Good Camera for $800?

Our years-old Canon PowerShot A95 died during last month’s trip to the US. Luckily the wife had a small backup camera that was sufficient. But now we’re looking for a main replacement.

We don’t need anything too fancy and have set the budget at US$800, although we could go up to $1000. Less would be good too, of course. I’ve always been a believer in buying a camera from a camera maker – Canon, Nikon etc – rather than something like, say, a Sony, but I’m not married to that rule either.

I understand that camera prices may differ some over here – we had intended to look around while in the US, where they’re cheaper, but just couldn’t get around to it. But what’s a good camera for our general price range these days?

I was under the impression that cameras are super cheap now. Also, that point-and-shoot cameras are going to be obsolete soon since everyone will just use the camera on their phone.

A quick look at amazon shows Canon cameras at under 200 for point-and-shoot, 300-500 for mid-cameras, and more for SLR. If you liked the powershot A95, then pretty much any Canon on the market now should meet your needs. I have a Powershot 1400IS and I like it quite a bit. Only paid just above 100 USD for it.

I would only be picky if you were going to drop $$$ on an SLR, which it seems like you aren’t since the A95 is a point-and-shoot too.

We would not mind an upgrade to something bigger rather than more of the same. We’re in the kicking-around ideas stage right now.

As I recall, we bought the A95 in 2004 and paid 15,000 baht. With the exchange rate at the time, that would have been about US$375 or $400.

Even a camera in the 100-200 USD range would be an upgrade from your 2004 camera. Digital cameras have improved quite a bit in the last 8 years.

I’ll assume you’re looking for a compact camera, not a DSLR or one of the newer mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras. If so, I don’t believe there are any that actually sell for more than $500 in the US except a few rare outliers. Not sure what the corresponding prices are in Thailand.

So, pretty much every camera on the market is in your price range. What are you looking to do with this camera? Do you use the optical viewfinder, flip out LCD and manual controls on your A95? How important is a bigger zoom to you? Would you rather have the highest quality images or more versatility?

If you want a high quality camera that will take the best image quality, the Canon S100, Canon G12, Olympus XZ-1, Panasonic LX5, or Fuji X10. They all have relatively short zooms but that’s what you trade for best image quality.

If you want simple, good, point and shoot the Canon ELPH 110 or 320, or the Panasonic FH6 or FH8. If you want more zoom but a small package, the Canon ELPH 520, SX150, or SX260, the Panasonic ZS15 or ZS20, or the Olympus SZ30. For even bigger zoom in a bigger package, look at the Panasonic FZ47 or the Canon SX40.

Nikon hasn’t really done a great job with compact cameras since the 990 days. Their DSLRs are excellent, but that level of quality doesn’t currently extend to their compacts. Canon and Panasonic are the leaders in compact cameras IMO. Sony, Fuji, and Olympus all have some excellent models as well.

We are considering a DSLR but have not ruled out another PowerShot. To give you an idea of compact prices here, the new Canon PowerShot G1X goes for US$800. But the DSLRs will give a higher-quality image, yes?

As you can tell, we’ve not much experience with photograpghy, so if we went DSLR, what might be a good beginner-level model?

The G1X is the best compact camera on the market, with a sensor that is the size of the entry level DSLRs. It’s also pretty much the highest price compact on the market, selling for $800 here as well.

Depending on what you are planning on doing with the images, and how much manual control you wish to take, you may not notice the extra image quality of a DSLR. There is no doubt that it is possible to take higher quality shots with a DSLR (and good glass), especially in low light, but only if you do a bit of work. That will be learning how to compose a shot, use manual settings, and possibly some post processing especially if you want to shoot RAW. If all you’ve been doing up til now is taking snapshots then there’s a bit of a learning curve.

Where DSLRs really shine are taking shots in low light, action photography, or using multiple special lenses. Right now, no compact can compete with the capabilities of a DSLR in those types of photography. But it’s not cheap and the cameras are heavy and complex. Is that worth it to you?

For entry level DSLRs the Canon T3i, Nikon D5000, or Pentax K5 are all excellent choices. At that level, it’s probably most important that you try out each camera in your hands and see what feels best to you.

