Choosing a camera is tough. Choosing a camera for someone else is even tougher. So with Christmas on the horizon, we’ll help you wade through the sea of cameras at your local retailer and narrow down the choices to a more manageable number.
The key to choosing a camera is to consider it a tool. Your challenge is not to find the perfect camera because it doesn’t exist. Instead, we’re looking for the best tool for the job. So to begin, we’ll divide the digital camera marketing into three categories: Pocket, Compact and SLR.
Pocket cameras are ideal for those who want a small camera they can carry anywhere, anytime. This category of camera fits in a shirt pocket or a small purse. Due to their popularity, almost every camera manufacturer has at least one model in this category. Camera design involves sacrifice, and in a small camera this usually results in a short zoom range, a weak flash, and limited manual controls. Pocket cameras are therefore best for those seeking an automatic, “point and shoot” style camera. However, they are also a popular second camera amongst SLR owners for those outings where taking an SLR isn’t practical.
If you’re looking for a pocket camera, the best place to start is your local camera store. Prices and features vary, and the more expensive camera is not necessarily your best choice. While I generally refrain from recommending one brand over another, Olympus products really stand out in this category due to their water and impact resistant designs – both common causes of death in small cameras.
On the other end of the spectrum are Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras. Buying an SLR is different than buying a pocket or compact camera primarily because of the interchangeable lenses. Many models are offered as a body (camera only, no lens) or as a bundle (body plus a lens). For beginners, purchasing a bundle is sometimes attractive, but in the long run it can be more expensive if one ends up upgrading the lens for a higher quality or larger zoom range. Of course your budget may be the deciding factor, but my general advice to the first-time SLR buyer is to put your money into the lens, not the camera body. A good lens will last you a lifetime, while the camera body, no matter how fantastic, will be outdated next year.
It is also important to understand that with an SLR, you’re not buying a camera. You’re buying a system. Over time you will probably acquire additional lenses and you’ll quickly reach a point where changing brands becomes prohibitively expensive. For that reason, it is important to consider the range of products that the SLR manufacturer offers. Canon and Nikon dominate the professional SLR market and offer a very wide selection of consumer products. Olympus also produce some great products, although their lens selection is not as extensive as Nikon and Canon. It also pays to consider what other members of your family shoot. For example, if your spouse has invested a number of Nikon lenses, buying a Canon might not make sense, and vice versa. As usual, your best bet is to begin at a local camera store that has knowledgeable staff.
SLRs are generally the best choice for those seeking high quality images, the flexibility offered by interchangeable lenses, and the speed required to photograph sports. They are also usually best if your goal is to take up photography as a part-time or full-time career. However, they’re also more expensive, heavier, and larger than cameras in the other categories. So before you purchase, make sure that the intended user is willing to carry it.
Between the pocket camera and the SLR lie a vast range of what I call compacts. Some are just slightly too large to fit a shirt pocket, yet are perfectly wearable on your belt, while others approach the size of a small SLR. There are so many cameras in this category that choosing one can be overwhelming. So to help you along, I spent several weeks testing the latest cameras, and here’s what I found.
The Canon PowerShot SX200 IS, at 103.0 x 60.5 x 37.6mm, is by far the smallest camera in the group I tested, and some might argue that it fits in the pocket category. The SX200’s retracting lens includes a built-in cover so no lens cap is required to keep out dust. However, the shutter-like lens protector could easily be damaged by objects such as keys, so I’d still recommend a small protective case. Unlike many other cameras this size, the SX200 has a pop-up flash. The extra distance this creates between the lens and the flash helps to eliminate red-eye, and I found the flash quite impressive while testing in my living room considering its small size. Presumably to keep the cost and size down, the SX200’s LCD screen does not move and there is no optical viewfinder. Overall this camera handles well, produces nice 12 megapixel images on an SD or SDHC card, and includes full manual controls. I also enjoyed shooting video clips of the kids at 1280×720, 30 fps. My only complaint is that the tiny dimples on the back of an otherwise smooth case aren’t enough to get firm one-handed grip. You’ll definitely want a wrist strap on this camera to avoid dropping it.
I also test drove the Nikon Coolpix P90, Panasonic DMC-FZ35, Pentax X70 and Sony DSCHX1 — in alphabetical order if you’re wondering. Overall these four cameras have much more in common than they do differences. All four are approximately 2/3 the size of an average SLR, provide full manual controls, a pop-up flash, both an LCD display and viewfinder, and a 20x give-or-take optical zoom range putting them all solidly into the “super zoom” class. All were capable of producing good quality images under good conditions. Not quite SLR quality, but good enough that most people won’t notice the difference if you use the camera properly. And while I love my SLR, these relatively light weight cameras made them a joy to carry. So what are the differences?
