Go any place where tourists gather this summer and you may get a sense that something is missing. The crowds just look different somehow. It took me awhile to realize what was missing.
Big, black digital cameras with expensive barrels of telephoto lenses are missing. They're rare as hens' teeth as the hordes of experience seekers gather around Kodak magnets like Chicago's bus-size, silver-polished, bean-shaped Cloud Gate sculpture.
Likewise absent are fat camcorders with LCD screens sticking out on hinges like the doors on so many antique Volkswagen Bugs.
It came to me slowly that these once-ubiquitous fixtures of family travel are disappearing, even though I was part of the phenomenon.
That day while showing my grandkids from Kansas "da bean in da park," I left at home my killer 8-megapixel Nikon CoolPix 8700 SLR box-type digital camera with its fat 8x lens. Also left behind was my 2-year-old PU-GS2 Panasonic 22x digital camcorder, even though the tykes were poetry in motion (to a grandpa anyway).
Video was a must as they scampered about delighted at the famous fountain where four-story-tall pictures of human faces squirt streams of water through their teeth on legions of laughing, splashing barefoot kids.
I caught it all, stills and Quicktime movies alike, on my new Panasonic DMC-FX9PP combo 6-megapixel camera and 640 x 480 MPEG-4 camcorder. It's a tidy, black, pocket-friendly box the size of a deck of playing cards, with a 2.5-inch diagonal LCD screen on the back and a silver lens that pops out maybe an inch for 3x digital telephoto shots.
I got it on sale at Costco for $300, which is a lot less than my Nikon still camera cost last year and a C note cheaper than my camcorder.
You certainly don't have to wait for a sale at Costco to experience the revolution. Just about every maker of digital cameras has moved, big time, into the business of making palm-size, ultrasmall cameras because snapshot enthusiasts are snapping them up like piranhas in a goldfish bowl.
The latest Consumer Reports survey found small digital cameras between $250 and $480.
Serious snappers will say this type of gushing over smallness distorts the fact that bigger, heavier models turn out images that are far superior to the 5 or 6 megapixels that are the norm for pocket models.
But these experts know that the small guys suffice if your goal is 4-by-6 prints or, with 8-megapixel models, even 8-by-10s. So, as a shopping guide, let me talk about my spanking new Panasonic FX9.
It came with a 256-megapixel SD memory card, and that's barely sufficient given the size of digital image and video files. A big size factor is that digital users tend to shoot from the hip far more than folks who must buy conventional film. A 512 megabyte, or even a 1 or 2 gigabyte card, is almost an essential.
The Panasonic's controls are supersimple, which means that even when using the most advanced available mode, a user cannot change shutter speed and focal length with total freedom. The upside is a Simple Mode that handles auto focus and lighting settings while giving users limited options, like suppressing the flash and changing from single shots to a bracket mode that makes three images — one lighter and one darker than the setting the camera selects.
An optical motion-stabilizing feature helps keep hand-held shots from blurring, and a 2-second time-delay setting can eliminate motion from pushing down the shutter button in most shots except sports.
Speaking of sports, by moving beyond simple mode, users can order up bursts of six shots in a second. The Panasonic sends files to the memory card quite fast even at 6 megapixels, while some cameras can take many seconds per picture.
Those who decide to dig deeper into the features will find a menu of presets to handle such things as skiers on snow or a portrait mode that smooths out the subject's wrinkles.
For my dime, if you want to get much past the simple mode, you should look at bigger models with more user control. But for those of us who just want quick and convenient picture taking, these small guys are great.
Likewise, the MPEG-4 movie feature is great for displaying shots on a computer screen, but a lot of folks might miss the resolutions as much as twice as high on the latest dedicated digital camcorders. Furthermore, camcorder users come to relish telephoto powers of 20x and above, while the pocket-size devices pretty much max out at 3x.
Also in the algebra is the fact that even a 1 gigabyte memory card holds just 11 minutes of 30 frames per second at the highest VGA video resolution. If you set it for 10 frames per second, that 1 gigabyte card holds a half hour of this VGA video.
This is less of a drawback than it sounds because 1 gigabyte memory cards sell in the $40 to $60 range, but these bantamweight cameras are not ready for prime time by a mile and a yard. Still, going pocket-size delivers stills that are sweet, simple and seriously sized.