The G1X is a special case in that it’s basically a DSLR style sensor and lens, just not interchangable, and made to be compact. It’s sort of a new category of cameras that try to marry a relatively compact body with a fixed but high quality lens and a sensor much bigger and more capable than compact cameras.

If you’re going to go compact, Canon is the way to go - followed by Sony, but I’d stick with Canon. The S100 is probably a good bet to be in a similar range to your A95, but much better.

Really you’ll need to tell us more about what sort of stuff you plan to do. If you were happy with your A95, a DSLR is overkill and a modern compact like the S100 would serve you well. If you wanted something similar with a huge zoom range, the Canon SX230 is a pretty great camera (I have one).

DSLRs are really a whole different ball game, and while decent DSLRs are available in your price range, that would be with the basic kit lens. Investing in better lenses is as big, or bigger, a commitment than getting a good camera.

As the resident Pentax pimp, to correct Telemark, the K-5 is not at all an entry level camera. The K-R is Pentax’s equivelant to the T3/D5000 tier of cameras, and the K-5 is equal to the D7000/7D tier. Well, better, if cheaper - it’s Pentax’s top body, so they don’t deliberately remove features to preserve their higher tier products like you see on the prosumer Canon and Nikon stuff. The build quality is significantly better, you get the full range of features, etc. But I’m guessing the prosumer tier of DSLRs is well beyond what he’s looking for. Incidentally, if you’re thinking of the D5000 vs D5100, definitely go with the 5100 - that sensor is amazing, shared by the D7000/K5/NEX-5N and some others.

The G1X has the best sensor for a compact and has the same image quality as DSLR’s, but is large for a compact and has had mixed reviews. DPreview gave it a silver award though, so you might want to read it and see if the criticisms matter to you.

Agreed on Canon S100 and SX230 as a good upgrade from the A95, I have the second as well - the SX260 is out now, wider and longer lens, but not sure how this has worked out in practise, there might be too big a compromise in lens quality to do that.

The SX has pretty ordinary flash indoors, its more intended as an outdoor compact zoom camera.


Thanks for the advice. The truth is we’re not sure exactly what we want to do with it. We just have a sense that it’s time maybe to get a higher-quality camera. Just like the old A95 was an upgrade from our old film cameras. I would like a camera that I didn’t have to take a photography course to operate, but I think I’d like experimenting with different lenses.

Our friends in Connecticut were using a DSLR, and we liked the picture quality. We’ve not ruled out another compact though. But we still have one in the form of the wife’s. That one’s not quite as old as the one that died. Higher pixel count but smaller.

I’d go with a DSLR. I don’t know what kind of cell phone you have, but chances are it either takes decent pictures, or you’ll upgrade to one that does within a couple years. My iPhone is perfect for your everyday snapshots, and in 2 years I imagine most phones will offer even better picture quality. So between that and your wife’s point and shoot you’ve got your compact, impromptu snapshot camera covered.

Making the leap to a DSLR will allow you to take those awesome pictures that you’re admiring from your friends. You’re never going to get a picture of that sunset or that fireworks display that looks like the real thing with your point-and-shoot, but it’s not too hard with a DSLR. Of course a lot depends on the talent of the photographer, but with a DSLR you’ll have the tools to try.

For $800-1000 you could get an inexpensive (but still capable) SLR from Canon or Nikon, plus one or two extra lenses. Beginning/hobby photographers are always updating their equipment, so there’s a decent used market as well.

For a point and shoot, you could do a LOT worse than a Canon SX130IS. I have an earlier version of this camera and it rocks.
If you want something a bit nicer look into a Canon SX40 or SX30IS.
All of these cameras have Canon’s image stabilization system that allows for lower handheld shutter speeds.

Only in good light. In low light there’s still no way to take decent shots at full zoom even with IS. And it does nothing if your subject is moving; a long shutter will just mean your subject has moved during the shot.

I like Canons, and I have a superzoom, but you must understand the capabilities of the technology. Big zoom cameras are not for every situation, they aren’t general purpose cameras.

If you want to play with multiple lenses, be prepared to spend a lot more money then you have budgeted. The big money in DSLRs are in the lenses, not the camera bodies. Keep in mind that if you buy a crop sensor camera (most entry level DSLRs are crop) then full frame lenses will have a different effective focal length. It’s easier to get more telephoto but harder to get a lot of wide angle.

