Help a complete novice get into digital photography.
April 17, 2006 7:19 AM   Subscribe

I need help and advice on buying a good digital camera and some resources on digital photography for a beginner.

I'd like to take up digital photography as a hobby/form of artistic expression. I want to buy a camera that will take very nice photographs, but it has to be something that I, a complete novice when it comes to photography even of the analog type, can operate or learn to operate. I do have an aptitude for learning tech type things though, so as long as I don't have to obtain a degree to use the thing, I should be fine. I would like to spend somewhere around $300 on a camera, $350 on the outside. Can I get a good camera for this price? I know some basics, like looking for optical zoom rather than digital, but what else should I look for? What type of media storage is the best? What accessories do I absolutely need? Also any recommendations on good books to get me started with photography (composition, timing, light, etc) would be appreciated. So to recap:

I want a camera that can/is:
-take high resolution photos that will print well in pretty large sizes (8 x 10, possibly larger)
-be easily operated by a novice, but have enough advanced features to produce quality artistic photos once I get advanced enough
-costs around $300-$350 dollars

I'm probably asking for something that doesn't exist, but really, I just want the best camera I can get for the amount I want to spend. I've done a bit of research but the amount of information is a bit overwhelming. Help?
posted by katyggls to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (30 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The Canon A series has a decent amount of manual control (what you will need to learn about photography) as well as automatic modes that can be used as a bridge for beginners. They have them in your price range.

5MP is plenty for 8x10s.

The problem comes in when you say "have enough advanced features to produce quality artistic photos." Your judgment of quality will change significantly as you become more knowledgable about photography. If you stick with it, you will eventually want a (digital) SLR. Good ones start around $800 (maybe $500 used) plus lenses, on which you could spend as little as $70 or as much as $10,000.

So the choice is, do I begin with a "starter" camera, that will get me the fundamentals, knowing that if I continue in this hobby I will eventually want to replace it? Or do you jump right in to a more significant investment that will pay more dividends in the long run?

Personally, I wholeheartedly recommend the former, because it will give you a better sense of what you really want down the road--if you want it.
posted by deadfather at 7:28 AM on April 17, 2006 - made all my questions go away :)
posted by lonefrontranger at 7:35 AM on April 17, 2006

I'm biased toward Canon cameras. DPReview is an excellent resource for comparing and reading about all digital cameras - it's probably the #1 resource on the net.

Both of these models fit within your budget and offer 5.0 megapixels. The 500 is more feature-rich and the 30 is smaller.

I've got an EOS 300D, but I'd really like to pick up an ultra compact next - something I can always carry around in my pocket. I'll reserve the big SLR for when I'm serious about taking pictures, and have the ultra compact on me at all other times.
posted by syzygy at 7:36 AM on April 17, 2006

I should have just given the following advice: buy a camera in your price range that has good manual control over ISO and exposure time. See if it's something you like to do. Start to understand the principles of capturing light. Some people get into the variables that exist outside of Point-and-Shoot Land and decide they hate it. Others love it. So, when you get some experience under your belt, you can decide if you want the quality that non-fixed lenses can provide (i.e., an SLR).
posted by deadfather at 7:37 AM on April 17, 2006

jesus frickin h christ, ima moreon! did I pass .html linkage kindergarten or what? apparently not.

once more, for the folks in the back...

Digital Photgraphy Review Site
posted by lonefrontranger at 7:38 AM on April 17, 2006

deadfather: Personally, I wholeheartedly recommend the former, because it will give you a better sense of what you really want down the road--if you want it.

This is not bad advice, but there is another angle to consider. In my opinion, the SLR is too clunky to carry at all times. A more compact camera can be a great way to start out - learn about lighting, composition, etc. Get a feel for photography, then buy the larger SLR if and when you want to get more serious.

