Costco, the big box membership discount retailer, has this brilliant plan: all the flashy electronics are up front. The big TVs playing sports, the computers, the iPads, and of course that large rectangular table containing the cameras. Cameras are the great universal equalizer: men and women, old and young, tech savvy and tech illiterate — they all flock to cameras. We all love pictures, we all think we can take better pictures — and you need a camera to get a picture.
So you stop at that table and see what Costco has to offer and you find that sub $500 dSLR staring at you. There it is. It’s bigger than what you have now so that’s good — that says pro — and it’s got a big brand name like Canon, Nikon, or Pentax. It’s not pro-level, this you know, but hot damn will it make your pictures look better.
And who doesn’t want their pictures to look better?
So you grab one, or the card for one as the case often is, and get it. Sweet, sweet, Ansel Adams looking photos here I come! ((Naturally you pick Ansel because he is the only famous photographer that you know. “I wonder what he uses these days”, you might think. Well he’s dead, sorry to tell you.))
The thing about this is that you just made a pretty big mistake. Perhaps even a grave one if you currently enjoy taking pictures.
You see, for the normal person, owning a dSLR will not yield a better picture. It is far more likely that you will get worse picture with a dSLR than with your iPhone. I know that many of you who didn’t heed my advice to not read this, are now thinking I am nuts.
But give me a little leeway here.
I’ve spent months testing and trying out cameras and writing about them for this site. I’ve used and continue to use most cameras that come out on the market. And yet my camera is relatively simple, and yet still held in very high regard despite that.
But I don’t think you should get my camera.
My camera isn’t for you, the normal person who just wants to bump up the quality of their photos beyond what their iPhone offers. My camera isn’t that easy to use — my camera will frustrate the shit out of you.
This article is for the person who only uses, or has used, a smartphone as their camera — but are now thinking that they would like to “get better pictures”, but don’t have any desire to “learn” photography. For people that still want to point and shoot, and just get better images. For people that don’t understand, or care to understand, a lick about photography — they shoot by eye and that is that. This is a much larger niche of people than you might assume — I’d estimate the number of people that fit this bill to be somewhere around 80% of Instagram users.
Why are dSLRs Trouble for Most People?
Make no mistake that in the hands of someone who truly understands the camera, a dSLR is almost always better than an iPhone. However, to get those results you must truly understand the camera.
Which means you need to study the camera. Not just point and shoot, you have to learn all the controls, which not only means reading the camera manual, but also learning about shutter speed, ISO, aperture, focal points, color balance, and a lot more.
It’s not a tool you pick up and just get better pictures with. Most people will end up with worse pictures simply because they don’t understand the camera, or photography, or both. Smartphone cameras do a massive amount of sophisticated work behind the scenes to help you get decent looking photos every time you use them.
It’s easier to bork the settings on you dSLR, because you have never had to deal with settings before.
Or to miss focus, as the focus zones are so small, and apertures so wide, that you literally could have out of focus eyes because you focused on a persons nose instead of iris. Doesn’t that sound like fun?
You’re just not going to get better quality photos by simply buying a dSLR. If you want better quality photos you are really going to need to spend time learning the dSLR and basic photography principles. Or at the very least you are going to need a lot of trial and error.
It’s a months long process at minimum, which is why I typically wait 4-6 months after I start using a new camera body before I review it. And I understand most of the photographic principles. ((Not that knowing that in any way makes my photos better in any way.))
So what the hell do you buy?
Before I can help you pick a better suited camera, let’s talk about budget. You can run the gamut and find good cameras at almost any price. For this post I am breaking my recommendations into three categories:
- Under $500
- No Budget
The price you spend on a camera certainly matters, but not nearly as much as you think it does.
Since we’ve talked about money, we need to now talk about expectations. Both my expectations of where you are at with photography, and what you expect out of these cameras.
When building this guide, I made the assumption that your only experience with photography is with a camera phone — iPhone or Android, or Windows. That no matter how “good” you are with that camera, that’s all you know about photography.
What you can expect from these cameras, in comparison to your smart phone is:
- Higher quality images from a technical standpoint of higher resolution and sharper lenses, less noise, less CA, etc.
