Notes on buying a new camera
So, I need a(nother) digicam. The family one is stuck indoors being used for family photos, now that we actually have a family. I had planned to save the cash for the inevitable DSLR next year (D200? dare I??), but the great light we get at this time of year has made me crumble. I need a digital camera with me: there, I said it. Film is a waste when you’re grabbing random, “experimental” shots on the offchance that something will look good. I wanted a good, cheap digicam - probably something a year or two old, maybe used. (Whadaya mean, “aren’t nine cameras enough?”)
What follows is the result of several weeks trawling eBay and DPReview with, so far, limited success (one broken A75). And now I’m almost ready to buy new and spend twice my original budget.
- Under £200 - preferably under £100 (i.e. secondhand, discontinued or refurb).
- Takes AA batteries (I hate expensive proprietary lock-ins that can become obsolete at the manufacturer’s whim). Remember when battery sizes were one of the few real standards we had?
- Variable JPEG quality settings (RAW would be nice, but is rare at this price point).
- At least 38mm-100mm equiv. zoom range (approx. 2.5x), with at least f/3.0 at the wide end and macro focus under 10cm.
- ISO range of at least 100-400 plus Auto setting.
- Fits all criteria, plus accepts the CF cards that I already own for my A40 (likely to be one of the last consumer digicams to use this format).
- Still priced “as new” despite being discontinued; few discounts.
- Flip and twist LCD, a feature that has real utility as you could use it to take shots that might otherwise be difficult or impossible, e.g. ground level.
- 4MP model prior to A95.
- Rarer than hens teeth and usually go for over the odds on That Auction Site.
- Larger LCD than A40, though not flip-and-twist like A80.
- Refurbs can be found fairly easily below £100.
- “Only” 3MP - quite an old spec now.
- Current model, replaces A95 but not much more money.
- Digic II processor, so more responsive.
- Lens slightly faster at long end (f/4.1), and 4x zoom.
- Uses SD memory (although I have an SD card in my MP3 player and could forego familiar tunes in favour of new photos, for a while). However, if I buy a DSLR next year then my immediate future is more likely to be CF-based (unless I cheapen out on a D50).
- Cheap, current.
- Only needs 2x AA so smaller and lighter.
- Zoom has no wide end, starts at 41mm.
- SD again.
- The A5X0 models are similar but with decent zoom ranges, but then you might as well spend the extra and get an A610.
All the later Canon models are noticeably slicker and better designed than my A40. This isn’t just a matter of improved specs; Canon have obviously refined the designs. For example, the controls are better placed and the cameras feel more responsive.
Unfortunately, the better models - even older or discontinued ones - are almost impossible to find below the £100 mark. Certain models in particular (the A80, A95) seem to possess a certain cachet that adds a premium to even secondhand examples. Don’t expect to “pick one up cheap on eBay”.
Fuji Finepix 610
- Impressive spec and design (two LCDs, upright design, ISO 800; 6MP).
- Can be found cheap(er), as quite old now.
- Uses a proprietary battery (although the deal I’ve seen includes a spare).
- Uses expensive Fuji/Olympus xD memory format (approx. twice the cost of comparable SD/CF cards): major disadvantage. Take a hint, guys - I won’t be buying any of your cameras.
- No control over JPEG quality.
E.g. Nikon Coolpix, Olympus, etc.
- In general: proprietary batteries; limited or no manual control on low end models; fixed or limited ISO settings.
- Only other model that meets all specs: Konica-Minolta S414 (RAW format; image quality complaints; apparently discontinued).
- Meets specs but with SD memory: Samsung Digimax V700 (7MP; RAW; reported shutter lag, noisy images).
- If you sacrifice manual exposure control and settle for exposure compensation (which thankfully, most digicams seem to have), there are further options. E.g. Pentax Optio 33L (refurb): many useful features, including various bracketing options, live histogram plus twist-and-flip LCD.
- The Panasonic Lumix range are great, and probably the closest most of us will come to owning Legendary Leica Lenses(tm), but Panasonic cripple the low end models by assuming that they will only be bought by idiots who can’t be trusted with any degree of manual intervention.
- Digicams hold their prices better than you might imagine. Certainly “last year’s model” is rarely discounted if it’s any good. This might also be because the rate of progress has slowed while the release of new models has not.
- Canon pretty much have the market for their A* cameras to themselves, as no one appears to challenge them on image quality and feature set. Of their closest competitors, many are let down by their use of proprietary batteries. Most manufacturers in this range are piddling around with point-and-drool auto-everything-for-confused-grandparents models. However, the A80 and A95 models are generally being sold for over the odds given their age. If you find yourself tempted to spend over £150 for one of these cameras (either new or mint secondhand), consider going the extra mile on a new A610 with all the goodness of Digic II. Yes, the change in card format is an inconvenience, but memory cards can be bought for peanuts now.
- The technology has come on a lot even in the space of 2-3 years. I had wanted to avoid buying a second digicam, as I thought it probably wouldn’t be much different in capability to my existing 2MP camera. In fact, later models are much nicer to use.
- eBay is often an unsatisfactory experience when buying digicams. New models rarely go for less than the discounted prices that can be found via Froogle. Buy It Now prices are usually over the top. Auctions tend to push the closing price up to a level where it’s smarter to buy from a recognised retailer. And secondhand or “refurb” items often lack warranties; indeed, I suspect some of the refurbs offered there are actually from broken return stock.
I got my money back on the broken, unboxed A75 (thankfully, it was from an honest seller) and ordered another A75 (official refurb with 12 month warranty) from Digital Depot, who appear to be widely recommended. I didn’t want to pay over a hundred for a secondhand A80 in dubious condition and, as noted above, the A95 is still priced too close to the A610. I’d rather put the extra money towards a DSLR next year, at which point the extra whizzy features of a brand new digicam would be wasted.