Three Axioms of Camera Shopping

June 17, 2014

Let’s assume you have outgrown your phone-cam, and are willing to spend at least a few hundred dollars to get something nicer.

Axiom #1. Consider how important it is for you to get excellent image quality; pocketable camera size; and an affordable price tag. Then pick any two.

Excellent image quality at an affordable price? It’s still hard to beat entry level DSLRs with APS-C sensors, starting ~$400. (Tip: try googling “refurbished Nikon D3200.”) Acknowledge that the size of your camera will cause you to leave it at home at the very instant you want it most.

Pocketable size at an affordable price? Any of the usual serious compacts starting at ~$300 are worth a look: Panasonic LX7; Canon S120; Olympus XZ-10. The limit on image quality comes from the pinky-nail-sized sensor.

Excellent image quality in a tiny camera? Try the new Sony RX100-III, or the Panasonic GM1 (to add interchangeable lenses). But you’re going to pay dearly here—maybe double the price of cheap DSLRs.

Panasonic GM1

It’s mini and mighty; and with two good lenses costs about $1500.

Axiom #2. If you buy an interchangeable-lens camera, but then never take off the kit zoom, you are a chump.

Why? Because zooms that can’t open up beyond f/5.6 at the telephoto end negate any advantage you gained from a larger sensor. Instead, buy a high-end compact with a zoom that’s ~f/2.8 at the tele end and save yourself the extra money and bulk. The low-light image quality will be equivalent.

Get an interchangeable-lens camera only if you’re ready to pay for, and carry around, extra lenses. Even if that’s just a “thrifty 50” costing $120 or so.

Axiom #3. Don’t buy into any interchangeable-lens camera system that has few, or only lame lenses.

Low-light shooters need f/2.0 or better primes in 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm equivalent focal lengths (give or take). Sports and wildlife shooters need more options than one dim telephoto zoom. A decent-quality ultrawide is a plus too. Lame-o “novelty” systems include the Pentax Q, Canon M, Nikon 1, and Samsung NX Mini. Even many APS-C lens lineups fall somewhat short (e.g. Sony mirrorless) or gouge excessively on prices (Pentax DSLR).

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