And the winner is… Panasonic
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZR1
In my previous post, I talked about getting an inexpensive gadget for fun. I was looking at a refurbished, year old entry-level Nikon Coolpix. I found it at Cameta Camera for $55 but thanks to a blog reader, I found the same Nikon Coolpix S3100 for $46.95 at Adorama; it even includes free shipping. I was about the pull the trigger on this camera, even had it in my shopping cart, but I decided to do some research just in case.
There aren’t many reviews these days for entry level cameras but found this one on the S3100 at Photography Blog. I pixel peeped the ISO 80 sample images and was disappointed. To be fair, I’m not comparing the image quality to my Olympus Pens. Being a point and shoot with a tiny 1/2.3 inch sensor, this would be silly. However, I was hoping to see fairy clean images at ISO 80, the lowest ISO and highest quality setting. I figure, if I keep the ISO set at 80, I might be able to squeeze some decent quality images from it. From what I saw in the samples, I began to have doubts.
Let me make it clear that for most people posting images on Facebook or printing 4 x 6 or 8 x 10 prints, the quality from this camera will be fine. It will also work decently for photos in blog posts too. This little Nikon is a bargain at $47 bucks. The reason I wanted to buy this camera was as a challenge to create high quality images using an entry-level camera. I wanted to blog about my experience, post some images and about talk about how I did it.
My current criteria for a good image quality is viewing the photograph full size on my 27″ monitor. That is how I typically view and enjoy my images (though I do print some from time to time). I don’t expect pixel perfection at 100%, I’m really not usually a pixel peeper. However, using my 27″ test, I couldn’t help but see sharp but smeared images. The images looked very sharp even too crunchy like they are over sharpened but at the same time they lacked fine detail. Viewing the images larger and I realized that Nikon is using noise suppression routines and lots of sharpening to compensate. I expect this kind of in camera processing at ISO 400 and above but at ISO 80, it is a disappointment. On the plus side, I found the colors to be vibrant, the way I like it.
In my search for refurbished deals through Adorama, I also found this Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZR1 for $69.95. At first, I didn’t consider this model since the $70 was way above my cheapie goal of staying around $50. But after the disappointing image quality of the Nikon S3100, I took a second look at alternatives. I looked at the sample photos from this review on Photography Blog and was pleasantly surprised. What a difference. The images at ISO 80 were clean and smooth. It looks like the noise and detail characteristics are one or even two stops better than the Nikon. Curious, they both use the same sized 1/2.3 inch sensor but the Nikon is a 14MP camera while the Panasonic is at 12MP. The Panasonic colors, however, are more muted. Some may prefer this but I like the bright colors from the Nikon better.
You also get a lot more for the extra $23. The Lumix ZR1 has true optical image stabilization, the Nikon has an inferior digital stabilizer. The ZR1 also has a minimum shutter speed of 1 minute, while the S3100 allows for only 4 secs in the fireworks mode. Long shutter times are important when I do urban night photography on tripod. The ZR1 also has a 25 to 200mm equivalent zoom range while the Nikon has 26 – 130 range. And you get a Leica branded lens, which may not mean much in a point and shoot, but it says this model was designed by Panasonic to sit on the premium end of their line. The downsides of this camera? Other than being a bit more expensive, the camera is a bit thicker because of the longer zoom lens. It is also an older model dating back all the way from 2009. While the Nikon was last year’s model, the Lumix is 3 years old. My biggest concern, I hope the batteries are still fresh enough to work adequately. The good news is there are inexpensive third party battery options.
Ultimately, I think with the Nikon, other than being a fun little gadget for a month or so and something to blog about, I would not end up using it afterwards. Sure it’s only $47 but I hate to buy something and not use it. I feel with the Panasonic, there maybe a chance that I’ll use it for other things beyond my initial fun experiments. It costs a whopping 49% more (though only $23 in absolute terms) than the Nikon. Time will tell how much I use it. I will most certainly blog about it to tell you how it turns out. The Panasonic is coming on the slow and free boat from New York City. I should have it in a week or so.