Cameras. There’s certainly no lack of options on the market today. Whether it’s compact, mirrorless, or DSLR, consumers have a wide variety of choices, features, and even colors. But in this sea of sensors, which cameras stand out amongst the crowd?
The Next Web recently published an article I penned titled, “Why every office needs a decent camera,” in which I made my case for just about every industry to have a good quality camera in the office. I incorporated a number of Facebook statistics backing up this statement, and offered up a breakdown on the different camera formats and their benefits. Needless to say, I left large and medium format cameras out of the mix, as these are generally considered the realm (and price range) of “pros only”.
In less than 24 hours of the article being published, I’ve received over 50 emails, each asking for my advice on which camera to purchase, and who offers the best price. As with any inquiry, I try to respond as fast as possible, but after email number 12, I started copy/pasting my responses, and thought it might be time to simply start directing folks towards a much more thorough explanation of my recommendations.
This was the most common request, and it’s easy to see why. With the rapid advancements in technology, specifically imaging sensors, just about everyone can afford a quality compact camera, that, in the right hands, can take you pretty far. Here are my top three recommendations when it comes to compact cameras.
Canon PowerShot SX260 HS
If you’re looking for a great price, do-it-all, compact camera, the Canon PowerShot SX260 HS is your ticket. Clocking in at just under $300 USD, the PowerShot SX260 features more shooting modes than you can shake a stick at, including one of my personal favorites, Aperture Priority Mode.
This ultra-compact includes a 20x f/3.5-6.8, 25-500mm (35mm equivalent) lens, a BSI-CMOS sensor, a12.1 megapixel resolution, GPS, and shoots both .jpeg’s and .mp4 video.
While I’ve not personally used this camera, I am an owner of it’s predecessor, the SX230, and am very happy to see that they updated a number of product designs, making this not only one of the best cameras in it’s price range, but one of the best in it’s class.
What I’ve always found particularly amazing about my SX230 is the low light performance. Even with only an f/3.5, this unit from Canon has never given me any blurred images, or have I had to push the ISO through the roof.
Being a Nikon fan, getting used to Canon’s menu configuration took me some time, but if you’re a virgin to the menu experience, or never really had a need to access one in the past, learning the ins-and-outs of the Canon menu should only take a few shoots to master.
Verdict: If you’re a budget conscious shopper who’s looking to get the best bang-for-the-buck, do not wait on the Canon PowerShot SX260 HS.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20
I often think that Panasonic gets filed in the, “Oh yeah,” section of my mind, which is a shame, as their incorporation of Leica lenses, should make them jump to the top of my list. And generally, this is the case, save for the ZS20.
The ZS20 features a 24-480mm (35mm equivalent) f/3.3-8 Leica made lens, MOS sensor, with a 14.1 megapixel resolution, and shoots video in both .MTS and .MP4 format at 1920x1080 (full HD). Hang on…let’s take a look at that lens again. 24mm-480mm? Ok, yes, that’s the 35mm equivalent, but that kind of range in a camera that’s only just over an inch (3.5cm) thick? That’s outstanding!
Due to this outstanding lens, as well as it’s ability to record full HD at 60fps, I’m willing to sacrifice a bit on the overall image quality with this camera. If you’re planning on making any enlargements over 8.5x11 (A4), stay clear of this camera, as it only shoots in jpeg (no RAW) more, and Panasonic’s never been known for it’s superior in-camera processing.
The ZS20 includes 17 scene modes, enough to cover just about any situation you could find yourself in, but it’s the inclusion of in-camera HDR multiexposure imaging and a pan-and-shoot panorama mode that seal the deal.
Verdict: At around $245 USD, if you’re looking for a quality camera that can deliver a variety of shooting modes as well as some up and coming technology, all the while shooting fantastic video, the Lumix DMC-ZS20 is right up your alley.
Fujifilm FinePix X100
The crème-de-la-crème when it comes to compact cameras. With an average price of around $1200 USD, this camera is by no means cheap, but it is, by definition, a compact camera, and therefor takes the top spot in terms of image quality.
The X100 is the closest I’ve ever seen a compact camera come to “full featured,” and delivers remarkable imaging quality in such a small format. The X100 includes an APS-C sized CMOS sensor, at 12.3 megapixels. What this means is that with a larger sensor, but lower megapixel count, the X100 is capable of producing some incredibly sharp and detailed images. Throw the f/2 fixed lens in there (35mm equivalent), and this camera can bring the bacon home all day long.
