How does a modern 1/2.3" sensor camera compare to a 10 year old D-SLR?
October 9, 2013 9:31 PM   Subscribe

My 2003 EOS 300D / Digital Rebel with the kit lens still beats my teenager's 2012 smartphone for noise in shadow detail. He's interested in still photography and wants a point & shoot.

I'd give him the SLR & maybe buy a 50mm f/1.8 for it, but he wants something smaller & maybe a little tougher.

There seem to be 3 classes of point & shoots: 1/2.3" sensor for around $100, 2/3" or 1/1.7" around $300 and 1" and APS-C for as much as a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera.

Sample photos of the 1/2.3" cameras are hard to find-- there are a lot of cameras in that category, so I get it, but what can I expect? In 10 years, have things improved any? Sensor pixel size still rules, but is a smallish pixel in 2013 as good as a big one from 2003?
posted by morganw to Technology (7 answers total)
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carry on...

posted by jessamyn at 9:42 PM on October 9, 2013 [38 favorites]

Best answer: Regarding your question, things have improved, for sure. But there are a lot of things that a small sensor from 2013 still won't give you compared to a dslr from 2003, like depth-of-field (small sensor has hardly any, obvs), dynamic range might be close-ish, too. Night time performance will be a little worse - because the new sensor will have fifty kabillion megapixels compared to the EOS.

But you know, the great thing about those little P&Ss is that even the dinkiest, crappiest store will have several. So though you can't find pictures, just rock along to your local shops and compare.

Personally, if the interest is anything but fleeting, I don't think an cheap PS is gonna cut it - it's barely better than a decent phone camera, and lacks so many of the controllable aspects of photography that really help you understand light, colour, depth etc - the ingredients to successful composition, imho.

I reckon you could find a second hand micro-four thirds for around that price by asking around - which will get him the best of both worlds. An old epl5 or something. Nobody upgrades like a camera people.
posted by smoke at 10:25 PM on October 9, 2013

Based on my recent used camera shopping experience, you might look at either the Panasonic LX5 or a Canon S95, S100 or S110, for somewhere in the ballpark of $200. The Canons are smaller, but the Panasonic is pocketable if you have loose-fitting pants. These are much better cameras than the $100 P&S models you'll find at Best Buy, and they all have manual control options.

I've never owned a DSLR, but sensors have definitely improved. My last camera was a Panasonic LX1, several years older than the LX5 that I just got, and the difference in low-light performance is huge.
posted by jon1270 at 4:49 AM on October 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Regarding sample photos, Flickr's Camera Finder can be pretty helpful.
posted by Gev at 5:14 AM on October 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Since nobody's mentioned it, dpreview does a lot of very in-depth camera reviews. They're not great if you're doing a "what's the best camera for less than $xxx" type search, and they cover more SLRs than point-and-shoots, but they do have good reviews.

Steve's Digicams is another source I like, which is a bit more consumer-oriented. They really like the Canon Powershot S100 which comes in at $294 on amazon. They praise it for: having full manual control but also a solid automatic mode (great for a kid who is just getting started with "real" cameras, since he'll be able to get good results from Day 1 but will have some room to grow) a good zoom for its class, great low-light sensitivity for its class, and continuous 1080p recording capability. It also has GPS-tagging capability, which your son might get a real kick out of if he's into that sort of thing. It sounds like a good buy to me, though I've never used it.

Another good sign is that dpreview has also reviewed it, which they generally don't bother to do for point-and-shoots unless they think it will be a good one. (They do like it. Their score of 72% is very high for a compact -- the high 80s and 90s are generally only given out to professional-level high-end SLRs, so that's what this camera is being compared to in this context.)

It's been out for a while (the review is from December 2011) but it's still for sale and has come down a lot in price -- it was $480 when it was new. It ticks all the right boxes that I would be looking for in a compact camera: relatively large 1/1.7" sensor, CMOS technology, decent zoom, full manual control with a capable automatic mode, continuous 1080p, 3" screen, image stabilization, and a durable metal body. The review mentions that it has a weakish flash and that they got some aberration in their sample images, but you're never going to get perfection in a compact point-and-shoot (at least, not until many years from now) and I don't think those flaws are likely to be big deals for your kid.

