Top 13 for 2013: The Best Entry-Level Cameras of the Year
posted Wednesday, December 11, 2013 at 8:33 AM EDT
Last year, Sony took top honors as our 2012 Pocket Camera of the Year, with its bright-lensed, large-sensored, small-bodied and incredibly popular RX100 premium compact. A year later, the company repeats the feat with the Sony RX100 II, a camera that shares much with last year's favorite, but which also brings some worthwhile upgrades. Key among the changes is a groundbreaking backside-illuminated (BSI) CMOS image sensor, the largest ever commercialized. The Sony RX100 II's new chip makes a huge difference in the sensitivity department, reducing noise levels and allowing you to crank up the ISO without remorse.
The new BSI sensor is the big news, but no less important is the addition of Sony's Multi Interface Shoe, turning the tiny RX100 II into a system camera compatible with a wide range of accessories, including an electronic viewfinder. Sony also includes a new tilting LCD monitor that, amazingly, has barely added to the camera's thickness. Sony also added both Wi-Fi and Near Field Communications technology, for easy pairing-and-sharing. Last year's RX100 was one of our favorite cameras of the year, and its successor is a shoo-in for the title of 2013 Pocket Camera of the Year. If you haven't got one in your pocket, it's high time you did something about that!
A highly pocketable, enthusiast compact with a viewfinder? Impossible! Fear not, as the Panasonic LF1 might be the camera for you. Featuring all the accouterments typically found on an enthusiast compact camera like full PASM modes, adjustable metering and a versatile zoom lens (7.1x in this case), the Panasonic LF1 goes one step further with a built-in electronic viewfinder. The slim, highly portable design makes the LF1 a definite contender for a go-anywhere camera, and the addition of the EVF makes it all the more versatile.
Every so often a product comes long that just feels right, and the Fujifilm XF1 is one of those rare products. It's decidedly not for everyone, which is one of the reasons it's so much fun to use. As enthusiast compacts go, the XF1 sports a larger sensor than most in the compact class, a very bright f/1.8 Fujinon lens, an exceptional auto mode (EXR) and practical film simulation modes all in a lean, attractive package. Add in the nice balance achieved between the retro looks and the decidedly modern flair, and you have a unique product that will be just the right suit for many an enthusiast photographer looking for a competent pocket camera.
While today's entry-level digital SLR cameras frequently outperform yesterday's enthusiast models, there are certain features you just don't expect to see on offer. Entry-level DSLRs come saddled with entry-level compromises: pentamirror vewfinders, a single control dial and a grab bag of concessions to price point. Ricoh Imaging's impressive Pentax K-50 somehow manages to buck this trend, packing in features its rivals omit.
We're not sure how Ricoh managed it, but somehow the company delivers enthusiast-grade features at a consumer-friendly price point. The Pentax K-50 sports a bright, accurate pentaprism viewfinder and boasts twin control dials that allow fast, intuitive exposure control. Both camera and kit lens are fully weather-sealed. And best of all, the K-50 is built around the same extremely well received image sensor as the Pentax K-5 II. In short, the Pentax K-50 offers unparalleled bang-for-the-buck, making it an easy pick for our 2013 Entry-level DSLR of the Year award.
The remarkably compact Canon SL1 DSLR offers the best of two worlds: barely any bigger than the typical mirrorless camera, the tiny SL1 still sports a through-the-lens optical viewfinder and dedicated phase-detect autofocus. It's as if someone aimed a shrink-ray at the Rebel T5i -- except that the Canon SL1 bests its sibling's autofocus capabilities when in live view mode or shooting movies. If you're looking for a really compact interchangeable-lens camera, but you're not ready to sacrifice your optical viewfinder, the Canon SL1 should be right at the top of your list. It's the smallest DSLR we've ever reviewed, but don't let its slimmed-down body fool you: there's a whole lot of camera packed inside the Canon SL1.
It's not often that we see entry-level DSLRs best their enthusiast and professional siblings, but the Nikon D5300 manages to do so in several important areas. The D5300 is the first and -- so far -- only entry-level DSLR to offer built-in Wi-Fi and it's the first entry-level Nikon DSLR to offer built-in GPS technology. That's great news, because these are significant features these days. Nikon also includes a high-res 24-megapixel sensor without low pass filter, yet another world first for a budget-friendly DSLR. Add in the brand-new EXPEED 4 image processor, making its first appearance in the Nikon lineup, and it's clear the Nikon D5300 offers a lot for the price.
