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Compact camera concepts (09/20/2006)
By Tom Hirsch

They used to call them "simple" cameras; those compact point-and-shoot wonders that allow the photographer to bring the camera up to his or her eye and fire away. Compacts come in both film and digital models.

Today's compact cameras in no way resemble those of a generation ago. They are smaller and lighter than their predecessors, yet many of them have features that were once only found on much more advanced, expensive, cameras.

There are three things that characterize a modern compact camera: electronics, miniaturization, and simplicity. When taking pictures with one of these space-age marvels, you might hear it whir, buzz, or beep. Or, in the case of many digital cameras, you might hear nothing at all. If you hear a noise, the camera is letting you know that it's setting the proper exposure, focusing, snapping the picture, and preparing for the next shot. If there is insufficient light, it might automatically turn on the electronic flash. In a film camera, the camera will automatically rewind the film for you, but there's no rewinding necessary in a digital camera.

Loading a film camera and getting the film properly aligned is a snap. The backs of modern 35mm cameras are designed to be opened easily. The film cassette is dropped into its chamber, and the film leader is pulled out to an indicated mark. After making sure that the sprockets are engaged in the sprocket holes, the back is closed. The camera will then advance the film to the first frame, again, automatically.

Loading one of the Advanced Photo System (APS) cameras is even simpler. Just drop the film cartridge into the receptacle on the camera, snap it shut, and the camera does the rest. Loading a digital camera is even easier than that.

Most compact cameras are small enough to fit into a coat pocket, but packed inside is enough electronic wizardry to fly an airplane - well, almost. Because of micro chips that allow for super miniaturization, a modern camera has features that were never even dreamed of a few years ago. Many film cameras have a display panel that reveals such information as whether or not the film is loaded properly, the speed of the film, the number of exposures on the roll, the number of exposures shot, and the condition of the battery or batteries.

Digital cameras use an image sensing card, so no film information is necessary. Digital cameras do, however, provide for a variety of settings for image quality, depending on the shooting situation.

Additional features found on various film and digital camera models are such conveniences as a self-timer that delays the shutter so that the photographer can get in the picture, a built-in telephoto or zoom lens that allows you to adjust the image size, close focusing capabilities, compensation for backlighting, and voice-synthesized messages. Although some of these functions would be advantageous to some photographers, they may be unnecessary or even a nuisance to others.

With the variety of options available on various camera models, it's not easy choosing the compact camera that will best fit your needs, whether it's film or digital. Before buying a camera, check the photo magazines or consult a camera dealer to find out what features are available on various models. Make note of those you feel are most desirable for your picture-taking interests, then select the camera that best fits your needs.

Because of their size and ease of use, compact cameras make wonderful first cameras for youngsters and adults. In fact, many experienced photographers use a compact as a second camera. These cameras are unobtrusive and quick to use in grab shots of the family, and their weight makes them ideal for carrying on vacation.

Fortunately, today these cameras are referred to as compact cameras. But are they still "simple?" When it comes to ease of operation, you bet! 


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