The newest digital cameras come with an array of sophisticated bells and whistles once limited to high-end digital cameras. Now you can find things like face detection, photo stabilization, and sophisticated preset modes in inexpensive super-compact cameras. Here are four of them.
Best All-Around Camera
Nikon Coolpix S51c
Weight and Size: 4.4 oz., 3.8 x 2.3 x 0.8 in.
Basic Stats: 8.1 megapixels, 3x Zoom-Nikkor lens, ISO 100-1600
The sleek S51c sports a 3.0-inch LCD monitor with anti-reflection coating. Nikon’s “Expeed” high-performance image-processing system lets the S51c focus and capture images faster than many other compact digital cameras. Photos boast vibrant but natural color and nicely saturated detailed shadows. Built-in “Red-Eye Fix,” “Face Priority,” and “Vibration Reduction” features ensure your photos are always perfect, and the “D-Lighting” feature subtly bumps up brightness and detail when you’re shooting in dim conditions.
The S51c has a built-in wireless function, and users can upload their images to Nikon’s “Picture Bank” storage service, where you can stash up to 2GBs of pictures for free. You can also upload images directly to your Flickr account, and send pictures attached to e-mails directly from the camera. It’s a great way to back up your pictures while traveling. You get six months of free T-Mobile access, so you can connect from any of the 8,000 or so T-Mobile HotSpots nationwide.
Best for Active Travelers
Olympus Stylus 790 SW
Weight and Size: 5.5 oz., 3.6 x 2.3 x 0.8 in.
Basic Stats: 7.1 Megapixel, 3X optical zoom lens, ISO 80-1600
Go swimming and surfing with it, into a steamy rain forest, up on top of a mountain or under the waves — the Stylus 790 will function in virtually any environment. You can even drop it, dump stuff on top of it, sit on it — no problem. It just keeps on working.
Image quality is excellent in both indoor and outdoor light, with natural colors and no loss of detail in the shadows and just a bit of digital noise at ISOs over 400. The bright 2.5 LCD screen is readable even in strong sunlight. Two dozen preset modes automatically configure the best choices for shooting in candlelight, or images behind glass, and there are several underwater preset options along with the standard lowlight, portrait, and fast-action modes. Automatic face detection ensures proper focus when capturing images of people. There’s even a built-in manometer that records water and air pressure from very high and very low elevations — nice for those diving (the 790 is waterproof up to 33 feet without a case) and mountain-climbing pictures.
Best For Photography Aficionados
Fujifilm FinePix F50fd
Weight and Size: 8 oz., 6.8 x 5.6 x 2.8 in.
Basic Stats: 12 Megapixel, 3.0x optical zoom lens, ISO 100-6400
The perfect camera for a demanding photographer who wants the ease of a compact camera, great features, and a small camera body. Fujifilm’s Face Detection 2.0 can detect up to 10 human faces in a scene in as little as 5/100’s of a second, and automatically corrects focus, exposure, and white balance no matter where subjects are located within the image frame. The dreaded red-eye is automatically removed as well, so the folks and pets in your photos will never again look like feral vampires. And the “Portrait Enhancer” feature automatically minimizes fine lines and small skin blemishes.
Dual-Image Stabilization compensates for both handshake and the movements of your photo subjects, so blurry photos just don’t happen. The camera takes outstanding shots in all lighting conditions with super-realistic colors. A bit of noise creeps in when shooting at very fast ISO settings at the far end of the camera’s range. Not sure if you need a flash? The Dual-Shot Mode captures two images in rapid succession — one with the flash and one without — so you can choose the best shot later. And the Intelligent Flash feature automatically adjusts flash intensity to suit the scene. You can shoot with either automatic settings or full manual control. The long-lasting battery captures 230 shots per charge.
Best Budget Camera
Canon Powershot A460
Weight and Size: 5.8 oz., 4.2 x 2.0x 1.6 in.
Basic Stats: 5.0 Megapixel, 4X optical zoom lens, ISO 80-400
Looking for a real bargain and something easy to use? Canon’s PowerShot A460 is a great camera for beginners, or someone who just doesn’t want to futz with a multitude of features and options.
The camera has a nice collection of preset shooting modes that make it easy to grab the perfect shots of fireworks, snow, foliage, night scenes, portraits, kids, pets, and other scenes. All the menus are exceptionally easy to navigate. Even if you don’t select a specific mode, Canon’s AiAF “Smart” autofocus system chooses and applies optimum focus, exposure, and white balance. The majority of images produced by the camera have nicely saturated color and crisp detail. Pictures shot in low light are not the best, and the camera doesn’t always choose the best settings when in full auto mode. At this price point you really can’t expect perfection, but the A460 provides far more than you’d expect from a budget camera.