After a year hiatus, it’s time again for a collection of the best camera deals for student journalists. I’ll start with a section of the best camera deals at various price points, and then end with a running collection of the best deals for Black Friday. If you have a deal you’d like to see added to the list, send me an email or comment below and I’ll add it to the list.
My criteria for including a camera on this list is that it must have a large sensor (Micro Four-thirds, APS-C or full frame), it must include some sort of lens, and it must include a microphone input to record audio for video. Point-and-shoot models, super-zoom cameras and models without video won’t do much for the student journalist in this situation, so they are not on this list. This is not unlike my standing guide that I have written up here. I’ve also included links to reputable places to buy the camera – too many times people get scammed from less-than-honest camera dealers, so be careful about where you buy. If a price is too good to be true, it probably is.
So let’s take a look – first up, the budget models:
Up to $500
This class of camera is purely entry level – you won’t find professional grade weather-sealing, dual control dials or anything like that at this level. But the dirty little secret of camera manufacturers is that the sensors they use in their high-end cameras are the same ones used in this class of cameras – just in stripped-down plastic bodies with less features. The image quality, however should match cameras costing two or three times as much, in most cases. So with that, here are three picks in this category, with their strengths and weaknesses.
The Nikon D3200 is Nikon’s entry level model, but they didn’t hold back much here – you get the same 24 megapixel APS-C sensor from the D5200/7100, and so image quality is excellent, even in low light. There’s a microphone input so you can plug in one of those, and a very standard, if not earth-shattering, 11-point autofocus. With only a 4-frame-per-second burst rate, you probably won’t be shooting sports.
Strengths: Good image quality, low light ability compared to a point-and-shoot, easy-to-use guides on screen, low price, good entry point into Nikon system.
Weaknesses: Autofocus and burst rate won’t cut it for sports, simplified controls means hunting in the menus to change things, no tilt/flip screen for video, slow video autofocus, can only take G-type lenses with focus motors built in (meaning older lenses won’t autofocus on this camera).
The Panasonic G6 is the company’s midrange model this year – but it’s essentially a retread of their top model from last year – the GH2. This isn’t a bad thing, as the GH2 was an excellent camera.
It’s an interesting camera in that it’s not a DSLR in the style of Nikon or Canon – it’s an interchangeable lens camera without a mirror, meaning that instead of looking through the viewfinder and seeing through the lens, you are seeing an electronic image, just like a video camera. It still takes pictures and still has a large sensor (Micro Four-Thirds) but it takes a little bit of getting used to. If you come from a video background, then you might even appreciate this. The benefit of going without the mirror is two-fold – first, it makes the camera much smaller and lighter to remove that entire part of the camera. Second, it means that without the mirror in the way, the camera’s contrast-detection autofocus can focus in video very fast – indeed if you’re main purpose is to shoot video, you might be better off this way. However, it means that still image autofocus is a bit slower, and can’t track moving subjects the way a phase-detection system on a “traditional” DSLR can. Still, as a former owner of Panasonic’s GH2 and a current GH3 owner, aside from tracking moving subjects, the autofocus is fairly swift.
Strengths: Price – there’s a lot of camera here for not a lot of money; Excellent video quality and blazing fast autofocus in video (compared to Nikon/Canon DSLRs), lots of controls on body, very small and light, tilt/flip screen for video.
Weaknesses: Electronic viewfinder isn’t for everyone, smaller sensor means low light performance won’t match most APS-C DSLR models (but it’s close), definitely a more video-oriented camera (this is a plus for some).
Up to $1000Canon 60D
Canon’s 60D was just replaced by the 70D, but that just means it’s a great deal right now. This camera has a flip-screen for video, a tried-and-true 9-point autofocus system that just works (not the fastest on the block, but very reliable as it’s been used in some form by Canon forever), and a good 18 megapixel APS-C sensor that offers good quality even in low-light. A big reason it makes the top of this category is that in this price, it includes a much better than average 18-135 kit lens – a nice range lens with good quality (I have one and can tell you the image quality easily beats most kit zooms).
Strengths: Good image quality, good still image autofocus, a fair amount of external controls compared to entry-level models, tilt/flip screen for video, good video quality, good kit lens at this price.
