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March 20, 2015 9:32 AM   Subscribe

Best <$200 digital camera for a total novice?

I'm going on a big, exciting trip soon and the only camera I have is on my older model smartphone. I've always wanted to be a better photographer and this seems as good a reason as any to start learning a new skill.

- I won't be able to take a class before the trip but I will have enough time for ample practice, so cameras that have logical buttons and a good manual are key.
- The trip will be largely outdoors
- Budget is about $200
- Able to geo-tag, if possible

I am a total novice, so please frame your answers as if you are talking to a total novice.
posted by everybody had matching towels to Technology (24 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
You'd probably be able to pick up a Canon PowerShot S110 for ~$200 (Amazon's listings are for third-party sellers) which is the previous version of the current S120 that sells for $400.

It's more limited and limiting than a DSLR, but it's a very decent step up from a smartphone.
posted by holgate at 10:02 AM on March 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

The only way I can think of making this doable is picking up a used DSLR & kit lens. I was using a Nikon D70 from 2006-2014, when I finally upgraded to a D610. The quality is definitely better on my new camera but in daylight conditions I didn't have any complaints about the D70. I think at this point you could get a used D70 or Canon equivalent for pretty much free.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 10:10 AM on March 20, 2015

For geotagging in the above scenario you would have to use an app with your phone's GPS and then sync the data to your photos later on.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 10:11 AM on March 20, 2015

I'll start by saying that a digital point-and-shoot camera will be a complete waste of your money. There's nothing it can do that your phone won't. I'd suggest getting a fairly basic DSLR camera and a decent lens. It's going to be hard to get something really good in the sub-$200 range, but ebay will help here. Basically the difference between the type of photography you can do with your phone and being more of a serious photographer is the lenses, and so you need an SLR camera.

I know about Nikons because that's what I shoot, but someone else may be able to chime in with something comparable made by Canon.

This is the kit I'd recommend:
  • a used Nikon D40. This camera came out about 10 years ago but is perfectly good for what you want to use it for so that's why I would recommend it
  • either the 18-55mm lens that comes with it if you buy it new (this lens is fine but it's one you'd eventually want to upgrade if you get really into photography) or this lens (this lens is really good but more expensive)
  • You'll need a gps attachment to geotag. I see some on ebay in the $35-50 range so that shouldn't run you up too much higher.
  • Also, get a UV filter for your lens so that the outdoor light doesn't mess with the colors of your photo and also so that crud doesn't get on the lens glass/so if you drop it it's just the filter that breaks and your lens will be OK.
Nikon has all their manuals online for free and they are very easy to understand. Here's the D40. But for the even quicker-and-dirtier guide, since you'll mostly be doing outdoor photography:
  1. Decide if you want to shoot in RAW or JPEG. Use RAW if you want to adjust colors/exposure/whatever digitally after you come home, use JPEG (whatever the largest file size is on the camera) if you want to spend more time setting up lighting before you shoot and just upload pictures straight off the camera.
  2. Set your ISO to 200 (this is the light sensitivity of the sensor; you can keep it low because you're outside. higher ISO means grainier but you can shoot indoors).
  3. I usually shoot in Aperture mode on my Nikon, which is the little A on the dial. The lower the number, the smaller the depth of field. If you're trying to shoot a detailed outdoor scene, a higher number is usually good (confusingly, you're actually making the little hole smaller, so less light gets in and you'll need a longer exposure, but if you're outside that still won't be very long). If you want the subject of the photo to be in focus and nothing else, then use a lower number.
That's basically it. From there, just play around and have fun.

On preview, don't get a PowerShot. I used to shoot with a PowerShot and I hate them. Again, does nothing your phone won't. I can give you info on getting your phone to do essentially everything the PowerShot can do for free or cheap if you would prefer to just do that for budget reasons, and your phone does already geotag so there's that.
posted by capricorn at 10:12 AM on March 20, 2015 [5 favorites]

Actually yeah, get a D70, the camera that any portmanteau recommends. I didn't realize they were cheaper.
posted by capricorn at 10:18 AM on March 20, 2015

You can get a Canon Rebel DSLR for about $300 if you up your budget a bit - does everything you need a camera to do with bells and whistles. Mr. Kitty is heavy into photography, and I am more of a point and shoot kind of person, but using the Rebel is really really easy, and can help get some amazing photos once you get the hang of adjusting the exposure and what not.

