Review: Crisp Shots, No Weighting

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, May 1998

Review: Crisp Shots, No Weighting

Why schlepp that SLR when point-and-shoots get the job done and then some
By Jonathan Hanson


Above my desk hangs a framed photograph of my wife taken in a canyon near our home. Nothing unusual in that — except that she's crouching next to a freshly stamped set of mountain lion tracks. The clarity in the enlargement is impressive, the telltale oval prints distinct. Visitors who happen across the photo usually guess that it was taken with a pricey single-lens reflex camera. But actually I used a point-and-shoot I had by chance tossed in my daypack.

Indeed, point-and-shoots have far surpassed the we-were-there snapshot capabilities of generations past. Developments such as aspheric lens elements to sharpen color contrast and light-enhancing coatings to boost clarity have greatly improved these models. Quite simply, they're good enough to make you think twice about lugging along an SLR and a battery of lenses.

The first decision prospective point-and-shooters arrive at is which format to commit to: conventional 35mm or the new Advanced Photo System (APS). Standard 35mm is the choice among more serious photographers, mostly because it offers a larger negative size, which produces sharper images. And if you shoot slides, it's the only choice for Westerners, since APS slide film is currently available only in Japan. Unlike alternative-format fiascos of the past (remember the Kodak Disc?), APS seems to be here to stay. As it should be. It offers user-friendly features such as effortless loading of the drop-in cartridge; a choice of print formats, including panoramic; and magnetic encoding that adjusts processing for each frame. If all you want are good prints for your album, consider APS.

Next you'll have to choose between a zoom and a fixed-focal-length lens. If it's the former you want, realize that the ingredients of high-speed zoom lenses — a large diameter and a great weight — simply don't mix with point-and-shoots. A zoom that will squeeze into a compact body lets in less light, requiring you to use faster film, which usually yields grainier photos. A good fixed lens, however, will fit just fine, letting you use slower film and faster action-stopping shutter speeds. For uncompromised image quality, a wise choice would be a fixed lens or a zoom of modest range, say 35-90mm (or 28-72mm in APS).

When comparing models, first check the eyepiece, which is like the driver's seat of a camera. Quality optics there are nearly as important as a well-made lens, because if you have to strain to see, the composition of your photos will suffer. Also consider how easily the controls are manipulated — some tend toward lilliputian. Other than that, it's pretty much a matter of keeping your fingers out of the picture. One final note: The retail prices listed for the nine cameras we reviewed bear little resemblance to those you'll find at any shop, which can be a good 40 percent lower.

35mm Cameras

Rollei QZ-35W — $2,400
The exquisite German-made Rollei is really two cameras in one (and, by the way, an exception to the 40-percent-off-list-price rule — it'll cost at least $2,000.) In program mode it will effortlessly handle the mundane tasks of focusing and setting the exposure. If you're a control freak, switch to manual mode and manipulate your own vision. The 28-60mm, f/2.8-5.6 zoom is flawless, and shutter speeds extend to an astounding 1/8,000 second — sufficient to freeze the motion of a bolting buck or a bullet train. The QZ-35W also features automatic bracketing, which snaps off three frames in quick succession to help get one with the perfect exposure in tricky light, and the powerful flash is a separate, handle-mount unit. The camera's lines typify the elegance of a design by the F. A. Porsche firm. Even the lens cap is cunning — it doubles as a remote control.

Olympus Stylus Zoom 115 — $419
No larger than many fixed-lens cameras, the weatherproof Stylus hides an amazing 38-115mm zoom lens behind its clamshell front cover. The result lets you capture a sweeping sunrise vista or grab a candid portrait at a street bazaar — all with the same handy package. Of course, you won't be able to get those portraits at dusk, since the f/4.5-9.7 lens isn't fast enough at the full extension of the zoom to handle low light. In any case, you may want to compensate with ISO 400 film, as I did; the photos turned out perfectly good at all focal lengths. Overall you get SLR-like flexibility with uncommon portability and a little personality: The tiny flash pops up like Spock's eyebrow.

Yashica T4 Super — $350
The most toylike 35mm camera we reviewed, the Yashica nevertheless boasts a lens from Carl Zeiss, makers of some of the world's best optics. With a maximum aperture of f/3.5, the fixed-length lens isn't Zeiss's fastest, but the images it turns out are sharp and contrasty. Likewise, the small viewfinder is commendably bright. One-hand shooting is a cinch with the tiny Yashica — I snagged some action shots while riding a mountain bike — and you can hold it down low to frame photos thanks to a right-angle viewer on top. The T4 is weatherproof, and the lens retracts fully into the body with a sliding cover, making this little machine ideal for dropping into a jacket pocket. It could use a more powerful flash, but that's a quibble. It's a no-frills camera that produces great results.

