I get asked “what camera should I get?” all the time. And it’s worse around the holidays. First the answer in a nutshell. If you’re rich and want the best, but don’t want to fiddle doing years of research, and trial and error, get a Nikon D700. If you’re on a serious budget but still want a serious camera, get a Nikon D40. If you’re really on a shoestring budget, get a Canon A590. Before we delve into some details, three points to keep in mind:
- Pentax, Olympus, Panasonic/Leica, and even Sony make some interesting, and sometimes very good, products. But Canon and Nikon stuff has fewer weird quirks and ugly surprises, and more options for expansion.
- Megapixels don’t matter anymore. The difference between 6 and 12 is actually sort of small, and for the kind of prints you’ll be making any camera you can buy today has enough resolution. The exception is for artists*.
- Three things you need to pay attention to if you’re a novice using your new camera: ISO, Flash (just leave it OFF most of the time), and exposure compensation.
The current shining star of small, inexpensive cameras is the Canon SD880 IS, currently selling for around $250 (it’s brand new — the price will come down over the next few months). All the Canon compacts are great, but this one, an update of my beloved SD870, has a wide-angle lens and a big display. If you want even cheaper, Canon makes a zillion ever-shifting models in the SD and A series, of which the current cheapest is the aforementioned A590, which currently sells for around $115. The picture quality is the same; the difference is that the A series is bigger, doesn’t come with rechargeable batteries, and is missing some of the extra bells and whistles. (This strikes me as a great camera for kids.) For some reason, Nikon compact cameras haven’t been worth very much for the last few years.
The larger sensor on SLRs allows them to take pictures that are much much better then any compact, especially in low light. They also don’t have any shutter lag, and are more fun to use. If you enjoy taking pictures, you probably want one of these. Good news is that the Nikon D40 has been around for awhile, and you can find them for just over $400 sometimes, which is sort of amazing considering SLRs average around a thousand bucks. The downside is that there’ll probably be a new version of this camera soon with a bunch of spiffy new features, and more megapixels. On the other hand, it’ll cost hundreds of dollars more, and trust me, those features are silly. Canon has a line of inexpensive SLRs, too, and they’re worth looking at. For most people, though, the Nikon will be easier to use. (The one big issue with Nikon SLRs is lens compatibility. If you think you might want to start collecting and switching lenses, the D40 will cause you grief.)
Just in the last six months, two interesting cameras have come out that are interesting because they arguably have “everything you’ll ever need” in a digital camera: the Nikon D700 and the Canon 5D Mark II. These cameras have three things that make them exceptional: (1) full frame sensors, meaning that old lenses are compatible, and work the same way they did on film cameras, (2) Big and high-resolution displays, and (3) lots of megapixels. They’re made out of solid metal, take fantastic photos in very low light, and are a pleasure to use and hold. They’re also big, heavy, and very expensive. Do what you will, but I’m saving up for the new 5D (it’s actually not even out yet).
The bad news is that every single model that exists has something kind of important going against it. The good news is that digital cameras have been around long enough that they’ve been refined to the point where they’re all pretty great. Let your instincts guide you, and you’re probably not going to make a bad choice. (One funny thing about the three pictures above: not to scale! The first camera is actually smaller then it looks in the photo, the middle one is about right, and the 5Dii is much much bigger. Seriously, if someone tries to take it, you can use it to clock them upside the head.)
One last note, about movie modes: the compact cameras all have a movie mode, and most SLRs do not. The two exceptions are the Canon 5D Mark II, and the not-yet-mentioned Nikon D90.
* If you’re most people, you’ll be looking at your pictures on the screen and ordering 5×7” or 8×10” prints, for which 6 to 12 megapixels is great. You can actually order nice 13×19” prints from these cameras, too — I’ve used to make 11×14” prints from 3 megapixel images, and they looked fine. Of course if you’re an artist, you want to be able to print big, and in this case a digital camera is not going to be much more then a toy for you. You need a medium or large format film camera.