Good, inexpensive digital camera
December 9, 2003 1:42 PM   Subscribe

What's the best digital camera in the $200-$300 range? Picture quality is the most important criteria for me, compactness #2. I have a lot of experience with traditional SLR photography and hate to not use my Nikon, but the quality /price ratio for digicams is finally getting reasonable (and the price of film development is getting worse by the day). Any advice would be much appreciated.
posted by _sirmissalot_ to Technology (27 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Digital Photography Review & Digital Camera Resource are two good camera review sites.

For a good point and shoot digital camera, I like the Nikon Coolpix line.
posted by riffola at 1:46 PM on December 9, 2003

I bought a Canon G2 and I couldn't be happier. Check out DP Review, a very good source. Really, you should go into a bricks and mortar store and try out any camera you are interested in. If the form factor is cumbersome or bothersome, any of the great bells and whistles will be worthless. Then you can go online and buy it. Actually, I bought mine @ Best Buy, and there was some problems with the viewport and some buttons did not work after about 2 years of very hard use. I sent it into BB, and having the replacement plan, got a brand new Canon G3.
posted by plemeljr at 1:49 PM on December 9, 2003

If you're going to be seriously manipulating the photos digitally, make sure that it has an option save as a .tif. It's just a good feature to have anyway.
posted by Mayor Curley at 1:54 PM on December 9, 2003

I posted this as an FPP a while back, but here it is again.

PBase gallery of real pictures, organized by camera model.

Bear in mind that these pictures may very well have experienced post-processing before they were uploaded to galleries. Still, they should give you a decent sense of the camera's balance and optics.

Since you mention "picture quality" in a general way, all I can suggest is looking at real photos taken with the unit. DPreview has excellent laboratory-style sample photos, but I always like to look at photos taken in average conditions by average people, too.
posted by scarabic at 2:08 PM on December 9, 2003

Oh, and don't miss the digital cameras selector, which I have tuned to your budget and specs with this link. All Epinions reviews are now listed on, along with myriad online prices.

posted by scarabic at 2:11 PM on December 9, 2003

The pixel size determines the price too. For what you want to spend a good buy would be finding 3-4-meg pixel, figure every 1meg of pixel will run you 100 bucks. This camera is suppose to be a good buy because of what I described. This has been one of the easiest solutions for me. Then add what specific features you like. I like the tinier ones, yet then you don't get a zoom.
posted by thomcatspike at 2:14 PM on December 9, 2003

Response by poster: thanks guys - very helpful. the Canon A70 keeps coming up as a strong contender for this price, as does the Coolpix. i'll keep doing my research . . .
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 2:22 PM on December 9, 2003

I agree with plemeljr that the Canon G2 is a superb camera. May be a bit out of your price range though. Keep checking eBay. (One on there now ending in a few hours for $350.) I actually prefer it to the G3.

I only enjoy taking pictures in one setting: live music (self link--all pix taken with the G2 with no added accessories). I absolutely suck at any other kind of photography.

The G2 has a swivel lcd, which is a godsend if you plan on shooting in crowds (you can hold the camera above your head and tilt the lcd so you're looking up but shooting what's in front of the people in front of you or reach past people and over barricades or around corners and get great shots)--you can see examples of this in some of the pics in my self link (the angle makes it look like i'm on stage when I rarely am). I would never buy another digital camera without this feature and suggest you consider the ability regardless of what brand you go for.
posted by dobbs at 3:46 PM on December 9, 2003

I have a G2 I might be selling soon.
posted by kindall at 3:59 PM on December 9, 2003

I just got a Panasonic DMC-LC33 and am very pleased with it so far. I'm not an expert photographer but maybe it's another model you can consider.
posted by gyc at 4:16 PM on December 9, 2003

My most important advice: give great consideration to battery life.

And G2? Come on, Canon's up to G5 now. Seriously.

(looks at G1 on desk and sighs...)
posted by NortonDC at 4:17 PM on December 9, 2003

And G2? Come on, Canon's up to G5 now. Seriously.

Maybe you missed the price range sirmissalot specified? I recommended a used G2 because I think they're better than what one can get in a new camera for the same price range.
posted by dobbs at 4:42 PM on December 9, 2003

I did a lot of research on this a few months ago [amateur photographer looking for something small and fun], and the best I found was the Nikon 2100/3100 series (2 and 3 megapixel, respectively). They're $200/$300, and pretty tiny too. For picture quality, especially lens (Nikon is known for their quality glass) and color reproduction, there's nothing better in the price range. I'm expecting one of the two for Christmas, actually.

My main tool for research was the Imaging Resource, which is run by a pro or pro-am photographer. Every camera is tested with the same set of photographs under the same studio and available light conditions, so there's an excellent comparative data set. Well worth a look, I'd say.
posted by The Michael The at 4:43 PM on December 9, 2003

Response by poster: That Panasonic DMC-LC33 looks interesting - a Leica lens for under $300? THAT'S COOL.

