Help me find the perfect camera
February 19, 2010 1:45 PM   Subscribe

Looking for recommendations for a modern non-DSLR me, oh photography geeks of AskMeFi!

I'm in the market for a new digital camera, after mine has gone inexplicably missing. I don't think I have the degree of interest or finance to move into the DSLR range of photography, but I am looking for something better than your average Point and Shoot.

What I want: something I can throw in my computer bag (pocketable is nice, but not strictly necessary) that gives me some manual control. Vastly prefer something that allows me to shoot RAW, as I love tweaking after the fact. HD Video is a plus. I know that no non-DSLR is going to really give me the best of all worlds, but I can dream, can't I?

Ideal budget would be less than $400, but would be willing to go up to $500 or so if it really makes a difference.

Right now I'm really leaning toward the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3, although something like the Nikon Coolpix p100 is a choice as well.

So, photographers of MeFi...what other models/brands should I be looking at? Anyone own and love either of the above? Limitations of them I should know about?

posted by griffey to Computers & Internet (29 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I love my Panasonic Lumix FZ8. I don't know what the current iteration of it is, maybe the FZ-35, but I'd go with that.
posted by sanka at 1:53 PM on February 19, 2010

The LX-3 has been extremely well-reviewed; I'm personally saving up my pennies for a Canon S90 - it's about as fast as the LX-3 when wide-open (though it maxes out at 28, not 24) with the option to go out further at the cost of aperture. The big advantage - for me, at least - is that it has a built-in lens cover instead of the LX-3's lens cap, which is a big bother for me in something that I want to be small and tossed into random bags.

I will note that when you're operating at this level you're really getting into a price range that could bring you a low-end SLR - Nikon's lowest-end option is the D3000 at $476 with an (admittedly awfully slow for my tastes) 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens. The Canon XS is $500 with a similar kit lens. Not to say there aren't reasons to go with a S90 or its ilk - SLRs are often a little awkward as party-fun snapshot cameras - but if you're willing to spend $500, you can get an SLR that will do everything those little guys can, with a lot more potential for future expansion and manual control... never mind the much larger sensor.
posted by Tomorrowful at 1:56 PM on February 19, 2010

I've got the Leica version of the Lumix and I love it so much I would sleep with it at night if I weren't so afraid of rolling over and hurting it. I mostly shoot in RAW and edit in Capture One. I know nothing about photography (I'm learning as I go), so my love is based on nothing more than the feel of it in my hands (fantastic), the fun I have on walks with it (immense), and the way my pictures turn out (magnificent). And honestly, I love its design--so simple.

The Leica and Lumix are supposed to be pretty much twins, although some people claim the color differs a little (I can't really see it). I believe only the Leica comes with Capture One, but I could be wrong.

Anyway, if you want an idea of what you could do with the Lumix, I'll point you to Jim Radcliffe's awesome review of the Leica version, which includes pictures he's shot.
posted by sallybrown at 1:57 PM on February 19, 2010

Digital Camera Review is really good for looking at different camera models; they have a GIANT searchable database. I'd also recommend looking through Flickr to see what photos people have taken with the camera you're looking at getting, since that's a pretty good way to judge strengths and weaknesses.
posted by NoraReed at 1:58 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have the LX3, and I think it's OK. I'm not wild about it. My main complaint is that the low-light performance is pretty bad, and that's often how I shoot (at bars, parties, concerts). Have you considered the Canon G11? It's a little on the pricier side, but the high ISO performance looks pretty good.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 1:58 PM on February 19, 2010

In my experience, to really enjoy your small, pocketable camera, it must perform well in the low light. NY Times recently had a review of some good low-light performers. tldr?

"The Sony WX1 is nearly irresistible for its low-light abilities, HD video, sweep panorama and burst mode. Still, in good light, a Canon PowerShot [SD880] still offers better color and sharpness."

While I don't have these cameras, I've owned both Canon and Sony digi-cams (sub-$400) and they are both excellent performers.
posted by alrightokay at 2:00 PM on February 19, 2010

Apologies: you didn't ask for small, pocketable camera, but these two are still good choices.
posted by alrightokay at 2:01 PM on February 19, 2010

Right now I'm really leaning toward the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3

griffey, note that the LX3 has been on the market for a while now, and Panasonic is expected to replace it with the LX4 very soon. When the LX4 comes out, prices for the LX3 will drop significantly (both used and new).

I have the main complaint is that the low-light performance is pretty bad

admiral haddock, the LX3 is universally praised as the best low-light compact on the market. Either you're doing something wrong or you're comparing it unfairly against large-sensor cameras.
posted by randomstriker at 2:23 PM on February 19, 2010

Randomstriker, it's the latter; my main camera is a 5D Mark II, and I tend to shoot with 1.4/1.2 lenses. Shooting wide open at 3200 reveals light my eyes can't even see, and the images are not horribly grainy (as I find the LX3 is by 800).

