GUIDE: Buying A Camera (or, “Let’s Talk About How To Spend A Lot of Money”)

Taking the leap and upgrading from your smartphone’s camera to a dedicated piece of hardware is an important decision – and a potentially expensive one! I don’t think that everyone needs to go right away and make this investment, since the recent generations of phone cameras can potentially be quite capable. But when you decide it is time, you want to make sure that you’re putting your money in the right place, especially if this is the first time you’ve really given the matter serious consideration. In this article, I’ll talk about some of the things to look for, some of my recommendations, and where to go to do more research.

Let’s start with some basics. Things you should consider when shopping for a camera particularly for the kind of photography we’re talking about here end up cutting a smallish cross section out of the larger world of consumer cameras. This can be good in that it reduces choices from practically innumerable down to something we can more easily approach. But by contrast, it means that the cheaper end of the market is almost always unsuitable in one way or another. Indeed, you’ll have to expect and be prepared to spend at least a couple hundred dollars at this point. So what exactly are we looking for?

Manual Exposure
This is probably the number one most important factor. In my experience the camera’s programming is often not on the same page as the photographer about what a photo should look like out of a controlled micro-studio situation. Using automatic settings or even some of the “semi automatic” priority settings will probably not let you get what you’re expecting to. Thus, being able to take the control away from the camera and direct everything yourself is essential. Don’t worry if you’ve never gotten that deep in a camera before; there will still be an automatic mode to get you started while you’re learning how to correctly use the manual options. Insisting on manual exposure mode all by itself narrows down our choices.

Minimum Focus Distance
This is its own kind of quirk that I might go in more detail about on another occasion, but for now suffice to say the smaller the number here the better. I tend to think that 2 inches or about 5cm is the absolute most you should consider in a compact body camera. The math changes somewhat for interchangeable lens cameras, to the point where the camera bodies don’t even show this value in their specs. It’s a bit complicated. Just remember in compact or point and shoot style bodies to look for the smallest minimum focus distance. A few cameras even report a distance of 0cm! Which ends up not being quite as fantastic as it sounds since the shadow of the lens will make it impractical to actually shoot anything at that range.

Manual Focus
Autofocus is a great convenience, and especially if the screen on the back of the camera isn’t super high quality it can be nice to be able to let the camera set focus at your selected focus point. But the system is far from perfect and sometime you just might not be able to get the camera to choose the right place that you want to be the center of focus. That’s when you’ll want the ability to take over from the camera and do the job yourself. Plus the ability to be able to accurately obtain focus manually is a good thing to develop in general. Now, the manual focus may sometimes be a case of pushing buttons on the camera with it handling the mechanical side, rather than being a ring on the lens to directly manipulate, but typically the result should be the same. If you learn exclusively by one means or the other, the transition to the different type may be more difficult and require some relearning, if my own experiences were anything to go by.

Optical Zoom
Zoom may not be something you use a lot, but in the cases where you do need it, you don’t want to be using digital zoom. All that does is crop down the area of sensor being recorded from, and then enlarging the resulting image so it meets the dimensions of whatever megapixels the camera is rated at. It’s terrible garbage. Optical zoom is the genuine process where the lens moves and projects a bigger image on the sensor so the full read out can still be used. This isn’t as difficult a quality to find as manual exposure, thankfully, but you still want to make sure to double check that it’s there in whatever camera you might consider.

Sensor size is something else we might think about. This is not megapixels, by the way. Megapixels are basically irrelevant. Sensor size means the actual physical dimensions of the sensor, which falls within a range of more or less standard types. This is more important than a megapixel count because as you get larger and larger sensors, the same number of megapixels will usually start delivering better and better quality. The tradeoff naturally being that bigger sensors lead to more expensive cameras. It’s easy to get 20 megapixels on any kind of sensor at this point, but 20MP on one camera won’t necessarily be equal to 20MP on another camera. That’s why the megapixels don’t matter in the end.

Now, with these basics in mind, I have three recommendations that fit within the criteria range, albeit maybe with qualifications.

