Help finding a digital camera around $400-$600.
January 19, 2014 1:51 PM   Subscribe

Looking for best quality photos in a reasonably small package.

Hi, I am looking to upgrade from a small point and shoot (Sony DSC-W320) since we just had a child. That camera is not so great in low light and there is often a lot of distortion near the edges of photos. I don't need something that small, so was thinking of a mirrorless. Basically, my priorities are: 1. quality of photos, especially indoors in somewhat low light. 2. Ease of use. and perhaps a decent auto mode, though I'd welcome having some more control at times. 3. ability to turn of shutter sound. 4. small enough for travel, but need not fit in pockets.
Things I don't care about: touchscreen, wifi
I tend to take photos of people and a bit of landscapes and such when traveling, but not sprinters or other fast moving objects. Final bit of info: I am in Germany and prices are a bit higher here but there are some good deals . I've been looking at the entry-level Sony NEX 3NL (which happens to be discounted here), the Olympus PEN series (most of which are too expensive for me). Frankly (if it's not already clear) I am not so sure about whether it is better to get a higher end point and shoot or a lower end mirrorless. Thanks
posted by melamakarona to Technology (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I've heard great things about the Sony RX-100 which is a high-end point and shoot. It's going for 400 euros at
posted by Harpocrates at 2:30 PM on January 19, 2014

The big aps-c sensor in the NEX3 is probably your best bet for great low light performance. And with either mirrorless you can put a brighter lens on it later. But you are likely to find that you care more about size when you are actually deciding whether to grab the camera or not later.

The rx100 might well be a better bet. The low light performance is only good, not by any means excellent, but compared to the ultra compact w320 it's going to be ah big difference. At least on the wide end of zoom, it is a very bright lens as well.

The mirrorless cameras are still going to have better image quality. But you have to ask yourself if you are certain that you will use one.
posted by wotsac at 3:17 PM on January 19, 2014

The Sony NEX takes gorgeous, Time magazine worthy photos.
posted by ravioli at 3:22 PM on January 19, 2014

I really love my Panasonic DMC-LX7, which I chose over the Sony RX-100 after handling them in a store. They're in a similar ballpark. (I was looking at mirrorless interchangeable-lens as well, which are definitely a step up in picture quality from these, but I like the compact form and these two models are a big step up from regular compact picture quality.)
posted by spbmp at 4:12 PM on January 19, 2014

I bought my daughter a Sony MILC and she loves it. The photographs are outstanding.
posted by megatherium at 5:07 PM on January 19, 2014

For size, innovation and image quality, it's difficult to beat the latest crop of micro four thirds cameras from Olympus and Panasonic. Cameras from either manufacturer can take lenses from either manufacturer. The lens lineup is excellent and mature, and there are lots of different body styles to choose from.

I would, without hesitation, recommend micro four thirds over all other mirorless systems at this time, with the possible exception of the new Sony full frame mirrorless for some specific needs.
posted by syzygy at 6:33 PM on January 19, 2014

We just picked up an NEX-3N for the same reasons. It takes awesome pictures.
posted by blue_beetle at 6:53 PM on January 19, 2014

I have both the sony nex3n and canon s100. Both are excellent depending on what you value more; sensor size or physical size, respectively. Have also heard great things about the Sony rx100
posted by alvin545 at 8:37 PM on January 19, 2014

I have an RX100. The low light performance is great for the camera's size. I highly recommend it.
posted by ilikemefi at 11:52 PM on January 19, 2014

Hi, thanks everybody. Since the tiny sony i have still works, i'm willing to get something significantly larger. It seems there is a clear consensus about the sony rx100, which costs 403 EUR here (the new model, rx100 ii (or M2 as it's called here) is selling for 607 EUR at amazon. Still, it seems that the quality I'd get from the NEX 3 is better, and right now that is going for 270 EUR including the 18-50mm lens. Acc. to amazon the weight is roughly the same (213g for the rx100 vs 209g for the nex 3). perhaps that does not include the lens which wd bring the nex 3 up to 327g. Re. the micro four thirds from olympus and panasonic, the olympus PEN EPL3 is available for just under 300 EUR and the EPM2 for just under 400 EUR (both with 14-42mm lens). Which among those two and the sony nex 3 has better quality out of the box? I see the point about compatibility iwth more lenses but i figure if I really get into taking better photos I will want to upgrade anyway to something that is not entry level. Thanks again.
posted by melamakarona at 3:43 AM on January 20, 2014

Oh, and is it possible on these to shut off the sound? thanks.
posted by melamakarona at 4:14 AM on January 20, 2014

Here's the manual for the NEX-3N if you want to look up specific functionality.

