looking for a camera to learn with

Discussion in 'Digital Photography' started by Smileyguy, Nov 17, 2009.

  1. Smileyguy macrumors 6502

    Nov 29, 2004

    I've posted a bit in the photography forum over the years but not much. However I'm planning to get a camera for Christmas and am now really eager to start taking photography more seriously and to learn as much as possible. I've been meaning to get a decent camera for years but haven't been able to for various reasons (typically money). But now I'm definitely ready to get one.

    So yes, this is another 'what camera should I buy thread?'. I've done lots of reading on this topic and I'll try to make what I'm looking for as clear as possible.

    I'm leaning towards a digital point & shoot or digital SLR-like camera. My thinking is that I'll get one of these, play around with it, learn with it and experiment, and then when (and if) I decide to take the next stop, get an SLR. Then the machine I buy now can become a back-up/family camera.

    I know there might be advantages to getting a digital or even film SLR right away for learning, but I'd really like a small enough digital camera anyway for home/family use, carrying out easily in my pocket or bag, for taking short videos for my blog and of home/family stuff.

    So here's some basic info on what I'm looking for.

    The kind of photography I most want to learn most: Nature (landscape/wildlife) and documentary/photojournalism

    My budget: €350/ $500 (can add a bit more on for other bits but would like to stick to this for the camera)

    What I want from the camera:

    • Good quality photos, good zoom (x10 optical would be ideal considering I want to play around with nature stuff)
    • Good video-capturing capabilities
    • Enough manual function that I can learn as much as possible from using it. This is crucial.
    • Not too big - obviously I don't expect something tiny considering all the above, but something I can carry easily is a big advantage because if I get an SLR in future I'd like this camera to revert to being a family unit/ something I can carry around easily

    If I'm just looking for too much please tell me - the most crucial thing really is learning manual functions.

    Thanks very much for reading,

  2. ChrisA macrumors G4

    Jan 5, 2006
    Redondo Beach, California
    If the goal is to learn photography and you are short of cash buy a used Nikon D50 with the "kit" lens. This should cost you about $300.

    If the goal is to take family or vacation snapshots then go ahead and buy a point and shoot.

    The are no "SLR-like" point and shoots, only P&S camera there have a cosmetic resemblance to SLRs.

    The D50 is great because it can be used any Nikon lens (going back to the early 1960's) and is not limited like the d40/d60. So you'd have to option to buy a 40 year old 50mm f/1.4 lens and use that. My point here is that SLRs need not cost more then a P&S
  3. Smileyguy thread starter macrumors 6502

    Nov 29, 2004
    Thanks a million Chris, that's really useful.

    I suppose my main reason for leaning towards a point & shoot is that I kind of want a camera I can use for 1) taking short video clips and 2) carrying around reasonably easily, as I could really do with both of the above functions for blogging. I was hoping to combine the above functions with something I could learn the ropes with, but if it's the case that what I can learn with a P&S is really limited I'll reconsider.

    If I get a Nikon D50, am I going to be needing a better camera body in a year's time if I start to take photography a whole lot more seriously or is it something I can work with and build up for years?

    thanks again.
  4. Techhie macrumors 65816


    Dec 7, 2008
    The hub of stupidity
    If you are like me, an already outdated camera will not last you 3+ years. The shutter on that model is sub-par as it is, and the flash is known to go bad. If you are looking to get endurance from a DSLR, you will have to fork over a bit more money.
  5. Smileyguy thread starter macrumors 6502

    Nov 29, 2004
    That's one reason I was thinking of getting a good P&S, learning as much as possible with it, and then waiting until I had enough cash to get a really good DSLR - particularly as I've heard something really suitable for nature photography costs $$$$.
  6. iTiki macrumors 6502

    Feb 9, 2007
    Maui, Hawaii
    Nikon D40, new or factory referb. Pass on the P&S if you are serious about learning and want to be able to expand lens choices down the road.
  7. Ruahrc macrumors 65816

    Jun 9, 2009
    Depends on what kind of nature photography you're after and what you define "suitable" to be. Getting gallery-level shots of birds requires a lot of skill and also generally requires expensive equipment (like $10,000-15,000 range) but you can get some great wall hangers after putting in maybe $1000 or so into a longer lens and time to work on technique. Things like macro can be done rather cheaply with some simple extension tubes (less than $100) and landscape photography is also among the "cheapest" nature style photography where a decent tripod (say around $300 investment) is really the only truly key equipment.

