Looking for the holy grail of cameras.
October 15, 2010 8:09 AM   Subscribe

I need a new camera. Does a small camera with DSLR capability exist?

It's time to get a new digital camera, with a vacation coming up and us possibly having a baby within the next year. I don't want to get too special snowflake with my needs, but I'd really appreciate any expertise and advice.

What I'm looking for would be:

-Small, possibly able to slip into a purse with a basic lens on it.
-Great for landscape, portrait, children and macro shots.
-Something I can grow with as a photographer. I'm learning how to do artistic shots and manipulate my camera. I've also started doing the occasional photo shoot for my graphic design work.
-Able to do geo-tagging, even if it's just with an add-on. It isn't necessarily a dealbreaker if it isn't able to do this.
-Able to shoot in video mode. This would be a huge bonus.

In the past I've used a Sony Cyber Shot S85, which was the best camera I ever had by far. I'd still put its images up against anything else I've tried and would still use it, except for the fact that it uses the old memory sticks and the battery is shot. I switched to a Canon PC1354, which is the crappiest piece of crap ever. I often borrow my dad's Nikon D50, and I like it, but it's huge and heavy to lug around.

My ideal camera would be serious and capable of doing great things, but would also easily convert to a more portable, quick-shot camera.

I've been researching cameras, but then new models came out and now I am very confused. We don't have very many camera stores in this area and I don't trust the guys at Best Buy to sell me what I really want/need. So I turn to you. What would you recommend? I was intrigued by the Olympus PEN until I watched the promo video and realized it was more of a "mom camera" than I thought. I'd prefer something with options, rather than dumbed-down features.

We'll leave budget wide open for this, but cheaper is always better. I prefer not go to with Canon this time around, but if you have the "perfect" Canon camera for me, then please do recommend it. I'd like to buy it new rather than used, too, and the sooner the better. And if you think I should just get a high-end point-and-shoot and just borrow my dad's Nikon for more serious pursuits, feel free to mention that as well.

Thanks in advance!
posted by bristolcat to Technology (33 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
There are bunches of consumer-grade cameras out that will probably do everything on your list except "grow with as a photographer," in the sense of:
- being able to exchange lenses
- shoot RAW so you can do more/better digital image manipulation

"doing artistic shots" and "manipulate your camera" is a grey area. I would expect the smaller, cheaper point and shoots to have different modes like b&w, sephia, color modes, and a few effects - what I'm not sure you're going to find is aperture and shutter time controls, which are the two main things you play with on a DSLR to manipulate how the image turns out. The digital point and shoots do those things, but I'm not sure I've seen one that lets you dial in those values manually - the focus, no pun intended, is on making it easy to operate for people who don't want to spend a lot of time learning about their cameras.

I have a Canon Rebel, and I like it. I don't spend a lot of time trying to take creative pictures, but I often shoot events from my son's soccer games to local civic events with pictures of grip and grins - I think none of the DSLR brands (Nikon, Canon, Sony, Olympus, etc) should be judged by how they do in the point and shoot arena. Making a good point and shoot is a different set of engineering and marketing objectives than making a good DSLR.

If you're bothered by the weight, I think the Nikon D50 and the Canon Rebel series are about as small and lightweight as anything you're going to find that will have the DSLR capabilities. There may be smaller-frame exotic cameras that do neat stuff, but they would have exotic price tags to match.

I'd buy a cheap point and shoot at Best Buy after doing your own research and keep borrowing Dad's D50.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:25 AM on October 15, 2010

The closest thing you'll find to this are the low end DSLRs, like the Nikon D40 and D5000. They're quite a bit smaller than the D50, but they're still enormous by point and shoot standards. An SLR can't be made too terribly small, given all the things that have to go in it and that the distance between the back of the lens and the sensor has to be a certain distance.

There are plenty of decent point and shoots these days. While I much prefer Nikon SLRs (this is a personal preference thing, not an inherent superiority), I think the small Canon P&S cameras (with IS) are pretty great. I also have an ancient Sony DSC-S60, which I like other than the shutter lag and chromatic aberration.

These days, unless I was getting one of the image-stabilizing point and shoots, I'd just buy a cell phone with a good camera. Like the Nokia N8. That thing takes some really beautiful pictures, and has a Xenon flash like a P&S does.

It really sounds like an SLR isn't what you're looking for. It's very rare that the camera is what's holding a photographer back unless the camera is absolutely awful. (or you're trying to shoot sports with a half second shutter lag) You're looking for one of the higher end point and shoot cameras, although you're probably not going to find geotagging on them. Another plus for the cell phone.

