(Updated January 2016)
Q: There are a lot of cameras out there… which is the best?
A: The best camera is the one you have with you.
This is why I love the camera on my smartphone (and the reason I recently upgraded — I got a camera 2X better for $200... which, from a camera POV, is a good value). The great thing about smartphone cameras is that you often don't look like you're taking a photo at all, which can be a bonus in a store or crowded train car. However, sometimes a smartphone camera is not enough — the images are less detailed (lens) and have more noise (sensor). It'll be a long time before a phone will completely replace a camera.
The "what should I buy?" question is a common one with variables that continue to change: cost, size, complexity. I'll keep this post updated with new models as they arrive. Otherwise, DPreview.com does a good job of explaining it all, and I'll reference their reviews below.
The best* camera to buy
#1: Panasonic LX100: The LX100 is still kicking ass and taking names with its ginormous 4/3 sensor, Leica-made lens, built-in EVF and hot shoe. The sensor size and lens have an important relationship, too, as you can see in this chart (the lower the line, the better). The lens in the LX100 gives a great degree of control over depth of field by "opening up" more compared to the size of the sensor. Note, too, how some lenses are bright for only the widest part of the zoom range (which is where the G7X excels). The EVF makes shooting simple and the hot shoe adds extendability. The lens is also threaded for the easy use of filters. The OEM case makes traveling and protection fairly easy and wi-fi makes image transfer fairly painless.
#2: Sony RX100-IV: the Sony continues on the tradition of the RX100-series of combining a giant sensor with an amazing lens — and now with an electronic viewfinder and a brighter lens than the v1 version. The OEM case makes traveling handy, too, while the OEM filter adapter extends the use a bit. The OEM part (along with the 4th generation) indicates that Sony — along with the marketplace — supports this camera. This is important when it comes to repairs, accessories, camera profiles in software and support in online forums. You can get the v1 model at a great discount now, too (under $400 for a bundle with a SD-card and additional battery and charger... a great deal).
#3: Canon G7X: This late-2014 model uses the same sensor as the RX100 and pairs it with a brighter lens (which is good) with a better zoom range (which is better)... is the lens sharper than the Zeiss RX100? You do the research. The newer, larger G5X adds an EVF and a hot shoe (but some unfortunately clunky design). The marketplace hasn't been as kind to the G7X as the RX100, however, even though it has better specs... maybe because it arrived 2 years too late. Sadly, the newest G9X took a giant step backwards with the lens, making it almost un-buyable. This is why the G7X clocks in at #3... still a solid buy, but a camera platform that's being phased out unlike the RX100 which is on it's 4th generation.
* What do I mean by best? In general, these models have the best combination of lenses (opening up to f1.7) and top-notch sensors with high-resolution and low-noise. They're also not overly large, complex or expensive. Interestingly enough, Andrew put them side-by-side for a test. Read about them yourself.
The main points
When shopping for any camera, concentrate on these main points:
- Sensor size/quality: The larger the sensor the better. After that, some sensors are better than others even at the same size. Do some research as to which sensor type the camera you're looking at has. For instance, the G7X has the exact same sensor as the RX100, so then the comparison is lens-to-lens when looking at these two cameras... but between the RX100 and the LX100, the LX100 has a much larger sensor, which even at a lower MP-count will deliver a much higher-quality image (lower noise at any given ISO with smoother transitions). Honestly, anything larger than 12MP should be fine for your needs, but if it's a giant concern, the RX100 gives you 20MP.
- Lens quality: Some lenses are better than others. A general rule is that the "brighter" the lens, the better. "Brighter" means how much light the lens lets in at its widest aperture (f-stop) which is a general indication of lens construction... and — to some degree — amount of glass and expensive bits. It simply costs more to make a brighter lens, so a brighter lens is often better. So... a 1.8-2.8 lens could be said to be "better" than a 2.0-4.9 lens. Look for a lens that opens to at least 2.0 and doesn't dip past 4.0. Sharpness also comes into play, but that generally has more to do with zoom range, which brings us to...