    Sounds like right now portability is of big enough concern for you that I would suggest you think hard about starting with an SLR. Get a P&S or perhaps one of those "in-betweeners" like the Olympus EP1 or Panasonic GH1 (GX1?) (although I think these are outside your stated budget). If you are really serious about learning photography I would look for a P&S camera that has competent shooting modes, for example make sure it has a full manual, aperture priority, and shutter priority modes. If you get too low end of a P&S and can't have much manual control you would probably learn more by just buying a book on photography and reading it through.

    Good luck with your search

  8. jampat macrumors 6502a

    Mar 17, 2008
    If you pick up a used older DSLR, you can sell it for almost the same price in a few years when you sell it. I don't know Nikon as well, but in Canon, the 10D, 20D, 30D and 40D are all similar cameras (with evolutionary improvements), introduced in 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2007. Currently used they are going for ~$250, ~$350, ~$400, ~700. If you buy a 20D or 30D, you can get two years of use for less than $100/yr. If you buy a 40D, the first few years will likely cost you more than $100/yr. Most of the mid level DSLR's are rated for ~100,000 shutter actuations and most get sold with between 1,000 and 20,000, there is still lots of life in them.

    Point and Shoots typically have very little value on the used market. You will lose most of your investment (there are exceptions such as the Canon G series, and some Lumix and Nikon PnS's) if you decide to sell. You will have movie mode and if you get a superzoom, a much larger variation in focal lengths than you will with a similarly priced SLR.

    Almost any camera is good enough to learn with. Even most PnS's now come with manual mode and flash and exposure compensation. For learning, you will find very little difference between the newest and greatest DSLR's and a 5 year old body. All DSLR's make adjusting settings much easier than with a PnS and the effect of changing settings is more apparent due the the larger sensor. If movie mode is critical, you will have trouble getting a DSLR with your budget.

    Basically it comes down to
    a) what are you going to shoot most often (both type of shot ie. portraits, nature, macro, architecture . . ., and where ie. inside with natural light, daylight hours only . . .) If low light performance is important, the oldest crappiest DSLR should blow away almost any PnS (there really is no substitute for sensor size)
    b) what focal lengths do you need. This one is harder to think about without playing with a camera. Basically shorter focal lengths allow wider shots, but distort the image more (this can be good or bad) and longer focal lengths don't allow you to get as much in the frame, but provide a pleasing compression of the image (look online for wide-angle vs telephoto for more on this)
    c) do you think this will be a hobby that you will want to invest more in in the future. It is easy to buy a flash or lens for a DSLR that will fit on almost any other DSLR by the same manufacturer, most PnS have specific accessories for each model.

    Personally, I would buy something like the Canon 20D, it was a mid level body when it was introduced and I find it much easier to use than the Rebel which was the consumer level camera. The 20D gives you a 2nd LCD display that shows you the camera settings at a glance and a second control dial (very very helpful, the rebel requires menus to access the second control). I am not a Nikon guy, but it looks like there is a similar situation with the D50/D40.

    Buy a kit lens to start (18-55 mm should be ~$100) and see what you like/don't like. Almost any problem can be solved with different (and normally better) glass, very few problems are solved with a different body.

    You may decide you need a longer focal length, buy a used lens, if you like it, keep it, if you don't, sell it, it probably cost you nothing if you are keeping track of market value for lenses. You may decide you want to shoot in lower light, buy a faster lens (normally a prime as they let in more light than zooms and are typically cheaper as long as you avoid the top of the range) or a flash and practice with bounce flash or off camera flash. All of these problems are hard (or impossible) to solve with a PnS.

    Now a DSLR is bigger and less likely to be carried with you all the time and more likely to get you mugged. Everything is a tradeoff, the crappiest camera in your pocket is better than the best camera in the world at home if you see a shot you want.

