Christmas presents in Australia for 2010 – which camera?

Written by Gary on November 13th, 2010

Following on from my previous post comparing the compact mirror-less digital cameras such as the Micro Four Thirds which should be on most people’s potential list for a travel, walk-around, compact camera with high image quality, I thought I would elaborate on other potential purchases.

In general ignore how many megapixels the camera has – almost certainly it will have enough for your needs, and perhaps too many which will mean larger file sizes which impacts storage for minimal benefit in image quality unless you are using the best lenses and a tripod.

The best camera is the one you will have with you – although the very small sensors in compact digital cameras may make them almost useless for low light situations where flash is not allowed or is useless – such as art galleries, inside churches, indoor concerts, etc – the much larger sensor of Micro Four Thirds makes these situations much easier to photograph with good image quality.

HD video is usually available in two main formats – AVCHD which compresses the video to a smaller size designed for TV playback but is much harder to display or edit on computers, and Motion JPEG which has much larger file size but is much easier to display and edit on computers. There is also two main sizes of HD video1920x1080i which takes up the most file size and tends to be not so good for moving subjects as the compression required tends to adversely impact the image (24mbps compression is much better than 17mbps for this), and LITE which is 1200x720p and this tends to be a good compromise for most of us, particularly if one wishes to shoot motion jpeg for ease of use.

If you need a 10x zoom lens for travel, then check out my previous post here which compares options for high image quality from Micro Four Thirds, NEX or dSLRs. If you want a super-zoom camera in a smaller package and are willing to give up the high image quality from larger sensors, then the current best super-zoom digital camera is the Panasonic FZ-100 which easily beats the Canon SX30see here.

The compact, high image quality,  general purpose camera:

  • Panasonic GF-2 – the best of the slim designs with touch LCD but not yet in stores
  • Panasonic GH-2 – the best HD video capable camera of this type with swivel, touch LCD and most importantly, the fastest autofocus but not yet in stores
  • Panasonic GH-1 – a great HD video capable camera but latest models cannot be hacked to give the best HD video, however, at present, they are great value as the price has dropped substantially – I bought mine at $A3000 when it first came out mid 2009, but you can now buy them new at $A1189 with that 10x kit lens, and another great deal is $A1199 with the 20mm f/1.7 lens – not bad when you can only get the 20mm lens in Australia for $A749! You can even get it with the 20mm lens plus a 45-200mm lens for $A1449 – now that is quite a bit of bang for your buck – but remember, the GH-2 will offer much better AF, video and EVF than this camera, so you may prefer to wait and pay a bit more and get the better camera. Nearly all of my Europe 2010 holiday photos were taken with this camera and its fantastic 10x zoom kit lens – these are generally straight from the camera without any processing other than resizing for the web.
  • Panasonic G2 – if you can’t wait for the GH-2 or can’t afford it, but want touch LCD, maybe this camera will suit your needs. $A899 with kit lens.
  • Olympus E-P2 – a great photographer’s compact camera with built-in IS, the best EVF, and much better flash control than the Panasonics. $A1385 with kit lens and EVF.
  • Olympus E-PL1 – when you can’t afford the above, this is a pretty good camera, although may frustrate the advanced user. However, it allows for use of the best EVF available, and is the ONLY micro Four Thirds that currently allows wireless TTL flash – but for most of us, this feature is not of great importance. $A699 with kit lens.

A waterproof, almost indestructible compact camera for the beach, parties, kids, etc:

  • unfortunately, your iPhone is not waterproof, nor drop proof, so there is a great need for a camera to solve these issues.
  • do not take a compact camera with a moving protruding lens to the beach – you just need a little sand to get in there and you can kiss it goodbye!
  • Olympus started this genre with their revolutionary SW series, now called Olympus TOUGH, but have not managed to compete with models from Canon and Panasonic on image quality – nevertheless, if you can pick up 2nd hand ones on Ebay for well under $A200, they may solve your beach and kids needs.
  • the Canon D10 had good reviews when it came out in terms of image quality, but it is not the most pocketable design and its video capabilities are now very dated.
  • the preferred choice at present would seem to be the Panasonic FT2 at $A449 which is waterproof to 10m, drop proof to 2m, dust and frost proof, while offering optical image stabiliser, a 4.6x optical zoom covering 28-128mm focal length, ability to zoom even during video, AVCHD Lite video at 720p at 17Mbps quality for smaller file sizes, or 720p motion jpeg for easy use on computers.

A pocketable compact point and shoot:

  • there are times when even a Panasonic GF-2 is too big to take with you, and the waterproof cameras above just don’t have enough features or image quality, a 3-4x zoom pocketable point and shoot may be just what you need.
  • has just compared the enthusiast point and shoot cameras here and concluded that the winners are the Canon Powershot S95 (28-105mm lens, 100x58x30mm) and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 (24-90mm lens, measuring 110x66x43mm) although they didn’t get to test the Canon G12.
  • note that these are only marginally smaller than the far better Panasonic GF-2 which measures 113 x 68 x 33mm, but the lens is much smaller than a 3x zoom lens on the GF-2, and thus is more pocketable, but you make big sacrifices in image quality and versatility.

