THE CANDID CAMERAS

A new breed of compact, foolproof cameras? Our panel got clicking
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The Independent Culture
How many times have you taken a film to the chemist, rushed back an hour later desperate to see the results of your artistic endeavours, only to find that the precious holiday snaps you were expecting to collect are nothing more than a roll of blank film? If it's more often than you care to remember, then the new Advanced Photo System cameras are for you. The nearest thing to foolproof photography so far was launched last April, following collaborative development between five multi-nationals (known as the System Developing Companies). "APS set out to address the problems many snap-shooter photographers have," explained the technical editor of Amateur Photographer magazine, Joel Lacey, one of our testers. "The drop-in film loading really is idiot-proof, the negatives are stored, safe from damage in the film cartridge, and you get a thumb-nail image of every photo. You can shoot in any one of three formats (standard, wide or panoramic) and data (for instance, the date) is printed on the back rather than the front of the print. They are about as easy to use as cameras get."

The technology and slightly smaller film may mean that cameras can be lighter and more compact, but for the amateur all these advancements - which come at a price, not only is the hardware more expensive but the film costs about pounds 4 for 25 exposures plus pounds 5 for processing - still can't stop you putting your finger over the lens or chopping off your friends' heads.

THE PANEL

As well as Joel Lacey, we enlisted professional photographer, John Law- rence, and amateur photographers Christina Madden and Pete Clayton.

THE TEST

APS has now been licensed to 43 companies but we chose to test a camera from each of the System Developing Companies; Canon, Fuji, Kodak, Minolta and Nikon. All five offered the standard APS features as well as self- timers and automatic flash. Only the three higher-priced cameras take advantage of the clear magnetic strip on APS film; this allows the camera to relay information to the film processing equipment to improve print quality.

Each was used to take a variety of pictures from day-lit landscapes to flash-lit portraits. They were marked on the clarity of the instructions, ease of use, picture quality, usefulness of features, value for money and, importantly, desirability.

**KODAK ADVANTIX 3100AF

pounds 89.99

Although judged easy to use and comfortable to hold, the panel found this very basic camera "plasticky and too expensive" (Pete Clayton). Joel Lacey said "However, this will probably be the biggest seller of all the cameras here as the UK market is price-driven. In other words, it's relatively cheap and fulfils the basic APS specifications."

Christina Madden was bemused by the instructions: "They were so basic - and (very badly) translated into English - as to make one wonder who exactly the camera is intended for: at pounds 90 it's too expensive for a first camera and yet its features are so limited that it can't be meant for a remotely serious amateur."

This was confirmed by photographer John Lawrence: "This really is a very basic camera, and certainly doesn't feel like it's worth 90 quid. There's not even a lens cover - the bit of glass over the front wouldn't make me feel as comfortable with chucking this model into my pocket or bag as the size suggests." On the plus side, he did find it comfortable to hold and thought its viewfinder pleasant. John said he would choose it over the more expensive Fuji.

**FUJI FOTONEX 100

pounds 135

Joel Lacey was quite keen on this model which he described as having better styling than 35mm cameras and being "eminently pocketable with a nice sharp lens". The rest of the panel were less enchanted.

Christina Madden thought the Fuji was "reasonably stylish in mock chrome plastic" but found it "quite flimsy", although she said "it does have a fairly satisfying and clunky wind-on sound." Christina complained that this manual was also badly translated and overly-wordy ("ludicrous detail about attaching the strap") while seeming coy at times ("if the camera should get in trouble"). John Lawrence was glad the lens could be covered up but found it even less sturdy-feeling than the Kodak and was irritated that the viewfinder appeared to blank out when he quickly whipped up the camera to take a picture.

***NIKON NUVIS 75i

pounds 189.99, 30-60mm zoom lens

Christina Madden said "this camera has none of the style or gravitas of the more expensive models. It does boast greater control over the standard functions than the less expensive ones and the zoom function is ergonomically very well placed although the on/off button is clumsy. The camera is ugly but practical, and the best bet for those prepared to sacrifice style for function."

Joel Lacey assured us that the Nikon name is a guarantee of a level of quality of picture (although he suggested that "the Nuvis name sounds like a guarantee of bread-making"). As to the camera itself, he commented on "its zoom lens, bright viewfinder and funny-looking, but nonetheless effective, built-in flash."

Both John Lawrence and Pete Clayton found the Nikon was easy enough to operate. John found the zoom pretty smooth although he found there was a little jump before it reaches its shortest length, 30mm.

*****CANON IXUS

pounds 259.99, 24-48mm zoom lens

Joel Lacey's anecdote ("Two men outside a chic department store; one has bought an Ixus. The second man says, `Hey, that's beautiful, where did you get it?' The first replies, `in the photo department on the fifth floor.' Man number two rushes inside emerging five minutes later with an Ixus. `It's lovely, isn't it? By the way, what is it?'") certainly sums up the emotions evoked by this beautiful gadget (our overall winning camera). Christina Madden dec-lared love at first sight, as did everyone who came into contact with the silver-coloured, cigarette-pack-sized "winking" camera. "It gives as much aesthetic pleasure as the pictures it takes. Its workings have a wonderful lubricity and make exquisite noises - there is a proper old- fashioned whine after you pop the flash and a marvellous mechanical smoothness. It is supremely sexy, exquisitely small and perfectly formed. I'd be happy to draw it from my top pocket anywhere," she swooned.

John Lawrence agreed. "It feels good, has a pleasing weight and is very simple to use from the moment you pick it up. It's so small that everything is in easy reach, however, it is big enough to be held steady comfortably. Brilliant camera to just have in your pocket." As did Pete Clayton: "Very easy to use and very desirable - has a great feel and weight to it. Nice and compact and looks like it costs pounds 260."

Joel Lacey confirmed its wide appeal: "There's no doubt that of any of the APS products this has been the most desired and talked about. Some people even use it to take pictures."

***MINOLTA VECTIS S-1

pounds 699.99, 22-80mm zoom lens

The only SLR (single lens reflex) in our test, the Vectis was popular among our testers although most agreed it costs more than they would be prepared to spend. Joel Lacey said: "This was the first interchangeable lens APS camera to be launched. It might not have the same `blimey, that's cute' factor of the Ixus, but from a serious photographer's point of view it is much more complete. Unlike compact cameras, when you look through the viewfinder you are looking through the lens that actually takes the pictures, so what you see really is what you get."

This enthusiasm was supported by our photographer, John Lawrence. "It has a nice bright viewfinder and feels like a good-quality SLR. The longish barrel allows you to steady it quite well." Although he did say it seems extraodinarily expensive.

Christina Madden enjoyed using this camera and appreciated the greater control it afforded her compared to the other models, however, she found the instructions opaque and stodgy: "The Ixus manual made some efforts to give you a basic understanding but the Minolta one threw jargon at you without lucidity," she complained.

Pete Clayton agreed, "The instructions and functions are too complicated by far (a bit like programming a VCR)," although he did find the camera had a nice chunky feel to it.

STOCKISTS

Kodak and Fuji available from high- street retailers; For brochures, call Canon on 0800 616417, Nikon on 0800 230220 and Minolta on 01908 200400.

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