The Nikon Coolpix P90 ($450 street price) features a gorgeous 3” LCD that can be tilted as much as 90 degrees upward or 45 degrees downward. Being able to shoot from waist level or over your head increases the versatility of the P90. It also shoots video at up to 640×480 30fps. My single — admittedly minor — annoyance with the P90 is that Nikon has yet again providing a battery charger with a bulky AC cable. The charger and cable combined require much more space in a suitcase or backpack than do chargers by vendors that use a fold-out plug design.
The Panasonic DMC-FZ35 ($500 street price) features a fixed LCD display and 1280 x 720 AVCHD Lite format (MPEG-4/H.264) movie capability. It includes a compact battery charger with fold-out blades that takes up far less space in your bag. Unlike most cameras that use a rotating selector or a playback button, the FZ35 has a small switch close to your right thumb that takes some getting used to, especially the first time you flip it by accident. However, overall this is a solid camera and the only real downside as compared to others in this class is the lack of a tilting screen.
The Pentax X70 ($400 street price) was the least expensive of the group and didn’t have some of the features found in the more expensive models. The LCD display is fixed in place and the movie capability is more limited: 1280x720at 15fps or 84×640 at 30 fps. However, I found the zoom seemed faster than the others and strategically placed rubber pads result in a camera upon which you can get a solid grip. In many was the X70 reminded me of the old days with my K1000. A solid camera with few frills that does the job it was made to do, and not much more. Like Nikon, Pentax also needs to build a smaller charger with fold-out prongs.
Sony DSCHX1 ($530 street price) was the most expensive of the four cameras. However, it offers a great tilting screen and movie recording up to 1440 x 1080 at 30fps. While the zoom speed did seem a bit slow, overall it was within what I’d consider a normal range for this type of cameras. The battery charger is small with fold-out blades, proving that Panasonic isn’t the only company who gets it. I really liked the Sony despite it being the most expensive of the bunch, but I found it annoying that the camera uses Sony’s MemoryStick format rather than the SD or SDHC cards that have become the defacto standard for consumer electronics. Both my netbook and notebook computers have SD card slots, meaning that I have to either plug the camera into the computer (and waste camera battery power when on the road) or carry an external card reader.
And now for something different
Over the past year a new class of camera has evolved to fill the gap between compact digitals and SLRs. Back in the film days, these were rangefinders, highly capable cameras that produced SLR quality images, but without the space-consuming mirror and prism.
There are currently two cameras in this class, the Olympus E-P1 and the newly-announced Panasonic Lumix GF1. (The GF1 was not available at the time of writing). Both cameras use the new “four thirds” format sensor and offer interchangeable lenses.
The Olympus E-P1 is a solid camera with a metal case and a retro rangefinder look that just begs you to pick it up. There’s no optical viewfinder and no built-in flash, but the back-mounted LCD display gives you a live, through-the-lens view. The E-P1 offers automatic and manual exposure modes and also shoots video at up to 1280×720 at 30 fps. Olympus, known for using xD memory, wisely used standard SD/SDHC memory for this model, allowing high capacity cards.
I had the pleasure of testing the Olympus E-P1 with the bundled Olympus 14-42mm f3.5/5.6 lens (35mm equivalent zoom range of 28-84mm) and took it on a hot air balloon ride over Ottawa. Due to the relatively small body and neat lens design (the front of the lens retracts into the main lens housing when not in use), I was able to put the camera in a large jacket pocket for takeoff and landing.
I shot in RAW and the results were impressive. Olympus is known for their accurate colours, and the E-P1 is no exception. While I had no regrets about leaving my SLR at home, I did occasionally find the screen difficult to view in bright sunlight. Back on the ground I tried the camera’s continuous auto-focus mode, and I was a bit disappointed to find that it continuously hunts even when pointed at a stationary object like a tree. Hopefully Olympus will address that issue in an upcoming firmware release.
Overall, the E-P1 is a great option for those seeking high quality images without SLR size and weight. However, using the E-P1 requires more skill than an entry-level SLR, and the lack of an onboard flash will be an issue for some. So while I was very happy with my results, this camera is not the best choice for a beginner or as a general purpose family camera. However, if you’re an experienced photographer who understands the compromises involved, you should check this camera out.
No matter what kind of camera you’re looking for, the best place to start is a local camera store where experienced photographers can answer your questions. Other great sources of information include dpreview.com and you’re more than welcome to ask any questions you have at my photo site, MyPhotoSucks.com.
All of the cameras that I tested for this article were on loan from their respective manufacturer and were returned at the end of the review period. The Canon G11 was not available for testing at the time this article was written.