    Good luck, let us know what you end up with.
  9. splitpea macrumors 6502a

    Oct 21, 2009
    Among the starlings
    The P&S cameras that will give you a chance to really understand exposure, depth of field, etc will be nearly as large as a DSLR with a small kit lens, and they still won't have very accessible controls compared to a DSLR. You're probably better off getting an older secondhand DSLR plus a small inexpensive P&S.
  10. Balin64 macrumors 6502a


    Jul 23, 2002
    In a Mauve Dream
    I would suggest, like others have, a used dSLR: like the Nikon D70s with the 18-70 lens. Then when you learn it, start buying Nikon F-Mount lenses and learn to manual-focus. Amazing...
  11. Winni macrumors 68040


    Oct 15, 2008
    Buy a used Pentax K10D or K20D with an "always-on"-lense (18-200mm). That's more than you'll need to get you started and it'll last you a couple of years.

    When you have the money left, get Aperture. That's Apple's real killer app for digital photography.
  12. AlaskaMoose macrumors 65816

    Apr 26, 2008
    I would advise that if you are getting into digital SLR photography to at least buy something as one of these:

    -Canon 30D
    -Canon 40D
    -Nikon D90
  13. Smileyguy thread starter macrumors 6502

    Nov 29, 2004
    Thanks for all the really great advice everyone.

    I'm much more open to getting a DSLR now, however if I am going to get one it will need to be something on the cheap end of the scale, so probably an older model as has been suggested. As was pointed out, if I am serious about getting into nature photography I'll need to spend a lot of money on a better camera in future so don't want to splash too much cash now (I don't have it anyway!). Plus I still want to get a P&S so will need to save money for that.

    A few DSLRs have already been suggested above.

    Canon 10D, 20D, 30D, 40D
    Nikon D40, D70, D90
    Pentax K10D, K20D

    So which of these or any other models should I be looking at? Most crucially, which will be the cheapest while still offering good quality and enabling me to learn?

    Another question: what's the story with manual focus? Can I learn/use it with any DSLR or do I need a special camera/gear? Do any P&S cameras feature manual focus?
  14. Gatteau macrumors 6502a

    May 23, 2009
    Take a look at the D5000, too.
  15. jampat macrumors 6502a

    Mar 17, 2008
    I would avoid the 10D, there were significant advances in the 20D. When I bought my 20D 3 years ago, I didn't want a 10D. 40D will destroy your budget. For Canon, I would get a 20D or 30D and spend the rest on glass. I can't comment on your Nikon/Pentax choices, lots of people use them and love them, I just don't know anything about them.

    All of the cameras you are looking at will take decent pictures and allow you to learn and grow. The newer cameras (40D and up with Canon) allow you to use live view which can be handy if the camera is at an awkward angle, but for the price jump from 30D to 40D you could buy a PnS with live-view and video mode.

    Most people select a brand based on the lenses available fitting what they want and the feel in their hand. Personally Canon bodies (xxD series) fit better in my hand than the Nikons at the time and the Canon AF at the time worked better for me when I was trying cameras than the Nikon, so I ended up with Canon.

    If you are just buying a body and kit lens used, assuming you pay fair market value for it, you can sell it and switch systems for almost zero cost if you don't like it. Once you start acquiring lenses, flashes, remotes . . . switching can become much more expensive and a huge pain in the ass.

    All DSLR lenses allow (or require in some cases) manual focus. Some PnS's have pseudo manual focus, you focus in steps by pushing buttons on the back of the camera, it's very frustrating and far from ideal.
  16. splitpea macrumors 6502a

    Oct 21, 2009
    Among the starlings
    Not entirely true -- the Canon 50mm/f1.8 II is a prominent counterexample. That said, it's true of the vast majority of (D)SLR lenses.

    As a beginner, I still think you won't get a huge amount out of the more advanced features of the newer cameras, and the money you save can buy better lenses. The biggest advance in newer bodies (other than live view) is that they're more forgiving in terms of exposure -- which means you'll get good results more easily, but also won't force you to hone your skills in quite the same way.

