It’s been a while since I last looked into cameras – about 4 years to be exact – and my word, have things changed. I’m the slightly ashamed owner of a 4MP Casio model from, well, about 4 years ago; it was a lovely compact little camera at the time but it looks like a dinosaur now. It’s got some noise problems in dark areas, and it’s not massively sharp on a per-pixel level, but it’s served me well.
So, when looking for a cheap(ish) camera for my parents, I browsed for some recommendations. The reviews at cameras.co.uk proved a great starting point; they’re relatively brief, and don’t just pick holes in the camera’s performance but praise its good points too. It was fantastically easy to compare cameras, and when I’d selected a few I could get more detailed information elsewhere (places like dpreview.com, for instance). Eventually, I narrowed it down to a couple of Nikon models and a couple of Panasonics, based primarily on overall image quality and ease of use. It seems in the £100-120 bracket these guys have the best kit at the moment. When the DMC-FX12 was put on special offer for the weekend I was going to buy, I decided it was divine guidance and promptly bought.
Overall it’s a great camera, compact and easy to use, and takes good pictures. The zoom is clear, saturated and sharp, and my word is the optical image stabilisation good. The Leica lens gives clear focus and very little distortion. It takes slightly soft photos by default, but it’s very easy to sharpen them in iPhoto ’08 – and I love the 3:2 shooting mode. It’s let down by poor shooting in low light (hey – show me the compact camera that copes well in low light, ok?) and by the noise reduction engine, which tends to blur photos a bit, particularly in – you guessed it – low light. For £100, though, I really rate it.
A couple of weeks later I found myself looking at expensive kit with Tom. Well, expensive kit for a student, anyway. The Nikon D40 was a major runner (what a great camera – it’s got a low-end DSLR price tag but is frankly a complete steal, and fuck the extra megapixels of the pricey D40x, you don’t need them); its only real competitor was another Panasonic, the TZ3, which is a high-end compact. Now, on picture quality the SLR is going to win every time. But, size was a contributing factor – it was to be a travel camera, and frankly you’ll take more pictures with a camera in your pocket than one in your rucksack.
How does a compact compete with an SLR? Well… this one actually puts up a fight, helped largely by its 10x optical zoom. Yes, that’s right, 10x – and unlike similar compacts, this baby can actually handle it. The photos at full zoom are as good as the wide-angle lens, and the image stabilisation means even freehand pictures are usable (though naturally you really need a tripod). Guess what, though – it sucks in low light. Not as badly as the FX12, but pretty hard nonetheless. Note to Venus III engine: you’re a bit over-zealous.
So, great but big, or merely damn good but pocketable? The TZ3 won out for us. £230.
Seeing as I’ve handled two cameras from the same manufacturer is detail recently, it’s a good opportunity for a comparison. How much more camera does £130 buy you? Somewhat surprisingly, it buys you a hell of a lot – at least, in this case. Pictures are clearer (despite being the same resolution), you get a high-quality, massive zoom, and you get a really fast shutter speed. You also get a luxurious LCD screen on which to compose your photos. For once, the price premium is absolutely deserved. This is largely because the TZ3 is a fairly chunky compact; if you spend that much on a mini model you may even lose image quality. Frankly, though, I think I’m off to buy a TZ3. It’s that good..