I need a camera halfway between a smartphone and a DSLR.
August 7, 2013 9:09 AM   Subscribe

I am looking for a digital camera that is easier to carry around than my DSLR, but a more capable camera than my smartphone. I am looking to spend at most $500. I have a couple ideas, but it's been a long time since I shopped for cameras, and I wanted some more recommendations.

My specific requirements are:
  • I need to be able to shoot in RAW.
  • I need manual controls for focus and exposure.
  • I'd rather have a faster lens than a longer lens.
As an example of what I am looking for, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 looks nice, as does the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LF1. Between the two, I'm leaning toward the LX7 for the f/1.4 lens, though the manual controls on the LF1 are pretty neat looking. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!
posted by Elementary Penguin to Technology (22 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I have a first-generation Lumix LX, and there's a lot to like about it. Its ISO speeds are very limiting, especially indoors, so I'll probably replace it one of these days with something like a secondhand LX5, which can be had for a couple hundred bucks. But the form factor is nice and the controls are well-designed. I don't love the old-fashioned loose lens cap, but I can cope.
posted by jon1270 at 9:17 AM on August 7, 2013

I have a Lumix from a few generations ago, and it's pretty OK. In full light, it's a strong performer, but its high ISO was comparatively poor, even at the time (I'm sure they're better now). I expect the current models share the ease of use, good color rendition, and long battery life of the model I have.

That said, my next POS will be a Canon G-series. I think the current generation is the G15. Here's the specs on DPreview. The Powershot G cameras have been consistently impressive, I think.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:20 AM on August 7, 2013

Best answer: Not officially a recommendation, since I don't own this camera, but the Samsung NX-1000 gets great reviews and is the one I am considering buying for when I don't want to carry my DSLR. Not as fast a lens as the Lumix. Has instant WiFi sharing, and you can get a long lens if you really want. Might be worth further research.
posted by The Deej at 9:38 AM on August 7, 2013

Best answer: The bigger the sensor, the better. If you're looking for DSLR quality in a small package, you'll need to get a mirrorless camera or an expensive point and shoot such as the Sony RX100 or Canon G series. No point and shoot with a 1/1.7" sensor like the cameras you are looking into will match the image quality of a APS-C sensor sized camera.

I recommend a mirrorless camera like the NEX-F3. The EOS M, a formerly $900 camera was recently discontinued and is on firesale right now (link). The AF problems that plagued the camera when it was first released have been fixed with the new firmware. I own the EOS M myself and it's a great little camera.
posted by ajackson at 9:42 AM on August 7, 2013

Best answer: I've spent a good bit of time shooting with various Lumix camera (mostly the GF1, and a couple point-and-shoots before that) and have to say I was very, very unimpressed by the low light performance. Panasonic is just not that great at sensors. In many cases, it wasn't really appreciably better than what I could get out of my iPhone, although someone with more Photoshop skill than me would probably be able to fix it to be better, but I tend to do very minimal post-processing.

I'm shooting with a Sony now, and love it. I've heard great things about the RX-100 and have seen a lot of people saying that Sony is making the best sensors these days. It has a f1.8 lens, so does pretty well on the "fast" requirement, and it shoots raw and has manual control options. That said, I'm sure on a camera of that size, the manual control is very awkward at best. It's a little out of your price range, but not a lot. Sony just announced an RX-100 II so I bet it'll come down soon.
posted by duien at 9:55 AM on August 7, 2013

Best answer: My friend who obsessively* examines every possible alternative product and usage scenario from several different angles before settling on a purchase recently went looking for a camera with requirements pretty similar to yours and she - eventually - settled on the Sony RX-100. She's very happy with it.

It is slightly outside your price range, but not by much. If duien's right, the MSRP may well come down soon, or you may find a special someplace.

(* I mean seriously. I got her an ipod for Christmas one year and she spent four months traveling all over the place to obscure audio stores to try out every possible set of earphones for it before finally making up her mind. It comes with earphones.)
posted by Naberius at 10:00 AM on August 7, 2013

Beyond finding a mirrorless on sale or closeout, another vote for the Canon G-series - I love my G12 - The only area it perhaps doesn't hit on your bullet list is lens (f/2.8 on mine) but it looks like more recent generations are f/1.8 -
posted by jalexei at 10:00 AM on August 7, 2013

I was recently thinking about this same thing. If your DSLR is like mine, the main reason it;s bulky and awkward to carry is that I usually have a rather large zoom lens attached by default.

Have you considered using the DSLR with a super-small "pancake lens?"
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:05 AM on August 7, 2013

Best answer: I have owned a Sony RX100 for a little over a year. I've used it as my primary camera for a significant portion of that. The new version is now available, and last year's model has dropped in price. Personally, I don't need things like a hot shoe or a tilt screen, so if I were shopping today I'd still buy last year's model. I have no plans to upgrade.

If I'd read your question with the sentence, "I am looking to spend at most $500" removed, then I would have immediately recommended the RX100. If you're willing to budge a hundred dollars on your price point, I think it would be an excellent match for all your other criteria.
posted by cribcage at 10:10 AM on August 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Let's call my bullet points "guidelines" instead of "rules". $500 is a soft ceiling.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 10:16 AM on August 7, 2013

Best answer: The Sony RX100 is pricey, but it otherwise suits your needs. Great IQ for a pocketable camera. However, some people don't like its ergonomics. Play with one at a store before you commit.

