If you’re after a new camera and have a budget of under £300, you may at first
I think you’re limited to a reasonably well-specified compact at best. Look a little harder though and you’ll find DSLRs, Compact System Cameras and a wealth of sophisticated compacts that can be picked up for under £300. What’s the catch, you may ask? Well, they’re probably not going to be the latest models, but with the pace of sensor development slowing down in the past few years, you’re not losing out that much compared to the latest models, while they may not have all the latest must-have features such as WiFi connectivity. Otherwise, you’re still getting very capable cameras at a bargain price.
But if you’ve got £300 burning a hole in your pocket, which camera do you opt for? There’s no simple answer to that one as it will really depend on what factors are important to you and what kind of pictures you want to take. To help you narrow it down, let’s look at the benefits and disadvantages of each main type of camera.
DSLRs have always been the natural choice if you’ve wanted to get serious about your picture taking. While compacts may share a similar resolution to a DSLR, the actual physical size of a DSLR sensor is much larger, allowing larger photodiodes (pixels) for better light-gathering capabilities and detail. It’s also much easier to create professional-looking shallow depth-of-field shots, while the breadth of control, bright optical view-finder, overall performance and the ability to swap lenses mean that a DSLR is ideally suited for creative shooting.
The biggest downside for some users is their size — even the smallest models can be quite bulky affairs, and that’s before you’ve factored in additional lenses and other accessories. For others though, the pay-off in image quality and performance is worth the sacrifice.
Compact System Cameras (CSC) have now been around for about four years and are a great alternative to a DSLR.
Offering interchangeable lenses and sensors that (in most cases) are a similar size physically to a DSLR, they can be a much more compact solution while still delivering the same image quality.
A CSC is smaller than a DSLR because the mirrorbox and pentaprism found in a DSLR has been removed, allowing the distance between the lens mount and sensor to be reduced dramatically. The absence of a mirrorbox and pentaprism does mean though that there’s no optical view-finder, with CSCs relying on the rear screen for composition. Some models do include an electronic view-finder (EVF), while others allow you to attach an optional EVF should you wish.
The biggest selling point for compacts is often their size, with the majority of models being much smaller than a DSLR or CSC, making them a great option if you want to travel light.
Some models also offer things that DSLRs just can’t match at a similar price, namely a massive zoom range. While a DSLR or CSC is often bundled with a 3x optical zoom lens, some compacts can feature 50x optical zoom lenses for the same price, though with this size of lens, can be just as bulky as some DSLRs.
Other models offer rugged designs that will stand up to heavy abuse, meaning they can be submerged, frozen and dropped and still carry on working.
There are compromises though, with most not matching a DSLR or CSC for image quality, while most models lack a view-finder.
CANON EOS HOOD £279™ NIKON D3100 £289
Written explanations of each shooting mode are displayed on the 2.7in, 230k-dot display as they’re changed, while a 63-zone SPC metering system is on hand to produce well-balanced exposures in bright conditions.
HD video is recorded at 720p rather than the full 1080p, but it does provide the option to shoot still images continuously at 3fps for up to 31 frames.
While the 14.2MP APS-C sensor might have been eclipsed by newer sensors, you can still expect the D3100 to deliver pretty impressive levels of detail.
In use the D3100 is generally a sound performer. The 11-point Multi-CAM 1000 module offers relatively wide coverage and there’s even a 3D tracking mode that’s effective for tracking moving subjects that won’t necessarily remain on a single focus plane.
The screen sports a fairly lowly resolution of 230k-dots compared to newer models, but the large 3in display is a good tool to work with and deals with reflective sunlight relatively well too. This will come in handy if you’re looking to shoot video, with the D3100 capable of shooting footage at Full HD 1080p at 24fps.
COMPACT SYSTEM CAMERAS
PANASONIC G3 £269 ir NIKON 1J2 £249
The ISO range spans 160-6400 and for focusing it uses the same Light Speed AF technology that was first used within the GH2. This delivers a 0.1s response time that makes it feel fast and instant to use when acquiring focus.
Pinpoint AF ties in nicely with the G3’s 3in, 460k-dot vari-angle touchscreen — allowing you to move the AF point intuitively around the frame by touch. As well as full manual control (P,A,S,M), Panasonic’s intelligent Auto+ (iA+) mode is available for those who’d prefer to trust the camera’s judgment when it comes to the settings.
The G3 ticks the boxes, but bear in mind battery life isn’t particularly long so you’ll want to also budget for a spare (£26).
The J2 from Nikon is a great choice for those looking for an easy-to-use replacement for their compact, but with improved image quality.
The J2 features a 10.1 MP Super high-speed line AF CMOS sensor, so it has one of the smaller sensors in a CSC, but image quality is better than expected from such a small sensor and does bring some benefits with it. For starters, it can shoot full-resolution images at up to 60fps (frames per second), while the Smart Photo Selector shoots 20 high-resolution images before and after you fire the shutter and then saves the best five images for you to pick your favourite. Motion Snapshot brings your still photographs to life by recording a slow motion movie along with a still to create a «living image».
With minimal body-mounted controls, more advanced photographers may be disappointed to find manual exposure controls buried in the menu, but with them tucked out of the way, it’s a less intimidating experience for new users.
