Sunday, June 27, 2010

What is the best point and shoot camera under $300?

What is the best point and shoot camera under $300?

All right… so in fairness, that’s a bit like having my neighbor ask me who he should marry – I can’t legitimately answer that because it’s based on personal preferences and values. What I value in my spouse may not be at all what another person values. Similarly, the question of which is the best point and shoot on the market comes with a similar first answer: What do you value in a camera? Resolution? Zoom range? Video quality? The list goes on and on… and on. Each camera vendor has their own specialties, and different lines within the same manufacturer have their specialties. So how can I begin to answer this question?

For starters, I can de-shroud the myth that a person should buy the highest megapixel camera they can find. Sorry, but that’s just plain stupid. Some of my best shots (and best selling stock photos) were from a 3.1 megapixel Fujifilm Finepix S602. In a point and shoot camera, the sensor is physically so small that higher megapixels doesn’t necessarily translate into better photos – they may just be bigger poor quality photos filled with noise and image artifacts that use up more space on your hard drive. Personally, I think more than 10 megapixels in a point and shoot camera is unnecessary.

Why am I personally interested in a travel size point and shoot camera? I have mostly all high-end Nikon equipment that is bulky and heavy. When I travel for photography trips, I tend to take a lot of that equipment with me in a dedicated bag or two. However, when I’m on the road in my day job as a scientist, I want to pack something that is light and easy to travel with.

Soooooo… what do I personally think is important in a travel size point and shoot camera?
high Photo quality when viewed at full resolution – both low light and daylight shots
high Video quality – at least 1080x720 HD
At least 24mm wide-angle lens with minimum 3x zoom
preferably aperture at least f2.8 at wide angle
RAW Image output
Small footprint
durable – prefer metal body over plastic

Now, I know that no camera has it all… Just looking at my list of items, and knowing the market, I know that no point and shoot camera under $300 will meet all my requirements – but we can come close!

So who do I deem the winner? The Casio Exilim FH-100

I’ve had the chance to test and own point and shoot cameras from Fujifilm, Nikon, Canon, Panasonic, Sony and now…… Casio. Casio??? Really??? Yep. It’s a brand that I never considered to be a strong player in the photography world next to the likes of Canon and Nikon, and it historically hasn’t had great image quality in its point and shoot cameras.

But Casio has been improving its lineup dramatically. The Casio Exilim FH-100 has an above average list of features that it offers (which for the sake of keeping this short, you can find camera specifications at a host of other sites). But here’s why I particularly love it: Casio has managed to build so much into its $275 FH-100 body that it has features that rival my Nikon D700 body. Image quality in daylight is great, video quality is excellent, sound quality in the video is great because it has true stereo sound. And it offers some extra features that no other manufacturer has:

It can shoot slow motion video!
It can shoot 9 megapixel images at a rate of 40 shots per second!

These last two features are what eventually sold me on the camera. The rest of its specifications are similar to other comparable Canon, Panasonic, Sony, etc cameras within its price range…. But none of these others offer these last two features.

The slow motion video for me is just addictive and I am constantly thinking of new ways to use it. The camera can shoot 120, 240, 480 and 1000 frames per second and then replay the video at a rate of 30 frames per second. This slows normal activities down to dramatically cool footage. The compromise is that as the recorded frame rate goes up, the video quality goes down, but I find both the 120 and 240 frame recording rates to turn out very useable video footage. (By the way, the camera can also record 720 HD video with great results).
Here’s a sampling of a 240 frame rate recording played back at 30 frames/second.

Additionally, the camera can shoot up to 40 shots per second which can ensure that you don’t miss the shot you want to get. Of course, this is dependent on lighting conditions. If you are in low light, the camera will struggle to take fast shots or the shots will be blurry. But in good to excellent lighting, this feature works exceptionally well.

So there’s my recommendation. It may not have some of the features that you want in a camera, which is why you should still do your own research and make sure it has everything you want. But for a fun, all around great camera, the Casio Exilim FH-100 comes highly recommended by me.

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