Q: There are a lot of cameras out there… which is the best?
A: The best camera is the one you have with you.
This is why I love the camera on my smartphone (and the reason I recently upgraded — I got a camera 2X better for $200... which, from a camera POV, is a good value). The great thing about smartphone cameras is that you often don't look like you're taking a photo at all, which can be a bonus in a store or crowded train car. I'm often taking photos of the nutty things I see on BART and folks just think I'm checking my email… However, sometimes a smartphone camera (iPhone in my case) is not enough.
The "what should I buy?" question is a common one with many variables (cost, size, complexity), so I'll post it here — in blog format — so I can keep it up to date with new models and so that we can refer to it as we need to...
The quickest innovation and the top choices seem to be from Sony, Fuji and Canon, so start there.
... but the short answer (as of Fall 2014): Sony RX100iii or the Panasonic LX100.
But before we get into "real" camera suggestions, I'd like to direct everyone's attention to Bert Krages website
. Bert is a lawyer, so he knows his stuff. Look this over and know your rights and responsibilities as a photographer in the American public space. Below are a few bits I've paraphrased over the years:
- In general, if you can see it (without going to extreme measures), you can photograph it: This is how the Hollywood paparazzi operate, but also why — when they get on ladders and climb fences — they get arrested. If you're standing on your own two feet in a place you're legally able to be, you can generally photograph anything you can see with your eyes.
- However, use your brain and the "golden rule": If taking that photo is going to get you questioned by the President's Secret Service staff — is it worth it? Do you really want to freak out that poor person on the train? Be respectful of people and weigh whether or not getting into a confrontation or an awkward situation is worth it.
- People can ask you to leave private property (stores): ... but they cannot take your camera or force you to delete files. If that happens, call the police. However, you do have to leave the store, which is private property. Why let it get to that in the first place? Unless you're doing something crazy, a few photos of cool packaging on a store shelf should not cause such a fuss as to get the staff involved. Be subtle.
- How you use the photo has more implications on rights that anything else: While I can take a photo of you sitting on a park bench, if I use it for a billboard about drug abusers, that would get me into trouble as I'm ascribing a value/condition to the subject (from whom I do not have a model release or agreement to do so). Taking photos is fine. Using them can get complicated. As a student, much of your work falls under "academic fair use" (look it up), but now that so many things end up on the web and transcend a school project, it's best to just use photos of things and people that you have permission to use.
Now, on to cameras:
Where to look for info and gear?: There's lots of great sites out there. Although owned by Amazon, I like DPreview.com … there are new models coming out every week and they do a good job of staying on top of them. When buying, I always look to Amazon.com first and BHphotovideo.com second. Amazon has a great return policy and B+H is just a great camera shop. Sadly, the SF photo scene is pretty weak. The best Bay-Area shop is Keeble and Shuchat in Palo Alto — they also have a great rental department. Additionally, as a student, you can get 6-months of free (then 50% off) Amazon.com "Prime" service which I use a lot.
What do you really need?: Rarely will you need a camera with greater than 16MP — especially if they're a "good" 16MP (camera makers tend to agree — most all 4/3 mirror-less interchangeable lens camera are 16MP for a reason). Older cameras had higher pixel counts but much greater noise. Recent trends in the camera world is to have fewer, but higher-quality resolutions and the cameras listed below have great sensors that will yield a good image with little/no noise. Also, many new models feature larger sensors which are also capable of capturing a great noise-free image. One of the main differentiators between a $250 and a $400 camera is the quality of the sensor.
Also important — if not more so — is the quality of the lens. Many manufacturers have coupled small cameras with great sensors and great lenses… this is good for us. In general, when looking at a lens, one that tries to "zoom" too much isn't good at any one distance — look for ones in the 3X to 5X zoom factor (20X is trying to do too much). Also, generally speaking, the lower the base aperture, the higher quality the lens. These are numbers like f3.5-5.6 … so, following this rule, a f1.8-2 is a better lens than a f3.5-5.6. Really these numbers are indicating the amount of light (aperture) the lens will let in, but it's also a general gauge for quality in the same way a car with greater horsepower is generally a better car than one with lower horsepower. When you see a range (f3.5-5.6, for instance), it means that the base aperture will change through the zoom range — the most open (lowest number) is when the les is at it's widest and as you zoom, the amount of light the lens lets in decreases (the aperture gets smaller and the "f" number increases). Additionally, generally speaking, lenses with a less dramatic range — or even a fixed aperture — are better than those with a wide-ranged aperture. Following this logic, an f1.4 lens is awesome, a f1.4-2.3 is good and 2.0-5.9 isn't as good. I generally avoid lenses that don't open up to at least f2.8. Having a lens with a large aperture (small number) means you can more successfully take pictures in lower light without using a high ISO (which means more noise) or a flash which give a terrible light quality.
