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Sony NEX-5N Wins My Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera Shootout

Commenter on another post asked me about mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras and I did some research to help suggest what to buy. Here’s what I found taking the approach of having a reasonable budget (under $1000) and wanting the best bang for my buck in this market segment.

Mirrorless cameras borrow from DSLRs (bigger sensors, shooting speed, lens selection) and point and shoots (small form factor, simpler controls). For the most part you get the best of both worlds without giving up too much. Yeah they don’t fit in your pocket, but they’re easier to carry around all day then some of the heavier DSLRs.

The ~$1000 market is made up by Olympus, Panasonic, Samsung, Pentax, Nikon and Sony. I was expressly interested in the smaller models that bridge the DSLR and P&S gap. Some mirrorless cameras aren’t that much smaller than DSLRs so they were excluded from my search.

I went through a very unscientific and ad-hoc elimination process where I looked at the current offerings of each manufacturer. Olympus, Panasonic and Samsung didn’t really move me or stand out as good bang for your buck cameras. I eliminated Nikon based solely on high ISO performance with their smaller sensor. Canon is coming out with their first attempt at mirrorless, but it looks slow and unpromising. Pentax and Sony have very similar offerings with APS-C sensors.

So my gut and personal preference tells me the Sony NEX-5N is the best mirrorless interchangeable lens camera for the money right now. Sony recently discounted the camera with kit lens to $500. I’m assuming this is in preperation for the release of the NEX-5R and NEX-6.

Buying right now? Sony NEX-5N for $500: Amazon or B&H Photo

Buying for Christmas 2012?

Sony NEX-5R for $750: Amazon or B&H Photo

Sony NEX-6 for $999: Amazon or B&H Photo

Best Digital Cameras and DSLRs for Christmas 2011

Shopping for a digital camera shouldn’t be hard, but it is. There are hundreds and hundreds of digital camera models to choose from and it can be time consuming to wade through review after review trying to find the best camera for the money this Christmas. I’ll do some of that work for you and give you my recommendations for a few different price points and categories.

Compact Point and Shoot Under $200

This is the most crowded camera category and there’s been a lot of convergence over the years with cheaper cameras. Good cameras in this price range are going to be more alike than they are different. The biggest change here has been the inclusion of wider angle lenses. In the past most compact point and shoots started at 35mm, but now 24mm and 28mm is much more common. These wider angles are very useful and arguably more important than a really long zoom in most situations.

Canon PowerShot ELPH 300 HS | Amazon – $174

The Canon 300 HS is a nice little camera with a good set of features. It’s small, has one of the newer CMOS sensors, 24mm wide angle and fairly quick f/2.7 aperture at the wide end. All of my point and shoots have been Canon PowerShots (S400 about 8 years ago and S700 4 years ago) and they are just solid cameras for the money.

Canon PowerShot ELPH 100 HS | Amazon – $130

The 100 HS is very similar to its 300 HS sibling if price is really an issue. You lose a few bells and whistles like a smaller zoom range and being able to optically zoom during video. There might be cheaper cameras, but quality really starts to drop off if you go too much cheaper than this.

Compact Point and Shoot Over $200

The under $200 crowd are fairly similar. As you look at cameras over $200 you start to see more variation and better features. Along with the wider angles being offered really fast f/1.8 apertures are becoming the new must have feature. These faster lenses let in more light resulting in faster shutter speeds and less reliance on high ISO. Anything that keeps the ISO lower on a point and shoot is a very good thing.

Nikon Coolpix P300 | Amazon – $277

This is the main camera I’m going to recommend in this category. For normal day to day use there really isn’t anything like it. It starts at 24mm wide and has a very fast f/1.8 lens at that widest focal length. I recommended this camera for my sister after quite a bit of research and it has turned out to be fantastic. If I was in the market for a new point and shoot (I shoot my Nikon D90 almost exclusively) this is the camera I would get. That f/1.8 aperture is something only us DSLR shooters got to enjoy, but Nikon has pushed it down to point and shoot cameras at a reasonable price. This is just about the only P&S camera I can get excited about and it is reasonably priced.

Nikon Coolpix S9100 | Amazon – $239

If you need more zoom and are willing to trade it for the fast f/1.8 of the P300 then the Nikon S9100 offers a good set of features for the money. It packs a big zoom range in a small package compared to the “superzoom” point and shoots that are roughly the size of a small DSLR (and not much cheaper).

DSLR Recommendations

Point and shoots are great for pocketability, but it is very hard to match the capabilities of a DSLR. Over the years the price of low end DSLRs has dropped considerably and aren’t much more than a high-end P&S. If you are outgrowing your P&S or want to upgrade an older model then see my recommendation.

Nikon D3100 DSLR | Amazon – $549

The D3100 is just an incredible little (for a DSLR) camera for the money. Canon is very competitive with Nikon, but right now the two things that make me lean towards Nikon is their flash system and the $200 Nikon 35mm f/1.8. I suggested this setup to my brother and his results are just as good as my D90 and miles ahead of his old D40.

Nikon D7000 DSLR | Amazon – $1399

If you’re looking for one of the best cameras out there without completely breaking the bank then the D7000 is the ticket. This thing is a beast and nothing can really beat its bang-for-buck right now. If my D90 ever craps out or I felt the need to upgrade then I’d be looking at the D7000.

Cheaper Nikon DSLR Lenses for Low Light Action and Sports

When shooting action and sports in low light or indoors your lens becomes much more important than your camera body. Pros are using expensive glass like the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 or some exotic prime to gather lots of light. The Nikon 70-200 is a tad over $2000 though. Luckily there are more affordable alternatives like the Sigma and Tamron versions of the 70-200mm f/2.8. These are good matches to lower priced bodies like the D3100 and D5000 that offer comparable performance for almost a third of the price.

Price Comparisons (updated 8/8/11)

Sigma Tamron Nikon
Amazon $949 $769 $2200

Just a quick primer about apertures; aperture is described by an f-stop, f/2.8 for example. The lower the number the larger the opening in the lens to collect more light. f/1.4 is considered very fast because you get more light and can maintain a faster shutter speed. f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, and f/22 are the standard full stops. Each step up will halve the shutter speed. In general, a lower f-stop number translates to less depth of field (DOF).

The cheap (but still very good) Nikon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens is just too slow and short to be of much use in low light. The Nikon 55-200mm f/4-5.6 (or 55-300) would give you more reach, but it too will be too slow as it zooms in. For example, in an indoor hockey rink I’d estimate that shooting at ISO 1600 with f/2.8 gets you 1/250 second. f/4 would drop that to 1/125 and f/5.6 would drop it to 1/60. That’s a very big difference and would allow motion blur to become a problem.

I’ve shot a group of friends playing broomball at a local rink with my 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 and it was a struggle. Even with ISO between 1600-3200 my shots were underexposed if I tried forcing the shutter to 1/250. I could have lowered it, but then motion blur would have started kicking in. I don’t think I even bothered sharing those photos with anyone.

Low light action (pretty much everything not in sunlight) is just one of those things that’s flat out hard. Pros can throw thousands of dollars into their gear, but we don’t really have that luxury. A cheaper DSLR like the D3100 or D5000 is up to the job, but they really need the help of a f/1.8 or f/2.8 lens to keep the shutter as fast as possible.

Depending how much reach you need you could even use the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 to get as much light as possible for cheap. If you do need more reach then the Sigma and Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses become some of your few options. The Sigma seems to have better autofocus capability and the Tamron has slightly better image quality.

Bang for your Buck

The Sigma has shot up in price making the Tamron a better value. There is also a new Sigma lens with image stabilization built in, but it is almost $1400.

Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 DG HSM II Macro Zoom Lens for Nikon

Tamron AF 70-200mm f/2.8 Di LD IF Lens for Nikon

Nikon D90 vs D5000 vs D3000: Which one is right for you?

If you’re reading this post then you’re probably looking at one of Nikon’s consumer DSLRs. I’ve been shooting with a D70 and now a D90 for 5 years and recently walked several co-workers through buying a DSLR. I thought I’d share how I laid things out for them. As of February 2010 Nikon has three offerings in the consumer DSLR market: the D3000, D5000 and D90. Nikon has placed each of the cameras about $200-300 apart from each other.

D3000

When the D5000 came out Nikon needed something new to fill in the low end of their line up. The D3000 is pretty much the exact same camera as the D40x and D60 that previously held this spot. Aside from a .5″ larger LCD screen, there’s not going to be much difference between them. If you’ve never touched a DSLR before and your budget is tight, then this is a good place to start. It will be a good solid camera, but until Nikon refreshes it with a new model I don’t think the D3000 offers the best bang for your buck.

Amazon has the D3000 with 18-55mm VR kit lens for about $465.

D5000

Nikon D5000The D5000 is a big step up from the D3000 in terms of technology and functionality. The most visible difference is the tilt and swing LCD screen, but I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. Internally, the D5000 has a much newer CMOS sensor than the D3000. This is the same sensor in the D90 and it provides much better performance at higher ISO settings. It also inherited built in chromatic aberration correction from the D90 which removes fringing that can appear in brightly lit shots. You also get the ability to take video.

At this point, features are starting to trickle down from improvements being made on more expensive models. If you are more serious about photography, but still relatively new to the DSLR world then this is a good option. The added features are well worth the extra money.