You can turn off beeps when taking photos, but the lens is noisier than a standard point-and-shoot.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:34 AM on January 20, 2014

This article might give you a bit better sense. The e-PL3 is a couple of generations old now, so it probably trails a bit on image quality. A bit of scrolling around the test image (which uses the E-pl5 as a stand in for the pm2) suggests that it has a detectable edge in image quality (or at least noise reduction) over the Sony. A 130 euro edge? Maybe not.
posted by wotsac at 3:53 PM on January 20, 2014

The E-PM2 has the latest Sony m43 sensor, and will match or come close to the current best of class m43 cameras. See DXOMark for detailed comparisons of most modern cameras. Here you can compare the E-PM2, NEX 3 and RX 100.

The E-PM2 bests the RX100 in all of DXO's measurements, at all ISOs. It bests the NEX 3 in all measurements at almost all ISOs, and never falls behind. In terms of image quality, the E-PM2 is ahead of both Sonys. The E-PM2 offers other advantages - the m43 system has far more lenses than the NEX system, including an impressive number of high quality lenses. The lenses also tend to be smaller than their equivalents in the NEX lineup. M43 has two manufacturers fully behind it, and both are introducing new cameras and innovating at a pace that makes many of the other camera makers look staid and boring, at the moment. There is a reason why the E-M5 won so many 'camera of the year' awards for 2012, and why the E-M1 has won so many 'camera of the year' awards for 2013.

The E-PM2 also offers in body image stabilization (by shifting the sensor to counteract camera movement). This is something none of the NEXs (AFAIK) offer. This feature allows you to take images in low light at lower ISO settings (less visible noise) without being ruined by camera movement. Lastly, the E-PM2 is practically guaranteed to focus faster than the NEX 3. The NEX lineup, in general, is known for sluggish focusing, whereas the latest crop of m43 cameras, including the E-PM2, has been highly praised across the board for blazing fast autofocus.

M43 is a mature system with a large number of cameras in a wide array of body styles, and a large number of lenses, most of them small and many of them of a very high quality. If you want a smaller system that will allow you to grow in the future, I'd recommend m43 at this time.

Best of luck in making your choice, and feel free to ask if you have any other questions!
posted by syzygy at 4:58 PM on January 21, 2014

hi szygy, thanks very much, your comments and the comparison website are very helpful. I am still trying to decide between the three cameras you mention.
I think I just need to choose for myself whether portability (RX100) or quality (hybrids) is more important.
But also between the E PM2 and the NEX 3, there are three things that seemed to favor the sony: sensor size, price (here about 130 EUR difference, less in the US) and (if I've got that right) built in flash. But autofocus speed, which i did not mention earlier, is really important too, and I'm not one to judge the importance of sensor size over other technical features -- the overall quality seems to be about even, if not in the EPM2's favor. One other thing I have seen people complain about is that using some of the manual features on the E PM2 is a bit complicated, in that you have to go through a lot of menus and such. Do you happen to know how it and the NEX 3 compare in that regard?
I also noticed that there are some good deals in the US on bundles with two kit lenses. perhaps I can have someone bring me one from there.
Thanks again.
posted by melamakarona at 2:18 AM on January 22, 2014

