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November 8, 2005 5:20 pm

Sex is important in photography

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For those who do not yet have a digital camera – there are still some – their Luddite convictions will once again be put to the test this Christmas.

But for the rest of the world that already has one, manufacturers face an uphill struggle convincing them to upgrade.

As the digital camera enters the mainstream, this replacement market is becoming increasingly important. In the US, 38 per cent of buyers are on at least their second digital camera, according to NPD Group, a US research company.

These second-time buyers are less obsessed with pixels and know that more than 8 megapixels is overkill for non-professional use. Instead, they want longer battery life, better optics, larger LCD screens, and solutions to pet hates such as slow start-ups or redeye.

As well as the experienced users, the industry is trying to understand the needs of the neophytes who have yet to buy a digital camera, many of whom are women.

The rise of “female late adopters” has profound implications on a purchase decision traditionally reserved for men. Women favour mainstream retail outlets over specialist camera stores, and are more pragmatic. They have little time to tinker with gadgets, according to a recent IDC report on the technology “gender gap”.

Finding a camera that addresses these two distinct segments – female late adopter and mildly obsessive male – is a tall order and perhaps a little unfair. But we decided to go ahead anyway.

I adopted the role of tinkering male while my wife played the no-nonsense neophyte.

Our wish list: 5 or 6 megapixels, optical zoom of 3x or better and price between €300 and €400. The camera had to offer various manual settings to keep the fiddling male happy, but also a simple point-and-shoot capability to satisfy my wife.

We deliberately chose unpretentious camera brands that you can buy in hypermarkets along with the weekly shopping.

So, in ascending order of price, we have the Casio Exilim EX-Z10, the Hewlett-Packard Photosmart R817, the Fujifilm Finepix F10 and the Casio Exilim Pro EX-P505.

The first three are conventional compact models with the only obvious differentiators being a bigger 2.5-inch LCD screen on the Fujifilm F10 and a more powerful 5x zoom on the HPR817.

Casio's EX-Z10 lacks rechargable batteries – a big handicap – but it was the cheapest and is also the only model with an optical view finder, which beats using the LCD screen in bright sunlight.

Casio struggles to be taken seriously by camera snobs. Nevertheless, the EX-Z10 has a reassuringly solid feel and sophisticated features, such as 28 preset “scene” settings for those who are intimated by “f” numbers and shutter speeds.

I particularly liked the “fireworks” setting – a subject that completely foxes my existing digital camera. Each scene setting appears in the screen with a representative picture and a description, so that you do not need to use the manual.

Fujifilm's F10 has just five scene settings and a less intuitive icon-based interface. It also lacks aperture- and shutter-priority modes, which limits the tinkering potential; my wife saw this as a bonus, however, as it means less time is wasted setting up the shot.

The F10 has two features that really set it apart: a wonderful Fujichrome setting for those who miss the vivid colours of Fuji film, and film speeds as high as ISO 1600 – great for shooting at night without flash.

The HP R817 is the most user-friendly of the cameras reviewed. Its dedicated help menu even describes where to find the buttons and an image advice function tells you what went wrong in the photos you have taken.

I particularly liked the separate mode button which lets you quickly select modes without having to delve into menus. Another nice feature is HP’s Adaptive Lighting technology, which automatically enhances details in shadows.

For my wife, the most wondrous feature of the HP R817 was its built-in red-eye removal, which means she no longer has to edit red-eye-afflicted photos on a PC. She picked it as the clear winner. For me, the Casio EX-Z10 is the most versatile of the three compact cameras reviewed while the Fujifilm F10 is my pick to carry around at night.

The last camera tested, the Casio Exilim Pro EX-P505, is not a compact but worth a special mention. It is aimed more at the “prosumer” market, but scrapes into our price range. The ProEX-P505 has an unusual “L” shape and a large protruding 5x zoom lens. It could be mistaken for a high-end camera, if it was not for its plastic body and shrunken size – it fits in your palm.

I found it the most interesting of the cameras reviewed as it has a multitude of “serious” features, including a  neutral density filter setting, which makes the camera think there is less light than there really is.

If you can find the right button, the screen on the EX-P505 becomes overlaid with a passable imitation of a fighter aircraft head-up display. I loved this feature, though I am still trying to find out what all the dials and gauges mean. It left my wife completely cold, however. Long live the gender gap.

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