Sunday, September 27, 2009

“What Camera Should I Buy?”

Recommendations from my experience
followed by hardware options from Ken.

Enough people have asked me, "What is the best camera for me to get?" that I have decided to put some information in my Blog. Here are some points I would like to make before Ken goes into the technical information and some hardware choices:

If you're asking me because you like my cat photos, I would first have to say the camera is the least important factor – in my images or yours! What is most important? Your eye and the light. Your eye - because you first have to “see” an image that pleases you and you have to “see” what does not belong in the image. The light - because that can make or break an image - no matter how perfect the choice of subject or the composition. You can develop your eye as you go through the process of taking pictures IF you take the time to evaluate your images and decide how they can be improved. Then follow through with what you've learned. Lighting will be the subject of a future post.

Think about what you want to use your camera for. Shots of your family (human or feline) to put on your website or email to friends? Travel photos? Kitten shots for print and website? Documentation of your valuables at home for insurance purposes? Large prints to hang in your home? Subjects aside, the choice can come down to whether you only need low resolution images for the Internet or or high resolution images for large print applications. Maybe you need both. But the camera you would want would be dependent on the end use.

Go to a few retail stores and feel the cameras you are interested in. Feel what it is like to take a picture. Look at the buttons and controls. Does the placement make sense to you? Is it too heavy? Does it feel good and solid in your hand? Do you need a tripod to hold it? J You will find that some cameras feel better FOR YOU than others. This is an individual decision. You cannot ask your brother-in-law or friend to make this determination for you. Their hands are different.

RTFM. Read the manual.

Memory cards can travel between camera types. Get two to three memory cards for your camera. Purchase a card reader if your computer does not have a port in which to insert your memory card. I prefer to have mid range storage of images; otherwise, I tend to use a memory card as a filing system and spend too much time clicking through images I should have downloaded to my computer.

Batteries are usually camera proprietary specific lithium ion rechargeables. Get a minimum of two, so one can be charging while you’re using the other. I like to have three: one in the camera and two for backup. I also purchase two chargers: one for the road and one for home, but one may be plenty for you.

You’ll need a camera case to carry your camera, memory cards, card reader (if necessary), camera manual, batteries and charger, plus filters and lenses (for SLR cameras). Buy the smallest camera case that will hold all this gear. Remember, the smaller the camera case, the more likely you’ll bring it with you.

IF YOU DON’T HAVE YOUR CAMERA WITH YOU – YOU WON’T TAKE ANY PHOTOS. So make it easy on yourself! Take your time purchasing this equipment. I’ve found that I will take my small camera everywhere, but my large SLR camera only on expressly planned field trips or professional assignments. Have you seen a photo opportunity where you thought, “I wish I’d brought my camera?” For my women friends: leave your purse at home and carry your keys and driver’s license in your camera case. When an opportunity arrests your eye or attracts your attention be prepared to capture the moment. Get a camera that is handy to have with you.

Now for Ken’s logical technical portion and recommendations:

(Ken here)

Maybe you regard yourself as a hobbyist snapshooter who would like the enhanced capabilities of a "good" camera that can take very nice photos of a variety of subjects and you like the idea of a pocketable camera that's easy to have with you for whatever photo opportunities life happens to serve up. You enjoy taking pictures for the results (having competently captured a subject or moment that was important to you), but you really just want to press the shutter button. You don't want to get involved in the details of the process, like setting f-stops and shutter speeds -- or even learning what those things are and what they do. Reading user's manuals makes your mind glaze over. You just want turn all that technical stuff over to the intelligence that's built into the camera. You're not interested in trying to do indoor or other low light photography without using the flash that's built into your camera and you can't imagine why anyone else would either. And you can't foresee the time when you would want any prints made that were bigger than 8x10.

The camera for you is one in the compact category of fully automatic cameras called "Point-and-Shoot". If taking pictures on anything like a regular basis is really not your thing and you find that you only haul a camera out on holidays, vacations and family get-togethers, then just about any brand name camera sold today will suit your needs. Go to Best Buy and find one for $150 in a color that catches your eye or one that feels good in your hands. You'll be happy with it. If you want to reinforce your choice with an expert opinion, go to the Digital Photography Review website and read the review and comparison of nine Budget Cameras (under $150) or just cut to the chase of this exhaustive piece and go to the Conclusions and Ratings section at the end. Here's the link to the whole thing:

But if you enjoy taking pictures more frequently and aspire to get better at it, and if you want a camera with capabilities you can grow into without having to buy a bunch of lenses and accessories and master a lot of technical stuff, then consider spending a bit under $300 and getting a really great compact Point-and-Shoot camera: the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3. This model is two generations beyond the Lumix TZ3 that Helmi has been shooting with on a daily basis for about two years now when we're not doing studio photography of cats. It is, in my view, the best reviewed and most capable pocketable point-and-shoot available right now. In fact, it is the camera that Helmi will be shooting with shortly, because I just bought one for her on Amazon a couple of days ago for $279.99.

