Thursday, September 22, 2011

Family/travel camera showdown

I’ve decided I want my photoblog to concentrate on actual photos and the new home of gear ponderings will be here since it’s been a ghost town for a while.

With that out of the way, my latest thoughts concern the ideal family excursion camera. The key criteria for this category are in order of importance:

1.    Size/weight – Nothing too big or heavy
2.    Operational speed – Has to be very responsive so I can catch action as it happens
3.    Video quality – Minimum 720p @60p with stereo sound. 1080p 60p is even better
4.    Image quality – I’m willing to take a hit in this category, but not too much
5.    Reach – This only factors in when visiting places like the zoo or ball game where zooming is the only way to get close to the action
6.    EVF/OVF – For sunny days, this can be a lifesaver although not critical for some situations
7.    Discreetness – It certainly helps if the gear you wield is as unintimidating as possible, silent shutter is a plus

My two current cameras for this are the Sony HX9V and the Sony Nex-5N. The HX9V nails #1,3, 5, and 7. Operational speed is not great, image quality is average to below average, and it has no EVF.
The Nex-5N pretty scores points on everything except for reach and discreetness. I could add a 18-200mm lens, but then the size gets a bit out of hand. I also prefer the video of the HX9V over the 5N mostly because the smaller sensor keeps more things in focus which is important for family movies.

The new contenders

Panasonic FZ150 ($499, available October 2011)
Panasonic recently revealed the FZ150 superzoom camera. I owned the previous model, the FZ100 and was mostly pleased with it. I wasn’t surprised by noisy pics in low light since the cam had a small sensor, but the videos also suffered from excessive noise in lower light. On the other hand, the HX9V handles low light video like a superstar. Panasonic was aware of this problem and has reduced the megapixel count of the FZ150 from 14 to 12 which is great.

Initial photo tests on DPReview look extremely promising. The sensor of the FZ150 holds its own against larger sensor cameras quite well. The FZ100 nails 6 out of the 7 criteria points (it’s not very discreet looking, especially with the lens hood on).  If the video quality of the FZ150 is up to snuff in low light, this can be the camera I’ve been waiting for.

The initial asking price of $499 is high for a camera in this range these days though. Also, the active steady shot feature of the HX9V is the top of its class so the FZ150 has its work cut out for it if it’s going to convince me that the large size of the FZ150 is worth ditching the compact HX9V.

Fujifilm X10 ($599-699, available November)
The Fuji X100 is a great camera, but it didn’t suit my needs in this category. Its little brother is looking very interesting on paper. It’s smaller, has a nice zoom range, better video capability, and faster operational speed. It’s going to come down to how good the image and video quality is and if the camera is actually more responsive than the X100.

Sony Nex-7 ($1199 body, available November)The only way I would pick up the Nex-7 is if I sell BOTH my Nex-5N and Sony a850. That scenario is unlikely, no matter how heavy the a850 is. More high quality e-mount lenses may eventually force the issue, but that is quite a bit into the future based on the known Sony lens roadmap.
 Nikon V1/J1 ($899/$649 available October)Just recently announced, Nikon’s first foray into compact mirror-less cameras is a bit of a head scratcher. On the plus side, the size of the camera and lenses is relatively compact and the shooting/video performance is looking interesting. The big sticking points are the small sensor and high price compared to its immediate competition. Time will tell if they catch on, but it’s not really in the running for me.

Panasonic GFX1 (Rumored)
The hottest rumor that comes from reliable source EOSHD is that Panasonic will unveil the GFX1 camera in November. If this follows suit of other Panny announcements, the camera will be available 2-3 months later. The most exciting aspect for me is that rangefinder styling with a built-in EVF. The G3 was great, but the body was dog ugly. For me to go back to micro four thirds, the performance would have to again take a good leap that the G3/GF3 made from previous generation in terms of photo quality. The video performance is already there in spades. Because of the vast lens selection, a well specified GFX1 would be the ultimate high performance compact travel camera whenever it’s released.

Olympus?I have a big soft spot for Olympus cameras as I’ve owned the E-P1, E-PL1, E-620, and the legendary E-1. As primarily a JPEG shooter, I love how the Oly cameras handle the processing of the image and deliver wonderful colors. The Sony cams can come close after some post processing though. I would give Olympus another chance if they were able to deliver a Pen-styled (read: rangefinder) camera with a built-in EVF and top notch video. I have no doubt they can do it. They would have to work on the video part though as the AVCHD implementation on the latest Pens is still not as good as on the Panasonic cams.