There might be something newer out there that would suit him better, but my feeling is that the pace of technology in compact digital cameras over the last few years has been incremental rather than revolutionary (continuous 1080p recording and ubiquitous CMOS sensors are the main big new developments I can think of, and this camera has both) and a camera that was $480 two years ago but has come down in price is probably still going to be better than a brand new model that's $300 today. You may even be able to find a used one in excellent condition on eBay for considerably less. (A cursory search shows them in the $200 range there.)

Now, it's still not going to compare to your SLR in some ways. Obviously he's going to be limited to the capabilities of the lens that is built into it (you can probably get a zoom/macro adapter, but they're rarely worth it) and that lens is small and so is going to have some limitations. He's never going to have as much control over the depth of field as you can get with your SLR, he's not going to have access to the fancy effects that specialty lenses can give you, and (perhaps most importantly) the low-light performance will not be as good. (Although the difference might not be so terrible -- sensors have gotten better over the 8 years between your camera and this one, and 12MP on a 1/1.7" is not unreasonable. My considerably-more-expensive "bridge" camera does 12MP on an even smaller 1/2.3" sensor, and the low-light performance is perfectly acceptable if not stellar.) He'll also be more limited in terms of other accessories like outboard flashes, external mics, etc. Oh, and the manual focus on non-DSLR cameras is usually pretty worthless almost all of the time (but automatic focus is more flexible than it used to be).

Still and all, I think this camera (or one like it -- again, I've never actually used the Powershot S100 -- would be a good choice. That's not to say that there aren't other good choices out there, but the field is so large that you can research literally forever and not come up with a clear winner. This is a camera for your son to grow with, after all -- if he gets enthusiastic about the technical aspects of photography then he will eventually get frustrated by its limitations, just as he would for any compact. At that point it will be time for him to graduate to a more full-featured camera (perhaps a bridge camera or an entry-level SLR) and this one will be his backup, a nice pocket-sized camera that he can stick in his bag and take everywhere. It looks to me like something like the Powershot S100 or any of the doubtless dozens of basically-equivalent cameras that have been released in the last few years would do this job nicely. I guess at the end of the day you should just pick something that looks like it's "good enough" and that you can afford, and then let him have at it until he tells you that he wants to do things that the camera won't let him do.
posted by Scientist at 8:10 AM on October 10, 2013

If he's set on a pro-sumer P&S, Scientist's answer above (Canon Powershot S100) is probably the best bet. My wife uses the S95 and it is consistently good.

But if he's really interested in photography, the SLR with a couple of good lenses is going to be very hard to match. Along with the 50mm f/1.8, maybe get a nice macro lens. I have an older 100mm f/2.8 macro lens and the quality difference on photos is astonishing. Flowers and bugs sparkle up close and personal. Portraits glow.

(Then again, what do I use for most of my photographs? My iPhone. Which is getting to be very good indeed at this point - the panorama mode takes some very good landscape shots.)
posted by RedOrGreen at 9:06 AM on October 10, 2013

I have a Canon PowerShot s90. I like it, a lot, but I busted out my 350D a little while back and was reminded how nice image quality on an old entry level DSLR with decent glass is. Still, these days my iPhone is always with me, my s90 is usually in my backpack, and the DSLR is pretty much always in the closet at home.

Since the DSLR is too bulky for him, I'd suggest the Canon s90/s95/s100/s110. The s90 and s95 ares still nice cameras, but these days most of the new ones are available from price gougers. If you can find a good used example, that would be a good deal. The s100 is available for a reasonable $300, the s110 is about $50 bucks more, now that the s120 is out.

Any of them will provide good portability, noticeably better image quality than a good smart phone, or a cheap p&s, and enough usable manual control to start learning more oft he technical fundamentals of photography.
posted by Good Brain at 12:11 PM on October 10, 2013

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