- The Washington Times - Monday, November 24, 2008

The holiday season brings good tidings for shutterbugs. Whether you’re shopping for someone new to digital cameras or a seasoned hobbyist, you’ll find megapixels priced extremely favorably this year.

The best products continue to come from trusted names in the business, Canon Inc. and Nikon Corp. Other companies offer lower prices and fun features, but for optimal optics you’ll want to stick with the leaders in photography.

Improved video quality continues to be a hot selling point for digital cameras. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a model from this year forward that doesn’t have some video capabilities, and many of them offer high-definition resolution.

We put several new cameras and camcorders to the test. Here’s a look at some of the best.

Digital cameras

• Nikon D90, $1,300 with 18-105mm lens

This is the first single-lens reflex camera - the kind that lets you exchange lenses - that also records video. However, Canon is hot on its heels with a rival model.

Pros: Still shots at 12.3 megapixels are excellent. Movies are shot in 720p high definition, and the shooter can take advantage of lenses and manual controls that aren’t available on most video cameras.

Cons: Doesn’t really replace a video camera. The video quality doesn’t measure up to consumer-level high-definition camcorders, and there’s no auto-focus in video mode. Audio is mono and of poor quality.

• Casio EX-FH20, $600

This large digicam is the second-fastest gun in the West, shooting 40 frames per second at 7 megapixels. (The fastest is the more expensive Casio EX-F1, at 60 frames per second.)

Pros: Shooting in bursts makes it easy to capture action shots and fleeting expressions. Even more fun is shooting at 210 frames per second, which yields slow-motion video. Everyday subjects like a bird taking flight or a child in a swing take on mystery and weight when played seven times slower than real life.

Cons: Auto-focus is iffy in high-speed video mode. After a one-second burst of 40 still images, the camera freezes up to ask whether you want to save what you just shot. Take away the high-speed features, and you have a bulky, expensive 9-megapixel still camera.

• Nikon CoolPix P6000, $500

The Nikon CoolPix P6000 boasts smart exposure controls and has numerous options for RAW and JPEG image capture. RAW photo files contain more data than the JPEG version of the same shot, so the image can be more thoroughly fine-tuned with photo editing software before printing it or posting it online. The camera shoots at 13.5 megapixels and has a built-in flash as well as a hot shoe, the plate with metal contacts where an external flash can be attached.

Pros: Very intuitive button and menu controls make the P6000 easy to navigate. The internal GPS is great for geotagging your photos so you’ll always know where you took a shot. The images in shutter-priority mode produced the best results, displaying tack-sharp details while retaining a nice depth-of-field.

Cons: The built-in flash has to pop up from its housing. When it does, it’s hard to find a place for your left hand while holding the camera. Also, the optical viewfinder distorts the scene so much that it renders the feature pointless.

• Canon PowerShot G10, $500

This model wins in the advanced point-and-shoot category. It shoots at 14.7 megapixels, has a huge 3-inch LCD monitor and offers impressive control over image capture.

Pros: The manual-control fanatic will love the black bezeled dials for mode, exposure compensation and ISO settings. We loved the wide-screen mode that produced cool 16:9 ratio images. We viewed some of them on a new Westinghouse LCD high-definition TV and got jaw-dropping clarity and color.

Cons: Low-light and high-ISO speed images can get pretty grainy. Also, our old standard SD memory card fit fine, but a brand new SanDisk 8-gigabyte SDHC card got stuck inside the slot at one point.

• Fujifilm FinePix S2000HD, $280

For the price, this model offers a lot of features. It can auto-crop photos into a 16:9 wide-screen ratio, like Canon’s G10, and does high-def movie capture.

Pros: Great colors and exposure levels when shooting indoors with the flash off. This is important since a blast of flash can kill the nuance of a moment. We also liked the thick rubber grip for a steady hold on the camera when shooting one-handed.

Cons: Cheap lens cap that simply slides straight on instead of clipping or screwing in place. While the colors are very accurate, the auto-focus failed to produce good details on several occasions.

Digital camcorders

• Canon Vixia HF11, $1,200

Canon’s Vixia HF11 records directly to 32 gigabytes of internal flash memory, and sports an SD slot for external memory. The camcorder has a 12x optical zoom and a component output jack for direct HD viewing from the unit.

Pros: The Vixia HF11 has a great feel. It’s small enough to maneuver comfortably in one hand but has just enough heft (and image stabilization technology) to reduce shaky footage. The color and clarity of the footage sizzles in high-def playback, and the audio is crisp.

Cons: The Achilles’ heel of HD video continues to be software support. The format that delivers topflight quality is supported by only a handful of editing applications. Even Canon’s software that came with unit crashed on us more than once.

Flip Mino, $180

The $180 Flip Mino from Pure Digital Technologies Inc. was the smallest and simplest camcorder we tested. It weighs just 3.3 ounces. The Mino has a mostly flat face that features a 1.5-inch LCD screen and a big red recording button.

Pros: The Flip Mino’s simplicity is enhanced by a built-in battery that can be recharged by plugging in the flip-out USB dongle housed at the top of the unit. There is no memory card slot on the Flip Mino, but the device includes 2 gigabytes of internal memory, which provides 60 minutes of recording time, more than enough for a bevy of short videos.

Cons: The Mino has only one video quality option: You record at a resolution of 640 by 480 pixels, 30 frames per second. This makes for more-than-adequate YouTube-sized videos, but if you want to blow your videos up much larger, you won’t be happy with the Mino.

• Kodak Zi6, $180

Eastman Kodak Co.’s Zi6 camcorder is a step up from the Flip Mino in video quality and recording options. However, at the size of a chunky smart phone, it may turn off users who value a sleeker form.

The Zi6 has a large preview screen, and while this made it easier to play back videos, the picture was not as sharp as on other models we tested.

Pros: You can film in high definition (1280 by 720 pixels at 30 frames per second), and the resulting footage is crisp when viewed on a full screen. The Zi6 will also power down after sitting idle for a few minutes, which should cut down on the time you spend recharging.

Cons: The Zi6 doesn’t have a built-in battery and comes with rechargeable AA batteries and a charger instead. This seemed passe. Also, our tester had issues with some black pixel-sized spots on the screen that were most visible when filming bright colors.

AP technology writers Peter Svensson and Rachel Metz contributed to this report.

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