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The Best Digital Cameras

by Philip Greenspun, June 1997 (updated April 2007)


This review is intended to help you choose the best compact digital camera for your goals. In coming up with these recommendations for my friends, I looked carefully at Canon digital cameras (often the highest technology), Kodak digital cameras (great balance and simple user interfaces), Sony digital cameras (an alternative to Canon), and Olympus cameras, which can be good values and have some unique features such as weatherproofing.

Digital cameras fall into the following categories:

  • ultra compact: good for slipping into a pocket or purse, but the controls and viewfinder are very cramped
  • compact: what most people buy, reasonably pocketable, reasonably easy to control
  • creative compact: more features and options than "compact", $200 more expensive; good for techno-junkies
  • SLR-like: chunky, easy to control with fingers, larger sensors and better image qualty in low light
  • SLR: large and cumbersome, best image quality, best low-light capability, best tool when you are going out specifically to take photos (covered in separate article)

[Each of these categories gets a separate section below. If you don't want to wade through this article, my current best recommendations for most people are the Fuji F30 (about $265; chunky but great for photos indoors without flash) and Olympus 720SW (about $280; waterproof and very compact)]

Decide if you're buying a camera to carry with you all the time, and therefore it must be compact, or if you're buying a camera that you will take out when you are specifically engaged in a photographic project. If you only use a camera during your child's soccer game, for example, the responsiveness and controllability are much more important than the camera's size. For travel, on the other hand, you probably don't want something so heavy that you are tempted to leave it back in the hotel.

In shopping for a good digital camera, the one specification that you can safely ignore is the number of pixels, which has almost nothing to do with image quality. A 3 MP camera will produce acceptable prints up to 8x10" in size. The interesting question is not the number of pixels, but their quality. Is the photo in focus? Is the high contrast and punch of a scene captured? Are the edges of objects rendered sharply? Physically larger and more expensive cameras generally do a better job at satisfying these harder-to-quantify objectives than small and cheap cameras.

Ultra Compact

Whatever the advertisements might say about megapixels, these cameras have traditionally suffered from mediocre image quality, especially in low light. The sensor in an ultra compact camera is very small and therefore it picks up a lot of noise along with the image. Your images will look "snowy" if taken at twilight or indoors without flash.

Canon and Casio have been the traditional leaders in this category. Casio digital cameras have the style and Canon digital cameras have the image quality. These cameras are about the size of a mobile phone and can be slipped into any pocket. They qualify as "best digital cameras" only if you are willing to extend the phrase with "best digital cameras that fit into a shirt pocket".

    reasonably late and reasonably great

  • Olympus 720SW (big 2.5" screen; 38-114/3.5-5.0 (equiv.) lens). Water- and shock-proof, perfect for keeping in the front pocket of your jeans or using in the pool (down to 10' under). Simple user interface: to review pictures, press the playback button on the rear of the camera; to take pictures again, press the shutter release. Lacks an optical viewfinder. If you already have a digital SLR for low-light photography, this rugged camera is a good complement.
  • Casio Exilim Card EX-S600; the thinnest camera available. Worst feature: to review photos, you press the "playback" button on the rear; if you don't remember to press the adjacent "camera" button, the shutter release is disabled and you can't take photos.
  • Canon PowerShot SD700 IS Digital ELPH (big 2.5" screen; optical viewfinder; image-stabilized 35-140mm (equiv.) F2.8 - 4.9 lens; first picture 1.8 seconds; next picture 1.4 seconds); the manufacturer's underwater case is a fun accessory for SCUBA divers and snorkelers. This is substantially larger than the Casio, but much higher image quality, especially indoors and in low light. What I don't like about this camera is the tiny control wheel on the right and side, whose symbols would not be readable by anyone over 40 without the aid of reading glasses. If this control wheel is set to "playback", the camera is stuck in that mode and won't take a photo no matter how many times you press the shutter release.

There are newer versions of all of these cameras, but in some cases they actually perform worse than the cameras listed and in all cases are more expensive.