Shoot RAW: Make sure that any camera you buy has the ability to capture RAW files in addition to JPGs. RAW files are just that — raw. The camera has done nothing to the file insofar as noise reduction, image improvement, etc and it lets you do that in your computer application (Photoshop or Lightroom). Although the camera manufacturer's JPG noise reduction algorithms are more advanced than what you can typically garner in Photoshop, the overall control you can have in an application outweighs this — plus, the in-camera noise reduction always seems to be dialed up a bit too much. With a RAW file you have great latitude to adjust things like color balance and exposure — even camera distortion — that is harder to do otherwise. Additionally, cameras that have the capability to shoot RAW files are generally better cameras, so it's a good gauge of quality, too.
Categorically Speaking: When looking at cameras, they fall into a few basic categories and you'll see that size and price have a relationship here — generally the bigger and more expensive the camera, the better. However, with a big camera comes the likelihood that you might find it too much trouble to lug around as opposed to a compact camera you can toss into your coat pocket with ease. I have many cameras: from medium format film cameras to dSLRs, but I shoot 50% of my photos with my iPhone, 48% of my photos with my Canon G15 and the other 2% are taken with the larger, bulkier cameras.
These are cameras that can literally fit into your pocket and having a camera /on/ you when you need the shot is better than having a nicer one sitting on your desk at home. These camera sacrifice a bit of quality (usually sensor size and lens quality) for size, but a few have achieved a good formula. I like:
- Canon S110 (and S120): While some folks prefer the older S95, this is a very slim camera with a great lens and sensor combination. The 110 has a f2.0-5.9 lens and the 120 has a f1.8-5.7. The success of the S95 proves a bit that newer isn't always better and you might find a good deal on a used one.
- Olympus XZ1: Similar to the above, but slightly more bulky. The lens is better (f1.8-2.5), but the sensor is (slightly) not as good. It has a hot-shoe which could be good for expandability.
- Olympus XZ10: This is a newer model than the above and looks to be a good improvement over the XZ1. The newer XZ2 is a bit larger and mentioned below.
- Panasonic LF1: A newer model to Panasonic's lineup (4/13) features a Leica lens and a built-in Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) in a very small package. The f2.0-5.9 lens is a bit of a liability on the 5.9 side, though.
- ...There are new models of this genre added every week and it's close to impossible to keep up with them all. Make sure you follow the lens, sensor, and RAW file advice above and be wary of gimicks like creative filters and other effects.
These camera are not small enough to fit into your jeans pocket, but they might fit into a coat pocket. This is my favorite category as the quality/size ratio breaks to something that I find very useful. As much as an interchangeable lens camera seems nice, you use one lens 95% of the time (a medium-length zoom), so why not have a small camera with a great lens that you don't have to swap?
I own and continue to suggest the Canon G-series (I have a G9 and a G15 and have used a G7, G10, G11 and G12). The Panasonic LX series is also very good and Fuji has released some great retro-inspired options that might be worth a look — I've had an X10 and the newer X20 is quite nice. Sometimes you can get a good deal on "last year's model"… Canon and Panasonic just released new cameras so the G12 and LX7 (which are great cameras) might be on sale or you might find them used. I purchased my G9 used and it's been a great camera that I use even today. However, know that there's a weird inverse-price-dynamic. A 2 year old camera might be up to 50% off it's original price, but a 5 year old camera might be a highly sought after collector's piece and sell for more than it did new. Yes, weird.
Another feature that this series often excels at is macro focusing — meaning you can get up close to stuff and still focus. This is often important for designers when you want to photograph the details on something (and why I returned the Canon G1X — it doesn't shoot macro).
Sony has made the RX100 and RX100(ii) and RX100(iii) with a HUGE (20+MP) sensor that tops this class insofar as sensor quality and is my current pick for overall best camera. Panasonic has just released their LX100 which combines an above-average sensor sizeand an amazing lens. While bigger than the RX100 and not as high insofar as resolution the trade-off in overall image quality might be worth it for some.
- Canon G15/G16: This is Canon's latest G-series camera (The G16 is a minimal improvement over the G15). A great sensor coupled with a great lens and lots of manual controls and the ability to add accessories is a very likable combination.
- Panasonic LX7: This is also a very good choice similar to the above, but a bit older. The lens is made by Leica, too. Even with its age, it's still a very good choice and one you might find used. New, it now sells for under $300 and it comes with a wide range of accessories available.
- Olympus XZ2: A similar model (spec-wise) from Olympus... when purchasing my G15, the XZ2 and LX7 were strong contenders. The XZ2 lost out on price and the G15 won because of my previous love of the G9... but really, all three are terrific choices. The size bump from the XZ1 to the XZ2 puts this more in the sub-compact category.
