What camera should I buy?

Since I take a lot of photographs with a dSLR, I’m often asked by others for advice on camera purchases.

I think if they saw my photo album, they’d not be asking such questions. In fact, a digital SLR photographer is the last person you should be asking for advice as their needs are different from yours.

But since it was my brother’s wedding and the cell phone just wasn’t cutting it for snapshots, I was enlisted again to advise on a digital camera for the wedding registry.

ken, mia, cellphone camera

My father goes digital

A few years ago, my father asked me if I thought the Canon S230 that he saw at Costco was a good deal. “Yeah, that’s a great digicam. The problem is that your computer only has half a gigabyte hard drive. You can only store about a hundred photos on it if that’s all you do.”

Last year, my Christmas present for him was my old computer (with 1000x the hard drive space), a Canon S500, and a memory card which was as big as my father’s old hard drive. Now I’d never get this camera for myself—by today’s standards it has horrible shutter lag, a tiny LCD, and a lack of features.

But my father’s a conservative guy. He had stopped taking photos with a Pentax SLR (that was older than me) because it was too much of a hassle: “Terry, I’m retired. I don’t have time for that.” The S500 turned out to be a near-perfect camera. A simple interface and impeccable optics. He was taking pictures and saving them in iPhoto within hours of opening the gift.

(The only flaw turned out to be the movie mode—he ended up with a bunch of worthless movies when he accidentally switched the camera to movie mode during a trip. I had forgotten to tell him that feature existed. Why would I remember that? I don’t have movie mode on my D70. This is why you should never ask someone like me for a camera recommendation.)

A camera for my brother

So I guess the right thing to do is try to fit the camera to the person. For my brother and Mia, my recommendations were:

Why? All of these are incredibly small, and size will be the limiting factor on whether or not they’ll have a camera around to take snapshots with. Which one of these should they put on the registry? Well I told them to go to a store and play with them, then pick the one which they think looks the coolest.

Casio EX-S100 Canon SD400 Canon SD500 Sony T7
Casio EX-S100 Canon SD400 Casio SD500 Sony T7

Huh? What about which one performs the best. Shouldn’t I read all the reviews? What about megapixels? That’s a buyers dilemma thing. Sure you can read all the reviews if it makes you feel better, but the reality is: they all have similar performance. The first-order question is not: “How great a photo will you take?” but rather “Will you take a photo?” No camera will answer the former question; only they can answer the latter.

My current favorite

My ideal camera is a little bigger than this. It would be something that swipes the Canon S* optics but fixes all the crappy “pay-too-much-for-too-little-because-we-can” Canon B.S. Also, I’d like a lot of manual modes. Casio EX-P700In other words: the Casio P700. I decided to take a trip down lust lane and look up some recent reviews of it and ran across this C|Net review posted this week. This review became the inspiration for this article. I have three words to say: (Warning: strong language follows…)

What the fuck?

Honestly: a wake-up time of 3.3 vs. 2.7 seconds? A “paltry” 15fps in “movie mode”? “crisp details befitting the camera’s 7-megapixel sensor”?

How many megahertz is your CPU? Let’s just pull out our dicks and start measuring penis sizes while we are at it! This is why computer reviews suck ass. Rate two pieces of software by how many worthless features it comes with. Rate two pieces of hardware by how fast it runs an irrelevant benchmark. Go to Best Buy sometime and wait a while. Eventually you’ll see a person point to two nearly identical computers and ask: “What’s the difference between these two?” The answer will invariably center on some specification difference that they managed to fit on the 3×5 cards in front of the two machines.

Why not concentrate on the things that the target market would actually care about: the tripod mount location; the lack of camera RAW; or how usable the viewfinder is?

No, that would actually require someone who actually might purchase a P700 to review it. Instead we get a laundry list of features “upgraded” from the hopelessly outdated P600 because obviously that 8% realized image resolution1 increase is the difference between night and day!

I bag on photography reviews all the time because their obsession with test shots that highlight differences that you never run into in practice. But if anything, a little arbitrariness is a hundred times better than the C|Net review.

1 Remember that pixel count goes as the square of the linear distance (because you can fit pixels along both dimensions). This means that two times better than a 4 megapixel camera is not 8 but 16! Seven megapixel is not 17% better more resolution than six, it is 8%.

Also remember that the imaging chip hasn’t really changed size, only the density has. Even though the resolution has gone up, the light gathering capability per pixel has actually gone down. This means they have to improve the sensitivity of the CCD or up the gain on it to keep the same film speed. Usually this means more noise and poorer low light performance.

By this strange math, my 6 megapixel D70 (16x24mm sensor) is has about the same acuity than the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark 2 at 16.6 megapixel (36x24mm sensor)!

19 thoughts on “What camera should I buy?”

  1. I found this blog a very enjoyable read — even the brief, graphic dip into scatology. Ken and I went to Fry’s on Saturday, and I checked out the cameras. I’m still finalizing my decision about which camera to get (Ken completely divested himself of any role in the selection of camera since I’m more of a shutterbug), but your list was mucho helpful. In fact, I shared the list with an older couple (who decided they really could not do without a viewfinder)…they were extremely grateful for the recommendations and I think they ended up going with the Casio EX-S700. So your assistance is — as always — excellent and deeply appreciated. Simply: you’re the best.