The X100 does shoot video, at a mere 720/24fps, but it’s clearly not it’s forte, and should be saved for either another dedicated video camera, or for a quick recording of an event. It’s web video ready, but there are many cameras out there for far less money that will deliver superior video results.
But for all the joy that the X100 delivers, there are a number of disturbing reports of dreadfully slow performance with this little unit. If this lag in performance was limited strictly to shooting in RAW mode, I could understand, but I’ve also heard rumors of the autofocus system taking it’s sweet time. Now, chances are, if you’ve arrived here looking for a recommendation for a compact camera, I’ll bet that you’ll be shooting just about everything with it. With a lagging performance indicator, even though the image quality is superb, I cannot recommend the X100 as a top choice. Add the astronomical (comparatively) price in there, and the X100 quickly falls from grace.
Verdict: If you’re looking for outstanding image quality from a compact camera, and can sacrifice speed and have funds to play with, the Fujifulm FinePix X100 is your winner.
The relative newcomer to the field, mirrorless cameras are something of a hybrid between the convenience of a compact camera, and the flexibility of a DSLR. I personally do not own a mirrorless camera, but have had the chance to use a few either in a shop or at a photo convention. As I may have pushed the limits on budget with the FujiFilm X100 (and will for sure do so with the DSLR category), I’ll limit my mirrorless camera recommendations to those that cost under $1000 USD.
Sony Alpha NEX-5N
For the longest time, I avoided Sony cameras, preferring to keep the brand relegated to my video gaming and TV watching, however with the introduction of their mirrorless line, I sat up and took notice. The interchangeable lens lineup is quite impressive, and I’ve yet to see a poor video made with the NEX-5N.
Equipped with an Exmor APS HD CMOS sensor, and a resolution of 16.1 megapixels, the NEX-5N can be had from B&H for $698 USD. With mirrorless and DSLR models, lenses are freely interchangeable, and the 18-55mm f/3.5-56 kit lens should serve well in just about every shooting situation (save for low light).
Upon arrival on the market, users began reporting a strange clicking sound coming from the camera. Apparently this click click only happens when moving the camera about, thus if you’re using a tripod to shoot video, you should be just fine. Engadget got the scoop, and Sony has confirmed the clickity click, but to date, has offered no fix.
The images I’ve seen from this camera are quite good, especially considering the price, but what really made my jaw hit the floor was the video quality. My friend Johnny Behiri did a video report for the BBC using this little gem, and I think you’ll agree, the results are outstanding
Verdict: For those looking to step up from a compact camera, and don’t want the bulkiness of a full DSLR, at $689 USD, the Sony Alpha NEX-5N is a steal and shouldn’t be missed.
Olympus PEN E-PL3
Olympus is yet another camera maker that doesn’t show up on my radar so often, but I attribute that to my devotion to all things Nikon. And speaking of Nikon, when it comes to the second slot in my mirrorless camera recommendations, I tossed and turned when it came down to the Olympus PEN E-PL3 vs. the Nikon J1. I very much wanted to give Nikon the nod, but pouring over spec sheets, user reviews and opinions, and what I would judge to be the superior machine, sorry Nikon, Olympus takes the cake on this one.
The E-PL3 takes many features from it’s more expensive brother, the E-P3, and at $599 USD from B&H with a 14-24mm f/3.5-5.6 lens, this could be the steal of the category. The E-PL3 boasts 12.3 megapixels combined with a Live MOS sensor.
Having read a bunch about this model, but never experiencing it first hand, I headed down to my local camera retailer and took this puppy for a showroom test drive. Naturally, I also asked t see the Nikon J1, and put the two to the test in a mini-showdown. As much as it pains me to say it, startup time, and time to first shot saw the Olympus as the clear winner. Now you might not think that this is such a big deal, but the milliseconds between the Olympus being read to fire and the Nikon, could mean the difference between that, “Holy cow!” shot vs. that, “So what exactly happened?” moment.
Of the three mirrorless cameras I’m discussing here, the Olympus had the worst video quality of the bunch. In fact, I was quite surprised at just how, well…shit it was. Rolling shutter abounds (ouch), and interlaced video combined with low bit rates makes for a rather disappointing video experience. Upping to 720p did help a few things, but overall, I was quite surprised that video quality this poor is/was still being shipped in 2012.
On the upside, I found the speed and accuracy of the photo component of this camera to be excellent. Autofocus was razor sharp and landed nine times out of ten on my intended subject. I wasn’t able to view the shot images on a full sized monitor, but zooming all the way in via the camera’s screen did reveal some overly soft edges, but I’m assuming this has to due with a build in noise reduction filter.
Verdict: If you’re skipping or not interested in video, the Olympus PEN E-PL3 makes for a great interchangeable lens camera, at a fantastic price!
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2
Wah, wah, wee wah! If someone held me at gunpoint and told me I could never have another DSLR, and that I could only choose a mirrorless camera, this would be it (until it’s update arrives, of course). The GH2 is decidedly more focused on video enthusiasts, but from a photographic point of view, this camera might not be the best in it’s class, but it still holds it’s own.
A Live MOS sensor counts a 16.05 megapixel resolution, and the kit lens is a 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 standard. Certainly not the cheapest of the bunch, but still under $1k, the GH2 can be snagged from B&H for $899 USD.
What can I say about this camera that didn’t convince you in the opening line? Just shy of being a DSLR, this mirrorless isn’t exactly compact, but should fit easily into a larger pocket. The GH2 does offer a feature I’m still baffled by, Touch Screen Control, which, as far as I’m concerned is simply a battery waster. If you’re jumping on a camera at this level, and are impressed by it’s features, a touch screen should remain with your phone, and not your camera.
This one huh? aside, I did a few test shots at the camera shop with this one, and then compared them to similar shots done with my trusty D7000. I shot in both RAW and jpeg mode and wasn’t too happy with the results. While my DSLR is technically a superior camera, that still doesn’t make up for the erroneous white balance and color accuracy I found from the Panasonic. Oddly enough, when pointing at the same subject in video mode, white balance was greatly improved.
Verdict: If you need a top performing video AND photo camera, this GH2 is a no brainer. It’s clearly more focused on video, with still images taking the back seat, however if you stay away from the jpeg compression and shoot in RAW format, many fault of the GH2 can easily be fixed.
Huzzah, my favorite category of cameras! For the purpose of this section, I want to break things out into entry level, midrange, and pro. As I mentioned in the The Next Web article, DSLRs are really the way to go if you want full flexibility, top quality images, and a wide range of (sometimes expensive) lenses. Before I dive into my favorite DSLR’s let me make this disclaimer: I'm a Nikon owner, but have used Canon bodies and lenses in the past.
Canon EOS Rebel T3i
Hands down, the best entry level DSLR on the market today (sorry Nikon). Available from B&H (including an 18-55 f/3.5-5.6 kit lens) for the rock bottom price of only $749, you can’t really go wrong with this technical wonder.
Admittedly, I’ve found the video generated from the T3i to be it’s strong suit, and if you’re getting in the game for work (i.e. marketing, social media, etc.), you’ll be quite impressed with the video capabilities of the T3i. Images are also top notch, as one would expect from Canon, but after using this camera for 2 days, I found it a bit slow in the sports/fast motion capture department.
One of the beauties of shooting with a DSLR is the predictability, and the T3i held it’s ground. I prefer to shoot at low ISO’s, and in typical Canon fashion, the T3i’s color profiles, saturation, and metering are all rock solid. This predictability is sponsored in party by Canon’s Digic 4 Image processor, and 18 megapixel CMOS sensor.
From a video perspective, I did find switching between video and photo modes to be a bit cumbersome, particularly if you find yourself switching back and forth between the two. Once in video mode, it’s all Canon. If there’s shutter roll happening in this baby, I'd be hard pressed to find it. And even with the kit lens, I found video to be crisp and clear, all the way up to the edges of the frame, a technical ability not always accomplished by lesser cameras, especially in this price class.
At such a low cost with a bevy of features and lenses available, the Canon EOS Rebel T3i should be on just about every “I want a DSLR” shopper’s list.
Verdict: Low cost, high quality images via a leader in the imaging field. You can’t go wrong with the Canon EOS Rebel T3i.
What can I say about this camera? This is my main workhorse, and I couldn’t be happier with it. Available from B&H for $1096.95 (body only), the D7000 is the top of the line prosumer, and a very valid backup or triggered camera for professionals.
Locking down images with a 16.2 megapixel CMOS sensor with an Expeed 2 processor, when combined with a high read/write speed SDXC card, the D7000 will be displaying your images almost as fast as you can shoot them. And speaking of memory cards, the D7000 features dual slots, which you might not think would be a big deal, until you head off to Greece for a week and fill up one 16gb card in three days. I use my second slot as a backup, but you also have the option of shooting RAW files to one card and jpegs to the other.
