What Camera?

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Today's post will be a bit of a change of pace. Instead of blathering on about myself and my musings, I'll explore the question my friends and family probably ask me the most: "what camera should I buy?" Maybe you're interested in a camera for yourself; perhaps you're thinking of a gift for a loved one. Either way, I hope you find this discussion useful. 

The Camera We All Have

I will first acknowledge that most of us already have a perfectly good camera. If you own a smartphone, you already have an excellent tool for general-purpose snapshots. If general-purpose snapshots (in reasonable light, with slow-moving subjects) are all you need, feel free to stop reading right here—before you go, you might like to sign up for the Monthly Photo Tip for advice on taking better photos, regardless of what camera you use. 

If you're still reading, my guess is that you're interested in taking more than basic snapshots. Maybe you want to take pictures of your fast-moving kids, and your shots always come out blurry. Maybe you want to capture the sweeping landscapes you find when you go hiking, and don't want to have to worry about your camera getting wet/dusty/muddy/frozen. Maybe you're interested more in photography itself, and learning to control the camera to produce more sophisticated images. To do any of these things you'll need something more than a phone.

All of my recommendations will share two basic assumptions:

  1. You're willing to spend at least $400, and up to $700. Others may disagree with me, but unless you are willing to spend at least that much, you are better off sticking with your phone, and adjusting to its particular shortcomings.
     
  2. You want something better than your smartphone, but are not interested in a big, bulky camera (or in purchasing additional lenses). Therefore, all of my recommendations are for light, relatively small, compact cameras with fixed lenses; all of them, except for one, zoom to some extent.

If you are interested in buying a larger/more complex camera with interchangeable lenses, or simply have more money to spend and are interested in more expensive options, I will be writing other posts in the future, just for you. I'll also be writing another post about what to look for in a camera when buying one—hint: there's more to a great camera than lots of megapixels and a big zoom range.

Get to it, Daniel: Which Camera?

With that out of the way, I will do my best to give you a reasonable camera recommendation, without diving into the technical details too much. I've categorized the aspiring photographer that comes to me for camera-buying advice into three broad categories: 1) the family photog/the traveler; 2) the adventurer; and 3) the apprentice. For each category, I have provided one main recommendation, and an alternative.

Note: I invite you to read the caveats at the bottom of this post.

The Family Photog/The Traveler: Interestingly enough, people with kids, and avid travelersthey often overlaphave similar photography needs. "I love my kids (/traveling). The only thing I love more than my kids (/traveling) is taking photos of my kids (/travels), and sharing them on [social-media of choice]. I want something portable, versatile, and easy to use, and that can easily connect to my phone. Downloading photos off a memory card onto my computer? Ain't nobody got time for that; I've got kids to feed (/travels to plan). Also: #selfie."

  1. Recommendation - Canon PowerShot G7 X, Mark II ($698): *The U.S. version of this camera is currently sold out on amazon; I have linked to the international, no-warranty version instead. One of the best values out there in terms of portability, ease of use, and quality. This canon comes with built-in wi-fi, so you can easily put your photos on your phone/social media. It has a wide aperture, meaning you can take great, sharp photos in the dark without a flash (i.e. of your kids running around indoors/of old churches, or other exotic, no-flash-allowed locales). It also has a decent zoom-range that will suffice in most circumstances (unless you're at a sporting event, or on safari). And the bonus: its touch-screen flips a full 180 degrees so you can take all the #selfies your heart desires. 
     
  2. Alternative - Panasonic Lumix DMC ZS100 ($699.99): If you aren't that into selfies, the Panasonic is a reasonable and equally priced alternative. Though you give up the tilting, touch-enabled screen, you gain a practical, 10x optical zoom. This means you can get decent images at long distances, such as at your kid's soccer game, or travel situations where you can't get close to your subject. In exchange for the long zoom range you have a narrower aperture, meaning the Panasonic won't be as useful in dark places with low light. In bright light, however, the built-in viewfinder makes it easier to take photos without worrying about glare reflecting into your eyes off the screen. Finally, you still have built-in wi-fi, so you can easily transfer images directly to your phone. 

The Adventurer: "I want to document my adventures, and I need a camera that can keep up with me. Sand, sea, snow: I love the outdoors. What I want is a hardy, dustproof, waterproof camera that I can take anywhere, and easily handle while on my adventures. I also really like to shoot video (of myself doing awesome and/or dangerous things) in addition to photos."

  1. Recommendation - Olympus "Tough" TG-4 ($379): The Olympus TG-4 is something of a happy medium between a fully dedicated action-camera like the GoPro (below), and a more photography-focused tool. It is shaped more like a traditional camera—with a larger screen, and more ergonomic design—and is thus more suited to carefully composing your shots. It also has a wider aperture (the opening that lets light into the camera) which means it is better at taking photos when it's dark, without the need for a flash. While it's not as waterproof as the GoPro (going only to 50ft), it is crushproof, and freeze-proof, making it more durable.
     
