Camera Guide, November 2010 Part 1 (Consumer compacts)

We’re nearing the holiday shopping season once again, so as an exercise to familiarize myself with all the product lines out there (a lot has changed in the 17 months since I did the last one) and to provide a one-stop quick read for digital camera recommendations, here are recommendations for cameras that run the gamut of common use-cases and prices.

All prices are based on the lowest of or

Have you got a use case/need that isn’t covered here?  Feel free to post it in the comments, and I’ll keep it in mind for future guides (or maybe update this guide, if there’s a glaring omission in a category).  And if you think differently about any of the cameras, feel free to share that too!

General advice:

To give you all an idea of the perspective these recommendations are written from, here are a few guidelines I mostly go by:

Features trump image quality: With modern cameras, many image quality differences are mostly a consideration of the past.  Almost every camera released today has megapixel resolution far in excess of what’s needed (or even usable) for the majority of applications (like making a 4×6″ print, uploading to Facebook, or even displaying full-size on the biggest computer monitor or LCD screen you can buy), and in most daylight scenarios there is practically zero difference between cameras, especially among the top tier of manufacturers.  The main differentiator in your photographic experience and capability is what features you’ll have to work with – being able to take a wide shot with a 28mm wide-angle lens, or having a fast 5fps continuous shooting mode for action shots, for instance, is going to go a long way towards getting you the photographs you want, compared to minute differences in image quality or resolution.

Price/performance: The recommendations for different categories will mostly recommend the camera with the best value proposition – a lot of these are often written in the format of: Best budget camera under $200, best midrange camera under $300, best premium camera under $500, etc. While oftentimes, yes it’s true that Camera Xa has a slightly bigger LCD screen than Camera Xb and is therefore better, and the $50 premium still puts it under the $300 budget, as a knowledgeable consumer you wouldn’t want to spend that much more on a mostly cosmetic difference, and as an informed friend you would do best by recommending Camera Xb to your friend.

Simple Ultracompact

For many people, cameras are just cameras, and all they need is something that, for lack of a less-hackneyed phrase, they can “point and shoot”.  They’re not interested in photography and don’t need nor want full manual controls, and can make do without a huge zoom range.  They’ll take snaps while they’re out at social events or just randomly at home or in their room, but that’s about it.  For this group there’s thesimple ultracompact – a basic camera that has a few useful features (wide-angle lenses for photos in restricted interior space – group photos at a restaurant, for example – and image stabilization for low-light situations) but otherwise just provides good overall quality and a small formfactor that can be taken just about anywhere.

Simple Ultracompact, midrange: Canon SD3500 IS

Canon SD3500 ISFor years, Canon’s iconic SD line has been the quintessential ultracompact point and shoot, and their popularity has good reason: they deliver solid image quality, decent featureset, no-frills point-and-shoot control, and aren’t overly expensive.  The SD3500 is one of the better featured packages available, providing a 5x lens with extremely versatile 24mm wide-angle (perfect for taking photos indoors and getting everything in the frame), 720p HD video resolution, and the increasingly common image stabilized lens.

  • 14MP resolution
  • 24-120mm (5x) zoom range
  • f/2.8-5.9 aperture
  • 1280×720, 30fps video (720p)
  • Lens-based Image stabilization
  • 160g (5.6oz)
  • 99 x 56 x 22 mm (3.9 x 2.2 x 0.9 in)
  • 220 shots battery life (CIPA)
  • $249 on Amazon

Simple Ultracompact, budget: Canon SD1300 IS

Canon SD1300 ISThe Canon SD1300 IS is a simplified version of the SD3500 – image quality is not quite as sharp; its 28mm wide-angle lens is still useful but not quite as versatile as a 24mm; and it produces only 640×480 video instead of 1280×720 HD video. It also uses standard physical buttons in its control scheme, instead of the pure touchscreen interface of the SD3500 – a minus in the fancy-tricks-you-show-off-at-parties category, but probably a plus for everyday usability.  Nonetheless, it fulfills the common use cases of the simple budget ultracompact, and does it with consistent image quality for a surprisingly low price (even among budget cameras).

