Are you confused about which camera to buy to get the best possible photos of your children? Are you finding it hard to keep up with all the new types of cameras on the market, and to understand all the complicated technical specifications?
I've tinkered and experimented with *lots* of different cameras, fallen asleep with my head in a pile of detailed specs and spent many hours reading reviews to bring you a simple guide to what you really need as a parent photographer.
The most popular cameras aren’t necessarily the best choices when it comes to photographing children. A camera that will produce excellent results for, say, a landscape or nature photographer may not be so great when it comes to taking photos of active children, all year round, indoors and out. As a parent, you’ve come to a good place to get trusted information: when it comes to taking photos of children, I’ve done the legwork and the research (although don’t ask me about mountains or eagles).
Choosing a camera isn’t as complicated as you think! If you’re serious about taking high-quality, beautiful, natural photographs of your children indoors and outdoors, all-year-round in any weather/lighting conditions, and your budget is less than £600, you should buy a Digital SLR (DSLR). Forget Bridge cameras/Superzooms, achingly-hip pocket designer cameras, Micro-four-thirds/Mirrorless/Compact System Cameras, I firmly believe that you should go straight to a DSLR without hesitation.
Do your think you might be better off with a compact? Or have you heard that the new mirrorless interchangeable cameras (MICs) / Compact System Cameras (CSCs) are every bit as good as a DSLR? And where does that leave bridge cameras/superzooms? No need to be confused. Find out more about about how well these other types of cameras stack up against DSLRs when it comes to taking photos of your children.
I’ve researched every digital SLR on the market to come up with a list of absolutely cracking cameras that suit parents down to the ground…and the good news is, they’re all lower-priced models. I’ve included all the latest cameras, plus some older ones which still perform well and may save you even more money.
Choosing a camera isn’t as complicated as you think.
If you’re serious about taking high-quality, beautiful, natural photographs of your children indoors and outdoors, all-year-round in any weather/lighting conditions, and your budget is less than £600, you should buy a Digital SLR (DSLR). Forget Bridge cameras/Superzooms, achingly-hip pocket designer cameras, Micro-four-thirds/Mirrorless/Compact System Cameras, I firmly believe that you should go straight to a DSLR without hesitation.
And this is why.
If you want top-notch photos taken in natural light indoors and out, you need the five things listed below. At this point in time, no camera type other than a DSLR will provide you with all five of the following:
1. Parents need a camera that jumps into action *very* quickly.
This is SO important. I can’t emphasise this enough. Children move quickly and don’t stay still. If your camera is sluggish at focussing (it ‘hunts’ around trying to find sharp focus) or there is delay between pressing the shutter and recording the photograph, you will miss the beautiful spontaneous moments that you want to capture. Gone forever, just like that. Buy a camera that doesn’t suffer from the dreaded shutter lag, or you’ll regret it. No other camera type comes close to a DSLR to focussing quickly and minimising shutter lag (unless you have a professional photographer’s budget).
2. Parents need a camera which performs well indoors.
You will get good results from almost any camera on a bright day outdoors. So if you’re only intending to take photos in the park/garden/beach, you can get adequate results with pretty much anything including your camera phone (put the cheque book away). But where things get interesting is when you move into lower light.
There are so many wonderful opportunities to take photos when the light is low. Opening presents under the christmas tree, the baby curled up fast asleep in the cot, blowing out the birthday cake candles, to name just a few. Some of my absolute favourite photos of my children have been taken on dismal, wet sunday afternoons in November, or in really gloomy bedrooms just before lights out.
OK, you can pop up the flash on any old camera when it gets darker and produce enough light, but it will be harsh and unflattering. You won’t get the beautiful light which elevates your photos from quick snapshots to something really emotional and special. You want to be able to use available light if at all possible.
Unless you have a very large budget, DSLRs are the absolute best performers in low light, particularly when teamed up with the right lens. A 50mm f/1.8 lens is a real favourite for parent photographers as it is lightweight, relatively cheap, and most importantly it is fast (photography speak which means it performs brilliantly in low light). Even the most basic DSLR teamed with this or another ‘fast’ lens won’t let you down.
3. Parents need a camera which produces very high quality images.
We’ve all seen photographs of children which are just heart-melting: their clear sparkling eyes and beautiful skin tones captured in photographs which are startlingly crisp and clear and simply stunning to look at. You can be certain that most of the really impressive photos you see will have been taken with a DSLR.