- Lens usability: A lens that tries to do it all generally isn't good at any one thing. a 3X zoom lens will generally give you a better overall image quality than a 10X zoom lens at any given distance. If the lens is not interchangable, you are going to realistically need some zoom (the new fixed lens compacts are neat, but limiting) so look for a lens in the 3X to 5X range. You will also need some sort of macro or close-focusing ability. Look for a lens that can focus under a few inches. The above recommendations are in the 3-5cm macro range. Canon's G1X lost out here with a 20cm (8in) min focus... which is unusable for many folks and was the camera's biggest downfall.
- Handy features and accessories: Depending on how your shoot, some features may be deal-sealers or deal-breakers. Realistically, if camera is a pain to use, you won't use it. You need a camera that can record RAW files. Things like wi-fi can make image transfers easy. Auto-ISO can make shooting a bit more care-free and fool-proof. An OEM case can make transport easy. A tiltable screen can help with video. A external microphone jack can help with audio. An EVF can be handy, too. Heck even aesthetics matter... if a camera is ugly, you don't want to take it out of the bag. Beware of useless filters and "creative" options, but some features and accessories can be good. This last category is highly individual, so do your research.
The dSLR debate
Why are dSLRs not on this short-list? Because for a student (and general person-on-the-street), they're more advanced than they need to be, they're more expensive then they need to be, they're more modular then they need to be and they're larger than they need to be. A dSLR is great, but a lens for a dSLR alone will cost as much as the G7X above and they're so large and cumbersome that they're more likely to be simply left at home. A student needs a camera that will capture a good image more than a tool that might intimidate them or break the bank.
Where to buy? (and what you need)
• Amazon.com... but not from a third-party Amazon seller: I've bought my last half-dozen cameras from Amazon. They have excellent pricing and even better return policies should something go wrong. As a Prime member (which can be free if you're a student), shipping is free and service is good. As much as I like to support local businesses, it just doesn't make sense here. However, if you buy from a 3rd party seller with a temptingly cheaper price, you're likely getting a gray-market camera with an "international" warranty and a video-output format that won't play on your computer... and a return policy that islikely not very forgiving. No good. Stick to the ones that say: "Ships from and sold by Amazon.com".
• BHphotovideo.com: B+H is simply a great camera shop and a NYC institution — visit there if you're in the city. They've done a good job in bridging their brick/mortar business with a competitive online presence. Short of the lack of Prime shipping options, they're as good as Amazon on most fronts... and not as "corporate".
• Keeble and Shuchat (Palo Alto): Sadly, the SF photo scene is pretty weak. The best Bay-Area shop is is K+S in the California Avenue shopping district — they also have a great rental department.
Where to look for info? There's lots of great sites out there. As mentioned, although owned by Amazon, I like DPreview.com … there are new models coming out every week and they do a good job of staying on top of them. When buying, I always look to Amazon.com first and
What do you really need? Rarely will you need a camera with greater than 16MP — especially if they're a "good" 16MP (camera makers tend to agree — most all 4/3 mirrorless interchangeable lens camera are 16MP for a reason). Older cameras had higher pixel counts but much greater noise. Recent trends in the camera world is to have fewer, but higher-quality resolutions and the cameras listed below have great sensors that will yield a good image with little/no noise. Also, many new models feature physically larger sensors (up to full-frame 35mm) which are also capable of capturing a great noise-free image. One of the main distinctions between a $200 and a $600 camera is the quality (or size) of the sensor. Very inexpensive cameras offer a 1/1.7in sensor... compare the physical size differences and it's easy to see why the sensor on the Sony RX-100 (a 1in-CX format sensor) is better than the one in your iPhone.