This strategy allows you to get in at a lower price, figure out if you're really interested in photography, and gives you the backup ultra compact if you decide to add an SLR to your collection down the road.
posted by syzygy at 7:41 AM on April 17, 2006

I've a relatively new Olympus SP500UZ, and I'm very happy with it. When I bought it, it was at the high end of your price range [and was on sale], but it's been very good for learning how to use manual controls. It gives you full manual [shutter speed, aperture, focus, ISO, etc.], full automatic, or anything in between. It's also got 6megapixels [decent for larger prints], 10x optical zoom, the ability to save in RAW format, stuff like that. If you look for specs along those sorts of lines, you'll definitely find a camera that'll give you a chance to learn how to do manual control. That sort of camera is going to be completely fine for taking good pictures, particularly at this stage.

Based on my experience [buying a middle-of-the-line camera to teach myself photography], you probably don't need to bother with anything but the camera, obvious things like memory card and camera case, and perhaps [if you can borrow or buy a cheap one] a tripod. You'll have a better idea of what other accessories you might need after you've done a lot of experimenting. You do want to have as much manual control over your camera as possible - if you're really trying to learn photography, that should be your priority when you buy one. A book will give you a good starting point. I've been using the aptly-named "Photography," by London, Upton, etc., which a friend lent me. Really, though, once you've got your camera, start taking pictures, lots of them.
posted by ubersturm at 7:57 AM on April 17, 2006

oh and as a followup, lemme just pile onto what deadfather and syzygy have recommended. Starting out with a basic, affordable, fully automatic point n shoot compact (for me) was the way to go. This definitely taught me the basics of composition, how light works and how to 'see' creative shots effectively (this is really hard to explain), without having to think about camera settings.

once you get that hammered, you can make forays into SLR-land. my point n shoot is an Olympus Stylus and I don't go anywhere without it. I sometimes even use it (due to its massive, bright LCD) as a 'polaroid' for my Nikon D70. Using it these days sometimes frustrates me tho, as I've little control over focal depth and what it chooses to focus lock on. but it's a wonderful little compact nonetheless.

warning: if you do eventually make the leap to SLR from a fully auto point n shoot, your first few weeks will be very, very frustrating. Every amateur digi photog (and many, like me, never shot film SLR... or film anything, honestly) I've talked to has said the same: 'um, WHY did I just drop a grand on this POS??' hang in there, it gets easier. o and buy the books 'Understanding Aperture, and 'Learning to See Creatively'. Heck buy Learning To See Creatively now, it's not totally specific to SLR photography, but more of an artist's resource.

and yea, I don't drag the D70 with me everywhere unless I know I'm specifically going to an event to shoot, cos it plus spare lenses, bla bla... gets very bulky, very quickly.
posted by lonefrontranger at 8:03 AM on April 17, 2006

I want to buy a camera that will take very nice photographs

There's some good camera advice in this thread already, but I want to address this popular misconception. Cameras do not take nice photographs. People take nice photographs. You could spend thousands of dollars on camera equipment, but if you don't use it correctly, you'll still end up with lousy photos. Conversely, you could have handed Ansel Adams a cheap disposable camera and he would have been able to take great shots.

What I'm saying is: don't expect that a camera is just going to take nice photographs. Take an intro to photography class at your local community college. I recommend this all the time in photo threads because it's an inexpensive way to learn the fundamentals of photography while spending time with like-minded hobbyists. The $150 you spend on a photography class will do more to help you "take very nice photographs" than spending even $500 more on a camera.

Just keep this in mind after you've evaluated the camera advice here.
posted by jdroth at 8:08 AM on April 17, 2006

Response by poster: jdroth: "Cameras do not take nice photographs. People take nice photographs."

What I meant when I said "very nice photographs" was more like image quality, ie. sharp picture, good exposure, color accuracy, etc. I'm aware that I will need to learn to take good photos. Thanks for the advice though on taking a class, it is something I'm willing to consider after buying and becoming comfortable with a camera.
posted by katyggls at 8:19 AM on April 17, 2006

I think Ken Rockwell's two articles, "How to take good photographs" and "Why your camera does not matter" should be mandatory reading for anyone starting out. I wish I'd read them years ago!