The Olympus E-PL5 houses the same sensor as the Olympus E-M5, which won awards in 2012 for the Compact System Camera of the Year and Camera of Distinction in our Overall Achievement categories. With the E-PL5 you get the image quality of last year's Compact System Camera of the Year, but at half the price. Need we say more?
Factor in much of the performance and shooting ease of the E-M5 and it becomes an even clearer choice as a perfect entry-level mirrorless camera. Just don't discount it as an equally great option if you're a professional or enthusiast shooter looking for terrific image quality and performance in a (much) smaller package than your big rigs because the Micro Four Thirds lenses will surely win you over.
Samsung continues to astound us lately with stellar cameras at reasonable price points and their sales rank in the camera market bears this out. The Samsung NX2000 delivers APS-C image quality in a package matching the compactness of Sony's NEX line and at very affordable street prices. (We're seeing deals this season in the $400-480 range, including a kit lens.) Rounding out the package is good wireless connectivity and a broad selection of NX-mount lenses, helping the NX2000 earn our wholehearted seal of approval.
The Sony NEX line is a category-leading series and the Sony NEX-5T is a worthy entry in the line. It offers a perfect fit for a professional or enthusiast photographer needing something compact and lightweight for on-the-go shooting while still delivering high-caliber image quality. Compared to its predecessor, the NEX-5T furthers the line with a smaller kit lens and much easier wireless connectivity with smart devices supporting NFC (near-field communications). Taken as a whole, the NEX-5T is a nice, evolutionary upgrade to one of the strongest mirrorless lines in the business at a very attractive price for the feature set. (The NEX-5T is selling widely this holiday season for $598, after a $100 "instant rebate.")
This statement from one of our long-time reviewers sums up why we chose the Sony NEX-3N for Best Value for our 2013 COTY awards: "After shooting with the Sony NEX-3N, I finally have a firm answer to give to my friends when they ask 'What camera should I buy if I've only got $500?' The NEX-3N is an easy answer." With familiar features like a zoom-lever right on the camera body, the NEX-3N is the perfect answer for point-and-shoot users looking to step up to the world of Interchangeable Lens Cameras.
If you're still in doubt, ask yourself how many lightweight, easy-to-use APS-C sensor cameras are on the market for a street price well below $500. The list is short indeed. The world's smallest and lightest ILC to feature an APS-C sensor at this price would be welcome in most any holiday stocking.
The compact and lightweight Olympus E-PM2 provides one of the best values around. This little camera is the smallest of Olympus' PEN series of cameras, yet packs a big punch in image quality with the same sensor, processor and autofocus system as the well-regarded E-M5, winner of our 2012 awards for Compact System Camera of the Year and Camera of Distinction in Overall Achievement. In the $300-$400 price range, the E-PM2 seems a bit out of place. How can a camera with this level of image quality and performance cost so little? We're a little amazed ourselves, so it's no wonder that we recognize the tiny Olympus E-PM2 as one of the best camera values around.
With kit prices starting around $300 and image quality similar to the Canon T5i, the Canon EOS M is a stellar value. Its metal body construction lends the camera a solid, substantial feel in the hand that belies the camera's budget price. The EOS M is a particularly good choice for Canon DSLR owners because a simple EF-mount adapter provides compatibility with the plethora of Canon glass. Although there are few lenses native to the new mount, the 22mm f/2 STM and 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 STM lenses are both great options. The original list price of $800 was a little steep, but $300 is flat-out incredible for all the EOS M offers.
You've just finished the second page of our camera of the year awards. Check out the other two pages to see our picks for the best enthusiast and pro gear and our picks for the big, the small and the unusual.
|The best cameras, lenses and technology of the year||The best entry-level cameras of the year|
|Overview||Best Pocket Cameras|
|Camera of the Year||Best Entry-Level DSLR Cameras|
|Best Technology||Best Entry-Level Mirrorless Cameras|
|Best Value Cameras|
|The best enthusiast and pro gear of the year||The big, the small and the unusual|
|Best Professional Camera||Best Enthusiast Zoom Cameras|
|Best Enthusiast DSLR Cameras||Best Pocket Interchangeable Lens Camera|
|Best Enthusiast Mirrorless Cameras||Most Unique Cameras|