I recognize that it's a completely unfair comparison, but I still find it frustrating. I do think that the G11 is better, from the images I've seen. The G11 is also a year newer, so maybe the sensor in the LX4 will narrow the gap.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:32 PM on February 19, 2010

I can't speak highly enough about the Canon S90 IS.

Great sensor on it.
f2.0 lens for low light.
3.8 zoom lens.
image stabilization
best physical interface on a point an shoot i've ever encountered
can still fit in a pocket.

Simply amazing camera, we routinely leave our D80 with all it's lenses at home now because of this thing.
posted by iamabot at 2:41 PM on February 19, 2010

Mossberg's people reviewed some cameras for just this situation: "Many people who have used a basic point-and-shoot camera for several years are ready to bring it up a notch."
posted by AlsoMike at 2:42 PM on February 19, 2010

I've been using the Canon S90 since it first came out in the fall, and I've been quite pleased with it. This is the camera I walk around with on a day-to-day basis.

It is very pocketable, offers many of the same controls as an SLR. It shoots RAW (now supported fully by both Aperture and Lightroom after recent updates). It does not offer HD video, however, a complaint that I've heard across multiple forums, although I don't shoot video myself. It costs about $400 on Amazon.

There are other things I like about it too: It's low-profile and quiet, which is great for street and candid shooting. Its low-light performance is phenomenal; a direct result of combining a lens that opens up to f2 and image stabilization. Natural lighting shots rule. The front control ring is neat. Great image quality, as it uses the same sensor as the larger rangefinder-style Canon G11.

Downsides: Controls don't work well in larger hands. Slow shot-to-shot time and not that great at action shots.

P.S. Reserve $100 in your budget for a basic photography class (or an advanced class if you've done that), and that'll improve your photography far more than spending an extra $100 on the camera.
posted by Mercaptan at 2:50 PM on February 19, 2010

If you can wait a little while EVIL is coming.
posted by Xurando at 2:59 PM on February 19, 2010

Ok so you are looking for a Dslr but you are saying you don't want a dslr.

The thing is, all digicam pictures look the same. And the "manual" controls on a digicam, they are there for show. They don't really do a whole lot.

Which is fine. Digicams now can take really great pictures. I just wouldn't spend much money for a fancy one. Fancy ones and relatively cheap ones take the same pictures. I have a huge dslr, but got a Canon 780is (I think that's what it's called) and it's very handy. Pictures look as good as pictures I took with a G10 at half the price.

So...minus the video, you can get a totally useable Dslr and lens for <>

(it's on rebate so I'd probably take it sooner than later).

If you really need video, look for a Rebel T1i on ebay. There is a new version out, and maybe a used one might end up in your budget. They do really amazing video.

I think you need to either decide: do I want a digicam to take fun pictures with (get the canon 780is) or do I want to do creative photography (buy a dslr).
posted by sully75 at 2:59 PM on February 19, 2010

I'm also very happy with my S90. It's essentially a G11 with half the weight and bulk, without the viewfinder (which is terrible anyway). Low-light pictures are excellent -- almost no noise at ISO400 and an acceptable amount at IS800.
posted by randomstriker at 3:09 PM on February 19, 2010

I got an LX3 a couple months ago, based on its good reputation/hype, for $400 from Amazon (looks like the silver one is $362 now). I was used to a non-fancy old compact camera, so of course I like the image quality of the LX3 photos, but it's taken me a while to adapt to it. The wide angle lens isn't what I'm used to — you get perspective distortion from certain angles, and you can't zoom very much. Also, somehow the auto mode seems to tend toward the "dramatic" image while I prefer a realistic style. (But I'm glad I got a compact camera instead of the DSLR I was considering! I'm interested in carrying my camera around with me everywhere and taking quick shots. I'm not so interested in manual settings or intensive processing, neither of which are required for fun and creative photography in various styles.)

I also recommend checking out the pictures in the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 Flickr pool, to see if you like how the images look from the hands of some users.
posted by dreamyshade at 3:36 PM on February 19, 2010

Mercaptan: could you say a bit more about why it's bad at action shots? I was considering one, and would want to do the odd bit of action, I'd guess.
posted by bonaldi at 4:39 PM on February 19, 2010

I have had the LX3 since August 2008, one of the very first to ship in the US, I paid over $600 for the damn thing and I have been disappointed from day one. I realize that it has been praised for it's low light capabilities but, honestly, the people doing the praising must all be used to really crappy cameras because I find that the LX3 is about useless for the kind of low-light for which a nice little pocket camera would be really useful: most social settings, restaurants, office interiors and the like. You know, photos of things that go on in the parts of your life where there aren't nearby stars or carbon arc lamps overhead.

