Why we needed a new camera
A few months after Fiona was born, it became clear that our old digital camera (Fuji FinePix 2400Z) was not going to be adequate for many situations. Too often, I wanted to get closer to her than the lens would allow, or too close for the auto-focus to work, or try to shoot in light that was too dim. I couldn't set the aperture size to control depth of field, and I couldn't control the shutter speed. There was no manual white balance adjustment, not even a white balance sampling option. And the images were only 1600x1200, so anything larger than 4x6 showed subtle, but noticeable, pixellation.
So, after careful research on CNET, I bought a Canon S2 IS. This is the successor of the S1, and is one of Canon's top-of-the-line non-SLR digital cameras. I didn't get an SLR because of cost and bulk, and also because I wasn't sure I was ready for something as potentially complicated (unknown, really) as an SLR. That's all changed now, and I think I am ready for an SLR (see below). The only lingering concern I have about an SLR is the problem of mirror and sensor fogging in the high humidity we have here in Houston (try spending some time in an air-conditioned building, then go outside in the humidity and watch your glasses fog up).
The Canon S2IS
The S2IS is a great camera, probably the best in the $500 price range. The complete specs are available on Canon's web page.
Features in summary:
It can take somewhere around 2 shots per second without flash. If the flash is turned on, it limits the shot rate depending on what the flash power (and therefore recharge time) is.
On a related point, it supports the Ultra II type of SD card, which is really really fast, so that high frame rate is not impaired by time taken writing to the memory card. Data transfer is by USB2.0.
Some annoying things about it are that the sensitivity only goes up to ISO400 equivalent, which is a bit too slow for really low-light situations and requires longer shutter times that I would like, even with the aperture wide open. It does not have a "bulb" mode for the shutter, and shutter time is limited to 15 seconds. That may have to do with the fact that the sensor is a CCD, so exposures longer than 15 seconds may be too noisy. There is a pre-exposure for noise reduction with shutter times longer than 1 second. Granted, 15 seconds is pretty long, more than enough for most applications. Where it does become a problem is nighttime, waterfalls, and fireworks.
Like most digital cameras with small sensors, it needs a lens with a very short focal length. Its lens is a 6.0 - 72.0 zoom. The short focal length has some advantages and disadvantages. It's great for taking super close-up shots of small things, and its "super macro" mode works very well. But since the focal length is so small, it is limited to f/8.0 as the smallest aperture size, which does limit depth of field.
The auto-focus frequently fails to lock on in low light, even though there is a funky assist beam that shoots out a green light target.
It has a 12X optical zoom. The "IS" in the model name refers to image stabilization, which is a dynamic movement of various elements in the lens to help keep the image still. This is not the same as the trick some video cameras do to digitally stabilize the image.
The tripod mounting screwhole is made of plastic, which is just begging to get worn out after repeatedly threading a metal screw into it.
There are several accessories available. There's a 58 mm lens and filter adaptor to start with. That lets you attach a polarizer, various filters, etc. Canon also sells a telephoto 1.5X adaptor and a wide-angle 0.75X adaptor. They seem to produce fine images, although I haven't had a chance to give them a real workout yet. Canon also sells a slave flash unit which helps a lot in some low-light situations.
So I'm glad I bought this unit, and I've had a great time learning more about photography. Unfortunately, I have very quickly run up against some maddening limitations of the thing, and now I see what the high-end professional digital SLRs are all about. My next camera will probably be something along the lines of the Canon EOS-1D Mark II.