Also important — if not more so — is the quality of the lens. Many manufacturers have coupled small cameras with great sensors and great lenses… this is good for us. In general, when looking at a lens, one that tries to "zoom" too much isn't good at any one distance — look for ones in the 3X to 5X zoom factor (20X is trying to do too much). Also, generally speaking, the lower the base aperture, the higher quality the lens. These are numbers like f3.5-5.6 … so, following this rule, a f1.8-2 is a better lens than a f3.5-5.6. Really these numbers are indicating the amount of light (aperture) the lens will let in, but it's also a general gauge for quality in the same way a car with greater horsepower is generally a better car than one with lower horsepower. When you see a range (f3.5-5.6, for instance), it means that the base aperture will change through the zoom range — the most open (lowest number) is when the lens is at it's widest and as you zoom, the amount of light the lens lets in decreases (the aperture gets smaller and the "f" number increases). Additionally, generally speaking, lenses with a less dramatic range — or even a fixed aperture — are better than those with a wide-ranged aperture. Following this logic, an f1.4 lens is awesome, a f1.4-2.3 is good and 2.0-5.9 isn't as good. I generally avoid lenses that don't open up to at least f2.8. Having a lens with a large aperture (small number) means you can more successfully take pictures in lower light without using a high ISO (which means more noise) or a flash which give a terrible light quality.
Shoot RAW: Make sure that any camera you buy has the ability to capture RAW files in addition to JPGs. RAW files are just that — raw. The camera has done nothing to the file insofar as noise reduction, image improvement, etc and it lets you do that in your computer application (Photoshop or Lightroom). Although the camera manufacturer's JPG noise reduction algorithms are more advanced than what you can typically garner in Photoshop, the overall control you can have in an application outweighs this — plus, the in-camera noise reduction always seems to be dialed up a bit too much. With a RAW file you have great latitude to adjust things like color balance and exposure — even camera distortion — that is harder to do otherwise. Additionally, cameras that have the capability to shoot RAW files are generally better cameras, so it's a good gauge of quality, too.
When looking at cameras, they fall into a few basic categories and you'll see that size and price have a relationship here — generally the bigger and more expensive the camera, the better. However, with a big camera comes the likelihood that you might find it too much trouble to lug around as opposed to a compact camera you can toss into your coat pocket with ease. I have many cameras: from medium format film cameras to dSLRs, but I shoot 50% of my photos with my iPhone, 48% of my photos with my Canon G15 and the other 2% are taken with the larger, bulkier cameras.
These are cameras that can literally fit into your pocket and having a camera /on/ you when you need the shot is better than having a nicer one sitting on your desk at home. These camera sacrifice a bit of quality (usually sensor size and lens quality) for size, but a few have achieved a good formula. I like:
- Canon S110 (and S120): While some folks prefer the older S95, this is a very slim camera with a great lens and sensor combination. The 110 has a f2.0-5.9 lens and the 120 has a f1.8-5.7. The success of the S95 proves a bit that newer isn't always better and you might find a good deal on a used one.
- Olympus XZ1: Similar to the above, but slightly more bulky. The lens is better (f1.8-2.5), but the sensor is (slightly) not as good. It has a hot-shoe which could be good for expandability.
- Olympus XZ10: This is a newer model than the above and looks to be a good improvement over the XZ1. The newer XZ2 is a bit larger and mentioned below.
- Panasonic LF1: A newer model to Panasonic's lineup (4/13) features a Leica lens and a built-in Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) in a very small package. The f2.0-5.9 lens is a bit of a liability on the 5.9 side, though.
- ...There are new models of this genre added every week and it's close to impossible to keep up with them all. Make sure you follow the lens, sensor, and RAW file advice above and be wary of gimicks like creative filters and other effects.
These camera are not small enough to fit into your jeans pocket, but they might fit into a coat pocket. This is my favorite category as the quality/size ratio breaks to something that I find very useful. As much as an interchangeable lens camera seems nice, you use one lens 95% of the time (a medium-length zoom), so why not have a small camera with a great lens that you don't have to swap?