If you really don't like anything you see there, I'd recommend one of the lower-end Nikon DSLRs and an SB-400 flash with an 18-200VR zoom lens. That lens isn't small, but it will meet 95% of your imaging needs. Perfect for trying to photograph childrens, who as I'm sure you're aware will not sit still for candy, much less a lens change.
posted by wierdo at 8:25 AM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, and I failed to mention that given that your dad has a D50, and presumably has lenses for it, sticking with a Nikon body is probably a good idea if you do decide on an SLR. That way you can borrow his lenses. ;)
posted by wierdo at 8:26 AM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ken Rockwell's current recommendations are always a great place to start.

The Lumix GF1 is well-liked as a DSLR alternative; it can do this kind of work. $700ish, so really not cheap, but a lot of camera with a lot of options.
posted by holgate at 8:26 AM on October 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Have you looked at the DMC-GF1?
posted by zeoslap at 8:28 AM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far! Yes, what I'm looking for is something I can do adjustments on like I did with my ancient manual. I don't need on-camera sepia tone or anything like that.

The Lumix looks great, except for the lack of a viewfinder. I'm not sure how I feel about that.

And yes, the reason I was looking at Nikons in the first place was lens sharing.

Also, I am a cell phone nerd and am going to be going from a Droid to whatever the next amazing Droid is in January. Great phone, but bad camera. So that's kind of out.
posted by bristolcat at 8:34 AM on October 15, 2010

Canon PowerShot G11 is amazing. I started of with a G5, them moved on to an Olympus E510. Then decided that while I love my SLR sometimes I just need something more portable, ao I picked up the G11. It has manual features when i need it and shoots awesome on auto when i don't. Good low light capabilities as well. Can't recommend it enough.
posted by pyro979 at 8:37 AM on October 15, 2010

The Pen isn't a "mom camera". Yes, it has silly "creative" modes but it takes real interchangeable lenses and has control over shutter speed and aperture in full manual, aperture priority, and shutter priority modes. It or one of the other Micro Four Thirds system cameras (like the GF1 mentioned above) are probably what you're looking for.
posted by zsazsa at 8:39 AM on October 15, 2010

I have a Canon G11 and LOVE it. My needs were pretty similar to yours; as in, looking for a camera that could take good shots on auto but that would also allow me to learn manual photography as I went along. I wanted something I could grow and learn with, but realised that a SLR would spend most of its time at home as I wouldn't want to carry it around. The G11 is not pocketable but is definitely handbag-able, I carry it with me everywhere and have had great fun with it. The dials to adjust settings are all external dials, so you don't have to dig around in complicated sub-menus to change things. The screen flicks out which is great for getting unusual shots, or for doing cheesy self portraits.

I am not being paid by Canon, promise! I just spent months researching what camera I wanted and am very happy with my decision :)
posted by cmarie at 8:41 AM on October 15, 2010

You can get an electronic view-finder for the GF1 but there are very few times when I thought I've needed one. I would also try to get some hands-on with the Olympus PEN, which is similar to the GF1. My impression is it's not a 'mom camera' at all - but maybe the video you watched was some marketer trying to position it as such?

The GF1 + 20mm lens is fantastic and would meet almost all of your requirements, except for geotagging (and being cheap, although you can find deals). The kit lens isn't great at macro shots, but you can buy adapters for macro use, and ones for using your old manual lenses, which can be a great money-saver and fun to play with.
posted by Gortuk at 8:42 AM on October 15, 2010

Seconding zsazsa that the Pen is in no sense a "mom" camera. You know there are two Pen lines right? You might want the EP-1/EP-2 line rather than the E-PL1 line, but these are in no way dumbed down. In fact they are made for exactly what you want, though they aren't cheap.
posted by The Bellman at 8:44 AM on October 15, 2010

Response by poster: Thank goodness. I thought I was going crazy. Yes, The Bellman. You're right. I was looking at the E-PL1 PEN instead of the E-P1. The video on this page is what I saw and that's what gave me the impression that the PEN was a "mom camera" (by which I didn't mean any offense to anyone).

That puts the PEN back in the race. It's not cheap, but it's less than $1000, so that's good. The Canon G11 looks a lot like what I had with my beloved Sony, but it doesn't have interchangeable lenses (maybe not a big deal). The Lumix is still looking good, too.