Weaknesses: Poor video autofocus, no headphone jack at this price point to monitor audio
Up to $1500Nikon D7100
The Nikon D7100 is a camera I’ve had a chance to have a lot of seat time with – it’s the camera we use here at Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism for our students. Why is it my choice to teach students with? The biggest reason is that it’s got a nice mix of video and photo features – its 51-point autofocus system works better for still photography than even the professional cameras (Nikon D2H, Canon 1D Mark IIN) that I used in the field only a few years ago, and its color and image quality is brilliant. For video, it has a headphone jack to monitor audio and it has audio meters as well. Like all DSLR models, video autofocus isn’t great, but once you learn how to manually focus, it works (and looks) great.
Strengths: Excellent autofocus system for photos, image quality second only to full-frame models, great audio controls for videographers, sensor “crop” mode gives you a telephoto boost if you need it, fast burst rate (in JPG) for sports, Good range with new kit lens (18-140 – avoid the older 18-105 kits), has built-in wireless flash control, has built-in focus motor for use with almost all Nikon F-mount lenses ever made, cheapest DSLR of any manufacturer that includes a headphone jack.
Weaknesses: Small buffer means RAW files can slow down camera if shooting at high speeds (i.e. for sports), video autofocus is nothing to write home about, no tilt/flip screen for video.
Money is no object – the full frame cameras
Cameras in this class have a much larger sensor than anything above – meaning they’ll be able to shoot in very low-light and still produce usable images, and as a general rule, image quality will always be better. But this comes at a cost – these cameras can’t (to their full extent) use lower priced lenses designed for APS-C sensors (DX in Nikon, EF-S in Canon). They will also be heavier than their APS-C counterparts. The two cameras I have listed here are the best entry points into each manufacturer’s system (there are higher and lower models for each manufacturer, but in considering features and price, these are the best bets in my opinion).Nikon D610
The D610 is Nikon’s entry-level full-frame camera – it has the same body as the D7100, but a much larger sensor. The autofocus sensor is from the old D7000, but it is still quite capable at tracking focus and the image quality is excellent. Low light ability is on par with the classic D700, but with 24 megapixels, which is fantastic. The camera, like the D7100, can use Nikon’s wireless Creative Lighting System, and it has a built-in autofocus motor to drive any old F-mount lens you can throw at it. Video mode is on par with the D7100 – it has a headphone jack and audio meters.
A warning, though – this camera is the successor to the now-discontinued D600. I bought a D600 the week it came out, and after only a couple of thousand shots, I had dust and oil spots all over my sensor – something that seemed to be a common occurrence if you believe the forums online. After sending it into Nikon for a free repair under warranty, the problem is not as bad, but it’s still there. If you’re thinking about saving money by buying a used D600, it is something to consider. I have been shooting with many cameras for years, and there was nothing in my technique that would account for this much dust when every other camera I had didn’t have an issue. Nikon says there is an improved shutter on the new model, so this should not be an issue anymore. Other than that one issue I have had to deal with, this series of camera has been an excellent bang-for-the-buck.
I ended up recommending this model over the D800 for two big reasons – for journalists, the 36 megapixel sensor is overkill and will make it harder to transmit files to editors because of file size, and because it’s significantly more expensive without any major gain for the student journalist (aside from its superior auto-focus sensor).
Strengths: Amongst the best image quality of any APS-C, Full-Frame or Micro Four-Thirds camera, Good still photography autofocus, interfaces with Nikon’s Creative Lighting System, headphone jack and audio meters for video, lightweight body compared to other full-frame cameras, has built-in focus motor for use with almost all Nikon F-mount lenses ever made, can work with DX lenses at lower resolution (10 megapixels), decent 24-85 kit lens.