Amazon Canon Rebel T5
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 10:28 AM on March 20, 2015

It depends on how old your smart phone is, and therefore, how good the camera is. My year-old Moto-X is not as good overall as my several-year-old Canon Powershot A710, but the newer iPhone cameras get great reviews. For a trip, not carrying an additional item is worth something.

My usual take is that any inexpensive camera is optimized for three-people-in-front-of-a-statue touristy pictures. That usually means good light, minimal challenges to the autofocus and automatic exposure systems. They are not very good on landscapes and vistas, or in bad light. Color balance may be off in artificial light. It's hard or impossible to do arty shots (e.g. rose in sharp focus with blurred background) that are easy with a DSLR.

Whatever you decide, budget a little time before your trip to practice taking pictures. Pretend you're a tourist in your home town, and take some pictures of buildings, parks, vistas, people, whatever. Even with a phone camera, there is stuff to learn.
posted by SemiSalt at 10:33 AM on March 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you do get a DSLR, I highly encourage you not to buy a silly overengineered camera bag/gadget bag thing. Yes it will have lots of pockets, but it'll tie the camera into being a massive thing that you can't just take out with you without a huge palava. I'd suggest either a very compact bag or a small padded case that you can pop inside a bigger bag. Or just throw it over your shoulder and carry it with you (more care required obviously)
posted by Magnakai at 10:44 AM on March 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

I agree with holgate; the S110 will be significantly better than an older smartphone, is pocketable so good for traveling, and has lots of manual controls available if you want to play around with them (as well as fully automatic modes to start out with). Yes, photogeeks will point out its limitations relative to more expensive and/or larger cameras, but especially if you'll be shooting outdoors, I think you'll be very pleased.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 10:55 AM on March 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

Speaking as a photographer I'll say that I've seen amazing photos taken with nothing but a disposable camera and absolutely wretched photos taken with gear that costs more than I'll ever be able to afford. Having nice gear and taking nice photos are not mutually inclusive.

However, that's more of a statement about composition and knowing what to shoot, not about the technical quality of the image that comes out of your gadget (whatever gadget that may be). If your phone is indeed an older model then it's possible that nothing you take with it will ever look good because the hardware is atrocious, and if that's the case then you probably see that already and have good reason to be asking this question.

With the budget you've stated it's going to be hard to find something that's a serious step up from anything a modern smartphone could offer. My suggestion would be something like the Olympus SH-1 but that's hard to find for less than $299.

I took plenty of terrible photos with my first "real" camera, some Fuji Finepix product of a decade ago, and plenty of good ones too. I can't advocate actually buying a DSLR or micro 4/3rds system until you know you're feeling the limitations of your point-and-shoot (should you buy one). That could be next week, or that might never happen.

What I'm trying to say is: your dedication to understanding what makes a "good" picture is going to be far more important to your journey than your purchase of a "good" camera. It sounds like you're on the right path already. See if your local library has a book on composition - that's money you don't have to spend that will improve your photos regardless of the device you're using.
posted by komara at 10:58 AM on March 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

I'd be interested in knowing how old your "older model smartphone" is. If it's, say, an iPhone 5s, then buying a compact camera (non-DSLR) is nearly pointless. On the other hand, if it's, say, an iPhone 3, then buying a compact camera may make some sense.

That said, a DSLR (even one that is one or two generations "out of date") will make so much more of a difference than either a newer smartphone or a good quality compact camera.
posted by Betelgeuse at 11:15 AM on March 20, 2015

I'm going to go against the flow here and recommend an Olympus point and shoot.

Olympus has been making fantastic Georeferencing outdoor cameras for years now. It looks like the current model is the TG-860, and it runs new for about $280, it looks like.

We hand these out to staff for field work on a routine basis. They take good pictures, are shock and water resistant, double as quite decent little video devices and they are brainlessly easy when it comes to geotagging. No fiddling with incompatible software, fumbling about with cables in wind or rain. Easy.