Below, are a couple of pictures of the ZS3 and a link to the Amazon pages for the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3: Scroll down to the user reviews and see how those who own this camera rate it.

For an expert opinion of how the Lumix ZS3 stacks up against competing cameras in its class, click on the link below for a comparison test of Compact Super Zoom Cameras by

But maybe you've had a Point-and-Shoot digital camera or two and you're ready to move up to a Digital SLR. Maybe you used to own this kind of camera back in the days when they used film. Maybe you still do, and you want a digital model that can take advantage of your collection of lenses. If that's the case, do some research and make sure these modern digital bodies can actually use your lenses, then buy the same brand of camera as your lenses.

Otherwise the choices are wide open. There are a number of brands of DSLRs and probably no bad ones, but I would suggest you stick with one of the two premier brands: Canon and Nikon. They are consistently ranked the best and they offer the widest selection of lenses and accessories. Which one of these you choose comes down to a Chevy vs. Ford, Toyota vs. Honda argument. Each of these camera brands has their fans and both are good choices.

Below are photos of the two best entry level DSLRs and Amazon's links to them. First, is the Canon XS for $499.95:

. . . and the Nikon D3000 for $558.53:

NB: these prices were from on Friday, 25 September 2009. Most do not include shipping (an additional $10-15) and all are subject to change almost daily.

Prospective customers -- even those who are not that keen on technical specs and discussions of capabilities -- are strongly urged to READ THE REVIEWS by Amazon customers and see what is said about a camera by those reviewers whose skill levels, aspirations and intended photography subjects closely match their own.
We long ago committed to Canon and have enough invested in lenses and related gear that we are not apt to switch brands anytime soon. So I mostly keep track of the new models from Canon and among these, I am currently impressed with the capabilities of the Canon T1i (for the serious/aspiring amateur) who is ready to step up from the entry level offerings and has a bit more money to spend on a camera. This one is selling for $799.95 on Amazon. Here's a photo of it and the link is below the picture:

PLEASE NOTE: All images of cameras are copyright and/or the camera manufacturers.

For a more professional opinion of these cameras, compared to their competition, go to the camera reviews at Digital Photography Review. These reviews are quite extensive and may well be far more detailed and technical than most novices care to digest. If that's the case for you, then just read the Introduction page for each camera and then skip down to the Conclusion page. Here's the link:

One more thing: when considering a point-and-shoot camera, it is easy to get caught up in the megapixel (MP) race and believe the more megapixels, the better. But don’t be seduced by high MP counts. “Noise” (grainy visual static) is the dark secret that comes with high MP counts in little point-and-shoot cameras which have tiny sensors (the chip that records the image) compared to DSLRs. In fact, the low noise capability of DSLRs with their far larger sensors is one of the best reasons for moving up to this type of camera.

(Helmi here)

In May of 2000, I started shooting cat shows with a point-and-shoot camera. An Olympus C-2000Z (2 MP). This was a high res camera for it's day when three megapixels was the best there was in a $3 to $4,000 DSLR. It wasn’t until almost five years later in March of 2005 that I got my first DSLR (Canon EOS 20D) to use professionally. Yet, I had full pages and magazine covers using 3 MP point-and-shoot cameras. I'm saying this to prove that the number of megapixels need not be over 5 for most anything you want to do, short of poster size prints ....

But again, it’s not the camera, it's your eye and the light! About which ... more later.
A NOTE: For those of you who are inspired to do a little more research on your camera purchases, Diana P. Keat wrote to remind us that there are a couple of other good sites for this that are perhaps a little more accessible to the less-than-hardcore photography buff than DPReview. These are
Check 'em out! Thanks, Diana.


  1. Thanks for the wonderful article! I just got a Canon SX20 for my 40th birthday, it is rocking!

  2. Congratulations, Jules! You're going to have a good time with the SX20. Especially with all the kitten pics you'll take. :)