Nikon Digital Cameras Automatically Choose the Right Mode

Among the smarts appearing in consumer cameras that do the thinking for us

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No longer need you take an up-close portrait of a distant mountain. Camera makers are doing away the need to fidget for the correct mode on digital cameras. Over the past year or so, models from Panasonic and Nikon, among others, automatically guess at the right settings for what's being framed.

It's part of an effort to move beyond pumped-up megapixels. Higher resolutions aren't proving enough to keep us buying new cams.

The feature caught my eye with word from Nikon that it's "Scene Auto Selector" is now standard across its new Coolpix models. The consumer cameras now come with a variety of smarts, including detecting faces and look for smiles. They'll warn of someone blinking and take a second shot, keeping the one with eyes open. They'll even -- dear to this Dad's heart -- track a fast-moving youngster to keep him in focus.

With the automated mode selector, a camera sizes up what it's pointing at and changes settings, whether for a distant mountain or an up-close face. If it senses a mug is prominent in the frame, for example, the camera will open the lens wide to blur backgrounds and isolate the target's face.

Selecting scenes on most compact cameras means spinning a dial to choose the right mode. Even my Nikon digital SLR has a dial with icons for choosing the right scene. They include a lady's head (portrait), flower (close-up), runner (fast action) and head-with-star (night portrait).

Most of us live too much in "auto mode," which compromises all shots for settings that work well-enough for most.

New Nikons, ranging from the Coolpix L19 ($110) up to the Coolpix P90 ($400), will adjust settings for the six most popular types of scene, including back-lit and landscapes. You can override, using the camera's menus to choose among 15 possible modes. And you'll want to experiment, as the cameras sometimes guess wrong.

Or just maybe you really want to take a macro shot of Grandpa's face.