What's a good sub-$500 digital camera for general use and macro work?
November 17, 2009 7:43 PM   Subscribe

What's a good digital camera for someone that wants to do long exposures, macro photography, and has roughly $500 to spend?

Okay, so I want to get a new digital camera. Right now I have a Casio EX-Z50 and I hate it. Budget is ~$500. There are three things I especially want in a new camera:
  • The ability to do long exposures (>5 seconds).
  • The lowest noise I can afford.
  • Something that's good for, but not only for, macro photography.
Another cool feature would be the ability to take a picture every x minutes, but I don't even know if that exists. And an easy UI (like the one on Sony Cybershots) would be nice, but not critically important.

Can you recommend something for me? Or can you point me to a site or something that lets me compare lots of camera stats for various models at once?
posted by hjo3 to Shopping (22 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
Canon g11 seems like your best bet for the money.
posted by ghostpony at 7:56 PM on November 17, 2009


Digital Photo Review is a great resource. They do extensive reviews of cameras. What you are most interested in is the CCD or CMOS as this is the core of the exposure and noise; whilst the camera is exposing electrons run across this causing noise -as far as my understanding which is limited.
posted by occidental at 8:10 PM on November 17, 2009


Oh yes and making sense of sensor sizes.
posted by occidental at 8:11 PM on November 17, 2009


Are you limiting yourself to point and shoots? Cause you can buy a beginner dslr for that.
posted by kylej at 8:13 PM on November 17, 2009


for long exposures, you probably want to get a DSLR if you can.
posted by kenliu at 8:23 PM on November 17, 2009


I think this would be good.
posted by kylej at 8:42 PM on November 17, 2009


With regard to macro shots, I have a Canon Powershot S3 IS. Here are three sets, miscellaneous (mix of flowers and random stuff before I broke it up into the next two), flowers, and insects, that I've taken using the macro feature on the camera. I've been very pleased with the results I've gotten. I'd expect you would get the same type of results at the least with the newest incarnation of the camera. I can't speak to the noise, but I don't recall ever thinking of it as a problem. Long exposures are easy to do with it as well, though I don't have a lot of experience shooting such (just haven't done much).
posted by Atreides at 8:50 PM on November 17, 2009


My Canon Rebel XS DSLR came in at just under $500 from either Buydig or B&H, can't remember which. You can't go wrong with one of these!
posted by chez shoes at 8:51 PM on November 17, 2009


I've been quite pleased with my Nikon D40. I figure if you're going to be spending around $500 for a camera, you might as well get something that can take different lenses.
Here's Ken Rockwell's take on it.
posted by dunkadunc at 9:00 PM on November 17, 2009


Whichever camera you choose you'll need to allow for the cost of a decent tripod of some sort for lengthy exposures. A plug-in remote controller is an important aid for macro photos and essential for long term exposures IMHO. For the ability to take interval photos Nikon's Camera Control Pro allows you to plug your camera into your computer and control shooting from the laptop. You can set intervals of whatever length you want. You can connect laptop to camera mounted on a desktop tripod set on the passenger seat of your car and drive taking photos ever 10 seconds or so to create timelapse video. If you try it set your camera to manual focus and the laptop to never sleep and you can shoot until the battery runs dead. And remember to seat belt the camera in place.
posted by X4ster at 9:12 PM on November 17, 2009


Get a used canon Rebel or Nikon D70/70s/50. The lens is where the magic happens. A nifty fifty ($100, F1.8, 50mm) for either Canon or Nikon + extension rings (uhh $20 max on ebay) will get you started on macro for very little money. This is real macro, giant bugs (with enough light! etc.)

Any Canon Point and Shoot with custom firmware (http://chdk.wikia.com/wiki/CHDK) it's a snap to load onto a memory card, does no permanant changes to the camera! will do any and all cool things, from timed exposures, picture every x minutes etc. etc. etc. (Custom scripts!)
posted by defcom1 at 9:24 PM on November 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


The Canon G11 is a great camera but you're probably better off going the dSLR route since that's going to give you the most flexible as you decide you want to do other things in the future. Nikon seems to be a few steps ahead of Canon in terms of controlling noise but the differences can be negligible at the high end. You should be able to find example shots of the cameras you're considering in high iso low light situations.
posted by Locobot at 10:12 PM on November 17, 2009


Seconding the used DSLR + F1.8 50mm + extension tubes recommendation. Even the very oldest ones (Nikon D1, Canon D30) with that lens will do what you want and outperform all compacts except in sunlight.

If you're patient, you can put together the whole setup for <>
Also, if you're OK with manual focusing (and you should be if you plan to do macro shots), Canons can use practically any lens with $10-$20 adapters except Leica and (ironically) pre-auto-focus Canon lenses. For strictly macro purposes, pretty much everything is adaptable. Good old lenses can often be had for <2>
Read up a lot.. just google around. It's too easy to waste money on stuff that won't help you in this area.
posted by ggruschow at 5:06 AM on November 18, 2009


(2nd try.. stupid HTML misformatting didn't show up on the live preview)

Seconding the used DSLR + F1.8 50mm + extension tubes recommendation. Even the very oldest ones (Nikon D1, Canon D30) with that lens will do what you want and outperform all compacts except in sunlight.

