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March 26, 2006 9:00 PM   Subscribe

Digital camera filter: I am looking to upgrade to a better camera. Should I opt for an "SLR-like" camera, such as the Panasonic FZ-30, or should I shell out for a digital SLR? [more inside]

I am not an expert in photography but would like to learn, so I am looking for a camera that will initially let me take decent pictures without having to adjust the more advanced settings, but will eventually allow me a high degree of control when I am ready for it.

Some of the features I am looking for right away are a decent zoom function and manual focus and zoom rings.

I would prefer to spend under $800US/$1000CDN, but would rather spend a little more now than buying an entirely new camera a year from now after finding out the current one is too limited.

If someone can point me to a specific camera, or a more specific set of features to look for, it would be much appreciated.
posted by Krrrlson to Technology (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
So if you buy an SLR now, you can eventually upgrade the lens (lenses) and then eventually upgrade the body. But in the mean time you'll learn how to use the camera.
For my money get a Canon, lenses are cheaper and they make their own chips. Nikon users will swear up and down that I'm wrong, but it pretty much comes down to opinion. A good photographer can make good pictures with either.
posted by doctor_negative at 9:11 PM on March 26, 2006

Remember, in technology everything is quickly outdated. So you will be screwed either way.

I (I'm a photo professor) recomend you get a camera that you are likely to carry with you. If you get a DSLR will you take it with you every day? Could you? But with a small 8mp with a decent zoom you can slip it into your pocket and always have it ready. If you want to learn more about taking photos, the best method is to take lots of photos.

Try to get the best lens you can. For instance, the newest Leica and Panasonic counterparts have great lenses. So do some of the Sonys. But you probably won't see a great deal of difference between those and a good Nikon or Canon or Olympus.

Go to a camera store and feel them. Look at the size of the viewing screen, feel it in your hands, imagine it sitting in your pocket.

Get the camera you will actually use the most. If you REALLY find yourself doing lots of great work and find the true limits of your camera (not simply dissatisfaction with your abilities) then you will upgrade (which you would need to do in a few years anyway).
posted by johngumbo at 9:12 PM on March 26, 2006

I'd actually agree with that sentiment and start with a small $300-400 point and shoot. Use it. See how you like it. See what you shoot. See if you keep shooting. If you do, in a year, you'll be ready to pick the lens(es) that make sense for your style and interests and will be able to utilize the control an SLR gives you, given that you've paid attention to what you are not able to do when you can't precisely pick your aperture, shutter speed, use a bulb exposure, etc.
posted by kcm at 9:16 PM on March 26, 2006

One thing to think about: with the Panasonic, you get optical image stablization, something you'll have to pay thousands more for in an SLR.

I'd actually agree with that sentiment and start with a small $300-400 point and shoot. Use it. See how you like it. See what you shoot. See if you keep shooting.

I'd recommend a panasonic FZ7. It's smaller then the FZ-30, so it's more portable. They gave it a 'recommended' rather then a 'highly recommend' score because while it was better then the FZ5 (the best camera in that 'super zoom' style at the time) it wasn't that much better.

These types of cameras (super zooms) give you about as much control as you'd get with a DSLR.

Right now I have a tiny Canon SD-450, it's a five megapixel camera and it really is a piece of crap. The pictures are so much worse then they were with my old Sony DSC-V1 it's amazing. It has a much smaller lense, though.
posted by delmoi at 9:29 PM on March 26, 2006

What camera do you have now? What are you upgrading from, and what is the limitation you notice that makes you want to upgrade? What sort of subjects do you shoot? You'll have to say more about your wants and needs.

However, here's my blind advice.

The price is close between the Panasonic FZ-30 and an entry level DSLR with kit lens. Either way, you'll have an instrument that you can learn with.

Here's a difference that you might want to consider: sensor size. The FZ-30 has a small one (but still very high quality). That makes depth of field deeper, but makes it harder to go super wide.

I choose DSLR because I want to do very wide angles. The FZ-30 can only go moderately wide. A 12mm - 24mm zoom on a DSLR is an awesome lens for landscapes. Do you mostly shoot tight in or do you like the bigger picture?

If you like macro photos, the FZ-30 will be awesome, you can get more depth in focus and with the extensive zoom range you'll have an easier time framing and getting the shot without spending a grand in macro lenses.

On preview: Johngumbo is right, too, about taking the camera with you. It's the only way to learn. If you do get one of these big cameras, you'll probably want a smaller one to slip into your pocket for when you can't lug around the big gun. I wouldn't say to not get a big camera though, if it helps you focus.
posted by voidcontext at 9:30 PM on March 26, 2006

If you get a point and shoot, though, make sure to get one that will let you manually set the focus, let you use "shutter priority" or "aperture priority" or let you set those values manually. What sucks most about the SD450 is that I can't do that. It really is a 'point and shoot' All I can do in manual mode is set the white balance and the exposure compensation.
posted by delmoi at 9:35 PM on March 26, 2006

The super-PNS-almost-DSLR is a non-starter from my point of view, though. Too big to ALWAYS have on you, yet too small and simple to do the things a big camera is worth carrying for. Good quality pictures, but it's the worst of both worlds as far as I'm concerned. Don't get too wrapped up in the "Zeiss lens" or "image stabilization", etc., pixel porn game. Just get a camera you will use every single day so you'll get in the habit. Until the camera is the limitation (not your skills or lack of camera), don't worry about features and buzzwords. Hell, get a Pentax K1000 - cheap tank of a film SLR.
posted by kcm at 9:36 PM on March 26, 2006

delmoi: "If you get a point and shoot, though, make sure to get one that will let you manually set the focus, let you use "shutter priority" or "aperture priority" or let you set those values manually. What sucks most about the SD450 is that I can't do that. It really is a 'point and shoot' All I can do in manual mode is set the white balance and the exposure compensation."

