What qualities should I look for in a digital camera?

I would like to buy a digital camera to bring on climbing, canoeing, and hiking trips. I had been planning to buy an SLR, but I've recently been tempted by digital cameras and their ability to make you impulsively take snapshots. What factors other then weight and picture quality should I consider? Any help you can give me would be much appreciated. Eric Winnipeg, Manitoba

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I can’t help myself. I have to leap in with a smart-ass question: What is it about film-based cameras that would prevent you from “impulsively taking snapshots?” Nothing at all, so far as I know. In fact, I will submit that the “impulse” factor is far higher in a camera that uses film. I constantly see digital camera users fretting over their battery level or memory capacity, then spend (waste) time reviewing their photos and showing them around even as other photo opportunities are popping out from behind a tree, seizing a member of the photographer’s party, and dragging them into the bushes. Of course, I realize that it’s possible to edit out unwanted photos, freeing up memory, but I think that is labor spent minimizing a rather large shortcoming. Mind you, I fully understand the utility and appeal of digitals in a wide range of situations. I just think they’re not a perfect solution. This is particularly true when out camping and hiking, where there’s no easy Web access to expedite e-mailing photos to friends—the chief benefit of a digital camera (here I will tactfully ignore how superior scanned film-based images are to those that originate in most digital cameras).

Anyway, you wrote in for buying advice, not a rant. Obviously, you want a camera that’s compact and light as possible. A sturdy case would be handy, too. Zoom lenses are useful, and those with a 3:1 zoom ratio or better are to be recommended. In terms of resolution, I think that anything less than three megapixels is a waste of time unless all you intend to do is attach photos to e-mails. So, what does that leave us with? Nikon’s CoolPix 885 ($450) is a fine little camera, with 3.2-megapixel resolution, zoom lens and a compact body. I also like Olympus’s Camedia 3020Z ($500), with specs similar to the Nikon. Olyumpus has particularly good software, in my view.

Or, you can be old fashioned and buy a Canon Elph Z3 ($180 street price). A terrific little camera that uses APS film for easy loading and unloading and that has a stainless steel case, a 2.5:1 zoom lens, and a compact profile that makes it a nearly perfect pack-and-go camera.

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