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What's The Cost of a Cheap Camera?

Every story has to have its elemental conflict -- Democrats versus Republicans, Redskins versus Cowboys, Starbucks versus, um, every other coffee shop. And in the consumer-electronics business that conflict resides in the tension between commodity and creativity.

Gadgets start out as rare, novel, expensive expressions of technological creativity, then become more common and cheaper as other companies start to make them; eventually, they become the kind of everyday product you can buy without any special research. (Shorter version: tech products move from unavailable to unaffordable to unavoidable.)

It looks like digital cameras are well into that third phase of market acceptance. In today's column, I looked at the three cheap cameras -- Canon's E1, Kodak's C813 and Olympus's FE-360--to see what, if anything, you gave up by buying from the lower end of a manufacturer's product line.

That was a departure from prior camera evaluations, in which I've tried out such new, higher-end options as in-camera editing that makes you look thinner or younger, or high-definition video recording.

As you can see, I didn't find any obvious sacrifices of capability even at this low end of the market. The single biggest area of compromise, the resolution of the sensor, has vanished, with all three cameras offering 8 or more million pixels of resolution. (A little historical perspective: In 2003, I was happy to find a pocket-sized 5-megapixel camera for "only" $600, and in 2005 a 4-MP model cost me a mere $300.)

But I think that in winning this resolution race, the camera industry has lost sight of some other important factors. Some are the useful secondary features I've outlined in past how-to-buy-a-camera stories (for instance, stick with cameras that use AA batteries and SD Card storage, and optical image stabilization works better than digital image stabilization), but I also believe that basic usability is getting neglected.

It's fun to count how many goofy scene-mode options a camera offers (apparently, self-portraits taken by holding the camera in front of your face now merit their own mode), but how many people make their way to the menus listing all these options? How many remember to use them in the field? Me, I often have enough trouble just remembering to change the clock on my camera when I travel -- and I am enough of a photo geek to want to play with things like aperture and exposure when composing the shot.

What would you change on your current camera? You can stick to simple fixes (say, "move the flash button") or get a little more hypothetical ("have the camera suggest what scene mode I ought to use"). The comments await...

By Rob Pegoraro  |  October 9, 2008; 9:55 AM ET
Categories:  Gadgets , Pictures  
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As a DSLR user, I find the physical sensor size of the compact digital cameras to be the limiting factor on image quality. Trying to cram more megapixels into them just makes it worse, but increasing the noise and decreasing the performance in low-light situations. We can already print poster-sized prints from the resolutions in almost every digital camera... it's time the manufacturers left the resolution alone and improved the image QUALITY. (e.g. low noise at high-ISO settings, allowing for better low light photos, like your kids blowing out birthday candles)

Posted by: Pat | October 9, 2008 10:58 AM | Report abuse

The thing I have to remember to look for in a new camera is either an LCD display that I can actually see in bright sunlight, or an old-fashioned viewfinder, so I can actually aim the camera properly on a bright day. (I somehow managed to break the LCD display on my current camera, so not only do I lack the ability to aim the camera properly, but I can't even see the picture I took without a computer or digital picture frame.)

Posted by: Ghak | October 9, 2008 11:15 AM | Report abuse

I would really like to see more manufacturers keep an actual viewfinder. I'm disappointed that more and more cameras choose to use the LCD display as a viewfinder.

Posted by: Steve | October 9, 2008 11:26 AM | Report abuse

I agree with Steve. I have an Olympus Stylus 1030 SW that I take surfing, rafting, and other places where it might get immersed or banged around. There are only two problems:

1) No viewfinder, so it a case of point, click, and hope it's pointing near what I want to take a picture of. Sure, I could look at the LCD. Except it isn't all that visible in bright sunlight, and I don't particularly want to wear reading glasses while surfing.

2) Shutter lag.

Posted by: wiredog | October 9, 2008 2:11 PM | Report abuse

It sounds like you liked the E1 the best, Rob (except for the color part, I get it). Is that right? I may be in the market for a new camera soon myself.

Posted by: cbr | October 9, 2008 3:28 PM | Report abuse

Too me, its all at about time: Time from turn on to first shot, shutter lag from pressing the button to picture/autofocus time, and time between shots/consecutive shooting.

Posted by: David | October 9, 2008 4:08 PM | Report abuse

My old camera has a swivel LCD screen which I love. It allows me to get shots that I otherwise might just have to guess on. Canon is the only one that makes this and they only have it on a bridge camera now. Very sad - I have to either buy a big camera that won't fit in my purse or buy a point and click that I don't really like.

Posted by: Washington, DC | October 9, 2008 4:23 PM | Report abuse

At this point I think most people are beginning to understand that rating a camera's quality by the number of megapixels it has is not really giving you the whole picture (sorry for the pun). It's kind of like listing a computer's speed by only saying how many GHz the processor is.

Pretty much every new camera today has enough megapixels to meet almost anybody's needs. From what I understand, what separates cameras in terms of picture quality is the quality of the lens and the stabilizer. I frankly don't know how to compare cameras along those lines and would like to see manufacturers do more to distinguish their products in that area.

