Don't have to ‘say cheese' with these

Most digital cameras have more settings than the average person knows what to do with – from common adjustments for nighttime and face shots to obscure settings for sports, fireworks and snow scenes.

When the moment comes to take the perfect picture of a snowy mountaintop, Fourth of July fireworks or soccer goal in mid-kick, most people forget about these features or don't know how to use them.

This week, I tested three new digital cameras that claim to do the thinking for you. Some digitally analyze the scene you're about to capture, automatically choosing the setting that would take the best picture. Others can detect when a subject is smiling so as to automatically know when to snap the photo. One camera even attempts to digitally alter frowning faces into smiles, with amusing results.

I tried out Sony's $300 Cyber-shot DSC-W170, Kodak's $250 EasyShare Z1085 IS and Olympus's $200 FE-340. Only the Sony includes all three of the aforementioned features; the Kodak has scene detection, and the Olympus camera has built-in smile detection. I found the automatic scene detection offered in the Sony and Kodak cameras to be the most useful feature for everyday photos. It improved my photos and didn't require any extra adjustments.

The automatic smile detection offered in the Sony and Olympus cameras was fun to use. But it didn't work consistently and had trouble detecting my bearded boss's smile and even that of a beard-free colleague.

I found Sony's frown-fixing tool, which is called Happy Face Retouch, to be rather unusual. It took already captured images of my friends' faces and turned their frowns or ambivalent looks into smiles, but didn't adjust the subjects' eyes. Though this was good for laughs, the eerie-looking grins pasted on faces reminded me of painted-on clowns' mouths. But a handful of the Happy Face Retouches looked somewhat natural.

These cameras boast many similar specifications. All three use 5x optical zoom lenses, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W170 and Kodak EasyShare Z1085 IS each have 10.1 and 10 megapixel image sensors while the least expensive Olympus FE-340 has 8 megapixels. The Sony and Olympus both have generous 2.7-inch viewing screens and almost identically sleek builds, though the Sony is the only one of these three cameras to have an optical viewfinder.

The Kodak's viewing screen is slightly smaller than the other two digital cameras, measuring 2.5 inches, but its build isn't nearly as compact as the others. It reminded me more of small, high-end SLR camera, with its comfortably large hand grip, a settings knob on the top edge of the camera, and a protruding zoom lens.

The Kodak and Sony digital cameras have different names for their automatic scene-detection features. By default, the Kodak camera works in Smart Capture Mode, which includes intelligent scene detection, capture control and image processing. I focused on the camera's scene detection, which automatically determines whether the photo should be taken in Macro, Text (for shots of text in a book, for example), Face, Landscape or Night settings.

The Sony camera uses what it calls Intelligent Scene Recognition to decide which settings should go along with certain photos. Like the Kodak, icons on the Sony's screen indicated the scene settings that were automatically deemed appropriate, including Backlight, Backlight Portrait, Twilight, Twilight Portrait and Twilight Using a Tripod.

These digital cameras took good photos, overall, and are fun to use because they take pressure off the photographer. I found the automatic scene-detection tools of the Kodak and Sony to be the most realistic and useful offerings, and I'm sure it won't be long before automatic scene detection becomes as commonplace as an automatic flash.