Amazon has the D5000 with 18-55mm VR kit lens for about $685.

D90

Nikon D90The D90 sits at the top of Nikon’s consumer DSLR line up. From here there’s a fairly big jump to the prosumer D300. There’s two things that really set the D90 above the D5000: controls and lens compatibility.

Without getting into every little difference in controls I’ll just highlight two. The first is the D90’s front scroll wheel. The D5000 and D3000 both have one on the back for your thumb, but the second wheel on the D90 gives you quick access to changing other settings. In manual mode for example, one wheel controls the aperture and one controls the shutter. On the D5000 and D3000 you’d have to fiddle with menus to set one of them. In Program mode, which I shoot 95% of the time, the back wheel can tweak the shutter/aperture ratio, but I configured the front wheel to set exposure compensation which normally requires a simultaneous button press.

The next control difference is the inclusion of a customizable shortcut button on the front of the camera next to the lens mount. This can be hit with your index or middle finger to bring up a menu of shortcuts to the menu items you use most. I have a couple things like ISO and White Balance menus on there that I access frequently enough to not want to dig through the entire menu system. Both of these additional controls are big for me and I don’t think I’d want to move to a camera without them.

The other thing to consider when comparing the D90 and it’s D5000/D3000 counterparts is lens compatibility. The D90 includes a built in AF motor which means it is compatible with older AF lenses; the other two do not. On the D5000 and D3000, the only lenses that will autofocus are the ones with AF-S built in which isn’t a big deal if you plan to stick with the 18-55mm or other newer lenses. If you wanted to shoot something like the older but excellent 50mm f/1.8 then the D90 is your best option.

If my discussion of the D90 went over your head then that’s a good indication the D5000 is more than enough camera for you. The D90 provides good bang for your buck if you are going to get serious about photography. The kit includes an 18-105mm VR lens which will give you more reach than the 18-55mm. You also have the option of getting the D90 body by itself and then adding on whichever lens fits your needs the best.

Amazon has the D90 with 18-105mm VR kit lens for about $1035. The D90 Body is about $780 by itself.

My Review of the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 AF-S DX

I posted some thoughts and pictures right after I got my new lens, The Nikon 35mm f/1.8 AF-S DX arrives – First Impression, and now that I’ve used it for several weeks I wanted to post a follow up review.

For St. Patrick’s Day we had dinner and hung out with friends and babies. Lighting was fairly low with a chandelier fixture in the dining room and one floor lamp bouncing off the ceiling in the living room. Even wide open at f/1.8, AUTO ISO was getting bumped up to keep the shutter above 1/40 second in some shots. Combine that with babies who don’t politely sit still for pictures and you have yourself a difficult shooting situation. With one of the kit lenses or even the 18-200mm VR, most of these shots wouldn’t have been possible. I had some ISO to play with on some, but most of them are hitting 1600 or 3200. If I stepped up to a minimum f/3.5 lens, my shutter would have dropped even more and my “keeper” rate would have dropped from 10% to maybe 3-5% without adding flash.

I’m extremely pleased with the lens. I swore off pixel peeping so I’m not going to go into boring details or shooting test charts. All I cared about initially was if the lens let me get indoor shots without using flash all of the time. If you’re happy with the DX format (and happy not spending thousands more on a new FX body and lens) then I suspect you’ll find the image and build quality of the lens more than satisfactory. What surprised me is that I’m starting to like the 35mm f/1.8 more than the 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 VR AF-S DX .

One thing to consider with lenses is the size and weight. Compared to the 18-55mm the 35mm isn’t a whole lot smaller or lighter, but next to the 18-200mm it is night and day. I got the 18-200mm as a walk around, jack of all trades lens and now the size and weight have become deterrents to taking it out with me. The 18-200mm weighs 1.23 lbs. The 35mm weighs 0.45 lbs. The D90 weighs 1.6 lbs by itself. That’s a lot of weight to carry around all day on vacation or on a night out and I’d rather have 0.78 lbs less most of the time. The other difference is the 35mm situates it’s weight closer to the body of the lens. The 18-200mm is front heavy and more awkward to carry around, it usually ends up pointed straight down with the zoom fully extended when I hang the camera on my shoulder.

I could never use the 50mm f/1.8 as a walk around lens because it was simply too long. I use the wider end of the 18-200mm more than I use the long end so I don’t think I’ll miss the extra reach. The 35mm f/1.8 isn’t perfect, but it is such a well rounded lens that it might replace my 18-200mm and never leave my camera. At $200 I think it packs the best bang for your buck in the entire Nikon DX lens line up.

I got my Nikon 35mm f/1.8 at Amazon.