In part 1, we covered things to consider when buying a second camera to complement a digital SLR. In this part of The Second Camera, we consider how to choose a camera to complement a fixed-lens camera. Most fixed lens cameras fall into three categories: small cameras with little or no manual controls (usually ultra-compacts), small camera with manual controls (usually compacts) and larger digital cameras with full manual controls (often large or medium long-zoom cameras). Unlike with DSLR cameras, there are not many reasons for a nearly identical backup fixed-lens camera. With that in mind, a second camera should complement more a fixed-lens camera, rather than serve as a redundancy.
In the case of an ultra-compact, or a compact with little user controls, the compromise made was increased portability at the expense of quality and flexibility. Ideally, a complementary camera should compensate for one of these issues. Most often, this would be image quality. For those with a slow ultra-compact camera, getting a speed advantage is highly desirable.
Naturally, the camera class that overcomes the limitations of most small cameras is the DSLR category. Compared to all ultra-compacts, DSLRs offer superior quality and faster performance. To learn how to choose an appropriate DSLR, in itself, you can consult Neocamera’s DSLR Guide. If portability is still a major concern, aim for an entry-level DSLR, they are normally smaller. The absolute smallest DSLR is currently the Olympus E-410, but the Nikon D40x and Canon Digital Rebel XTi are quite small too.
A DSLR is not for everyone. Factors such as cost, complexity and size are potential reasons. In such case, a full-featured ultra-zoom camera can still complement an ultra-compact well. The Fuji Finepix S6000fd is probably the closest thing you can get to a DSLR and its sibling the Fuji Finepix S9100 a close second. As these camera are still relatively large, smaller options can be preferred. In this case, the just-reviewed Canon Powershot A720 IS with its 6X optical zoom lens can be a great choice.
The compact camera is the toughest to compliment because it is already a midway compromise between size, features and quality. If size still gets in the way and you find yourself taking less pictures than you would like, then the only way to go is towards an ultra-compact. There are a number of ultra-compacts which are excellent relative to their class.
On the other hand, if the main concern is image quality, then the only sure way to go is with a DSLR. Modern compacts and ultra-zoom often use the same sensors, so there is very little image quality to gain there. Particularly, the highest quality lenses among fixed-lens cameras are now found on compacts. Ultra-compacts usually have reduced quality lenses due to size-constraints. Ultra-zooms usually have lower quality lenses to pack a long zoom range in a relatively compact size. See our DSLR Guide for how to choose one.
The ultra-zoom camera normally has two problems: it is bigger than most cameras and it has somewhat reduced image quality. Functionality is not often a problem and speed is not a big issue either. To remedy the problem of size, you must carefully consider how small do you want your next camera to be and how much functionality are you willing to live without. If you go very small, manual controls become very rate, as do moderate zoom ranges. The HP Photosmart R967 is an exception in terms of manual controls and the Pentax Optio Z10 with its 7X optical zoom is an exception in terms of zoom range.
In the compact category, which are between 1″ and 2″ thick, full-manual controls are common and zoom ranges exist up to 10X, either wide-angle or standard. For example, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ3 has a 10X zoom with 28-280mm range but no manual controls and the Canon PowerShot SX100 IS has a 10X zoom with 35-350mm range but does have manual controls. To have significantly better image quality, a DSLR is a must, see the advice for ultra-compacts above.