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    Digital camera makers shoot for market’s high end

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2007 First published in Business in Vancouver August 21-27, 2007; issue 930

    High Tech Office column

    The market for digital cameras has changed. Just about everyone who might want one already has one. Companies are therefore aiming at customers buying a second (or third) camera with more features (and a higher profit margin).

    While overall, digital camera sales in 2006 grew 15% over 2005, sales of high-end digital single lens reflex cameras (dSLR) grew by 39%, with increasing numbers of customers prepared to spend $1,000 or so to get instant-on, better image quality, manual controls and the possibility of swapping lenses. (I do wonder how many dSLR buyers ever switch their camera from automatic to manual mode or change lenses.)

    Canon leads in dSLR sales (as well as in the overall digital camera market), followed by Nikon. In 2006, consumer electronics giants Sony, Samsung and Panasonic released dSLR models, joining established camera makers Olympus and Pentax. That matches what I noted on a recent holiday: lots of tourists toting dSLRs, mostly Canons or Nikons. I used a camera loaned by Olympus: one of the company’s new Evolt E-510 models. It takes 10-megapixel images, with built-in image stabilization to help counteract shaky hands. The E-510’s image stabilization is built into the camera body allowing it to work with any compatibly lens (and helping Olympus keep lens prices down).

    A dust reduction system keeps the internal mirror free of the dust that gathers when you change lenses.
    Many digital camera users use the LCD display on the back of their cameras to compose their shots. Often they’re puzzled when, on moving up to a more expensive dSLR, it’s back to peering through a little viewfinder; the image only appears on the LCD after they’ve taken the picture.

    Recent Olympus dSLR models include what the company refers to as live view: you can preview your shots using the LCD panel or the optical viewfinder.

    Olympus’ cameras and lenses use a so-called four-thirds ratio; these images match the length-to-width ratio of computer monitors better than the traditional 3:2 ratio used by many other manufacturers. The 14-42 mm zoom lens that typically ships with the E-510 is the equivalent of a 28-84 mm zoom on an old-style 35 mm film SLR camera.

    While I saw a lot of people with dSLRs on my recent holidays, I noticed that almost all of them were men.
    Olympus’ companion to the E-510, the E-410, is smaller and lighter and lacks that model’s curved handgrip. The company believes that this makes it more comfortable for people with smaller hands (e.g. many women). The E-410 also lacks the built-in image stabilization and larger battery of its companion model but otherwise has similar features for about $100 less.

    While not the best-selling digital SLR models, Olympus’ Evolt E-510 (and companion E-410) arguably pack the most features of any camera in their price-range. The live view feature in particular (currently only available from Olympus) should make these two models appealing to anyone who has gotten used to working with more compact digital cameras and is looking to move up to a digital SLR.•

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan