Monday, February 24, 2014

Finding a Small High-Quality Digital Camera

Say: under $300.

This is not so easy. I’ve been trying myself: trying to find something small to travel with that also gives good results.

What’s so hard?

  • Smaller digital cameras often have very poor quality images.
    • Some say the size of the sensor is the key factor; others disagree.
  • The jpeg’s in digital cameras are generated on-the-fly. I suspect the engine that does this needs to be good, and they don’t dedicate the chip space/power in a small device to that end. (But that’s just my guess.)

What to do? Four pathways can help you make a choice; they are not mutually exclusive.

(While this blog is normally reserved for thoughts about teaching & learning technologies, a big question we often face is: how to choose the right tool, and so I thought "choosing the right camera" was close enough.)

1. Check out some thoughtful online resources.

  • A recommendation engine. Snapsort.com has a recommendation engine.
    • Their prices are based on the lowest found, and that includes used, so they’re quite misleading.
  • Sophisticated reviews.
    • I find DPreview intelligent and reliable.
      • They’re highly detailed, and so it’s often wise to skip to the next-to-last page of the review (“Conclusions”).
    • Cameralabs does thoughtful reviews. They tend to be only a few pages, but I still often skip to the last page (“Verdict and Scores”).
  • Others’ experiences. I actually find the ratings on Amazon.com and BHPhotoVideo very useful.
    • You can search in price ranges (never accurate on Amazon) and then sort by the average customer review.
    • On Amazon, you can also pick a rating (say: four stars), then sort by “Relevance,” which often excludes some odd items showing up in the wrong place.
    • Individual reviews need to be taken with a grain of salt, as people get cranky about things relevant only to them. But the good reviews are very helpful, and the aggregate is, I think, meaningful.
  • Inductively. Look on photo sites like Flickr.com to see what results others get. If they’re indifferent, either the camera is bad–or it has not inspired enthusiasts (which is a different thing, likely with some overlap).
  • Scientifically. DXOMark tests sensors and lenses and publishes the results.
    • N.B. They’re testing the sensor, not the camera. This seems finicky, but it lets you compare the image quality separate from questions like: are the buttons easy to use?
    • The results are wonky, but they are effectively reduced to numbers, and so this lets you make some rational choices–e.g., “$300 more for lower picture quality? I don’t think so!”
    • You can actually search by size and price, though “under $500” is basically the lowest category.

2. Ask people.

I’m writing this, so I’ll tell you my experiences (not my opinions).

Lately I’ve been testing some smaller, high-quality cameras.

  • The Olympus XZ–2 is the follow-up to the SZ–1.
    • I got this for sale around Xmas.
    • It’s still on sale these days for $300.
    • I’ve been shooting with it lately and quite like it.
    • It has close-up modes for flowers and the like.
    • It has a wide aperture, good for shooting in low light and for separating the subject from the background (i.e., “shallow depth-of-field”).
    • The user has access to manual controls (aperture, shutter speed, etc.). I believe you can also use it very automatically, though I haven’t used that mode.

3. Buy a small, pocketable camera that’s highly-rated by various sites.

  • Cameralabs writes guides for various categories of camera–such as compact cameras.
    • In this category, they recommend (among other, more-expensive cameras):

4. Get something that would normally be more expensive but that’s older and on sale (probably to make way for forthcoming new models).

  • In this category, you’ll find small ‘mirrorless’ cameras.
    • These are like a smaller digital SLR (DSLR).
    • They have interchangeable lenses, like the SLR’s of old. And the lens can be more expensive than the camera.
    • As with DSLR’s, they usually come with a lens whose effective cost is sometimes about $25–a tremendous bargain.
    • If you buy this, you’ll be in a ‘system’ (a combination of camera bodies and lenses and accessories), and so you can eventually get a better lens (even used).
  • In terms of size, these would be more ‘around the neck’ cameras than ‘pocketable,’ though sometimes the lens is a ‘pancake,’ which is small and flat, as the name implies.
  • *Be aware that because the sensor is smaller than 35mm film, the equivalent of a “50mm lens” on an SLR is often a different (much smaller number) on these cameras.
    • A “normal” lens (neither wide angle nor telephoto) is 40–50mm.
    • A wide angle lense might be 28–35mm.
    • A 90–200mm lens would be a telephoto for capturing objects at a distance.
    • The word “equivalent” tells you that, say, a 20mm lens acts like a 40mm lens on the camera advertised.
  • Sony, Olympus, Nikon and Pentax make excellent models.
    • BH Photo & Video has several of this type of camera now selling for under $300.
      • These include cameras whose sensors DXOmark rates very highly:
        • Sony NEX–3N: rated as 74.
        • Nikon 1 S1: rated as 56.
        • Nikon 1 J1: rated as 56.
        • Pentax Q10: rated as 49.
      • By comparison, the Olympus XZ2 I’m using now seems pretty good to me and has a sensor rating of 34.

A general tip: handle the actual camera, if you possible can.

    Try to go to the store and test whatever you want to buy. I find people discover they just don’t like a given software interface or where the buttons are. If you have trouble working the dingus right off, often it doesn’t get much better.

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