For instance, you can get the Canon PowerShot S500 Digital Elph for $300 at Amazon, although they're $30 less than anyone else and I bet their supply won't last long. And the S500 is a great little camera—metal casing, three-power optical zoom lens, excellent user interface. I have its close kin, the S410, and love it. The Canon people are, of course, long-time camera experts, and it shows in the design and function of the S500 (www.usa.canon.com).
Really, you don't even have to bump into the $300 zone. Kodak's new EasyShare CX7530 can be had for around $250 (www.kodak.com), and it too has five-megapixel resolution and a 3x optical zoom. It's a little bulkier than the très petit Canon, but still very compact. And Kodak has done a great job of writing software that makes the camera easy to use—you can print or send photos via e-mail directly from the camera.
Neither the Kodak nor Canon is billed as an "all-weather" camera, although in my experience a little prudence in handling ensures my Canon stays healthy when I'm outdoors. So you could consider the Olympus Stylus 500, which sells for around $300 (www.olympusamerica.com). It's got a few extra seals to keep out dust and moisture, even in the rain, yet still has that five-megapixel, three-power zoom you desire. Pretty amazing!
All of these cameras would benefit from more memory, as they come with 32-megabyte cards, or in the case of the Kodak, 32 megabytes of internal memory with the card an optional add-on. Five-megapixel files are huge, so they'll fill those memory allotments in no time. I'd recommend at least 512 megabytes of on-board memory, which will cost you another $60 or so.
So, one good alternative is to settle for a four-megapixel camera and a big card. My S410 sells for $250, leaving you room to buy a 512-megabyte card and hit your dollar limit. And believe me, four-megapixel resolution with a good lens such as the Canon is amazing. Unless you regularly print 20x30 pictures, it's more than adequate for everyday digital photography. I'm constantly having to shrink images in order to ship them on e-mail anyway. And for outdoor protection, buy Lowepro's slick little D-Res 8S case for only $10 (www.lowepro.com). Fits the S410 like a glove.
Read more camera reviews in "Focus, People!, from the October '04 issue of Outside, and in Outside's 2004 Buyer's Guide .