Cameras for almost-beginners
October 31, 2021 12:45 PM   Subscribe

I'm far from a professional photographer--and I don't intend to become one--but there are some scenic views around here, and I've hit the limit of what I can do with the camera on my Pixel.

If using a phone camera is level one, so to speak, then what's level two? I'm looking for the next step--not necessarily a full-blown professional camera which would cost thousands (and take me ages to understand how it works), but one rung above the phone camera, in terms of capabilities and technological proficiency.

(Alternatively, if you know of any tips/tricks for a Google Pixel camera, I'm all ears. Maybe I haven't exhausted the possibilities as much as I thought.)
posted by queen anne's remorse to Technology (15 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
The Sony RX-100 series is the classic in this niche, if the price is acceptable. I think there have been some new entrants lately, but I've been happy with my original (I think they're up to like model VII now). Other people might use mirrorless cameras in this situation, but (a) a bit more expensive and (b) a bit less portable. The RX-100 will fit in a man's pocket or a woman's bag.

The Sonys don't have touchscreens, which some people will find annoying if they focus manually a lot. So I hope someone will come in and talk up their competitors to you, which I think do. But, again, I have an entry-level DSLR that I can use...sort of...okay? and I generally find the RX-100 meets my nice-everyday-life-picture needs well enough that I don't bust out the DSLR often at all.
posted by praemunire at 12:58 PM on October 31, 2021 [2 favorites]

I’m a big fan of pocketable point and shoot zoom cameras as “step up from phone” because you’re much more likely to carry it than anything bigger.

The best tech in the world is completely unhelpful in a form factor you’re never going to take with you. Pro cameras IMO are “professional” not because they’re awesome and expensive but because only pros are willing to put up with the massive trade off of lugging them around.

I got the Panasonic LUMIX LX10 before an international trip almost 4 years ago and I believe it’s still available and well rated. This page on DPReview is a really good rundown.
posted by supercres at 12:59 PM on October 31, 2021 [8 favorites]

(At high enough price pro cameras come back around to portability because you’ve got stuff like the Leica Q2, or more reasonably, these. But you’re giving up zoom and I think most people with be pretty annoyed with the trade off.)
posted by supercres at 1:02 PM on October 31, 2021

Check out Cannon Powershot series
posted by pyro979 at 1:05 PM on October 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

I have a ten year old Olympus 4/3 (four thirds), with a fixed 50mm Leica lens. I mainly shoot in fully manual mode (shutter, aperture, focus and iso), but it can be point and shoot, or partly manual. I photograph street and industrial scenes, mountains, trees, flowers all the way down to seeds and insects.

It's a compact, solid-feeling, fairly rugged system. Since I switched to fully manual I get way more high quality pics than on auto (eg edges of flowers, hill ridges, objects behind glass wire or trees - all places where range sensors fail), but also some total fails. I'm not a pro but my photos get used in very formal ways.
posted by unearthed at 2:04 PM on October 31, 2021

There are external lenses that are designed for cell phone cameras. For Android the top of the line are Moment lenses and they are sold on the Google store and elsewhere.

I'm not an expert but I have been thinking about trying some lenses. My understanding is that a telephoto lens is good for portraits and a wide angle lens is better for landscapes. There are also macro lenses for close up shots.
posted by muddgirl at 5:13 PM on October 31, 2021 [2 favorites]

I have a 4/3 and love it but one issue is the lenses are pricey. And the platitude is "it's all in the glass" is very true, so one thing to consider is an older nikon or cannon as there is a vastly larger range of lens availability and price range. A several year old body will be a bargain and a quality 50mm lens can be a hundred bucks or less, in 4/3d's generally a lot more. And for specialized lenses the price difference range can be a lot. There are just a long history of traditional lenses.

Lenses are complicated but it's all googalable and there are great comparison sites. If you're wanting to set up on a tripod (totally get a tripod) size really doesn't matter, if it's pull out and snap, a smaller camera is important.
posted by sammyo at 6:03 PM on October 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

I will throw in another vote for micro 4/3rds, I’m a big fan of the Panasonic lumix gx85 (that’s the name in the US, strangely goes by other names elsewhere). It’s quite small and pocketable even depending on the lens you use, but also has the flexibility to use the wide variety of m4/3rds glass out there. Good featureset like focus peaking, silent shutter, a high fps mode etc. They may have something newer in that form factor but it’s comparable in terms of size to the high end Canon or Sony point and shoots but has a larger image sensor and much more lens flexibility.
posted by boredoms at 7:21 PM on October 31, 2021

I'd recommend thinking about how much you're willing to lug with you, and what specific benefits you want from the standalone camera. My personal impression is that phone cameras are at the point where they can compete with things like the Canon Powershots, making really basic point-and-shoot cameras kind of obsolete. Do you want better night shots? Really long zoom? Excellent closeups? I personally wanted something with good low-light capability, while acknowledging that I don't like to tinker around with post-processing; I want something that'll give me pleasing shots right out of the camera. I have a Canon G9X mk 2 that's an old friend, and I use it whenever I go to an event. It has plenty of settings I can tweak if I want, but it can also take perfectly good point-and-shoot shots with minimal intervention. Not really strong in the zoom department, but better than my phone. It weighs slightly under 8 oz, which I've learned is my sweet spot/limit; if a camera weighs over half a pound, I will not carry it routinely, and the camera you will actually carry and use is better than the camera sitting at home, no matter how great the quality/specs of the latter are.

