Being both the "tech guy" and "camera guy" in our family means my husband, Simon Gerzina, is frequently called upon to dispense advice (not to mention over the phone troubleshooting) to family and friends. I asked him for some general advice as well as buying recommendations for three types of parents:
• a parent who wants a simple point and shoot camera they can throw in their bag or pocket that will be an affordable step up from relying on a cell phone camera
• a parent who still wants the portability of a small camera (because, after all, you're only going to get good photos if you have your camera with you!) but is willing to invest a little more money and a little more time to learn how to control a camera's settings
• a parent who wants to experiment and learn more about photography (especially in non-ideal lighting) and is ready to enter the world of digital SLR cameras
Of course you will want to do your own research, but consider him your "camera guy" for a moment. Here are his buying recommendations:
An Affordable Point and Shoot
Canon PowerShotSD3500 (around $235)
• pocketable, but fully featured
• HD video
• bright and large LCD screen
A Good Value Compact Digital Camera
Nikon Coolpix P7000 (around $380)
• still pocketable, but you can start to play with manual modes and experiment with photography more
• a high resolution LCD screen
• easier (compared to a DSLR) to use in automatic modes if you want to spend more time taking pictures than figuring out how to take pictures
• a good bridge between snapshots and digital SLRs
Entry Level DSLRs
Canon Rebel T3i (or EOS 600D depending on what country you're in). Note: this model will be released in March and is the successor to the popular T2i/EOS 550D. (around $800 body only + $100 for EF-S 18-55mm lens)
Even though he's a Nikon man, my husband calls the Canon Rebel the entry level SLR. Why?
• small and lightweight
• takes fantastic photos
• even though you’re buying in at the entry level you have access to most of Canon’s lens and flash lineup
• one of the most cost-effective ways to get into HD DSLR video
Nikon D3100 (around $700 with 18-55mm lens)
This is essentially Nikon's equivalent to the Rebel and is the current "sweet spot" for your first Nikon SLR.
• even smaller and more compact than the Rebel (may be more comfortable if you have small hands)
• the resolution is slightly lower than the Rebel but plenty high for beautiful shots and will take up less storage space over time
• with the exception of some of the largest pro lenses, you can pretty much use all of Nikon’s legendary lens lineup
Keep in mind that the lens can be more important than the camera and these suggestions are just gateways into the world of digital SLRs. These bodies can last you many years, but your next step may be buying lenses that can cost one or two times more than these bodies. One of the biggest ways to improve the quality of your photos is going to be buying a nicer lens.
Where To Shop?
Where To Find Trusted Reviews
Digital Photography Review aka dpreview: This is a serious site with very in-depth reviews. It may include more technical information than a beginner may want, but it's the go-to review site for most pros. In addition to reviews of individual cameras and accessories, their Digital SLR Buying Guide is comprehensive and packed with things to consider, especially if you're buying your first. Trying to decide between a compact camera and an entry-level digitial SLR? Their advice is great (summarized): "Why would anyone want a digital SLR when compact digital cameras are so much smaller, lighter and more affordable? The answer can be summed up in two words: versatility and image quality...In broad daylight the quality difference between a good compact and a digital SLR is minimal...But when you start to push the boundaries a bit more...the advantage of a digital SLR's larger sensor and higher sensitivity start to make a big difference."
Get Better Light Not a Better Camera
The most important thing for a good photo is good light not a better camera. Better light will improve a photo taken with anything whether it’s a $2000 camera or a cell phone. If you’re serious about improving the quality of your photos, starting to evaluate and manage the light you’re taking photos in will have the biggest effect on your photos.
General Lighting Tips
Avoid extreme light: You generally want to avoid extreme lighting conditions, for example the extreme low light of a candlelit restaurant as well as the extreme bright light of hard midday sun. The human eye is more adaptable to extreme light than a camera is so the camera may not see what your eye sees.
Look for "open shade": In general, bright direct sunlight isn’t great for photos, especially of people, as it makes very hard and deep shadows. Instead you want “open shade” which refers to the shade cast by things like a building or a tree on a sunny day. (Still available light, but not directly in the sun). Overcast, cloudy or even drizzly days can actually be much, much better for photos of people than bright sunny days.
Shutter Speed: One of the most important things people can learn, especially on an slr, is the importance of shutter speed. More often than not blurry photos are not caused by hand shake or your subject moving as they are by the shutter speed being too low. Understanding when to increase the camera’s ISO setting in order to get a faster shutter speed can go a long way in getting sharper photos.
(All non-product images: Simon Gerzina)