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PMA '06: What's New? Everything!


PMA 2006 show floor
The crowd pours in at the annual PMA show in Orlando, Florida.
Pentax *ist DSLR
Pentax *ist DSLR for under $600, representing a class costing $5k in Y2K.
Olympus E-330
Olympus E-330 introduces a new concept in cameras, the combining of electronic and optical SLR viewfinders in one digital body.
Fujifilm FinePix F30
Fujifilm FinePix F30 (6MP, 3x zoom, under $400 when it ships in May).
Samsung's new DSLR
Samsung’s new DSLRs were thinly veiled Pentax *ists.
Kodak's new EasyShare 650
Kodak’s new EasyShare 650 with its 6MP imager and 10x zoom lens for $349.

What a difference a few years make. Think back to the PMA show at the turn of the century, and the burning issues at that time. They included themes like “how long before we stamp out film by selling 4-megapixel cameras with 3x zooms for under $500?” PMA ’06 illustrated how long six years can be, with its plethora of cameras like Kodak’s new EasyShare 650 with its 6MP imager and 10x zoom lens for $349.

At PMA 2006, Pentax was proudly showing their *ist DSLR for under $600, representing a class costing $5k in Y2K. And how many 6MP cameras sell now for under $200? What was new at PMA ’06? The confidence that film cameras lost their price advantage way back there.

Film is dead? Well no, not really. Did you hear the one about the single-use black-and-white camera? It actually takes vision to propose such a thing at a time like this, if not a quirkiness slightly inconsistent with the Kodak icon.

Notwithstanding the dogged tenacity of the halide image, Kodak’s star feature this year was EasyShare as a standard adopted by new players—Nikon, Olympus, and Pentax—with “additional cameras supporting the standard as the year progresses.” Also bright in Kodakian firmament was the V560, that cute little dual-lens camera first seen at the CE show (January) that can stitch three separate snapshots together in-camera to make a panorama. That’s certainly new.

Well, semi-new at the PMA show. Having been debuted close to two months before, sharing the headlines with Blu-ray discs and surround-sound systems for the interiors of Hummers, it remained, by February 25th, a charming encounter if you’d happened to miss it the first time.

Who’s on First?

A CE show pre-empting a photo show with a new kind of camera? The first ever with two permanently installed lenses, a zoom and an ultrawide? A whole new approach to how cameras behave? It’s tremendously cute, and on top of that, useful. Wide-angle lenses and stitched panoramas make the pocket-size device much more the master of confined shooting conditions. But are there issues about it that take more than the advertising copy on a blister card to explain? Is there something new about all that hitting the CE show first and the photo show second?

Other announcements at PMA ’06 did seem more in step with photo-show announcements. There were Fujifilm’s claims for improved picture-taking in low light. Their new FinePix F30 (6MP, 3x zoom, under $400 when it ships in May) draws upon Fuji’s Real Photo Technology, one of those intangibles in a live sales presentation but the source of a tangible outcome: to produce a decent picture at ISO 1600. 3200, even.

A feature like this could dispense with the need for a flash in many pictures, a theory the new camera permits testing. Its “Natural Light & With Flash” setting snaps two pictures in rapid succession, one with and one without flash. Was the flash really required? Was ambient light enough, at ISO 1600? Was the noise subdued sufficiently at 3200? This neat camera is the first I’ve heard of that permits making judgments in review, by taking both pictures and comparing, rather than by speculation.

In olden days, the conspiracy-inclined would have dismissed such a feature as a way for Fuji to sell more film. What a difference six years make.

Fuji’s particular advance toward flashless photography certainly was new. Not that it was technically impossible before, but would the results have been satisfactory? Fuji’s own Andy LaGuardia showed enlargements with an aw-shucks commentary: “We’re not saying they’re absolutely grainless, but in our opinion, the majority of customers would find these quite pleasing.” In my opinion, too.

The concept of in-camera processing being an intangible with tangible results is of itself not new. Canon has been among those conspicuously bringing it to our attention. Can you say DIGIC II? Canon describes it as one of their sources of customer satisfaction. The four models introduced at the show as their “A” line feature it, citing it as a reason folks can get successful snapshots at ISO 800. The priciest of this quartet, the 6-megapixel A700, with its 6x, 35-210mm lens, ships next month for $349. The lowest-priced in the A series, the A430, features a 4MP CCD, 4x zoom, and, of course, DIGIC II processor, and should sell for $179.99.

How long ago was it again that we were dreaming of 4-megapixel cameras with 3x zooms for under $500? BTW, the prices quoted here are those of the manufacturers at showtime. Since then I’ve seen Nikon DSLRs in the Sunday papers for $699.

Back in the 12x leagues (36-432mm “equivalent”), Canon presented the PowerShot S3 IS with image-stabilization for a $499 list. Sony showed its 6MP H2 with 12x zoom for under $400, and H5 with 7.2MP imager and extra-large display for a sawbuck more.

Canon’s three new digital Elphs range from $349 to $499, including refinements like Canon’s lens shift image-stabilization, and a new push for high styling. And don’t forget their 16:9 frame format feature, representing a transitional step toward the panoramic HDTV and computer screens already upon us.

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