I was wandering around the yard with my Nikon P610 looking for birds to shoot (yes, I know) and I couldn’t help but notice there was a slightly strange feel to it in my hands as I moved. A kind of indistinct ‘clunk’ that unfortunately my trained engineering mind told me was “the lens is getting sloppy”. This induces panic mode like nothing else because it’s my favourite, most useful, and most used camera – despite its increasingly-difficult-to-see EVF. Also the battery isn’t lasting as long as it once did. Will I have to replace it in the future? Undoubtedly. It’s just a matter of time. And they don’t make these anymore. The 60X, ‘1440mm equivalent’ super zoom has been replaced by an 83X in the P900 and a 125X in the P1000. These are both rather overkill in zoom, as even the 60X is hard to manage at full extension. Besides, just the P900 is twice the price the P610 was.
So … what else ya got?
There’s a fairly good resource for would-be camera buyers called Camera Decision which is fun to read reviews and evaluations at. But you need to take the info with a grain of salt: some of the negatives and positives (I couldn’t resist, sorry) they relate are a matter of personal preference rather than absolute technical truth. For example, they think touch screens are a positive. Not on any camera of mine, they’re not. Likewise they value small size over large, which is also a matter of taste (or hand size actually). I mean you can’t argue a Minox B is better than a Speed Graphic just because it’s smaller.
Then there are some issues with physics. Good ol’ physics. Just when you’re about to have fun it stomps in and kicks the game board all over the room. Or something. For example decrying telephoto lenses for not being “fast”. *ahem* If you had an 800mm lens that was f2.8 it would look like something usually associated with deep-space astronomical research, and you’d have to hire someone to carry it around for you. While we’re at it, half the reason why extreme zoom cameras have ‘2.3’ size sensors is that’s how they pull off the extreme zoom trick: slice a small segment out of a big area and what do you get? A crop factor of about 5.6, that’s what. This is also why they fail to produce good results at any ISO above 800, no matter what claims are made: there just isn’t enough sensitive area to pick up low light levels.
All that aside, the site is quite useful for getting technical info and comparing various models. I linked above to the “Compare Cameras” finder section so you can dive right in with your specific requirements and get some idea of what is out there in the marketplace.
What I found is that I have $2,000 camera tastes with a $200 camera budget (hence the title of this piece). Good thing I don’t have to replace that ol’ Nikon right away!
The camera that would truly suit my needs doesn’t actually exist. It wouldn’t be impossible to build, they simply don’t do it. For example I’d want the smaller sensor to give me incredible zoom capacity, but might be able to have a micro 4/3 instead or even a APS-C if it had enough pixels to allow for quality digital zooming (most digital zooming is not quality). I’d also want an optical finder, which seems to be vanishing from the offerings entirely, because even a good EVF is not as bright as glass (even though in theory it could be). I have vision problems I have to deal with, okay?
It’s interesting that Camera Decision includes evaluating models for different types of photography, which betrays the manufacturers’ recurring fault of trying to make one model cover all bases. When they do that they get something that at best ranks “average” in all categories. If they concentrate on a single aspect they get “excellent” for that and invariably “poor” on something or everything else. It can’t be helped. Damned physics again.
So here are some of the ‘features’ I could do without:
1). Touch screen. This is more like an invitation to disaster than an asset.
2). Video anything. You want video? Buy a video camera. A mule is neither a donkey nor a horse.
3). RAW files. These are for people who have way too much time on their hands. A camera should be able to produce an acceptable image without any processing.
4). Wireless connectivity/GPS. How about an SD card door that isn’t as fragile as a Faberge Egg instead? And I already know where I am, thank you.
5). Digital filters. Maybe if they were real filters and not just processing tricks. Think contrast enhancement at the touch of a button instead of wading through a menu.
6). Electronic viewfinder. Whereas eye-level finding is an absolute must (and LCD screens are useless), I prefer the brightness of optical finders over the electronic version. It’s easier for my old eyes to see, and they have enough trouble seeing already. (BTW I have cameras of all three types.)
7). Obscene amounts of pixels. Give me the greater light sensitivity of a larger sensor instead, as long as there’s a reasonable degree of resolution. Half the time I use under 5MP in the final picture anyway. Unless it’s using the pixels to good purpose as mentioned in the remarks about digital zooming. You kind of have to balance between MP and sensor size and zoom capacity.
8). Image stabilization. Okay stating that I don’t need this is probably blasphemy, but I’ve never noticed it does much for me even with telephoto shots. True higher ISO coupled with brains enough to turn up the shutter speed when shooting fast motion or telephoto views works well. If we’re looking at interchangeable lenses or even built-in zoom the camera ought to be able to sense the focal length and adjust shutter speed accordingly.
Then there are the features I really, really want:
1). A lens as sharp as a scalpel. I can soften it if I want to, but there’s no way to do the reverse.
2). A price I can afford. Guess I’m out of luck there. I looked up “top cameras for bird watchers”, and they were all psycho money.
3). Exposure intelligence I don’t have to mess with. Most of the cameras I have manage this quite well (save one infamous exception), with only the occasional ‘tweak’ needed for dull days or off-temperature lighting. I use ‘manual’ when I want manual, and shouldn’t have to make the same changes when I’m trying to shoot ‘automatic’. You’d really need a kind of 3-step prioritization for auto exposure where you pick order of importance such as #1 Aperture f‘X’, #2 Shutter no slower/faster than ‘Y’, #3 ISO no higher/lower than ‘Z’, for example.
4). Controls in the right bloody places. Look, manufacturers; just ask a photographer with 50+ years experience what dedicated controls are needed and where they should go, okay? Don’t leave it up to someone whose qualifications run only to winning every video game he’s ever played. This includes lens controls: I don’t want to zoom or manual focus with a joystick or back button or whatever, just a ring around the barrel thank you.
5). Quality build. There’s an awful lot of fragile stuff out there, even from “reputable” manufacturers. They need to remember the average user is a ham-fisted troglodyte whose dexterity only just allows him to bang the rocks together. Well, maybe not that bad … but they should think along those lines when designing.
6). Crazy telephoto ability. This one is a distinct problem, since in order to get the really long zoom capacity you need to give up sensor size. My Nikon P610 has a ‘2.3’ sensor which has a crop factor of 5.64. Thus a 50mm lens on a 35mm camera is equal to 282mm on the Nikon (or 80mm on the Canon with the APS-C sensor). If you go to the larger sensor for maximum light capacity (true high ISO) you have to have a huge piece of glass to get that focal length, never mind any “fastness” to the lens. The P610 has a 35mm’s equivalent of 1440mm (255mm ‘real’ – about the same as the “long” lens from the Canon kit) at maximum telephoto. The thing is, I use telephoto a lot in the kind of photography that I do and the 250mm top end on the APS-C sensor isn’t enough. (I worked it out as needing at least a 48MP sensor in APS-C size to offer enough digital zoom to be close to the 250mm on the 16MP ‘2.3’ sensor.)
Well this piece has wandered a bit, hasn’t it? Doubled back over the same territory in more than one spot, so to speak. But I’m just worried that the P610 is going to go “clunk” (or other cartoon noise of your choice) and quit functioning on me. Then what? The Canon T100 is excellent at what it’s for and exceeds the Nikon in certain respects, but doesn’t measure up in zoom length or optical sharpness come to that. There are other lenses I can put on it, but they are very expensive and still don’t reach the same length equivalent due to the processor size difference.
Perhaps I will be searching the used listings again, hoping to find a fully working P610 or a less-than-full-price P900. So far it hasn’t become a necessity.