DSLRs are somewhat of a burden in an outdoor environment. They need bags, lens cap management, slings for the body, etc.. They're great if you're willing to accept that and accept the limits that puts on your activity (concern for damage, theft, etc...). For carefree pictures though, I'm a very bid fan of a good point and shoot. They're really excellent now.
posted by bonehead at 11:16 AM on March 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

A low end Canon P&S like the S110 that was mentioned above will in fact beat the pants off almost any older model smartphone's camera, not to mention many current model smartphones that aren't Apple or otherwise $700 unlocked. The sensor is bigger than the vast majority of smartphones, plus it has image stabilization, which the vast majority of smartphones lack.

I'd suggest renting a DSLR with a 18-200mm VR (or IS, for Canon) lens if you want to get the absolute biggest bang for your buck.

I actually have an S110, along with a Nikon D70s and the excellent-for-a-phone-that-isn't-a-Nokia-PureView phone camera. They each have their uses. The larger sensor in the S110 really helps in low light. My D70s is so old that its low light performance is hardly better than the S110 despite a sensor more than twice the size, unless I put on f/1.4 (IOW, expensive) glass. Newer DSLRs can go up to ISO3200 with the same amount of noise I get at 400 on the D70s. The S110 is decent up to about 1600. Also, it runs CHDK, so you can get a good intervalometer, among other nifty features that don't come stock.
posted by wierdo at 11:33 AM on March 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

If you're willing to go refurbished, I have PEN PL1 camera, which I also bought refurbished and like it a lot. You can do a lot with it if you'd like to get into the technical but you can also use it pretty much as a point and shoot. It's small so good for traveling.
posted by geegollygosh at 11:39 AM on March 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

One point for the Canon Powershot is that there's third party firmware called CHDK that unlocks a lot of additional features on your camera. It's very easy to install, and you don't even have to overwrite the stock firmware, so you can still use the more user-friendly commercial firmware until you're comfortable with CHDK.

I'm not into photography at all, so I don't have much of an educated opinion about the usefulness of the features, but there's a lot of stuff you can fiddle around with.

I have it on mine, but I mostly use my camera for utilitarian snapshots rather than anything fancy or arty.
posted by ernielundquist at 11:40 AM on March 20, 2015

Note that I used to use a Canon S90 (a couple generations back from the S110). It was a fantastic camera... until I dropped it in a stream. Oops.

As an everyday P&S, the Canons are hard to beat. In an urban environment, I think these would be my first choice. However, if there's significant risk for drop or water damage, I would definitely look at a more rugged camera.

The S110 also does not geotag (I think the S100 did though), so you'll need to find a solution for that. That can be as simple as a notebook and a cell phone, or a seperate adapter.

However, my replacement was, as noted above, not another Canon, but the Olympus rugged with the built-in geotagging. Not just geotag, but electric compass too---geotagging tells you where you were, the compass tells you which way you were facing. Facing is a very nice addition to just location data.

If you don't need to shoot RAW or full manual controls, the Olympus is an arguably better choice for this use.
posted by bonehead at 12:12 PM on March 20, 2015

If the exciting part is anything rough or possibly underwater, we loved getting a waterproof camera before our last Hawaii trip. We got a Panasonic Lumix TS-20.
posted by advicepig at 12:15 PM on March 20, 2015

This is really great. I would have said exactly what's already been said above:

* A good modern smartphone camera (iPhone 5S, 6) is probably superior in quality and more convenient in almost every way to an older point and shoot. The P&S will beat an older iPhone (3, 3G, 4, maybe a 4S) but it's not a long term investment.

* If you want to go to better equipment quality, go full DSLR - you can get used/refurb Canon or Nikon kit at a fraction of the price for new, and something of the ~2008 era is both cheap and easily superior to the best smartphones. It's simple physics - a larger DSLR has a bigger lens diameter and a bigger collecting area behind the lens. The smartphone has better software capabilities but it can't beat physics.

* I come down on the Canon side, and would suggest an older Rebel to get started, but I'm sure you won't go wrong with Nikon either. Spend money on the lens rather than the camera body though.

* It's a cliche, but it's really true that "the best camera is the one you have on you". I always have my iPhone in my pocket. My DSLR sits at home.

