I have a perfectly good point-and-shoot camera but I’m in the market for a new one anyway—not because I’m a consumerist sucker, but for my kid. For her eighteenth birthday, she is very clear that she doesn’t want a smartphone (like her sister finally got), but a proper camera. Now that I’m up to speed on modern cameras, I’m ready to help you get there too.
“But wait,” you’re thinking. “Cameras are obsolete!” No they’re not. In this post I’ll explain:
- Why you want a camera (or should)
- The main types of camera (point-and-shoot, mirrorless, and DSLR) and how to choose among them
- Other arcana around viewfinders, sensor resolution, shutter speed, image stabilization, bulb mode, front curtain shutter, and why the most expensive cameras are filled with sand
Don’t worry, it’s not as boring as it sounds. Also, my typical ignorance won’t be infectious … I’ve consulted two actual experts and will quote them as necessary.
Why buy a camera?
It’s certainly true that modern smartphones take really great photos, and they’re always at hand when that perfect subject presents itself. Factually, most of the pictures and videos I get nowadays are from my phone. In particular phones do a great job with low light … they somehow make do without needing a flash.
The problem is, their tiny lenses tend to be very wide-angle, and often produce startlingly warped results. Case in point: I was having a beer with my boss a couple months back and he suddenly said, “Smile!” and snapped my photo with his iPhone. As I discovered later, he emailed the pic to our whole team … which would be fine except, being caught off guard, I was wearing a huge shit-eating grin. Okay, that’s on me, but even worse, the photo was totally warped so my head looked like Charlie Brown’s. My ears looked almost as far apart as my shoulder blades. I looked like a damn bobblehead. I’d totally post the photo here to prove my point, but it’s so awful I’m actually too vain. It’s bad enough for my colleagues to get a good laugh at my expense—I’m not letting you as well.
But here’s an example I’m not afraid to post, of my nephew and his grandma. Look at this, it’s like something out of Alice in Wonderland:
I’ve got lots of examples of these, from various modern phones.
I also have an issue with how phone cameras reproduce color. It’s not that they’re bad at it; it’s that the colors often seem “enhanced” by the software. I feel like we’ve reached the point where you can’t really trust these cameras—it’s like when you see a photo of a Big Mac and the tomato looks properly red, like the kind of vine-ripened tomato you’d never get at McDonald’s, and the cheese looks like plastic (which it probably is). Smartphone cameras and their associated apps seem more keen to please narcissistic Instagrammers than they are to produce accurate photos faithful to their subjects.
Here is Exhibit B, showcasing this software impulse toward brazen tampering:razor stubble too unsightly, my skin too gooseflesh-y … in short, that I’m not attractive enough to warrant all the selfie-photo sharing I was surely about to do. So it showed me what my face is supposed to look like, if I were someone else … someone good. What the hell is wrong with modern society, other than everything?! And (more to the point), how much are these camera apps doing without asking us? I prefer a device that reproduces reality as faithfully as it can—you know, like an old film camera would do, and which modern cameras still do.
My daughter, who has the critical eye of an artist, has been borrowing my smartphone for years to capture priceless moments “on film,” and lately she’s grown more and more frustrated with it, and increasingly borrows my (albeit nine-year-old) proper camera instead. I can’t wait until she has her own, vastly superior to mine, so I won’t have to hunt for mine anymore. Plus, I’m excited to see what shots she will get with a truly fine instrument.
So what kind of camera should you get? Let’s walk through the types, in ascending order of price.
In reality, almost all modern cameras could be described as point-and-shoot, in the sense that you don’t have to set the aperture, f-stop, shutter speed, or anything else, nor do you have to focus. Several times (pre-pandemic) I’ve been in a group of friends and somebody has handed me a super fancy Nikon DSLR camera and asked me to snap a group shot, and I’ve learned I don’t need to ask how to use it. “Just press this button” is all the instruction I’ve ever needed—or gotten.
