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Arthur BleichThis is the season that digital camera industry insiders have referred to as "The Moment of Truth" in which digital camera sales are supposed to begin their sharp upward climb that, within just a decade, will eventually change the way the world takes pictures. With a 43% growth rate in 1999 and sales fast approaching the billion-dollar-a-year mark, digicams are, indeed, beginning to mount the first serious challenge to traditional photography since it was invented over 160 years ago. I've picked six digital cameras -- all of which I've personally used- that would make excellent holiday gifts for those of you just getting started. There's also a table included that will help you compare features. Best of all, you can get five out of the six for under $400. Isn't that good news? Happy Holidays!

The Price Is Right

fujiThe Fuji MX-1200 is the first-ever, blister-packed digicam but don't let plain-clothes packaging put you off; this camera will deliver excellent pictures. Even though it doesn't have autofocus, its f-4.5 - f-11 lens (38mm equiv.) will keep everything sharp from about 2.3 feet to infinity and its top shutter speed of 1/750 sec will stop most action. When you want to get in really close (like up to 4 inches), just flip a switch to macro. It has excellent low-light capabilities, a manual mode to control white balance and exposure compensation, 5 flash modes, and has about the easiest menu of any digital camera I've ever used. It's ready to go in about 2 seconds after you turn it on, and you can click off shots every 3-4 seconds. It's a good-looking digicam, too, and will take 32MB SmartMedia memory cards (4 MB included). It's a defining moment in the history of digital cameras. About $250 street.

The Low Light Champion

olympusThe Olympus D-450 Zoom has a 3X optical zoom lens, autofocus, and a fast shot-to-shot time of about a second thanks to its big buffer that stores shots as they're being processed. It has a whole slew of features including video out, two light metering modes, and a choice of three ISO ratings- 160, 320, and 640. I've shot pictures with this digicam at night where the camera recorded details I couldn't see with my own eyes. It can also shoot uncompressed TIFF images, has a fast sequence mode of up to 2 frames-per-second, 5 flash modes, shutter speeds of 1/2 sec. to 1/1000 sec., and a fast f-2.8/f-8 lens which is needle-sharp. Olympus is one of the most experienced optical houses in the world and has been in the forefront of photographic innovation (including digital photography) for more than 80 years. A nice feature is that distances can be pre-set to capture fast action so the camera isn't slowed down by having to focus. If big prints are what you're looking for, this camera will deliver. Included are Adobe's PhotoDeluxe, Enroute Quick Stitch Panorama software, and an 8MB Smart Media memory card. About $390 street.

Finally, Big Yellow Scores!

kodakThe Kodak DC240 Zoom is one of the first Kodak Digicams I found to be just right- very solid and well built. Its shot-to-shot time is very fast for the first two images, and then slows to a still-creditable 4 seconds or so between shots. But its simple and elegant controls and menus are where this charcoal and silver beauty excels. If you can't figure them out in less than five minutes, give up on digital cameras. In essence, Kodak has reverted to their roots in that you need only to push a few buttons and the camera does the rest. The LCD monitor is a bit grainy in low light and a tad jerky when you move it quickly from one scene to another but since you're not shooting movies, it's tolerable. It has a 3X optical zoom, an aperture range of f-2.8 - f-16, shutter speeds of 1/2 sec to 1/755 sec, and 4 flash modes. It also comes with 4-AA Alkaline batteries so you can get going right away while the included charger juices up the 4-NiMH rechargeable batteries that also come standard. Also supplied: an 8MB Compact Flash memory card and Adobe's PhotoDeluxe and PageMill. For video-out you can toggle between NTSC or PAL and, along with its standard serial port, it features USB. About $395 street.

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