Consumers get more camera for less money

Consumers looking for new cameras have reason to smile: Prices are down, and features are more sophisticated as camera makers unveil spring models at the annual Photo Marketing Association trade show in Las Vegas this week.

Canon caj, Nikon, Sony sne and other big manufacturers are selling more cameras than ever, though revenue is flat in the highly competitive market. Researcher IDC says unit sales hit a record 34 million in 2007, though revenue fell 14% to $8.5 billion from 2006.

For 2008, IDC projects unit shipments growing slightly to 35 million and revenue climbing to $9 billion.

Manufacturers "are focusing on price more than before," says IDC analyst Chris Chute.

They are also packing in higher megapixel counts (a measurement of a camera's resolution) and adding new goof-proof features such as "anti-blink" technology in point-and-shoot cameras.

In terms of pricing, for instance, Canon's PowerShot SD1100 IS, coming in March with 8 megapixels, image stabilization and a big zoom, will sell for $250. A Canon model with similar specifications but without the SD1100's advanced auto-focus features, the SD850 IS was introduced in June for $400.

Nikon's new Coolpix S550, available in early February, is also economy priced at $230. It has a 10-megapixel sensor and the new anti-blink feature. Shoot as many as eight people in a group, and if anyone blinks, a message pops up to alert the photographer to try again.

"It can't open a person's eyes, but it can warn you," says Steve Heiner, Nikon senior technical manager. "For someone who shoots a lot of family pictures, they usually don't see the blinks until they transfer the pictures to the computer, so this could be a big help."

Many point-and-shoot cameras now offer face-detection technology, which adjusts lighting and focus for multiple human faces (no pets yet — sorry). Sony last year introduced a "smile" feature that basically disables the camera if the subject isn't smiling.

Sony's new $400 Cyber-shot DSC-T300, available in March, has advanced face detection that can differentiate between child and adult faces. Select "child priority" or "adult priority," and the camera will adjust exposure and focus on the subject of your choice. Sony's face detection can automatically detect up to eight faces in the frame.

Panasonic's new Lumix DMC-TZ5 and TZ4 have "intelligent exposure" modes that promise to compensate for pictures that are too light or dark. "The camera will automatically adjust the brightness accordingly," Panasonic says.

Both cameras will be available in March for $350 and $300, respectively.

While 90% of unit sales fall to the point-and-shoot category, much of the action at the PMA show is focused on the more profitable digital single-lens reflex models. SLRs are step-up cameras that shutterbugs turn to for better focus, exposure and the ability to stop action.

Chuck Westfall, technical adviser at market leader Canon, says Canon's point-and-shoot unit sales rose 20% in 2007, while digital SLR sales grew even faster, at 40%.

At the PMA show, Canon will unveil the successor to its popular EOS Digital Rebel XTi — the top-selling SLR, according to researcher NPD Group. Canon's new model is the EOS Rebel XSi, offering sharper resolution than the XTi (12 megapixels instead of 10), more precise auto focusing, built-in sensor dust reduction and a lower price: $800. It will be available in April.

Longtime rival Nikon has more SLR models than Canon. Its new, 10-megapixel D60 is aimed at the middle ground at $750. (Its entry-level D40 sells for $500 and has 6 megapixels.)

The D60 is expected on shelves in February.

Sales of film SLR cameras hit their peak in 1984 with 8 million units. Westfall says last year digital SLRs came close to that figure — with nearly 7.5 million sold. "We'll blast through that number easily in 2008," he says.