- More flexibility in shooting: long exposures, AF tracking, etc.
- Faster controls and pictures: dedicated shutter, dedicate movie button, dedicated controls for most of the functions on the camera.
- True depth of field control: i.e. “blurred backgrounds”.
What ‘better’ is not, is:
- Sharper images: the sharpness of an image has to do with many factors and just getting a more expensive camera will in no way yield you instantly sharper images.
- Better color: again, as with sharpness, you don’t just get better color. That is dependent on a multitude of factors as well. You can get better color rendering, but now we are delving far into the nerdy side of photography.
- An instantly better photo in any way: even with the selection I am going to lay out, you still need to take some time to learn the camera. To experiment — it will just hopefully take far less time than it would with a dSLR.
Now What do You Buy?
Great question, let’s get on with it.
Less than $500
My choice here is the Panasonic DMC-ZS40k — and be careful to get that model and not the ones with higher model numbers as that is the better of the lot.
The main things you need to know about this camera:
- Insane zoom range
- Decently fast lens
- Bad ISO noise (you get what you pay for)
- Simple operation
- Built in electronic viewfinder.
It’s $372 at the time of this writing and packs quite a punch. I’ve been looking at picking up one just to have kicking around for our family. This is a very solid camera that will allow you to do almost anything you want to do with a camera. It won’t throw backgrounds completely out of focus, but it will get you closer to that. It won’t turn night into day.
In many ways it will be better than your iPhone, but in some it won’t be.
$501 – $1,000
Ok now we are going to step into the realm of one of the hottest cameras on the market, the Sony RX100 mark III. Do note that there is currently an RX100 mark IV on the market, so I am talking about the older model — and thus price discounted model while supplies last, but the mark IV is even better (but more pricey).
The main things you need to know about this camera:
- Smaller zoom range than the Panasonic
- Very fast lens that will allow shallow depth of field
- Solid ISO noise handling
- Simple operation
- Built in electronic viewfinder.
- High megapixel count
Make no mistake, the RX100 mark III, ((And yes the RX100 mk IV too.)) is an amazing camera. No qualifiers to that statement either. It is a very good all around camera. I’ve gone with the mark III strictly because I don’t think you can beat the price — this is a camera that is a serious camera made easy. At $798 it is not cheap, but well worth the extra money.
Actually I don’t have a pick for this category, so just buy the Sony RX100 mark IV, and see the above points for why. That’s still a sub $1,000 camera and truthfully any extra money you spend will just cause you more problems down the line.
You Can Do More Than You Think With Your iPhone
Having said all that, you can do quite a lot more than you might think with your iPhone. There are a plethora of apps out there that will help you achieve what you want, but for those of you that want to move beyond apps — the two cameras listed here are perfect starting points for you.
There’s simply no good reason to buy a dSLR any more and very little reason for most people to even have an interchangeable lens mirrorless camera. But there is plenty of reasons to get a “good” camera as there are certainly things you just can’t do with a phone camera.
And for those things, and those people that are more interested in the image than the process, well the Panasonic and Sony cameras above offer perfect starting points.
I’ve seen far too many people, especially while I was at Disney World, get mad at their expensive cameras because they missed the shot that they had in their head. Don’t be that person.
A great photo isn’t made by the camera.
The reason you love photography on your iPhone so very much is because Apple has made it damned easy to get a pretty solid picture each time. And the reason that you loathe picking up that dSLR is because Canon has done a lot to give you full control of everything. The cameras listed above attempt to strike that middle ground, graduating you slowly into the full control realm of things, while keeping things damned easy.
There are a lot of really amazing photos shot with iPhones, but will have to spend time editing those shots. With the cameras above you are shifting the work from post-processing on a computer or phone, to getting the shot right when you take it. There difference doesn’t sound very profound, but trust me when I say that it is a huge difference.
A digital SLR is a great tool, but it’s not likely a tool, or really anyone for that matter, needs anymore. Further, I am guessing it won’t be as “fun” as you think and therefore you will start taking less pictures. That is just sad.
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