Lens Note: Lens focal lengths in this article are specified in terms of the equivalent perspective on an old 35mm film camera. A normal perspective is 50mm. The world of wide angle begins at 35mm and becomes noticeably wide at 28mm, dramatic at 24mm. A moderate telephoto or "zoom" perspective is achieved at 100mm. Sports photography from the sidelines begins at 200mm. The f-number after the focal length indicates the light-gathering power of the lens and is important for indoor or low-light use. The lower the f-number, the better. An f2.0 lens requires only half as much light as an f2.8 lens. When there are two f-numbers, they refer to the light gathering capability at the extremes of the zoom range. The lens may go from a "fast" f2.8 at the wide end to a "slow" f4.9 at the long end, where nearly four times as much light will be required.

Timing Note: "first picture" is defined as the time between turning your "best digital camera" on and capturing the first image. "next picture" is defined as the time between pressing the button on top of your already-woken-up "best digital camera" and capturing an additional image. A digital SLR such as the Canon Digital Rebel XT will turn on almost instantly. Compact digital cameras were often painfully slow until mid-2004 when faster processors became standard. A camera will be referred to as "responsive" if it has been tested and found to turn on and capture within 2.0 seconds, with subsequent pictures being captured in less than 0.6 seconds.

Compact

These cameras are small enough to fit in a coat pocket, a purse, or a belt case. They have larger sensors than the ultra compacts, which results in better low-light performance. The Compact cameras can have heavier, higher quality lenses as well. Compact digital cameras are a good choice for travel when you know that you'll want to take a photo every 15 or 20 minutes.

  • My favorite: the Fuji F30 (2.5" screen; 36-108mm (equiv.) f2.8-3.5 lens). Very responsive and minimal shutter lag. Like professional digital SLRs, the Fuji does not have a "playback mode" in which you can get stuck. You press the review button to look at photos you've taken. If you see something interesting to photograph, press the shutter release and the camera instantly switches to "recording mode". The camera includes a lightweight rechargeable Lith-Ion battery that should be good for nearly 600 photos between charges.
  • Weaknesses: no optical viewfinder; no orientation sensor--if you take a picture while holding the camera vertically, the image will show up sideways your computer and you'll have to use software to rotate it.

  • Everyone else's favorite: Canon PowerShot A640 (2.5" screen; 35-140mm F2.8-4.1; should be responsive); WP-DC8 should be the SCUBA case. I don't like the Canon PowerShot A6xx cameras for the following reasons: (1) They use four AA batteries, which are heavy and will last for only 50 pictures (you can go out and buy four rechargeable NimH batteries, but these are even heavier), (2) the A6xxx cameras have a record/play switch (if you are going through photos that you've already taken and something interesting catches your eye, pressing the shutter release does nothing--you must first remember to switch the camera from playback to record mode)
  • Potentially Interesting: Canon PowerShot A710 IS; chunky, but useful image-stabilizer for low-light photography; 35-210mm (equiv.) lens
  • Olympus Stylus 1000. Similar capabilities to those above, but weatherproof and good for use in the rain or at the beach. Slower CPUs than the Canon.

If you are on a tight budget, this is the category of camera that you want. You can get a reasonably good compact digital camera for around $150. Here are some safe low-cost bets:

Creative Compact

These cameras aren't much bigger than the compact digital cameras, but they offer a lot more user control. The lenses might be bigger, heavier, and of higher optical quality. Almost all creative compact cameras offer the option of storing images in RAW format, usually proprietary but sometimes in Adobe's standard DNG format. A standard JPEG is convenient for uploading to the Web, sharing with friends, or getting prints. Unfortunately, a lot of shadow and highlight detail that was captured by the sensor can be lost with a standard JPEG. With the RAW format, the photographer has the option of bringing out that shadow or highlight detail in an image editing program on a personal computer (or letting a professional lab do it and make a really great print).

Don't buy one of these cameras unless you are prepared to spend an evening reading the manual and learning the settings. Otherwise the results will be the same as if you had used a simpler compact camera.

