December 17, 2017

Asking About Camera Advice

7 minute read

Lately I’ve been getting questions from a few family members and colleagues about which cameras (or kinds of cameras) they should consider getting. Generally, I get this question from folks with relatively recent smartphones (e.g. iPhone 6S+) who believe that they may be able to take better photographs with a better, standalone camera. (I mostly get this question from parents of young kids, but I’ve also gotten it once or twice from people interested in vacation photos or lifestyle photography.) I’ll reference some useful guides by (disclaimer, they are owned by my employer) and add notes where I think they’re useful. I hope that these links prove useful to those who are looking for this guidance.

When to move on from smartphone photography

(If you do not have a smartphone camera and simply need a standalone camera, this section does not apply to you.)

Although I upgraded from smartphone photography this past summer, I do still believe that smartphone camears are more than adequate for most folks’ day-to-day picture-taking. I think there are a few common reasons one might want to take the “next step” with photography by getting a dedicated camera:

  1. You’re a student/beginner interested in learning photography as an art form, and need a sufficiently sophisticated camera.
  2. Your smartphone camera is too slow to capture candids of your kid(s) as they frenetically bounce around like excited subatomic particles.
  3. You like printing out photo albums/large prints of your photos, and aren’t pleased with the print quality you’re getting from your smartphone camera.
  4. You commonly take many pictures indoors in bad lighting, and prefer your camera not to struggle in this case/to salvage better photos given the circumstances.

These are all valid reasons (and there are more) - in fact, I upgraded for reasons one and three that I just gave. However, there are some caveats entailed, which may dissuade you from taking the next step.

First, let’s confront the elephant in the room. Because modern flagship smartphones like the iPhone, Samsung Galaxy, or Google Pixel sell millions of units (far more than any one camera model sells), their respective manufacturers can sink far more research into improving the combination of hardware and software on those camera modules than traditional camera makers can. As a result, the value-per-dollar of camera you get with your modern smartphone punches above its weight class; so much so, in practice, that there’s very little point in buying one-hundred-dollar-specials when you already have a more powerful system in your pocket. Even though even a $200 camera may be technically superior on paper to your smartphone camera module, it doesn’t have the remarkable software required to produce effortless pictures in the same way that your smartphone does.

I will propose a rough rule of thumb:

You shouldn’t expect any standalone camera you buy to produce better pictures than your smartphone camera unless you’re willing to pay at least half the sticker price of your phone for that camera.

For example, if you paid $700 for an iPhone 6S Plus, you shouldn’t expect a $250 camera to take better pictures; even a $300 camera probably won’t look good next to it in typical shooting conditions.

To be perfectly clear, you can buy cameras at almost any price point. But I assert that the low-end cameras are less enjoyable to use and have a harder time producing comparable images than your smartphone; all this, and you have to pay money for one beyond the already-paid-for phone in your pocket!

If the thought of spending more than $250 or $300 on a camera gives you pause, don’t worry, you’re not alone. However, if you believe that it’ll be worth it, or that you’re committed to experiencing what a standalone camera can offer, read on!

Cameras for parents

Without necessarily vouching for any particular camera in it, I find the breadth covered by DPReview’s guide for cameras for parents incredibly to-the-point. While it mostly speaks for itself (and if you’re in this group, read it!), I’ll give a bit more color here.

Fundamentally, the thing which makes snagging pics of kids difficult is how much they tend to move around. Whether you’re taking pics of babies, toddlers, or elementary-school aged children, they all have the tendency to wiggle and run around, making it hard to get sharp, in-focus shots. Smartphone cameras have been optimized to try and lock-and-shoot as quickly as possible with this case in mind, but indoors lighting or running kids can fluster camera sensors, causing them to miss shots they’d otherwise nail. (And if this does not describe your kid, maybe you don’t need a better camera.) Having a larger, standalone camera can help with this, but there’s actually a gamut here, due to some tradeoffs involved.

Many DSLR’s have a dedicated module built in which helps them estimate motion and focus on where a kid will be, not where it is now, resulting in fewer missed shots and faster shooting. At virtually every price point, a DSLR will nail shots better than any other type of camera (at the same price point). The tradeoff with DSLR’s is that they’re larger and heavier than all other cameras as well; many parents can’t or won’t carry such a large camera around while also bringing strollers, snacks, toys, backpacks, etc. Pretty much any Canon or Nikon will do here; check which is in your price range.

Compact cameras are the exact opposite - they tend to be almost or just as pocketable as smartphones, while taking better quality photos and videos. The tradeoffs involved are that they don’t have as remarkable autofocus as DSLR’s, and there’s a price premium for them relative to the equivalent DSLR’s and mirrorless cameras. The prototypical example of this camera is the whizbang Sony RX100 series, which has had five models released, and which spans the price range from $450 for the oldest version to $1,000 for the newest. This camera works for travel, nature, has exceptional video, and is portable enough to go on all trips with the kids. It may be expensive, but it’s the pinnacle of its form.

Mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras are a nice medium between the two. While they don’t focus as quickly as DSLR’s, they tend to be lighter and somewhat slimmer than them. And while they aren’t quite as compact as dedicated compact cameras, they take better pictures and (can be) more versatile. Canon has a number of entry-level mirrorless cameras all of which are considered great values, punching above their weight class, such as the M6 and the M100. If you think you can manage carrying something a bit more robust than a compact camera, but don’t want to go all the way up to a DSLR, mirrorless cameras are an increasingly viable choice.

Cameras for Travelers

DPReview’s guide for travel cameras.

Dedicated travelers tend to have different requirements than parents. Instead of being concerned with vibrant kids, travelers seek vibrant photos of vistas and villages. Being on the move often requires that cameras pack light and be compact; sometimes, you won’t be able to get as close and personal as you’d like. Much of the wisdom of mirrorless and compact cameras apply here as well, but there’s another form of camera which mostly makes sense for travel: the super-zoom camera.

Super-zoom cameras tend to have absurd zooms which are fixed to the camera, making them the big-brother counterparts of compact cameras. For example, last generation’s Sony RX10 has a 25-fold optical zoom, allowing remote intimacy with flora and fauna which you may not feel comfortable stepping face-to-face with.

Cameras like my own Fuji X100 series are also popular for travel, due to their robustness, modest size, and excellent performance.

Final thoughts

The common parlance, “The best camera is the one you have with you,” is what you should take away from this gist. Smartphones are ubiquitous and can hold their own for day-to-day shooting, but are not perfect in all photography use cases. Compact and mirrorless cameras go a long way in rounding out a photographer’s arsenal, without becoming huge drags. And if you have the space and strength to bring one with you, a DSLR or bridge camera can squeeze out feats of photography that simply cannot be done in smaller cameras.

I hope my notes were helpful! I’m far from an expert, but hopefully this bit of information can prove useful the next time you consider getting a camera.

© Jeff Rabinowitz, 2019