Dobbs, I checked out some of your pics -- really great. Well composed and really nice clarity & color. Being an older camera, are there any drawbacks to the G2 (versus something like this Panasonic or the Nikons)?
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 5:30 PM on December 9, 2003

I got a Nikon 2100 a month a ago ($200):

good: picture quality, lenses, AA size batteries, very sensitive to low light, easy to handle - good grip;
red eye reduction, white balance, exposure compensation, best shot selector, and many other options.

not so good: battery life (but I suppose this goes for all digital cameras) and not being able to focus very well in the dark.

You will have to spend another ~ $100 for case, larger CF card, and rechargeable batteries.

Be careful when you buy the CF card, what Nikon likes does not work well (usually) with Cannon and vice versa (good info on About batteries, check out Maha MH-C401FS Charger with 2200mAh batteries - I got them from Thomas Distributing (not so good web design, but excellent service).
posted by MzB at 5:34 PM on December 9, 2003

After waiting a long, long, long time, I got a Canon A70 a while back, as all my research led to believe that it's got the best bang for the most minimal buck. I'm very happy with it.

The A80 was just released, which will probably push the price of the A70 further down.

In that price range, I don't think there are any other cameras with manual controls, AF-assist lamp, removable lenses, and a number of other high-end features.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:32 PM on December 9, 2003

sirmissalot, thanks for the compliments on my photos.

i could be wrong, but i think the dmc-lc33 is fully automatic, no? you can't control aperture/shutter speed. i would assume, given that you have photography experience, that you'd want as much control as possible.

the canon a70 uses AA batteries wheras the g2 uses a rechargeble. which you prefer will depend on the circumstances you shoot (hours on end will not suit the rechargable but will cost you through the nose for AA... it's a tossup). i bring two fully charged batteries to each concert (concerts are about 3 hour and the camera/lcd are on constantly and i may take as many as 250 pictures in a night) and though i don't always pull out the second battery, i've surely appreciated having it when i did. thankfully, when i bought my g2 new (C$1050) i got a free second battery from the guy.

you can of course use rechargable AAs. i just have no experience with them.

as for the diff between an older and newer camera, i assume you mean older model compared to new one not used compared to new...the big difference will be megapixels, battery life, and zoom, i think--and maybe how quick the camera takes the picture after you release the shutter.

when the g2 came out it was 4MP which was about the top at the time, which is why it's on par with some of the other models in your price range (the a70 is 3.2 as is the dmc-LC33). though both the a70 and lc33 are apparently great cameras, again, what i like least about them is the lack of swivel-lcd. it will depend how important (if at all) this feature is to you.

re: CF cards, the g2 (and all powershot series after it, i think) can take ibm microdrives, should you require very large storage media. (i'd bet they're not good on the battery though.)

when i bought the g2, i was considering a coolpix. what i liked about them: good reviews around the web, small, swivel lcd. what i didn't: just felt cheap in my hand and looked more like a toy. in certain circumstances the latter doesn't matter. however, i've found that the people at concerts (the only place i use my camera) that have toy-like cameras don't get as much respect from the other photographers or the bands. (yes, i know how fucking stupid this sounds.) believe it or not, this is a big deal when you're trying to get into a good position to take a shot. though the g2 most definitely looks like a digital camera (which many photogs and bands still think means "not serious"), i don't get trampled over the way some of the people with these plasticy ones do.

anyway, sorry for the lengthy ramble and thanks again for the kind words. (and since no one's mentioned it yet, steve's digicams is my fave site for indepth reviews.
posted by dobbs at 6:33 PM on December 9, 2003

Response by poster: this is great advice. as for compliments on your shots, dobbs, i thought a couple of the brighteyes pics were professional-quality. (how is he live, anyway?)

i would really prefer manual controls, but i'm sure my wife would appreciate having something that's easy to use (since this will become the snapshot camera, natch). consumer conundrum! it's nice that you can have all these options at such low prices all of a sudden.

i did mean older vs. newer in terms of technology - since this is rapidly evolving tech, i didn't know if the g2 missed out on anything the current digis have.

one last question about the g2 - how does it heft? i mean, is it kinda the size of weight of a typical slr?

i really appreciate all the advice. thanks metafilterTM !
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 7:23 PM on December 9, 2003

the G2's weight is fine, to me. not quite as heavy as a regular SLR, which gets much of its weight from the lens, i think, but not as light as the comparably configured coolpix and other models mentioned. the higher end coolpix (the 5xxx models) are a good weight, though, but they cost more than the used g2 (probably because there is one more model of powershot out than coolpix, which pushed the g2 down another level). the g2 is metal and plastic (anything you see that looks metal in the pic probably is. the grip and bat door are plastic). the comparable nikon's are plastic (as is the canon g3, which is one reason i don't like it).

