Stepping up the camera game.
March 16, 2011 3:41 PM   Subscribe

Looking for a new camera, but I'm a bit overwhelmed. Is DSLR the way to go? Special snowflake details inside...

I'm looking to upgrade my camera for business reasons, but right now I'm so confused about what I should be looking for, so I wanted to ask you, MeFi!

So I currently have a Canon Powershot SD 880 IS which has been the best camera I've owned thus far. And it's not too bad of a camera, but I still find a lot of limitations with it. I see friends with more powerful cameras getting really nice shots with theirs-- and especially indoors this camera's not that great. (Outdoors during the daytime it's pretty good though, so I'd probably keep it for on the go snapshots) I currently mostly use my camera to shoot indoors-- process photos, products, etc (I'm an illustrator, so I like to share bits of this). The camera I have is okay, but I still have to delete tons of photos off my camera for being grainy or blurry in low light/indoors. (The lighting in my studio is not super bright, as I'm in cloudy/rainy weather most of the time.) I've also been really interested as of late to fool around with stop motion animation, so that's another concern down the line.

Other things I might take photos of: my dog, the outdoors, people, travel (though I don't travel very often at the moment). But I'm not really sure what I need. I've been eyeballing both DSLRs and the micro 4/3s , but I'm certainly no pro photographer so researching is really confusing after a while. What should I be looking for? I don't have a huge budget (been looking at the $500-800 range, but would prefer the lower end of that), but at the same time I wonder if I need something like a DSLR ( I do like the idea of getting one for stop motion so I can get a remote as well) or if there's any amazing simpler cameras that'll fit the bill. I don't mind the potential complexity of learning something like the DSLR (I took a photography class a few years ago with a SLR so I have some beginner knowledge to start), but ideally I'd like to make photography more enjoyable and get a tool I can grow with over time.

So if you can give me recommendations of cameras to look at, or what type of camera I should be investing in (i.e, 4/3rds, DSLR, really awesome point & shoot), I'd love it!

Hope this makes sense (I did read other recent questions but it still was tough for me to figure out what I need), but I'll be checking in to answer any questions as needed. Thanks!
posted by actionpact to Technology (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
The number one thing we've noticed about our micro 4/3s camera (the Panasonic GF1) is that it takes fantastic shots indoors without a flash - accurate whites, no blue or grey tinge, no noise, natural flesh tones, and, if you're close enough to your subject, a dreamy depth of field that gives a nicely blurred background while keeping the foreground is crisp focus.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:03 PM on March 16, 2011

It doesn't sound like you really need a DSLR. It might be more of a lighting problem in your studio. You could either add more light or invest in a tripod.

Yes, DSLRs will take better photos overall. But you can get very good looking photos with point-and-shoot cameras these days -- you just need more light when you're inside.

A DSLR won't give you a magically better photo if you still have pretty low light and/or bad lighting.

Another consideration is the output -- small photo on the web? Full color magazine page?

Maybe you could justify spending more if it's for business reasons (can you write it off?).
posted by starman at 4:06 PM on March 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

The cheapest thing you could do right now to take indoor shots of products and things is to get a small tripod for your current camera. There are also plenty of tutorials online about rigging up makeshift studio lighting, such as taking ordinary desk lamps and putting thin white cloth over them.

I just asked about micro 4/3s here and I've taken a few photos with the Olympus I ended up buying. I've been pretty satisfied with it so far. I also have a Pentax dSLR that's great; Pentax, I believe, is relatively under-appreciated and they're generally priced a little less than comparable Canons or Nikons for that reason.

The thing with either the 4/3s or dSLR route is you're going to start sinking lots of money into accessories (lenses especially) very quickly.
posted by backseatpilot at 4:07 PM on March 16, 2011

The Panasonic DMC-LX5 has tons of manual controls which would allow you to grow as a photographer. At the same time, has a very fast wide lens for great indoor photography. It is also reasonably small, so it's easy to carry around. Right now you can get if for as little as $387.
posted by VikingSword at 4:22 PM on March 16, 2011

I had asked a similar question recently and I think I'm going to end up trying to find a GF1. The GF2 just doesn't get good enough reviews, and the bad ones make me push away even more.

good luck
posted by zombieApoc at 4:37 PM on March 16, 2011

As a long time photography hobbyist, one thing I have learned is that there is no camera that does all things right.

