papers, I spilled a coke on a print made using Konica paper with no noticeable effect.

Wanna make prints from your PDA? That's who SiPix thinks will love their PocketPrinter A6 that uses thermal technology instead of ribbons or ink to produce 400dpi output. The 41/8" wide output produced by the $149 battery-powered A6 can be connected to your PalmPilot or notebook computer by a serial cable or wireless infrared.

Canon, who would love to be the Big Kahuna in ink jet printers, rolled out the i450, i470, and big boy i900 Photo Printer at the show. Here's the deal: The i450 and i470 are 4800x1200dpi devices that juggle 5 and 2-picoliter droplets to produce smooth-edge photo-quality images. Both print borderless output up to letter sizes but the i470 has built-in slots for memory cards so prints can be made directly without attaching a computer. Both are Mac OS and Windows compatible (although OS X users have to download their drivers from the Canon web site). Prices are $99 and $149, respectively, so the folks at Epson have to be worried. The i900 will print up to 13x19"--even borderless. It's a six-color printer that uses individual buckets of ink.

Scan Me Up, Scan Me Down
Imacon's Flextight 343 joins the 646 and the 848, completing Imacon's range of high-end affordable CCD scanners for graphic arts and photography. Built around Imacon's unique virtual drum design and flexible magnetic holder, the Flextight 343 is able to handle film formats from 35mm to 6x18. The scanner delivers an optical resolution of 3200 ppi, and a D-max of 4.3 in a single pass. The scanner also includes a full selection of holders for mounting the most common original formats and support for special formats, such as panoramas, can also be customized and supplied by Imacon. Interface with a Microsoft Window or Mac OS computer is via a fast FireWire connection.

Pacific Image Electronics known best for their low cost, high quality scanners now offers the PF3500 Pro with Applied Science Fiction's ICE3 to make clean, saturated scans from your older, unloved slides and negatives. The PF3500 Pro has an optical resolution of 3600dpi and costs less than $600, making it the lowest priced film scanner with Digital ICE. Connection is via USB or FireWire to Windows and Mac OS computers via TWAIN-compliant software or Photoshop compatible plug-ins.

Microtek, now out of Polaroid's shadow, is adding the ArtixScan 120tf multiple format film scanner to its line of professional scanners. The ArtixScan 120tf will digitize 35mm, 6x6, 6x4.5, 6x7, and 6x9 running through a fast FireWire connection to Mac OS (including OS X) and Windows computers.

Canon, which has horned their way into more digital categories, also has two new flat-bed scanners for shutterbugs, the CanoScan 3000F and 9900F flat-beds. The 3000F is a 48-bit USB 2.0 device that has a built-in 35mm film adapter to digitize slides and negatives. As is the trend with most low cost scanners (this one costs $129.99) there are a bunch of buttons on the front that make it easy to scan prints and other documents. (I never use 'em.) The $399.99 9900F is a fast FireWire and USB 2.0 scanner that has built-in dust, scratch, grain, and even fading correction software to improve digitizing of older originals. It will scan film from 35mm up to 4x5" and prints up to letter size. Both will work with Mac OS, including OS X, and Windows computers.

Two new Epson flat-bed scanners of interest to photographers were shown at the same meeting and will be launched at Create 2003 (formerly MacWorld NY) and should be available by the time you get this issue. The Perfection 1670 photo comes in at $129 street price, so you no longer have any excuse about affording a scanner to digitize your old prints and 35mm negs. The 1670 Photo includes a 35mm slide adapter and produces a 3.0 dynamic range with transparencies. It's a 48-bit internal/24-bit external scanner that delivers an optical resolution of 1600dpi or 18,720x13,600 interpolated. The Perfection 3170 has a street price of $199 (an optional automatic document feeder is $149) and delivers 3200dpi optical resolution at a dynamic range of 3.2. It has a built-in 35mm film strip adapter built into the lid and all of you Xpan shooters will be glad to know that it's a snap to set it up to scan that unique format. While both scanners do all the things that most amateur photographers need, Epson bundles software that lets you lay a business card on the flat-bed, launch the software, and scan any business card to an electronic filing system.

