What camera should I get for Christmas?

Christmas is coming and you want to get some really great pictures of the family this year. Or maybe a camera is on someone in your family's wish list. But what should you buy?

This question comes up a lot, and the answer of course is "it depends". There many different cameras on the market for a reason, and diving into the details will make your head spin. So rather than covering everything, I want to outline a few considerations for you that might make the choice a little easier, or at least get you started. 

One other thing; before I begin, although I shoot Canon, the tips below apply to any brand of camera, whether it be Nikon, Panasonic, Olympus, Canon or any of a hundred other brands.

How much do I want to learn?

The first question you should ask yourself is "how much do I want to learn about photography"? 

If you don't know what shutter speed and aperture are, don't care, and really never want to know, but you still want to take great pictures, you still can! Turn to a good point-and-shoot camera and avoid the DSLR's. Point and shoot cameras really do take great pictures, have some easy settings to help you and can be very simple to operate. And just because the camera is big doesn't mean it's going to make you a better photographer. You have to know how to use it to really improve your images, and that takes time and effort. So if you just want "good" pictures, then purchase a "good" camera and avoid the complications.

When purchasing a "point-and-shoot", I highly recommend you purchase one that encloses the lens when it is turned off (like the Canon Powershot pictured here for example). This will help you avoid fingerprints, dirt and scratches on the lens that will ruin your photographs. Even a lens cap (which you should also use on your DSLR) will be better than a bare lens. 

If you're purchasing an underwater camera, it may not cover the lens when it is turned off, so be sure to get a case that will protect the lens when not in use.

One frustrating thing you should check when buying a point and shoot camera is how fast it actually takes the picture. A digital camera is really a small computer, and if the computer is slow, it can take time to process the image. The time between when you push the shutter button and when the picture is actually captured can sometimes be a few seconds. That can be very frustrating when you are constantly missing the moment.

On the other hand, if you are eager to spend time learning the art of photography, you will want to consider spending more money and buying a camera you can change lenses on. These cameras are much more flexible, allow for more manual control, are usually faster and provide many more creative options.

Although DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) cameras technically are TTL (Through the Lens) and mirrored, mirror-less cameras are becoming popular (like the Canon EOS M pictured here), come in smaller packages and take awesome photos much like their older more mechanically oriented cousins. You can still change the lenses on these cameras and they are much more portable (the reasons for changing lenses are another topic and would take too long to explain in this blog entry). Keep in mind, however, that the mounts for these cameras may be quite different from the full DSLR's and you may end up having to purchase lenses all over again if you move up to a larger camera.

What is it for?

Next you should ask "What do I want to use it for"?

If you plan on travelling with your camera, and are not working for National Geographic, then a smaller package is likely better - it will be easier to transport, carry, and be less obtrusive when you pull it out in public. On the other hand, a larger format (bigger sensor) camera may be better for grabbing detail in objects, or landscapes. Mirror-less cameras are great in this regard as they come in smaller bodies with smaller lenses that stow more easily.

Lens choice can provide some creative opportunities, but you may not want to carry too many lenses. A good zoom lens can be very versatile, but may not give you the crispness of image you are looking for.

Everything is a trade off and a balancing act. If you are buying a camera that you can change the lenses on, though, be sure to buy a body with a good selection available. You may want to add to your arsenal in the future and limiting the types and sizes of lenses you can acquire might cause you to have to purchase a different body in the future. Also on that note, purchasing a body with a healthy eco-system of lenses means that you will likely be able to change out the camera body in the future and still use those lenses - something that can save you a lot of money in the long run.

Are you looking to shoot friends and family? A good portrait lens (covering 85-100mm) is important, but you should also consider if you will be in tighter spaces over the holidays and need something wider. 

Check what the sensor size is on your camera and match the lenses to the sensor (or at least understand how the lens will work with the sensor). A smaller sensor has a different "crop factor" and a 60mm lens on a cropped sensor will take pictures more like a 100mm lens on a 35mm frame camera... purchasing a lens that fits the cropped sensors may not work on your full frame camera either, though a full frame lens may fit your cropped sensor... sorry, too much detail - if your salesperson can't explain that to you, find another sales person! Again, if you have to buy just one lens, a good zoom lens will help you cover the range.

If  you are looking to get more creative, then you should definitely consider a DSLR, or at least a camera with interchangeable lenses. That will give you the most options as other attributes of a camera are largely similar between makes and models of inter-changeable lens cameras. 

By the numbers...

Here are a couple of other considerations you should make, and they involve numbers:

Megapixels: This used to be the big deciding factor, but no longer is. Any camera with 10 or more megapixels will be high enough for almost every use. In fact, if you're just posting on social media, 2 Mpx may be all you really need. Many cell phone cameras now have cameras more than 10 megapixels. The opposite consideration is important though; If you have too high a megapixel count, your file sizes will be much higher requiring more storage for your pictures, which in turn can cost you in storage and backup space (you do make backups, don't you?).

ISO: This is the new megapixels race as camera sensors improve their ISO ratings. What ISO can the camera go to without too much grain in the image? The higher this number, the less light is required to take a nice steady image. It's something worth asking about. When you bought film (did you ever buy film?), it was usually 100, 200, 400 ISO with some going up to 1200. Now the sensors are reaching 12,800 and much higher without significant noise (grain) in the image.

$: Yeah, I'm including this here, because you can spend anywhere from $50 to $50,000 on a camera that in essence is a lightproof box with a shutter and a sensor. Sometimes it's best just to set yourself a budget and stick within it!

Just the tip of the iceberg...

Of course, all of this is just the beginning when considering what camera to buy. We could talk about digital vs optical zoom, off camera flash, wireless transfer, sync speed and any of a hundred other topics, but at least remember that first question. 

I know people who have bought a DSLR thinking they want to take better pictures, only to find it too complicated and that they can take just as good pictures with their point and shoot camera. On the other hand, I have seen people frustrated that they can't do what they want to with their point and shoot.

It's a personal decision, but whatever you purchase, have fun with it this Christmas! And if you forget to get out your new camera, that's OK - don't forget, you always have that one on your cell phone! 

(c) 2013 Gary Scott - Gary's Lens Photography


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