I use a Canon with IS at at work where I often have to take close up photos. Photos that are so close that the built in flash is rendered useless due to
This is inside a shop in very poor lighting.
I have successfully taken these pictures with shutter speeds as slow as 1/15 of a second. From my experience with film cameras under 1/60 or maybe 1/45 you can see shake in the photo.
Of course it does not work on a moving subject or as well at long zoom, but it does work and work well for a vast majority of photos the average camera will take.

Thanks again. We’ll start looking at models in person soon.

One other thing I learned today. We’re looking into seeing the mountain gorillas in Rwanda in 2014, and it seems a point-and-shoot is not recommended due to the possibility of accidentally leaving the flash on. Flashes often excite the big fellas in rather unpredictable ways, it seems.

I love IS and absolutely recommend it to anyone buying a camera today. I have two Canons and I love them. But people think it is a cure-all and for many situations it isn’t. You situation is a good one for IS; stationary subject, ability to brace the camera, repeatable.

I would say that most people complain about blurry images taking shots of people doing things, and IS, while helpful, won’t fix their basic problem. On camera message boards that I spend time on a frequent complaint is that “IS Sucks! My pictures are still blurry!” when people are expecting way too much. Throw in a poor flash and things can get ugly.

DSLRs address this by having better image quality at high ISO. That allows for very fast shutter speeds that freeze the action in low light. Some compact cameras have bigger sensors and fast lenses (combined with good IS) that allow for good sharp images in less than perfect lighting. But none of these cameras have a big zoom lens because it is difficult to combine a big sensor, a big zoom, and a small camera body.

Finally, most manufacturer’s IS are pretty comparable, I don’t think Canon has an appreciable advantage. It’s good, but so is the IS from Panasonic, Sony, Fuji, and Nikon.

On all the cameras I linked to the flash has to raised for it to function.
You would have to be a bit of a doorknob to get a flash when you don’t want one with these cameras.

Seeing that you might go on safari in Africa, I’d just like to comment on a few things.

When on safari, quite often you are pretty damn far away from your target. Hence, the sage advice about considering a DSLR with a zoom lens. I bought a lens very similar to this one when I went to Africa. It’s got pretty awesome image stabilization and should work well in conjunction with a bottom end Canon DSLR. I used a film camera at the time, but use the same lens with a Canon DSLR these days. I recommended the lens to someone here for their safari and they really loved it.

On the other hand, I’m a huge believer in redundant camera systems. I’d get a tiny backup point and shoot camera that fits in your pocket for those quick and dirty shots when you are just hanging out. Also, when one of your cameras shits itself, you’ll still have a backup. I use a tiny point and shoot all the time, and the photos aren’t half bad. You do not want to spend $10,000 on your safari and then have your fucking camera die.

Now, for the mountain gorillas themselves, you are shooting in a low light situation with a jungle canopy, so it is really nice to have a DSLR for it’s light gathering capabilities. Plus, the gorillas can be pretty far away, so the huge zoom is well worth it. In most kits, you will get a standard zoom lens that might be something like 28-70mm which is pretty useful when not using the huge zoom.

This gear is going to cost you more that $800, but seriously, looking for mountain gorillas is pretty much a once in a lifetime experience.

I know that you can get a kit with a standard lens and a pretty long zoom lens that is a lot cheaper than the lens I’m recommending. My friend has that kit and he seems pretty happy it.

And also, if you are going all the way to Africa, go to Ngoro Ngoro Crater. It is beyond spectacular, and I actually witnessed a lion kill (our guide said it was the only one she had ever seen in two years!). You definitely want your fast long zoom DSLR camera for that!

Short of that, at least go to the Serengeti or Masai Mara or Lake Nakuru (about a billion flamingos).

Now this is really stretching your trip, but seriously consider going to Victoria Falls.

You could end up doing that with a DSLR as well, if you end up leaving it in automatic. The one advantage to using a DSLR is that you can rent a lens thats specific to your needs, so you are not stuck with the limitations of a kit lens.

I’d also check with dedicated camera forums, when you have made your decision about what to buy, regarding enviromental issues. If your shooting in a high humidity location, there may be things you have to watch out for.