It must be the paparazzo in me, but I've always been a sucker for a camera with a zoom lens. A big one. A lens that can bring distant subjects breathtakingly close, magnifying your snapshots -- surreptitiously obtained or not -- 10 times or more. In the analog age, I was the one walking around with a telephoto lens bigger than the camera itself. It was heavy: You needed one hand to hold the camera and the other to support the lens. That all changed with digital photography: Because you're exposing a small, electronic sensor instead of a 35mm expanse of film, the big optics become small and compact. But until this summer, there wasn't much choice. Only Olympus, Hewlett-Packard, and Panasonic had consumer models, priced in the $400-to-$600 range. I set out to explore what I figured was an intriguing little niche in the digital camera market. Within a month, however, four companies -- Kodak, Fuji, Minolta, and Toshiba -- introduced their first 10X optical zoom cameras. With nine new ultra-zoom models so far this year, I couldn't keep up, but I managed to look at five.
To show you the flexibility you can get with a big zoom lens, consider what I've done with these cameras. I took pictures of performers on the stage of the Hollywood Bowl from my seat in the nosebleed section. I grabbed a shot of a friend's Maine hideaway from New Brunswick, across an inlet of the Bay of Fundy. I put together a series of close-ups -- suitable for framing -- of butterflies, all shot with no chance of scaring them away. There's no way that you could do any of that with a wimpy 3X zoom camera.
My favorite cameras turned out to be two I started out with, Panasonic's Lumix DMC-FZ1, around $400, and the Olympus Camedia C-740, about $450. (Retail prices can vary by $100 or more, so shop carefully.) These models are the most compact of the bunch: Unlike the others, they can be carried in a coat pocket. They feel the sturdiest, too, with snap-shut doors instead of rubber flaps to cover all the hidden connectors.
My choice of the Panasonic surprised me. The company isn't known for its digital cameras. At 2 megapixels, the FZ1 has the lowest resolution in the category. And it's a point-and-shoot only camera: There are no manual controls for a more serious photographer. If you want control over the shutter speed and aperture and enough resolution to print an 8-in.-by-10-in. glossy, choose the equally-compact Olympus C-740 -- which inexplicably has no ability to record sound for video clips or to narrate your still photos -- or that company's C-750, a 4-megapixel ultra-zoom model that costs about $100 more.
But the Panasonic has a 12X lens, the biggest zoom on the market, and that lens is made by Leica, the gold standard for camera optics. It's also the only lens on a digital still camera that is optically stabilized to compensate for any movement while you're taking the picture. That's important, because it's difficult to hold a camera steady enough to use a long lens at its full range without giving your snapshots the jitters -- professionals say you should wait to squeeze the shutter between heartbeats. The feature gives the Panasonic a definite edge in situations, such as twilight telephoto shots or at dimly lit parties, where the other cameras would require a tripod.
PICK OUT THE FAVORITE. The fujifilm (FUJIY) kodak, AND HP cameras are styled to mimic traditional single-lens reflex cameras, with a big right-hand grip. In my opinion, Kodak goofed by putting the grip too close to the lens, in an effort to make the camera smaller. I couldn't get my fingers between the grip and the lens, and the camera never felt secure in my hand. The slightly larger Fuji model, with its rubberized coating, felt far more balanced and comfortable. Another advantage: It can take conventional AA batteries or rechargeables, rather than a proprietary one such as Kodak uses.
Although I've never been a fan of HP cameras -- they're big, boxy, and slow to record images -- the new top-of-the-line Photosmart 945 is HP's best effort so far. This one has some nifty features I wish other camera makers would adopt. Its display neatly clears up any confusion between optical and digital zoom. In the optical mode, it shows the subject getting closer as you zoom in on it. But when you use digital zoom, which kicks in when the optical zoom reaches its limit, the camera simply crops the edges of the picture to blow up the center. You can't see this happening in most cameras' displays, but HP uses a yellow frame to show how much of the picture you lose as you zoom in.
All of the cameras have a flash that you have to pop up manually. And all of them have an electronic viewfinder instead of an optical one: The HP and Fuji models have a light on the front that helps the autofocus do its job even in the dark, a nice touch.
You'll find these cameras a lot of fun -- whether you're a soccer parent wanting to pick out your star halfback from the bleachers or whether you just want enormous versatility when you're composing your snapshots. In any case, you'll always be ready for your close-up. By Larry Armstrong