Buying a Better Camera May Be Your Best Angle

Leffingwell is a Times staff photographer whose column on travel photography will appear monthly in the Travel Section

If the year ahead gives promise for any extensive travel, this might be the time to think about getting yourself or your family a new camera.

And, if a camera already is on the list, then this column can offer a few suggestions. We won't talk so much about nuts and bolts, but more on how those nuts and bolts can help you, the traveling photographer.

The first consideration with every camera purchase is price. New cameras worth pondering range from less than $200 to more than $2,000, including lens. But here is one thing to remember: Film costs a minimum of $10 per roll to purchase and process, and that cost is the same whether it is shot with a good camera or a bad one.

So, if you could make every one of your pictures look better over the next, say, five years, wouldn't that be worth paying an extra $100 to $150 for a better camera?

As Bruce Pierce of Sammy's Camera in Los Angeles puts it, "If you spend so much to go so far from home, and spend so much on film and processing, why shoot through plastic when you can shoot through glass? It's like having a great LP collection and using a $29 phonograph. You're gonna lose something."

It can be argued that Pierce has a vested interest in better, higher-priced equipment, but the point is valid nonetheless. Given equal dollars, Pierce would steer the buyer to better optical quality than to cameras fitted with gadgets and geegaws. For Pierce, as for the traveling photographer, the result on film is most important.

So here we go. Most mid-price range point-and-shoot cameras have built-in zoom lenses. The common range is 35 to 70 millimeters. These cameras with their built-in flashes are compact and completely self-contained. With new 6-volt lithium batteries, the flashes recycle more quickly (some within three seconds) while the batteries themselves last up to 50 rolls.

In the good old/bad old days, cameras used AA batteries, good for five or six rolls but available virtually everywhere. Lithiums are scarcer; if you're going somewhere where you can't find your own brand of toothpaste, take along an extra battery.

Some of the point-and-shoots have longer-range zooms, up to 105mm. The prime disadvantage is bulk and weight. The point of these cameras is their convenience. A quartz-date feature, offered by most manufacturers, gives you the option to date-record all the significant family gatherings (how can you really remember what your baby looked like at eight months?).

Yet you can turn it off when you go out to shoot the National Geographic sunset. Unlike the higher-end single lens reflex (SLR) cameras, this option is take-it-or-don't. For $20 to $30 extra, your camera comes with it, but it cannot be added after purchase.

Nikon's Tele-Touch 300 has a double-flash feature that virtually eliminates red-eye. The first flash only cues the eye to contract. The second flash, an instant later, exposes the film. The eye looks natural.

Another interesting feature provides a double self-timer. With this, you shoot yourself after five seconds and again three seconds later; it's perfect for when the best picture comes right after the flash goes off.

One feature that sounds interesting may backfire. The Canon Zoom XL offers remote-trip, perfect for that same picture-after-the-picture photography, but also with remote zoom. If you shoot and then zoom without checking the composition again, you could end up with anatomical details that could get you in trouble back home.

Leica has reentered the compact camera market for the first time in decades, and by all accounts, the camera is excellent. A push button changes the lens from 40mm to 80mm; it doesn't zoom. But the optics are typical Leica quality. In fact, the whole camera is made by Minolta to Leica specifications.

Happily, the price is not vintage Leica: It can be found for less than $400. Beware, however: All of its value is in image quality. It has a built-in flash but few other bells and whistles.

According to Pierce, it's the bells and whistles to watch out for. If you've spent a few years with a point-and-shoot and are ready to graduate to the SLR, the market is wide open, but keep your eyes open, too.

Nikon's 4004, Canon's 750 and Pentax's SF10 all rate well in value for dollars (about $450). Each has interchangeable lenses. Nikon and Pentax offer manual overrides, Canon operates program-only. Each has excellent matrix metering.

One advantage to Nikon, and to a lesser degree Canon at this level and above, is the availability of rental equipment. It won't cost you an extra thousand dollars to shoot pictures if you suddenly find yourself with 30th-row, 50-yard-line seats for the Rams or Raiders, because you can rent longer lenses for a fraction of their purchase price. Renting is also a great way to try out a piece of costly equipment before making a purchase.

None of the high-end cameras touts auto-focus as a selling point, but instead list it as a feature (the same way that behind-the-lens metering flashed into headlines, only to become just another accepted fact).

All of the top-end machines, from Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Minolta, Olympus and the rest, have auto-focus. All have interchangeable lenses, too. Pierce describes Canon's EOS as a good medium-flexibility, shooter-friendly camera.

New ultra-sonic autofocus lenses do away with the bzzzztbzzzt of their competitors, making them almost silent. Nikon's F4 lenses have a bzzzt , but the camera has a silent mode that rivals Leica rangefinders for quiet.

Minolta's Maxxum 7000i will accept "creative cards," those aforementioned bells and whistles. One card is called the Fantasy Effect, a $30 option that shifts out of focus. Each of those cameras offers a full line of lenses and motor drives that go a long way toward making photography easier and photographs better.

Interestingly, one manufacturer has gone far from bells and whistles as others have rushed toward it. Leica offers its rangefinder M6. Its only concession to the 20th Century is that it has a built-in meter reading behind the lens.

Silent and rugged, it is the latest incarnation in equipment largely unchanged since the late 1950s. And all those old lenses will still fit (though super-wides will not meter).

Leica recently introduced an all-mechanical R6 SLR, mirroring its dedication to the less-is-more school of photography. Leicas have always been costly, but one of the firm's new owners once explained it to a customer. Reminding the buyer what he'd paid for his first Leica, and how it compared to his weekly paycheck, he asked about the current paycheck. Both decided the prices hadn't gone up so much after all.

One interesting gift possibility seems perfect for the very young beginning photographer. Polaroid sells its Spectra SE with a five-year warranty both on the camera and on the pictures ! If you don't like the picture, send it back to Polaroid and they'll replace it. (Save them up 10 at a time and they'll replace the pack.)

For the first pictures by a young photographer, whose budget is strapped by film costs and whose photos usually are not worth saving, this is a great way to learn at Polaroid's expense. The film is better than ever, the colors more stable. For the first time, Polaroid offers a self-timer.

Under the heading of bargain of the year, Kodak has a Stretch 35, a disposable 35mm camera loaded with a roll of their Kodacolor Gold 200. The camera yields 3 1/2-by-10-inch prints. It has no controls, but, selling for $10.95, it virtually duplicates the pro's very expensive Widelux cameras (which have precious few controls).

One final thought on buying a new camera: If you ask a pro for a recommendation on equipment, you will get limited information.

Find a good salesman, one who will not push features on you that you don't need, but one who has a thorough knowledge of everything out there. By doing so, chances are that you will acquire the camera best suited for you.

Note: Next month we will begin an alternating-monthly series of profiles/interviews with photographers who travel the world for a living.

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