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Now that I’ve reviewed the “big” DSLR cameras and helped you navigate their complex menu of lenses, it’s time to look at the smaller cameras, specifically those under $200.
Is your cell phone camera not cutting it anymore? I happen to be a huge fan of the iPhone 5 camera. It’s quick, produces pretty decent images, and is always with me! Plus, it’s easy to use that my 2 year old can create decent images. However, it’s complicated to remove images without using Photostream and most consumers do really want a dedicated camera. If a DSLR is too large and in charge or just out of your budget, have no fear! The point and shoot review is here!
Many hours of research was done for this review during my evening relaxation watching the Food Network. (Anyone else love Alton Brown?) I learned a few things while studying the bagazillontrillon models for sale. As with the DSLRs, some features matter but most are “about the same.” That’s right, most of the cameras are similar enough that even finding the differences was tricky. Generally, even small differences in specs don’t make a darn bit of difference when actually using the camera either. Therefore, there are many specs that you can just disregard and assume are comparable enough to call them “the same”. These include:
- Megapixels | The number of megapixels may vary but most models have plenty due to the intense completion among manufacturers. You will NEVER be able to tell the difference between 15 and 16. Promise. Image quality varies most with the sensor size but these cameras general have small ones compared to DSLRs and are all about the same. More and more point and shoot cameras are coming out with CMOS sensors in lieu of CCD sensors and that’s a good thing. I’d go with the CMOS if you can. Keep in mind most point and shoot images take quality photos up to about 8×10. If you plan to print larger on a regular basis, consider a higher end camera and avoid point and shoots altogether.
- LCD Screen | Most cameras devote a large percentage of the back of the camera to the LCD screen so they are all of comparable sizes. The resolution of these screens don’t vary too much either. If the screen matters to you, look for options like a swivel screen that rotates out or an LED powered screen.
- ISO | This number describes how sensitive the sensor is to light. The higher the number, the better able your camera is able to pick up light in a dark room. The problem is, many other factors effect ISO, including how well exposed your image is and how large your sensor is. Images taken at higher ISOs are usually very noisy and can look pixelated. In most point and shoot cameras, ISOs 100-400 produce good images. Anything above that and you are risking more grain and lower image quality. Some cameras advertise a very high max ISO but be aware, sometimes it’s actually “expanded ISO” which is a trick they use to compete with statistics.
- Zoom Range | Point and shoot cameras vary tremendously when it comes to zoom. Most start out at the equivalent of 24-30mm and most zoom at least 4x which puts you in the ballpark of 100mm on the long end, minimum. Any value above 8x-12x is going to make focusing more difficult and time consuming with a point and shoot. Plus, the longer the reach, the more light that is needed. Ain’t no one using a point and shoot to take an up close picture of a basketball player from the stands. It’s just going to be blurry no matter what point and shoot you use. I consider anything above 12x to be a bonus instead of a major selling point. The diagram below shows what 1x (24mm) to 8x (200mm) look like on most cameras.
- Battery Types | Some point and shoots use small “pancake” looking rechargeable batteries and other use AA alkaline batteries. If you have a preference, pay attention to this feature. Now that rechargeable AA size batteries are readily available, you can make any camera rechargeable. One advantage of AA battery cameras is that you can always pick up extras at a gift shop when you run out on vacation.
- Storage Card Types | Most are SD cards, but some models use teeeeeeny tiny ones. If you have a card stash you want be able to use, check this feature.
- Optical vs. Digital Zoom | Only look at optical zoom when comparing the zoom range of a camera. The optical zoom uses “optics” and actually captures all of the information in the scene. The digital zoom simply “crops” your image before it’s taken and makes the subject appear larger on your LCD screen. You can easily crop your image later and avoid using digital zoom altogether. In other words, digital zoom is just a marketing ploy to make a camera look better than it is.
- Image Stabilization | This prevents trembling hands from making your final image blurry. For most people, it means you can hand hold the camera at a lower shutters speed making it easier to capture images in low light. A common misconception is that image stabilization will prevent the pictures of your scurrying child from being blurry. Motion blur, as that is called, is only remedied by a fast shutter speed and image stabilization does nothing to help that.
- Size | If you are purchasing a point and shoot, you are probably more interested in a portable camera and are willing sacrifice the higher image quality of a big heavy camera. However, even though they are all “small”, point and shoots vary from shirt pocket size to the size of…a coffee mug? The smallest ones are incredibly portable and can slide into any clothing pocket. However, the larger ones are usually easier to operate without feeling like you are made of all thumbs.
- Fun Features | Features like WiFi, GPS, panoramic images, HDR are found in only some models. These are what I like to call “fun” features because they are not essential. Wifi makes sharing a breeze over your home network. If geotagging photos is critical to you, find a model with GPS built in. If you like outdoor photography and appreciate a beautiful panorama, why not find a model that can do this for you in camera? HDR images are great when you have your subject in a shadow and the background is very bright. Using this feature, the entire image will look properly exposed.