First is the Canon Powershot SX720 HS, which as of when this article is written, can be had new on Amazon for about $250. This has a sensor at a standard size for compact body cameras, and is from 2016, so its processor – the part that actually converts the sensor data to photos – is still pretty up to date and should give you nice photos. As a bonus, it also has a super zoom lens. Useless for tabletop photography, but it’s a nice extra if you ever decide to go outside with your camera and want to shoot birds, or even landscapes when you need a break from the toys. It is a 20 megapixel camera, which gives you large original photos that leave you room for resizing or cropping for web delivery. At $250 or so, it’s a very good value in its sensor class for what it offers.

Camera number two moves us up to the next sensor class, what they call a “one-inch” sensor, even though it is not even close to an inch in any dimension. The name comes from something to do with actual film cameras a long time ago, apparently. Anyway, this is the Canon Powershot G9X. The larger sensor gives better looking images than something like the SX720 would, but keeps you in a very compact body style. Canon isn’t the only brand with a camera like this. Sony as the RX-100 line, in five or six iterations at this point, which is a pretty similar system. However cost is its disadvantage, with recent models of RX-100 around $1000. The G9X, on the other hand, can be had around $400 or $450. It offers complete touchscreen controls including a “touch to focus” feature I never knew I needed in a camera until I had it, and a level of manual control on par with a DSLR style camera body. All in something that legitimately can fit in a pocket.

Another advantage offered by the step up to the G9X is raw format, giving you essentially all the data the camera’s sensor reads out, recorded before the camera processes it as a jpg. The camera will still make its own jpgs for you, but you can have the option to take the raw files to processing software like Lightroom and edit them on your own. It’s something that having experienced it I would never want to be without again, and getting that on an affordable compact body is a fantastic bonus.

Now, moving up once more in sensor size to APS-C, we’re looking at the Sony Alpha lineup. I’m using the a3000 right now, but it’s not my first recommendation at this level simply because you’re going to have to shop for one second hand at this point, and there’s always an amount of risk associated with doing that. My actual recommendation is the Sony a5100. New with a kit lens it’ll run usually $500 or a little less. Though you can sometimes find interesting bundles on Amazon that are even less if you look around a bit. Anyway, the a5100 is actually my target for my next camera upgrade. The DSLR-size APS-C sensor gives great picture quality, it of course has raw format as an option and all the manual control features we have to have. It’s also pretty unique in its product line by having a flip up screen and limited touch controls for selecting the focus point on the screen, where most of them have to do it through the regular controls.

What it doesn’t meet out of the box exactly is our minimum focus distance, because the Alpha line of cameras are interchangeable lens system bodies. This makes the whole process a little more complicated, and maybe not ideal for someone to start out on. The kit lens will put you several inches away from the subject, but the way focus distance works on these kind of bodies is not entirely the same as a compact body. That’s why I want to talk about this topic separately another time.

If this isn’t a good starter camera, why am I listing it in my recommendations? Good question! It’s within a relatively small dollar range of the G9X, but is realistically “more camera” than the Canon. My belief is that generally you should buy as much camera as you can practically afford, because you want something that will keep up with you as you grow your skills. Basically, it’s better to spend $500 all at once instead of maybe $250 now, and then another $400 in a year or two when you find yourself itching for more out of your camera. You’ll absolutely be able to learn on something like the a5100 if you want to go all in right at the start. Every camera has automatic “entry level” modes just in case, so you can still work your way up to full manual. But this is the route of highest overall complexity and that may not be for everyone.

So my number one recommendation is the Canon Powershot G9X. It gives better than average image quality thanks to its large sensor, offers raw format for when you’re ready to take a little more control over your photography, and its extensive manual control options make it a great platform to learn your way out of automatic on. Especially with the control ring at the base of the lens, which gives a similar experience to making adjustments on the lenses of DSLR or mirrorless cameras with full swappable lenses. But the form factor stays as simple as any point and shoot so you can take it at your own speed. It’s a really great piece of gear if you’ve got the budget for it.

Now, these are just my recommendations based on things I’ve either used myself or strongly considered as cameras to add to my arsenal, but you don’t need to be limited by my choices. DPReview has a fantastic tool that lets you sort through their extensive database of cameras with a ton of filtering options for almost every conceivable feature you might be looking for. It’s definitely worth taking a look at to see what else is out there that might be a better fit for you in one way or another.

I hope this article has been helpful in giving you an idea what to look for when you’re ready to purchase a camera. if you have any questions, feel free to reach out directly. You can find my social contacts in the sidebar; I’m pretty good at responding on Twitter or Mastodon!