  • Panasonic LX2 (28-110mm F2.8-4.9 image-stabilized Leica lens; good for wide angle).
  • Canon G7. 35-210mm F2.8-4.8 lens; no RAW capability; very bad noise at high ISO
  • Ricoh GR Digital. This has a fixed focal-length 28mm equivalent lens that will be superb for wide-angle scenic photos. It is not clear if this camera is going to be sold in the United States.

This product category seems to have gone out of favor and therefore there isn't much to choose from. Camera companies are concentrating their energies on the "SLR-like" category (below) and SLR category (separate article).

SLR-like

These are physically large cameras, often built around large, heavy, and high-quality lenses. "SLR" stands for "single lens reflex", a camera in which the viewfinder and the film or sensor see through the same lens. In a film camera or true digital SLR, there is a mirror behind the lens that directs the light up into a beautiful bright optical viewfinder. When you press the shutter release, the mirror flips up and lets light through to the sensor. The drawback to this approach is that the LCD display on the back of the camera cannot offer a continuous preview.

The SLR-like cameras get rid of the optical viewfinder found on the standard compact digital camera. In its place you have the screen on the rear of the camera and an electronic viewfinder rather like that on a video camcorder. The electronic viewfinder is good in very dim light but traditionalists will have trouble adjusting to it. One advantage of an SLR-like camera over a true SLR is that the rear LCD display offers a continuous preview.

If you are serious about sports photography, for example, you'll find the true SLRs more responsive and will want to read our "Building a Digital SLR System" article.

SLR-like cameras have lenses that zoom in to substantial telephoto magnifications, up to 200mm. Magnifying the scene also magnifies any shake of the camera body, so unless it is very bright out, you risk blurry pictures at long telephoto settings. The best cure for blur is to mount the camera on a tripod. In-lens image stabilizers are also quite effective if you cannot use a tripod.

Here are some high-value SLR-like cameras:

  • Kodak P880 (24-140/2.8-4.1 lens). The 24mm widest setting on this lens makes for much more dramatic wide angles than the standard 35mm widest setting. The sensor records 8 megapixels for poster-sized prints.
  • Canon PowerShot S3 IS (36-430/2.7-3.5 lens; slightly unresponsive). Bad for wide angle photography, good for super telephoto (birds, sports), especially with the built-in image stabilizer.
  • Panasonic DMC-FZ50 (35-420/2.8-3.7 image-stablized lens).
  • Sony makes a couple of higher-end SLR-like cameras that come with very good lenses, but the $750+ price makes you question whether you wouldn't be better off buying a real SLR. The latest is the DSC-R1, which has the same APS-C size sensor found in the true digital SLRs. A big sensor means very good performance in low light (though not as good as the Canon Digital Rebel and Nikon D-series). The DSC-R1 has a 24-120/2.8-4.8 lens that would be an expensive addition to a digital SLR. The R1 rounds out its bid for "best digital camera" with a very responsive processor.

SLR

You should look at a real digital SLR if you need any or all of the following features:

  • reliability; SLR bodies almost never fail; by comparison, point and shoot cameras are built for light weight and low cost
  • big bright accurate optical viewfinder
  • good quality images in low natural light, e.g., indoors without blasting everything with flash
  • ability to attach specialty lenses, e.g., very wide angle lenses for interiors, scenery, and architecture, or long telephoto lenses for sports photography

Choosing the right camera system is covered in a separate article on this server: "Building a Digital SLR System".

Accessories

You might want a lens cleaning kit.

You will definitely need at least one memory card. Most of the compact digital cameras take SD cards. If you are taking JPEG photos rather than RAW, you'll be able to fit between 250 and 500 images in a 1 GB card.

  • 1 GB SD cards: SanDisk
  • 2 GB SD cards: SanDisk
  • 4 GB SD cards: SanDisk (good for a long trip into a remote area where you can't copy images to a computer)

Personally, I have found that it is more convenient to use a single memory card for an entire project or trip rather than juggling multiple cards.

