Digital camera for non-photog to take giant, awesome photos?
March 21, 2012 3:43 PM   Subscribe

Best high-megapixel, high-zoom camera for the photography-challenged to take on wilderness vacation?

We are taking an exciting trip and want to take some great photos while we are there. What camera should I get in order to capture the best images of wildlife, landscapes, and people therein? The following limitations and criteria are relevant:

- I currently have a Canon S2 IS and a Sony Cybershot DSC-T20. I hate the terrible battery life on the Sony and never use it. (I only use the viewfinder on the Canon to preserve the batteries.)

- Point and shoot is about the limit of my knowledge and abilities and is likely to remain so (no the time to take a course). I don't know anything about lenses, F-stops, exposure times, etc. The Canon has a dial with modes and that is about the max I can handle.

- Various sources have informed us that we need "fast film" to shoot animals and at least 20X zoom.

- Image quality/resolution should be sufficient to support large prints: 20" by 30" or more, ideally.

- Budget is $300-$800, although that can be pushed up if necessary. But I can't afford to drop the money for a serious DSLR.

Some cameras I have been looking at:

- Fujifilm FinePix F750EXR: no viewfinder, nice size though.

- Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX200V: kind of big.

- Nikon COOLPIX P510: giant zoom, fewer megapixels

- Nikon D5100: digital SLR, a bit pricey.

- Samsung NX-200: about the limit of my budget, but sounds like a good lens?

Will any of these meet the needs outlined above? What needs to give, if not?
posted by amber_dale to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
A wilderness vacation photo shoot needs not the best camera, but a zoom lens that operates well in low-light. Such a lens is usually expensive - around $2000. The only other option I know in your case is a compact superzoom.

Check for a list of superzooms - one Olympus has about 14 MP and 21x zoom, but your photos will suffer from terrible camera shake unless you have a tripod (and even then if its in low-light conditions like morning or evening, which is when the animals come out).
posted by theobserver at 3:53 PM on March 21, 2012

A DSRL on full auto is pretty much no more complicated than a point-and-shoot - you just need to do the zooming yourself by twisting the lens (i.e. super easy and more intuitive than pushing a +/- button in my opinion).

I think even a basic DSLR on full auto will result in better photos than a point and shoot in the hands of the same operator.

I took my Canon 550d (I think it's called Rebel T2 in the US) to the Serengeti in Africa. Nothing more than the kit lenses, and it was awesome for both landscape and wildlife. For animals, just put on the longer lens and zoom all the way in. For landscapes put on the shorter lens and zoom all the way out.

The only disadvantage of the DSLR option is that it is bigger. It was definitely a compromise that I think was worth it. I'm pretty sure you can get my model for under $800 now, and maybe the newer version too.
posted by trialex at 4:07 PM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

More megapixels do not make a better image. If the camera doesn't have a large enough sensor more megapixels can actually hurt the image. Megapixels are all about marketing now and apparently it's working.

If your budget is $800 you'd be much better served getting this camera than any that you listed. It's only $750. For $800 you can get a kit w/ a little less zoom but will have Image stabilization which you might need at those distances if you're in low light. You don't need to know anything more than you do on your normal canon. It has the same dial and still has the full auto mode. There is just room for you to get better. The image quality will be better because of the bigger sensor and interchangeable (read: quality) lenses. This is a cropped sensor so multiply all the zooms by 1.6 This means that the 300mm zoom on this lens is actually equal to 480 on a full frame camera. It's not the HIGHEST quality lens you can buy but if you need a super zoom on a budget it'll more than get the job done and look better than any of the cameras you listed.

Please. If you spend $800 on any of those cameras you listed a small piece of me will die.
posted by no bueno at 4:46 PM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

You want to go with a digital SLR. Your profile says you live in D.C. and checking Craigislist, you can find a used d5100 liked the one you linked above for $600. And it comes with a lens. Once you've got the camera, check into renting lenses. D.C. will have places where you can rent lenses by walking into a store or you can rent online. The great thing about renting lenses is that for roughly $40/day, a person can get to use some really nice glass that is generally to expensive for anyone other than pros.