    That said, do you have particular things you're planning on photographing? You'll want to focus on different features for sports vs. portraiture vs. insects vs. landscapes, etc...
  17. compuwar macrumors 601


    Oct 5, 2006
    Northern/Central VA
    While it doesn't have a full-time manual focus mode, the 50mm f/1.8II still allows manual focusing on its tiny front knurled focus ring. Granted, most reviews call it useless feature-wise but it's at least allowed.
  18. compuwar macrumors 601


    Oct 5, 2006
    Northern/Central VA
    You should pick a brand and then get either a used or low-end model for that brand. Because in-brand ergonomics are similar, it will help you build up intuitive shooting for things like birds-in flight. It will also allow you to grow your lens collection over time so that you're not reselling and re-buying the same coverage over again down the road. A lens is generally good for 10-15 years.

    If you're looking at birds, then really there is one primary consideration- will you ever have the constitution to get a large, highly expensive 400mm-600mm prime and shoot with it? That means getting a large gimball tripod head and lugging around ~15lbs of tripod, a camera body or two, 12+ lbs of lens, and probably 10-20lbs of other gear.

    If so, Canon is fiscally the way to go if you can deal with the ergonomics of their cameras. If not, Nikon's 200-400VR is unmatched in terms of IQ/portability.

    Realistically, you're not going to find a supertelephoto deal for any other brand- where there is a reasonable used market for Nikon's (because they've only added image stabilization to some of them recently) and a sparse but existent market for the Canons.

    Most of the other vendors don't even offer a 400mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4 or 600mm f/4, and for the few that do, they're insanely expensive even on the used market if you can find one.

    I primarily shoot with a Nikon 400mm f/2.8 lens and have 1.4x and 1.7x teleconverters that give me a 560/4 and 680/4.8. If I hadn't gotten a really good deal on a pristine used 400mm, I'd have switched to Canon at the time because I could have bought a brand new camera body for the price difference between the Nikon and Canon 400/2.8s. With the newer cameras, a 200-400/4 is a viable option, even with a 1.4x TC though you'll lose some depth of field control with the slower lens (more than your subject will be i focus more of the time.)

    With all that said, Nikon's entry level deals tend to be better than Canon's so if you're back-loading the costs, Nikon is generally cheaper to start out with though Canon's starting to improve there (Nikon's gained market share against Canon because of it's' low-priced entry-level bodies and up until a couple of years ago the difference in image quality from kit lenses was hands-down a Nikon win- it's more or less even these days.)

    If your ultimate goal is to end up doing significant bird/wildlife photography, then your flashes, lenses and teleconverters should all match whichever vendor you intend to end up with, otherwise you'll just end up eating the depreciation for no real benefit since both Canon and Nikon have good entry-level and used platforms that will get you were you need to go.

  19. ChrisA macrumors G4

    Jan 5, 2006
    Redondo Beach, California
    Then you want to make snapshoot. Buy The P&S.

    The difference is that in one case you are out doing "something else" and you find something you want to record, either for memory or to show some one who is not there. That is the definition of "snap shoot"

    In the other case to have an image in your mind, some ideas yo want to express and you go out specifically to create that image. This is what profesional photographers do and what fine art photographers do. In this case the primary activity is not "something else". It is Image makeing

    So Like I said above: If the goal is the latter (image making) get an SLR, even if you have to buy a used one. But if the goal is just to have a camera with you in case you see something buy the P&S.

    You will find if you ask around that most serious photographers own more than one camera. I have a little P&S, and underwater system, SLR and video. One camera can't do everything well.
  20. SLC Flyfishing Suspended

    SLC Flyfishing

    Nov 19, 2007
    Portland, OR
    I used to have a Pentax K10D, that was one hell of a camera! Weather sealed, built extremely robustly, very ergonomic, easy to navigate menus, awesome used lens selection, and the price was right, even when new. All that and it had the same sensor as the Nikon D80 which was it's cheif competitor at the time. I'd think you could snag one of these for about $400-$500 these days. As for a lens, there are tons of options for an only lens. I had the kit 18-55 and it wasn't too bad, I also had a 50 f/1.4 and it stayed on the camera about 95% of the time. The other lens I got some use out of was a 28-80 zoom that was OK.

    Either way, this camera will take you a long way into photography. Some have used this camera to do high end professional fashion work even. (google Benjamin Kanarek, he used the K10D exclusively last time I had any contact with him).

    I'd give it some real consideration.

  21. ChrisA macrumors G4

    Jan 5, 2006
    Redondo Beach, California
    Some background...