also, you might want to consider whether the camera you buy has the ability to add an external flash, some of the lower end models don't have a shoe for it. (the g2 does, though i've never tried it.) same with attaching filters or wide angle/tele caps.

i would highly recommend you pop into a good store (especially if you're purchasing online) and hold the cameras yourself. i know at least one person who hates my g2 because of the position of some of the controls. i find them very logically laid out.

really, my only complaint about the G2 is that the grip is not that big (the knob that goes out the front of the camera where your right hand grasps). it's bigger than most of the other cameras mentioned above but canon started increasing the size of it on all powershot models after the g2. when i shoot, i literally tie the camera to my arm as i'm always in a crowd.

i think you can also do video stuff like this with the G2 (setting the camera on auto and having pictures sent directly to your hard drive using third party software) though don't take my word for it. the one in the link was done with the G3 and i've never attempted such a thing.

re: bright eyes: he is superb live, though i've only seen him once (his last toronto show was cancelled because of SARS). the pix i took of him are among my favorites. i've had a lot of luck with bands using my photos in promo stuff and on their sites, which is great, considering i'm an amateur. two months ago Matador Records contacted me last hour (re: their to-press time) about using this gbv pic in their new box set and i was very happy about it. unfortunately, because i'm so friggin disorganized and have so many pictures to go through, it took me forever to find the original (at a print quality res) and by that time it was too late. the book had to go to print. grr.

this reminds me... i should probably post a question asking if anyone knows a good, cheap, mac-compat program for organizing portfolios (my g2 has taken almost 8000 pictures in the past 2 years or so).
posted by dobbs at 8:16 PM on December 9, 2003

All the Powershots take the IBM Microdrives. I've had the 1 GB Microdrive in my G1 since purchase.

Powershots are much better on battery life than many otherwise comparable cameras. They take meaty batteries and compromise on size and weight to accomodate them. They are big and heavy as compared to most other non-SLR digital cameras.
posted by NortonDC at 8:38 PM on December 9, 2003

Norton, how does the microdrive drain on the battery? Is it much worse than a reg CF card? I'd love to get one but right now it's easier to carry an extra card than an extra battery.
posted by dobbs at 8:45 PM on December 9, 2003

dobbs, I know only half of the answer to your question: PhotoMesa and PhotoFinder (they are for windoze). PhotoMesa is especially good when searching for lost pictures.
posted by MzB at 8:57 PM on December 9, 2003

Since I've relied exclusively on the microdrive, my own experiences don't tell me the answer to your question.

What I will tell you is that now, about 3 years after their purchase, the batteries are operating at a seriously diminished capacity. The more powerful aftermarket (Delco) battery I purchased at the same time as the rest of the rig has retained much more capacity than the Canon brand battery.

Now I find myself weighing replacing the batteries versus buying a new camera. I find myself thinking that if I were to replace the camera, this time I would purchase a much more compact model, lowering the threshold on events to which I would actually carry the camera.

But yes, I do have a camera.
posted by NortonDC at 9:23 PM on December 9, 2003

MzB. Thanks. They look great. :(

Thanks, Norton. There are a bunch of 340mb MDs on eBay for $35. I'll pick one up and see how it affects things and then maybe get a 1mb.
posted by dobbs at 9:46 PM on December 9, 2003

That may be a bad idea. The debut of the 1 GB microdrive marked the arrival of a new generation that, in addition to being higher capacity, is faster and uses less power. They may have started using the new design to make the 340's, but that wasn't the case when I made my purchase.

Frankly, the 1 GB microdrive has been overkill for a 3.3 megapixel camera. I don't know the current prices, but I know that 512 MB compact flash cards have become relatively common, and I would investigate prices for those before purchasing a microdrive. Microdrives will apparently always be more power hungry than flash memory, even the newer models.
posted by NortonDC at 5:07 AM on December 10, 2003

I just got a Panasonic DMC-LC33 and am very pleased with it so far. I'm not an expert photographer but maybe it's another model you can consider.

I second that emotion. I've had a DMC-LC33 for the last few months, and it is really quite good. The Leica lens was pretty much what sold me on the camera. While it is semi-automatic (you cannot control aperature and shutter) it does come with the standard modea (macro, landscape, portrait, etc.) and you can control the exposure as well. It also comes with a "beginner mode" that limits choices, but makes it more user-friendly. The SD card is cheap and fast, and the battery life is much better than average. One caveat: the flash is pretty impotent beyond 15 feet, even when compared to other compact digitals.
posted by Avogadro at 6:55 AM on December 10, 2003

Thanks for the info Norton. I'll hold back as a result.
posted by dobbs at 10:29 AM on December 10, 2003

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