Digital Camera Comparison: The Quest for the Perfect Road Trip Camera

I take pictures for a living and am always saddled down with a pretty fair amount of gear, so when I’m ready to hop in my BMW and go for a drive, I want a camera that is easy to use and small enough to fit in my wife’s purse (so I don’t have to carry it!) With those parameters in mind, here are a couple of small (and one not so small) portable digital cameras worthy of your consideration. Please keep in mind, that the street prices are approximate. Careful shopping may produce even better results.


Minolta Dimage Xg
Street Price: $299.00

The Dimage Xg is definitely scores major cool points here. Smaller than a short stack of cheese slices; this camera is anything but cheesy. With a 3.2 megapixel sensor that will make great 8.5 x 11-inch prints, the Xg has the worlds fastest startup from sleep mode, capable of waking up in just over a second so you’ll never miss that shot of Bigfoot when you are out driving in the middle of nowhere.

The Xg also has a 3x optical zoom that will take you from moderate wide angle to moderate telephoto. It comes with a 16 MB SD memory chip (that you will want to promptly toss in favor of a 128 or 256 MB card) and a rechargeable lithium ion battery that is good for about 250 shots before recharge. While it features five different modes to accommodate different shooting situations, I had great luck just leaving it in auto mode and taking pictures.

You can download directly from the Xg via a USB card to your Mac or PC. Standard
image size is 2048 x 1536 pixels, with no support for TIFF or RAW imaging. And in case you find yourself screaming along a favorite back road and want to back up your story that you really were going 170mph, just put the Xg in movie mode and it can shoot 320 x 240 .mov (QuickTime) files at 15fps.

This was a really fun camera to use and would not be out of place in a James Bond or Laura Croft movie.

Canon S500 Digital Elph
Street Price: $499.00

Aside from the Minolta, the Canon S500 may be one of the smallest cameras avaiable, but like dynamite, big things come in small packages. The S500 features a 5.0 megapixel sensor that’s capable of producing sharp, large scale prints up to 11 x 17-inches. Unlike the Pentax Optio 555, the S500 doesn’t offer TIFF or RAW image support, so you’ll have to make due with the standard jpeg images.

The S500 has a bright and sharp 1.5″ LCD that works well, even in bright, outdoor lighting. Don’t expect to find a lot of manual controls on the S500 – some like the simplicity, while some purists complain that it limits the user’s ability to capture “the perfect image.” We found that the S500 took wonderful photos in almost all settings, and its small size means that you can literally drop it in your shirt pocket and go.

The S500 can accept traditional compact flash memory, and ships with a 32 MB card. With image resolution of up to 253x x 19xx, you won’t store many images on that small card, so an upgrade is recommended. Like most of its competitors, the S500 can also capture QuickTime movies and features a really handy panoramic mode that makes for simple panoramic photo composition. Battery life was about average for this class and images are downloaded via a USB cable or a compact flash card reader.

If you’re looking for a really compact camera that packs big image quality, and incredible ease of use, consider the S500.


Fuji S20
Street Price: $925.00

If you are really serious about digital photography and are feeling wacky with your credit card, consider stepping up to the new Fuji S20. While it’s definitely not in the same price class as the other cameras tested, this is the newest thing from Fuji. It also happened to arrive at my door while I was doing this test, so here it is.

So what do you get for what is essentially equivalent to the cost of a set of track tires? A pro quality camera in every way except for having interchangeable lenses. The S20 has a 6.2 megapixel sensor and will capture photos in TIFF and RAW mode, just like the big boys do. It has a 6x zoom and uses Compact Flash cards as well as the new, tiny XD memory cards (just like the Olympus).

The Fuji S20 is the closest thing you can get to a Pro digital camera without having interchangeable lenses. If you shoot in the highest quality mode it will produce great 16 x 20 prints and rivals most of the new 8 megapixel cameras. The only bad news is this one won’t fit in your wife’s purse, so it’s a little less spontaneous than the others.

We’re talking Porsche Turbo here.

That’s all for now. Just like car shopping, I suggest you go out and test drive before you buy. See what makes the most sense for your lifestyle and consider what other applications you may want to use it for. You won’t go wrong with any of these great compact cameras.

Consumer Product Reviews

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