  2. I didn’t mentioned the Casio EX-Z750 even though I recommended it to you because it confused the issue. Besides, Caitlin doesn’t like it when other people get the same camera as her.

    On this class of camera, the optical viewfinder is practically vestigal. One of the weaknesses of the Nikon D70 SLR is that the viewfinder size is smaller than most SLR cameras, but with this class of cameras we’re talking pinhole size. Also, you don’t have just have parallax issues—misalignment between the viewfinder and the lens—you also have a severe issue of framing. For instance, the pinhole viewfinder on the EX-750 seems to have about 70% coverage of the picture. This means the picture will have a gigantic area around it that you can’t see through the viewfinder. Making it an entirely different shot altogether!

    Most people I’ve seen with point and shoot (and smaller) digital cameras will, over time, become less dependent on the viewfinder. While the disadvantages are obvious at first blush—drain on battery, poor contrast outdoors, requires a different shooting style—the advantages are too large to ignore. For instance, you can see instantly in an outdoor shot how the camera’s auto-exposure has decided to account for the amount of sun; you can see what is in focus and what isn’t; you can see the full frame; it is an incredible light meter with great histogram information; you can get shoots that would be impossible to frame if you had to stick your eye against it; left-eye dominant people like me won’t smudge the LCD with their nose all the time. :-)

    But you rarely see that in the reviews. Instead, an optical viewfinder is a major plus (though I don’t know anyone who remembers to turn off the LCD when using it). In that light the Canon SD400 and SD500 also have them.

    Another thing not mentioned in any review of the Casio EX-Z750 is: even though it records MPEG-4 video, the codec used is Windows Media and thus won’t play back in QuickTime. Casio has no Mac compatible driver either. So the only way to see your video on a Mac is to use the freeware VideoLAN client. But that nixes it for iMovie.

    If anyone has figured a way to convert the file to something useable by iMovie, instructions would be greatly appreciated. Perhaps there is an option in VLC or maybe ffmpegX will translate it. (It’s only been two days so I haven’t had a chance to look at the problem.)

    Now before anyone thinks I’sm down on the Casio EX-Z750, I should mention I had it’s progenitor, the Pentax OptioS. The EX-Z750 and the OptioS share the same Pentax optics and Casio operating system. But the Z750 has a better performing sensor, auto-focus assist, “best shot mode”, unlimited video recording, better distinction between the shutter and the off button (Argh!), and Canon-esque mode dial. Besides it’s Pentax! You did read how I’m all warm fuzzies for Pentax, right? Remember, If I can take a better shot at a wedding with the OptioS than someone with thousands of dollars in camera equipment, then you can take better shots with the any of these pocket cameras than me with my D70. (The OptioS was stolen in Amsterdam.)

  3. Ken Rockwell, a professional Nikon photographer, reviewed the Casio EX-750 today. There is at least one error: he says the progenitor was the Casio EX-S100 I mentioned in the article. Actually, the EX-S100 has a recently-invented Casio-designed ceramic lens while the EX-Z* series shares the same optics as the Pentax OptioS as I mentioned above.

    I’m surprised there is no mention of the dock requirement. Maybe Ken already has a high-speed SD card reader?

    But the article is very detailed and shows the reason why a pro might love a subcompact camera.

    One neat feature I found (Caitlin doesn’t allow me to use her camera) is that you can do a live color histogram on the EX-Z750. I can’t do live histograms on my D70, nor are the histograms in playback mode in color.

    (It takes absolutely gorgeous shots in the right lighting.)

  4. Mark pointed out to me today that there is a new version of the Casio EX-S100 I mentioned in the article: EX-S500. The megapixel count jumps from 3.4 to 5, adds digital image stabilization, and will be available in cool colors.

    Nice camera but not available in time for the wedding registry.

  5. DigitalCameraReview.com reviews the Casio EX-Z750 with a summary “The EX Z750 is the best choice for Photographers looking for an ultra-compact digicam that performs like a full sized camera.”

    Compare this to the PC Magazine review which writes: “Despite some minor issues with image quality, the Casio Exilim EX-Z750 is a good choice for a multipurpose ultracompact. For cameras around the same price, though, we still prefer the Canon PowerShot SD500 Digital Elph, for its superior photos and slightly quicker recycle time.” Uhh, I’ll agree that for the typical reader off PC Magazine, the Canon SD500 is the better choice (the SD400 is an even better choice as is evident to anyone who picks up both cameras without looking at the spec sheet), but for the exact opposite reasons as stated. Take the DigitalCameraReview.com review which responds to it indirectly: “The new Casio Exilim EX Z750 is often compared with the Canon Powershot SD500 and that’s a reasonable comparison (since these two digicams are similar in many ways). Photographers looking for a easy to use point and shoot or a stylish ultra compact bar/party camera should probably opt for the SD500. Shooters who want the ability to intervene in the creative process by tweaking settings until they get just the “look” they want are probably going to be happier with the Z750. As the icing on the cake, the Z750 will still be going after the SD500 runs out of juice and it costs less than it’s chief rival, too. I really liked the Canon Powershot SD500, but when push comes to shove I like this little Casio better.”

    I was messing with it some more and while it has tons of program modes (Casio calls them “best shot”) the impressive thing is how easy it is to go manual and tweak the settings. Too bad Caitlin is too busy to read the manual. :-P

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