The In-Camera All-Star Team
What is the perfect point-and-shoot camera? The answer depends on which variables are most important to you: image quality, versatility, features, in-camera editing tools, video, aesthetics, or the ultimate blend of skills.
But in the welter of competing considerations, intangibles sometimes get lost. We're talking about futuristic in-camera features that take the shooting experience to another level. We have seen some wow-factor features in point-and-shoot cameras this year, and in this slideshow we review some of the best. Meet our in-camera all-star team.
Casio's High-Speed Exilims: Fast and Furious
When the Casio Exilim Pro EX-F1 was released in 2008, we were awe-struck by its high-speed shooting mode. "High speed" translates into "slow motion"; by taking up to 60 full-resolution shots in a single second (or up to 1000 frames per second of lower-resolution video), the EX-F1 was able to slow down time just enough for great action shots and moment-of-impact photographs.
Unfortunately, the EX-F1 was big (about the size of a digital SLR camera) and expensive ($1000). Casio's second high-speed camera, the Exilim EX-FH20 (pictured above left) was slightly smaller, but cost a fairly hefty $500.
In the past year, Casio has managed to shrink the cameras' high-speed mechanisms to fit into two pocket-size cameras: the Casio High-Speed Exilim EX-FC100 and the Casio High-Speed Exilim EX-FS10 (pictured above right). Both models have a high-speed (30 frames per second) still mode and a high-speed (1000 fps) movie mode. The $350 Casio Exilim EX-FS10 is superslim and fashionable, but the slightly larger Casio Exilim EX-FC100 includes sensor-shifting image stabilization at the same price.
Fujifilm FinePix F200 EXR: The Transforming Sensor
Fujifilm's compact cameras have gained a cult following, thanks to their images' distinctly warm look and to their traditionally excellent performance in low-light conditions. The company's latest high-end compact, the $400 FinePix F200 EXR, takes those in-camera skills to another level, thanks to its new "brain."
The FinePix F200 EXR is the first Fujifilm camera to incorporate the company's Super CCD EXR system--a one-two punch consisting of a redesigned sensor and image processor. This camera performs some nice in-camera tricks: It groups pixels together in High ISO/Low Noise mode to create brighter, sharper low-light shots; it can create high-dynamic-range images within the camera, enabling you to see bright scenes and objects lurking in the shadows in the same shot; and it even simulates the look of different types of Fujifilm media, such as Astia, Provia, and Velvia.
When you switch to 'EXR Auto' mode on this camera, you can actually hear the device thinking. It unleashes an audible barrage of clicks and mechanical adjustments as you move the camera between lighting conditions or closer to your subject, as it surveys the scene and automatically selects the perfect settings. This may not be the quietest camera in the library, but it takes a mean photo.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3: Smart and Video-Savvy
The 12X Leica optical zoom lens on the excellent Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 is a huge draw, but it has some serious smarts, too, thanks to its smorgasbord of Intelligent Auto features. Flipping on 'Intelligent Auto' launches six features that work in tandem: scene optimization, ISO controls, face detection, face recognition, optical image stabilization, and--here's the unique one--face recognition. It doesn't analyze your subject's DNA, but it does let you tag your friends' faces, and it will display their names in any future shots, too. With all of those tools working together, this powerful camera does pretty much all of the work for you. If that's what you're looking for, it's an excellent buy at $400. Experienced photographers will probably want greater fine-tune control over manual settings, however.
Two other in-camera features stand out on this pocket megazoom: the AF Tracking feature, which enables the DMC-ZS3 to lock in on a moving subject and keep it in focus; and the camera's ability to use the full optical-zoom range of the Leica lens while shooting video. This may be the best still camera for video we've seen; it shoots 720p high-definition video in your choice of motion JPEG or AVCHD formats.
Olympus SP-590UZ: Perfect Aperture Every Time
The subject of aperture settings can be confusing, and with good reason. Big F-numbers mean small apertures; small F-numbers mean big apertures. Big apertures mean small depth of field; small apertures mean large depth of field. The $450 Olympus SP-590UZ, packing an astonishing 26X optical zoom, lets you forget about aperture settings with its Soft Background Focus mode.
The mode makes setting the ideal aperture for great portrait shots a total no-brainer. Setting the camera to the 'Soft Background Focus' scene mode puts a wireframe of a head on the LCD screen. Then, all you have to do is align the subject's head with the wireframe, snap a shot, and let the camera deal with the aperture settings. The result is what you'd get with a large-aperture portrait shot: a face that stays in focus, while blurring the background in an artistic way.
Olympus SP-590UZ: Accelerometer-Driven Panoramas
Another feature of the powerhouse Olympus SP-590UZ that bears mentioning is the camera's unique panorama mode. Many current point-and-shoots have panorama modes, which typically involve ghosting the corner of the last image shot so that you can overlap the previous image with the next one. This arrangement usually works very well, too--but the SP-590UZ makes it more fun with its accelerometer-driven panorama mode.
When you're shooting in panorama mode, you snap your first shot and then simply pan the camera to the side or vertically. Once you start moving the camera, a crosshair guideline appears on the screen, along with a diamond-shaped "target." You simply guide the crosshair to the diamond, and the camera automatically takes the next shot of your panorama--no shutter-button pressing required. The camera's software also stitches the entire panoramic image together inside the SP-590UZ; in many point-and-shoots, you have to use a computer to perform this operation.
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1: Easiest Panoramas Ever
The Olympus SP-590UZ's panorama mode plays almost like a video game, but even it can't match the ease of the panorama feature on the $500 Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1, the Sweep Panorama mode. To use it, you press the shutter button once, and then pan the camera slowly across or up and down. The camera does all the work from there, creating a continuous horizontal or vertical image of up to 220 degrees.
The Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 is a highly versatile megazoom, offering a 20X optical zoom, an adjustable LCD screen, an electronic viewfinder, and 1080p video recording bolstered by stereo microphones.
Canon PowerShot SX200 IS: In-Camera Art School
Creative use of Photoshop can transform everyday snapshots into works of art. But Photoshop is expensive and can be difficult to master. Two fun-to-use scene modes in the Canon PowerShot SX200 IS help you achieve Photoshop-esque trickery without the Photoshop--or the computer.
Color Accent mode lets you select and isolate just one color in your photograph, turning the rest of the image black-and-white. The similar Color Swap mode lets you replace all instances of one color in your shot with a different one. And these nifty tricks aren't limited to still shots; you can isolate and swap colors in the PowerShot SX200 IS's 720p movie mode, as well.
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