  • 12MP resolution
  • 28-112mm (4x) zoom range
  • f/2.8-5.9 aperture
  • 640×480, 30fps video
  • Lens-based Image stabilization
  • 117g (4.1oz)
  • 91 x 56 x 20 mm (3.6 x 2.2 x 0.8 in)
  • 240 shots battery life (CIPA)
  • $129 on Amazon

Workhorse Compact

While simple ultracompacts make great cameras for casual snapshots, they don’t quite meet the needs of avid picture takers.  A casual user might go to a party and take three or four photos with her friends the whole night, and might not care about quality so long as they’re passable for Facebook.  The avid user is the family photographer for the annual camping trip to Yosemite – they may not exactly aspire to be the next Ansel Adams, but will take in the neighborhood of hundreds of pictures to document and remember the whole trip.  The workhorse compact is the ideal camera for these users – good, versatile cameras with the capability to handle a large number of common situations, from daylight to low-light, and up-close photos in cramped interiors to outdoor graduation ceremonies from half a soccer field away, while still retaining fairly simple functionality and a portable formfactor.

Workhorse Compact, midrange: Sony HX5

Sony HX5

While the Panasonic ZS/TZ cameras are the best-known in this category, the slightly more upscale Sony HX5 offers improved image quality (especially in low-light situations) and a number of useful features enabled by its high-speed back-illuminated CMOS sensor.  Featuring a 10x lens with a very versatile 25mm wide-angle, the HX5 has the zoom range to cover practically any situation.

The HX5 also excels in low-light situations.  In addition to its lens-based image stabilization, the high-ISO ability of the HX5’s back-illuminated CMOS sensor outperforms all the other CCD-based cameras in this category, and has even further low-light capability when used in a multi-sampling mode to reduce noise (Sony calls this “Handheld Twilight”).

The HX5 also packs a couple of unique features for travelers: the camera has an onboard GPS which adds coordinate information to the metadata of all images (as well as software to sync this data with Google Maps), and an automated “panorama mode” which simply works by literally waving the camera across the scene in front of you (although experienced panorama photographers should note that it only produces ~7MP images, instead of the full-resolution from stitching images manually).

It’s a feature-laden camera with supreme versatility and especially impressive low-light performance, making it a nearly perfect workhorse camera for the most common and most difficult photographs.

  • 10MP resolution
  • 25-250mm (10x) zoom range
  • f/3.5-5.5 aperture
  • 1920×1080, 30fps video (1080p)
  • Image stabilization
  • 170g (6.0oz)
  • 104 x 61 x 31 mm (4.1 x 2.4 x 1.2 in)
  • 310 shots battery life (CIPA)
  • $299 on Amazon

Workhorse Compact, midrange: Panasonic ZR3

Panasonic ZR3The smaller sibling of the popular TZ/ZS compact ultrazooms, Panasonic’s ZR series achieves even further feats of compactness by offering a versatile 25-200mm (8x) zoom lens into an ultracompact-size body.  Despite squeezing itself into such a tiny package (it’s exactly an inch thick), the ZR3 features all the essential capabilities of a TS/ZS series camera – expansive zoom range and wide-angle lens, and Panasonic’s image stabilization system (arguably the best IS system for blur reduction), 720p HD video, – making it a near-perfect travel companion.

If you’re really interested in the long end of the zoom range or need further exposure controls, and can live with an average-size compact rather than an ultracompact, the Panasonic ZS5 ($215 on B&H) bumps up the zoom range to a 25-300mm lens (12x) that also features a larger telephoto aperture (more light at the long end of the zoom, and less problems in lower-light situations), and provides users with full exposure program controls (including a full manual exposure mode).

  • 14MP resolution
  • 25-200mm (10x) zoom range
  • f/3.3-5.9 aperture
  • 1280×720, 30fps video (720p)
  • Image stabilization
  • 137g (4.8oz)
  • 99 x 56 x 25 mm (3.9 x 2.2 x 1.0 in)
  • 330 shots battery life (CIPA)
  • $179 on B&H PHoto

Up next: Consumer categories (simple and workhorse again), for those without size restrictions (i.e. entry-level DSLRs and bridge-type superzooms)

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply