recommended cameras

The specific models listed here may not represent the latest versions in their particular lines, but they do represent exceptional value, as I understand it.

In any case, buy a used camera unless you have good reason to buy a new one. There are plenty of excellent cameras available used, often which already include a large memory card and extra battery. It seems preferable to simply recycle, but there are other good reasons to prefer older equipment.

Marketing departments must move merchandise, and more megapixels means more sales. The truth remains that these cameras have tiny sensors, and adding more pixels (without adding more area) necessarily increases noise and power consumption (so don’t believe the hype). Fortunately, some (see Fuji F-series below) are finally breaking away from the pixel-count race, and instead optimising for faster response (less noise) which means better pictures, especially in low light.

Optex Flexi Pod
tiny flexible tripod for compact/lightweight cameras (essential and inexpensive)

ultra-compact

These cameras are roughly the size of a (thick) deck of playing cards. The vast majority of compact digital cameras have terribly slow sensors which give poor results in low light. The F30, F31fd, and F20 (all use the same sensor) remain unmatched; their low-light performance exceeds that of all other compact digital cameras (including, however strangely, even Fuji’s own later models in the same series).

Fuji F-series

Fuji was first to introduce, in compact cameras, sensors optimised for sensitivity rather than pixel count. One irritation is that most Fuji cameras (prior to 2007) use only xD-Picture Card (instead of the more common SD cards); however, they have finally begun supporting SD cards.

The F-series is confused: the F20, F40, F100fd are cheaper versions lacking shutter/aperture priority and other features. However, a more important distinction regards sensitivity (low-light performance); the names of the low-sensitivity cameras are struck through (yes, the older cameras are more sensitive, but the newer ones are still better than most other cameras in their class).

F70EXR
same as F200EXR with 10 Mp sensor, and 10× zoom lens
F200EXR
same as F100fd with new 12 Mp sensor (6 Mp low-light mode; better dynamic range), and manual controls (shutter/aperture priority)
F60fd
just an F50fd with larger display and updated firmware
F100fd

changes…

  • new lens: 5× zoom (28–140 mm) 1:3.3–5.1
  • new sensor: better dynamic range
  • battery life?
F50fd

changes…

  • ! 12 Mp sensor (less dynamic range, more noise)
  • ! shorter battery life (230 f/charge, down from 580)
  • mechanical image stabilisation
  • larger display (same resolution!)
  • new lens: 3× zoom, 1:2.8–5.1
F47fd
just an F40fd with 9 Mp sensor and support for SDHC cards
F40fd

changes…

  • ! 8.3 Mp sensor (more noise)
  • SD cards
F20
cheaper version of the F30 with fewer features (same sensor)
F31fd
just an F30 with a new processor (better matrix metering)
F30

improvement…

  • new sensor
  • better display
  • better battery (580 f/charge)
F11

improvement…

  • shutter & aperture priority
  • better macro focus
  • better display
F10
6.3 Mp, 3× zoom, 500 f/charge, VGA 30 f/s, USB 2

manual compact

These are the smallest cameras which support (at minimum): RAW format, aperture/shutter priority, manual focus.

Panasonic Lumix LX-series

LX100

changes…

  • new lens: 3.1× zoom (24–75 mm) 1:1.7–2.8
  • new sensor: 4/3” CMOS (13 Mp)
  • new physical controls (rings/dials)
  • 11 fps burst (6.5 C-AF)
  • shutter speed: 1/16000–60 second
  • video: 4k/30p AVCHD or MPEG-4
  • in-camera raw conversion
  • Wi-Fi, NFC
  • much larger/heavier
  • no neutral density filter
  • lower battery life (300 f/charge)
  • no built-in flash
LX7

changes…

  • new lens: 3.75× zoom (24–90 mm) 1:1.4–2.3 (fast!); 1 cm macro
  • new sensor: 1/1.7” CMOS (same resolution: 10 Mp)
  • shutter speed: 1/4000–60 second
  • neutral density filter
  • aperture ring
  • new display: 920 kp
  • video: 1080p60 AVCHD or MPEG-4
  • electronic level
  • HDR
  • time lapse
  • slightly larger/heavier
  • lower battery life (330 f/charge)
LX5

changes…

  • new lens: 3.75× zoom (24–90 mm) 1:2–3.3 (fast); threaded barrel
  • slightly larger and heavier
  • new aspect ratio: 4:3, 3:2, 16:9, 1:1
  • shutter speed: 1/4000–250 second
  • video format: AVCHD Lite or MJPEG QuickTime
  • new processor
  • better battery life (400 f/charge)
LX3

changes…

  • new lens: 2.5× zoom (24–60 mm) 1:2–2.8 (fast); threaded barrel
  • new sensor: consistent field of view for different aspect ratios
  • focus button (autofocus in manual mode)
  • new display: 3:2 430 kp
  • shutter speed: 1/2000–60 second
  • USB2
  • 720p30 video (25 Mb/s MJPEG QuickTime)
  • new processor
  • better battery life (380 f/charge)
LX2
adds a 16:9 display, 10.2 Mp sensor and increased noise reduction (but practical resolution remains the same, if not lower than the LX1)
LX1
exceptional manual control (with physical controls; no menu madness) with an excellent Leica lens (4× zoom 28–112 mm 1:2.8–4.9) in a very small package (it also has optical image stabilisation and a 16:9 aspect ratio sensor, variable to 3:2 and 4:3)

Canon S-series (compact)

Before the LX1, these were the only compact cameras with RAW format (there were Fujis but their RAW format was somewhat cooked).

S120

changes…

  • new lens: 5× zoom (24–120 mm) 1:1.8-5.7, built-in neutral density filter
  • new display: 922 kp
  • 1080p60 video
S110

changes…

  • GPS replaed with WiFi
  • touchscreen display (460 kp)
  • 1080p30 video
S100

changes…

  • new lens: 5× zoom (24–120 mm) 1:2-5.9, built-in neutral density filter
  • new sensor: 12.1 MP 1/1.7” Canon CMOS
  • new processor: DIGIC 5
  • ISO 80-6400
  • 2.3 fps continuous shooting (9.6 fps for 8 frames in burst mode)
  • 1080p24 video (optical zoom, H.264 compression, MOV format)
  • slow motion video (640 × 480 @ 120fps, 320 × 240 @ 240 fps)
  • built-in GPS (image tagging and logger)
S95

changes…

  • variable aspect ratios (4:3, 16:9, 3:2, 1:1, 4:5)
  • high dynamic range (HDR) mode
  • 720p24 video
S90

changes… (obviously informed by Panasonic’s LX-series)

  • new body (much smaller/lighter)
  • new lens: 3.75× zoom (28–105 mm) 1:2–4.9
  • optical image stabilization
  • control ring
S80
no RAW format!; larger display with fewer pixels!
S70
just an S60 with more pixels and a black finish
S60

changes…

  • new body (smaller/lighter, improved sliding cover)
  • new lens: 3.6× zoom (28–100 mm) 1:2.8–5.3
  • new battery
S50
just an S45 with more pixels
S45

changes…

  • new processor
  • more control
  • saved settings
  • orientation sensor
  • time lapse
  • longer movies
  • EXIF 2.2
S40
just an S30 with more pixels
S30
avoid models earlier than the S30

CHDK (Canon Hack Development Kit)

The CHDK software makes many Canon cameras – especially the beautifully compact SD (IXUS) series – much more useful by enabling raw format, manual control, motion-triggered exposure, &c.

digital SLR

Canon EOS 5D
the first relatively inexpensive full-frame sensor, digital SLR
Fuji S3 Pro UVIR
the first commercial digital camera without UV and IR filters