Most of us use our smartphone as our primary camera and why not? Despite limitations, they are supremely convenient, fun to use, and capable of good results. If you are thinking about purchasing a traditional camera, this article provides a simple introduction to the main categories of camera and the needs they best serve. Since this might be your first camera – this article is limited to cameras costing less than US$500.
The classic compact (point-and-shoot)
The classic, compact camera is still with us and offers an affordable way to getting a camera with an optical zoom lens providing greater creative freedom when shooting.
The compact camera is very easy to operate and knowing how to switch it on and press the shutter release button is plenty to get by. Whilst image quality is similar to an average smartphone camera – expect it to be worse than that of top-tier smartphones that deploy computer assisted image enhancements.
The compact remains a very cheap way to take pictures and still sells well – just not as well as they once did.
The Super Zoom
Once known as a bridge camera, the superzoom combines a relatively large Digital SLR style body with a long-range zoom lens. If you like the idea of the zoom but not the bulk, you can sacrifice a little reach and opt for something like Panasonic’s DC-ZS70 or Sony’s HX80.
The super zoom only achieves such impressive reach thanks to its small image sensor and you should expect image quality to be similar to a smartphone. If you are looking to shoot moving or erratic subjects such as your children-at-play, the super zoom has the reach but not the performance to capture good quality images at the faster shutter speeds necessary to freeze action and prevent blur.
Of course, super zooms are all about reach and you might think more reach is more. In truth, what is been offered is excessive for most scenarios. The Panasonic FZ80 offers 1200mm of reach and to put this into perspective, a professional sports shooter is often content with less than 400mm. If you are into wildlife or lunar photography – the super zoom will get you reasonable results for a very low price.
Many people will be better off trading the reach of larger super zoom cameras for more compact super zoom options such as Sony’s HX80 or electing for far less reach and putting the money towards image quality and buying an Enthusiast Compact Camera.
Enthusiast Compacts feature larger image sensors than those found in super zooms and smartphones amounting to a camera that combines nice images and pocket-able dimensions.
Most Enthusiast compacts cost much more than $500 but a welcome exception is the Canon’s G9x. Smartphone users will welcome the G9x’s practical 3x optical zoom and feel at home with its easy controls and touchscreen interface. If the G9x is not for you, Sony’s aging but still in production RX100mk1 offers a similar sensor and remains capable of producing a nice image if you do not mind going without modern conveniences such as a touchscreen.
If you are caught between wanting an enthusiast compact and a super zoom, for a little more money there is the Panasonic ZS100 series. The compact Panasonic features the larger sensor and a 10x zoom making for an ideal travel camera.
The Digital SLR
For under $500USD you can pick up a Nikon D3500 or a Canon T7. Both feature sensors around 20 times larger than those found within smartphones enabling them to take professional-grade images even in low light.
A DLSR user can enjoy substantial battery life and a through-the-lens optical view finder. Effective auto-focus helps you get sharp images of moving subjects and you will also appreciate the immediacy of its operation – it’s ready to shoot the moment you switch it on.
Buying either of these cameras also admits you into Nikon/Canon’s professional systems consisting of lighting and every kind of lens you can think of. It’s possible to mount a $3000 telephoto lens on one of these and take a picture worthy of National Geographic.
From the perspective of a smartphone user, these cameras may feel old fashioned. For best results, you need to shoot through the viewfinder rather than using the rear screen. There is no touch screen operation, you cannot tilt the screen for selfies. Sending images through to social media often requires an awkward and often unreliable pairing between the camera and smartphone. Both shoot video but I would recommend neither for doing so.
Whilst small for Digital SLRs, they are bulky compared to most other cameras and not everyone is willing to suffer the size and weight. If you don’t mind the weight and prefer the traditional style of shooting through a viewfinder, the entry level DSLR still offers huge value.
Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras
Mirrorless cameras have matured and in many ways are as good or better than digital SLRs. Unfortunately, they tend to be more expensive but there are still a few gems to be found under $500.
Canon’s M100 is a good fit for the smartphone generation. It is small, friendly, and features a screen that can be flipped up and over for selfies. It also has one of the best implementations of sending images to smartphones for distribution to social media.
Sensor-wise, it features the same large sensor as those found in Canon’s Digital SLR’s and you can expect professional-grade image quality backed up with highly competent auto-focus. It comes with a 15-45mm zoom lens offering practical range within a very compact form. It might be the only lens you need but if it isn’t, you can remove it and attach another lens from Canon’s EF-M system.
The M100 and its EF-M Lens line up is aimed towards a more casual crowd and while it offers plenty for the needs of most people – you will miss the flexibility and vastness of the Digital SLR systems if you find yourself drawn towards shooting sports, starry nights, and/or portraiture. It is possible to attach Canon’s Digital SLR lenses to the M100 but you will need to buy an overpriced adapter and sacrifice the M100’s size advantage.
Perhaps a broader disadvantage of the M100 is the absence of a viewfinder. A deal-breaker for some but those coming from smartphones might not know what they are missing.
What’s the right camera for you?
You should start by considering what you are willing to carry around. A fantastic but heavy camera is of little value if you leave it home out of convenience. To that end, smaller super zooms are wonderful travel companions because they are light, compact, and the in-built lens covers the same range as a bag full of Digital SLR lenses. With an Enthusiast compact, you take a genuine step forwards in image quality but have less zoom to play with.
If you are looking to grow photography into a hobby, you should aim to buy an interchangeable lens camera as different lenses provide different creative opportunities and can be used on your next camera so long as you stay with the same manufacture and system.
Digital SLR’s offer a lot for the money but may feel peculiar to operate if you have been used to poking a touch screen. As a member of the Nikon or Canon SLR system, there’s a lens for every need and a selection of more advanced cameras sharing the same lens mount if you wish to upgrade at some point in the future.
For those looking to replicate the smartphone experience, the compact M100 offers great image quality at the touch of a button.
Pricing is hugely variable as manufactures often offer cashback as well as discounting older models. Prices also differ between markets and you may find better deals within your own locale.
As a result, you may see movement on the prices listed in this article. With a little research and a bit of timing – there are some real bargains to be had.