That was my point above: point and shoot manual focus is generally a mess of imprecise button pushes and faux focus screens.. although shutter and aperture priority is very nice even if you aren't exactly doing it for depth of field with those tiny sensors. :)
posted by kcm at 9:37 PM on March 26, 2006

If you get an inexpensive, *small* camera now, you'll have something to play and experiment with, and if you do later purchase a dSLR, the little camera will still be useful as a take-everywhere kind of device (P&S cameras are often tolerated in situations where SLR's are intrusive).

If you buy a larger, fully-featured digicam, and then buy a dSLR, there may no longer be any use for the earlier purchase (in which case I guess it could be sold used..)
posted by unmake at 9:44 PM on March 26, 2006

Yeah, kcm is right on. You really should either get an ultra-pocketable, ultra-slim compact camera that will allow you to always have a camera in your pocket, or find a small camera bag that you're willing to carry with you everywhere that you can stuff a dSLR into.

The faux-dSLR cameras really are a bad combination of the two. Their sensors are too small to give you reasonable mid- to high-ISO performance or small depth of field at wide apertures, and they're too large to stick into your pocket.

The best way to improve your photography is to take more photographs and to take more chances. The second best way is to look at a lot of really really good photography and think about what the photographer is doing technically.

The type of camera doesn't matter nearly as much as the skill of the photographer.
posted by bshort at 10:20 PM on March 26, 2006

Still learning how to use my D50 (which I purchased new, with kit lens and USA warranty, from a reputable eBay seller, for a sum well under your price cap), and it takes great pictures, despite user ineptitude. If I knew what I was doing, I'm sure that they'd be even better.

Maybe the Canon's just as good. I don't think that you can go wrong either way, but I'm really glad I bought a competent entry-level dSLR. To be honest, I feel like I'm not even remotely close to having grown into it, and I'm still very satisfied.
posted by Kwantsar at 10:34 PM on March 26, 2006

Get a Canon Digital Rebel. Just do it. It's one of the best DSLRs in your price range and it's a Canon. The only other brand to consider (for a DSLR) is Nikon. Between the two of them, they've got about 80% of the market, but Canon outnumbers Nikon by quite a bit. I just took a photography class and out of 40 people 5 had Nikons and 1 had something else. All the rest ... Canon.

So why Canon? Quality. Reputation. Selection of lenses. Seriously, the only reason to invest in a Nikon is if you already have a bunch of Nikon lenses. If you start making friends with other photographers and want tips on settings, want to borrow a lens or a body, you're just going to have a lot more options if you've got a Canon too.

Why a DSLR? Control. Speed. Flexiblity. Feel.

Control: you have more options and more control over them with a DSLR than a POS (starting to change as POS cameras, like the new Sony R1, get more sophisticated) but still true.

Speed: a DSLR starts up faster than a POS, responds more rapidly to the shutter release and is ready to take another picture again sooner. Plus you've got your eye to the viewfinder, not a video screen so you've never left the subject of your photo. You're ready faster too. I used to shoot maybe 20-30 shots with my POS for a typical publicity shoot. Now with my Canon EOS 20D, I take 200-300 because I can. I can just fire off shots that much faster, and my odds of a great shot go up by 10x.

Flexibility: with your budget, flexibility really means upgradeability. You won't be buying a lot of extra lenses right away. But you can. And you will buy them sooner than you think - you'll want them. Get into photography in a big way and you'll realize that most of your investment is in the lenses ... which will just as easily work with a new body, so you'll upgrade that too. Canon's line is oustanding, ranging from the cheap and light Rebel to the 20D (now 30D) to the 5D (full frame sensor) to the 1Ds (full frame, 16 megapixel). But unless you're doing sports photography or need very high res for printing, you'll be fine with the Rebel for a long time. DSLRs have reached the "good enough" point (in terms of resolution) for most people.

