Sound Advice: Top picks for best camera below $375

  • Article by: DON LINDICH , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 4, 2013 - 1:02 PM

Q: I recently went to the zoo and quickly discovered that trying to simultaneously carry a 2-year-old, watch a 5-year-old and get my SLR camera set for a good shot wasn’t going to work — not to mention carrying it around my neck.

I’m looking for a small camera that shoots better than my iPhone 5 but is not bulky like the SLR. Having Wi-Fi would be nice, but having zoom capability and better-looking pictures (especially indoors) are most important.

What can you recommend for less than $375?

A: Compact cameras with Wi-Fi selling for less than $375 tend to be mediocre picture takers, so I’m going to recommend cameras that deliver just the best picture quality at the price.

The standout bargain is the 10.1-megapixel Olympus XZ-1. It has a bright f/1.8-2.5 4x zoom lens and was one of the most highly regarded cameras in its class when it was introduced. The sensor is physically larger than in most compact cameras, and the lens screams of optical perfection. Add in Olympus’ JPG processing, and it’s an extremely formidable combination.

I tested the XZ-1 a year ago and its pictures looked incredibly beautiful on my high-resolution monitor. They had great color and were so clean and sharp that they made other small cameras’ pictures look hazy in comparison. The XZ-1 has advanced features for serious photographers, but it can be used fully automatically by novices as well. The only downside is that it has 720p HD instead of 1080p HD video.

At introduction, the XZ-1 sold for $500. It has been replaced by the XZ-2 model, so you can get this wonderful camera online for $261 new or $199 reconditioned by Olympus.

A somewhat larger camera is the 12.1-megapixel Pentax MX-1 for $399. The menus are similar to Pentax digital SLRs, and the brass body makes it feel solid like a pro camera. Images are sharp, and the colors are typical Pentax: accurate yet bold, deep and bright. (The lens specs are identical to the XZ-1, and it is rumored to be the same lens, but with Pentax’s wonderful SMC multicoating.) I was particularly impressed with the flash pictures, which looked natural and were evenly lit. Its classic look makes it the best-looking camera of my three recommendations, especially in silver. It has 1080p HD video. It is bigger and more expensive than the XZ-1 but does offer more.

If you’re willing to go up to $450, put the 12.1-megapixel Panasonic LUMIX LF1 on your shopping list, too. This tiny, premium camera has a wide-range 7.1x Leica zoom lens, Wi-Fi and an eye-level electronic viewfinder, a rarity in such a small camera and useful with the long telephoto zoom.

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