Posted by: Ugh | October 9, 2008 5:57 PM | Report abuse

Like the commenter from Washington, I miss Canon's swivel-screen PowerShots. My dad has one that's still working decently, but mine, a PowerShot A560, has a fixed screen. I'm happy with mine but a swivel screen and the ability to save in a lossless format would be nice.

Posted by: William | October 9, 2008 11:53 PM | Report abuse

Speaking of cheap cameras... on the debate a couple of days ago, everyone in the audience had a disposable camera

Posted by: Robert J Loomis III | October 10, 2008 12:16 PM | Report abuse

Sensor size! And don't fall for megapixels above about 8-10. With a compact-size sensor, I would take an 8-10 megapixel camera over a 12 megapixel one any day. The image quality is simply better in any but the best light conditions.

When will we see a compact camera with an intermediate-sized sensor, 8-10 megapixels, and the latest software? This would be one for the ages - one you could buy today and still have people envying you 10 years from now. I couldn't say that about any compact on the market today.

Posted by: homunq | October 10, 2008 1:14 PM | Report abuse

I've got 2 digital cameras.

One's ancient, one's relatively new.

My ancient one: Olympus C2040 Zoom ( ) it's old, it's only 2 megapixels, but it's a SPECTACULAR camera. Good lens, awesome features. The only thing it really lacked was an image stabilization, but even though I bought it back in 02? 03? I still keep it around for the fact it has an amazing lens for Macro shooting and features like that.

My new one is one of last year's 7 megapixel Canon pocket sized elph's. It's nice. Fairly big LCD, and such, but nothing that makes me jump out at it and say "I LOVE THIS CAMERA"...

I dig the fact I can drop in my 4GB card and take 1200 photos or something insane, but so what? I want the features I miss.

Posted by: Kitch | October 10, 2008 3:47 PM | Report abuse

I have a Nikon D50 DSLR and a Canon Powershot SD850.

For DSLRs, I think anything is fine.

But the things I consider the most when I'm buying a compact digital camera is size and speed (shutter lag). I hate when I try and take a photo and miss the moment 'cause my camera's still thinking! And if I don't have my camera with me, I'm definitely going to miss the shot, so I need them to fit in my purse or pocket really easily. Optical viewfinder is nice, but I find I don't even think to use it too much. The LCDs are getting better, but could be even better, like laptop screens. And I don't like cameras that use AA batteries except for people who don't use their camera much. They drain too fast (we had an old camera that used AAs and once we bought some batteries and it felt like every 10 photos it would complain about being out of power) and create too much waste -- taking them to recycle is a pain.

Improvements that would be nice are better low-light capability, better flash, and speedier. Always speedier -- I wanna see my friend being silly, take out my camera, and catch that moment.

Also, speaking of cheap cameras, my sister has a Canon Powershot SD1100 IS which is teeny and only like $158-169 at Amazon (depending on color).

Posted by: mim | October 12, 2008 6:36 AM | Report abuse

I agree with Rob about AA battery power. My wife has had too many problems with the rechargeable proprietary lithium batteries, sometimes in the relative isolation of national park backcountry. (If my rechargeable AAs -- mim, get some of these rather than alkalines -- poop out, I carry a set of Energizer AA lithiums as a backup.)

To the earlier commenters regarding swivel screens, I love that feature on my Canon A640 also, which has an optical viewfinder as well. The current A650 still has that feature, in addition to the "bridge" cameras mentioned. Because the higher-end A-series cameras can use filters and adapters, which I do a lot, I usually use the screen finder.

One of my pet peeves is the parsimonious memory cards usually included with these cameras, which at their current resolutions allow a single-digit number of images or just a snippet of video on the card. With the plummeting price of memory, either give us bigger cards or leave ’em out altogether and save us a couple bucks.

Posted by: Stratocaster | October 12, 2008 12:22 PM | Report abuse

The optical viewfinder is extremely important for those of us that wear bifocals. Using a LCD only camera requires bobbing the head up and down like a pigeon, down to look through the distant part of the spectacles to see the scene of interest, up to use the reading art of the specs to see the viewfinder. For far sighted viewers the exercise is even more difficult if your arms are not long enough to see the LCD clearly. I will never buy a digital camera without some optical viewing capability. Too bad most of the digital camera designers are young and have perfect vision. Wait until they age a bit and curse the designs of their youth.

Posted by: Larry Z | October 12, 2008 4:00 PM | Report abuse

I have had a number of Digital cameras. I'm happiest with my Panasonic FZ50.It is a 12 MP camera, however I usually drop it down to 3 MP, in which case the optical zoom is the 35mm equivalent of 668mm. The zoom is just like an SLR where you turn the ring on the
lens itself, except that the lens doesn't go in and out. It has two methods of stabilization. I only use the LCD screen for macro pictures, otherwise the optical viewfinder.

Posted by: Bob S | October 12, 2008 5:35 PM | Report abuse

wow very interesting

Posted by: jaider bertoli | October 14, 2008 9:39 AM | Report abuse

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