Pentax IQZoom 90WR — $350
The Pentax isn't billed as submersible, but the instructions say it can be rinsed off under a faucet, so it seems reasonable that you could shoot in the rain or record a whitewater rafting trip. A comfortable rubberized grip means you won't easily lose track of the 90WR in such situations. The midrange 38-90mm zoom lens should suit the recreational landscape photographer and portrait artist alike, and it's fast enough (f/3.5-7.5) to accommodate ISO 200 or even fine-grained ISO 100 film. The eyepiece, however, is not quite as sharp as those in other cameras we reviewed. The 90WR does have a nifty remote-control device that lets you adjust zoom and focus, and it stows in a slot in the body. In all, the Pentax comes very close to the ideal of a reasonably priced, all-around point-and-shoot.

Nikon 35Ti — $1120
At the risk of sounding sentimental, I fell instantly in love with the retro craftsmanship of the 35Ti's analog dial display. A series of dials clearly displays f-stop, frame number, focus information — it even has a timer for long exposures — and you can see it all at once. Very functional, actually. A thumbwheel makes selecting program modes easy, and a wide range of flash and exposure options allows great creative control. The viewfinder is the brightest we reviewed, and the effect of the styling doesn't suffer from the illuminated digital information displayed within. What's more, the images produced by this brushed-titanium instrument can hardly be called snapshots; thanks to the brilliant, fast (f/2.8) 35mm lens, the quality of photos taken with the 35Ti is nearly indistinguishable from those taken with my SLR.

Minolta Weathermatic Dual 35 — $351
This camera is not merely weatherproof — it's safely submersible to a depth of 16 feet. Waterproof zooms are tough to make, but Minolta builds in versatility with a dual lens that gives you the option of 35mm or 50mm. The casing means fussy film loading since you have to thread the leader under a hinged plate, but otherwise it's a decidedly simple camera. It has a focus hold so you can fix on a subject and then recompose the picture; shots of my water-loving border collie Robbie — from above and below the surface — were crisp and well exposed.

APS Cameras

Kodak Advantix 4700ix Zoom — $329
Kodak flaunts its technology with an LCD display that lets you know, in no uncertain terms, that this camera is smarter than you are. At least with regard to photography. Stretch the macro capabilities of the 30-60mm zoom (compare 38-75mm in 35mm) by crowding a columbine in bloom and the display reads: "MOVE BACK." Try to snap off a series too fast indoors and it declares: "FLASH NOT READY." And it issues these stage directions in five languages. Artistic ability, however, is up to you — the readout will not display "TELEPHONE POLE PROTRUDING FROM SUBJECT'S HEAD." A rubberized grip is also helpful, as is the flip-up flash, whose design minimizes the primary cause of red-eye — a flash positioned too close to the lens. The Advantix's f/5.9-6.9 zoom has adequate speed, and it produces sharp prints and good color.

Fuji Endeavor 400ix Zoom MRC — $480
The Fuji boasts the widest-range zoom lens of any camera we reviewed: 25-100mm (compare 31-125mm in 35mm). It is also, inevitably, very slow when the zoom is extended (f/4.9-9.9), so shooting with fast film is a must. However, once you load it up, the Endeavor is a pleasure to use. A handy diopter adjustment on the eyepiece, like on binoculars, lets you compensate for your vision, so that if you have a moderate prescription you can do without your glasses. The viewfinder frames the different film formats with black masking to take the guesswork out of sizing up a shot. You can even swap film in the middle of a roll ("MRC" means "midroll change") without exposing it, in case you're going from indoors to outdoors or vice versa.

Canon ELPH — $420
The ELPH takes full advantage of the compact APS format, packing an astonishing number of features into a snazzy, 6.3-ounce stainless steel body with dimensions similar to those of a poker deck. There's a 24-48mm zoom lens (equivalent of a 30-60mm in 35mm) of good speed (f/4.5-6.2), a pop-up flash with fill function, a self-timer, plus imprinting of dates and captions such as "I love you" and "Congratulations!" on the back of the prints so you can whip up your own makeshift greeting cards. And it all works just great. Yes, the viewfinder is small, but it zooms with the lens just like on bigger cameras, so you see exactly what you're getting. I used ISO 200 film and got very good images — especially of people. Point an ELPH at them and they can't help but smile.

Where To Find It
Canon, 800-828-4040; Fuji, 800-800-3854; Kodak, 800-242-2424; Minolta, 201-825-4000; Nikon, 800-645-6687; Olympus, 800-622-6372; Pentax, 800-255-0415; Rollei, 888-876-5534; Yashica, 800-526-0266

Jonathan Hanson is coauthor of Ragged Mountain Press Guide to Outdoor Sports.

Photographs by Gary Hush; Joshua McHugh

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