I think the second one is particularly insightful because it dispels the popular attitude in SLR-dom that the latest, greatest and most expensive gear is necessary to get a good picture of Aunt June or Fluffy the Cat. It's important to remember that Capa and Cartier-Bresson -- two of the gods of photography -- shot with gear that had almost none of the features found on a $150 digital point-and-shoot today.

My recommendation, then, is that if you want a digital camera, follow the advice of anyone above me. However, if you want to get into Photography, and think you'd like to one day use some of the established practices of 'artistic photography' -- whatever that is -- I would buy a cheap, used, basic film SLR with a 50-mm, non-autofocus lens, like a Nikon FM2.

Maybe I'm just a crusty old curmudgeon, but I believe the foundation to being a good photographer is to know the relationship between aperture size, film speed and exposure time. I think that's best gained by shooting with a camera that forces you to balance these variables every shot; I suspect, but cannot prove, the instant gratification given by digital cameras does not build an intimate understanding of how SLRs work. Yes, you'll pay money for film and exposure but I think you'll gain in learning and understanding.
posted by docgonzo at 8:41 AM on April 17, 2006

Based on recommendations form a previous thread, I bought my wife a Fuji Finepix F10. It's mainly software based & therefore short on manual controls, but she absolutely loves it. As of last year (at least) it had the longest lasting battery, largest screen, and widest "f-stop" range in it's class.
posted by Pressed Rat at 9:02 AM on April 17, 2006

Can you give examples of the types of photos you'd like to be able to take once you gain more experience, and tell us what you like about them?

In your price range, any camera you buy is going to impose limitations and it would really suck if you ended up with a camera that stood in the way of doing what you think you want to do.

For example, some cameras work better than others in low light.
Some cameras are better for extreme close-up (macro) work than others.
Some are better for wideangle, some are better for telephoto.
posted by Good Brain at 10:17 AM on April 17, 2006

Best answer: One of my friends recently bought a Canon A620, and I have to say I was super impressed with. I didn't think it was possible to make a small camera cooler than my s500, but I was wrong!

The A620 is 7MP, has a swivel LCD, and all kinds of pre-set and manual settings. It even has lens adapters and filters available. A really versitile camera. Plus, it looks like it's in your price range.
posted by geeky at 10:41 AM on April 17, 2006

Response by poster: Good Brain: "Can you give examples of the types of photos you'd like to be able to take once you gain more experience, and tell us what you like about them?"

Sure. I spend a lot of time on Flickr just looking at photos, and I've seen quite a few that I really like. Examples: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

As you can see, I like photography with vibrant colors and/or reflected light. And fine detail. I guess I kind of like photos with a sort of singular subject, something to focus in on, rather than big, wide shots with a lot to see. Does that make sense?

Of course I realize that many of the photos in my examples are taken with high end SLRs, so I'm not going to be able to produce something that fine with a $350 camera, but those are the types of photos I like, and I really need a camera to learn on.

I am looking at the Canon PowerShot A700. The reviews seem to be good and it's in my price range, but what do you all think of it?
posted by katyggls at 11:00 AM on April 17, 2006

I also like the Canons. I have a Powershot SD500 that I love.

I cannot stress this enough: After you decide upon a camera, but before you purchase it online, do a google search on the site that you're planning on buying from. Try [site name] +scam and [site name] +"bait and switch".

There are lots of scam sites when it comes to cameras. I bought my Powershot from, and was very satisfied.
posted by Gamblor at 11:04 AM on April 17, 2006

Best answer: ok, more info is good. The first 2 are macros, and none of these shots uses flash.

#3 is a HDR photo, and sorry to tell you, you ain't gonna get that on a point-and-shoot... at least not today. HDR photography currently requires a couple grand's worth of investment in a dSLR camera, tripod and postprocessing software.