* And this comment upthread is spot on:

I've seen amazing photos taken with nothing but a disposable camera and absolutely wretched photos taken with gear that costs more than I'll ever be able to afford. Having nice gear and taking nice photos are not mutually inclusive.

Absolutely spot on. Practicing seeing the scene from a camera's point of view - how it will look in a photo after the fact, when your brain isn't smoothing over the power lines in the foreground of your breathtaking view, or how to frame that exact moment when the candles are blown out on that cake - that is a much harder discipline, and something that equipment can't help you with.

(At least, not until that future where we lifelog every bit of our lives with ultra-HD recording and then pick out the right scenes after the fact. And that'll be creepy.)
posted by RedOrGreen at 12:30 PM on March 20, 2015

The P&S will beat an older iPhone (3, 3G, 4, maybe a 4S) but it's not a long term investment.

You're underestimating the quality difference between even the iPhone 5 and the S series, especially in low light.

Long-term investment? Depends how you define an investment. We're talking about a tight budget, use when travelling -- good battery life, portability, conspicuousness, risk of damage or theft -- and access to a nice set of aperture/shutter speed/ISO controls that will produce results that reward proper composition and won't overburden you.

I have friends who cart around big bags of DSLR kit worth thousands for paid shoots, but they still have a Canon S in their pocket.
posted by holgate at 12:52 PM on March 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

While I love the S series to bits, and concur that the iPhone 6 might be able to take a decent picture if it had a proper-sized sensor with an f/2 bottle up front, I note that the whole PowerShot S series has a known lens problem. It may never affect you, but my S100 crapped out with it after three years' use. It's an easy, quick and (usually) free repair, but an annoyance, too.
posted by scruss at 2:06 PM on March 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm going to have to back the nikon d40(or shit, even a d3000 is probably cheap as hell now. checking, which is an excellent place to buy this stuff, theres ones for ~$150) horse here, or something like a canon rebel xt/xs.

A cheap slr is a thousand times more fun, interesting, and capable of taking "woah" photos than almost any P&S or small camera i've used other than a mirrorless setup which would be too pricey, or something like an rx100 that's also too pricey.

One day i just got off my ass and bought a "broken" original canon rebel for $50. I tried to fix it, slammed it on my desk in frustration... and it started working and never screwed up again. I learned to use it relatively quickly with no manual just screwing around and took tons of awesome photos with it.

Even that cheap junker SLR took punchy, contrasty photos with impressive dynamic range. A lot of my favorite photos i've ever taken were from that camera. I had a ton of fun with it, and sold it for cheap to someone i'm sure also had a ton of fun with it.

Worth noting that the nikon 18-55 kit lens is a lot nicer than the canon one, which is really a huge hunk of crap.

Don't discount something like a pentax SLR that's a lesser known brand(at least, for DSLRs). They're often stupidly cheap and are very, very good. One of my friends whose a pretty great photographer buys them exclusively and is pretty smug about how cheap the lenses/bodies/everything for them is. Just as easy to use, etc.
posted by emptythought at 2:55 PM on March 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm in a similar situation and seriously considering the Canon S110. I had the s95 version and it beats any smartphone. Sorry. Larger sensor, better lens, more controls.

Smartphone and point and shoot images are really only equivalent when small on a screen in my opinion.
I recently made some 20x30" canvas prints from the s95 and they look great. The market might be falling out from under P&S cameras, but if you are going to print your photos, they make sense.
posted by starman at 3:34 PM on March 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Some good advice and info here. The Canon S series are good point and shoots and take great photos for that kind of camera. Super small and easy to carry as well... And just to remind us all.... it's all about the photographer. Gear is just a tool!

However, gear does help and inspire! If you want something which will instantly give you a more professional looking WOW then you're going to have to look at something with a bigger sensor. Which in your price range leaves you looking at 2nd hand DSLR's and mirrorless. I'm going to suggest that you try and up your budget to about $270 as I think that throws open a bunch more interesting options.