What Did We Learn At PMA?
The Four-Thirds System--let's call it what is really is, Digital APS--is an interesting concept but I'd rather see Olympus build a digital Pen F as, I suspect, would many other potential buyers. We also learned that size doesn't matter, especially if you'd rather produce lenses than camera bodies. My fellow auto enthusiast and colleague John Rettie, writing in another publication, speculated that Canon was "tightlipped" in their response to Nikon's DX lens series, but I think they already responded. It's called the EOS 1Ds.

The point-and-shooters seem to get it. Fuji has a 6-megapixel compact camera that uses kick-butt Fourth-Generation Super CCD technology. The mixed metaphor here is that snapshooters need lots of megapixels, but pros don't? And with medium format sales down all it took was price cuts and rebates to get them moving again, which might be a message to the manufacturers that those puppies were overpriced. But where are inexpensive medium format digital backs? With so companies bemired in the La Brea Tar Pits of photographic history, like the stegosaurus they won't know an asteroid hit them until they hear a big boom.

What's all this new gear mean to you, the serious image maker? Digital imaging has taken out a hammer and is knocking together a coffin for traditional photography. Whenever this kind of statement appears in print, almost every writer adds "film's not going away anytime soon" and that may be true, much as my mentor Edward L. Bafford (1902-1981) made bromoil prints until he passed away. And yes, I talked with a company at photokina that is still making bromoil materials, but in all 18 halls of imaging tools, they were the only one.

The Battle Of Concord
The PMA Show offered a staggering number of camera choices in the $300-$500 "enthusiast" area. For those with money to spend, the quality and features just keep getting better.

But at least one company, better known for budget 35mm cameras, is also attacking the under-$100 "blister pack" mass market with a surprising array of digitals.

Concord has been wooing this segment of digicam buyers for more than two years. First they offered an interesting but limited VGA camera in the sub-$100 range. Now they have shipped 1.3-megapixel cameras with street prices as low as $59 and a 2-megapixel model for $99.

These cameras have full-color screens, accept optional standard storage cards, offer generous menu selections, and also take movies. They also double as webcams and can display images on a TV. Not bad for a camera selling for what we once paid for the editing software alone.

What they do not have is an optical zoom, macro mode, or autofocus. They are digital box cameras, and that ain't half-bad news for a lot of buyers wanting things uncomplicated.

I spent time with three models that are on the shelves now. The Eye-Q Duo LCD 1.3 and 2.0 look identical. The model 2.0 has the 2-megapixel sensor and accepts both MMC and SD storage cards (not included). The 1.3 has the lower resolution and accepts only MMC cards. These cameras are about the size of a single-use film camera and weigh about the same. Each camera has enough built-in memory for several high quality still images.

The other blister pack camera is called the "GO LCD" and has essentially the same features as the Duo LCD 1.3 in an even smaller package. The camera is run by a single 3v lithium cell to save space and yet it still has a nice viewing screen and also can make movies when using an optional SD card. Street price? Only $79.95!
All three are unashamedly plastic, extremely lightweight, and rely heavily on electronic viewfinder menus as opposed to a separate smaller menu screen or button array. This saves money, but also is a bit of a pain in bright light if you choose to depart from the default settings.

A large four-way button on the back of each camera serves to navigate these menus as well as activate the digital zoom. Each camera has the same fixed-focus 9.9mm f/3.2 lens.

But how is the image quality? Concord has nothing to be ashamed of in this area. For on-screen use or for small prints, the quality of these under-$100 cameras is much better than expected. Color saturation and sharpness are good, and selectable compression rates let the user decide the quality needed for the situation. Another bonus for street shooters is that these cameras are silent, pre-focused, and the flash can be disabled.
Flash coverage is adequate for snapshots and may actually be a bit too powerful for tight shots. Low-light capability is good and the LCD screen is not bad for this price range.

As with many cameras, shutter lag time is still annoying, but not the worst I have seen. However, the cameras use an auto-gain exposure system, so it sometimes takes a second for them to respond to rapidly changing light conditions. And there is no pre-exposure detent where the shutter button is pressed halfway to lock exposure. This means that backlit situations will be a problem unless you delve into the menu system to adjust the exposure compensation.

Naturally, the lack of an optical zoom will frustrate some people. And others who do not understand the huge depth of field of digitals may wonder about focusing. But the simplicity of operation and the default "decision-free" shooting mode will appeal to users of disposable cameras or photographers wanting fuss-free digital grab shots.

