Help Wanted: Camera Advice

1000 Island Lake

I’m in the market for a new camera and I thought I’d ask the photographers I know for a little help. I’ve narrowed it down to three main options. But first, a little context.

History / Shooting Style

I’ve taken 10’s of thousands of pictures on at least 7 different digital cameras that I can remember (see the technical note at end of the post about effective focal length and aperture):

  • Kodak DC50 – .38MP 28mm2? CCD, 38-114mm zoom, originally ~$1000 (1996)
  • Kodak DC4800 – 3.1MP 38mm2 CCD, 28-84mm, f/13.4-f/21.6, originally ~$750 (2000)
  • HP Photosmart 850 – 4.0MP 38mm2 CCD, 37-300mm, f/13.4-f/14.9, originally $500 (2003)
  • Canon A510 – 3.2MP 25mm2 CCD, 35-140mm, f/15.6-f/33, originally ~$200 (2005)
  • Canon S3 – 6.2MP 25mm2 CCD, 36-432mm, f/16.2-f/21, originally ~$450 (2006)
  • Canon SX20 – 12MP 28mm2 CCD, 28-560mm, f/15.8-f/31.9, originally ~$450 (2009)
  • Canon SX710 – 20MP 28mm2 CMOS, 25-750mm, f/17.9-f38.6, originally ~$350 (2015)

Most of the photos serve primarily to document my life – travels, family, interests (eg. airplanes and music), etc. However, when possible, I try to take photos that are attractive, within the limitations of the gear I’ve had, which have mostly (4 of 7) been long zoom, smaller-than-SLR, consumer point and shoot cameras.

Since 2015, I’ve carried around a Canon SX710 pocket superzoom as my better-than-cellphone camera. I liked the combination of long zoom and compact size. Examples from this camera include photos from Europe, the Monterey Jazz Festival, and John Muir Trail. Unfortunately, it disappeared. In considering its replacement, I would like to kick up the quality a few notches, and need get something before my JMT trip this summer.

Current Priorities

I’ve zoomed well past ~250mm occasionally with some success: eg. my Facebook cover photo is a crop of a shot I took at 330mm. It’s not fine art, but I like it and use it. My most frequent uses of >250mm zoom are airplanes, wildlife, and concerts (all three of the linked shots were taken at 750mm). The occasions that I use significantly more than 10~12x zoom are rare in the overall context of my photos (~5% of shots I attempt?), but they’re sometimes important and I don’t want to lose those shots entirely.

I do think I could achieve satisfactory results by cropping a better quality but less zoomed shot. I’m not making art prints of gnats on the moon, but sharing an attractive screen-resolution shot of an airplane or performer at a festival from some distance should remain possible, even if I give up on having the >500mm of optical zoom at my fingertips that I’ve had for the last several years. I think that means retaining at least ~250mm of zoom capability.

On enough occasions to be frustrated, I’ve wanted much better low light capability (astrophotography, moonlit nights, aurora, whatever) and not had it. The SX720 limited exposures to 2 seconds with ISO>80, which resulted in several lost opportunities. Also, I’ve frequently wanted shallower depth of field than I’ve had conveniently available (flowers, portraits, etc.). If I’m going to sacrifice zoom on the long end, I should get noticeable improvements in image quality and versatility in return.

Whatever gear I get needs to be small and light enough in its default form to carry in my flight bag and and keep handy while hiking or sightseeing. That rules out any full-size DSLR options. I could go somewhat larger than a true pocket camera, but not huge. However I would consider choosing different gear for different applications (eg. a longer lens or entirely different camera for a concert or airshow).

Solution Options

Despite a longstanding brand preference for Canon, I think I’ve narrowed it down to these options:

  1. Sony RX100 MkIII – 20MP 116mm2 CMOS, 24-70mm, f/4.9-f/7.6, plus a pocket super zoom (eg. another SX710 or similar) = ~$950 total (varies with the 2nd camera price), or
  2. Panasonic ZS100 – 20MP 116mm2 CMOS, 25-250mm, f/7.6-f/15.1 = $649, or
  3. Sony A5100 – 24MP 368mm2 CMOS (APS-C) with kit lens (24-75mm f/5.3-f/8.4) plus telephoto zoom (82-315mm f/6.8-f/9.5) = $846 total, and maybe add 18mm f/3 = $1245 total

Here’s a size comparison of the above cameras.

