When people find out that I work for Digital Camera Magazine they almost always ask me for recommendations on what to buy. I understand that and try to help whenever I can. I am a professional and my time is valuable, but it's not like I am a medical doctor and people are asking me to diagnose their illnesses for free. Besides, I love to talk about digital cameras. The problem is that I often don't have an answer.
That's because the digital camera industry is changing its models so quickly that it's almost impossible to keep up. I maintain a massive master spreadsheet in which I keep track of every single digital camera of every camera maker. Or try to, anyway. In general, every time I go to a manufacturer's website I find that half the cameras I have listed as "current" have been discontinued and replaced with newer models. That's really good news for consumers as the newer models are inevitably better, faster, and cheaper. But it sure makes my job as resident and neighborhood digital camera expert a whole lot harder.
It also makes it difficult for a digital photography magazine to provide timely information. Sometimes it seems like no matter how we time our reviews, cameras are either still under embargo and we can't write about them yet, or by press time they have already been replaced and we look stupid for leaving a review in the magazine. It's gotten to a point where even the digital camera manufacturers' PR companies often don't know anymore what's current and what is not. I can only imagine how bewildering it must be for the average consumer.
Digital cameras are everywhere these days. You can buy them in electronics stores, special photography houses, department stores, from discounters, office supply chains and even from the corner drugstore. So you walk into one of those places and find yourself confronted with dozens of different models and no one to help. The average sales person may push you towards a more expensive model than you wanted to buy, but s/he likely won't have the answer to any of your inquiries. And I can't blame them. Their job is to help customers with very general questions on a wide range of products. Don't expect answers to questions like "How does the Smart Zoom in that Sony work?" or "Can I use that Mini-B USB cable use with my printer? or "What, exactly, is 'PictBridge'"?
Unfortunately, as magazine editors we often have to ask ourselves if we're really that much more helpful. Sure we try to put together an interesting mix of all sorts of digital imaging related items in each issue, and we count on the fact that there are still a lot of people who prefer to kick back with a print magazine instead of googling the web for such information. By and large I think we succeed, but I firmly believe in the reality check of frequently asking ourselves, "Are we doing the right thing?" instead of just "Are we doing things right?" Big difference there.
Why? Because if you're doing the wrong thing, even doing a really good job at it is still wrong. By asking that question we concluded that it doesn't make sense for us to run a lot of stand-alone camera reviews. That way you, the reader, only learn about one camera, and how we feel about it. That makes no sense. If you're already interested in that camera, all you have to do is go to one of the good digital camera review websites--such as dpreview.com steves-digicams.com--to find more information and more detail on that model than we could possibly justify printing in a paper magazine. Web space is essentially free. Printed pages are not, and we have to use them wisely.
So we decided on a new approach. Instead of doing lots of reviews of individual cameras, we take a look at a whole segment and tell you what they can do and which we think are best for various uses. We started that in the last issue with a massive lineup of 7-megapixel cameras. We called all our PR contacts and told them to send us whatever they had in that range. We ended up picking a full dozen of the best, sat them side by side, compared them, tested them, and then rated them for different users. By having all of them together it quickly became clear what worked well and what didn't, who spent time figuring out the best solution to a problem, and who took shortcuts. All of that got reflected in a huge ratings spreadsheet, and at the end we had three winners, one for each category. We presented the information to you in a big feature that included a mini-review of each camera, as well as the full specs, the ratings, and the overall results. It was a lot of work, but at the end we felt confident we had a lot of good answers and recommendations.
We took that approach again in this issue with big zoom cameras. Digital cameras have had good optical zooms almost from the start. That's because the resolution of the first digicams was so low that you pretty much needed an optical zoom to get close enough to your subject so you didn't have to crop away half of those precious pixels. The tradition continued, and today every halfway decent digicam has at least a 3X optical zoom. Zooming, however, is addictive and so we decided to do a comprehensive comparison test of "big zoom" cameras with at least a 5X optical magnification.
So we called our trusted PR contacts and ended up with eight of the best big zoom cameras around. Once again we were surprised at the huge variety in design, size and weight. There's literally something for everyone, and looks alone can be deceiving. An unassuming little camera may perform like a champ because it actually houses world class optics and electronics in its little body. A big-name camera may disappoint because the manufacturer is resting on its laurels. We had great fun doing the "big zoom" shootout, and I think we came up with some pretty helpful recommendations for all sorts of needs and requirements.
The best news, however, is that digital cameras keep getting better. It's simply amazing how every generation surpasses the last. Speed and performance is up, reliability is up, there are tons of terrific new features, and it all costs less. Those of us interested in digital imaging truly live in exciting times. Sure, it's a drag that everything is obsolete in a few months, but that's a small price to pay for this kind of stunning, and affordable, progress.