Help me choose a camera!
June 27, 2012 4:02 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to move up from a point-and-shoot camera to a sub-$400 starter DSLR -- but which to choose? Details inside.

I have about $300-400 to buy a DSLR camera, new or used; my current camera is a Canon Powershot point-and-shoot. I mainly take off-the-cuff photos of cats, art pieces, merchandise for my ebay store, and friends -- mainly inside, sometimes outside -- along with some macro photography using a tripod and a DIY light tent. I'd love to be able to take landscape photos, too.

The three cameras I've been looking at so far are: a refurbished Canon EOS Rebel XS, a Lumix DMC-GF3, and an Olympus PEN E-PL1.

I like the idea of a Four-Thirds camera because they're small, and thus make taking quick photos easier -- I'm afraid I wouldn't want to bring the Rebel with me on vacation, for instance. Of the other two, the price on the Olympus is very tempting, but I'm not sure whether it's reflected in the quality of the camera. This'll be my first DSLR, so I don't mind the idea of upgrading later on, but I also want to get something I'll be happy with for at least a couple of years. Other suggestions are fine, too... I'm sure I'm overlooking some options. Your advice is appreciated!

Please assume that I know very little about photography -- a camera that takes decent shots without much manual setting hand-holding would be best, so I could branch out from there.
posted by vorfeed to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Big, big fan of the Lumix line here. I was in your same position about three years ago; I wanted a sub-$400 camera, and at the time I really thought I wanted it to be a DSLR.

After doing a ton of research I ended up getting a Lumix LX3. While it doesn't have have the interchangeable lens of a DSLR or the larger sensor, that's about all it's missing. Some of the features it does have:

Small, very pocketable body size.
Leica lens with a nice fast f/2 aperture (this means you can take decent photos in low light).
RAW file format (with a copy of Adobe Lightroom this will stretch your images even further)
Manual Settings

...and also pretty darn decent auto settings. Lumix cameras have this "iAuto" setting that works really well like 95% of the time. My wife leaves it on her Lumix always and she takes great shots with it.

They're now up to LX5, but the Canon S100 is also in a similar camp. Another reason why I would recommend one of these before diving in to a DSLR is because they do have manual modes like a DSLR, so you can learn all the same principles of how a DSLR operates without buying into any particular system, plus you get a great travelling camera to boot.

3 years on and I still have my trusty little LX3. I'm a voracious photographer and often get compliments on my images, even from folks hauling around Nikon D700s or Canon 7Ds and the like. I've even had print shops initially refuse to print my photos because they "looked too professional" to have come from my camera and they said I needed a release from the actual photographer. Ha!

Sometimes I think about getting a DSLR too, but the reality is that my LX3 still works just so well for my needs that it would be a needless expense when I still have so much to learn and do. The only things I can't do easily are things that require a nice telephoto lens. I can even get pretty decent macros if I'm willing to get really really up close.

But if you insist on getting an interchangeable lens camera I would personally try to find a good condition used GF1 over a GF2, which you might be able to snag for around $250. Cheaper and the GF1 is a little more "enthusiast" oriented.
posted by Doleful Creature at 4:41 PM on June 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would try borrowing or renting a full dslr setup first. I know a few people who thought "I want to take better pictures, therefore I shall buy the full kit and all my problems will be solved", only to find out that they absolutely hated lugging it around and it ended up being left in their closet all the time.

If you're positive that this is what you want, in your budget I would NOT be looking at brand new. Have a look on craigslist and other local buy/sell sites and papers for something higher end but a little older. Local Camera stores (not big box stores) will often have used equipment to try or buy at a discount as well.

As for Brand, try them all out and see what you like for yourself. They will all fit your hand a little differently. I personally find Canon's very uncomfortable to shoot with, but they might fit you just fine. It is also very easy to get bogged down in the "which brand is best" argument. They all have strengths and weaknesses and asking anybody in the hobby what they think of a brand other than the one they shoot with is always good entertainment. I've never seen any other hobbiest get foaming at the mouth angry when talking about how their beloved brand trumps the others like a photographer can!

I like Sony's because their image stabilization is in the camera itself and not the lens. It's just as good as the in-lens stabilization systems that Nikkon and Canon have and makes the lenses significantly cheaper to buy. Sony also makes the image sensors for Nikkon so I love it when my friends that tell me I should've got a Nikkon because the electronics are superior! I also feel that the Sony in-camera features are much more advanced than anything else out there. My only beef with my Sony system is used lenses seem to be pretty scarce in my neck of the woods. The Sony NEX system might be a really nice compromise between a full DSLR and a point and shoot as they have the compact body but interchangeable lenses as well.