You will probably end up with two cameras - one for indoor occasions, parties, and even for some travel where you don't want to lug around a heavier camera and a bigger one for landscapes, special tourist spots, portraits, wildlife etc. And I am not even going to talk about video.

If you think that you will take a lot of photos, go with the best DSLR you can find with one additional lens (apart from what comes standard). This lens can be a portrait lens, which is also good for normal touristy photos. After a year or so, go for a zoom lens.

From a DSLR perspective, I suggest you stick with Nikon/Canon - used lenses are easier to find and cheaper, service is pretty good outside the US. I have had a couple of Panasonics and while the build quality is good, their service is lousy, firmware is difficult to upgrade and lens are way too expensive.
posted by theobserver at 4:53 PM on March 16, 2011

I don't want to dissuade you from getting a new camera, but have you tried CHDK with your SD880is? It allows you to shoot raw and use a remote.

I had a terrible experience with a Panasonic (the dismal, vile LX2) so please stay away.
posted by scruss at 4:59 PM on March 16, 2011

The single best camera in the whole wide world is the one you're carrying on you when the moment happens.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:06 PM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thanks everyone for your answers thus far-- been good food for thought. And I do know there's no ideal camera-- I just want a good strong contender that doesn't leave me frustrated. If nothing else, maybe there's some things I can do in the short term to improve my photographs and keep this camera...

scruss, I have no idea what that is (so perhaps that shows off my novice level)-- can you explain? In all honesty I only looked up remotes briefly and it seemed like they were all for DSLRs, so I've no idea. But if I can actually do more with this camera, that does sound awful appealing...
posted by actionpact at 5:08 PM on March 16, 2011

The Lumix LX-5 or the Canon S95 are both very much worth looking at. They are not the low-light monsters that some of the newest DSLRs are but they are respectable. The Canon will fit in a pocket, the LX-5 a little less so. I have a two-year old LX-3 and a two-week old S95 and the smaller size of the S95 is why I will probably carry it from now on.
posted by bz at 5:48 PM on March 16, 2011

I have your exact same camera! For what it's worth, I traveled recently with a friend who had a Canon S95 and his was vastly superior in a number of categories: wider lens, much faster startup time, better handling in low light, better color balance. He loves it because it has a lot of bells and whistles that comes with a DSLR, but much much more compact for travel (he has a DSLR that he left at home). It's apparently easy to preset the controls so you can easily switch modes quickly. Every single fast action shot (friends' pets, kids, etc) I take with my point-and-shoot is crap.

I had gone through the same decision process that you had, and had initially purchased the Lumix DMC-Zs7. After 48 hours, I promptly returned it. It was too clunky, didn't handle indoor shots well, and wouldn't fit comfortably in a pocket. Even if I don't travel a lot, I would see myself getting frustrated by the awkward form factor of the Panasonic cameras (I've had 2 in the past).

If I had to decide all over again, I'd go with the Canon S95. It's worth the extra investment. I can easily see myself needing to upgrade to the Canon S95 within a year, which means I should probably have bought it in the first place. *shakes fist at self.
posted by hampanda at 6:18 PM on March 16, 2011

CHDK is a firmware upgrade for lots of different Canon cameras that unlocks or adds new functionality typically only found on higher end cameras rather than point and shoot compacts. For example, I upgraded my old IXUS and suddenly found myself able to do the faux HDR thing by taking bracketed exposure shots in RAW format. I also got a live histogram and the ability to control the camera with a remote. I think it could even play a game in the LCD viewfinder, but I didn't go that deep. Might be worth checking out to squeeze some final value from your existing camera.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:42 PM on March 16, 2011

('Upgrade' is probably the wrong word - it's more alternative operating software you can choose to activate automatically when you start up the camera. Your old firmware is still there, and you can switch back at any time.)
posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:45 PM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I purchased a Nikon D70S in 2005, and looking back 6 years later I can honestly say it has been the "tech" purchase that I have gotten the most use out of, by a long shot. When I purchased the D70S it was the top of the line "Pro-Sumer" DSLR that Nikon made. It came with a nice lens, and while it wasn't cheap, it was pretty affordable compared to pro cameras.