While I was in the middle of writing this, my client and friend, Sarah asked a great question! She wanted to make sure all of the cameras I listed had fast shutter speeds – laser fast! This question makes a lot of sense because often non-professional photographs have motion blur from “less than stationary” children and other fast moving objects. However, ALL cameras out there these days can shoot at laser fast speeds (at least 1/2000 of a second but sometimes even faster). The reason we don’t get sharp photos all the time is because sometimes the camera decides that a slower shutter is best. Do you ever notice that it’s harder to get sharp photos indoors? Especially if it seems dark in the room? The camera decided that you needed a slow shutter speed to let as much light in as possible. Any less and you risk a very dark or nearly all black image which defeats the purpose of taking the photo at all. There are two ways around this:
- A “faster” lens that lets more light in. This is referred to as f-stop and is one of the numbers on your lens front (you can find a photo in this article). Generally, fast lenses are expensive to create and even more expensive if the lens has a zoom function. Point and shoot cameras can only do so well in this department.
- A better and more sensitive sensor. Point and shoot cameras have small sensors and are only so good in this department. One of the best cameras on the market these days has an enormous sensor and incredible photo quality but it costs $3300 (without a lens!). Cameras are continually getting better in this department but until then, your camera isn’t likely to use fast shutter speeds all the time. And really, you don’t want it to anyway.
Now that we have all of the information out of the way, here are three of my top tips when it comes to buying.
- Buy from a local small business. Amazon is charging sales tax and you should be paying them at income tax time even if your online retailer isn’t collecting them at the time of sale. Supporting local businesses allows a kid to go to summer camp, a family to buy their kids new shoes, and a husband to buy flowers for his wife. Don’t we need more flowers in this world?
- Price shop. The current prices listed are the average online prices. These cycle rapidly and sales happen regularly. When a new model comes out, the previous one usually drops considerably and is often the best deal. Consider this when making your final choice.
- Try out the camera first. If you can get your hands on your favorite few models, I promise that using them for even 2-3 minutes will break the tie. These are designed to be easy to use with the push of a button. However, intuitive can mean different things to different people which is why picking it up is key!
Here are my top picks down to the model number. Note that camera photos are not to scale but they are clickable!
This camera is thin, small, and waterproof to 10m. It has decent 5x zoom plus an image stabilization feature which will compensate for it’s slow lens. It’s dedicated water mode will keep your pool photos from looking blue plus it’s a great beach camera! With 18 megapixels, 1080p HD video, and impressive looks, it makes for a great choice regardless of whether you’ll use the waterproof function.
The Selfie Lover AKA The Man Hands | Nikon Coolpix L830 | $200
This larger camera is considered a super zoom in the point and shoot market. Although the 34x zoom is way, way more than you need, it makes a versatile camera. It has 16 megapixels and swivel screen for those who are fans of the selfie trend (which isn’t going anywhere soon). The larger size is great for men or those of us with big hands! (Are you a Seinfeld fan? Then you’ll appreciate the man hands reference.) It also has 1080p HD video for high quality “birthday candle blowing out” video.
The Touchscreen Winner | Samsung WB350F |$180
Some people really love a good touchscreen. In that category, this is your winner. Image quality is decent and it’s thin design is impeccably retro-styled. It has 16 megapixels, 1080p HD video, and 21x zoom along with the option to operate it in full manual mode.
The Video King | Nikon Cool Pix s9500 | $200
With high speed 1080p HD video, this camera is a winner in the video category. It also has a OLED screen (better than an LCD), features WiFi & HDR, and crams it into a very small body. This camera also features 22x zoom and 18 megapixels so it is a great buy overall.
12x zoom, photo quality, easy to use, low noise using the hs system, wifi, 16 megapixels, hd 1080, small, comes in purple
This is my pick for when price is the primary concern but you don’t want a piece of crap. With 16 megapixels and 5x zoom contained in a small body, it produces decent images. It also as 720p HD video, an eco mode to conserve battery power, and has been reviewed by nearly 1000 Amazon customers averaging 4 stars. Sure, Amazon reviews aren’t always reliable, but this is a solid buy regardless.
If you are willing to go slightly above the $200 cap, check out this beauty. It’s the best camera for low light by far due to it’s impressive f/1.8 lens and large sensor. It has just 4x zoom but I’m convinced that enough for most consumers. For enthusiasts, it shoots RAW images and has a full manual mode. Plus, it’s quick to focus and looks amazing with it’s leather trimmed body. It’s a great buy for pros who need a small walk around camera or those who just want a really nice one with all the bells and whistles including 1080p HD video.
So there you have it. My top 7 picks for point and shoot cameras. Let’s consider “the most common question I get as a pro” answered.
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