Sunday, May 12, 2013

Comparison of Decent Cameras Under $600: Nikon, Canon, Sony, Olympus and Panasonic

If you follow photography forums, you might come to the conclusion that the average mom and pop camera buyer doesn't know beans about photography, and don't know what they need in a camera. Granted, most people aren't that blunt about it, but forums are stuffed with enthusiasts who are more invested in the art of photography than others. I would posit that mom and pop shooters actually do know what they want: they want good pictures that won't require a too much of a learning curve to produce, and they don't want to spend more than they have to. I would argue that that such a goal is a more specific expression of "knowing what you want" than "wants low ISO 6400 noise"; the first want is about achieving a goal, the second is a want for the sake of wanting. 

In terms of price, $600 USD seems to be a bit of a dividing line for DSLR's and mirrorless cameras. Retailers will generally not let the price of any given camera to fall below $500 unless it is fairly obsolete, where as a price range between $500-$599 tends to give consumers the comfort of not over-spending on a camera that might be too over-featured for them. Most photography enthusiasts are interested in the high end in the way that most teenage boys know the specs of the Ferrari 458 but couldn't give you an opinion between  the Chevy Cruze or the Hyundai Elantra. But like the plebian compact cars, a good portion of the industry unit volume is with the lower end of the scale. For the average person, $600 is already a fairly large expense, and spending the same again for a lens would be a stretch. I'm not talking about not being able to afford a nicer camera, I'm talking about the fat middle of the market where people's priorities are different from the enthusiast crowd. Why spend $600 on a camera that you will use every other weekend when you could get spend it on a TV that you would use all the time? The conversation usually goes something like this:

Average Joe:  
"I just want a camera that takes good pictures and is easy to use."

"It's not that simple; upgrade your lenses, shoot RAW, buy Lightroom..."

Well, you can see the disconnect, can't you? I would no more recommend that my causal photography friends process RAW with ACR than I would recommend them to buy a Nikon D800 so that they will have the best image quality... it's just not sensible or realistic advice.

So the way I see it, the following aren't cheap cameras; I'm looking at cameras that cost under $600 and which include a kit lens that covers the full frame equivalent of  approximately 28mm-75mm. These are certainly simpler cameras, but given half a chance, the picture quality won't be that far off from their more expensive siblings. I'm concentrating on the following cameras because these are the cameras that people tend to want to graduate to when they want something more than their cameraphone or a matchbox compact. Right now, these cameras cost just as much (or even less) than high end compacts like the Sony DSC-RX100 or Fujifilm X20, but produce better images and tend to have quicker operation. The added bonus is that unlike a high-end compact like the RX100, you will also have room to grow if you want to add additional lenses. Also, I'm looking at these from a JPEG shooter standpoint, since the majority of their use will fall into that category.

Nikon D3100, D3200 and D51000

Nikon recently released their financials, and it's hard to notice a disconnect between their financial performance and what is happening on the street. The company as a whole has been more profitable than most with sales of cameras, but many legacy models remain on store shelves. The reason why this can be is because Nikon recognizes the revenue when units are shipped into the distribution channels; what happens afterwards is in the hands of the distributors and retailers. This raises the obvious question of how long Nikon can keep this up in a global camera market that is slowing down by the day, but it is good news for the consumer. Yes, you do get some tangible improvements with the latest D5200, but that doesn't mean that the older cameras aren't any good.

The lowest-priced new DSLR is the D3200, which you can get with a kit lens for under $550. However, for under $50 more, you can get the D5100 and have the added flexibility of the fold out rear LCD screen. The D3200 has the more modern sensor, but truth be told, most people (even professionals) would not be able to produce much better and image out of the D3200 than the D5100... with 16mp, the D5100 already produces more than enough resolution for most consumers and you also have the limiting factor of the kit lens to deal with. For the most part, I think that most value shooters will find the D5100 easier to use; the 16mp sensor is slightly more forgiving for imprecise hand holding technique, and images will have less per-pixel noise. The D3200 is slightly smaller and compact, and if you are a landscape fan, then the extra resolution will be rewarding if you shoot on a tripod.