As far as video goes, the D7000 is/was Nikon’s first foray into the 1080p world, although “only” available at 24 frames per second (fps). Personally, I always try to work with 24 fps, so the lack of 30fps or 60 fps really isn’t a problem for me. Nikon packaged the D7000 with it’s “full time auto focus” tracking feature, which, to be honest, it pretty much useless. The camera often tracks objects that aren’t faces, and if and when it does lock onto a face, it quickly gets confused and refocuses, sometimes landing on your subject, sometimes the tree branch behind them. If you’re shooting video with the D7000, you’ll need to do it like all the others, the old school, turn the rings way.
Nikon’s always been a bit heavy handed with the bells and whistles, particularly in this class of camera, and while the video auto focus is crap, the second SD card slot is quite welcome, as is the two-frame under/over bracketing feature, which comes in pretty handy if you’re planning on jumping into the HDR field. Otherwise, Nikon’s saved the extras for other models, and focused on delivering rock solid performance in an incredibly easy-to-shoot-with-all-day camera.
The price isn’t for everyone, especially considering that you’ll need to pick up at least 1 lens, and let’s be honest, you’ll eprobably want a few more. If you’re aiming for the best quality camera in this price class, the only other that rivals the D7000’s performance specs is the Canon 60D.
For those of us who aren’t quite ready to drop the serious shekels, but still want the very best in imaging quality and speed, the Nikon D7000 is where it’s at.
Verdict: The best camera I have ever owned. If you’re shooting a bit higher than the stars, but not quite to the stratosphere, the Nikon D7000 delivers in every way.
Nikon D4 vs. D800 vs. Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs. EOS-1D X
Ok friends, if you’ve read this far, you’re obviously as passionate about camera gear as I am, and I’m sure you’ll understand why I simply couldn’t choose a winner in the top-of-class category.
Each one of these cameras deserves it’s own spot in the hall of fame, and each has it’s own particular niche. Now the D4 and the 1D X are true competitors, both pulling down some unbelievable stats. The D4’s full frame CMOS sensor at 16.2 megapixels and an expeed3 image processor is one of the sharpest and fastest on the market today. The 1D X bumps that figure to 18.1 megapixels (but remember, more isn’t always better), and uses the DIGIC 4 image processor.
Now, to be fair, each of these cameras is a bit out of my (and probably your) price range, and are generally used by those that make a living from photos and/or video. I won’t even scare you off with the prices, but let’s just say I’ve seen a few used cars go for less than these objects of desire.
You might notice that I’ve included the Nikon D800 and the Canon EOS 5D Mark III in this top-of-the-tops, and while these two are not considered flagship models, they both include a number of features of the aforementioned models, and speed. In fact, the D800 has been award the prestigious honor of having the best sensor ever reviewed by DxOMark (an industry benchmarking tool).
Likewise, the 5D Mark II is the go-to shooter for just about every serious indie or budget filmmaker, having won praise for being used to shoot the season finale for the television show House. The Mark III is the successor to the Mark II, and includes a number of feature upgrades as well as some well thought out changes to accommodate the growing number of filmmakers using this camera.
Unfortunately, I can only say that I’ve used one of the cameras in this category, the Nikon D800, but if the other three are anything like the D800, I’d be hard pressed to choose just one to have with me for the next 5-7 years. Each has it’s own remarkable feature set, and each should be selected and used based around the primary purpose.
Verdict: Too close of a call to separate any of these models. Each has it’s own strengths, with very little weaknesses. From a financial point-of-view, the Nikon D800 is the lowest priced of the bunch, and therefor would get a nod of approval at the cash register.
And there we have it. This has been an incredibly long, but hopefully informative post about my favorite cameras in their class. Each have their own unique advantages and feature sets, and before you dash off to B&H to purchase any of these recommended models, I’d encourage you to head down to your local camera and/or electronics retailer and try them out for yourself. Reviews and opinions can only take you so far, as at the end of the day, it really comes down to what feels best in your hands, is in your price range, and truly inspires you to capture some awesome images.
Thanks for reading, and until next time – keep on shooting, and off the auto mode!
Image Credits: Canon USA, Panasonic, Jordi@photos, Sony USA, Olympus UK, Panasonic Global