Plugged In: High-end cameras on your list? Check it twice

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Take your blood pressure medication and call your cardiologist, for it’s the time of year when we recommend best buys among those more expensive photo gifts.

Rather surprisingly, many of last year’s top-end camera models continue to linger on retail shelves, and many retailers are selling them at excellent prices. Perhaps it’s a post-recession reaction. Usually, new cameras and lenses highlight the Christmas season in all their list-price glory. It would be indelicate to state that only fanboys buy a brand new, typically buggy, camera at list price as soon as it appears on the market, but it’s the truth.

You’ll find most post-recessionary bargains on the Internet, particularly at reputable vendors like http://www.amazon.com, http://www.adorama.com, http://www.cametacamera.com, and http://www.bhphotovideo.com.

The discounted cameras that I suggest below are typically near the end of their product life. They’re being replaced by marginally upgraded models, which, in many instances, are virtually indistinguishable from the discounted cameras that we’re recommending as best buys.

Several good compact cameras are being discounted heavily to make room for newer models. In particular, the Canon S100 and G12, Olympus XZ-1 and Panasonic LX5 all stand out as good buys, with the S100 sometimes selling for as low as $230. These are highly regarded compact cameras that include extensive optional manual controls and RAW image file formats. Only the S100 is truly pocketable, though, and it’s at least as good as its more expensive S110 successor. Successor models to the G12, XZ-1 and LX-5 are substantially improved, so I would be hesitant to make an unqualified recommendation of the G12, XZ-1 and LX-5 as best buys. There’s no doubt, though, that the Canon S100 is a best buy as currently discounted.

Among digital SLR cameras, Pentax’s K-5 remains an excellent camera and a best buy. Indeed, many professional camera review sites continue to praise the K-5 as perhaps the best APS-C dSLR camera. Its weather-sealed, prograde metal body is built around Sony’s 16-megapixel APS-C sensor, one of the finest digital photography sensors ever made. The original K-5 has recently been discounted to a selling price of $800 or less, body only, a lower cost than Pentax’s upper-entry-level K-30 dSLR, itself an excellent camera and a good buy. The K-5 is better-constructed than the new K-30 and gives up little or nothing in terms of image quality to either its direct replacement, the K-5 II, or to the later K-30.

Pentax’s rather unusual attempt at a mirrorless camera, the K-01, has the K-5’s image quality in a designer body that you’ll either love or hate. The K-01 is considered rather hip by some, and uses Pentax’s wide variety of standard K-mount lenses. It’s been selling for as low as $400, including the excellent and compact Pentax 40-mm XS prime lens.

Rather than buying a mediocre kit zoom lens for these fine Pentax cameras, get Tamron’s superb 17- to 50-mm non-VC zoom lens (usually about $400 net price). It’s a well-proven design that’s among the sharpest, yet least expensive, normal-range zoom lenses. The non-VC version works best on Sony and Pentax dSLR cameras because these use in-body image stabilization hardware. While we’re mentioning Sony, don’t expect to find many best buys among Sony dSLR cameras. Sony seems allergic to competitive pricing in the dSLR market segment.

Nikon’s D7000 is quite comparable to the Pentax K-5, and even uses the same 16-megapixel Sony sensor. At least officially, the D7000 remains part of Nikon’s current lineup. Despite that, it’s been heavily discounted this Christmas season, in some cases to less than $900, body only.

Nikon’s 16-megapixel D5100 dSLR is likewise discounted heavily to about $550 as the newer 24-megapixel D5200 reaches retailers. The D5100 has the same excellent image quality as the D7000 because it uses the same imaging sensor and processing chip but in a lighter, nonweather-sealed plastic body that’s adequate for nonprofessional use. Given the recent discounts, the D5100 costs no more than low-entry-level Nikon dSLR cameras and so is a best buy.

I recommend Nikon’s intermediate kit lens, the Nikkor 18- to 105-mm VR zoom, as a good basic lens for any of these Nikon APS-C bodies. It’s an inexpensive image-stabilized zoom lens with consistently good image quality. Alternatively, Nikon’s new 24- to 85-mm kit lens, generally intended for full-frame cameras, is versatile and somewhat affordable. It’s image quality is really excellent when used with the smaller sensors found in APS-C cameras, like the D7000 and D5100.

