DESIRED: Fast, wide, compact? cameras.
November 22, 2011 10:25 AM   Subscribe

I want a camera that a) is decent in low light, b) has or can be equipped with a fast, wideish lens and focus and take pictures quickly and c) ideally is smaller than most DSLRs.


Over the years I've developed a certain "style" of spontaneous portraiture. In practice this means I sit around with friends or family and if the lighting is good I will take pictures of them. I am okay at this.

I currently own a Canon G9 which is useless in low light and an entry level Rebel that is too bulky for me to carry often. While I love the speed of my plastic 50mm 1.8 lens, the crop factor on the entry level Canon means it's narrow and more in the 70mm range.

I've decided that an ideal setup involves a lens that is about as wide as my own sight and is fast enough to take pictures in a reasonably lit room. In theory, something less than 50mm and f/1.8ish.

In practice this means I've been shooting a lot with my iPhone which leaves something to be desired.

I could just buy another lens, but putting a $400-800 lens on a $250 body seems like a bit of a waste. Do you have any recommendations?

I've looked at stuff like the GF-1 in the past, but I'm out of the loop and would appreciate some pointers in the right way.

Many thanks,
posted by pmv to Shopping (25 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I have a GF-1. I love it, though I feel like I don't always take the time to make use of the power it gives.

I would stay away from the GF-2 and GF-3. They went the wrong direction, especially for the price. (touchscreen? No thanks!).

The GX-1 looks very interesting-- it is really the successor the the GF-1. If I was in the market now, I would go that direction.

(no links, assume that you can just google it..)
posted by gregvr at 10:38 AM on November 22, 2011

I'm going to be tracking this thread as I'm looking to upgrade to a more serious compact camera. Here's an interesting preview on the GX1, which is $949 on preorder at Amazon.

I'm also thinking about the more modestly priced Canon G12 or Powershot S100.
posted by bearwife at 10:54 AM on November 22, 2011

You might take a look at the Sony NEX models. Their high ISO quality is superb, given the physical size of the cameras.

Also, the new Nikon J1 and V1 are well reviewed, and apparently the fastest compacts available in terms of autofocus speed.

Either of these choices will raise your game by levels of magnitude if you'rer coming off of some older cameras.
posted by imjustsaying at 10:54 AM on November 22, 2011

Response by poster: @bearwife,

The form factor of the late-period G series is great! and assuming they fixed the noise in low light it's a great everyday workhorse.

The sticking point for me is it's still an f2.8 which I find to be a bit too slow for my tastes.

*frame, shoot*

Ah, too blurry!

It'd be more tolerable if they've added a burst shot function so you can just snap away and pick and choose later.
posted by pmv at 11:08 AM on November 22, 2011

Best answer: I absolutely love my E-PL2, which I usually pair with the Panasonic 20mm f1.7. Excellent for low light, and much smaller than my DSLR (which I rarely use anymore). You could go even smaller with the newer EPM3, or cheaper with an E-PL1 (still a great camera).

Flickr group
posted by coolguymichael at 11:16 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @coolguymichael

How do you find the Panasonic 20mm? Between the E-PL2 and the GX-1 it's seeming like a mighty tempting suggestion.
posted by pmv at 11:21 AM on November 22, 2011

The coolest setup I've seen in a while is a Sony Nex (5?) with an adapter and a 50mm/f1.1 voigtlander lens.

It's a bit big if what you're looking for is small. And expensive. But slick!
posted by kjell at 11:28 AM on November 22, 2011

How do you find the Panasonic 20mm?

I can't tell you how much I love that lens. I spent 3 weeks on vacation recently and almost never switched to the kit lens. 20mm (which actually is 40mm equivalent) is pretty perfect for indoor people shots and wide enough for outdoor stuff as well.

I occasionally wished I had the 12mm f2 for architecture shots, but that's a very expensive lens that I wouldn't use often enough to justify the cost. I also plan on picking up the new 45mm 1.8 for portraits, but that's a little long for indoor pictures (90mm equivalent).

