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Camera advice from Consumer Reports

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  September 23, 2012 06:00 AM

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By Consumer Reports magazine

Unless all you ever do with photographs is text them or upload them to Facebook, you need a real camera. Even models that are barely larger than a phone offer optical zoom (some as high as 10x), along with a wider variety of controls than a phone. Advanced models let you shoot more types of subjects under more varied conditions, including very low light.

Cameras get smaller yet more capable

Slimmer superzooms. More models have zooms as great as 20x in bodies that are remarkably thin for a superzoom. They often include very good stabilizers that avoid blurry shots by minimizing the effects of handshake.

Nikon Coolpix AW100Greater choice of tough models. A growing number of cameras are designed to withstand dropping, immersion in water, and other hazards. The recommended Nikon Coolpix AW100 and Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS4, whose manufacturers say they have such tough designs, had very good image quality, and good overall performance.

More innovative SLR-like models. These models offer features and performance that match many full-sized SLRs, but they're lighter and more compact. Some even surpass SLRs in certain features, such as burst mode and video autofocus. And some include excellent, versatile viewfinders.

More Wi-Fi connectivity. Cameras can't rival the more-or-less continuous connectivity of smart phones, but more advanced cameras can automatically upload shots via Wi-Fi to sites such as Facebook and YouTube. Some full-sized camcorders can do so, too.

A camera and camcorder that steal the show

Sony HDR-PJ580VThe Nikon Coolpix S1200pj subcompact camera, $430, and the Sony HDR-PJ580V full-sized camcorder, $800, are unusual road companions. Each has a built-in projector that beams photos or video onto any surface, so you can enjoy vacation slideshows and home-movie screenings even if you don’t have a computer or TV.

The projectors on the devices are fairly straightforward to use. On the Nikon, you
select the content, slide down the projector cover on the camera front, tilt the camera to the optimal height on a tiny projection stand, and press Play.

On the Sony, you swing open the camcorder's touch-screen LCD, then use controls on the camcorder to navigate to the content you want and press a button to play.

You must adjust focus manually. The devices have clearly labeled, easy-to-use focus controls above the projector's lens. Overall, Consumer Reports found that both offered decent projections if you don't place the device too far from the wall.

Three ways to make smartphone images better

A decent smartphone camera can take photos with very good image quality - about as good as a subcompact camera's - when the subject is stationary, well-lit, and fairly close. But when shooting conditions are less than ideal, it probably needs a little help. Here are tips to get the best results:

1. Use camera settings. You might be surprised to find that the camera on a highly rated phone offers as many ways to customize and adjust your image-taking as do most subcompacts.

Make sure you’re shooting at the highest resolution and the lowest compression, especially if the camera has 5 or fewer megapixels.

Few phone cameras allow you to manually adjust shutter speed or aperture, but using scene modes can accomplish many of the same tweaks. The Night scene mode should improve shooting in dim light - a challenge for the small sensors of phone cameras - and will allow you to keep ISO (light sensitivity) settings as low as possible, around 100 ISO, to minimize graininess on shots with ample light.

Look for other features, too, such as a macro (close-up) setting, which might be buried in the setting menus.

2. Crop rather than zoom. Smartphone cameras have only a digital zoom (not optical) that enlarges pixels and thus reduces image detail as it zooms in.

If your smartphone camera has 8 or more megapixels, our informal tests on several phones suggest you're better off taking the shot without zoom, and then using the onboard editing tools to crop the image, thus enlarging the area you want to focus on.

Photojojo Smartphone Lenses3. Consider an add-on lens. Another way to zoom in close, or to get a wide-angle or fish-eye shot, is to fit a third-party lens over the phone's tiny lens.

Consumer Reports tested two brands compatible with the iPhone 4 and 4s: Photojojo (shown at left: fish-eye, $25; wide/macro and telephoto, $20 each; or all three for about $50) and Olloclip ($70 for all three lenses).

Consumer Reports also tested the Photojojo lenses with several Android phones. The lenses produced the intended effect without compromising the phones' image quality. But the lenses covered the phones' strobes, so testers couldn't use the flash.

All were fairly easy to attach. They do require some time to attach, so they won't let you capture a spontaneous shot. But they're worth considering if you often use your phone camera as your main camera and want it to approach the versatility of a point-and-shoot.

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