The image quality of Canon’s upper-entry-level T4i dSLR is not quite in the same league as Pentax’s K-5 or Nikon’s D7000 but it’s still quite good. Recently, I’ve seen the T4i discounted down from its usual $900 price to a more reasonable $600 to $750, in some cases including both a normal kit zoom and a low-end but decent telephoto zoom lens. This would be a nice upgrade for existing Canon users although, if starting from scratch, I would suggest either the K-5 or D7000. Canon’s 15- to 85-mm zoom would be an excellent replacement for Canon’s so-so kit lens. Canon’s low-entry-level T3 dSLR camera has recently been advertised for as low as $400.

Only a few affordable, consumer-grade, APS-C dSLR models have been introduced this year, and those have been largely cosmetic upgrades except where Sony’s 24-megapixel APS-C sensor has been substituted for 16-megapixel sensors. I don’t believe that these 24-megapixel sensors provide any real benefit for most users. At higher ISO settings, the more densely packed 24-megapixel sensor seems to blur detail more quickly, and most kit lenses do not have sufficient optical sharpness to make good use of those extra pixels.

A few weeks ago, we discussed 2012’s surprisingly large crop of full-frame dSLR cameras. With body-only prices starting at $2,000, none of these full-frame cameras exactly qualify as affordable bargains, though Nikon’s new D600 stands out for its excellent image quality and a price that’s comparatively low for this market segment.

Nikon’s newly-introduced 24- to 85-mm full-frame kit lens does not produce the same level of corner-to-corner sharpness on full-frame cameras that it does on the smaller sensor used in APS-C cameras. This lens is image-stabilized, though, unlike most of Nikon’s more expensive full-frame standard zoom lenses. Tamron’s 28- to 75-mm lens is a sharper, more affordable alternative for full-frame Nikon, Canon and Sony cameras, although it’s not image-stabilized on Nikon and Canon products.

Turning to compact-system cameras built around large imaging sensors, it’s a bit harder to suggest best buys because camera systems in this market segment continue to improve noticeably from year to year. All Micro Four-Thirds (M43) cameras introduced in 2012 by Olympus use the same excellent 16-megapixel Sony sensor found in Olympus’ prograde OM-D. Prior-year Olympus cameras use the rather noisier Panasonic sensors still found in all Panasonic M43 cameras.

However, if you don’t anticipate using earlier Olympus and Panasonic M43 cameras at high ISO settings and in dim light, then you’ll find some good buys here. Panasonic’s rather bulky dSLR-styled GH2, with its reportedly very good video performance, has been selling for as low as $500, including the kit zoom lens. Other quite decent Panasonic M43 cameras, including the smaller dSLR-styled G3, the rangefinder-styled GX1 and the very compact GF3 and GF5, have been selling for even less. Among these, the G3 and GX1 are good buys.

Olympus’ superseded E-PL2 and E-PL3 models are often discounted to the $300 to $400 range at the moment, including a decent 14- to 42-mm kit lens. At its current price point, the E-PL2 remains a best buy, even though it uses an older, 12-megapixel Panasonic sensor. The E-PL3 is a good buy, though costing about $100 more than the discounted E-PL2. The E-PL3 does not have any compelling advantage relative to the less expensive E-PL2 except, perhaps, greater availability.

I prefer current Olympus M 4/3 cameras because all 2012-vintage Olympus cameras include Sony’s excellent 16-megapixel M43 sensor and in-body image-stabilization hardware that stabilizes any lens mounted on an Olympus camera, including Panasonic’s excellent 14-mm, 20-mm and 25-mm prime lenses. These are significant advantages compared to Panasonic bodies. Though more expensive and only slightly discounted, Olympus’ current E-PL5 is a compelling model with top-end image quality. Even when discounted to $600, it’s more expensive that the other M 4/3 models we’ve mentioned, but it’s a fair price considering its excellent image quality, metal construction and strong feature set.

You’ll find some very good buys among M 4/3 lenses. Olympus’ 14- to 42-mm standard zoom and 40- to 150-mm telephoto zoom are better than average kit lenses, as is the Panasonic 14- to 45-mm kit lens. Panasonic’s 14-mm and 20-mm prime lenses provide very good optical quality for their price, while Olympus’ 45-mm telephoto prime lens is a best buy despite its $400 list price. Finally, Sigma’s 19-mm and 30-mm prime lenses for both M 4/3 and Sony NEX cameras often sell for as low as $149 each and are quite good optically.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

1 Comment

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One response to “Plugged In: High-end cameras on your list? Check it twice

  1. Pingback: 10 Tips to Supercharge Your Photography Website by Photocrati Is Filled With … | ThemeStyle

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