Mon, 08 Nov 1999

Modern digital cameras can provide a lot of fun

By Zatni Arbi

JAKARTA (JP): Digital cameras have definitely come a long way since the day I played around with a Logitech Fotoman, which looked so much like a martabak (Indian pizza). Today's digital cameras -- also called digicams -- have come close to conventional cameras in terms of look and feel. Some of the high- end digital cameras can almost match their film-based counterparts in terms of image quality, although their price is substantially higher.

Courtesy of Datascrip, Canon's main distributor in Indonesia, I was able to play around with a PowerShot A50 digital camera, which carries a price tag of around Rp 4.8 million.

I did some homework before I went to pick up the review unit from the company's headquarters in Kemayoran. I checked the Internet for comments from people who own this camera, finding three such people. In general, they all liked the camera's features, but two of them complained about its battery life and one complained about the time it took to download the pictures to their PC. My own experience showed that these problems were not as bad as they sounded. I'll return to that later.

But first, let's learn a little digicam lingo. These cameras are categorized according to how many pixels they can capture in each frame. A megapixel (MP) camera captures an image with 1,000,000 dots. The state of the art is two MP, but Epson is already touting a three MP camera. With its 1.3 MP CCD, the cute PowerShot A50 belongs to the 1.3 MP category, which many believe currently offers the best price for performance.


As admitted by the three owners, the list of features found in the PowerShot A50 is impressive. To start with, it has a powered 2.5x zoom lens (the 35mm camera equivalent of 28mm to 70mm). Pressing two tiny buttons with the right thumb will adjust the optical zoom level while the autofocus mechanism keeps the image sharp. The lens is retracted and covered by a built-in cover when not in use or when you review stored images.

At the back of the unit there is a bright, high-quality LCD monitor that we can use as a viewfinder or as a display screen for previewing captured images. Its refresh rate is high enough that we don't see any annoying blurs as we move from one object to another.

Above the LCD is the optical viewfinder, which follows the zoom function faithfully. This allows us to take pictures as we do with a conventional camera. Three small buttons on the left of the viewfinder let us control the camera menu that appears on the screen. The flash is built-in, and there is also a red-eye reduction lamp that will better adjust the subject's eye color to the bright flash.

On the left side there is a digital terminal port for the data serial that goes into the PC or the Mac for downloading. Above it is the Video Terminal port that allows us to send the pictures directly to a TV monitor. On the top side there is an LCD screen that shows the status of the camera, such as the flash setting, timer, macro mode indicator and the approximate number of pictures that we can still take.

Picture data is stored in an eight MB compact flash (CF) memory card. This included card can hold up to 23 frames of pictures with the highest resolution (1280 x 960) in the highest quality JPEG format. Choosing a smaller picture size -- 640 x 480 pixels -- in normal quality JPEG means creating smaller files (65 KB each) and therefore you can store more than 100 frames in the 8 MB CF. Optional CF cards with capacities up to 45 MB are available. The camera is also capable of rapid-fire shots, although it requires a couple of seconds to recycle.

Turning on the camera, choosing the automatic or manual setting, playback and panorama mode is done by rotating a dial on the top. The shutter knob provides enough resistance so as to avoid accidental shots.

For real fun

This compact digicam is really fun to use. Using the automatic mode, we can simply point and shoot. If we want to have more control, we can use the manual mode. We can turn on the white balance feature, which will offset the effects of ambient light coming from sources such as tungsten and fluorescent lamps. We can turn the flash off, set the shutter speed for night scenes and adjust the exposure setting to compensate for more difficult lighting conditions.

The camera also can create a horizontal or vertical 360-degree panoramic picture by stitching several frames together. A guide on the LCD screen will tell us where to point the camera for subsequent frames so that they can be combined to form a 360 degree view of, let's say, the interior of a cathedral. If you need to create a large picture, the A50 can also help us combine four frames in the same manner.

We can also run a slide show of all the pictures stored in the flash memory, and they can be displayed either on the LCD or on a TV monitor. To conserve battery power, Canon supplies a DC power coupler that we can insert into the battery compartment. The other end of the cable goes into the adaptor. Recharging the included Nickel-hydride battery takes only one hour. I didn't really test the life of the battery, because I was using it off and on, but certainly it is not bad. Canon claims that with the LCD off, a full charge will allow us to take 200 shots. With the LCD on, the number is reduced to about 70 shots. A full charge will also allow us to preview the pictures for one hour.

Downloading pictures onto a PC also is very simple once the software is installed. Contrary to the complaint I read on the Internet, downloading is not a painfully slow process. It does take a couple of minutes to transfer the thumbnail and a couple of more minutes to download the real JPEG files. But, hey, how much time do you usually spend going to your neighborhood Fuji Image Service or any other one-hour photo service to have your film processed and your pictures printed?

On the screen, the images look sharp and the color is great. Canon included Ulead's PhotoImpact 2.0 with the camera just in case we want to do some touch-up experimentation. PhotoImpact provides dozens of ready-to-use filters and tools to manipulate picture images.

Needless to say, the real test of a digicam should involve printing. Unfortunately I ran out of the blue ink for my HP DeskJet 1600C. In black and white, the printout was very sharp. Incidentally, I have a HP DeskJet 970C Professional Series waiting for a test drive. I'll certainly report the results once I've tested the printer with images from this camera.

The PowerShot A50 is definitely not a cheap digicam, but I'm already hooked on it. In fact, I'm seriously considering buying one to complement my 35mm Olympus. Its compact size, rich feature set, reasonable weight, the possibility of using a Li-Ion battery and, more importantly, the positive reviews from those who have bought it make it a safe bet.