New point-and-shoot, learn my current camera, or something else?
June 23, 2022 11:01 AM   Subscribe

Should I look for a new point-and-shoot camera, a different type (e.g., a camera with a fixed primary), or just learn more about the camera I have now? I want reliable pictures with minimal effort, around $500.

I have a 2014-era Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS40. It has served me well, but lately the buttons aren't responding, and I plan to replace it. I love its "intelligent auto" feature as well as its many Scene presets: I am lazy, and just want to frame the shot and grab it.

My uses are indoor school concerts (so low light), outdoor sports (fast action), family events, nature pictures (macro), and video (but not demanding, like 8k).

I have owned several Lumix models in a row, and love them -- but I am willing to branch out. For example, the Sony XVR gets so many recommendations on AskMe, but it's like $1000!

I have seen a few cameras that are larger than a pocket point-and-shoot with a fixed lens (instead of an interchangeable one). Are those a good choice?

I read one article on cameras that bluntly said that current phones are actually better than dedicated cameras, because the phones have so much processing power. My iPhone is two versions old and is from work, so that's not an option.
posted by wenestvedt to Media & Arts (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This opinion is coming from a camera nerd/amateur photographer, so take that in mind.

Your needs, in my opinion, are fairly broad and probably unlikely to be completely met by a single camera with a fixed lens. Macro especially requires some specialized hardware that allows for close focusing that standard lenses and cameras can't normally achieve.

I think you should try to quantify how good is "good enough" viz. image quality. Phones are more capable than dedicated cameras at computational photography because the processors in dedicated cameras aren't designed to do that kind of work (but you can take images from a dedicated camera and do computational work on them on your computer). The reason point-and-shoots get a bad rap nowadays is because they're the worst of all worlds - sensors are smaller than even "enthusiast" level cameras and the glass is generally worse, so image quality isn't comparable to "better" cameras. However, they also can't do the sort of processing that your phone can do, so taking a picture with your phone may look more impressive.

How do you normally view and share the photographs you take? If you're looking at them on your phone screen or emailing/texting them to family, then honestly a phone has enough image quality to suffice (but may have other limitations, more on that later). If you want to make prints, photo books, put images on a TV, then I would argue even a budget enthusiast camera would be a better option.

The phone has two big drawbacks. Sensor size is a huge one and has a direct relation to low light performance (short explanation - bigger sensor, better low light capabilities). Phones will compensate for this with computational methods (see the "night sight" feature on modern Androids), but noise becomes a huge issue very quickly compared to a dedicated camera. Second would be video recording (note that I do very little video, so grain of salt and all), since a dedicated camera gives you more options for extended file storage, audio inputs, etc. Video is also a very resource-intensive process which will eat batteries and overheat your device (even cameras designed for this have these problems, they're just better about managing it by offering bigger batteries, active cooling, or other options).

Cameras have also just gotten more expensive in general over the past ten years or so as the market has shifted even more towards enthusiasts/professionals, with the assumption being that people who just want to take pictures of their kids will use their phones.

So one option is to buy a new phone and use that, which obviously comes with the associated costs of needing to then pay for your own phone plan instead of letting your work pay for it. If you want a dedicated camera, I'd suggest looking into some of the budget mirrorless interchangeable lens camera systems. They're a smaller form factor than a full-blown SLR and lenses tend to be a little cheaper. Find a kit that comes with a zoom lens; this should let you accomplish most of your goals. If you find yourself running up against the capabilities of the camera, you can always get another lens instead of needing to buy a whole new camera. I used an Olympus PEN E-Pl for many many years and was very happy with it (the E-PL 10 is the current model), but Panasonic also makes the Lumix G7 which uses the same lens mount. The Sony a6000/a6100 is another option worth looking into. All of these are under $1000 with a lens.

Buying used from a reputable reseller (KEH or MPH are the big names online) is also a great way to go, and you could get something a generation old (or even a used current gen camera) for cheaper. Fuji is very popular for their film simulations, and while it's more "camera-like" than the other options something like a X-T10 or X-T20 might be nice.
posted by backseatpilot at 11:48 AM on June 23 [10 favorites]

I'll add the valuable cliche that the best camera is the one you have with you. I'm a very casual photographer and have a Sony a5000 (older version of the a6000 backseatpilot mentioned), which is excellent for my purposes. But since I got my Pixel, which has a great phone camera, I've been using the Sony much less just because I don't want to carry it and the Pixel is usually sufficient. However, there are many times I've wished I'd brought my Sony, because in general it's better, and for many things (distance, low light, fast motion), it's much better. I'm considering getting a nice pocketable point-and-shoot, because I'd be more likely to carry something that I don't either need to hang around my neck or pull out of a backpack, which for more serious photographers isn't a consideration.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 12:32 PM on June 23 [1 favorite]

I concur on a mirrorless camera for your needs, although they are a little more expensive. I have a Sony a6000, but other makers have similar models. The mirrorless format has a larger image sensor than your existing (or other) point-and-shoot cameras; a larger sensor means that it will gather more light, which is useful in both low light and fast action scenarios. (I believe it will also be better at being able to produce the shallow depth-of-field bokeh effect in macro shots.)

Computational photography has made phone cameras much more acceptable, but it's not like Sony, Olympus et al haven't spent any time on computational stuff, either.

In any case, although a mirrorless camera has the capability to allow you to do more learning if you want to in the future, it also (based on my a6000) has an "intelligent auto" feature, and a number of preset scenes, including low light, macro and fast action. I am also lazy and often just use the auto feature with no real tweaking, and can get great photos.
posted by Superilla at 12:43 PM on June 23 [1 favorite]

I'm a casual photographer. I take a lot of photos of birds and insects for ID purposes. I want as powerful an optical zoom as possible - and really good intelligent auto, because birds and insects don't stay put for long enough to be fiddling with settings.

I had several generations of your camera, moved to a Sony equivalent when Panasonic dropped the GPS, didn't get on with it half as well (in particular, I found the screen very difficult to see in bright sunlight), and am now using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ82 bridge camera, which I love for its fantastic optical zoom and its viewfinder (digital, but still). It's very good for scenic views and the kind of nature photos I take; it's also the first camera I've had that's been able to get good photos of the moon. For close-ups, I'm probably more likely to use my phone, because it's smaller and lighter and easier to reach past a branch or some flower stems with.

We don't really have overlapping use cases, but something you might want to know is that it looks enough like a "real" camera that strangers without cameras assume I'm a serious birder or photographer and pass comment. I would feel very self-conscious carrying it in an urban context. If and when I start travelling again, I intend to get the current generation of your camera as a city / travel camera, keeping the bridge one for the countryside.

I would take a lot of convincing at this point to go with anything other than Panasonic Lumix. They do eventually develop faults, but until that point (by which time I've taken thousands of photos), I find them a real pleasure to use. Every other brand I've tried has been disappointing or irritating in some respect.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 2:30 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]

Here are useful comparisons to help you choose:

I could be wrong, but $500 seems a little low for good macro, good low light, and good fast action.

Good luck!
posted by conrad53 at 11:45 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]

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