As a long-time film photographer, I have mixed feelings about writing a glowing review of a digital camera, but given that last year they finally started outselling film cameras, and Kodak announced the forthcoming run-down of film manufacture around the world, it seems that a corner has been turned. Dooyooers with long memories will recall that I do have a digital camera that I bought nearly five years ago, but while I rated it highly at the time, I did point out that it had its limitations. I still use it for web work and emails, but five years is an eternity in this business, and I have been waiting to find the right replacement at the right price for some time. Indeed, I have read the reviews until my eyeballs hurt - the 'net is a wonderful resource, but sometimes there is a bit too much of it. Cameras in particular seem to be covered in mind-numbing detail (see dpreview.com for chapter and verse), but at least it gave me something to chew on. As it happens, the HP 850 is not universally admired by photography buffs, partly, I suspect, because it isn't made by a 'proper' camera manufacturer, and partly because you can't override all the controls and force it to take really bad pictures. However, to my mind, it offers exactly the right feature set, which is a well thought-out middle path between point-and-shoot and manual override of everything, which is only important if the automatic stuff doesn't work or is easily fooled. This is not to say that you can't adjust anything, if you really insist, but the metering (exposure control) and autofocus are so good that there are very few circumstances when you might need to. You can shoot into the sun and it can focus in the dark, which is enough for me! I'm old enough to remember when cameras were completely manual, but somehow they don't seem to be hot sellers nowadays... HP have also very sensibly gone to a camera maker (Fuji) for the l
ens, while they have applied their own expertise to the rest of the camera. The result is that the menus are very clear and intuitive, and almost any of them can be interrupted to shoot a picture simply by pressing the shutter button. The download software is equally straightforward and has the best red-eye removal tool I have seen. The camera isn't perfect, of course. It doesn't have a continuous or rapid-fire mode, although it's a lot quicker than my old Olympus. Shot-to-shot time is about 2 seconds, which I can live with, but it might not suit a sports photographer. Similarly, the electronic viewfinder (EVF) freezes while the camera is focussing, which can take up to about a second. This doesn't sound much, but is noticeable if you're tracking a moving subject. The answer is to pre-focus (half-press the shutter with the camera aimed at the right distance) and then locate the subject. This is common to most EVF's, which have some advantages over ordinary viewfinders, but this isn't one of them. The camera is relatively large, and I did consider buying something really dinky that I could carry with me all the time. However, little cameras are difficult to hold steady, while the HP fits really nicely into two hands, which makes a big difference to the end result. Some cameras are now coming out with image stabilisation, but it's a lot less important if you can hold the thing properly (and if you can't, a tripod will be much cheaper). The best reason for wanting this (or, for that matter, any other) camera is the lens, and this one is gorgeous. It is fast, i.e. it transmits a lot of light, even at full telephoto, and the zoom range is about as much as one can use without a tripod becoming obligatory. If you want the numbers, they are f2.8 at 37mm* to f3.1 at 300mm*, a range that would normally require lots of other compromises with regard to distortion and what is called chromatic aberration. This l
ens h as them, to be sure, but in trivial amounts, and not enough for ordinary mortals to worry about. [*35mm camera equivalent length, which is the common standard for comparison.] Long zooms are becoming more popular in the digicam world, and for good reason. For one thing, they are much easier to implement in a camera with a small 'film' (the CCD in a digicam is about a quarter the size of a 35mm film). Buy a similar lens for a 35mm camera and you will find yourself a) a lot poorer, and b) needing a second bag to carry it in. Secondly, they substitute for pixels. Digicams are sold largely on pixel count (mine's got more than yours, etc) but that is only half the story. What matters is the level of detail in the final picture, and assuming you're using your computer (I know you've got one!) to edit the result, you may well want to chop out the interesting bit in the middle from the boring stuff round the edge, especially if the subject is some distance away. This is how 'digital zoom' works and, as you've probably realised by now, it isn't really a zoom at all, because you just end up with a rougher picture. A proper optical zoom, on the other hand, takes you closer to the subject and still allows you to use all the pixels available, and even if you don't get as close as you'd like, you've still got something to work with. What isn't generally realised is that zoom is worth more than pixels, because one is measured as area and the other is measured as straight magnification. I'm not trying to baffle you with maths, but if you consider a picture taken with, say, a 2 Megapixel zoom camera, where the subject fills the frame at 3x magnification, to get the same result with no zoom (by cropping the picture) you would need nine times the number of pixels, i.e. 18 Megapixels! By the same token, to get the same quality of picture from a 3x zoom that you could get with a 6x zoom would
require fo ur times as many pixels. This is assuming you're after a distance shot, of course (it doesn't apply to landscapes) but in my experience, the things you want to photograph are often a bit further away than you would like. The HP has 4 Megapixels and and 8x zoom, which for someone like me, is camera heaven. There are better specified cameras around, but not too many at the time of writing (January 2004) and absolutely none at the price (currently ?289 in Jessops but an amazing ?199 at Digital Depot). I have a feeling that it's soon to become obsolete, although I hope that it gets a reprieve. Its successor, the HP 945, is very similar to look at, but has more manual controls (no doubt to keep the addicts happy) and is more complicated. All I want is something that takes great pictures, and that the 850 already does. (See www.trekearth.com/photos.php?cat=camera&id=379 for some fine examples.) I meant to add that almost all digital cameras come with the bare minimum of recording medium, and the HP is no exception. Budget for an extra memory card (64 or 128 Mb should be enough) when you buy it. The same applies to batteries - get a set of rechargeable AA's and a charger, if you don't already have them.