The downside to both cameras is that Nikon is not known for their contrast-detect autofocusing, so if you like to use live view, the Nikon's are not the best choice. I know that there is a whole generation of camera owners now that find holding something up to their eye to be a foreign concept, but these cameras really beg to be used with the eyepiece. Though not modern, the 11-pt AF system is descended from the workhorse professional D200's, and will certainly serve anybody well today. If you look at the Nikon D5100 vs the Canon T3i, it really comes down to a matter of personal preference, you wouldn't go wrong either way.

Pros: Nikon legacy, wide assortment of lenses. Nikon owners tend to hold onto and their cameras for a fairly long time. There are still plenty of D40 and D50 users out there.

Cons: Size compared to the alternatives. Liveview autofocusing.

Canon T3i (EOS 600D) 

Pretty much the same virtues that the Nikon D5100 has, the Canon T3i has as well. If I'm honest, I find the price of the T4i and its replacement, the T5i a bit on the high side for what you are getting ; not outrageously so, but not enough to justify the difference compared to the T3i. Despite the back and forth bickering, you are not either a Canon person or a Nikon person; you can choose one or the other and produce great images. I think a bigger deciding factor should be the choice of service in your location, and what your immediate circle of friends are using. For me, a lot of my friends actually use Sony DSLR's because they shoot together and support each other. Your community might be Nikon, or it may be Canon.

If you really must pixel peep, the Nikon will produce more detailed looking images at almost all ISO's. However, the Canon has more aggressive noise reduction, so depending on the circumstance, you may find that the Canon produces more smoother looking images. If you aren't shooting for subtle low contrast details, the Canon may actually be more pleasing to your eye. For the most part, it won't matter. Canon DSLR's have historically tend to be set to produce sharper looking images. It's not that Nikon's are soft, it's just that their defaults are softer than Canon's defaults. If there is one thing that is probably better about Canon's, though, is that they seem to be slightly less finicky with skin tones. Modern Nikons (from the D7000 and every new DLSR since) tend to produce images with brighter and more vibrant colours than cameras of the past. This is great for landscapes and scenery; it tends to make skin tones a little less carefree than you'd hope. Canon is a little bit the opposite; scenery doesn't quite have the tonal qualities of the Nikons, but portrait colour tend to be a little less fiddly. (If you are using a Nikon,  try turning down contrast and brightness in picture controls)

The T3i is a better value proposition than the EOS M, which in kit form is also selling for under $600 USD.  With the T3i, you have the added flexibility of the flip-out LCD screen, and less hassle with lens upgrades. You don't get the size advantage of the EOS M, but in truth, the EOS-M is not that small for a mirrorless camera, not when the lenses are mounted. It is smaller than a conventional DSLR, but the Sony NEX series do the compact APS-Ca with a little more justice.

Pros: Canon legacy and assortment of lenses. Like the Nikon, can be used as an entry point into the more expensive Canon DSLR's when you are ready.

Cons: Size. The T3i is the largest camera in this list, though insignificantly so over the D5100

Sony Alpha NEX-3N

Sony's NEX models follow the same product path that the Canon EOS cameras use; lots of models, lots of variation, all for the purposes of shelf stuffing. Most of the NEX cameras look similar from afar, but there are features differences between them, and accordingly, price differences as well. by doing this, they are segmenting their lineup until they can price discriminate for as many different consumers as possible. The NEX-3N is one of the smallest models in the NEX lineup, and also one of the lightest. In fact, the whole design is very minimalist, with hardly any button clutter. If you are only looking at still photography, and for photography of still subjects, then the NEX-3N is a good option to a low-end DSLR. It will definitely not be able to match a Canon or a Nikon if you are trying to focus on fast moving subjects, and for the most part, your only upgrade options for lenses are Sony's in-house brand (assuming that you won't be trying to use a lens adapter).

You do get a smaller sized machine compared to either the Canon or the Nikon, and in general, the NEX cameras tend to have nicer tactile qualities than the lower end DSLRs. If you mount a zoom lens, then the size advantage goes away.... especially if you go for the silly (in concept) NEX version of the 18-200 superzoom lens. To that end, these cameras tend to appeal to people who want a compact camera, but better. If you don't think that you will ever need to add a zoom lens or an ultrawide, then this is a good choice. However, as good as the image quality is, Sony does lag Canon and Nikon in terms of JPEG processing. Sony cameras tend to show noise at slightly lower ISO's than Nikon's using the same sensor, which is a result of Nikon's additional prowess at being an imaging company, whereas Sony is really still a consumer electronics company. Conversely, Sony's experience in broadcasting really shows through in the video features of their cameras; Nikon is still behind in this aspect.