Check out for a TON of camera reviews.
posted by Beacon Inbound at 5:17 PM on June 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a full-frame EOS 5D. I love the look of the full-frame sensor.

But you know what, since I got the PowerShot S90, I hardly ever use the 5D. The S90's images are just as good for most uses. It's only if I'll be printing 10x14 or larger that I bother with the 5D. The S90 is fine for 8x10 enlargements.

My suggestion: go for the Lumix, for all the reasons Doleful Creature has already mentioned.
posted by phliar at 5:27 PM on June 27, 2012

I have an Olympus PL2. I got it refurbished through cameta camera a few months ago and I like it lots. I was also an upgrade from a powershot and it sounds like I am more or less the same level of Serious Photographer as you-- that is, not that serious but I wanted a camera that took nice pictures and that I could fiddle with the settings on if I so desired but could also just stick on automode at a party. It fit that nicely.

oh, but I do want to say-- the PL2 is small, but it's not that small because it still has three inches of lens sticking out of the front of it taking up a fair amount of cubic space. So the space savings may not be as great as you might imagine. I want a pancake lens for mine, but I think that would be out of both of our budgets.
posted by geegollygosh at 6:04 PM on June 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Go for a Lumix, but get an actual Micro Four Thirds one. The nice thing about those is that the older bodies go for a song nowadays (like the GF1) but still take darned nice pictures. The downside, of course, is that something like the phenomenal 20mm ƒ/1.7 pancake lens winds up costing more than the camera itself (despite originally technically being a kit lens!), but man. Great little cameras.
posted by DoctorFedora at 11:46 PM on June 27, 2012

Camera enthusiasts do say that the best camera is always the one you happen to have with you.

if you have never used a dslr before I suggest going to your local camera shop and actually handing the models you are intersted in. How a camera sits in your hand is a huge consideration that most people moving from a point-n-shoot don't factor in.

Also how do you frame your shots now? Because most of the micro four thirds on the market right now don't come with viewfinders as standard, and that can have a big effect on how you compose shots. A viewfinder view is steady (compared to the arms length view needed for a screen only view) and is unaffected by factors like sunglare.

YMMV on this and it does depend on the kind of shots you mostly plan to take. I personally didn't think a viewfinder was a big deal when looking for my first dslr, but after handing a full sized condumer dslr in store vs a micro four thirds olympus I prefered the ergonomics of the dslr a lot more, plus I wanted a sturdy feel to my camera, and the smaller micro four thirds felt almost weightless to me which was bad, my logic was if I really can't feel it in my pocket or bag, then how will I know when it's NOT there?

Again YMMV, but having opted for a full size dslr (the Nikon d5100) along with a slightly smaller kit lens, ( it came with the 18-55mm, I bought an additional nifty fifty for it) I can honestly say that I cannot be happier with my purchase.
posted by Faintdreams at 1:38 AM on June 28, 2012

If you are planning to get serious about photography, I would recommend going with either Canon or Nikon.

The main reason is because each has a huge and enduring ecosystem of lenses and accessories.

I started with a Rebel G film SLR and bought lenses that I later used with a better film SLR, my first digital Rebel, and which I still use with my 5D Mk II.

The same goes for flashes, etc.

It is definitely a better idea to invest in lenses than in expensive bodies.

(P.S. As someone who used a Rebel XS extensively for years, I can tell you that it is a highly functional camera with great image quality - except at high ISO. The biggest downside is that it isn't very tough or waterproof. A used 20D, 30D, etc is a much more robust option, if you think the camera is ever going to get knocked around at all.)
posted by sindark at 8:45 AM on June 28, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks, guys! I hadn't realized how much holding a camera matters, so I will go hold them (and squeeze them and call them George) at the camera store this weekend. It might be a while before I buy, but I'll let you know what I decide!
posted by vorfeed at 10:24 PM on June 28, 2012

Response by poster: I ended up with a (used) Lumix DMC-FZ40 -- I'm quite happy with the ease-of-use and super-long zoom. I'll watch Craigslist and see if I come across a good deal on a DSLR, too.
posted by vorfeed at 2:04 PM on July 19, 2012

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