Really, anything above ISO 200 on the LX3 is tantamount to useless because the noise becomes overpowering.

Yes, I am comparing it to a DSLR (first a 40D and now a 7D) and no, it isn't fair to compare the LX3 to them directly but I don't care.

All that said, it is still the best pocket-size camera on the market, hands down.2
posted by bz at 5:17 PM on February 19, 2010

I'm going to talk crazy talk here and suggest that you get a Canon Powershot and install CHDK. The current bottom-of-the-line is $94 (Beach Camera) and works with CHDK. From Amazon, you can get the SD1100 for about $250.

CHDK will give you the raw and manual controls you crave. The form factor is small, the camera is responsive.

I have an SD450 that I bought about 5 years ago because compared with other p&s cameras, it was very responsive and took pretty nice photos, all things considered. I don't care about raw or the other tweaks so I haven't done the CHDK hack myself.
posted by plinth at 5:52 PM on February 19, 2010

Go with the LX3 (or LX4 when it arrives) or the S90.

Stay far away from Nikons that aren't dSLRs.
posted by b1tr0t at 6:22 PM on February 19, 2010

I don't think you have any choice but a Canon Powershot G11. I have a G9, and it's been nothing but awesome.
posted by The Michael The at 6:24 PM on February 19, 2010

nthing the Canon S90! I just took mine on my 2nd vacation to Big Sur and the pictures are amazing....and I'm no photographer. I visited the same spots in Big Sur this time last year with my Canon SD800 - comparing the photos, well, there's no comparison. Shoots in combined JPG and RAW modes, too.

The discussions on the DPReview Canon Talk forum were really helpful and basically convinced me to get the S90. Definitely really pleased with my choice.

I also searched Flickr for photos taken with a Canon S90 and checked out the S90 user group. Checking out actual photos by "regular" people (not just pro photographers) also helped me make my decision.

If you do get the S90, you might want to consider adding this grip. One of the (few) cons of the S90 is that it's *too* sleek and a bit difficult to grip with one hand. This grip has made a huge difference for me.

Good luck!
posted by yeoja at 6:34 PM on February 19, 2010

I'm not a camera expert at all, but I've heard a good thing to search for when seeking something between point-and-shoot and DSLR is "bridge camera." I was looking into getting one myself, but other things took my $$, and this was several years ago. Sometimes the main difference between a DSLR and a bridge camera is the ability to change the lens out.
posted by ishotjr at 6:43 PM on February 19, 2010

Gadzooks! You guys are _awesome_. I had somehow completely missed the Canon s90 in my searching, and it does look like a pretty great option. Great price, shoots RAW, and a do love the low-light capabilities.

You may have sold me on the S90. Thanks everyone!

One VERY small advantage of the Lumix over the Canon s90...the Lumix has a hotshoe mount. Does that really matter to me, given what I'm looking for?
posted by griffey at 6:51 PM on February 19, 2010

Serious Compacts and rawsumer are blogs dedicated to cameras in this range.
posted by mbrubeck at 8:24 PM on February 19, 2010

One VERY small advantage of the Lumix over the Canon s90...the Lumix has a hotshoe mount. Does that really matter to me, given what I'm looking for?

Unlikely - you can always optically slave a big flash from the on-camera flash.
posted by b1tr0t at 9:09 PM on February 19, 2010

I have a Canon Powershot SX200 IS which I'm very happy with.

It fits comfortably in a jacket pocket or a bag. Won't fit in a shirt pocket, will fit in a trouser pocket if it's baggy enough.

Ignore anyone saying "it doesn't matter, everything not a DSLR is the same", that's nonsense. The Powershot has a 12x optical zoom which makes a big difference in the shots you can make, and it has much better low-light performance than my (smaller) Ixus 80 due to the bigger aperture. It also has pretty full manual controls, though they're fiddlier to use than on a DSLR since you have to go through buttons and menus instead of just tweaking rings. It allows long exposures up to 15 seconds, which still allows you to take scenes that are invisibly dark to the naked eye.

As others have said, it's definitely worth looking through to see what they think of various models.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 6:57 AM on February 20, 2010

The just-announced Samsung TL500 is also worth a look. Don't buy anything this week, wait for the rest of the PMA announcements.
posted by b1tr0t at 7:24 PM on February 20, 2010

One VERY small advantage of the Lumix over the Canon s90...the Lumix has a hotshoe mount. Does that really matter to me, given what I'm looking for?

"Unlikely - you can always optically slave a big flash from the on-camera flash."

But only if you shoot dead manual or with a flash whose optical slave is smart and recognizes the odd pulses that many point and shoot type cameras. Red-eye pre-flash and auto-focus pre-flashing from a small camera usually befuddles most optical slave systems. Wein offers standalone optical slaves that work with pre-flash "digital camera" systems.
posted by bz at 12:19 PM on March 3, 2010

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