Feel: having a DSLR will make you feel like a serious photographer more than a POS. Don't underestimate this factor. You don't have a camera, you've invested in a "system" (many, many accessories available). You'll want to maximize your use of it. I used POS cameras for years and rarely (if ever) ventured to the S, A, or M modes. With my DSLR I leave it set in Manual all the time and I've learned to use it that way.
posted by zanni at 11:53 PM on March 26, 2006

zanni: You've said pretty much everything that I was going to say, although I should point out that "POS" and "P&S" are two completely separate things... and although it may be true in many cases, not all P&S cameras are a POS... :-)
posted by Chunder at 12:43 AM on March 27, 2006

Oops. Thanks for the catch, Chunder. Not a Freudian slip, I swear.
posted by zanni at 2:22 AM on March 27, 2006

I agree with johngumbo's advice. I have shot with a pro-level SLR for years with a full bag. It is a pain in the ass and a a more serious pain in the back for casual shooting. I still keep it around but less for an all day shooting safari. Nowadays I tend to have the "less is more" attitude. I am now shooting with a Panasonic Lumix LX1 which is a small pocket camera. It's even smaller than the sweet little Yashica T4 that I used to love.

There are a lot of cameras out there with many different functions for different styles of shooting. It is hard to decide what will work for your shooting style. If you currently have a camera, decide the specifics of what you can't live without and what doesn't matter to you.

1. What zoom range do you need? Depending on the CCD size, the same focal lengths are not equal.
2. Resolution and CCD size: don't just go on max resolution alone for a decision.
3. Flip LCD screen? My Canon G1 had one that was excellent. My Lumix does not and sometimes that is a problem. I have to adjust my shooting style.
4. Shutter Lag? Most newer decent cameras have a slight lag. Check the specs.
5. Try it first in a store. Take your own SD or XD card and take a few pics. How does it feel in your hands?

Don't spec out the cheapest camera. You can get a very good quality P&S for upwards of $300.
posted by JJ86 at 6:16 AM on March 27, 2006

I've been REALLY happy with my Canon S2 IS. It seems to have most of the features of a DSLR but with a live preview. It's a bit bigger than a carry-everywhere, P&S camera but that's always the trade off isn't it?

It seems that you have as many variable settings (Apeture, shutter, iso) as DSLRs, as some of my friends have recommended I go to DSLRs to have full control...but then can't think of a reason why. Nor can I. Which is sad, I want a DSLR but it seems it would make me a worse photographer (no live preview).

It doesn't have the zoom rings though the manual focus is available. What it does have is an thing in the lcd/viewfinder (viewfinder is a tiny LCD...really neat). It will auto focus on whatever's in that rectangle. So instead of having to manual focus on something close, you can just tell it to focus on that.

Sorry I'm babbling and there's no link but I'm really just distracting myself while composing a long question. Back to that now.
posted by Brainy at 6:21 AM on March 27, 2006

I would advise against choosing a DSLR just because you are looking for a "better camera". Go the DSLR route only if you want to do things that DSLR's excel at: building a system of specialized lenses and learning when to use which one, using shallow DOF for specific uses (subject isolation in portraiture is a popular one), using advanced servo AF to track fast-moving subjects, full compatibility with external flash and lighting systems, etc.

Digicams are still getting better and better every year. The past year has seen a dead stop to the megapixel race (yay), improved AF capabilities (double yay), and other evolutionary improvements (more models supporting raw modes, improved low light sensitivity especially with the Fuji models, etc). I would check out DPReview and look closely for cameras with the following features:

1) raw mode
2) aperture/shutter priority
3) a zoom range you're comfortable with
4) image stabilization is a great perk but not necessary
5) as small and portable as possible to encourage frequent use

On the other hand, if the lack of manual zoom and/or focus rings is a dealbreaker for you, then you have precious few options to choose from when it comes to digicams -- you'll probably only be truly satisfied with a DSLR.
posted by DaShiv at 6:46 AM on March 27, 2006

For eveyone saying the OP should get a small P&S camera now, I think the question was on wanting an upgrade to their current camera. So the original poster probably doesn't want another P&S.
posted by voidcontext at 8:14 AM on March 27, 2006

Should I opt for an "SLR-like" camera, such as the Panasonic FZ-30, or should I shell out for a digital SLR?

voidcontext: The FZ-30 that the OP listed as one possible option is a P&S, not a DSLR. And size is an issue here: "SLR-like" refers to a certain shape/form factor which varies quite considerably in size, some being modestly "digicam-sized" while others (such as the Samsung 815) being even larger than DSLR's. So there is actually merit to saying "get a small one", since otherwise instead of one of the larger of the SLR-like P&S's one may as well carry a full DSLR .
posted by DaShiv at 8:29 AM on March 27, 2006

DaShiv is da man, listen to his wise words.
and thanks for the usual great comment, DaShiv
posted by matteo at 9:29 AM on March 27, 2006

There were some good answers on a similar topic in this thread.
posted by TedW at 10:58 AM on March 27, 2006

Thanks everyone. To clarify, I am looking for a camera with a full set of features rather than a compact - my question is whether it is better to go for an advanced P&S or a DSLR. It sounds like the general opinion is that if I'm going to lug around a large brick of a camera anyway, I might as well go for a DSLR.
posted by Krrrlson at 9:05 PM on March 27, 2006

After your clarification, I would definitely agree with your choice. I had an advanced P&S for a few years before I got my DSLR, and the difference is night and day. The features on the DSLR such as manual focus, manual shooting modes, and so forth that give you creative control are actually meant to be used all the time, whereas on the P&S they might be there, but are a pain to use for more than the occasional photo.
posted by TedW at 6:13 AM on March 28, 2006

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