I own and continue to suggest the Canon G-series (I have a G9 and a G15 and have used a G7, G10, G11 and G12). The Panasonic LX series is also very good and Fuji has released some great retro-inspired options that might be worth a look — I've had an X10 and the newer X20 is quite nice. Sometimes you can get a good deal on "last year's model"… Canon and Panasonic just released new cameras so the G12 and LX7 (which are great cameras) might be on sale or you might find them used. I purchased my G9 used and it's been a great camera that I use even today. However, know that there's a weird inverse-price-dynamic. A 2 year old camera might be up to 50% off it's original price, but a 5 year old camera might be a highly sought after collector's piece and sell for more than it did new. Yes, weird.
Another feature that this series often excels at is macro focusing — meaning you can get up close to stuff and still focus. This is often important for designers when you want to photograph the details on something (and why I returned the Canon G1X — it doesn't shoot macro).
Sony has made the RX100 and RX100(ii) and RX100(iii) with a HUGE (20+MP) 1in-CX format sensor that tops this class insofar as sensor quality and is my current pick for overall best camera. Panasonic has just released their LX100 which combines an above-average sensor size and an amazing lens. While bigger than the RX100 and not as high insofar as resolution the trade-off in overall image quality might be worth it for some.
- Canon G15/G16: This is Canon's latest G-series camera (The G16 is a minimal improvement over the G15). A great sensor coupled with a great lens and lots of manual controls and the ability to add accessories is a very likable combination. Coming soon for late 2015 is the G7X and a few more models from Canon, too.
- Panasonic LX7: This is also a very good choice similar to the above, but a bit older. The lens is made by Leica, too. Even with its age, it's still a very good choice and one you might find used. New, it now sells for under $300 and it comes with a wide range of accessories available.
- Olympus XZ2: A similar model (spec-wise) from Olympus... when purchasing my G15, the XZ2 and LX7 were strong contenders. The XZ2 lost out on price and the G15 won because of my previous love of the G9... but really, all three are terrific choices. The size bump from the XZ1 to the XZ2 puts this more in the sub-compact category.
- Fuji X20 (and newer X30): Fuji may had fixed some flaws present in the X10, but this camera still isn't as expandable as the above (filters, lens attachments, flashes, etc)... It's really pretty, though, and the manual zoom-ring is very nice to use.
- Sony RX100 (v1-v4): This camera is a good bit more expensive than the others, but the sensor is fantastic. It has small buttons which make it a bit more slim than the above cameras, but which also might make it hard to use for some. The (ii) model adds a flash shoe and other nice options making it a much more interesting option — had it been available when I bought my G15, it would have been a winner. The (iii and iv) ditches the hot-shoe (boo!), but gets a better lens and a built-in electronic viewfinder. If you can afford it, this is the camera to get — you won't be disappointed. However, for this price, you're getting into M4/3 and dSLR price ranges. Nonetheless, this is my still my pick for the best overall camera because — for its size — it is amazingly high quality and should you want to upgrade to a dSLR, you'll still reach for this camera more often than not because of convenience and size. The RX100 also has a great case which I've found invaluable for a camera this size. You might be surprised how many cameras do not have good OEM cases.
- Panasonic LX100: This camera was designed as a replacement for the older LX7, however with the addition of a larger 4/3s sensor, it take it into a new realm. While only 16MP (technically 12MP with the multi-aspect sensor), they prove to be a very good 12MP and overall quality will surpass most cameras in this category. It's physically a bit larger, which might be nice for some as the RX100 tends to feel almost too small. The Leica-designed lens is better than any interchangeable lens that I've been able to find so even folks looking at M4/3s camera might opt for this one as well.
There has been a massive focus on this segment of camera in the past few years — some great releases from Fuji, Ricoh, and others. Check out dPreview.com for the latest gear reviews.