While the addition of a $35 memory card is a big plus, it is possible to use each camera as-is. Each can be set to appear as an external hard drive for file transfer via USB cable, another convenience. The ubiquitous Arcsoft suite of still and video editing programs is included to round out the package.
I found a pleasing consistency in quality from model to model and have taken a lot of great snapshots with their cameras. Concord has announced plans to offer a 5-megapixel digi this year. But don't expect that one to be in a blister pack, at least not yet.
--John Stewart

2003 DIMA Digital Camera Shoot-Out Is A Winner
The PMA Show is where you can see all the latest and greatest digital cameras, but if you want to go beyond how a camera looks and see how well it makes pictures, the best exhibit is the annual DIMA Digital Camera Shoot-Out. Twenty-four camera manufacturers took part this year, entering a total of 71 digital cameras in 11 different categories. Each camera was used to shoot a model under identical studio lighting conditions. The results were then printed, and the attendees voted on the results without knowing which camera took which shot until after the announcement of the winners.

Now we don't always agree that the popular winner is the best camera, although this year our opinions were a bit more in line with the voters than last year, especially at the lower end of the price groupings.

Starting with the prosumer/professional categories, the $2500-$4999 category was very interesting. The $2500 6.2-megapixel Fuji FinePix S2 Pro took top honors, gaining both the popular vote and our own vote. The only other camera in that category was the $4999 Kodak 14-megapixel DCS Pro 14n camera. A very close examination of the two prints revealed that the Kodak camera actually did capture more fine detail than the FinePix, even the superfine woven threads of the model's shirt were clearly visible in the Kodak shot. But the Fuji camera's image appeared sharper and had better overall tonality. This was especially noticeable on the model's skin.

The next two categories ran as unopposed entries. The Minolta DiMAGE 7Hi was the only camera in the $1200-$2499 category, and the Sony DSC-F717 was the only camera in the $900-$1199 category. Now, both these cameras are excellent pieces of equipment, but where were Nikon and Canon with their cameras? Were they afraid that their cameras would not compare well? I know from experience that they make great cameras, so why would they choose to not go head to head with their competition?

In the $700-$899 category the Olympus C-5050 took the award. This is a fine camera, and the picture it produced was very crisp. A bit too much, actually. In general, the 5050's sharpening algorithm is a bit aggressive for us, so our pick was actually the Kyocera Finecam S5, which produced an equally excellent image, but without the extra edginess that the sharpening gave the 5050. But the vote went to the Olympus.
Finally, in the $500-$699 category, the public picked the Kyrocera Finecam S3L, while we chose the Pentax Optio 550. Both produced very nice images, but the Pentax had slightly better highlight detail.

The point-and-shoot categories had a great deal of competition. Starting with the $400-$499 group, the Olympus C-4000 was picked by the public as the winner. We gave our vote to the HP photosmart 850, which we felt had slightly better shadow detail.

Next was the $300-$399 category, and here the winner, and our pick as well was the HP photosmart 812. Its tonality was remarkably smooth, and although its 4.3-megapixel sensor was not the largest in this price group, its images were the best. Please note, if you were an early buyer of this camera (it was introduced at the CES show in November of 2002) be sure your camera has the latest firmware, as early versions had some issues with image quality.

In the $100-$199 group, HP won again with its photosmart 620. This 2.1-megapixel camera impressed us with its smooth, full tonality and its open shadow detail. The images were excellent for a $199 digital camera.

Finally, in the below-$100 camera category, the Vivicam 3315 stood out. This camera is only 1.3 megapixel, but it produced a 4x6 print that was quite acceptable. The shadow detail was not great, but the colors and sharpness were outstanding for the price. Perhaps most surprising in a $99 camera were features such as the 1.5" LCD, and the ability to take SD memory cards in addition to its built-in 8MB of memory.

In summary, digital cameras keep getting better, smaller, and less expensive. The quality of even the low-end cameras was remarkable, and very good things are happening at the top of the professional and prosumer camera lines. Remember, it's not all about megapixel count--true image quality is a combination of many factors. Direct comparisons such as the DIMA shoot-out show that the state of the art is advancing rapidly, and we all stand to benefit from that.
--Chris Maher and Larry Berman