I had a Sony RX-100 iii for a while. It was a great camera, took gorgeous photos, I'm really glad I brought it to Comic-Con the year my favorite people were there... but in the end, it was too much camera for me. It was a little too heavy (at 10+ oz), and a little too complex for comfort. I also found Sony's interface less friendly than Canon's, but that may be due to previous experience (I started out with Powershots myself, pre smartphone era). I ended up not using it very much, and I finally sold it. Your experience may vary! The RX-100 series comes recommended for a reason, and maybe you aren't as sensitive to camera weight as I am. But complexity-wise, it felt like more than a level 2 on your scale. Even the Canon G9 may be a little bit of a stretch coming from a phone camera, but I do recommend something that at least has the potential to let you tweak a variety of settings manually, so you have some additional options to grow into if/when you get more comfortable.
posted by kite at 8:45 PM on October 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

Quick note on phone vs point and shoot— phones have the advantages of: pretty much always being in your pocket, and looking more or less as good as compact dedicated cameras in many circumstances.

Dedicated compact cameras have larger, faster lenses and sensors that phones use post processing trickery to mimic, but will fail under conditions like fast motion and low light. You can do a lot with an app that exposes aperture and shutter speed setting for your camera, but never as much as all but the cheapest point and shoot cameras.

Also, when you turn on a point and shoot camera, you’re never tempted to check any email notifications, ymmv.

I’m no great phographer, but while I was doing a bunch of hiking this summer I really like (unmonetized self-link) the photos I got out of my LX10 a lot more than my phone photos. I find them to just be kind of flat and lacking dynamic range, even with all the “smart HDR” turned off.
posted by supercres at 9:22 PM on October 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

It may be possible to advance to the next level by going back to basics on your existing smartphone camera by mastering its manual mode controls.

Building a fluency in the interacting effects of aperature, shutter speed, ISO, and white balance is foundational to advanced photography.
posted by fairmettle at 12:02 AM on November 1, 2021 [2 favorites]

Personally I would concentrate on techniques for taking better pictures with your existing phone. Advantages: cheaper and quicker payoff - and also more likely to eventually give you a clearer idea of whether you really need to change your camera - and if so to what. Here are some basics on taking better photos with your mobile, for example. Here is a more elaborate follow up to some of those ground rules. . Note also, that editing is a big part of ending up with better pictures - and that there are a bunch of rules for doing that well too - much of which are not terribly platform/app specific.
posted by rongorongo at 1:29 AM on November 1, 2021 [2 favorites]

I got this Nikon DSLR a few years ago, on sale for around $600, plus a tripod. I tend to use the cell phone for casual jaunts. I will break out the Nikon with the zoom lens to get nature pics (of birds, usually) and the short lens for sunrises, if it's a really good one. Right now it's hovering around $1,000.

Used to have a Canon Powershot, very old model, and I still miss it. It was very convenient, however the zoom wasn't as powerful as I wanted.

The Nikon has a ton of features that I haven't learned yet, but using the automatic mode works fine for me, tho' I've experimented with the other modes, in the past.

I know people who have the giant zoom lenses, etc. and one person dropped theirs in a river on a nature hike, so... that would freak me out! Sure it was very expensive.

So depends, the point and shoots are good, but cellphones usually just as good for casual FB posting. If you want to make prints, look for a bargain on a DSLR with a zoom lens, etc. You can always take a class for it later on.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 4:59 AM on November 1, 2021

For what it's worth, the new Pixel 6 (finally) has new, improved camera hardware (bigger sensors, better lenses), although it still relies somewhat on software tricks (AKA "computational photography"). If you're thinking of spending money at all, that money may be better spent first on upgrading your phone and getting the improved camera that goes along with it.

People have kind of talked around it above, but the saying among photographers is "the best camera is the one you have with you." A dedicated point-and-shoot camera of some sort, be it a pocket zoom like something from the Sony RX-100 or Canon Powershot series, or a fixed lens compact like the Ricoh GR or Fujifilm X100 series, won't do you any good at all if you end up leaving it at home all the time. ("Fixed lens" is how photographers refer to cameras with integral lenses that don't zoom.)

If you really wanted to move up to an interchangeable lens camera I could go into the finer points of Micro Four Thirds vs cameras with bigger sensors and lenses, but it doesn't sound like that's what you have in mind. Think first about whether you just want to get the new Pixel 6, and if you really do want a purpose-built camera then figure out if you want to prioritize the zoom lens or have a great wide angle lens that doesn't zoom and go from there.
posted by fedward at 9:11 AM on November 1, 2021

The unasked, unanswered question here that will really determine the best recommendation is:

What are you trying to do?

Do you want to learn about photography and have more control over your photographs, really dialing in depth of field and framing and exposure and other things like that?

Or, do you just want images with better resolution and image quality?

If the former, go with an inexpensive mirrorless or dSLR. They generally give you much easier-to-use manual controls for aperture, shutter speed, and ISO at the expense of more bulk and weight. There's a learning curve for controls and the more immediately at-your-fingertips they are, the better for you.

If the latter, go with a good pocketable point and shoot like the Sony RX100 line, which will be easier to carry than a mirrorless or dSLR but have less immediate access to manual controls. The sensors will be a little smaller, but the lenses will be better and faster than whatever you get in an entry-level mirrorless/dSLR kit.

Once you can answer that question, you're well armed to choose between the answers above.
posted by Special Agent Dale Cooper at 11:36 AM on November 1, 2021

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