If you want to keep the camera on your belt, consider a small padded case. Lowe and Tamrac are generally the highest quality brands. The manufacturers' own brand cases are generally the lowest quality.

Tamrac publishes a useful fit chart. Lowepro's is a huge PDF.

If you have time and a good local shop, it is best to buy the case in person so that you can make sure you like the fit.


Text and photos Copyright 1993-2006 Philip Greenspun. Camera timings taken from Phil Askey's dpreview.com.

philg@mit.edu

Article revised April 2007.

Readers' Comments


Add a comment



anurag agnihotri , December 27, 2008; 07:28 A.M.

Hi, can you update this write up?

dennis decarme , January 13, 2009; 08:15 P.M.

Has anyone looked at z980 from Kodak? To be released in april.

anny anny , February 23, 2009; 09:42 P.M.

they are so clear!

Howard Vrankin , May 30, 2009; 07:35 A.M.

The newer models could also be reviewed here, if you have the time. For instance, I find the later Canon G10 much improved over the G7, the only G series Canon mentioned here. It has quickly become a second camera for pros who are very discriminating about their images.

David Meyer , June 02, 2009; 08:17 P.M.

I must be missing something, but surely Nikon makes something worthy of mentioning in this review. What's with that?

Andrew Chen , July 07, 2009; 08:01 A.M.

Updates as of 7/2009

Serious alternatives to DSLR's

** Best high quality compact digicams under $1,000 ** Panasonic G1 and especially Olympus E-P1 (*)

** Best value for the money**: used Sony R1 - $400 buys you the $1,000+ Zeiss Tessar that covers the range of TWO Canon L lenses and with better quality - unfortunately the sensor, no slouch in the quality department either (14 bit, 10 high quality megapixels), is slow.

(*) For a recent discussion highlighting items not usually covered in the press see comments by Olympus manager A. Watanabe, translated at

http://www.flickr.com/photos/nycandre/3695960422/

Bill Eger , August 06, 2009; 02:04 P.M.

One of the most ignored small digital cameras is the FUJIFILM 10.2 megapixel series that is now advanced from their terrific S1000 that sold for $159. How can that be? It has 20x zoom, built-in flash, a rich choice of settings from a very competent AUTO through specialties such as MACRO, sports, portrait, night scenes. Check it out -- or its recent successors, FinePix by FujiFilm

Howard Vrankin , August 15, 2009; 08:29 A.M.

Since the manufacturers have come out with improved cameras over those recommended in this now rather dated article, should an update be in progress? Thank you.

Dariusz Calkowski , October 26, 2009; 05:38 P.M.

Well, I sercond this. It is time for upgrade.

Hameed Chughtai , November 25, 2009; 06:53 P.M.

+1.

Time to upgrade the article.

DH LINDSEY , December 04, 2009; 11:52 A.M.

To keep this website relevent, hopefully someone can find time to update this subject. There have been many new compact (pro-sumer) cameras that have come out in the past year that deserve to have their pros/cons discussed. Thanks

Janice M , March 07, 2010; 02:36 P.M.

I am also looking for a new P & S and would appreciate an update to this article. Thanks!

William Lorman , April 02, 2010; 07:28 A.M.

I would agree with the suggestions for an update because my trusty old pocket digital died and I found some very impressive products brought out withing the past year+. The models listed here are not in same league as the latest crop.

Now there are travel zoom cameras that do a surprisingly good job of photography and HD video that are pocket size. This includes much improved shutter lag, displays and stereo sound with the video. Not replacements for my back pack full of serious gear but little cameras that capture what used to require that back pack full of gear.

Andrew Chen , April 18, 2010; 08:31 A.M.

Hi - for folks looking for an update, here is a short list to consider under $3,000, as of April 2010. I am emphasizing cameras that I consider "fully baked". Considering current prices I would stay away from any non full frame camera. You have better overall performance, all your lenses are fully used and you avoid dead end lenses.

