For the past five or six years without fail I've been asked for advice from individuals looking to purchase a camera as a gift for friends or family. It's natural to think that I would know what is what regarding the current market and its over saturation of optical devices, but the fact is, unless I'm currently shopping for myself I remain largely oblivious to the wider market.
So this year, in order to be a step ahead of the inquisition, I figured I'd put together a short buyers guide, hopefully offering some insight into what's available at present (pun intended).
This article is based on the idea that it is in fact a gift, and not so much a professional loadout for someone who is working in the area already. In short, yes I am aware that 'X camera is better than X camera' but the focus here(again pun intended) is to look at value and performance while maintaining the idea that it is a present and should be fun at the end of the day and not push the buyer into credit debt. I hope this is of some use to those of you doing the right thing and giving the gift of creativity this Christmas!
Points To Note
- Digital Zoom is not a positive feature!
Digital zoom is simply a software based process of zooming in on a scene. It reduces picture quality by a significant margin and is not aesthetically pleasing at all. Optical zoom is the process of a camera moving lenses in such a way as to naturally zoom in on a subject without impacting picture quality as harshly.
- More megapixels does not mean better photos!
The illusion that a higher pixel count means increased quality is perpetuated by manufactures looking to boast technical numbers, rather than actually increasing the aesthetic of the end product and photo quality. For instance, 1080p quality is actually only 2 megapixels! It's the quality of the sensor and the glass in the lens that makes the difference.
- Digital photographs are only as good as the software they pass through!
What I mean by this is that the camera is only one part of creating striking images, and if you are looking for a camera which produces more artistic and aesthetically pleasing photographs, you might need to consider the processing tools available to the end user. If they have a laptop or smartphone then they should be able to process their pictures into more striking final images. Without such tools they may find themselves limited to the exact photo settings which the camera was using at the time of the photo. I do have a smartphone photography app article on the way so keep an eye out for that.
Sony Cybershot W830 - €89.99
I've always been a fan of Sony electronics due to their build quality and the standard of the material choices they utilize, you are generally going to feel like you are holding something of value before you even turn it on. They also have a pleasant habit of using Zeiss optics in their cameras and camera phones which go a very long way in helping to produce crisp and contrasty images. The W830 is no exception to this traits and boasts the usual insane pixel count and optical zoom that the entry level point and shoot market has become known for. I held this camera in a shop here in Galway recently and loved it's shape and size off the bat. With flash activated, the speed the photo was taken at was very impressive with little or no lag or latency which is a pet peeve I have for camera phones when you need to use flash but want to be able to point and shoot in split second. The picture quality is insanely sharp and the colours and contrast are up there with Canon cameras, who I regard as having the best colour rendition of high end DSLR's.
On the negative side, I do find the menu to be a little clunky and awkward, but I'm really only used to my own camera and the small range of features I need access to are the dials on the top. Any menu system feels alien at first but before long we get used to finding our way around. There is also no wifi in this particular model. Wifi in cameras is not for connecting to the internet, but rather for connecting to our phones and devices and sending images across. If you are using a smartphone/pocket camera duo then this might not suit if your phone has no memory card reader. The video mode is also a little bit old school in that it only shoots 720p. I don't shoot a lot of video myself so this is of little importance to me but might be the deal breaker for some buyers.
This is a basic point and shoot camera and doesn't have as many of the features and frills you may be tempted by on other models, but as a photographer myself I know that 90% of the extras tacked on to cameras go unused and at its core we need our cameras to point and shoot fast and sharp. This model manages that with ease and does so with an elegant high quality form factor wrapped around smart and efficient hardware, and at an amazing price point.
Argos - Currently On Sale for €89
Amazon - £99
Canon Powershot SX610 - €149.99
Looking at the seemingly endless range of cameras that fall into this price range is blinding. They are relatively cheap to produce, light enough to move around the world quickly and economically from production to point of sale, and they are still the go-to device for most people looking to purchase a dedicated camera set aside from their smartphone. To that end they tend to get mild redesigns and rereleases every year. Looking at the Sony W830 up above, I was trying to find something of equal or greater quality which picks up in areas where the Sony slacks.
The Canon SX610 is that step up, boasting another weighty 20 megapixel sensor, and a deep x18 optical zoom, it also shoots full HD 1080p movie modes and has WiFi built in for simplified connectivity to tablets and smartphones. Among several other technical upgrades it has some fun settings too like a Fisheye effect, a toy camera mode and a poster effect. For as serious as I am about photography I love features like this and how they can make you play with a camera rather than simply shoot with it. The camera itself is very robust, with a slightly thicker body than normal it makes for better and more natural ergonomics and a more comfortable grip. The canon sensor produces beautiful colours and contrast without too much over saturation so you can avoid that red blush effect on skin tones.
