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Sidebars on point-and-shoot cameras

Sidebar to “The New Point-and-Shoot

Canon Sure Shot Z115

Tidy and light despite its impressive 115mm zoom capacity (f/3.6-8.5, relatively fast for a point-and-shoot), the Z115’s most sensuous feature is a champagne-hued brushed-aluminum, giving it a sort of accessoire de Côte d’Azur air. A simple thumb dial at the back handles preset modes (“sport,” night-photo, close-up, among others); while the shutter and zoom buttons are nondescript circles, they are comfortably located. Press the shutter button halfway to lock in focus and the camera produces a very quiet eep, like the susurrus of a just-woken cat. On the camera’s back to the right of the viewfinder is a slot for your thumb – a slot that’s useful, however, only when holding the camera like a fashion accessory, not when aiming and shooting with it.

Like all high-end point-and-shoots, the Z115 can handle film up to 3200 ASA (automatically registering film speed for DX-coded film). Perhaps most charmingly, the lens automatically retracts after about three idle minutes, sparing you the embarrassment of spontaneously re-enacting Mapplethorpe’s “Man in Polyester Suit” photograph with the camera slung around your neck.

Samsung ECX 1

The product of a collaboration between Porsche Design and Samsung’s in-house team in Korea, the ECX 1 dares to be different – and succeeds, some might say, only in being homely. But, like the Saab 99, it’s a lovable homeliness. This hefty machine offers what Popular Photography aptly dubbed a “substantial schnozz” – a 140mm zoom lens (f/3.9-10.5). The asymmetrical right-side handgrip looks and feels strange (though rubbery in texture, it has none of rubber’s give, feeling as hard as the metal under it), but such solidity inspires confidence. You really can hold this camera, aim, focus, and shoot all with one hand (assuming you’re right-handed).

Quickly aligning your eye with the off-centre viewfinder, however, takes weeks of practice. The layout of the zoom buttons – immediately surrounding the shutter button at 11:00 and 5:00 positions – is another fillip that takes some getting used to. The camera does nothing, however, if you press a zoom button and the shutter button together, preventing unwanted pictures. But the camera-top LCD – normally the source of photographer headaches as manufacturers cram too many features into too little space – is a pleasure to use. Divided into four sections, each with its own control button, with mostly English-language markings, it’s no sweat to set up even complicated shots like time exposures and photos with exposure compensation (an unusual P&S feature in itself). Better yet, the LCD illuminates itself when you push one of the buttons.

The ECX 1 garnered the Best Compact Camera award at the European Photo-Video Awards last year, among other commendations.

Olympus IS-3

At the top of Olympus’ line of “bridge” cameras, the $1,020 (list) IS-3 offers point-and-shoot and SLR features and would not look out of place dangling from a Klingon’s neck. You get through-the-lens viewing and full automation (with extensive manual overrides), but without interchangeable lenses. It is possible, however, to add a very limited range of custom lenses (300mm telephoto, 28mm wide-angle, and a macro converter) to the tip of the built-in lens. The IS line (which comprises smaller, low-end models too) also sports an inspired catamaran-like industrial design, with its handgrip located on a little jetty to the right of the camera body, giving the machine a feeling of compactness and technical prowess. That compactness owes itself to an “S-wrap film system” (with a sprocket and spool on the camera’s left side; film loads on the opposite side) and an “M-pattern viewfinder” (light bounces in an M shape through mirrors located roughly at eye level).

The IS-3’s zoom toggle switch, located on the left of the lens barrel, practically requires you to hold this camera with two hands, positioning your thumb on that toggle. While such a posture may be the “correct” way according to camera purists, some wrists don’t much fancy being bent out of shape just to reach the zoom button. A Canon Z115-esque beep indicates focus lock. Massive back-panel LCD rivals high-end SLR displays in breadth of information displayed, but it’s easy to understand. That bane of amateur photographers, red-eye, is reduced by a pop-up flash that rides high off the camera case, with a variable-power bulb up top and a high-power one below, for longer shots.

Contax G1

This $1,790 titanium-clad bijou of a camera boasts interchangeable lenses, auto everything (overridable to manual everything), and a unique real-image viewfinder that adjusts its image to match the installed lens. (Unfortunately, it does so only after you press the shutter button halfway; you might miss that crucial shot if key elements end up out of frame.) Controls are old-style dials with satisfyingly crisp detents, aided by a couple of buttons controlling the G1’s single tiny LCD; Contax emulates the worst habits of P&S developers and forces multiple depressions of those buttons, sometimes in tandem, to actuate some functions.

The rangefinder configuration allows a radically shallower body compared to an SLR. A key selling point of the G1 is its excellent Carl Zeiss lenses (none come standard with the camera body), including a 28mm, 45mm, 90mm, and a $3,000 16mm wide-angle with dedicated viewfinder and gradation filter. (You can also use Contax SLR lenses with an adapter, but by doing so you lose autofocus.) The available TLA 140 flash – a tall, svelte slab of silver with a tiny lamp window in a top corner – is a sexier design statement than the camera itself. Heavy but well-balanced, the G1 communicates its seriousness through understatement. (Übershooter Annie Leibovitz owns a G1 among her trio of Contaxen.)

Nikon 35Ti and 28Ti

Retro-look machines, the 35Ti and 28Ti are aimed squarely at the Contax G1’s objet d’art market. The recipient of a Best of Category award in Consumer Products in this year’s I.D. awards, the 28Ti (and its 35Ti predecessor, not included in the I.D. award) harks back to the days when cameras were small, had satisfying heft and a stubbly finish, and did a limited number of things extremely well. Featuring full automation, a separate viewfinder, and a single zoom lens that can’t be removed, the titanium-sheathed Ti line’s most notable design fillip is its cluster of analogue dials – everything from exposures taken on the current roll of film to exposure settings are shown with dials, not digital readouts. (The dial readouts are something of an affectation given that much of the data is processed internally in digital form and then translated back to analogue for display, though defenders point out that “analogue” watches typically have a digital heart, too.)

Originally published in 1995 ¶ Updated here 1999.06.28, 2007.03.19

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