My advise: Find a camera with a highly rated macro function that you can easily turn the flash off. For 1,2, 4 and 5, you need a camera that works well closeup, and can reproduce sharp, contrasty images working with available light.
posted by lonefrontranger at 11:56 AM on April 17, 2006

daggone it my link-fu is completely owning me today. here's the raw site addy:

check it out. HDR is awesome, but personally I find most HDR photographers seriously overcook the images (at least to my taste).

Second Ken Rockwell's site. Read all of it. He's witty and he makes sense.
posted by lonefrontranger at 11:57 AM on April 17, 2006 [1 favorite]

Some advice on digital cameras from Philip Greenspun.
posted by russilwvong at 12:01 PM on April 17, 2006

That first shot sure looks like it was made with flash. Check out the shadows. Seems unlikely, I know, especially with a macro shot, but it still looks that way to me.
posted by jdroth at 12:03 PM on April 17, 2006

jdroth, that was done using a macro lightbox, i.e. studio lighting. I guarantee it was not done with an on-camera flash; at least not one of the type you'd find on a consumer point and shoot. we can digress on all forms of studio lighting but bottom line is I doubt it would help the OP on her quest for an affordable, simple starter camera.

(link text, in case my HTML is as busted as I think it is... new Mac user/loser in Safari, sorry!):
posted by lonefrontranger at 12:20 PM on April 17, 2006

I'd also advise that if you've budgetted < $350 for a camera, you will need to save some of that for a larger memory card and nimh batteries+charger (assuming you don't have that stuff yet).br>
Also, here is a blog that is aimed at beginner and amateur photographers (self-link)
posted by mutantdisco! at 12:38 PM on April 17, 2006

Response by poster: You guys are great. Ok, so I'm looking at both the Canon PowerShot A700 and the Canon PowerShot A620. Both have "1 cm Macro mode". Is that what I'm looking for? What does that mean? The reviews for both cameras say "macro mode is most effective at the wide end of the zoom, where you can get as close as 1cm - very impressive". Can someone explain that in terms that someone unfamiliar with photography can understand? I tried the glossary on dpreview, but it didn't help me much.

I seem to like the pictures that the A620 takes a little better, it also seems to do better in low light. But, the A620 is a 7.1 MP camera with 4x optical zoom, and the A700 is 6 MP with 6x optical zoom. Should I go for more megapixels and less zoom or more zoom, less megapixels?
posted by katyggls at 1:14 PM on April 17, 2006

Best answer: In general most consumer cameras pack too many pixes into too small a sensor. The A610 has ~15% more pixels, but 50% more sensor area, which would suggest that, at least in theor, it will have beter dynamic range and and lower image noise than the A700. I'd probably prioritize those factors ahead of a longer zoom range.
posted by Good Brain at 1:38 PM on April 17, 2006

Best answer: IMO it's somewhat of a tossup, and I'm not a compact camera expert by any means. Good Brain has some good info, but I'd also recommend the ergonomics factor, and for that, no one can help you but you. Now that you've got it narrowed down, go to a camera store that will let you play with both, and see what you, personally, think of the interface and the images it makes, and the general 'user-friendly' factor. The most amaze-o-rific camera with all the latest-greatest-everything is gonna do nothing but frustrate you if it doesn't fit your hand, or the viewfinder sucks, or you have to wade thru ten levels of menu options to change modes / turn on/off the flash when little Johnny's doing something particularly cute.

IMO megapixels are the single biggest snipe hunt in digital photography right now. my D70 is 'only' a 6.1mp camera, and it'll print flawless photos up to tabloid size as long as I take the time to compose/frame the shot correctly and don't have to crop it.

