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'Smart' camera wars: tapping technology to create the perfect picture

TAKING the perfect picture, of course, depends on the person with his finger on the shutter: Even the best camera in the world won't compensate for a thumb over the lens.

Now, however, cameramakers are loading their products with powerful new electronics devices in the battle to win over shutterbugs and make their products more foolproof:

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Click. Canon Inc. has a new model with three computer programs that adjust the camera for particular situations, ranging from fast-action to long-range outdoor shots.

Click. Ricoh Corporation is touting a new model that not only has three programs, but also the ability to snap pictures easily through microscopes and telescopes, among other things.

Click. Nikon Inc. claims to have a ''smart'' camera with a light-metering system that will compensate for almost any imperfection in the real world, such as scenes with strong backlighting.

''Literally, what you have now is a computer in a camera,'' says one analyst of the new line of single-lens-reflex (SLR) cameras.

All three reflect the trend toward putting more ''bells and whistles'' on cameras to entice both serious and casual photo buffs. ''What they are trying to do is generate growth in the SLR market,'' says Bill Clark, editor of Photo Weekly, a trade publication.

There's some need for it. In the late 1970s, sales of SLR 35-mm cameras were clicking. But for some reason buyers became less enamored with them, and SLR sales in the United States topped out at some 2.7 million in both 1982 and '83. This year some industry analysts expect sales to be flat again.

Part of the tail-off in growth is due to a maturing market: There are only so many serious photographers to sell to. But consumers have also been turning to the simpler 35-mm rangefinder cameras, rather than the SLR. And, says Herbert Keppler, publisher of Modern Photography magazine, manufacturers were guilty of overselling SLRs in the past: They promised ''point-and-shoot'' simplicity but produced products that many still considered just as complicated as a tax form.

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The newest generation of SLRs performs tricks earlier models didn't, although they aren't necessarily simpler. Older models, led by the popular Canon AE-1 (unveiled in 1976), contained a built-in memory chip that automatically adjusted exposure settings.

The shutter speed and lens opening were based on an average scene. But not all scenes in the real world are average: Shooting a vase of flowers, for instance, is a lot different from snapping a fast-moving stock car. Pictures often came out well exposed but not sharp. Or there was the problem of shooting into bright light: clear prints, yes, but poor exposures - unless settings were done manually.

So one of the latest attempts to make the perfect picture less elusive is a new generation of ''multiprogrammed'' SLR cameras, exemplified by the Canon T70 and Ricoh XR-P. Both have three exposure programs: one for normal or close-up conditions, a second for long-range vistas, and a third for action shots. Other manufacturers also have multiprogram models, though they do different things.

The idea is to make automatic exposure more flexible. When shooting a fast-paced hockey game, for instance, the photographer uses the ''action'' program. It chooses a shutter speed fast enough to ''freeze'' the players. Using a single-program automatic camera, the action might become blurred. Likewise, when snapping a person against the backdrop of a distant Mt. Rushmore, the long-range program adjusts the lens opening for maximum depth of field, so neither the sculpture nor the person comes out fuzzy.

Both cameras (expected to sell for $250 to $300) accomplish this with built-in microprocessors. But Ricoh has packed its camera with enough electronics to add a few other features - including special shutter-speed settings that allow line-free pictures to be taken off TV and computer screens.

Nikon, meanwhile, has taken a different high-tech tack. Its FA model (expected to go for $500 to $600) has an automatic metering system with several light sensors instead of the usual one. Light readings are taken from five separate zones within the viewing frame, then compared with 100,000 images contained on a built-in microchip. When the actual and stored readings match up, the settings are locked in. The five sensors and preprogrammed instructions are supposed to compensate for virtually any variation in lighting - including shooting into direct sunlight.

True? ''It scares you,'' says Bernie Boston, a Washington-based photographer for the Los Angeles Times, who has tested the FA. ''You know there are lighting situations that you cannot compute mentally, but it knows what to do. There are pitfalls in any automated system. (But) I think a lot of professionals are going to buy this one.''

Still, there is no guarantee all camera buffs will snap up new models. For one thing, there's that nagging question of simplicity. ''They are always trying to make the cameras simpler, but when you have so many choices it starts to get complicated again,'' says Elliot Novak, a photography consultant, of some multiprogram models.

Others consider some of the new accessories frivolous. One photographer, for instance, calls the Ricoh XRP's ability to take clear pictures off televison screens ''meaningless.''

''We aren't seeing any radical changes in terms of taking pictures you couldn't before,'' adds Harold Martin, editor of the Wolfman Report on the Photographic Industry, a report published by Modern Photography magazine. ''But the new cameras may be more appealing.''

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