Special Report on Electronic Gifts: Wizard technology puts you in the picture: Cameras, videos and camcorders are easier to use than ever, writes David Guest

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The Independent Online
MAKERS of cameras, videos and camcorders are agreed: because of the effective devaluation of the pound since Black Wednesday, there has never been a better time to buy one of their products.

The fact that this advice coincides with a distinctly unpromising Christmas (and, where camcorders are concerned, with substantial over-supply) should not be taken to imply special pleading. Nor should it be dismissed on the grounds that it appears to defy economic logic. Prices are temporarily attractive because dealers are selling from stock. When they restock from Japanese manufacturers in the new year, prices are expected to rise.

The general trend in prices has been steadily downward. At the same time, ease of use, numbers of features and miniaturisation have all improved. If these trends sound familiar from the personal computer business, the answer is that in both cases microelectronics are the driving force.

Cameras and camcorders are increasingly capable of doing more of the work (if not more of the thinking, as several suppliers put it). Canon's extraordinary EOS 5 camera (pounds 870) automatically adjusts the focusing as the eye moves across the viewfinder. Minolta and others have models which respond to the movement of camera to eye by switching on. Mitsubishi's latest camcorders have what are known as 'event positions', a series of automatic settings for different subjects or conditions - skiing, for example, or dimly-lit parties.

To make this kind of sophistication accessible to casual photographers, camera makers have borrowed another idea from the personal computer industry - pictograms on the camera rather than words in the manual. 'The idea is to make single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras more like point-and-shoot compacts,' says Ashley Beard, general manager of GK Photographic. Ease of use is especially important in camcorders because so many people are buying for the first time. 'The mass market is looking for ease of operation,' confirms Chris Wright, head of the consumer division at Mitsubishi Electric. He adds that if every unit sold in Britain was going to a first-time buyer, there would be between 5 per cent and 6 per cent household penetration. In Japan, it is 20 per cent.

With cameras and camcorders, making the operation simple usually means leading the user through a sequence of steps via a display at the back of the unit - a menu-driven system, in the language of cameras and PCs. With video recorders, it means advances such as VideoPlus - owners consult the television schedules and key a four-digit number into the VCR to set it to record.

But photographers who prefer to take their own pictures have not been forgotten. A Canon spokeswoman points out that the EOS 5, despite the electronic wizardry that could make photography almost completely automatic, can also be totally manual if preferred.

The meanest cameras available are the disposables, which Mr Beard notes can cost as little as pounds 5 'and in most cases they are as good as a pounds 30 compact'. He adds: 'If you're buying a compact, don't go for the cheapest - a pounds 100 model will be much better than a pounds 30 or pounds 40 job.'

Size is another means of categorising camcorders. The smallest units weigh less than 2lb. The limiting factors here are the mechanics of moving the tape forward and the weight of the batteries.

The sheer size of standard VHS cassettes has made this an unpopular format for camcorders. The Sony-inspired 8mm format appears to be winning the battle with JVC's VHS-C for smaller systems. Although these tapes won't go into a VHS video recorder, camcorders can be connected to a standard VCR for editing or copying, or directly to a television.

Most camcorders use nickel-cadmium (nicad) batteries, but the Sony TR8 may be the first of a new generation with lithium ion cells. These have a higher energy potential and can therefore produce the same drive in a smaller form, and they recharge very much more efficiently.

'The industry can't go much further with features for features' sake - the features have got to give worthwhile benefits,' says Mr Wright. He offers a further example from the Mitsubishi HS-CX6 - an authentic colour viewfinder on a palmcorder.

But the structure of the market, dominated by Sony, Panasonic and JVC, means that other manufacturers have to offer something extra to differentiate themselves. That something is usually a feature of the camera's operation - stabilisers to overcome shakey hands, for example. So the sophistication of camcorders continues to advance while the number of manufacturers competing for sales generates continual price erosion. Mr Wright expects total sales of camcorders to reach 25,000 a week in the approach to Christmas, with palm-held units holding 55 per cent of the market by the end of the year. Camcorders give a hint of what future cameras may look like. The latest Olympus, the iS-3000 (pounds 550), has a built-in 35-180mm lens and looks more like a camcorder than an SLR. The Nikon F90, which resembles a standard SLR, has a 3D metering system that could revive the arguments about 3D photography inspired in previous years by Vivitar.

More radical yet, the prospect of still video as an alternative to film is reappearing after many dormant years. Digital technology's tireless advance in camera, VCR and camcorder construction, coupled with its use in compact disk and multimedia computer systems, may soon lead to a re-evaluation of its possibilities as a recording medium for cameras.

(Photograph omitted)