Weaknesses: Autofocus points clustered all near center of the frame, slow video autofocus, weather sealing good, but not as good as D700 or D800 (at least from my experiences – I have a D700).Canon 5D Mark III
While I have had extensive seat time with the rest of the cameras on this list, I have not had much time with the Canon 5D Mark III. I did have a Mark II as my main camera for almost four years, however, and that was a fantastic camera. Unfortunately, it’s a camera that has been eclipsed in almost every way – which is why I don’t recommend its spiritual successor, the 6D – it’s not a good value anymore, given that it is at the same price point as the D610 and doesn’t include a headphone jack, a more sophisticated auto-focus system or even wireless flash control from the camera. However, since we’re on the “Money is no object” category of this post, I’ll include its bigger brother – the 5D Mark III, which rectifies some of these complaints. It’s 22.3 megapixel sensor is an evolution of the 5D Mark II and should be large enough for anything you’d need in journalism. One of the biggest complaints I (and many others) had against the Mark II was the autofocus system, which was slow and inaccurate beyond the center point – something that’s been remedied with a new 61-point system (41 cross-type sensors) on the Mark III. Video quality is probably the best of the bunch here – and you have your requisite headphone jack and meters at this price point. Autofocus for video, like all DSLRs isn’t fast, but again, it’s something you learn to work around.
Note that the price on this is so high mainly because its kit lens is one of Canon’s “L” line lenses – meaning it is of very high quality and a constant fairly wide aperture of f/4 compared to its peers. You can save $600 by forgoing the lens, but then you would need to buy one of those as well.
Like the note about the Nikon D610 – the 5D Mark III had a problem with light leaking through its LCD panel and ruining exposure in early-run models – be careful if you buy a used model that you don’t get one that had this problem. Canon can fix it through its service centers, but it’s probably a safer bet to buy a new model with the problem already fixed.
Strengths: Excellent still autofocus system, great image quality and low light performance, high-quality video with a headphone jack and meters, professional grade build-quality and weather-sealing.
Weaknesses: Poor video autofocus, high price.
Black Friday Specials
There are some cameras that are excellent deals that will only be running on Black Friday. This list is evolving, but here’s what I’ve been able to find that should be good bets for bargain hunters (again, feel free to comment below or send me an email if you hear of a deal that should be on this list:
Update 11:15 a.m. on 11/28/13 • Nikon Deals at Amazon.com and B&H Photo: If you buy almost any Nikon camera model, you get a bunch of money off of lenses. Some good ones on the list at both sites – this seems to be only for today and tomorrow.
• Nikon D7000 at Best Buy for $799: The predecessor of the D7100 – you don’t give up much with this camera in comparison – the three major differences are a 39-point autofocus system instead of a 51-point, 16 megapixels vs. 24 megapixels, and the lack of a headphone jack. I’ve used this camera for years – it’s a good one with great still and video quality. This kit includes the new 18-140mm kit lens, which is a good range for a kit lens. It’s hard to tell from the circular when this deal starts – it seems like Best Buy has “doorbuster” deals at 6 p.m. on Thursday, but then more deals at 10 a.m. on Friday. I’d call ahead to your local Best Buy to find out what the exact deal is on this camera if you’re interested. Link to information here.
• Nikon D5100 at Wal-Mart for $499: The predecessor of Nikon’s current mid-range models, the 5200 and 5300, this camera has the same sensor as the D7000, with a slightly less sophisticated autofocus system and more menu-based controls (like the D3200 above). Image quality is the same as the D7000 though and the flip screen makes it easy to shoot video. What you give up vs. the D7000 though is a built-in autofocus motor, so you won’t be able to autofocus with vintage Nikon lenses, and the ability to take manual control over video (it’s auto-only). It does have a microphone jack though and comes with an 18-55mm kit lens. From the circular, it looks like this sale starts at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving. Link to information here.
• Nikon D3200 at Target for $499 with an extra zoom lens: Same camera as the one up top, but with a 55-200mm zoom lens thrown in. Kit zooms aren’t really all that great, and there are some great deals on older zooms online, so while this is a decent deal, I wouldn’t wait out in the cold for this one (I might wait for the D7000 one from Best Buy above, though). This seems to be a “doorbuster” deal but it’s unclear from Target’s site when that is, exactly. Again, I’d call ahead if you’re interested in this one. Link to information here. Best Buy is running the same deal as well.
That’s what I’m able to find for now. Bear in mind – sometimes you’ll see that a week after Black Friday, these prices become the norm – the best rule of thumb is to look at what your needs are and buy based on that – after a few years of hanging onto a camera, $100 or so difference in price will equal itself out.