The first option involves two completely separate cameras. I’d probably keep both in my flight bag, take the RX100 hiking and most sightseeing (giving up the long zoom), and take the superzoom (SX710or similar) to concerts, airshows, and so on. This provides excellent portability for either scenery or far-subject shooting, but less convenience if I need both in the same outing. The quality/size is best if I don’t need long zoom.

The ZS100 is slightly larger than either the RX100 or SX710, but obviously much smaller and lighter than both the RX100 and SX710 combined, making it, by far, the most convenient choice. On the downside, for portrait and very-low-light photography, it doesn’t appear to be as good as the RX100 (though it’s still a huge upgrade from the SX710), and it still lacks the reach of the superzooms of the two-camera solution. On the upside, accepting those compromises with the 25-250mm zoom would mean only ever carrying one, compact, highly versatile camera, which also makes it the least expensive option.

The A5100 with kit lens, though marginally deeper and heavier than the compacts, is still satisfactory in size (much smaller than the SX20 I had two cameras ago). For everyday use, this might be close in quality to the RX100 (much better sensor, not-fantastic lens pairing), and costs $200 less in that basic form. Additional lenses add considerably to the cost, but provide quality at both ends of the range that significantly beat the other two options (315mm f/9.5 zoom, and potentially 18mm f/3 wide). These could be packed separately, as I think I’d generally know ahead of time when I’d need them. If the 18mm is worth getting for scenery and night purposes, I’d take it along hiking. The long zoom might live in my suitcase and would come along for airshows and concerts. The upside is quality. The downside is inconvenience (two or three parts), size, and cost.

If I didn’t think I truly needed more than 3x zoom, the decision would be easy: RX100 MkIII. However, I’m completely convinced that I’ll be dissatisfied with the 70mm limit in the long run. Adding a second camera fixes that problem (and has the fringe benefit of retaining super long zoom), but results in two cameras, the longer of which would be acceptable but not fantastic.

That makes the ZS100 seem like the obvious choice. However, it’s a choice with compromises. It’s effectively ~1 1/2 (or 2?) stops slower across the zoom range. The real question is whether the big improvement over the SX710 will be satisfactory, or if I’ll wish for the further improvements I could get from the RX100/superzoom combo or A5100 (especially with f/3 option for scenes / night).

From a purely quality standpoint, the A5100 with three lenses is a no brainer. The way-larger sensor pairs up with lenses that perform much better across a longer focal length than any other option. The big downside is carrying around two or three separate pieces of gear (usually only one or two at a time), v.s. two for the RX100 (usually only one at a time) or just one all the time for the ZS100. And, in addition to carrying them, I’d have to change the lenses occasionally to achieve the shot I’m looking for. Even with only two lenses, it is larger and heavier than even the two-camera RX100+SX710 option.

Questions

  1. It seems the most important question is: will the ZS100 will adequately cover my needs, or will it still leave me wishing I had something better? If this would be good enough in my non-pro hands shooting outdoor scenery (day and night), airplanes, concerts, etc., then it’s the obvious choice.
  2. If the pictures I take would benefit from something better than the ZS100, would the RX100 for hiking backpacking and another superzoom for the long reach (concerts, airplanes, etc.) be good enough?
  3. If the A5100 is better the answer, would the kit lens (24-75mm) be adequate for scenery and night photography (stars, etc.)? If so, I could get away with just two lenses, and only carry the kit lens hiking, which would be cheaper and maybe better quality than the two-camera solution.

Thanks in advance for any feedback!

V-

Technical Note about camera specs: all focal lengths above are equivalent, not actual (this is common). All apertures above are also equivalent, not actual (this is not common). I multiplied and rounded actual apertures by the sensor crop factor (eg. 5.6 for 1/2.3”, 2.7 for 1”, 1.5 for APS-C, etc.) to come up with approximately equivalent aperture, based on the ideas presented in this article. I realize there’s more to the story, but hopefully this gets closer to a practically fair comparison with respect to light sensitivity and depth of field.

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