Mirrorless (and Micro 4/3)
(Compact interchangeable lens cameras)
This is a newer format genre which features high-quality sensors with interchangeable lenses in bodies without mirrors. This started with the Micro 4/3s design championed by Olympus and Panasonic that featured a somewhat standard 16MP sensor in a 4:3 size ratio — however in recent years, it has expanded to feature models that even have a APC-sized and full-frame sensors from folks like Samsung, Canon, Sony and Fuji.
Although the concept is solid (and likely where all higher-end camera are headed), I'm not sold on the system yet — simply because of the lack of availability of good lenses (at comparable prices) and a lot of proprietary lens mounts. I find that the lenses on compact cameras often tend to have better specs (especially more open apertures) and cost less overall — the equivalent lens on a Panasonic M4/3 costs as much as the entire LX100. In other words, you can get a good compact camera with a lens for the same price (or less) than the body of a mirrorless alone and still have the same sensor size.
For instance, I think the lens on my Canon G15 is better (for the price) than most any lens made for a mirrorless (it's a 5X lens at 1.8-2.8 and is tack sharp) and I don't have to fuss with changing it, but there is something to be said for being able to get a super-wide or super-telephoto lens on the camera — or a super luxe or unusual one.
Most all M4/3 cameras have a 16MP sensor (an agreed upon "good" size for this camera) with only moderate fluctuations in quality. The main driver for price seems to be options (do you need an Electronic Viewfinder? Image stabilization? 51-point focusing?), newness and style. If you can live with not having the newest model, last year's model is probably great for your needs and costs a good bit less. For instance, Olympus has made a lot of versions and with each new version, the price drops on the old one. An older E-PM2 can be had for $350 while the latest OM-D is over $1200. Would you notice a huge difference in quality between the two cameras fitted with the same lens? Probably not.
Also, this category seems to have the highest "style-points", and new models are coming out every week that are cooler (often more retro) than their predecessors... but this comes with a fairly steep price tag. Some models like the Fuji XE2,Olympus OM-D and EP5 are 2X the price of the Panasonic GX1 and there seems to be little reason for it other than fashion (it is pretty, though).
- Panasonic GX1: After a series of cameras that looked more like a sneaker, Panasonic reintroduced a simple, powerful workhorse with the GX1. For its type, it's a great value and very high-quality since it's an older model.
- Panasonic GX7: The updated version of the above — also very good, but newer and more expensive.
- Panasonic GM1: A smaller version of the above with a lower price-point.
- Olympus E-PL5: This is the latest model of the PL series, the more affordable segment of Olympus' line.
- Olympus E-PL2: This is an older model, but good and at often a good price.
- Olympus E-PM2: Also an older model usually available for less than $350 and for less than $500 as a kit.
- Fuji X-M1 and X-A1: Like all cameras from Fuji, a lot of what you're paying for is style... but it's really nice style.
dSLR: (digital) Single Lens Reflex
Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras are modeled after your dad's old camera. They have interchangeable lenses and look like old-school 35mm cameras. They have the largest sensors and can use the best lenses. They are also lots more expensive. Nikon and Canon are the only brands you should really be looking at due to their ubiquity — if you wanted to rent or borrow a lens for flash, shops will have them for Canon and Nikon, but likely not for Sony or Contax.
The thing with these cameras is that not only is the camera expensive, but you'll spend much more on a lens — a good lens can cost over $1000 easily. Like the Compacts, the quality of an SLR lens can be judged by the base aperture. A 50mm/1.2 is "better" than a 50mm/1.8…. and a 24-70/2.8 is better than a 28-70/4 — and the prices reflect that. When a zoom lens has a range (3.5-5.6) it means the base aperture changes over the zoom range — when you zoom out, it's 5.6… and when you're wide, it's 3.5. Again, the lower the number, the better.
Also, there are a number of good after-market lens manufacturers (and bad ones). I have lenses (for my Nikon) from Sigma and love them — the 17-70/2.8-4macro being my most useful. Sigma seems to be more widely liked than Tamron or Tokina.
