BEST CHEAP CAMERA
Pro: Slim body, long zoom, fast autofocus
Con: Not much in the way of manual settings
Best for: Low-light environments
Retail price: $141
Buying a camera for less than $150 is a tricky proposition. At this price, the market is flooded with low-quality options lacking defining features. Your ultimate pick needs to retain some of the key features of a more expensive camera (considering most of us have a solid camera in our smartphone already) while still keeping costs low and image quality high.
Since even the cheapest cameras are capable of decent photos on a bright day, the true test of an inexpensive camera’s image quality (and where it will best even the nicest cellphone camera) is its low-light performance. Can it take acceptable photos at parties, outdoors in the evening or in generally less-than-perfect conditions, ideally without flash? In order to take a fast-enough shot so that subjects aren’t blurry, these cameras ramp up the ISO sensitivity, which often leads to smeared, speckled photos. In low light, cameras also have trouble focusing.
The $141 Panasonic Lumix DMC-SZ7 wormed its way into our hearts by tackling — and more or less mastering — these challenges. Among its selling points, the camera offers a slim body, long zoom, good image stabilization, fast autofocus, 1080p HD video and a CMOS image sensor that produced surprisingly solid photos, even in low light.
The SZ7 deserves a lot credit for packing a 10x optical zoom lens into a truly tiny body; most cameras at this price have a 4x or 5x lens. It’s not the fastest lens on the block, meaning it takes in less light when zoomed in tight, but it’s an impressive feat for a package almost as small as a deck of cards. The SZ7 also offers some handy extras, including a maximum picture-taking speed of 10fps that’s great for capturing the best shot out of the bunch. Although it only takes four images at this speed, it’s a feature you’re unlikely to find on a smartphone today.
BEST POINT-AND-SHOOT CAMERA
Pro: Excellent lens and image sensor
Con: No viewfinder
Best for: Anyone who wants sharp images but doesn’t want to lug a big rig around
Retail price: $650
When you go out hunting for a high-end point-and-shoot camera, there are generally three specs to look for: image sensor size, lens speed and body portability. The Sony RX100 has major points in all three areas, which makes it our clear pick in the category, even though its $650 price tag bumps up against the cheapest DSLRs.
By far the most impressive feature of the RX100 is its extremely sharp Carl Zeiss lens. It has a fast maximum aperture of f/1.8 (the lower the f-number, the more light the lens lets in), which means high-quality night shots can often be taken by hand without blur. No camera in its class can match this lens.
Another first for the class is the RX100’s incredibly large 20.2-megapixel CMOS image sensor. What’s important is not the sensor’s megapixel rating but its physical size, with bigger sensors capable of capturing finer detail with less noise in low light and creating that appealing blurred-background effect known as bokeh. And at 13.2-by-8.8-millimeters, the RX100’s sensor is nearly three times as large as that of the Canon S100, another great performer in this category. Almost all reviewers of the RX100 marvel at the fact that Sony managed to squeeze a sensor this large and a lens this fast into a body that still fits in your pants pocket.
Traditionally, what you trade for a point-and-shoot’s portability is the swappable lenses and better image quality of an SLR or mirrorless interchangeable-lens compact. In the RX100, Sony has come close to eliminating the image quality trade-off, and its fast, versatile zoom lens will likely serve the needs of most photographers. The only compromise for many, then, is the high price. For those looking to spend less, the Canon S100, at half the price, is a great second choice.
BEST SD CARD
Pro: Balance of performance, price and capacity
Con: Bigger card better for video
Best for: Stable data transfer
Retail price: $20
All SD cards may seem the same. But if you’ve ever looked closely, you’ll notice they’re rated for different data transfer speeds. Faster cards are more expensive, but are they worth it? After spending more than 15 hours poring over read and write speeds for dozens of cards, we found the $20 SanDisk Extreme 16GB card delivers the best balance of performance, price, capacity and reliability.
The SanDisk Extreme reads and writes data at speeds up to 45 megabytes per second, using an SD specification called Ultra High Speed I.
An SD card’s speed affects a lot of the things you do with your camera, like reviewing a photo after a shot or recording HD video without any hiccups or dropped frames. Rapid-fire burst shooting sees the biggest upgrade from a faster card. As you snap photos, the data is temporarily stored in your camera’s internal memory buffer. At some point, depending on the size of the buffer and the speed the camera can write to the SD card, you’ll hit a bottleneck, and the camera will slow down shooting as it processes the backlog of buffered images. A faster card will dramatically shorten buffer clear time and keep burst rates firing quickly.
Now here’s the tricky thing: performance varies depending on the capabilities of the gadget using the card. If your camera can only write data at, say, 20 megabytes per second, you may not need a card rated for higher speeds.
The good news is that, in multiple tests, the SanDisk Extreme outperforms most of the competition — and at a low price. And 16GB is a good balance of price and capacity for most photographers; if you shoot lots of HD video, consider the $32 32GB card.