TRIED & TESTED / Snap judgements: Confused by the gadgetry? Nothing ever clicks? Our far from expert panel goes in search of the best camera for technophobes

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The Independent Culture
SHUTTER speeds, exposure meters and real-image viewfinders are comprehensible to some, but if you don't have a subscription to Amateur Photographer and simply want an idiot-proof camera to take holiday snaps, how do you decide which one to buy? We asked a group of non-experts to test a selection of compact cameras to see which one was easiest to use and which produced, in their opinion, the best-quality photographs. A professional photographer added her views.

THE PANEL

Frances Lang, professional photographer; Alma Haque, PR officer; Radha Burgess, sales assistant; Shane Ryder, unemployed

THE TEST

The panel gave each camera marks for how easy it was to understand the instructions, load the film and use the camera. They were also marked for extra features and for picture quality. The panellists used each camera to take a close-up of a flower, a long-distance landscape shot outside, and a head-and-shoulders portrait inside. The marks were then converted into a star-rating.

**** OLYMPUS AF-MINI .TX.- Autofocus, self-timer, automatic

flash, red-eye reduction system, fill-in

flash, automatic film loading,

winding, re-winding. Price: pounds 99.

Very easy to use, high-quality photos.

Panellists found the camera easy to load and use, and they rated the photographs highly too. At under pounds 100, it's cheaper than the other two cameras which performed well, the Pentax and the Minolta. 'A good all-round performer, small and compact and virtually foolproof. Seems fairly basic, given its price-tag, but took consistently pleasing pictures, particularly at short range and indoors,' Shane Ryder said. 'I found this camera very easy to use; the instructions were clear and concise with no wading through multilingual blurb. It's well suited to the photographically illiterate like me,' Alma Haque said. Frances Lang pointed out that the flash placement, on the left rather than the right-hand-side, made it difficult not to cover while shooting (good for left-handers, though). She thought the fill-in flash mode was excellent. This helps you take portraits either in the shade or against the light. The camera is also weatherproof.

***PENTAX ESPIO 70

Autofocus, with zoom lens, self-timer, automatic flash, red-eye reduction

system, fill-in flash, automatic

film loading, winding and

re-winding. Price: pounds 169.99.

Excellent results, but expensive.

For the extra money, you get a wide range of features which will give budding photographers a chance to experiment with more complicated techniques. The camera also gave the best photographs of all, although the Olympus and the Minolta were not far behind. But the panel did find it a little harder to use. Alma Haque found all the features a bit daunting: 'The instructions were clear but there are so many functions (excellent though they may be) that it gets quite confusing for the technophobe. For a beginner, this camera could be too technical.' Even Frances Lang did not think all the features would be useful, such as three types of self-timer. 'I found that a bit excessive. Useful features include the zoom, which is very good, pre-flash (for red eye), focus lock, fill-in flash, and multiple exposures.' But, she concluded, 'the results were not worth the extra money.' Radha Burgess disagreed: 'I cannot praise this superb camera enough. Although the price may be off-putting, it really is worth the extra expense.'

**CANON SURE SHOT AF-7

Autofocus, automatic flash,

self-timer, red-eye reduction,

automatic film loading, winding,

rewinding. Price: pounds 69.

Good value for money.

The panel did not find this camera as easy to use as others, partly because the instructions the manufacturers sent were not complete. The panel did not rate the resulting photographs as highly as those of some of the other cameras. Nonetheless, panellists still thought it gave more than reasonable results for a reasonable price. 'A very appropriate price for such a good all-rounder. Takes competent photos and is equally suitable for all the conditions it was tested under,' Radha Burgess said. 'Excellent value at pounds 69, provided you are not overly ambitious with your photos,' Shane Ryder said.

**VIVITAR VP 1000

Focus-free, automatic flash,

manual loading, winding, and

rewinding. Price: pounds 22.99.

Inexpensive buy for holiday

snaps, or for the novice.

This is a much less sophisticated camera with many fewer features and, not surprisingly, the results were not as good - particularly for the long-distance and close-up shots. Despite the camera being more basic, the panel did not find it the easiest to load and use. Panellists differed as to whether, in view of the low price, it was worth buying. Professional photographer Frances Lang didn't think so: 'Poor quality all round. I would recommend paying extra for the Canon or Olympus.' Shane Ryder, though, thought that despite the camera feeling a bit rickety and stiff, 'it took very acceptable photographs and for the price of a night's drinking, seemed very good value for money. If you have only pounds 20 or so to spend and you've no objection to Stone-Age mechanisms, it's a good buy.' Radha Burgess said: 'Not for the serious photographer, but great for the uninitiated or young camera user.'

**KODAK SINGLE-USE FUN

FLASH CAMERA

27 exposures. Price: pounds 8.99.

Mediocre results - but no

complaints at this price.

This camera is simplicity itself to use and as for loading, forget it: it's all done for you. Just use it, get the film processed, and it's thrown away. If you thought something this cheap wouldn't produce anything worthwhile, you would be wrong. Bought for some impromptu photography, you would still get acceptable snaps. Although the pictures were rated most poorly of all, the quality wasn't far behind that of the Vivitar. The head-and-shoulders portraits were the most successful. 'This is a spur-of-the-moment snapper - ideal for taking to clubs or parties where anything more expensive would make one heartbroken if it was left in the loo, on the dance floor, or under the trifle,' Radha Burgess said. A couple found the chuck-away philosophy of this product a bit distasteful. 'Kodak would no doubt argue that it is meant for children, but why would the first lesson instilled in them be to use a camera once and then ditch it?' asked Shane Ryder.

***MINOLTA RIVA

ZOOM PICO

Autofocus, zoom lens, self-timer,

autoflash, fill-in flash, red-eye

reduction, automatic loading,

winding, rewinding. Price: pounds 129.

Good all-rounder.

The panel gave the camera similar high marks for quality of photographs as our best-buy Olympus, but it costs pounds 30 more. 'The zoom lens was great fun. It was the best performer with scenic shots and outdoor close-ups were well detailed, although indoors the flash seemed rather glaring. A good all-round performer with a pleasing range of features, but one minor criticism is that the shutter release button seemed sticky and unresponsive,' Shane Ryder said. It was Alma Haque's firm favourite: 'A good buy - I would be tempted to buy this, out of all the ones I tried.' 'Some good features, and the zoom lens is useful, but the fill-in flash could have been a lot better,' Frances Lang concluded.

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