If you're patient, you can put together the whole setup for <$250 via eBay. The 1st gen was ~3mp, but that's more than you need for fantastic quality 4x6 prints or any screen display. The 2nd generation went to ~6mp, but it'll cost another $100. Depending on how you'll use the pictures, it might be better spent on lenses.

Also, if you're OK with manual focusing (and you should be if you plan to do macro shots), Canons can use practically any lens with $10-$20 adapters except Leica and (ironically) pre-auto-focus Canon lenses. For strictly macro purposes, pretty much everything is adaptable. Good old lenses can often be had for <20% of the cost of new ones.

Read up a lot.. just google around. It's too easy to waste money on stuff that won't help you in this area.
posted by ggruschow at 5:08 AM on November 18, 2009


you'll notice EVERYONE has recommended Canons and Nikons. No exception (so far).

with that in mind, here's an EASY resource to help you figure out which camera will suit your needs:


posted by smersh at 5:49 AM on November 18, 2009


Ken Rockwell clickable
posted by smersh at 5:51 AM on November 18, 2009


I like Panasonic's Lumix cameras, from the little pocket ones up to the newer big ones. Good image stabilization, nice lens.
posted by wenestvedt at 10:24 AM on November 18, 2009


I have a Panasonic Lumix LX3 as a pocket camera that will work well if you don't want an SLR camera for size reasons. Does macro well but, sorry, no built in time-lapse facility which is oddly rare and somewhat irritating.

There is some noise and it is a wide-angle oriented camera but it takes very good photos.

Be forewarned, the LX3 can be hard to find. (Wow! Available at amazon.com, though.)
posted by bz at 11:38 AM on November 18, 2009


The time lapse thing is called an intervalometer. Some pocket cameras have this feature, but few DSLRs do. You can get an external accessory that triggers it them, though.

Most recent Canon cameras can use third-party software called CHDK to add some features like the Intervalometer and RAW output.
posted by kenliu at 2:38 PM on November 18, 2009


"you'll notice EVERYONE has recommended Canons and Nikons. No exception (so far). "

At the low and mid price points Olympus outperforms Canon or Nikon in terms of dSLRs. At the pro level Olympus destroys either in terms of price. When it comes to noise though, Canon and Nikon are better. If the OP is coming from a point-and-shoot, the noise levels on an Olympus dSLR are probably going to be much better and probably would be acceptable.
posted by Locobot at 1:17 PM on November 19, 2009


Jumping in a bit late to this discussion, but as a photographer who does an awful lot of macro work, I thought I'd offer a few thoughts specifically on that.

If you're going the DSLR route, I actually wouldn't recommend buying a used DSLR unless it's from someone you know and trust, and/or have the chance to examine the body in hand before any money is exchanged. You don't know how it's been used, and these are complex machines -- and at some point, I know Canon stops servicing older models, and I assume Nikon/Oly/Sony does too.

Instead, I'd suggest a refurbished body, from Adorama/B&H/Beach/etc. (Don't buy anything from anywhere that has a price substantially lower than those places -- there's a lot of bait-and-switch scams out there targeting photographers.) I got my 40D refurbished, basically like new, with just a few hundred clicks on the shutter (which does wear out with use), and would have no hesitation about doing again in the future. Refurbs usually come with a warranty for a month or two, worse than new but much better than used. Then, extension tubes with a 50mm prime or even the kit lens to start with (if it comes with one -- though skip the Canon kit lens if it's not the model with IS in its name, it's junk).

Another point to consider: there's a very good chance that you'll wind up spending more than $500 on gear in the next year or two, if you're building a DSLR kit. Definitely consider, if you can, putting some more of that money up front to get the body and glass you want now. It makes no sense to cut corners on something you'll have to buy again and again as you upgrade, or as a lower-quality version wears out. The exception would be on your macro rig. There are different types of rigs for different types of macro (bugs vs. flowers, under 1:1 magnification vs. 1:1 and higher, natural light vs. flash, etc.) and that's not something you should commit to right off the bat. Oh, and skip the macro diopter filters that screw onto the front of your lens -- not good bang for your buck.

And have fun with it. Macro can be hard to learn, because you start hitting optical and physical limitations of your gear pretty quickly -- expect a depth of field so shallow that an ant's antenna can be in focus while its eyes aren't, for example -- but it's amazingly rewarding. Just be picky and ruthless with your self-critique and you'll master a bit more every time you go out to shoot.
posted by toxotes at 3:45 PM on November 23, 2009


You guys are awesome. I narrowed it down to the Lumix (used by one of my favorite photobloggers) and the Canon Rebel XS -- ended up going with the Rebel. It's fantastic -- does absolutely everything I want. Now I just need to save up for a proper macro lens. Thanks a ton!
posted by hjo3 at 1:55 AM on January 4, 2010


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