What camera to bring to Costa Rica?

I had a recent email conversation with someone looking for a camera to take with them on vacation to Costa Rica, with that perfect blend of features and portability. I wanted to share the thread for others who may be similarly interested!

  • Hey Kenneth! I need camera advice! I’m going to Costa Rica and I’m thinking about buying a new camera! I currently have a 10x zoom tiny Canon point and shoot, but thinking that maybe a “real” camera (slightly bigger with more zoom, but still digital and easy point-and-shoot) might be a good idea. Don’t want to break the bank (within $350 or so, preferably less) and don’t think I can handle having to switch lens and filters and settings… just hoping to get more zoom but still keep ease-of-use. Any suggestions?
I love talking about this stuff. =]
Okay, so point and shoot that’s slightly bigger, with more zoom, and around $350… the kind of camera I think you’re looking for is the type called a “bridge” camera, because it bridges the gap between compact pocket cameras and full-blown DSLR cameras with interchangeable lenses. Here are a few to look at:
Canon SX30IS: This series as been around for a long time and they seem to be very solid performers. It has 35X zoom. One thing that I find very handy is the camcorder-style flip-out LCD screen that allows you to take interesting shots close to the ground or high above your head without getting a neck cramp. =]
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ40: The Lumix series have definitely been rising in popularity over the past few years due to their quality and easy of use. It has 24X zoom. It has better low-light performance. It’s about 20% lighter than the Canon SX30IS and about $80 cheaper.
Sony Cybershot DSC-HX9V: The main advantage of this camera is that it features a 16X zoom in a compact pocket camera format and is about $80 less than the Canon SX30IS.
Overall, I think the Canon SX30IS has the best zoom factor in this bunch. It has a cool flip-out screen that I would use all the time. But it’s the most expensive and bulky of the 3.
Let me know if you have any other questions, and have fun in Costa Rica!
  • Hey Kenneth, thanks for the advice!  So you would lean towards the Canon SX30IS, I take it? If I have no experience with these more complex cameras, would you do the Panasonic one just because it’s better in low lighting so less for me to have to worry about to get a crisp picture? What about the Nikon COOLPIX P500? I’m not sure which way I’m leaning… more zoom, or smaller size/price (with the Panasonic)? So many decisions! I’m also just so used to my tiny little point and shoot which has been so reliable! Do you think I need to know much about changing manual settings with either the Canon or the Panasonic (or the Nikon listed above) or are they relatively reliable for idiots? 🙂
The Nikon Coolpix P500 would probably be fine too. Of all the various models, I do lean toward the Canon SX30IS as probably the best “upgrade”, but of course, I’m a heavy Canon user. All of these bridge cameras will have plenty of Auto controls so that you can continue to point and shoot. The bigger lens that they come with will help with zoom and low-light sensitivity. That’s mainly what you’re upgrading and paying for. Regardless of what model you get, probably the one thing I would recommend is that you at least look through and practice using the “Scene Modes” that these cameras tend to offer (i.e. Sports, Night Portrait, Indoor, Fireworks, Macro, etc). By giving your camera a hint what kind of scene you are trying to shoot, you will often get better images. (It is essentially dialing in the settings that you would otherwise have to manage yourself in Manual mode.)
I wouldn’t put a whole lot of faith in the “low light performance” claims. It will be marginally more effective. Honestly, a tripod is much more effective in terms of preventing camera shake, etc.
  • How about overall quality? I see the Panasonic Lumix comes with a Leica lens… and the only thing I remember is that Leica is super expensive and good. 🙂
To be honest, I’m not sure the lens brand matters all that much at this class of camera. The Panasonic uses Leica glass. The Sony uses Zeiss glass. The Canon partially uses Hoya glass and also their own secret sauce… 
In terms of overall quality, I think they will all be fairly comparable, and that it’s going to be the little quirks that you’ll either love or hate with use. I fully agree that trying them out at the store is the best way to really get an impression. The camera may choose the photographer! =]
  • I’m so indecisive… I’m probably going to go back and look at cameras again next week… So, I really haven’t narrowed it down. Canon SX30IS seems like it passed the test of time and has the best zoom and image stabilization and color balance… but it’s slow. And the screen resolution is crappier but I don’t really care. Nikon P500 seems amazing… only flaw people have mentioned is that it is made of a cheaper plastic in the body and that the image stabilization is not as good… The newest one I’m considering but it’s a bit more expensive is the Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-HX100V. That one seems small/compact, 30x zoom, Carl Zeiss lens. It’s main downside seems like price… which is a hefty $450 so more than the other 2 with less zoom… but seems like it does better at night and has a bunch of cool features (including smile recognition, panorama- though most of them do, and 3D imaging- though I doubt I’ll use this)… Just the price tag… Any last thoughts? I guess I haven’t completely ruled out the other option you posed… getting a compact camera with their maximum zoom. Is the Sony DSC-H9X the largest zoom on a compact point and shoot? I kinda like the idea of just getting one of the mega-zoom’s to really differentiate it from my current pocket-sized point and shoot which serves its purpose just fine. 🙂 But considering…
Hehe, you sound like me when I’m researching new gear to buy!
Speaking of the Sony Cybershot DSC-HX100V, yes, I actually would recommend it over the HX9V unless you really want a compact camera with more zoom. I just didn’t mention it because it was about $100 more than your price range. But glad you’re doing your own research too. I do feel the HX9V is a bit redundant considering what you already have unless your old Canon one is broken or something…
Finally, you sound pretty enamored by the Nikon. I wouldn’t worry too much about the plastic factor. Most of these cameras are going to fall in the same range of durability. I think you should go with a unit that seems to fit you.
Well, that was how the conversation went, and she went on to buy the  Sony Cybershot DSC-HX100V and loved using it on her Costa Rica trip.

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