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The World's Shortest Camera Buying Guide

September 22, 2007

Short Version, for the World's Record

  • At or above $500, get a DSLR.
  • Below $500, it doesn't matter what you get, so budget $250 - $350 for a very small camera.
  • Buy one of each, because you can't have your DSLR with you all the time and a pocketable doesn't take high-quality pictures.

Longer Version, With Explanations

There are camera buying guides all over the web. Most of them review the features available, suggest you consider what's important to you, recommend that you try out the camera before you buy it, and tell you that megapixels don't matter, or at least don't matter as much as the marketeers would have you believe.

In the end, you still don't know what to buy. All you've learned from the guide is that buying a camera is complicated.

So, here's my attempt to get it all in one short blog entry.

There are three main kinds of photographers:

  1. Those who want to push a button and get a decent snapshot.
  2. Those for whom photography is a hobby, or at least something they want to do well. They want to learn about composition, technique, and, to varying degrees, technology.
  3. Professionals.
My advice for the first group is this: Buy whatever Consumer Reports recommends, or, if that's too much trouble, just get any $200 - $300 Canon, Casio, Fuji, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, or Sony camera that seems to be convenient.

Professionals wouldn't be reading my blog to figure out what to buy, so I can skip them.

That leaves the interesting middle group, and here's my advice to them:

  • Any camera has two primary functions: (1) To be at your eye when you want to take the picture, and (2) to produce a high-quaity image. Because #1 is sometimes the most important function, you'll sacrifice #2. But, when #2 is most important, you'll take along a camera that is impractical to have with you all the time.
  • The solution is to buy two cameras: One pocketable that you'll have with you all the time, and one much larger, that takes better pictures, for when you really don't mind carrying a camera, probably in its own case. If you don't need a pocketable camera, just get the larger one.
  • The larger camera has to be a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR), which means that the viewfinder has you looking right through the same lens that takes the picture. This is because the most important contributor to image quality is the size of the sensor, and DSLRs have much bigger sensors that non-DSLR point-and-shoot cameras. (Beware of cameras that look like DSLRs but have electronic viewfinders. They aren't DSLRs, and their sensors are most likely much too small.) You can get a Nikon D40 with an 18-55mm zoom lens for $500, so consider that the minimum. The maximum is maybe $10,000 (for one lens), but it's dropping. (There's one 35mm-type camera with a sensor even bigger than most DSLRs, the rangefinder-focussing Leica M8, but it will cost you about $7000 with lens.)
  • The pocketable camera should be one whose lens collapses entirely into the body, so the camera slips easily into your pocket or purse. A protruding lens is fragile, so you'll want to put the camera in a case, and then it's no longer pocketable.
  • There are two sizes of pocketable cameras with collapsing, self-capping lenses: Very small (e.g., Casio Exilim, Canon ELPH), and bigger-but-still-pocketable. Since the pocketable isn't your main camera, get whatever is convenient. The best camera right now (late Sept. 2007) in the bigger category is the Canon G9 ($500), which is one of the very few non-DSLRs that shoots raw. If you want your pocketable camera to be waterproof, there are a few choices, notably the Olympus Stylus 770 SW, but I hear that its picture quality isn't so good compared to other point-and-shoots.
  • If you think that $500 and raw are overkill for your pocketable camera, get a very small one and don't pay more than about $350.
  • If you enjoy reading the amazingly detailed camera reviews on the web (here, here, and here), read away and then make your choice. Otherwise, as I said above, anything under $400 from Canon, Casio, Fuji, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, or Sony will be OK.

There you go... and all in one blog entry, as promised.

Blog Archives

Photography Articles

Raw Conversion: Better Never Than Late April 24, 2008

Scanning in India by Way of California With ScanCafe February 15, 2008

How To Back Up Your Personal Computer January 30, 2008

Every Camera I've Ever Owned January 25, 2008

Sharpening JPEGs for the Web January 4, 2008

Lessons Learned From My Memory Problem December 20, 2007

Hunting Down a Mac Hardware Problem December 20, 2007

Trimming GPS Tracks With GPSTrackViewer November 13, 2007

The World's Shortest Camera Buying Guide September 22, 2007

Transporting and Storing Portable Backup Drives August 26, 2007

"The Luminous Landscape" Teaches Me to Print August 4, 2007

Creating a Google Photo Map (Revised) June 26, 2007

Sony GPS-CS1: Not Good Enough for Geotagging Photos June 24, 2007

Epson P-3000/P-5000 Multimedia Storage Viewer March 10, 2007

Trying Out Infrared January 20, 2007

Stupid Designs Hold Digital Back April 1, 2006

 

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