So what point-and-shoot really means is “basic, cheap camera that doesn’t allow you to swap out lenses.” Point-and-shoots can be pretty sophisticated and/or expensive and can even be fairly bulky, with telescoping zoom lenses. My Panasonic has a 16X zoom, which is way better than the zoom on any smartphone including the so-called 30X zoom on my Samsung. (Phone cameras have so-called “optical zoom” which is more like cropping a picture than actually seeing farther.)
Since these point-and-shoot cameras have bigger lenses than a smartphone and (in my experience) don’t tend to warp photos as much, I suppose they’re worth buying … but then, if you’re going to carry around a whole extra device, why not step up to something even better, that solidly trounces a phone camera? Let’s look at the next category.
I’ll bet you never knew your point-and-shoot camera had a mirror in it! Well, guess what: it doesn’t. So this second type of camera should perhaps be called “also-mirrorless” or “the other mirrorless.” Pretty weird, isn’t it, to define something by what it isn’t, or hasn’t got? Imagine if boxer shorts were called “strapless underpants.”
The mirrorless camera gets its name from the fact that the next step up, DSLR cameras, do have a mirror in them, like the (film) SLR cameras of old. (As if we all knew that, or cared.) The actual difference between mirrorless and point-and-shoot cameras is that the former generally have bigger sensors (more on this in a second), and you can switch around among variety of different lenses, which gives you something else to buy (in a good way).
So what’s all this about the sensor? Well, since cameras don’t have film to expose to light anymore, they have sensors, and the bigger the better. (You can spend $10K on a mirrorless camera, and its giant sensor is the main selling point.) The sensor isn’t the only important thing, though; you also want a lens big enough to let in more light. Mirrorless cameras have these traits, and thus are what the cool kids are using, I’m told. They take really good pictures (as my friend John’s photo albums would attest if I saw fit to violate his privacy by linking to them here).
The digital single-lens reflex camera is the really expensive version that some people—that is, the ones who look down on us—simply have to have. (Single-lens reflex probably started out “single-lens reflects” but “reflex,” like all words with an “X” in them, seems cooler somehow.) All SLR cameras have a mirror and a pentaprism in them, so that whatever image the lens “sees” is reflected right into the viewfinder, aka eyepiece. Here’s how it works:
Does that looks fancy and sophisticated? Damn right it does. And that comes at a cost.
But what is the practical advantage of this? Well, two things. One, what you see through the viewfinder is exactly what the photo will capture. Thus, you avoid the “parallax error,” and though I don’t understand exactly what that is, it just sounds bad, doesn’t it? Next time you look at a photo and think, “Damn, that dude’s head looks like it’s about four feet in circumference,” you might be encountering a parallax error (unless it’s actually encephalitis). I’m not saying you are seeing parallax, since I’m not some kind of scientist or optics expert or anything, but I’m just sayin.
Now, the other advantage of the SLR camera is quite simply that it costs more, and discerning people will not skimp. I mean, why the hell should they? Do you think James Bond would use a mirrorless camera? Hell no. He’d use a Leica. In fact he did. A real one, not just the Leica lens built into a point-and-shoot camera like mine, which is a sellout if there ever was one. (Could you even fit a mirror and pentaprism into a camera that looks like a bow-tie? Of course not, but then a wristwatch that shoots laser beams isn’t very realistic, either.)
So, if you’re the kind of person who must have a DSLR, the rest of the hairs I’ll split in this post probably don’t apply to you. You should just throw as much money as you can at a camera, preferably on a top brand like Nikon, and you can’t go wrong. Your photos will be better due to the automatically superior features you’ll be getting, and higher-end materials, and because you’ll be surrounded by beautiful people who feel themselves automatically drawn to you … unless you’re on safari. Then you’ll get great shots because you’ll have a lackey supporting the four-foot-long telephoto lens you’ll be using, which enables you to peer right down the throats of mighty lions. You DSLR people can stop reading right here … get yourself over to B&H Photo and start shopping!