The only real downside to the NEX-3N is that unlike the D5100 and the T3i, which were once solidly middle-ground contenders, the NEX-3N was built for the lower end market right from the beginning. That means that compared to the other Sony models, the 3N feels a bit stripped down at times (lower resolution LCD screen, LCD only tilts upwards, slow burst rate, etc.)

The NEX cameras fall into a niche of their own when it comes to portability. The smallest m4/3 cameras can be tucked away in a purse, and the smallest DSLR's still need their own camera bag, but the NEX cameras fall right in between in no-man's land. Their nearest equivalent would by the Canon EOS M or the Samsung NX cameras. The camera bodies are quite svelt, but the problem is that the APS-C sized sensor means that you need a fatter lens barrel than with m4/3.

Pros: Almost the same image quality as the Nikon and Canon ( and better than m4/3) in a smaller sized body.

Cons: Less satisfying to use as a camera compared to the traditional camera makers, not as small as the m4/3 cameras. Smaller amount of lens choice.

Olympus E-PL5 

This is probably the prettiest looking and smallest camera of the bunch.  Like the rest of the PEN series, the camera does not have an on-board flash, though it does come with an accessory unit that fits in the hotshoe. If there is one thing that I think people should do, it's to use their flash more often. Too many people try to shoot without it, thinking that the image quality is better, but on-board fill flash is there for a reason, and solves problems that faster lenses and image stabilization don't completely cover.

This is the same sensor as the high-end OM-D E-M5, and thankfully so. Olympus, and the rest of the m4/3 industry, developed a reputation for not having as good image noise control as the APS-C cameras, and most people blamed the smaller size of the sensor. That was only partially true; what was more true was that Olympus and Panasonic were just plain behind in terms of technology compared to Sony. Well, no more, thanks in part to Olympus Corp's spectacular accounting scandal of 2012. Sony now has an interest in Olympus, and with that comes better sensors. At 16mp, the pixel size is roughly the same as what you would see on a 24mp APS-C camera, meaning that the image noise is roughly comparable to a Nikon D3200 or Sony NEX-7, but at 16mp size. An added bonus is that Olympus kit lenses have always produced high quality results, though this is still a kit lens, so corners will be weaker than with something higher up the product scale. Ordinarily, I would say that my comfort level of the m4/3 cameras would be to ISO 1600, but with the OM-D and E-PL5, it's ISO 3200, same as the Nikon and Canon, albeit at a slightly reduced image quality.

Olympus claims that this is the world's fastest contrast-detect autofocus system, with the caveat that you have to use the M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 EZ lens to achieve the published speeds. This is achieved by driving the sensor at a readout speed of 240fps. In the early days, camera sensors were driven at 30fps, which also limited their video output to 30fps, making making for slow focusing and choppy video. The second generation of video-centric sensors moved to 60fps, which improved performance for 30fps applications. Olympus has basically taken this and doubled it again, meaning that the camera is sampling data four times faster than what older devices were capable of.

One thing I've always loved about the Olympus kit lens is that it's retractable. Set to it's smallest position, the camera/lens combination shrinks down to a very stowable size, and out of the five cameras mentioned here, only the Olympus and Panasonic would truly fit comfortably in a jacket pocket or a purse.

Downsides are that the controls and menus are fiddly, and the traditional Olympus placement of of the camera strap lugs detracts a bit from holding comfort. However, as an added bonus to a camera of this size, the LCD is a touch-sensitive and can be flipped out, and even flipped over until it's facing forward. For the most part, this is the m4/3 counterpart to the Nikon D5100; almost the most current sensor packed into a versatile body, and sold at a great price because it's only a tad bit older. By comparison, the newly released PEN EP-5 is more of a poor man's OM-D E-M5 than an upgraded E-PL5, and its $999 body-only price reflects that aspiration. For a similar camera for $400 less, I can live without the 1/8000s max shutter speed, built in wifi and focus peaking. However, the more expensive cameras do get 5-axis image stabilization, whole the E-PL5 uses an older and simpler version of sensor-shift image stabilization. More recently, Olympus announced a Japan-only update, the E-PL6, which tweaks a few things, but which is moot since it won't be available on a wider basis for the time being. 

