It’s pretty much a safe bet. Whenever I get an email from a friend that I haven’t heard from in a long time there’s a good chance they are saving up to buy a new camera and they’re looking for some suggestions. So, here ya go…
Asking a professional photographer about compact cameras is about like asking Lance Armstrong which bike you should get from Wal-Mart. …well, maybe not quite that bad, but you get the idea. I don’t own a compact camera, but there is one that I would like –one that I would feel is a good enough replacement to an SLR. That’s the Canon G12. It gives you full manual control over your exposure and it can shoot in RAW. From what I’ve heard, it out-performs Nikon’s comparable camera even though the latter has better specs. Then again, at $500 you might just consider getting an entry-level SLR (more on that below).
Aside from the G12 I honestly don’t have any recommendations for compact cameras. At the rate that smart phones are going, we might find compact cameras to be a dying breed. Nevertheless, if you don’t want to break the bank and you want a pocket-sized camera consider the following guidelines.
- Zoom – You’ll want a decent zoom, but make sure it’s an optical zoom; a digital zoom won’t do you a bit of good.
- Battery Life – I wouldn’t recommend buying a camera that runs on double A batteries; instead look for one that uses a custom lithium battery or something like that. They’ll last longer and cost less in the long run.
- Shutter Delay – The shutter delay information may or may not be readily available, but basically it’s a measure of how quickly the picture is taken once the button is pressed –this can mean the difference between getting the shot you wanted as opposed to missing the action.
- Megapixels – don’t worry about them. We are slowly coming out of the age where all cameras are measured by the number of megapixels they have, but that simply is not any way to determine a camera’s image quality. I’ve got a 20″x30″ print that was taken with a 6 MP camera; had I not told you that you never would have known by looking at it.
Despite my preference for the G12, I’m a huge fan of Nikon. Thus my suggestions will be
a bit biased entirely in favor of Nikon. Canon makes great cameras too, but in my opinion everything about them feels backwards. I would also go so far as to say that Nikon has really developed an edge over Canon in the last two years as they focus on better image quality and fewer megapixels. Personally I prefer the color tones of Nikon; they just have a richer feel if you ask me.
The good news is that buying an SLR is fairly straightforward; the more you spend, the better the camera you get. Let your budget determine the camera, but be sure to leave room for a lens, memory cards, batteries, and maybe a flash if you’re feeling adventurous. There is no reason to go into debt buying a camera unless you are confident that you can make money with it –and if you can do that, you probably already have a good camera.
I don’t mean to be Johnny Raincloud here, but this needs to be said: Don’t confuse need for desire. You will always want a better camera. If you have a camera already (particularly an “old DSLR” –which is somewhat laughable to put those to words together) ask yourself how much you are using it. Chances are that the camera still takes great pictures, but you don’t use it like you could. Getting a new camera will generate some enthusiasm for a little while, but unless you make a point to get out and take pictures often you’ll be no better off with a fancier camera.
Once you narrow it down to a couple choices find a way to get your hands on each camera and play with them for as long as you can. Borrow one from a friend, or at least test out the model at a local camera shop. Chances are pretty good that one will feel more intuitive and comfortable than the other. After budget, I would say that this is the most important factor in your choice. If you don’t feel comfortable using your camera you will likely get frustrated and not take as many pictures or you’ll just keep it on Auto and never use all the features you paid for.
Don’t overlook the option of shopping for used cameras. You could buy a decent camera used, play with it for a year or so, and then sell it again putting that money toward a better camera. It requires more work and more time searching, but it’s the most cost effective option in the long run. Just make sure to do your homework and only buy a used camera if you feel completely good about it. Aside from physical damage I would say the most important thing to check is the number of actuations (ie. shutter clicks) when buying used. If the seller doesn’t know the number or doesn’t know how to find out (hint: check out Opanda or Exif Viewer) then it’s probably not worth buying from them.
As for lenses, some of them may come with a “kit” lens, which is usually the 18-55mm. It’s a decent little lens, but not spectacular by any means. If you’ve got the room in your budget, I would suggest going for the 18-105mm lens, or even the 18-200mm VR2.
Don’t forget to add a memory card. You probably don’t need to spend the extra money on a super fast card at this point. Also, you’d probably be fine without an extra battery –all of Nikon’s cameras should be able to get at least 1,000 shots on a single charge, probably more.
Hopefully that helps! Feel free to share with the rest of us if you have any tips from your own search.