A final note on DSLRs: you might hear these referred to as “sand-filled” cameras. Believe it or not, this moniker was coined by my brothers and me. The origin is something famously said by our dad, who was a great photographer (though he had the annoying habit of using only slide film, so you could never see his pictures unless he did a slide show, but he was too cheap to buy multiple carousels so he would have to load each set sequentially so the shows took hours, thus he almost never did them, and I have thousands of slides we’ve never seen before, which I only discovered after his death and which are now in my garage waiting to be digitized). He was all into the classic old-school SLR cameras that take different lenses, etc., and teaching my brothers how to use them (but not teaching me, as he was too disgusted by my brothers’ stupidity and/or was insufficiently confident I could learn and/or simply got bored of parenting). Oddly enough, at some point during his retirement he suddenly turned his back on the classic technology and took to poo-pooing DSLRs. He was talking to Bryan and me once (as I recall, Bryan had his pride and joy, a Pentax DSLR, hanging around his neck at the time, and if our dad had been better read he’d have compared it to an albatross, à la “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) and he (Dad) scoffed, “There’s no reason these fancy DSLR cameras need to be so big and heavy. It’s obvious that the marketing people got involved and influenced the design teams, just to fool all these consumers into thinking there’s something special about these giant cameras. They’re probably full of sand.”
How to choose among mirrorless cameras
O gosh, you could go crazy researching this stuff. When purchasing anything, I have a tendency to narrow down my investigation to just a couple of brands, right off the bat. And how do I filter out the others? Well, there are luxury brands (e.g., Leica, Nikon) that probably aren’t a good value. And then there are obscure ones (e.g., Paper Shoot, HamiltonBuhl) that seem like a gamble. Then there are brands known for other products (e.g., Vivitar, HP) which would be like buying Ralph Lauren housewares or Porsche sunglasses (lame!). So if you have any brand loyalties, like to an old school camera you had in the past, start there. And if some friend you trust has a recommendation, don’t ignore it.
My first digital camera was an Olympus, which I bought back in 2001, when digital cameras were fairly new technology—new enough, in fact, that I bought mine at The Sharper Image. It was $750, and the memory card (which might hold up to one modern photo) was probably at least another $50. It would be easy to take shots at that camera (sorry, pun intended) based on how primitive it seems by modern standards, but it actually took some really great photos, like this one:
When it was time to replace it I had gobs of choices and a friend recommended a Panasonic Lumix, with the Leica lens I mentioned earlier. I took his advice and since then I had several of these; between me and my kids we have tended to drop (and thus break) them.
Her ageing father’s brand loyalty aside, my daughter had her eye on an Olympus PEN mirrorless like her friend has, and when I started looking I realized that, while most mirrorless camera brands will only take their own lenses, there’s one exception: Olympus and Panasonic lenses are interoperable. That seems pretty cool to me, given my luck with both brands. Plus, I was looking for an excuse to settle on a single brand, so Olympus it is.
Of course, you have to choose among the models available, and that’s where the B&H Photo website is pretty handy, with their Compare feature. (Yes, other websites have this too, but they don’t do a very good job with it.) Poring over the differences is a fun rabbit hole to go down—almost as fun as Alice’s descent into Wonderland (“curiouser and curiouser!”). Consider this comparison of the Olympus PEN E-PL10 vs. the Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark IV. There, side by side, are all the technical specifications so you can totally geek out.
But what if you’re not a camera geek? That’s when you have to call on a friend or two … and surely you have at least one friend who’s a camera maven? This is what I did, with my friend John and my brother Bryan offering great advice.
Ah, but I see I’ve run a bit long here. I’ll save the rest of this post for next week. Check back because I’ll go into bulb mode, sensor size/resolution, image stabilization, front curtain shutter, and the all-important viewfinder…