Mark Harris

Panasonic TZ3
Mark Harris uncovers intelligent cameras that do everything but say ‘cheese’


Digital cameras make it simple to shoot hundreds of photos, faster than ever. Unfortunately, for many of us that simply means more blurred faces, more wobbly landscapes and more grainy shadows. But now help is at hand. The latest cameras have a range of smart features that promise to improve your photography and turn even the shakiest snapper into a seasoned professional.
The difference is that today’s cameras don’t just measure the light and focus, they use sophisticated systems to analyse a scene at the instant you hit the shutter. Some pick out faces from a crowded room, while others compensate for unsteady hands or dim lighting conditions – letting you just point and shoot.
The results can be very impressive, especially in extreme conditions or if you’re in a hurry. But don’t expect your photo skills to develop overnight. Like sat navs in cars, clever cameras make it easier to get where you’re going, but if you’re a poor driver, you still risk having an accident along the way…

Nikon Coolpix S500
£ 250
CCD megapixels: 7.1MP
Lens: 3x zoom
Screen size: 2.5-inches
Memory: 26Mb internal, SD card slot
Weight with battery: 165g
Snap up an S500 before Apple notices its suspiciously iPod-alike selector wheel, which makes it easy to breeze through the metal-clad Nikon’s many functions. One of the best is D-Lighting, a feature that rescues over-exposed photos, silhouetted portraits or subjects hidden in dark shade. This one-touch editor boosts brightness and detail in recorded photos, and a similar system lets you restore ‘red eyes’ in flash images. In fact, the Nikon’s 7MP photos are so sharp and colourful that you might not need PC editing software at all – making this a great choice if you’re on the road a lot, or don’t have easy access to a computer.
Rating: 4

Panasonic Lumix TZ3
£ 275
CCD megapixels: 7.2MP
Lens: 10x zoom
Screen size: 3.0-inches
Memory: 13Mb internal, SD card slot
Weight with battery: 265g
Digital cameras are increasingly coming with longer optical zooms, such as the 10x lens on this stylish Panasonic. Long zooms are fantastic for getting close to the action, but are prone to blurry camera shake in anything other than bright, sunny conditions. To the rescue comes Panasonic’s Mega OIS system, an optical image stabiliser that compensates for small wobbles and lets you shoot handheld images with ease – although you should still use a tripod in really dim light. Its 7MP photos are well exposed, though they do lose some of their natural vibrancy in the dark. A fine, all-in-one snapper.
Rating: 4

Fujifilm FinePix F40fd
£ 200
CCD megapixels: 8.3MP
Lens: 3x zoom
Screen size: 2.5-inches
Memory: 25Mb internal, xD and SD card slots
Weight with battery: 181g
Here’s a bright idea. Flash photos can blast away the atmosphere of an intimate concert or candle-lit party, so this classy little Fujifilm takes two pictures in quick succession: one with and one without the flash. It also automatically adjusts the intensity of the flash so you don’t end up with washed-out faces. Images from its 8.3MP are simply stunning: smooth, bursting with colour and full of detail. There aren’t too many confusing manual features, making this an ideal camera for party animals or simply anyone new to digital photography.
Rating: 5

Canon Ixus 70
£ 190
CCD megapixels: 7.1MP
Lens: 3x zoom
Screen size: 2.5-inches
Memory: 32Mb SD card supplied
Weight with battery: 145g
Don’t be fooled by its minimalist, retro design, this tiny Ixus packs some very modern technology. Inside its metal body is an advanced Face Detection system that recognises and locks on to faces when framing. When you hit the shutter, it calculates the best focus and exposure settings to give sharp portraits – instead of the blurred mugshots you might have got in the past. Unfortunately, despite fine exposure and natural colours, the autofocus isn’t reliable and the small lens could be sharper. But if you want a fast, fun camera – or one of the very few compacts with a real optical viewfinder – the Ixus is still worth considering.
Rating: 3

Olympus FE-250
£ 195
CCD megapixels: 8.3MP
Lens: 3x zoom
Screen size: 2.5-inches
Memory: 20Mb internal, xD card slot
Weight with battery: 135g
With film cameras, you had to choose one film speed and stick with it all day. Digital cameras can vary this sensitivity, although none can match this lightweight Olympus, which reaches the heady heights of ISO 10,000 – ten times higher than most cameras. This lets you shoot blur-free shots in the darkest conditions, although it does so at the cost of reducing the resolution (to just 3MP) and adding so much grainy digital ‘noise’ that you might as well be shooting on a basic camera phone. Images are less than perfect even in daylight, although a good 3x lens and straightforward ease of use earn it some consolation points.
Rating: 2

Sony Cyber-shot W200
£ 300
CCD megapixels: 12.1MP
Lens: 3x zoom
Screen size: 2.5-inches
Memory: 31Mb internal, Memory Stick card slot
Weight with battery: 173g
With resolution, the temptation is to assume that bigger is better – and it doesn’t get much bigger than the 12MP sensor inside this all-metal Sony. With such high resolution, you’ll always be able to trim images and still print them out at huge sizes (up to A2). But high resolution also means slower shooting and large files that fill up your memory cards quicker. The W200’s photos are rich and detailed, but unless you’re serious about making poster-sized prints, there’s little reason to spend the extra £100 the W200 commands over its 7MP sibling, the W80.
Rating: 3

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