My first thing to throw at you is that I would try and avoid a kit zoom lens. Normally this is a 18-55m zoom lens which comes with the camera. It covers a useful range but in the main they're slow (don't let in a lot of light compared to prime lenses so the camera has to work harder in low light), some (Canon esp) aren't actually that good. Very few lenses are awful nowadays and you can take good photos with them for sure but I find them... uninspiring. You didn't mention zoom as a criteria so I'm going to suggest something else...

I'd suggest starting with what's called a normal prime. A normal prime used to be in the range 35 to 50mm on film or full frame and is what used to come with film slr's back in the day before cheap zooms became affordable. They're generally small and sharp and reflect pretty have a field of view which is pretty much what is in focus when you look in front of you. They also let in a lot more light than your kit zoom would as they have a larger aperture (that's the F stop on the lens. The kit lens at 35mm is at an aperture of about about F4, a prime would be about F2 which is letting in about 1.5 times more light which means you can take pictures in low light! It also allows you to get more of the shot out of focus which is a one of the things which makes photos look 'pro'.

Using a prime reduces your choices... it helps you to get used to "seeing" with your camera. It makes your camera smaller. They're better in low light so you can do more 'magic' (awesome pics of your friends by candlelight etc) TBH using a normal prime makes me feel like a photographer and part of a long line of photographers.... using a zoom makes me feel a bit like a technician.

All these cameras I'm about to suggest have an APS-C sensor which is about 2/3 of the size of full frame and the standard for affordable DSLR's and mirrorless. The smaller sensor gives a field of view 1.5 times tighter than the lens would be on film/full frame so a 35mm lens on APS-C is equivalent to 50mm on full frame. 22mm on APS-C would be roughly 35mm.

I'm pricing all these from which is a well respected second hand camera dealer in New York. I'd feel totally confident buying something they marked as BGN (bargain). Other buying options would be B&H or even Amazon warehouse as you get 30 days to return it if you don't like it.

DSLR wise I'd look at the Pentax k-x. I used that camera professionally for 2 years and it's a cool thing. The senor is great, it's small and super super usable. Pentax have stabilisation built into the body as well so with the senor they are awesome in low light! You can get one in Bargain condition from for $149 and I'd pair it with a second hand Pentax 35mm F2.4 ($115 at keh). To put it's image quality in perspective it's sensor tests better than any DSLR sensor canon have EVER made which isn't a full frame camera at DxOmark. A DSLR has an optical viewfinder so you have to bring it to your eye to look through. Their liveview on an older DSLR screen is generally fairly awful.... Other DSLR options are the older Nikons and the Nikon 35mm F1.8 dx lens is really nice and cheap.

One of the biggest bargains just in terms of image quality per buck is the Sony NEX series. A second hand F3 body can be had for about $160 and a C3 or 3 which has the not quite as good 14mp sensor can be had for about $100. I'd pair the body with an emount Sigma 30mm 2.8 which you can get for $168 at KEH. It's a great small lens. They're smaller bodies than the Pentax but no viewfinder. I quite like shooting with the NEX's using them at waist level as the flip out screen is great, even on the really old 3 series. If you feel adventurous they work really really well with old manual lenses and cheap adaptors. A really pleasurable experience.

An outlier is a second hand Canon EOS M. The Eos M was Canon's foray into the mirrorless market and nobody bought it. It had horrible autofocus and was far too expensive. Canon improved the autofocus quite a bit via firmware but you can pick them up super cheap second hand still. They're really small, good sensor, AWESOME video, touch screen. A lot of fun for the money if a little quirky. You can get one with the teeny 22mm F2 pancake lens on KEH for $269. No viewfinder and no flip out screen.

Hope that helps! Your next stage up in budget is about $400 but you wouldn't necessarily be getting better image quality... just a potentially better user experience. Best of luck! Whatever you choose, buy a spare battery, a big card and take a lot of photos. Spend a lot of time looking at awesome photos other people have taken and an equal amount of time looking at the bad photos you've taken and try and work out where the difference is.
posted by Mr Ed at 4:31 PM on March 20, 2015

Wow, what fantastic answers! Thank you for taking the time to share your expertise, everyone.

After researching these options I got a used Nikon D40 from ebay for well under my budget and I am very satisfied with it, which is why I marked those answers as 'best.'
posted by everybody had matching towels at 9:18 AM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

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