DSLR:

$2,300  Nikon D700 - beats even the best Canon for low light ability

$1,100 (used) Canon 5D - remarkable camera, good to have if you are waiting for Canon to catch up with Nikon.

If you can't wait and want to spend less, any of the latest Canon or Nikon DSLR's.  Problem with Sony, Pentax etc is you will have limited choice of lenses.  Used Canon (20D, 40D), Nikon (90D, 300D) are great buys if you can wait for better bodies and want to save extra for better lenses.

Non-DSLR:

Panasonic or Olympus 4/3 if you have the money (about $1,000)

The bodies run about $700 - I personally would wait for the next gen sensors. The current crop has about the same low light performance as the Canon 10D. Not bad, but will certainly be better by next year.

If money is no object, and for specialized needs: Leica X1, Sigma DP2

Point and Shoot:

Panasonic LX3  2.8 an 24mm at short end, very nice build and raw files. A bit largish for a P&S. about $450

Canon G11 if you shoot mostly brightly illuminated scenes or flash indoors - about $450

F80FD  or F200EXR - these have superb low light performance. about $400.

Any Fuji FinePix  F50fd/ F60/40/10 .. these range from about $200 to 100 used or refurbished.

Why do I emphasize low light performance? Because the other differences between cams are minimal compared to that criterion. Better low light performance means you can shoot at higher speed in normal light so sharper pics all around.

Sources: DPreview, DxOmark.com

More info: see my comments in the New York Times article

http://www.flickr.com/photos/nycandre/4050967137

And a couple shots with that great Canon 5D - long lens, cropped

http://www.flickr.com/photos/nycandre/4525240397/

Low light subway shot (sweet woman who sweetly let me shoot her leg tattoos - thanks, Alyssa!)

http://www.flickr.com/photos/nycandre/4521832430/

 

 

Martin Evans , July 04, 2010; 06:40 P.M.

One man's meat is another man's poison!  In your review of the 'compact' class you wrote: "I don't like the Canon PowerShot A6xx cameras for the following reasons: (1) They use four AA batteries, which are heavy and will last for only 50 pictures (you can go out and buy four rechargeable NimH batteries, but these are even heavier)" ...[snip]

I chose the A620, almost 4 years ago, precisely because it did run on AA batteries, and very economically. If your batteries go flat out in the boondocks you can buy AAs almost anywhere; if your camera uses a proprietary battery it might be unobtainable when you need a new one, about a year after that model has been superseded. I actually like the bulge where the four batteries are housed: it gives me a comfortable grip for my clumsy male hand. It's not too big to stop me carrying it in a jacket or trouser pocket, if I don't want my shoulder bag with me.

Surely you got more than 50 pictures from a set of four AAs? Either the camera or the batteries must have been faulty. I am still using the same set of rechargeable 2100 mA.hr NiMH batteries that I bought in 2006 and I still get almost 400 pictures from a fully charged set. The owners manual states "approximately 500 images" but I have never got that many. I do normally carry a reserve set of standard Alkaline AAs, but I have never had to switch to them, even after almost filling a 1 GB SD card with 3072 x 2304 px holiday images.

The Canon Powershot is a splendid camera for casual use. It takes good high resolution pictures under everyday conditions. It does have its limitations, like all compacts. The image quality isn't all that good at the extreme macro end and the geometrical distortions are noticable in technical photography both at the wide angle and telephoto end of the zoom. The small sensor limits ISO to 200, when noise is beginning to be obtrusive. That, combined with a max aperture of about f/3.2 to f/3.5 in the middle focal lengths, makes it impossible to use in low-light situations that good DSLRs handle with ease. The smallest aperture is effectively f/8 which again prevents sufficient DoF in close-up photography. But for everyday use, I am very happy with mine.

 

Phil Trites , October 04, 2010; 04:07 A.M.


Panasonic ZS3

Ok sport fans, you are about to be in for a surprise of one heck of a cool pocket camera.

I have been a rather faithful gatherer of Canon for 9-10 years.

The gathered results of Canon on flickr are under the same name as here. Philscbx.

