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The Proper Camera Isn't a Snap Decision

July 13, 1999|MIMI AVINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I want the best, the newest, the coolest, the sexiest thing, and I want it right now! Thus goes the mantra of the ardent shopper. When it comes to cameras, however, the latest, most technologically advanced model might be the best buy, or it might not. It all depends.

The photography industry's term for cameras a nonphotographer can operate successfully is point-and-shoot. (I'd always heard them described as PhD cameras, the initials standing for Push Here, Dummy.) Even within that category, a variety of models are grouped according to the type of film used.

A number of 35-millimeter point-and-shoot cameras, which, not surprisingly, use 35mm film, are small, light and well-priced. They all feature automatic flash, and include some features one would expect to find on what photographers call "a real camera," such as zoom lenses. The Olympus 200 (around $200) is the tiny baby of the 35mm family. Other popular models include the Pentax 140 ($329), the Yashica Zoomate 140 ($289) and the Pentax 200 ($400), which comes with a long zoom. A top-of-the-line point-and-shoot like the Leica Minilux ($900) still has limitations.

"If you want to take snapshots, get a point-and-shoot," says Bel Air Camera manager Gregg Burger. "If you want to take photographs, get a single lens reflex camera. As good as the point-and-shoots are, you won't get any shots in the early morning or evening because the f-stop setting isn't meant to accommodate special lighting conditions."

Better processing labs now deliver contact sheets of a roll of 35mm film, thumbnail-sized pictures of what you've shot that are easier to scan than old-fashioned negatives.

Hidden negatives have been part of the appeal of Advanced Photo System, or APS, cameras, which use drop-in cartridges instead of film. APS cameras are compact and easy to use and range in price from $100 to $400. Most models, including the popular Canon Elph ($250) and Minolta Vectis 300 ($279), offer a panoramic mode, which automatically crops the top and bottom of a shot. APS images are in 24mm, so the resolution isn't as high as on 35mm film. That makes them fine for snapshots but less than ideal for pictures you might want to blow up. But the appeal of a camera that fits in the palm of your hand can be undeniable.

Now back to what would seem to be the newest and coolest. Digital cameras bypass film and shoot directly to floppy discs, cards or minidiscs. Images from the discs can be loaded onto a computer, then stored, e-mailed or printed. Digital cameras range from $400 to $1,000, but Bel Air's Burger points out that a first-time digital buyer will typically spend at least $200 on accessories like battery chargers and memory cards. The Olympus 340R ($399), the Kodak DC240 ($650) and the Nikon Coolpix 950 ($1,000) represent good value, from the low to high end of digital offerings.

"It isn't a good idea to buy a digital as your only camera," he says, "because it's limited. It's great for Realtors or insurance adjusters, but it's not the best for the recreational photographer. Digital hasn't replaced film yet, and one reason is the resolution is still better on film."

Is having sharper pictures more important than owning a very cute and portable camera? That's for you to figure out, dummy.

Win a free Kodak Max Flash camera. Send a postcard with your name and phone number to Kodak, care of Shandwick International, 387 Park Ave. South, New York, NY 10016. Ten winners will be selected.

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