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TODAY contributor
updated 3/5/2008 12:14:38 PM ET 2008-03-05T17:14:38

With spring just around the corner, thoughts turn to graduation, Mother’s Day, and baseball's Opening Day. In other words, it’s digital camera season — and as the weather warms up, a brand-new category of digital cameras is emerging in the 100-million-unit strong camera market that will change the way you take pictures of your most important moments.

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Called the Ultra-Zoom or Super-Zoom category, this exploding niche in the camera market may well be the new digital product of the year. Here’s why: Super-Zooms combine the best features of point-and-shoot cameras and digital SLRs, and give you performance without breaking the bank or stretching the seams on your carrying case.

To review: Up until now, there have been just two kinds of digital cameras: point-and-shoot cameras and digital SLRs.

Point-and-shoot cameras have sleek, compact lines, which allow them to fit in a purse or pocket, but their controls are usually limited to a few preset modes (low light, back light, portrait mode), and their zoom lenses are too small to let you take pictures very far away from the subject. If you're sitting more than 10 feet from your graduating senior, you’re shooting a landscape, not a portrait.

The other category is called Digital SLR (for “Single Lens Reflex”), which is the camera of choice for professionals and photography enthusiasts. Digital SLRs are loaded with manual controls and, better yet, allow you to swap lenses to suit the situation — huge zooms for faraway subjects (sports photographers all use digital SLRs), wide-angle lenses for close-ups, and so on. But the drawbacks are evident just by looking at the camera body: It’s big. Digital SLRs simply won’t fit in a pocket, and their nearly infinite controls can be intimidating to all but the experienced photographer.

These new Super-Zooms have the compact size of point-and-shoots but with most of the controls found in the bigger digital SLRs. Plus, as the name suggests (and thanks to some ingenious engineering), the lenses on Super-Zooms telescope out to the 400-millimeter range (perfect for long-distance shots) and yet fold back into the camera’s body for easy storage.

Here are two of the best models in this category:

Canon PowerShot S5-IS
The Canon PowerShot S5-IS has a 12x optical zoom and a fantastic optical "image stabilizer," which helps keep long-distance, highly magnified shots from looking blurry. Plus, it has PictBridge capability. Translation: You can plug the camera into one of hundreds of brands and models of printers, not just Canons, and press one button to print out pictures.

But one of the best things about the 8-megapixel S5-IS (and there are many good things, including a one-touch "movie" mode) is that the zoom is incredibly quiet. Why does this matter? If you’ve ever shot a violin recital, you know the fear that sets in when you press "zoom" — your camera whirrs loudly, and the whole audience turns to glare at you. The S5-IS is whisper-quiet. It’s also one of the best all-around cameras in the world. $399; usa.canon.com

Olympus SP-570 UZ
Olympus has done it again. Following up the success of last year’s SP-560, they’ve actually jammed more zoom into a smaller space — just 4.7” x 3.3” x 3.4.” And it’s a lot of zoom. In the Olympus’ compact, hand-size body, they fit a 20x optical zoom lens that is the equivalent of a 26mm to 520mm lens. In other words, you can shoot things as close as two centimeters, and as far away as your eye can see. And sometimes farther.

Plus, Olympus has given the SP-570 an astounding ability — you can take 13.5 shots in a single second, allowing you to take great pictures of the big game without missing an instant. $499; olympusamerica.com

Paul Hochman is the gear and technology editor for the TODAY Show and a “Fast Company” magazine contributor. He covered the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Athens and Torino, Italy, for TODAY. He was also a three-year letter winner on the Dartmouth ski team and has a black belt in karate. Paul’s blog can be found at: Paulhochman.blogspot.com

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