From G5, 30D, 1DsMkII, several video camera's, and a suitcase full of L.

 

Then I discovered a camera browsing here about 2 years ago.

It was then a new product review when it was shown as the European model TZ7.

This caused huge confusion for maybe 6 months not knowing I was actually looking at the American version, 'ZS3'. I'd walk into National Camera and get the 'never heard of a TZ7'. I was bummed thinking I dreamed it up.

 

A couple weeks later the shop called to say we have it. But just one left. I rushed in and grabbed it. 

Impressed to the max, I ordered 5 more a week later to have handy for gifts.

The huge surprise for me no matter what the mission for the last 1-1/2 yrs later has been the Panasonic ZS3 is always on my belt, or in my tank bag on the scoot. It's now been updated a couple times since with GPS.

 

I'll simply say, go to YouTube to see the HD results, this site, and Vimeo.

In short, everyone who views the action from this guy always asks, are these scenes really from that little ZS3? Being they know the arsenal in my main bag. 

I couldn't mess this up if I tried. So in closing, I thank this site for introducing the coolest pocket camera ever.

Cheers, if you did the same.

Janice M , October 04, 2010; 03:46 P.M.

Hi to all-thanks for sharing your info.

To Phil Trites (& others who want to answer):

Do you think that your Panasonic ZS3 is better than the ZS5 or ZS7?

I searched for the ZS3 on Adorama, B & H & Amazon.  Adorama & B&H were out.  On Amazon, the ZS3 was available, in limited supply, for $100 or so MORE than the new ZS7!

I'm looking for a compact P & S to compliment my DSLR.  I LOVE my Canon T1i but need something smaller too.  I want excellent quality photos and very low shutter lag.  (Need it FAST for kids & pets!) 

Do you think the ZS3 would be best for me or should I go for the ZS5 or 7?

I don't have to have the latest technology for it to be the greatest for me!  I want the best for me!

THANKS!  

Andrew Chen , October 09, 2010; 05:28 P.M.

Update as of October 1 2010.

See my thread above or my link on flickr with my New York Times comments

http://www.flickr.com/photos/nycandre/4050967137/

 

Best DSLR under $2100  - Nikon's D700- Still king of low light high iso performance, and best ergonomics, sensor quality and flash system.

Best DSLR under $1000 - by all means a used Canon 5D

Best cameras midrange - $500-1000It's a mish mash of choices .. the Samsung NX10 does stand out tho.

Best P&S under $500 - now the Panasonic LX5

Why, because the extra bright F2.0 aperture and higher quality optics .. Canon compromises with long tele for marketing reasons. Nikon's P7000 .. not yet fully reviewed, but the ergonomics aren't there

Best P&S under $300

Fuji F200EXR and S200EXR, the discontinued versions, NOT the F80EXR .. and a bevy of other contenders

Best upcoming new cameras

Fuji X100 -  the Leica M9 at affordable prices

Andrew Chen , October 26, 2011; 11:35 A.M.

October 2011 update: best non DSLR cameras which are a real step forward, not incremental gizmos:


- The Fuji X100 mentioned above - great image quality, ergonomics and low light capabilities, but could use some polish and a faster processor. I'd wait for version 2.0


- Sony's NEX-7N With image resolution and quality equal to some of the best DSLR, and finally great ergonomics this is the camera to have, if money is no object. Lenses are not plentiful yet, and the high quality ones are pricey.


- The Fuji X10 - A big notch above the Lumix LX5/ Canon G12 high end P&S - the jury is still out until production units are evaluated, but based on the X100 and other side information this should be the best of all P&S, and its price shows @ $699.

(from my blog like page at http://www.flickr.com/photos/nycandre/4050967137/)

Larry Foote , January 20, 2014; 08:28 P.M.

I got the Fuji F30 from Amazon and it is awesome. The reviews from people who actually bought this camera helped me with my decision. I'm so excited that I just want to share the same deal that I received: http://amzn.to/1mx6wcI - Totally awesome.


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