5.3 megapixel camera: HP Photosmart 945

I am a digital camera virgin. And have been a film camera snob.

So it is probably not fair to be comparing a 5Mp Hewlett-Packard digital camera manufactured in 2003 with a West German Voigtlander Bessamatic circa 1958.

But seeing as some of you, like me, may be interested in buying a 'prosumer' digital camera (digital cameras that typically range from 2.1 to 5.0Mp, and don't have interchangeable lenses), comparing it to what you already have -- in my case, an SLR film camera -- seems to make sense to me. I say this because I assume you are buying a camera of this ilk to pretty much do the things which your (most likely cheaper) 'analog' camera already does. And if you wanted a cheaper, lower megapixel camera with fewer features that was good for quick, everyday shots, then you would buy that instead.

Naturally, the pressure was on this digital camera to impress me.

The first thing I needed to get used were the features that come with the camera. There were stacks! Is this normal? I am unsure. These include multiple focus settings (macro, infinity, manual and normal), six exposure settings (auto, action, landscape, portrait, Tv -- shutter priority, Av -- aperture priority), and sound and video (MPEG) clips. Perhaps these are standard features on newer SLR cameras, but certainly not on my vintage.

On top of this, the camera's 'capture menu' allows you to adjust a multitude of camera settings. This includes white balance, ISO settings, colour, compression, resolution, sharpness, contrast and much more.

Seeing as taking still shots is quite a simple task, I decided to test this camera on moving targets. So I went to Sydney airport.

Recently, I have been giving my Voigtlander a workout capturing jets roaring into and out of the city from the blast fences of Runway 25 (east-west) and 16R (north-south). And the camera has repaid me with some splendid shots. So I decided if the Voigtlander (now only found in dusty cupboard, antique shops or on eBay) can take great shots, there is no reason why a $1099 digital camera can't.

Despite the obvious difference of it being digital, one of the key features the HP has over my Voigtlander is a much faster shutter speed. My camera's quickest setting is 1/500 whereas the HP Photosmart has a top shutter speed of 1/2000 with decrements of 1/250 down to 1/1000, then 1/720.

And the key feature the Voigtlander has over the HP is aperture settings. The Voigtlander ranges from f2.8 through to f22, whereas the HP camera ranges from f2.8 to f11.3.

So off I went. On this particular Saturday the strong winds meant planes were taking off from Runway 25. The viewing area just off Ross Smith Avenue means plane spotters are slightly elevated. And with a strong headwind, both I and the camera (which weighs 470g with batteries, incredibly light) were being blown all over, making hard work of the steady hand needed to take shots. In contrast, the heavier Voigtlander (weighs just over 1kg, but can be almost double, depending on the detachable lens used) is not at the mercy of the wind, I have found, and action shots can be taken with much less camera shake.

However, wind is one thing. Features are another. One which impressed me on the Photosmart 945 was the Burst option. With this option set, the user needs to click the shutter release button once and the camera takes pictures as quickly as possible, and as many as the memory can hold. I chose to use it as a Virgin Blue 737-700 came in on Runway 25. While the shots were not in perfect focus, they still came out well.

When at the airport I chose not to use the 'Action' setting because I felt I would have less control. But I did use it on another occasion in a plaza, while taking shots of pigeons. I was hoping to see the two pigeons I had focused on take flight as I was taking the shot, but as luck would have it I got a third bird fly past the lens when I depressed the shutter. Although the flying pigeon is out of focus, the effect of its movement is great nonetheless. And subsequent shots of pigeons on the 'Action' setting also impressed me.

Another neat feature the Photosmart has is an 8X optical zoom. If you zoom in on something far away, once you have reached the maximum zoom the camera switches to digital zoom which can be an additional 1.2X to 7X more than the maximum level on optical zoom. In other words, the camera has a total zoom capacity of 56X. This allowed me to take shots of planes that had taken off and were well in the distance -- as far as 3km away. This is something which the lenses (I have three) on the Voigtlander just cannot achieve.

However, the problem with digital zoom, in my experience, was that images were never clearly in focus and quite grainy. If the picture is going to turn out grainy, why bother take it? Another thing I was not used to was the time it takes to focus a shot when in Auto mode. When I locked the plane into the frame, the viewfinder remained on that image until it found focus and then took the image. Sometimes the moving image has come and gone. Pretty frustrating, I must say. The Voigtlander tracks the image the whole time.

And focus was a feature I did not like about the Photosmart. I am a manual focus person and the manual focus setting on this camera uses a bar on the right hand side of the camera's LCD screen which slides from zero to infinity. Deciding when a frame was in focus was quite difficult, as it relied on the naked eye to determine focus. Unless an object had sharp edges, I found I relied mainly on guesswork. I much prefer the focus on the SLR cameras in which two semi circles in the viewfinder line up, or a circle in the viewfinder goes from being blurry (out of focus) to clear (in focus). This way there is no mistaking focus settings.

Howard's fave shot taken from 16R. Note the reflection of the runway on the tail of the plane

The HP Photosmart 945 is a 5.3Mp camera but users can switch to smaller, 1Mp images if they choose. These are recommended for e-mailing to friends or posting to the Web rather than printing to paper. The camera comes with a 32MB Secure Digital memory card, and supports MMC. Included in the package is a USB and FireWire card plus a camera dock. HP also throws in Photosmart software.

After playing with the HP Photosmart 945 for a week, it certainly became a lot more familiar and fun to use than when I first picked it up. My first instinct was to treat it with cynicism and say it was not as good and not going to be as good. But I must say that while I am quite pleased with this number, I still won't swap the Voigtlander for anything else. Call me stubborn.

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Howard Dahdah

PC World
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