Thanks for all the good advice so far! Maybe what I will have to do is wait until we are on vacation in Seattle and find a good camera store there. I was in our one local camera store yesterday and they didn't have any of these in stock as far as I could tell.
posted by bristolcat at 8:53 AM on October 15, 2010

I suggest you take a look at the Sony NEX-5.
posted by redyaky at 9:00 AM on October 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

The GF1 with the 20mm lens does exactly this for me, however the Panasonics are quite expensive. I do miss the viewfinder occationally, but you adapt. What I really want is a view screen that unfolds from the back. The G-2 has this now.

Having two manufacturers making lenses, Olympus' EP1/2 uses the same system, is very nice though. I've got an Olympus lens for the GF-1 and it works as well as the Panasonic ones do. So if you buy one or the other, you've got two companies offerings to choose from.
posted by bonehead at 9:23 AM on October 15, 2010

The main differences mentioned between the GF-1 and the EP-1 when I was looking were that the GF-1 has a tiny popup flash and that the image stabilization is in the lens for the GF-1 and in the body for the EP-1. Costco had the EP-1 at one point for about $500 after rebate but they are now sold out on the website. Not sure if any of the stores would still have them.
posted by oneear at 9:36 AM on October 15, 2010

The Lumix G2 has a viewfinder and does good HD video.

Panasonic is also about to release the GH2, which seems to be all the still picture capabilities of my beloved G2, but with more resolution and a higher max ISO, plus it's a serious video shooting tool.

That preview also talks about a new, even smaller, pancake lens that is about to go on my Christmas list.
posted by IanMorr at 10:01 AM on October 15, 2010

Have you looked at the dpreview.com feature search? You can search for the features you want and then get a side-by-side comparison of the different cameras.
posted by wsquared at 10:08 AM on October 15, 2010

The Canon S95 doesn't support interchangeable lenses, but offers a lot of manual control in a compact body. Here's a more detailed review of the older model, the S90.
posted by ikaruga at 10:21 AM on October 15, 2010

I was intrigued by the Olympus PEN until I watched the promo video and realized it was more of a "mom camera" than I thought. I'd prefer something with options, rather than dumbed-down features.

There's nothing dumbed-down about the PENs. It DOES have some pointless features, but it also has excellent image quality and gives the user the control of a DSLR is a much smaller package. It's superior in this regard to the (excellent) G11, which might also be what you're looking for.
posted by coolguymichael at 10:47 AM on October 15, 2010

I just realized you watched the "promo" video for the PEN. Don't. They try to sell it on its simplicity (which is logical) but overlook its power. There's a reason these have been snatched up by professionals as their walking-around or secondary cameras.

I posted this video link yesterday on another question. It will be more useful to you than the promo video.

(PS, I'm not a PEN owner, but I just finished an exhaustive camera search, and the PENs were near the top of my short list. Eventually, I bought a DSLR. But *MAN* the PENs are impressive for their size.)
posted by coolguymichael at 10:53 AM on October 15, 2010

Response by poster: I'm thrilled that now I have about six cameras to compare and look closer at. Thanks again for everyone's input!

My sticking point is the viewfinder. Does anyone have an opinion on the PEN E-P2? The version on Amazon that comes with a detachable electronic viewfinder is about $779. Otherwise, I can get the accessory viewfinder for the PEN E-P1 for an additional $90, making the PEN E-P1 + Viewfinder about $636. Would the P2 be much advantage over the P1 for that price?
posted by bristolcat at 12:11 PM on October 15, 2010

I've been in the same position as you for years now: a special snowflake with a need for a digital camera and a very strong dissatisfaction with every offering on the market. In the meantime I've been shooting film, which has only served to spoil me further with features that were once taken for granted: big, bright viewfinders; easily-accessible manual controls; reasonable body sizes & weights; excellent image quality on even the cheapest cameras (zoom lenses on compacts are frightful things); etc.

I did have high hopes for the recent offerings from Olympus and Panasonic, and while image quality on both is quite good I found the experience they offered was terrible. Composing a shot on an LCD screen, holding the camera at arm's length with the right hand, and zooming/focusing with the left is the most awkward combination of things a camera manufacturer has ever asked me to do. Hand-holding a Crown Graphic is more rewarding, and easier on the arms.

And so I've saved my pennies. I'm ever the optimist. I've even taken to writing the R&D departments of major camera manufacturers and sending them my basic message: cameras really were better in the 60s and 70s in a lot of ways; stop adding time-wasting features and give us back our simple convenience; people are not as frightened of manual focus as you think; etc.

I think one manufacturer may have listened, too.


