Q: I have a point-and-shoot camera that is several years old. I planned to buy a newer model to get better pictures, but a salesman said I wouldn't get much better performance unless I move up to a bigger camera, such as an SLR.

Can you recommend an under-$500 camera that will provide a big step up in functionality and image quality? I'd like interchangeable lenses, if possible.

A: Over the past few years, I've had a lot of good things to say about the Olympus Micro Four-Thirds cameras. I love the picture quality and small form factor that makes them perfect for travel and for times when you want interchangeable lenses and much better picture quality than a point-and-shoot, but without the weight and bulk of a digital SLR.

Cameta Camera (www.cameta.com) is a successful, highly regarded camera retailer that often has factory-refurbished gear at low prices. The current standout is the Olympus E-PL2 for $229 with 14-42mm kit lens.

For a little more than $200, you can get an interchangeable-lens camera with great looks, outstanding picture quality, image stabilization, a built-in flash and access to some of the best lenses on the market. Many of the lenses are also compact and affordable. You also get a three-month warranty from Olympus and nine more months from Cameta.

The E-PL2 has an older sensor and a less sophisticated autofocus system than the most recent models. This means its focusing speed and low-light image quality aren't in the same league as the most recently introduced Micro Four-Thirds models, such as the award-winning Olympus OM-D EM-5 and its smaller siblings, the E-PM2 and E-PL5.

Of course, at $229, it isn't priced the same, either. The E-PL2 makes a great starter camera, a fine backup to an existing Micro Four-Thirds system, or a compact supplement to a digital SLR outfit. I've tested the E-PL2 and give it my seal of approval.

If you want to get a second lens for it, I strongly recommend the Olympus M.Zuiko 40-150mm zoom. It is extremely sharp. Combined with the kit zoom, you will have the flexibility for almost any photographic task. Cameta sells the 40-150mm for $179.

If you want a more recent Micro Four-Thirds camera, Cameta also has many newer models, including the OM-D EM-5 and the tiny E-PM1.

The E-PM1 has the same sensor as the E-PL2 but has much faster autofocus and better video capabilities. Downsides are there is no built-in flash and the image stabilizer isn't quite as effective as the other cameras. At $249 with kit lens it is a super deal, as well, but I like the E-PL2 better for the built-in flash, better still pictures and easy-to-use control dials.

Either way, you won't go wrong.

Send questions to donlindich@gmail.com. Get more recommendations and read past columns at www.soundadviceblog.