A tip on shooting macro: get a cheap tripod, and learn how to do a couple cheap studio lighting hacks, like using 2 desk lamps shining thru a white bedsheet. At those distances, any camera shake is going to be a bad thing, as it's vastly magnified. Kinda like shooting handheld at 500mm... it can be done, but who on earth wants to bother? The small size of compact cameras will magnify camera shake, too.

for the kind of shots you're referencing wanting to do, a lightweight, inexpensive tripod is going to be the single best investment to make. you do NOT need a $300 ballhead and $500 worth of carbon fibre legs, either, especially not with a compact camera... anyone who tells you this is trying to sell you something (like $800 worth of equipment!). I still use my $30 BestBuy plastic fantastic craptacular tripod with the Nikon in fact. yeah it's cost me a quarter in the swear jar a time or 2, but I've never missed the shot because of it and I obviously don't care enough to spend the $ to buy a better one. by and large it's adequate. and since it rides around clipped to the outside of my messenger bag, I won't shed a tear if I destroy it when that next bus / taxi / moron on cellphone cuts me off in traffic.

If you absolutely MUST shoot handheld for non-macro shots, then figure out simple ways to boost available, diffuse lighting (i.e. shoot portraits indoors next to a big, north-facing window on a bright sunny day) so you can keep the shutter speed high enough to avoid camera shake.

some point and shoot cameras now feature various image stabilisation widgets. however I don't know that they're within your budget or worth all the hype even. Camera shake whilst attempting to shoot macro and/or using available light is the single biggest reason shots come out looking like poo.
posted by lonefrontranger at 1:50 PM on April 17, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It looks like the Powershot A700 doesn't have image stabilization, meaning that due to camera shake, being able to zoom in further won't necessarily be all that useful unless you're shooting in very bright conditions or you have a tripod. On the other hand, when you get around to making prints of your pictures, I doubt you'd see a huge difference between 6 & 7 megapixel pictures. So it depends on whether the wider zoom range is important to you [and whether you're likely to have access to a tripod or something that'll let you use that extended zoom range.] Sensor size matters as much as the sheer number of megapixels anyways.

The "macro mode" stuff that they're talking about relates specifically to photographing things that are very close to the camera. A 1cm macro mode implies that you can get very, very close [if you're fully zoomed out]. Since it looks like several of the images you like are close-ups, this would probably be pretty useful for you. [Tripods can help here too.]

You can simulate HDR photography [as in photo 3] with computer programs and identical shots taken at different exposures. I certainly think you'd be able to try that without spending a "couple grand" on a fancy dSLR, etc. Using the kind of middle-range cameras with manual controls that are mentioned in this thread, you could easily borrow a tripod, take pictures at a range of exposures, and mess around with Photomatrix Basic.
posted by ubersturm at 3:51 PM on April 17, 2006

digital slrs are completely overrated - compact digital cameras and mobile phones are wonderful,wonderful things - those canons sound very good - as for whats behind the camera - i would thoroughly recommend a book called 'the artists way' - by julia cameron - scorceses ex- which will have you doing the most wonderful work possible should you choose to apply it.
posted by sgt.serenity at 4:00 PM on April 17, 2006

I don't think the perfect camera is the answer. I have used everything from the Hasselblad and Bronica to a Leica, Rollie and view camera and have never taken a good picture in my life. I simply cannot see light like a camera does and have a crappy eye for layout to boot. My brother used to take better pictures with a damn Brownie box camera than anything I ever took. Get a moderately priced camera--lots of good ideas above--and see if you have or can develop a good eye and see if you really enjoy it. If it becomes a passion then save you bucks and go for a high quality Cannon or Nikon SLR.
posted by phewbertie at 1:01 AM on April 18, 2006

Response by poster: Alright, thanks everybody for the great, great advice. This is why metafilter rocks. I think I've decided to go look at the Canon Powershots, and I'm leaning towards the A620 because it has a tilt LCD screen which is useful I'm told for shooting at weird angles. I'll also be looking out for a small cheap tripod I think. Thanks again, mefites.
posted by katyggls at 3:44 AM on April 18, 2006

If you are in Canada, Black's includes a free one-hour session to the features of your camera (at least with the SLR's).
posted by gfroese at 12:33 PM on April 19, 2006

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