Pros: Very good image quality in a small size. Wide assortment of m4/3 lenses.

Cons: Fiddly menus

Panasonic DMC-GF5

The GF5 is a revision of the Panasonic GF3. Since the GF2, Panasonic has been really pushing how small the camera body can be, and they are only partially successful, since the lens has to remain a constant size.That said, the kit lens is collapsible, just as with Olympus. Out of all the cameras on this list, this one is the most like a big point-and shoot. It's not going to appeal to anybody with enthusiast inklings.

The sensor is a 12.1MP unit, meaning that resolution-wise, this camera lags behind all of the previously aforementioned cameras. The problem with that is that it's Panasonic's in-house sensor, which means that it also lags in terms of an efficiency standpoint compared to the Sony chipped cameras. (12MP on m4/3 is like 16MP on APS-C, so if two sensor are manufactured with equivalent technology, then on a per pixel basis, they ought to look similar, but in this case, they're not. Panasonic's image processing is a bit behind the curve in this aspect, but the image quality is an improvement over the GF3, with noticeable better detail rendering. ISO 1600 is as far as I would go, but even then, there's very pronounced loss of detail due to noise reduction.

Focus speed is a strong suite with this camera. Even though it is contrast-detect based, the GF5 is competitive with most of the best cameras in this class; almost as fast as a typical consumer-grade DSLR.

Also, Panasonic uses lens-based image stabilization, whereas Olympus uses an in-camera method. What this means is that any lens attached to an Olympus becomes stabilized, but in theory, the lens-based system of the Panasonic's should be more effective at dampening vibration. Results seem to bear this out; with any of the Olympus cameras, I would be comfortable with a two-stop reduction (i.e., using a shutter speed that's 1/4 what you would ordinarily need without a stabilized camera), but modern lens based systems can comfortably do three-stop reductions, even four if you have exceptional technique. The kit lens appears to be comparable to what Olympus is offering, though to be fair, both cameras are applying a fair bit of digital correction with regards to lens distortion, chromatic aberration and vignetting. 

This is a good camera, but it lags behind the others in several specs. It's good at being a no-fuss compact upgrade, and for a shooter who would find even the smallest DSLR huge, the GF5 would be the closest to what that type of shooter would find comfortable. The overall design of the camera is reminiscent of the LX-5 and LX-7 compact cameras, but simpler and with less dedicated buttons. In fact, the LX-7 will probably feel more upscale than the GF5 by virtue of the greater number of manual controls. If it were my choice, I would only consider A GF5 if you can find it at less of a price than the Olympus. This might be problematic, because Panasonic tends to be more of a premium brand; their products are well made and appeal to people who don't just want mass market Sony. Finally, if you are interested in this type of camera (a better point-and-shoot), a heavily discounted Nikon V1 may also pique your interest.

Pros: Small size, fast operation. Out of these cameras, the most like a big compact.

Cons: Tech and specs aren't leading edge. Out of these cameras, the most like a big compact.


Here's a quick sum up of how these cameras stack up against each other:

  • Nikon D3200: The most real-world resolution out of all of these.
  • Nikon D5100: Best combination of versatility and image quality.
  • Canon T3i: The proverbial soccer-mom camera.
  • Sony Alpha NEX-3N: If you want  DSLR quality, but smaller and with better video
  • Olympus E-PL5: Stylish looking camera with great image quality in small size
  • Panasonic DMC-GF5X: Less features and less resolution than the E-PL5

Most people generally won't go wrong with each. If you are upgrading into one of these cameras, the jump in image quality from a compact or your iPhone will be a bigger factor than any of the actual differences between any of these cameras.AS always, when you are choosing a camera, one of the most important things that you can do is to hold it in your hand and to use it. Each of these cameras appeals to a different type of shooter. The Nikon and the Canon's are a bit more traditional and will probably last anybody the longest, whereas anybody who grew up with a Playstation would find the Sony a bit more familiar. The m4/3 cameras trade some image quality for the sake of portability, so in the end, the best way to choose between these is to see how each of these fits with your needs.

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