The 20mm is rightfully seen as the "must-have" lens for micro-four thirds cameras. It's hard to believe something so small and reasonably priced performs so well.
posted by coolguymichael at 11:34 AM on November 22, 2011

What you are looking for is the holy grail, at least according to reviewer Thom Hogan. One option may be the Fuji X100, which DPReview seems to like a bit despite the firmware being a bit buggy. With an APS-sensor, 23mm lens, and small size, it may be what you are looking for.
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 11:44 AM on November 22, 2011

Response by poster: Oh oh!

Question for the micro four thirds people (@coolguymichael, @gregvr)– if you hold your shutter down, how long does it take between pictures? Are they capable of snapping away as you need, or is there a noticeable lag before it'll let you take the next one?

@Hypnotic, the Fuji X100 is hella sexy.
posted by pmv at 11:57 AM on November 22, 2011

I don't think the Fuji x100 will work given your need for speed -- per the Amazon reviewers, it absolutely must have stable, carefully planned shots or you get nothing but out of focus results.
posted by bearwife at 12:00 PM on November 22, 2011

I don't have suggestions, but I would disagree that putting a $4-800 lens on a cheaper body is a waste. The actual look and composition of the photo comes purely from the lens, the body just gives you your resolution and other features. I think in this case the main thing you are missing out on with your camera body is the lack of clean high iso images.

Supposedly the new canon cameras with the new chip have fantastic low light capability, so that may be a good option to explore.
posted by markblasco at 1:20 PM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have the Pana LX5 with an 18mm lens, total cost about $500. Very happy with it - it has a very fast zoom lens at 24mm - 90 mm at f2.0- 3.3, but the optional fixed 18 mm is very sweet. I take it with me to restaurants and other dimly lit spaces for social type situations, it's small and unobtrusive.
posted by VikingSword at 1:23 PM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

if you hold your shutter down, how long does it take between pictures?

The E-PL2 does 3 frames per second. DPreview usually posts this type of info in their reviews.

One note: Newer m4/3 cameras focus MUCH faster than older ones -- nearly instantaneously. If shutter lag is a concern, keep this in mind.
posted by coolguymichael at 3:22 PM on November 22, 2011

Best answer: I have an Olympus E-P2 and the aforementioned Panasonic 20mm 1.7, which is a dream of a lens. I'm currently doing a 365 project using this lens almost exclusively, and I also did some street photography during the Edinburgh Festival which shows off the lens really well. The Pen is great for unobtrusive photography (especially the black one).

The autofocus speed on the E-P2 isn't great, but i've heard that the E-P3 has fixed this and my only other issue with the camera, which was high ISO performance. Other than those two niggles, I'm absolutely delighted with this camera and lens.

(The G-X1 also looks awesome, but to be honest, it doesn't matter which body, but you need that 20mm lens!)
posted by ukdanae at 3:51 PM on November 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm going to second the LX-5. I'm constantly amazed at how great it is in low light (way better than the Rebel), it has a fairly wide lens, and is small and unobtrusive. If you want to be swank you can spend another 100-200 and get a Leica badge on the cover, too. I really, really, like this camera, to the point that I don't think I will ever bother researching non-DSLR digitals again, I'll just keep buying the newest model of this whenever the need arises.
posted by dvdgee at 6:00 PM on November 22, 2011

Thirding the LX-5 suggestion, simply amazing compact.

Samsung does have something very similar as well, the EX1 compact which has a 2-75mm f1.8 lens, having a slightly wider aperture and longer reach.
posted by xdvesper at 7:30 PM on November 22, 2011

I have an LX2 and also the Samsung EX1. They are both wide angle compact zooms that take decent photos, including portraits (my Flickr stream is in my profile page ...). The LX series is smaller, and also more spontaneous than the EX1, I think. I always shoot on minimal ISO so can't talk about any noise factors.

The thing is, however - if you are looking for a fast 40-50mm lens for candid shots, then you'll have to fire them up, and then zoom to the 40-50mm range, which could take a little time. (Here, I wish cameras had a setting that set the focal length when you turned them on.)

I'm actually kind of drooling at coolguymichael's combo of the Olympus Pen (a new EP3 is coming out also I think) and the Panny f1.7 pancake lens. That looks completely awesome. Once you learn to use it you could just set it to wide aperture, pull it out and point it in the right direction, and fire it off.
posted by carter at 8:30 PM on November 22, 2011

Of course, the Olly-Panny combo will cost you 2-3 times more ...
posted by carter at 8:35 PM on November 22, 2011

Response by poster: Just to keep everyone up to date here and for anyone who might be reading this thread IN THE FUTURE,

Thanks for all the responses!