    Almost all SPR lenses have the ability to be manually focused. But most of the low end glass has only a thin plastic ring with very, poor "fee" and just as bad, the view finders in the SLR body are not set up with focus aids like the older cameras were so it is hard to see by eye if the image is in perfect focus

    Many years ago all lenses were manual focus. They were built with very, very good focus rings that were large and had excellent "feel" and were crafted from solid brass and glass. They were built as well as a Rolex watch and cost about as much too. few "normal" people could afford to buy a Nikon. Almost everyone bought cheaper brands.

    Very few modern lenses match the build quality of those older manual focus lenses. Optically they are as good and a few are better.

    But at least with the Nikon (and Pentax) brand you can stiff mount a 1960's vintage lens t a new SLR body. I do this sometimes My macro lens in manual and my 105mm is not duplicated yet by any AF lens.

    All that said, I rarely use manual focus any more. I do use it only in cases where the automatic focus system is confused. Mostly that is macro photography and some cases with animals. But mostly there are tricks you can use to coax better performance from the automatic focus system, such as finding another subject at the same didtance that has more contrast. AF works mostly pretty good.
  22. apfhex macrumors 68030


    Aug 8, 2006
    Northern California
    I agree.

    I don't have a DSLR (yet! my next camera...) but my Canon G7 is even too bulky to carry around unless I'm specifically taking photos. You know what they always say, the best camera is the one you have with you. The iPhone 3GS has actually proved to be very valuable because of it's surprisingly good camera — it makes a better quick P&S than any real compact P&S would because I always have it on me.

    More constrictive/basic hardware can force you to be more creative with your photos. OTOH there are going to be shots that you just can't capture right with anything less than a DSLR or the like. Definitely if you're goal is "image making" like ChrisA says, DSLR seems the way to go.

    If you do opt for a compact P&S though, I'd recommend at least finding one with full manual A/S/M controls. This might be contradictory to my previous paragraph but I think if you're spending money for any "real" camera, it should have these, lest it feel too limited (also my G7 has a manual focus option which I've found pretty nice to have, mostly for macro).
  23. daimos macrumors regular

    Feb 23, 2009
    Panasonic Lumix GF1
    The size of P&S, and the quality of DSLR. The technology is new, so the price is high. However, you don't have to buy 2 cameras.
    There are a lot of reviews on the net (samples in youtube).
    Ultimately, it is your decision. enjoy your gadget.
  24. compuwar macrumors 601


    Oct 5, 2006
    Northern/Central VA
    However, many DSLRs have focus indicators which work very well. For instanece, Nikon's high-end bodies have an arrow to tell you which way to turn the focus ring and a dot to tell you when you're in focus- I actually find it quicker than the old split screen indicators my film cameras used. I tend to do about 90% manual focus for studio work and 90% autofocus for field work these days.
  25. El Cabong macrumors 6502a

    Dec 1, 2008
    You are probably are asking for too much. It's hard to do photojournalism AND nature with the same lenses. However, going the DSLR route will allow you to do either of them optimally, given the right equipment, whereas with a P&S, you'd be lucky to do one adequately. A few P&S cameras offer both manual focus and manual control: the Canon G10/G11 and the Panasonic LX3 are probably the favorites of the current crop of compacts. However, the manual controls on a compact are clunky and difficult compared to those on an SLR. On the other hand...

    Can anyone who's used one recommend the Canon Powershot S90? It apparently has easy-to-use manual controls in a compact body with a bright lens, something that has been sorely lacking in the compact camera market. I know that Ken Rockwell loves it, but all evidence also indicates that Ken Rockwell loves huffing paint thinner.

    I'd go for a DSLR. I'd forget about the video, as that will reduce your cost significantly. If you decide not to forget about the video, I'll add that the Panasonic LX3 takes pretty good 720p video. Also, as far as size, I'd not recommend the Olympus E-P1, since, despite its pretty looks, by all accounts its autofocus is crap.

    ACTUAL CAMERA/LENS SUGGESTION: Used D50 + 50mm f/1.8 lens. Saves you money, teaches you how to use a camera without being distracted by uneccessary things like video and megapixels, and with a fixed lens that (1) will give you better practice in framing shots than a zoom lens and (2) has a large aperture ideal for portraits and low-light shooting.

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