- Fuji X20 (and newer X30): Fuji may had fixed some flaws present in the X10, but this camera still isn't as expandable as the above (filters, lens attachments, flashes, etc)... It's really pretty, though, and the manual zoomring is very nice to use.
- Sony RX100 and RX100(ii) and RX100(iii): This camera is a good bit more expensive than the others, but the sensor is fantastic. It has small buttons which make it a bit more slim than the above cameras, but which also might make it hard to use for some. The (ii) model adds a flash shoe and other nice options making it a much more interesting option — had it been available when I bought my G15, it would have been a winner. The (iii) ditches the hot-shoe (boo!), but gets a better lens and a built-in electronic viewfinder. If you can afford it, this is the camera to get — you won't be disappointed. However, for $650, you're getting into M4/3 and dSLR price ranges. Nonetheless, this is my pick for the best overall camera because — for its size — it is amazingly high quality and should you want to upgrade to a dSLR, you'll still reach for this camera more often than not because of convenience and size. The RX100 also has a great case which I've found invaluable for a camera this size. You might be surprised how many cameras (like the G15) do not have OEM cases.
- Panasonic LX100: This camera was designed as a replacement for the older LX7, however with the addition of a larger 4/3s sensor, it take it into a new realm. While only 16MP (techincally 12MP with the multi-aspect sensor), they prove to be a very good 12MP and overall quality will surpass most cameras in this category. It's physically a bit larger, which might be nice for some as the RX100 tends to feel almost too small. The Leica-designed lens is better than any interchangable lens that I've been able to find so even folks looking at M4/3s camera might opt for this one as well.
There has been a massive focus on this segment of camera in the past few years — some great releases from Fuji, Ricoh, and others. Check out dPreview.com for the latest gear reviews.
Mirrorless (and Micro 4/3)
(compact interchangeable lens cameras)
This is a newer format genre which features high-quality sensors with interchangeable lenses in bodies without mirrors. This started with the Micro 4/3s design championed by Olympus and Panasonic that featured a somewhat standard 16MP sensor in a 4:3 size ratio — however in recent years, it has expanded to feature models that even have a APC-sized and full-frame sensors from folks like Samsung, Sony and Fuji.
Although the concept is solid (and likely where all higher-end camera are headed), I'm not sold on the system yet — simply because of the lack of availability of good lenses (at comparable prices) and a lot of proprietary lens mounts. I find that the lenses on compact cameras often tend to have better specs (especially more open apertures) and cost less overall — the equivalent lens on a Panasonic M4/3 costs as much as the entire LX100. In other words, you can get a good compact camera with a lens for the same price (or less) than the body of a mirrorless alone and still have the same sensor size.
For instance, I think the lens on my Canon G15 is better (for the price) than most any lens made for a mirrorless (it's a 5X lens at 1.8-2.8 and is tack sharp) and I don't have to fuss with changing it, but there is something to be said for being able to get a super-wide or super-telephoto lens on the camera — or a super luxe or unusual one.
Most all M4/3 cameras have a 16MP sensor (an agreed upon "good" size for this camera) with only moderate fluctuations in quality. The main driver for price seems to be options (do you need an Electronic Viewfinder? Image stabilization? 51-point focusing?), newness and style. If you can live with not having the newest model, last year's model is probably great for your needs and costs a good bit less. For instance, Olympus has made a lot of versions and with each new version, the price drops on the old one. An older E-PM2 can be had for $350 while the latest OM-D is over $1200. Would you notice a huge difference in quality between the two cameras fitted with the same lens? Probably not.
Also, this category seems to have the highest "style-points", and new models are coming out every week that are cooler (often more retro) than their predecessors... but this comes with a fairly steep price tag. Some models like the Fuji XE2,Olympus OM-D and EP5 are 2X the price of the Panasonic GX1 and there seems to be little reason for it other than fashion (it is pretty, though).
- Panasonic GX1: After a series of cameras that looked more like a sneaker, Panasonic reintroduced a simple, powerful workhorse with the GX1. For its type, it's a great value and very high-quality since it's an older model.
- Panasonic GX7: The updated version of the above — also very good, but newer and more expensive.
- Panasonic GM1: A smaller version of the above with a lower price-point.
- Olympus E-PL5: This is the latest model of the PL series, the more affordable segment of Olympus' line.
- Olympus E-PL2: This is an older model, but good and at often a good price.
- Olympus E-PM2: Also an older model usually available for less than $350 and for less than $500 as a kit.
- Fuji X-M1 and X-A1: Like all cameras from Fuji, a lot of what you're paying for is style... but it's really nice style.
dSLR: (digital) Single Lens Reflex
Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras are modeled after your dad's old camera. They have interchangeable lenses and look like old-school 35mm cameras. They have the largest sensors and can use the best lenses. They are also lots more expensive. Nikon and Canon are the only brands you should really be looking at due to their ubiquity — if you wanted to rent or borrow a lens for flash, shops will have them for Canon and Nikon, but likely not for Sony or Contax.