A cropped sensor digital SLR:

  • for when you need to capture fast action, but with reasonable HD video
  • be warned, to get the most from these cameras, you should buy the best quality lenses with the largest apertures you can afford – if you just buy the kit lens with f/5.6 aperture you may as well buy a Micro Four Thirds camera.
  • Canon offer 3 main new EOS dSLRs models which would be very capable and one would need to look at their budget to decide between them.
  • Canon 7D – the more expensive and heaviest of the three but the most features (including dual processor, more AF points, better viewfinder, 8fps burst rate, thus the best of the three for sports/action photography), more weatherproofed, longer life shutter, but unfortunately, the LCD is not articulated as on the 60D, nor is there manual audio control for videos or support for SD cards. $A2199 with the kit lens, or $A2829 with the better 17-85mm lens.
  • Canon 60D – $A1579 with kit lens although you may be well advised to consider $A2349 for the better 17-85mm kit lens package. A nice upgrade from the 50D as it adds HD video with manual audio control, articulated LCD, wireless TTL flash from built-in flash, electronic level (horizontal only, not both as with 7D), SD cards but you lose CF cards, AF microadjustment, PC socket, and the multi-axis controller stick (replaced by a less ergonomic Quick Control Dial). Max. burst rate is 5fps. 9 cross-type AF sensors.
  • Canon 550D – the budget model $A1375 with 3x kit lens, the viewfinder is no where as good as the better models with a true pentaprism and lacks the many of the features of the 60D or 7D, such as having only 1 cross-type AF sensor.
  • Nikon D7000 – $A2099 with kit lens
  • Olympus E5 – $A2199 body only, but you get a semi-pro weatherproofed body with IS, articulating LCD and reasonable video – it would be a great complimentary sports/action camera for those with Micro Four Thirds as accessories such as flash will be compatible. This is a great option with the Olympus ZD 50-200mm SWD lens – you just can’t get such a lens on the Canon 7D or a Nikon. There are a lot of excellent lenses for this Four Thirds format, and many are selling very cheaply on Ebay 2nd hand as users worry Olympus may drop the format in favor of the Micro Four Thirds format – a great time to pick up some bargains perhaps!
  • one should also consider older but still very good cameras such as the Nikon D90 ($A1285 with kit lens), Olympus E30 ($A999 with kit lens, no video) , Olympus E3 which have become much more affordable – the Olympus E3 for instance provides a semi-pro, weatherproofed body but no video for a very reasonable price (if you can find one new now that the E5 has replaced it)
  • for those who cannot afford the above, each of the manufacturers have cheaper entry level dSLRs but personally I would consider a Micro Four Thirds camera over these unless I needed it specifically for sports/action use.
  • I have compared the Canon 550D, 7D and the Panasonic GH-1 on my post here.

The “affordable” full frame dSLR:

  • to me, now that we have Micro Four Thirds to adequately fill the compact interchangeable lens digital camera niche, a full frame dSLR makes more sense than a cropped sensor dSLR such as those discussed above (unless you need it for sports/action photography, in which case a 7D will give more telephoto reach, faster AF and faster burst rates than a 5D MII).
  • a full frame dSLR allows full use of the pro lenses while generally giving better dynamic range, lower image noise, potentially more spatial resolution, and even more options to blur the background and make your subject pop.
  • full frame dSLR though does come at a price – not only monetary for the much more expensive camera body, but you will want the expensive, heavier pro lenses (average $A1500-3000 each), a much sturdier, larger, heavier, more expensive tripod and tripod head, and camera bags to carry it all in.
  • a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens will weigh ~1.8kg by itself and will not be discrete!
  • there are few affordable options
  • Canon 5D Mark II: gives lots of pixels (21mpixels) for your dollar ($A3049 body only) and very good video options but has slow AF and issues in the rain
  • Nikon D700: gives great high ISO performance and better build quality but at only 12mpixels ($A3549 body only)
  • Sony A850: gives the most pixels (24mpixels) for your dollar ($A2499) with built-in image stabilisation but no video and no live preview LCD and its not a Canikon and lenses, and support levels are not up to what is available around the world for either Canon or Nikon.
  • Sony A900: similar to the A850 but 5fps instead of 3fps and better viewfinder coverage ($A3599)
  • frustratingly for Nikon fans, there is no 24mp affordable Nikon FX dSLR yet – surely it must be coming soon!

Have you noticed a trend? Seems Panasonic has become THE leader in camera design for compact cameras and also for video capability!

  • best compact point and shoot – Panasonic LX-5
  • best super-zoom point and shoot – Panasonic FZ-100
  • best waterproof point and shoot – Panasonic FT-2
  • best video-optimised mirror-less dSLR – Panasonic GH-1 and GH-2
  • best compact mirror-less for beginners – Panasonic GF-2
  • best large sensor affordable HD video camcorder – Panasonic AF100/101 – see here

Oh, and just in case you haven’t heard, for $US700 you can buy a lens adapter from Birger Engineering which will allow use of Canon EF and EF-S lenses on Panasonic GH1, GH-2 and AF100/101 cameras with full control of aperture, auto-focus AND optical image stabiliser – the perfect excuse to have one of these cameras AND a Canon full frame camera or a Canon 1D.


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