I might be wrong, but if you value a compact, high-quality device that puts its controls where you can reach them, this might be a camera worth waiting for. Its most celebrated feature so far is the hybrid viewfinder, which superimposes EVF data & framelines over a standard rangefinder-style optical viewfinder. It was your mention of a viewfinder being a priority which inspired me to suggest the X100. It's the first digital non-Leica camera to take its viewfinder seriously, in my opinion. It makes the VF on the Canon G11 look like a dark, narrow tunnel, and it puts the VFs of most dSLRs to shame, as well.

Here's a video demonstrating the viewfinder.

Pardon the rant. I just think this might be worth waiting for if no current offerings really do it for you, and this is the first mention of the X100 on MeFi. I figured I'd at least try to make it a good one. ;)
posted by tapesonthefloor at 1:35 PM on October 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

I just went through a similar process as you and ended up with the GF1 (because of the flash) and the 20mm pancake.
I've only had it a week but so far I absolutely love it.

The video is quite good, and if you're adventurous there's a firmware hack that makes it even better.
posted by dolface at 2:41 PM on October 15, 2010

No camera smaller than a DSLR has DSLR capabilities.


Micro 4/3 cameras are the closest thing out there, but simply do not have DSLR capabilities.

Get a low end DSLR with a kit lens. If necessary, add a bigger purse and you'll still have less invested and more capability than you will with any alternative.
posted by imjustsaying at 3:14 PM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Another happy GF1 user here.
posted by doctor_negative at 4:53 PM on October 15, 2010

From what I read, you don't want a small DSLR; you want an EVIL camera (Electronic Viewfinder, Interchangeable Lens). Some have even been named already: Olympus PEN and Panasonic Lumix GF1.

So do I! ... as soon as they make one with a full-sized sensor, AND a variable-angle viewscreen. What can I say? I'm picky.

Anyway, armed with the right terminology & mindset, maybe you can find the camera of your dreams. The day of the SLR is waning, IMO; electronic viewfinders are becoming competitive with the prism-reflected optical viewfinder, and otherwise EVILs are equal (lenses available) or superior (weight, size) in every respect.

Anyone else remember a few years ago, when all the pundits made money publishing articles on why digitals would never replace film?
posted by IAmBroom at 8:43 PM on October 15, 2010

Seconding you check out the new Sony NEX.
posted by smoke at 10:33 PM on October 15, 2010

i love my olympus pen epl-1. on a recent trip to peru i found myself using it a LOT more than the DSLR i brought with me. you don't really need the higher end ep-1 or ep-2; put your money into the lenses.
posted by raw sugar at 1:39 AM on October 16, 2010

@imjustsaying: I'd be interested to know why you think micro 4/3rds (or EVIL) cameras do not have DSLR capabilities - or what capabilities they lack.

My understanding what that the only difference was the lack of reflective mirror inside which meant the body could be shrunk and that everything else was exactly the same.

Citations would be great too as I too am thinking of buying a micro 4/3rds when Canon come up with one.
posted by mr_silver at 1:47 AM on October 16, 2010


While I am no expert, the lack of a mirror in these cameras also means there is no pentaprism which means that there is a noticeable lag between you taking a picture and being able to compose the next one (due to the viewfinder being electronic rather than optical). There are also potential issues with focusing. DSLRs will focus faster.

For some this could be a deal breaker.

Also worth mentioning are the upcoming Sony SLT cameras (the alpha 55 is the nicer one) which use a semi-transparent mirror and also have no prism but can focus well while shotting video. These aren't so much as DSLR replacements as cameras designed with a particular use in mind.
posted by redyaky at 5:05 AM on October 16, 2010

I'm guessing the comment about DSLRs refers to things like larger sensor size, which can mean better low light performance. Also, for Nikon and Canon there are decades of lenses to choose from.
posted by snofoam at 4:19 PM on October 16, 2010

My understanding what that the only difference was the lack of reflective mirror inside which meant the body could be shrunk and that everything else was exactly the same.

mr_silver, the lack of a mirror inside also implies that the view is electronic, not optical, and that carries a lot of secondary implications: the view is resolution-limited by pixel count, there is currently still a non-trivial time lag in the "live view" electronic recreation of the shot, the dynamic range of the viewfinder is limted to 256 bits, instead of the much larger range of your own eye (which is useful for framing shots, even if the sensor won't capture all you see), etc.

But I am still a big fan of EVILs.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:09 AM on October 19, 2010

Thanks redyaky, snofoam and IAmBroom! Definitely something to consider when I get around to considering either EVIL or DSLR.
posted by mr_silver at 7:42 AM on October 20, 2010

« Older Great, cheap places to go this winter   |   What was this microfilm gadget called? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.