NEX 3 'advantages':
1. Sensor Size: The DXO measurements show you the actual performance of the sensors, and the latest m43 sensors that are manufactured by Sony(!) outperform the older Sony sensor in the NEX 3. There's more to the story, and I'd be happy to go into more detail if you like, but I'll leave it at that for now. About the only advantage that the particular larger sensor used in the NEX 3 offers is the ability to get shallower DOF. I'm generally satisfied with the shallow DOF I can get from my Olympus 45mm f/1.8, and the stellar Olympus 75mm f/1.8 is available for those who like it even shallower. I don't own that lens yet, but will add it to my collection one of these days.
2. Price: Since you're in Germany, you might like to have a look at the Olympus Market EBay store. This EBay store is run by an official Olympus Europe partner. They offer refurbished cameras, lenses and accessories, all with a one year manufacturer warranty. There's an E-PL5 (a nice step up from the E-PM2, same generation sensor) at EUR 334 with 8 hours left on the auction, for instance. Keep in mind, you're comparing a camera originally released in 2010 (the NEX) with one released in 2013 (the PEN).
3. Flash: The NEX 3 does NOT have a built-in flash, unless it's been added in a newer model I'm not familiar with. DPReview has "Screw-on flash awkward to attach" as one of its cons in its NEX3/NEX5 review. My Olympus E-M5 also doesn't have a built-in flash. It has a small clip-on flash that I can attach or remove, as necessary. Honestly, though, the smaller built-in flashes and/or clip-ons tend to be kludges that I avoid unless I absolutely have no other choice.

E-PM2 / E-PL5 / m43 advantages:
1. More lenses, many high quality, most if not all are smaller and lighter than their closest NEX counterparts.
2. Two companies manufacturing bodies, many companies manufacturing compatible lenses.
3. In-body sensor shift image stabilization (in Olympus cameras and in the Panasonic GX7).
4. Quicker operation (including autofocus speeds, shot-to-shot wait times and button customization to suit your shooting style).
5. New camera models and lenses being released at an impressive pace, and with impressive quality and innovation.

Regarding Operation and menus:
The E-PM2 has more physical controls (buttons, etc.) than the NEX 3, some of which are configurable / customizable. If anything, you'll be using menus more often in the NEX than in the E-PM2.

The latest Olympus m43 cameras have a very nice menu (called the Super Control Panel) that allows quick access to and adjustment of most of the operational settings you'd generally need to adjust quickly.

Now, I have read plenty of criticism of Olympus menus, but this usually refers to the deeper menus that control more advanced functionality and allow customization of the camera, than it does to the menus one uses on an everyday, operational basis. My E-M5 is highly customisable and configurable. It has a complicated menu system that allows a great deal of control over the camera. I used those menus to customize mine to my liking, but after I got things set up like I wanted them, I rarely ever need to dive back into those complex menus.

Regarding two-lens kits:
I noticed a couple of those on the Olympus Market EBay store I linked above. I just returned to the EU from the US (where I purchased a copy of the awesome new Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro lens for $999 rather than the EUR 999 it costs here). If you'd caught me a week ago, I could have helped you out.

In closing:
I came here to get camera recommendations in April of 2012. Based on the advice I got then did some serious research and comparison of the Olympus E-M5, Sony NEX-7 and Fuji X-Pro 1.

A year and a half, 9 lenses and 25,000 photos later, and I'm 100% convinced that I made the right choice. In that time, m43 has continued to advance at a breakneck pace (new bodies, new lenses, new technology) while NEX has moved at a comparative snail's pace.
posted by syzygy at 4:07 AM on January 22, 2014

Thanks again syzygy for the incredibly helpful explanations and links. I am convinced! I'll get one of the Olympus models.
posted by melamakarona at 7:22 AM on January 22, 2014

The NEX-3N has a flash.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:58 AM on January 22, 2014

blue_beetle: Thanks for the clarification on the flash situation with the NEX-3N.

melamakarona: Gern geschehen!

I'll follow up with a little more. First, I was comparing the older NEX-3 specs earlier, rather than the newer NEX-3N - apologies for the oversight.

With that in mind, here's DXO Lab's comparison of the E-PM2, NEX-3 and NEX-3N. Not much has changed (from the previous comparison I linked), but the 3N just edges ahead of the E-PM2 in sensor quality measurements. The difference between all three cameras is probably within the range of testing errors + sample variations, so it's safe to say they're very close to each other.

If you go with one of the Olympus cameras, make sure to drop in to the DPReview Micro Four-Thirds forum to ask for tips on how to get set up and get the most out of your camera.
posted by syzygy at 2:11 AM on January 23, 2014

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