The Wifi gives the benefit of being able to connect to your smartphone via the Camera Connect app, available for both iOS and Android operating systems. This means you can edit and upload directly from your phone, and given the amazing range of editing applications available for phone platforms right now, it makes the whole process seamless, wireless and actually really good fun. It also makes your camera feel like a true extension of your current devices, rather than an outsider that is awkward and needs cables and memory card readers to contribute.
It comes in several colour schemes also, a cardinal red, white and gold, and a traditional black.
The Fuji Instax range has been around for a number of years now and they have fully rebuilt the market that Polaroid left behind. They designed new cameras and a new instant solution from scratch. And while they aren't without their glitches they do a wonderful job of that beginning-middle-end photo process we all love, and you have the bonus of a physical printed photograph to glow over when it's done.
Now before I go on, it's worth noting that all of the current lineup use quite narrow or super wide film types as seen below, regardless of the camera body.
The original Polaroid style was a 1x1(square format) image inside a rectangular print. It's the hallmark look of every throwback photo app on the market and is the ratio basis of the original hip photo app, Instagram. So you might not feel fully hooked into the aesthetic with the slightly off centre shapes they have on the market right now. And so right on time comes the recent reveal from Fuji, Instax Square.
With that in mind, here are the key points to note regarding these cameras that may influence your purchase decision.
The film comes in cartridges of 10 which and as far as I am aware, there is only one film type and that is sold by Fuji directly. In the past Polaroid sold various film types, black and white, vintage finish, more saturated finishes and so on. This process was later carried on by a company called The Impossible Project, which copied those film types and sold them for use in the old school 80's style Polaroid cameras but at a huge markup, around €30 for 8 shots.
Now, the Fuji instax film type is good but it is a bit linear in my opinion. It doesn't have a lot of colour depth in the greens and yellows, And instead leans on more saturated blues and reds. This makes a lot of the photos feel a little bit cold in terms of colour temperature.
I found that both the Fuji Instax wide and the mini both had a rather cold colour temperature to the finished photos, a point which made me hesitate shooting with it in certain conditions.
Enter the Fuji Instax Share Printer. This portable wireless printer can partner with your smartphone and allows you to print pictures in your photo album right out onto fuji instax film. So you still get your physical polaroid style print, but you can be super selective about what you choose to print, and also adjust how the colours are going to turn out. There is still some linear elements to this process because the actual print pigment fluids are what is holding the colour temps in the cold region, but there is enough room to offset this and you can do it all from your phone. The printer takes the same film cartridge you would use in the instax camera body, so you can stockpile one film type and apply to both products.
The Lumix series has grown in fame over the past number of years, with panasonic always having been a slight outsider to pro-end camera production, their GH series has taken centre stage in the video arena, and the trickle down of that quality and technology has produced some amazing cameras across the board. The TZ70 as it is called for short is one of the beneficiaries, boasting a super powerful zoom x30, 5 axis image stabilization, an incredible sensor (that's where the megapixels are housed) Wifi, NFC, GPS and a partner app for transferring your images straight to your smartphone. All of this is built into a beautiful compact travel camera with serious processing power and potential thanks to the fact that it can shoot RAW format images.
Really quickly explained, your phone and most of your compact cameras shoot JPG image quality. It's good but not amazing. RAW has the ability to grab all of the detail in the shadows of a scene, and also all of the detail in the highlights. In short, the sky won't be blown-out as pure white if its a bright day, and likewise, the shadows in your scene won't be pitch black either. It also retains more colour and the content can be made sharper than a JPG also.
Back to my point earlier on, this is the lowest megapixel count of any of the photos in this guide. Clocking in at 12MP you might think this is a lesser camera but it is not. The Leica glass in the lens and the quality of the sensor means this camera produces compelling and vibrant images every time. The TZ70 has several additional design features giving it that extra edge and the traditional viewfinder is one of those features. Most people are used to holding the camera in front of themselves and using the screen on the back to lineup the shot. The TZ70 has a built in viewfinder, like on regular DSLR cameras, so you can really lineup the shot with accuracy, and not worry if the setting is too bright, and thus reflecting the screen back at you when you're queuing up the shot. It also has a control ring around the lens which can have several functions assigned to it, allowing for quick settings changes as you're working toward a shot.
The overall build quality and aesthetic of this model will make a huge impact on the end user. It's made from quality metals and polymers, with confident weight and robustness. This is a premium gift at a premium price but you are really getting what you pay for with this entry in the TZ series.
Amazon - (Black £269)
Argos - (Silver €339.99)
I'm going to update the list as the weeks go forward and as better deals emerge. Although prices don't usually go down on this side of Christmas it's possible to estimate which models will get slashed in the new years sales so I'll do my best to indicate those models ahead of time.