My girlfriend and I are leaving for a vacation in Chile in about a week. We'll be spending most of our time hiking and seeing glaciers and penguins in southern Patagonia, with a few days in Santiago at the end. I'd like to bring a compact, versatile, weatherproof camera with great image quality, 15-20x zoom, and good low-light performance -- but compromises must be made. What kind of camera should I take with me? My budget is $300-750.
I'd like to get a new camera to document this vacation. I currently own a Casio EX-Z50 from 2005. I like that it's small and that it allows a lot of manual control. I don't like its mediocre image quality, abysmal low-light performance, fiddly menus, limited zoom, and lengthy buffer clearing period before I can turn the camera off and retract the lens.
I don't normally take a lot of pictures, but I do when I travel. I've heard that Patagonia can be very rainy even in the summer. We'll be spending about 4 days of the trip hiking the W route at Torres del Paine, without access to power for recharging batteries. My main priority is to get a camera that will be good for this trip, but as the price climbs above the bottom of my range, I'd also like to get a camera that I'll use other times. My non-travel pictures tend to be outdoors: hiking, cycling, skiing, walking around cities. I've never really been hiking or doing anything other than Taking Pictures with a camera larger than a point-and-shoot, so I don't know what that's like. I care only a little bit about video, and wouldn't be devastated if it were missing entirely.
I've been reading a lot of camera reviews, and I think I'm at the point where I know which one or two models I would consider in any given category. My problem is that I can't decide which category I want.
- Low-end mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (Sony NEX-F3, etc.): more versatile than my other options, but I don't really have the budget for more than the kit lens right now. Maybe also a pancake lens, but that would really be pushing my budget. I would be worried about damaging these, and they don't really fit in a pocket without that pancake lens. I'm also not keen on carrying more weight than I have to while hiking. The upsides are better image quality at a given price than my other options and more versatility if I decide I want to drop more cash on photography in the future.
- Point-and-shoots (Canon S100, etc.): basically my current camera, only better in every way (except for zoom, which would be about the same). If only out of familiarity, I wouldn't be as worried about damaging a camera like this as I would an interchangeable lens one, but I would still be nervous about shooting on a rainy day. Better image quality than weatherproof cameras or travel superzooms.
- Weatherproof cameras (Olympus TG-1, etc.): I hear Patagonia can be very rainy and windy, even in summer. I really like the idea of not having to be concerned about keeping my camera safe, not knocking my camera pocket on a rock, not getting my camera dusty, keeping my camera in a waterproof case (or plastic bag), etc. On the other hand, I probably won't get top-notch photographic performance in any regard out of one of these cameras: they won't have the best sensors, the best controls, or the best optics. I only go diving about once every other year, and even then I don't know if I'd take a camera.
- Travel superzooms (Canon SX260, etc.): I notice that when I'm traveling, I give up on a lot of shots because I can't get close enough with the lens on my Casio. I don't know exactly how many wild animals or other zoom-friendly subjects I should expect to see on this trip, but I'm pretty sure that a lens maxing out at 100mm is not going to get me every shot I'd like. Unfortunately, reviews say these cameras tend to be slow, have poor low-light performance, and often take a hit on image quality in general.
I'm leaning towards either a weatherproof camera or a travel superzoom right now, but even after reading a truckload of camera reviews and looking at a ton of sample images I don't have a good sense for just how much real, non-pixel-squinting image quality I'd be giving up by going with, say, the Olympus TG-1 instead of the Canon S100. I also don't know exactly how rainy I should expect the Patagonian summer to be, or how paranoid I need to be about water damage with cameras.
So help me get my priorities sorted out: what kind of camera do I want? Are there options I'm not considering that I should be? What camera did you really enjoy taking on your last possibly-rainy outdoor vacation? What's going to make me happy?