From reading around on dpreview, it seems that the Fuji X100 is unsatisfying, despite looking awesome. The Panasonic LX-5 seems to be the most mentioned. I also liked the mention of the Samsung EX1. I'd perform an exhaustive listing of all the dpreview pages I've looked at but I'm starting to get dizzy.

In a nutshell - newer G models from Panasonic steered away from "prosumers" and lost features. I looked at the Sony models mentioned earlier but was turned off by their seemingly? custom lens interchange. I lost interested in the Nikon once I read that it had a smaller sensor size compared to similar compacts, presumably to protect their SLR models. Finally, the Canon Powershot G models, while perfectly capable have lost some of their cachet to the newer compact models; the G12 still sports a f2.8. That said, apparently they've fixed the frame speed issue (boasting of 4fps) that kinda soured me on my G9 (maybe 0.5fps).

I really wish dpreview were easier to parse; I only ever care about sensor size, how many frames it can process in continuous mode and image comparisons. It's maddening. I really wish I could just browse by sensor size since that seems to be the determining factor in low light image noise.

Seeing as the GX1 isn't shipping yet, and I'd like to have it before Christmas, I'm now very tempted towards the Olympus EP3 equipped with the Panasonic 20mm. It's about $800 at my local photography store, seeing as Amazon refuses to ship it to Canada.

The review mentioned its continuous burst isn't great – the viewfinder doesn't update with the new shots – but as long as it takes a picture the instant I press the shutter I'll survive. I'm thinking about it over trolling Craigslist for an old GF1 ($700 WITH a pancake 20mm), though, because all the reviews are gushing about how improved the EP3 is over the earlier models. I'd be willing to pay for a camera I won't care to upgrade for a while.

I'm not gonna lie - the Panasonic 20mm is almost exactly the kind of lens I had in mind and despite the price tag it considerably tilts my hand towards m4/3s. I was led away from the LX5 due to the marginally longer and slower lens and the much smaller sensor size - which is more evident when you click to the noise comparison page. As a rule of thumb, fixed lens cameras seem to have much smaller sensors.

There are probably more meaningful metrics to compare cameras on, but after six or seven thousand shutter clicks low-light noise and slow shutter speeds are the single most salient irritant.
posted by pmv at 9:36 PM on November 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

i am crazy about my fuji x100 but i also enjoy my epl-1 with panny 20mm 1.7 for my smaller cameras.
posted by raw sugar at 10:14 PM on November 22, 2011

Best answer: Some thoughts: I really like my LX5, but it can't compete in low light with a DSLR like my aging XTi. It sounds like you're after a 'normal' lens - 50mm on a 35mm body. APS shooters resort to the Sigma 30/1.4. The LX5 has a convenient step-zoom feature that will jump between various 35mm equivalent lengths. 20mm on a 4/3 is about 40mm on a 35mm body. The Olympus bodies all come with stabilization; Panasonics don't. NEX cameras have great image quality but a mediocre lens selection. You'll probably have to compromise somewhere. In addtion to the LX5 and EX1, consider the Olympus XZ1: as fast and wide as the EX1, with HD video.
posted by unmake at 1:06 AM on November 23, 2011

The one thing I really like about the EX1 for low light is, if you look at the picture of it in DP Review, you can see a small horizontal ridged wheel towards the top left, set into the rubber grip. That can be used to control the EV (+/- 2.0) in some settings. It's super easy to lower the EV when you want to; push it in to activate, and rotate it to set.
posted by carter at 1:15 AM on November 23, 2011

Response by poster: @carter I'd forgotten about the 'normal' lens terminology. Yes, exactly.

I also very much appreciate your suggestion of the Sigma, which is probably the most cost-effective solution given my current situation.
posted by pmv at 8:20 AM on November 23, 2011

Olympus sales today (not sure if Adorama ships to Canada).
posted by coolguymichael at 11:11 AM on November 25, 2011

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