When looking at lenses, know that the lens that comes with the kit is usually not a high-quality one. You'll want to eventually upgrade that lens and you might think to buy the body-only and a separate lens… or buy the kit and sell the lens on eBay. Your call there.
Within the dSLR family, there are two types based on the size of the sensor.
dSLR-APC: These have a slightly smaller (APC-sized) sensors. This sensor is still way bigger than any of the previous compact cameras (and better), but it's not as big as an old school piece of 35mm film around which the camera body is modeled... of the FX sensor below.
Many camera use the same sensor, too. The Nikon D5300 has the same sensor as a D7100/7200 in a slightly smaller (and less expensive body). For folks looking to save money, but still have a good sensor, this is worth a look.That said, some of the lowest lines really feel like toys and might have a far lower resale value and for this reason, I've not included lines like the Nikon 3000-series.
Remember, just because the MP count is higher it doesn't necessarily mean the image will be better — some people think the lower resolution D5100 sensor is "smoother" than the D5200. Make sure you read the reviews for each camera and know how the sensor and camera-body options pair-up.
For the APC-sized sensor, a 16-85mm or 17-70mm zoom lens makes a good all-around lens. 16mm might see rather wide, but since the sensor is physically smaller, the lens has to be a bit wider to accommodate for the shift. APC cameras have what is called a "crop factor" -- usually about 1.5 when comparing APC to FX (or 35mm film). This means that a 50mm lens on a traditional 35mm camera would appear like an 75mm lens when coupled to an APC sensor (50 X 1.5 = 75mm). So, if I wanted a 50mm field of view, I'd get a 35mm lens for my APC camera (50mm / 1.5 = 35mm).
I have a Sigma 17-70macro and a Sigma 50/1.4 and love them. Remember, the lower the aperture number the better (2.8 is better than 3.5)... and with the 50/1.4 and a high ISO, I can shoot in near darkness and still get a good shot.
- Nikon 5100: Often touted as a less expensive option to the D7000, it shares the same sensor.
- Nikon 5200 and 5300: An upgrade to the above with a different sensor and the same focusing system as the D7000.
- Nikon D7000 and D7100/7200: A good sensor, good focusing system and nice build-quality make this a good choice for someone not ready to commit to the FX format. I recently traded my D7000 for the D7100 and the jump in quality is impressive (and I held out on upgrading to the 7200). It will probably be the last dSLR I'll buy for a good while.
- (old) Nikon D90: This is an older, but very good model. You might find this one used at a great price.
- Canon 650D/Rebel T4i: I could never buy a camera with the terrible "Rebel" logo on it which is why I abandoned Canon 15 years ago. I know it's esoteric, but I'm a designer... It's a good camera, though.
- Canon 60D: Another good choice from Canon.
Admittedly, I've been a Nikon SLR user for years and my affinity and knowledge runs deeper with that line. However, Canon does make some great cameras as well. If you have a Canon shooter in your midst, ask them for recommendations, too.
dSLR-FX: Some dSLRs have "full frame sensors" which means the sensor is the same size as an old-school 35mm piece of film. These are the best but also the most expensive. If cost is no object, this is the camera to own, but with a few lenses, it can cost as much as a car (and way more than a laptop).
For these cameras, a 24-70 or 24-85 lens is a good "walk-around" lens and an 85mm is great for portraits.
- Nikon D600 and 610: Nikon's least expensive FX models.
- Nikon D800: Nikon's newest and most advanced FX model.
- Nikon DF: Nikon's newer retro-styled dSLR.
- Canon 5D/M2: This camera introduced super high-quality video to the dSLR market and put Canon on top in a number of ways. Everyone I know who has one loves it. A lot.
- Canon 5D/M3: As much as I love my Nikon gear, if I had all the money in the world, I'd get a 5DM3 and get all-new Canon lenses. However, for the price, I still love my D7100 and Sigma lenses.
- Sony Alpha-7: This camera is really in its own category. Click the link to find out why... but it's good (and expensive).
Whew… I hope that helped someone...