Olympus Stylus 720 SW
Stylus 720 SW
The other caveat is that you're probably looking at a point-and-shoot cameragiven price constraints and the desire for compactnesswhich will dictate several compromises. The zoom lens is rarely long enough to do much with wildlife, and there's usually some shutter delayplus time needed before the camera can shoot againso fast-action photography can be limited. That said, the quality of today's digital point-and-shoot cameras is amazing.
One good choice would be the new Olympus Stylus 720 SW ($400; www.olympusamerica.com), which is nicely compact, boasts seven-megapixel resolution, and is designed to take it on the chin (think waterproofing to ten feet and the ability to withstand drops from up to five feet). It has a 3x zoom lens, roughly equivalent to 38mm-114mm in 35mm film termsmeaning it goes from moderate wide angle to short telephoto. Nothing that will capture zebras on the horizon, however. It also has a big LCD viewfinder, though remember to use the traditional viewfinder, tooyou're better able to really "see" the picture.
Another solid camera is the Canon PowerShot SD430 ($500; www.powershot.com). Its specs are similar to the Stylus camera: five-megapixel resolution, 3x zoom. But it adds a WiFi card so you can transfer photos without plugging the camera into a notebook or desktop computer. That's a convenient innovation. Canon's PowerShot SD600 offers six-megapixel resolution without the wireless feature for $350. I have a Canon digital that I rate highly; Canon really understands photography, so I think the interface on their cameras is better than some.
For a big telephoto lens, the choice is back to Olympus and its SP-500 UZ ($350). It has a 10x zoom lens, equal to a 38-380mm lens in the 35mm world. That's pretty goodenough "pull" to bring things in from some distance. But it's a fairly bulky camera, which will be the tradeoff for you.
One problem you might run into could be battery life, unless you have access to outlets and can recharge. Nikon's Coolpix 7600 ($330; www.nikonusa.com) has good specs7.1 megapixels, 3x zoomand takes AA batteries, maybe the most ubiquitous battery on the planet.
Anyway, all of these cameras will do a good job of handling most picture-taking tasks, with the Stylus 7200 perhaps the most attractive due to its durability. But with reasonable care, any camera can survive anything from a ride down the Grand Canyon to climbing Denali.
Pick up a copy of the 2006 Outside Buyer's Guide, on newsstands now, for a look at the best cameras and 396 other torture-tested products.