The J2 isn’t for everyone, but those seeking a fast-performing camera with a host of clever auto modes may find it’s just what they’re looking for.
COMPACT SYSTEM CAMERAS
SAMSUNG NX1000G79S- OLYMPUS E-PL3 £249
The NX1000 features an impressive list of features for a CSC that manages to squeeze an APS-C sized sensor within its body. Boasting a 20.2MP resolution and an ISO range that stretches from 100 to 12,800, it benefits from the same built-in WiFi connectivity options that have recently been rolled out across Samsung’s suite of NX-series cameras.
As well as offering the option to control the camera and its settings remotely via a smartphone or tablet, the NX1000 lets you stream images to a TV or email them directly from the camera provided you’re within a WiFi hot-spot. Connectivity aside, it rattles out a burst of images at a maximum 8fps, with full HD video footage being recording in the MPEG4 format at either 30 or 24fps.
While it doesn’t have the anti-reflection Clear AMOLED screen of the NX20 or the regular AMOLED screen of the NX210, it still gets a pretty impressive 3in, 921k-dot LCD monitor. Although there’s no built-in flash it does come with a bundled flash attachment that attaches via the hot shoe, and the i-Function button combined with the focus ring of the lens allows users direct control of key imaging variables or to toggle through digital art filters.
Weighing 359g including the lens, battery and card, the NX1000 feels more durable than it looks and produces images with impressive levels of detail at a very reasonable price.
For those looking for a point-and-shoot model the E-PL3 will take control of settings in iAuto (intelligent auto) mode. Art Modes and a variety of Scene options also feature alongside the more advanced manual settings.
OLYMPUS STYLUS TG-2 FUJIFILM FINEPIX SL1000 £299
If you’re after a compact that can shrug off almost
I anything you can throw at it, look no further than the Olympus TG-2. Designed to be water-resistant, shockproof and freeze proof, this tough compact is one of the best-specified underwater cameras on the market and features a 12MP CMOS sensor behind its 4x optical zoom lens (25-100mm). As well as boasting a 100-6400 ISO range, the TG-2’s lens has a maximum aperture of f/2, which is faster than most other rugged compacts’ optics and allows you to shoot faster in low-light.
A fast autofocus system combined with 5fps sequential shooting allows images to be taken in very quick succession, while the 610k-dot screen it presents at the rear displays neutral colour and impressive levels of detail for composing and reviewing your images. Our only criticisms are that some buttons are fairly small and it doesn’t feature WiFi functionality. That said, the camera is fully compatible with Flash Air memory cards if you’d like to transfer images wirelessly to a smartphone or tablet.
As you’d expect, the TG-2 features an impressive build quality that shouts rigidity and resistance. It passed all of our underwater, freeze, and shock tests with flying colours, with the 12MP sensor resolving great detail right up to ISO 800. The TG-2 should be the first choice for anyone in need of a camera that’s virtually indestructible.
Fujifilm’s SLIOOO bridge compact camera packs in an impressive 50x optical zoom, delivering coverage from 24mm all the way up to 1200mm. This makes it a versatile option for those wanting to shoot a broad range of subjects, from landscapes through to filling the frame with wildlife, while there’s a macro option as well. To reduce the risk of camera shake, the SLIOOO features a lens-based image stabilisation system that’s essential if you’re going to be shooting at these incredibly long focal lengths.
There’s a 3in vari-angle display at the rear with a decent 920k-dot resolution, but if you’re intending to shoot at the SLIOOO’s longer focal lengths, then the built-in electronic view-finder (EVF) is a must. While it doesn’t have a staggering resolution, it not only makes it easier to compose shots on bright days, but the more traditional shooting style also provides a more stable platform than holding the camera at arm’s length, decreasing the risk of camera shake, even with its IS system.
While the sensor’s one of the smaller chips you’ll find in a digital camera, the 16MP BSI-CMOS sensor will deliver decent results under a range of lighting conditions, while the ability to capture images at a rate of lO fps is a bonus. The SLIOOO’s a great option if you’re looking to get really up close to your subjects on a budget.
CANON POWERSHOT SIIO £299 SONY WX300 £229
9 and a four-stop lens-based IS system.
At the rear is a 3in capacitive touchscreen with a 460k-dot resolution. Sensitivity is just right and matched by well-sized virtual controls for a smooth operating experience. Those looking to instantly share their images will have the luxury of WiFi functionality, allowing you to transfer images to a smartphone or tablet with the aid of the dedicated Canon App.
The AF system works well right across the focal range and although the zoom collar could do with being a touch more prominent, the zoom itself moves at a fine pace throughout the focal range.
Meanwhile if you’re going to be shooting video with the S110, you’ll be rewarded with high levels of detail without artefacts.
Behind the impressive zoom lies an 18.2MP Exmor R CMOS sensor, which provides an 80-12,800 ISO range. Noise performance at low ISO is impressive for a camera with a 1/2.3in sensor, though the highest ISO settings should be avoided unless there’s no choice. One of the WX300’s features that is pretty much ubiquitous on many similar digital compacts, is the Intelligent Auto mode.