The thing with these cameras is that not only is the camera expensive, but you'll spend much more on a lens — a good lens can cost over $1000 easily. Like the Compacts, the quality of an SLR lens can be judged by the base aperture. A 50mm/1.2 is "better" than a 50mm/1.8…. and a 24-70/2.8 is better than a 28-70/4 — and the prices reflect that. When a zoom lens has a range (3.5-5.6) it means the base aperture changes over the zoom range — when you zoom out, it's 5.6… and when you're wide, it's 3.5. Again, the lower the number, the better.
Also, there are a number of good after-market lens manufacturers (and bad ones). I have lenses (for my Nikon) from Sigma and love them — the 17-70/2.8-4macro being my most useful. Sigma seems to be more widely liked than Tamron or Tokina.
When looking at lenses, know that the lens that comes with the kit is usually not a high-quality one. You'll want to eventually upgrade that lens and you might think to buy the body-only and a separate lens… or buy the kit and sell the lens on eBay. Your call there.
Within the dSLR family, there are two types based on the size of the sensor.
dSLR-APC: These have a slightly smaller (APC-sized) sensors. This sensor is still way bigger than any of the previous compact cameras (and better), but it's not as big as an old school piece of 35mm film around which the camera body is modeled... of the FX sensor below.
Many camera use the same sensor, too. The Nikon D5300 has the same sensor as a D7100 in a slightly smaller (and less expensive body). For folks looking to save money, but still have a good sensor, this is worth a look.That said, some of the lowest lines really feel like toys and might have a far lower resale value and for this reason, I've not included lines like the Nikon 3000-series.
Remember, just because the MP count is higher it doesn't necessarily mean the image will be better — some people think the lower resolution D5100 sensor is "smoother" than the D5200. Make sure you read the reviews for each camera and know how the sensor and camera-body options pair-up.
For the APC-sized sensor, a 16-85mm or 17-70mm zoom lens makes a good all-around lens. 16mm might see rather wide, but since the sensor is physically smaller, the lens has to be a bit wider to accommodate for the shift. APC cameras have what is called a "crop factor" -- usually about 1.5 when comparing APC to FX (or 35mm film). This means that a 50mm lens on a traditional 35mm camera would appear like an 75mm lens when coupled to an APC sensor (50 X 1.5 = 75mm). So, if I wanted a 50mm field of view, I'd get a 35mm lens for my APC camera (50mm / 1.5 = 35mm).
I have a Sigma 17-70macro and a Sigma 50/1.4 and love them. Remember, the lower the aperture number the better (2.8 is better than 3.5)... and with the 50/1.4 and a high ISO, I can shoot in near darkness and still get a good shot.
- Nikon 5100: Often touted as a less expensive option to the D7000, it shares the same sensor.
- Nikon 5200 and 5300: An upgrade to the above with a different sensor and the same focusing system as the D7000.
- Nikon D7000 and D7100: A good sensor, good focusing system and nice build-quality make this a good choice for someone not ready to commit to the FX format. I recently traded my D7000 for the D7100 and the jump in quality is impressive. It will probably be the last dSLR I'll buy for a good while.
- (old) Nikon D90: This is an older, but very good model. You might find this one used at a great price.
- Canon 650D/Rebel T4i: I could never buy a camera with the terrible "Rebel" logo on it which is why I abandoned Canon 15 years ago. I know it's esoteric, but I'm a designer... It's a good camera, though.
- Canon 60D: Another good choice from Canon.
Admittedly, I've been a Nikon SLR user for years and my affinity and knowledge runs deeper with that line. However, Canon does make some great cameras as well. If you have a Canon shooter in your midst, ask them for recommendations, too.
dSLR-FX: Some dSLRs have "full frame sensors" which means the sensor is the same size as an old-school 35mm piece of film. These are the best but also the most expensive. If cost is no object, this is the camera to own, but with a few lenses, it can cost as much as a car (and way more than a laptop).
For these cameras, a 24-70 or 24-85 lens is a good "walk-around" lens and an 85mm is great for portraits.
- Nikon D600 and 610: Nikon's least expensive FX models.
- Nikon D800: Nikon's newest and most advanced FX model.
- Nikon DF: Nikon's newer retro-styled dSLR.
- Canon 5D/M2: This camera introduced super high-quality video to the dSLR market and put Canon on top in a number of ways. Everyone I know who has one loves it. A lot.
- Canon 5D/M3: As much as I love my Nikon gear, if I had all the money in the world, I'd get a 5DM3 and get all-new Canon lenses. However, for the price, I still love my D7100 and Sigma lenses.
- Sony Alpha-7: This camera is really in its own category. Click the link to find out why... but it's good (and expensive).
Whew… I hope that helped someone...