Having a DSLR won't make you a better photographer instantly, but it will teach you over time to take better pictures. Before owning this camera, I knew zero about taking pics. Having a DSLR gave me a chance to learn and experiment with all the settings. Using the camera in manual mode will teach you how to properly focus, pay attention to shutter speed, lighting, ISO settings and a host of other details you need to know in order to take a proper shot. Just learning what all the features on a DSLR actually do can serve as a crash course in digital photography. I think if I bought a point and shoot, I would still just be snapping away on autofocus, with no actual photography skills. If you feel like you want to put some time into building your photography skills, a DSLR is definitely the way to go. I think of mine as a learning lab. There are a tremendous amount of walkthroughs, how-to's, FAQ's and user communities online to help you learn. I've really, really enjoyed the process of learning the camera, and because of that photography has grown into my favorite hobby since I bought the D70S.

Another thing to consider is an SLR/DSLR from a major brand (Nikon or Canon) won't ever become obsolete, which is not the case with point and shoot digital cameras. Sure, there will always be a newer, shinier model with more whistles, bells and megapixels. However, most of the lenses and accessories will work with your camera and the brand will continue to support the camera with service and firmware updates. I have several friends that regularly shoot with Nikon's and Canons from the 70's and 80's.

6 years on, I still have the D70S, it still works perfectly, and it still takes fantastic photos. I can still get new lenses, and Nikon still provides support. I can't think of much else electronic that I own where that is the case.

My advice would be that you can't go wrong with a DSLR from Nikon or Canon, and you'll be shooting great photos with it for many years to come.
posted by EvilPRGuy at 6:49 PM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you like photography, get a DSLR. I like Canon, but Nikon is good too. Even if you buy a cheap DSLR now, if you feel like it later, you can buy a very nice lens for it, and take amazing photo's. Even the kit lenses on these cameras can give you great photo's.

If you are not particularly interested in photography, get some lighting. Even a couple 100 watt bulbs and a couple of clamp on fixtures can help with the problems you are describing, all for less than $40.

Lighting is vital to good photography. Almost any decent camera can give you excellent results with good lighting.
posted by markblasco at 7:26 PM on March 16, 2011

Above, hampanda mentions the Canon S95. I upgraded from a Digital ELPH like you have to the previous version, the S90, which has the same lens and sensor and is almost the same as the S95 except for tweaked controls and not as good of a video mode. It's definitely a step up from the Digital ELPHs and most point-and-shoot in terms of low-light ability and full manual control, but still not in the same class as my friend's DSLR. Still, it's enough for me now, and having the smaller, pocketable camera is key for me.
posted by JiBB at 8:12 PM on March 16, 2011

Strongly seconding CHDK. It's amazing--a study of it will help you get far more out of your Canon.

As far as the "blurry in low light" thing goes, get a tripod. The Gorillapod may be just your thing.
posted by tellumo at 9:07 PM on March 16, 2011

I understand what you mean about low lighting - I had a similar question from a different view. Low lighting was my key problem, as I'm pretty happy with my pictures taken in full lighting situations. I upgraded from a Canon PowerShot SD850 IS to a Nikon D3100, and I love it. I'm still a novice, but even in idiot mode (it comes with a frickin' guide mode "Do you want to use flash? Do you want to use the view finder or back screen?") and auto-everything, it's clear how much a larger sensor changes pictures. The depth of color is fantastic, as is the depth of field. I'm still tempted by the more compact micro 4/3s, but I'm very happy with what I have. I still carry around the SD850 in my pocket every day, but now I have my weekend camera. And the reason I went with the Nikon instead of Canon's compatible model (which I've now forgotten) because the Nikon could use any of the older Nikon lenses, whereas the Canon models now need more recent lenses, and I like the idea of being able to play around with a broader range of lenses.

In summary: I agree that more lighting could be a cheap solution to your problems, but a larger sensor is fantastic.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:08 PM on March 16, 2011

nthing Nikon. A few years ago, I bought a Nikon D40, then over time notice that everyone who had a chance to use it wound up getting one as well and loving it. It was my first DSLR and I noticed a huge difference right away in not only the photo quality but the whole photographing experience. I could never go back to a non SLR digital. Even for people who just casually enjoy taking photos, a DSLR can make you passionate about photography.
posted by jardinier at 4:28 PM on March 19, 2011

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