Other great options come from the Olympus XZ series and the Canon S series. I'd rather have the pocketability of the S series over the IMHO slight advantages of the bulkier G series. As for the XZ cameras, they're just generally very thoughtfully designed. Terrific image quality, with lenses that are fast throughout their entire range, not just at the wide end.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:21 AM on August 7, 2013

The best point-and-shoot I've ever used is an old Sony Cybershot DSC-V1 we have, with a Carl Zeiss lens. It takes wonderful photos for a Point-And-Shoot. It's only 5MP.

I bought a Canon Powershot since then, which had amazing reviews and I researched thoroughly before buying, and hated it compared. My clunky obsolete DSC-V1 still beats it, considering it has 7 years on it.

Obviously buying an old model is folly, and what I'm mentioning isn't exactly what you're after--but basically nthing a Sony, namely with a Carl Zeiss lens. I am thinking of totally nixing my Canon and getting another Sony, because right now my Canon is just collecting dust.
posted by Dimes at 10:29 AM on August 7, 2013

Best answer: The Canon S series will do exactly this. It's a small box, sized for a shirt pocket, with no projecting lenses when off. It offers full MASP control and the ability to shoot RAW. It's quick to turn on and has a nice macro function also. I've very happily owned the S95 for several years now. It's completely replaced a DSLR as my travel/field camera in almost all situations. Still keep the DSLR for precision work, but the little Canon is a perfect walking around camera.
posted by bonehead at 10:33 AM on August 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Obviously buying an old model is folly

Buying an old model can be a great idea. New cameras are often a waste of money. Electronics depreciate quickly, even though improvements may be only incremental. You can get a used Canon S95 for $150, and it'll be much better than anything new you can get for anywhere near that price.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:38 AM on August 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

I just bought a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS25 (for about $150 on Amazon). Paired with an Eye-fi card to send pics right to my iPad, it's a perfect happy medium for me between iPhone photos and a huge DLSR that would be overkill for my needs.

So far, it's working out well for me.
posted by fantine at 11:01 AM on August 7, 2013

Best answer: N'thing the Canon S-series. The S100 allows jpeg+RAW shots, is very compact and convenient, and lists for under $300 now. My wife uses an S95 all the time, and it can produce quite good results.

(But I find that these cameras are a somewhat losing proposition - they're getting squeezed from below by ever-improving smartphone cameras, and they don't match DSLRs at the high end.)
posted by RedOrGreen at 12:09 PM on August 7, 2013

Best answer: $500 is a soft ceiling.

Well, on the other side of the ceiling, I wouldn't spend any more than the RX100 to fill what you're looking for. I agree that mirrorless (MILC) is probably where the industry is going; and between the rise of MILC and the slow improvement of cell-phone camera technology, I agree that point-and-shoots are probably getting snuffed out. However, we're not there yet. In today's terms, I don't think the difference between carrying a DSLR versus carrying an MILC—weight, size, bulk—is that significant in relation to the quality difference between an MILC and a point-and-shoot.

Canon's S-series is terrific. That's what I shot before switching to the RX100. For me, the switch made sense because sensor size is paramount. That's not necessarily true for everyone. Both are excellent walkaround options.
posted by cribcage at 1:14 PM on August 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Canon S95 totally rocks.
posted by orangek8 at 1:23 PM on August 7, 2013

Best answer: Seconding the refutation of the idea that buying an old model is folly. Digital cameras are improving every year, but not by major leaps and bounds. The main limits are optical, which don't yield easily to Moore's law. The other limit is the sensors, which are semiconductor integrated circuits, and so derive some benefit from the advances that drive Moore's law, but the main driving force in Moore's law is shrinking feature sizes, which comes at the expense of image quality if applied too vigorously to sensors. The only place Moore's law can really drive improvements is in enhancing responsiveness, things like the time it takes to autofocus, but in that case, it still contends with optical and mechanical limits. Really then, the biggest impact of Moore's law on cameras is on the UI which seems to be shifting more and more to touch screens.

So, something like a canon S95 or s100 could be a great camera at far under your budget.
I personally have a canon s90, which I really like, though I am getting itchy for an upgrade because, well, it has been a while.

If I were buying a replacement right now, I'd be strongly considering the Sony RX-100, but I don't think It is quite a slam-dunk decision. It is a little more than I am comfortable spending, a little bigger than I'd prefer, and I am somewhat partial to Canon because their noise-reduction is aesthetically acceptable whereas other (like Lumix) is repulsive. I can wait though, because the latest successors to my Canon aren't yet a compelling upgrade.

For you though, they offer RAW output, better image quality, and more flexibility than a camera phone. They offer full manual control, while still offering good control ergonomics in a much smaller package than a DSLR. There is a big gap between camera phones and DSLRs though, and there are a lot of options that could fit, including other options from Canon, not to mention those from other manufacturers.
posted by Good Brain at 3:16 PM on August 7, 2013

Response by poster: Alright, so my decision now is either a Powershot S95 or the Sony RX-100. I'm going to get me to a camera store this weekend and try to play with the RX-100. Would playing with a new Powershot S be a useful way of getting a hand on the ergonomics of the S95?
posted by Elementary Penguin at 2:24 AM on August 8, 2013

Response by poster: I'll also probably look at mirrorless systems, especially since it looks like a used one would be in my price range. Thanks, all.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 2:31 AM on August 8, 2013

Response by poster: After a trip to the camera store, I decided to get the RX100, or rather to ask Santa for it for Christmas. I didn't like the mirrorless systems because I didn't want to have to buy another set of interchangeable lenses. I know the sensor isn't as big as my DSLR, but the current situation is I don't carry my DSLR around with me, so when I take pictures, I end up using my phone, so this will be an improvement. I will let you know what I think after I get it!
posted by Elementary Penguin at 3:24 PM on August 18, 2013

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