  2. Alternative - GoPro Hero 4 ($348.95): The GoPro is one of the most portable, durable, and user-friendly cameras on the market, particularly if you're the outdoors type. Though somewhat more tailored to video, you can get very reasonable photos out of it. The newest version also has a touch-screen, making it even easier to set up and use. The GoPro is waterproof up to 197 feet (or 60 meters); no other equally-priced camera comes close to that, straight out of the box. If you are a hard-core adventurer, climber, skier, surfer, or diver, and want something easy to shoot with, the GoPro is for you.

The Apprentice: "I am interested in photography for photography's sake. Yes, I want to take photos of my family/friends, and my travels, but I also want to learn more about the art of photography itself. I want to take it slow, and learn how to use my camera on manual: I want to understand what aperture, shutter-speed, and ISO mean. I want to learn how to blur and freeze motion; I want to learn about depth-of-field and bokeh; I want to shoot RAW files and learn to post-process them. I may eventually buy a larger, more serious camera, with multiple lenses."

  1. Recommendation - Panasonic Lumix DMC-LZ100 ($697.99): The Panasonic Lumix is made to be shot manually. Though its automatic function is well balanced, the Panasonic is built with multiple manual control points to facilitate manipulating aperture and shutter speed, without having to dive into complicated menus, or press a bunch of plasticky buttons. It has the largest sensor of almost any zoomable compact camera of its size/price-range: a hefty Micro 4/3 sensor (almost twice the size of the 1-inch sensor of the Canon, and the other Panasonic on this list). A larger sensor means better image quality. Though its screen doesn't flip, and is not touch-enabled, it does have built-in wireless, which allows you to download shots directly onto your phone.
     
  2. Alternative - Fujifilm X70 ($699): The Fujifilm is altogether a different beast than any of the other cameras on this list, for two reasons: 1) it has a truly large sensor, equal in size to those in much larger, bulkier DSLR-type cameras; and 2) it has a fixed lens with no zoom. That's right, you cannot zoom with this lens. In addition to providing you an opportunity to learn to use manual controls (like on the Panasonic), this camera forces you to learn how to use a single focal length, which can be a valuable lesson for a budding photographer—more on that in a future post. Finally, unlike the Panasonic, the Fuji does have a flipping, touch-enabled screen that's easy to use. 

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Finding Your Own

If none of the above recommendations make sense to you, I have some final words of wisdom. Ultimately, the best way to find a camera that's right for you is to use what you've got, and pay attention to where it falls short. Whether it's your new phone, or the discount point-and-shoot that you bought three years ago, go out and use it as much as you can. Take hundreds (or thousands) of pictures, and take note of the things you wish your camera could do, that it isn't doing. Maybe you want more zoom, or a wider-angle lens; maybe you wish it produced more vibrant colors, or blurred the background more smoothly.

Once you figure out the things you really want in a camera, you have a better chance of finding one that will suit your needs. And as I mentioned, I'll be writing more posts in the future about what kinds of technical specifications you should look for in a camera, beyond megapixels and zoom range. 

Finally, keep in mind that there is no such thing as the perfect camera. There will always be trade-offs. It might be just a little bit too big; it'll be more expensive than you'd like; you'll wish it had a bigger screen. That's why it's useful to prioritize the things that matter to you the most, and focus on finding those qualities in your camera. And what if the camera still has shortcomings? Take them as an opportunity to exercise your creativity to overcome them. Few things motivate us to find solutions like being confronted with a problem. 

The Fine Print

Of all the cameras I listed, I have only personally used the Olympus TG-4 extensively; for the rest, I have done copious amounts of online research (so you don't have to), and made my recommendations accordingly. There are many (many, many... many) more options out there; I have done my best to curate the endless buffet of compact cameras on offer into a discrete, selective sample of some of the best value for your money, and relevance to your needs.

If you're interested in doing some more research of your own, I've provided links to some of the lists I have reviewed, as a starting point for your search:

I hope you found this advice useful. Good luck, happy shooting, and I look forward to answering your questions in the comments. Also, I mentioned a few caveats to my recommendations above. They are as follows:

  1. All prices reflect retail value on the U.S. version of amazon.com, in U.S. dollars, on October 10, 2016. I am not responsible for any changes in price and/or availability. 
     
  2. The images in this post do not represent what (most of) these cameras can do. Though I would have liked to actually take sample photos with each of my recommendations, I am not wealthy enough to go out and buy/rent all the cameras I've listed. I did, however, take the photos under the "adventurer" category with my Olympus TG-4, which I own and highly recommend. I took the rest of the photos on this page with my Canon 6D—a large, full-frame, interchangeable lens camera that I have not discussed here (yet). I included all these images simply to highlight the kinds of photography each "category" represents, and to ensure my post wasn't just one giant block of uninterrupted text. I strongly encourage you to do your own research before you buy, so you have an idea of exactly the kind of images each camera is capable of taking.
     
  3. I selected (i.e. completely made up) the three above recommendation "categories" based on my personal experience talking to a variety of people—with a variety of needs—about compact cameras. You may fall somewhere in between or outside of these categories; hopefully you find them useful as a guide, or as a starting point.