WHEN I WAS younger and had the photo bug, I spent a lot of vacation time lugging a bag stuffed with single-lens reflex camera equipment. And every time we reached a scenic locale, I'd unload the bag on my wife's shoulder, fiddle with camera bodies and lenses, then climb a staircase or a rock, seeking just the right angle for the shot.
For some unfathomable reason, my wife did not find this behavior grounds for divorce. But things changed when the kids arrived. Herding two active young boys on a trip doesn't leave much time for contemplative photography. So with regret - and a sigh of relief from my wife - I put the photo bag away. I replaced the stuff inside it with a Canon Sure Shot - a simple, point-and-shoot camera that fit in my pocket and, much to my surprise, made excellent photos.
Seventeen years later, those boys have turned into young men and I'm free to resume old photographic habits. But I haven't - I still travel with a compact camera. What I didn't travel with this year was film. For the first time I decided to go completely digital and gamble on a tiny Canon Digital Elph S500. It turned out to be a superb traveling companion.
Just 3 1/2 inches long, 2 inches high and an inch thick, the S500 weighs less than 7 ounces and fits neatly in any pocket. It's the first camera in Canon's successful Digital Elph line to capture 5-megapixel images, the current standard for high-end consumer photography. That's enough resolution to produce beautiful prints up to 11 by 14 inches or, more importantly, allow you to crop a photo and still get a decent enlargement.
A snap to use
The S500 is a snap to use right out of the box. The sleek, stainless steel case and controls have the feel of a precision instrument, with the power button, shutter, zoom lever and function selector within easy reach of thumb and forefinger.
With an optical viewfinder and a liquid crystal display (LCD) on the back, the S500 gives you a choice of methods to compose a photo.
The viewfinder's advantage is speed and comfort - it's the way most people use a camera. The disadvantage is that you don't see exactly what the camera is capturing (the S500 took in a wider area than the viewfinder indicated). The LCD shows exactly what you're getting, but it's hard to use with bifocals, and the display fades in sunlight to the point where it's almost useless. It also eats batteries, so I generally turned it off.
Speaking of batteries, like most small cameras, the S500 uses a proprietary, rechargeable lithium ion cell. I normally don't like these because they can't be replaced with disposables in a pinch. But during two weeks on the road, the S500 never gave me less than two days of heavy shooting between charges. The charger, a flat box with a drop-in slot for the battery, plugs directly into a wall outlet, a real convenience because it doesn't require a power cord. Still, it's probably a good idea to pick up a spare battery ($50 to $60).
The camera's 3-to-1 zoom lens (the equivalent of a 36-to- 105 mm lens on a standard 35-mm camera) is supplemented by a 4.1x digital zoom, which I rarely used because, like most digital enhancements, it degrades image quality.
For travelers, the real problem with the S500 - and most consumer-oriented cameras - is a maximum wide-angle view that's not quite wide enough for good landscape photography. Nor does the S500 have a provision for screw-on lens attachments, wide-angle or otherwise. That's one of the compromises of a pocket camera.
For the most part, you can turn on the S500 and snap away without involving yourself in its option menu. If you do want more control under various lighting conditions, you'll find a variety of settings for exposure, color balance, flash, metering, auto-focus methods, image size and compression. What you don't get is full control over shutter speed, aperture or focus - another concession to price and design.
Like most of its ilk, the S500 suffers from an anemic flash - beyond 6 or 7 feet, flash photos in low light tend to be underexposed, particularly if the zoom lens is extended (which reduces the camera's light-gathering ability). There's no hot shoe for an external flash, either. On the plus side, Canon's auto-focus lamp helps produce sharp pictures under dim conditions. But if you want good flash photos in low light, get close to your subject.
For those who like multifunction gadgets, the S500 can also capture full-motion video with sound at 15 frames per second for up to three minutes, depending on the size of your memory card. This can be an entertaining diversion, but it's not the camera's primary purpose - or strength.
Unlike many recent cameras, the S500 uses CompactFlash memory cards, which are about the size of a matchbook. I actually like CF memory better than the newer, postage stamp SD cards because they're harder to lose. Canon includes a 32-megabyte card, which is good for about 25 shots at standard resolution, but you'll undoubtedly want a 128- or 256-megabyte card for extended shooting.
Out in the real world, the S500 was a pleasure to use. There was remarkably little lag time between pressing the shutter button and the actual recording of the image. In burst mode, the camera can snap up 16 frames at 2 frames per second. In normal mode, the camera recycled very quickly - not as fast as a film camera, but I was rarely bothered by the delay.
Of course, the real proof of any camera is the pictures it makes. We were delighted by the shots of our trip to England and France. Overall, they were sharp and detailed, with accurate, saturated color, which is about all you can ask. Except for indoor shots at the edge of the flash's effective range, they required only minor tweaking.
At $450 to $500 on the street, the Canon S500 isn't a bargain-basement camera, but it's tiny, stylish, easy to use and delivers excellent quality. For the kind of photography I do, the convenience of a camera likes this far outweighs its limitations.
If you're on a tighter budget, you can save $100 with the nearly identical, 4-megapixel Canon S410, and another hundred or so with the 3-megapixel SD110 ($300). For more information, visit www.powershot.com.
New print option
If you want real, photo-finished prints from digital images, here's a convenient new option: Upload your photos to Ritz Camera and pick up prints four hours later at the nearest store.
The new service worked flawlessly when I tried it, and at 29 cents, Ritz's 4x6 prints cost no more than doing it myself on premium paper. The quality of the prints was excellent - with greater depth and clarity than my inkjet provides (and that's pretty darn good ). Visit www.ritzpix.com.