Mostly, I want to stress that you should buy something used. Peruse craigslist or try eBay for getting good deals on used dSLRs. Anything over 10mp will do you.
posted by inviolable at 4:52 PM on March 21, 2012

No Bueno makes a good suggestion, especially the second kit - the Image Stabilisation is going to be an enormous help to your photography.

I'd also look into getting as small a bag as possible - you don't want a massive great hulking Lowepro thing that makes carrying your camera into a laborious process. The Rebel cameras are small, and you get pop them into a small sling bag that weighs next to nothing. I have a Crumpler bag that can barely fit my camera,which is perfect for me, and there are lots of options in this area.
posted by Magnakai at 4:58 PM on March 21, 2012

Let me turn the tables around and do a fact check:

Myth: If I buy a more expensive DSLR, I will take better photos.

Reality: If you are truly in the wilderness, sometimes for an amateur photographer, it's not worth it. Hiking for hours at a time with a bulky camera banging against your chest? Not fun. Worrying that every bit of humidity, dirt or water splash will ruin your expensive camera or lens? A daily occurrence.

I've traveled all over the world and have taken some amazing shots with both little point and shoots and my DLSR but in some really rough remote areas. Sometimes it's not worth it to bring the big camera and lens depending on the region.
posted by HeyAllie at 5:07 PM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

The NX-200 is a fantastic mirrorless system, with lenses that are a cut above. It may be overkill, and it's a little pricey compared to similar Sony and Olympus systems, tho. I dislike cheap DSLRs because the eye-level finders are dim and blurry... You really need a model with a pentaprism to take advantage, and the size advantage of mirrorless systems can't be ignored on a travel camera.

I would investigate the Sony NEX-3 and the Olmpus PM1, along with the "kit" lenses - inexpensive wide and telephoto zooms often sold with the camera body as part of a kit.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:11 PM on March 21, 2012

@ HeyAllie - that's the good thing about DSLR's and lenses. They much more weatherproof than your avg p&s. I've had mine (t2i) out in rain and out on the ski slopes for 2 years and now it's still working great.

I wouldn't rule out a micro 4/3's like the olympus pen if you're looking for portability as well as great images.
posted by no bueno at 6:06 PM on March 21, 2012

For field work I have a Panasonic GF-1, which I love. The 4/3 size format is great compared to a full size DSLR, and the pictures, while not full DSLR quality are still better than a point&shoot. The panasonic lenses are very nice.

That said, I think you might also want to consider the high-end point and shoots. The Canon G11 or G12 makes an amazing carry around camera, that's not far off what a DSLR offers. The Panasonic LX-5 is similarly nice.

But what really can't be beat is the Canon S100. It's amazingly tiny, full featured with real controls and shoots an F2 aperture. It's a no brainer to slip into a pocket and it's well within your price range. I've heard criticisms of the S100's battery life which you may want to consider if you decide on that. I've got the S95 which lasts for months and takes 100s of photos before a charge. It's a great backup camera.
posted by bonehead at 8:48 PM on March 21, 2012

It's impossible to say enough good things about the Micro Four Thirds standard. If I were just now getting into photography instead of a half-decade ago, I'd almost certainly just go with those instead of Canon. Panasonic even makes a 100–300mm lens that's just INSANE for long-distance photography (to the point where you frankly need at least a monopod to use it).

The GF1 is a lovely little camera, and you can get a used GF1 body for a song nowadays.

Basically, everything Bonehead said.
posted by DoctorFedora at 7:10 PM on March 22, 2012

I would advise you to look at Sony Hx9v

It is the predecessor of HX200V. The difference is that this camera is very small and can fit inside your pocket. The video quality is very good. The zoom is incredible for a camera its size.
posted by Thisispiggy at 8:40 PM on March 24, 2012

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