And the winner is… Panasonic

Canon EOS M

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.

10 thoughts on “And the winner is… Panasonic

  1. I think you made a good decision. Up until about 2008, the Panny small sensor cameras were terrible noiseboxes, but they have improved on that a lot. I used to hang on the Panny forum on DPR back several years ago and the results some of the Panny people got were very nice. I still regret selling my old Panasonic FZ50. Even with the noise/grain at low ISO in the raw files, it looked more like artistic intent rather than a defect.

    You can get some color smearing with the Panny small sensor cameras in jpeg mode. My solution for that is “just don’t shoot that anymore” 😉

    A nice cheapie low profile cam is nice to have. Look forward to the pics.

  2. Well, I did buy the little Nikon, but the 4100 because I wanted a higher resolution screen. I’ll give it a test run and post about it. I owned the Panasonic you just got and I gave it away. I hated it. The color wasn’t merely muted, it was flat. Almost gray. The auto focus was so slow and so inaccurate that I missed everything that wasn’t standing dead still. I never got a single really crisp image. Not even close. I was surprised at how much I disliked it. Mind you, I already know I’m not going to love the little Nikon. It’s got too few controls. If Olympus errs on the side of too many adjustments, this goes much too far in the other direction. Far too simplified even for a point and shoot. I’m going to wind up back where I started: with a Canon point and shoot. I’ve had half a dozen of them over the years and they’ve always worked well. Meanwhile, the tiny Nikon will do what I need which is be: the camera I bring when I won’t risk an Olympus. Cheap, small and light … smaller and lighter than my Blackberry. I’m hope it’s a better camera than the Blackberry. I now recall how come I never bought a Coolpix. I’ve played with them, but never liked them. How did I forget that?

    1. Yeah, just from the test shots I saw, I do like the Nikon color better. And one of the reasons I like the Olympus so much is its color and exposure.

      Thanks for the feedback, it will be interesting to see how I like or dislike that Lumix. Either way I will surely have something to blog about.

      If you want cheap and light, I think you made the right decision. For a small point and shoot the Coolpix should work great. BTW, I played with some entry level Canon PowerShots and they also have almost no controls, can’t even set the ISO. At least the with the Nikons you can set the ISO.

      Let me know how you like the 4100 and we can trade stories. And if I don’t like the Lumix, I can join your club.

  3. How would those cameras compare to a modern cell phone camera (say samsung or iphone?). I have an old pana P&S (I bought it in 2008) that I am using for digiscoping, and I have no doubt that my wife’s cell is taking better pictures (indoors, at least).

    Thanks for your post.


    1. Sorry Laurent, I must of missed this comment. The newer point and shoot with reasonable Megapixels (10 – 12MP) should be better than smart phones.

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