Camera salespeople like to bang on about megapixels, implying that the more megapixels your camera has, the higher quality your images will be. This is misleading. Please stop worrying excessively about megapixels – pretty much any camera on the market now will have enough for your needs (unless you’re buying one for £20 from the local petrol station, or you’re planning on making poster-sized prints). What is far more important at dictating image quality is the sensor. In a nutshell, this is the bit of the camera which captures the light to produce your photo (the bit that has replaced film). DSLRs have large sensors, allowing them to capture high-quality images in a wide variety of lighting conditions. Compacts and camera phones have tiny sensors compared to DSLRs, so they really struggle in low light and the image quality won’t be as good, even if they have the same amount of megapixels as the DSLR. Compact System Cameras (CSCs) may have a sensor which matches a DSLR in terms of size and quality, but I don’t recommend investing in these right now for other reasons.
How many megapixels is enough? As a rough guide, for a great quality standard 4×6” print, you need 2.2 megapixels. 8×10” prints need 7.2 megapixels. It is rare to need more than 4 megapixels for an online photo. If you’re cropping into small detail in your image, then extra megapixels are needed to compensate for the parts of your image you’ve discarded, but I would say that anything over about 12 megapixels for a beginner photographer is surplus to requirements.
Another important thing to consider is dynamic range. This is a grand way of saying that the camera is able to handle extreme contrasts of light very well (ie, if you’re taking a photo with dark shadows and bright highlights, it can capture detail in both the light and dark bits). DSLRs are superior when it comes to handling these contrasts.
4. Parents need a camera that allows them to be in control.
If you’re serious about taking really good photographs, you need to have control over your camera. You can get some really good results by using an automated, point-and-shoot mode where your camera chooses the settings. But if you want consistent results in all lighting conditions, and actually feel like you’ve taken the photo yourself instead of the camera doing all the work, then you need to take control of the settings yourself. DSLRs offer the full spectrum from completely automated to totally manual, with many semi-automatic options in-between where you can act as ‘co-pilot’ to your camera.
To ‘get off auto’ requires a commitment to learning how to use your camera (either through taking classes, such as a Small Beans intensive course which is especially designed for parents, by learning online or by reading books). If you’re not into making such a commitment and you can’t imagine using anything other than the AUTO setting, you may prefer to save money and buy a good quality compact or bridge camera, which is easy to use and convenient to carry around.
Another important factor in having creative control of your camera is being able to change the lens. DSLRs (and Compact System Cameras) have interchangeable lenses. So what? Well, this gives you the versatility you need to shoot anywhere in any conditions, and to achieve a huge array of different creative effects.
5. Parents need a camera that they will love to use.
Even if your camera is capable of taking incredible photos, if it’s not enjoyable to use then you won’t use it regularly, and if you don’t use it regularly, your photography won’t improve. Although DSLR’s may seem quite cumbersome at first if you’re used to a small camera, and the dials and buttons may seem bewildering, when you learn how to use them properly they come into their own and you start to unlock their awesome potential. For me, nothing quite beats using a DSLR as it feels good in my hands (I actually find the extra weight and size beneficial – for me it’s easier to hold it steady and get sharper images than with a tiny light camera) and most of the controls and settings I need are in logical places at my fingertips rather than tucked away in a sea of menus that I have to trawl through. I love the responsiveness of my DSLR – its amazing ability to ‘keep up’ with my children as they play and run and dance. Everything else just seems so slow in comparison. To me it is the ultimate camera built for people who love photography. While no camera is perfect and there’s always a compromise, for me the DSLR is the only camera type that currently gives me all five ‘must haves’.
Although there is a great deal to like with a DSLR, they don’t suit everybody.
The learning curve:
If you’re a ‘point-and-shooter’ who enjoys the simplicity of snapshots and doesn’t want to get involved in the controls and settings involved in photography, then a DSLR is probably overkill for you (although you will still get some good results on the AUTO setting). When you first start out with a DLSR the sheer power and flexibility of it can seem bewildering, that’s why at Small Beans I offer short courses for parents who want to take control of and understand their cameras.
The size and weight:
There’s no escaping the fact that DSLR’s are bulkier and heavier than compact cameras, and there will never be one you can fit in your pocket. DSLR’s are often portrayed as enormous beasts, and some of the top-spec professional models are pretty hefty, weighing close to 2kg. However, the entry-level models are far more portable (the Canon 100D is pretty small and weighs only 400g). The more basic models have polycarbonate bodies as opposed to magnesium alloy, which on the downside makes them less robust, but on the upside they are far lighter.
If you want a camera that gives really high-quality results, you are going to have to spend some money. Expect to pay between £300 and £600 for an entry-level DSLR. Experienced photographers maintain that the lenses they use are more important in dictating image quality than the camera itself. A good lens will last a lifetime whereas a camera body may only last two or three years. With that in mind, you should set aside a good portion of your budget for at least one good lens (a 50mm f/1.8 will cost you around £75). You will get far better results with a good lens on a cheaper camera than the other way round. If you’re on a tight budget, take a look at slightly older discontinued models – they may have been superseded but it’s likely that their specifications are more than adequate for your needs (particularly if you stick to trusted brands like Canon or Nikon). If you’re buying second hand, ask for the shutter count (or actuations) – how many times the shutter has been fired. This is the photographic equivalent of the ‘mileage’ of the camera, and if it’s nearing 100,000 actuations it may not last much longer.
Think about what brand suits you best before buying your first DSLR. Lenses and other accessories such as flashguns are usually designed for one particular system. For this reason, photographers generally tend to stick with one brand rather than switching around so all their gear is compatible. Both Nikon and Canon have a very good reputation in the DSLR market, and you can’t go far wrong with any model from either of these. If you are friends with another DSLR user it may be wise to look at the same brand so you can buddy up and borrow/share lenses and equipment.
Basic compact cameras have one big advantage over DSLRs: they are small and lightweight, and can easily be slipped into a bag or coat pocket. Basic compacts are far cheaper than DSLRs, starting from around £50, although don’t expect brilliant image quality from their teeny weeny sensors and lenses from the lower-priced models, particularly in low light. Compact camera have built-in lenses, so you’re stuck with whatever style and magnification your compact provides. Most offer an optical zoom which allows you to magnify the scene in front of you up to as much as 30 times. Generally, basic compacts offer little in the way of manual control, so if you’re interested in creative exploration they are not the best choice. But if you want a camera that does everything for you in the simplest possible way, and you’re not so concerned with getting the best possible image quality, then they may be worth looking at.
They tend to suffer from shutter lag, meaning you will have to wait up to a whole second after pressing the button for the camera to take the photo. So don’t expect to be able to capture spontaneous or fast-moving action particularly effectively.
Where Basic compacts win:
Portability, low-cost, ease of use.
Where DSLRs win:
Superior image quality, better dynamic range, no shutter lag, faster autofocus, better low light performance, manual and semi-manual control, interchangeable lenses,
DSLRs vs Enthusiast Compact Cameras
Like basic compacts, enthusiast compacts are small and lightweight making them easy to carry around. As they are aimed at enthusiasts who are interested in making creative decisions in their photography, they offer much more in the way of manual control, allowing you to change settings such as shutter speed and aperture yourself. Although they have larger sensors than the basic compacts, you have to go right to the top of the range to match the image quality you will get from a DSLR, so they can actually be a far more expensive option like-for-like than a consumer DSLR. Although enthusiast compacts are faster at focussing and usually suffer less from shutter lag than basic point-and-shoots, they are still pretty sluggish when compared to DSLRs.
Where Enthusiast compacts win:
Where DSLRs win:
Superior image quality (unless you spend upwards of £600 on a compact), less shutter lag, faster autofocus, better low light performance, interchangeable lenses.
DSLRs vs Superzooms / Bridge Cameras
These cameras were designed to ‘bridge’ the gap from a compact to a DSLR. They look a bit like a small DSLR and have an integral zoom lens offering a considerable level of magnification, and an electronic viewfinder. They may look like DSLRs, but their sensors are smaller, so the image quality they offer is more in line with what you would expect from a compact. Their small sensors, combined with their not particularly fast lenses, add up to poor low light performance. Their main advantage over a DSLR is their incredible zoom ability, offering between 20 and 50 x magnification (levels that simply would not be possible on a DSLR). So they are popular with sports and nature photographers, less useful if you’re photographing children. They typically have a sluggish autofocus and suffer from shutter lag. They are not that much cheaper than an entry-level DSLR, and I think offer far fewer benefits to the parent photographer.
Superior image quality, no shutter lag, faster autofocus, better low light performance, interchangeable lenses, better battery life, optical viewfinder, less prone to camera shake.
DSLRs vs Compact System Cameras (CSCs)
(also known as Mirrorless Interchangeable Cameras, or Micro Four Thirds Cameras)
This is where it gets really interesting. Compact System Cameras (CSCs) are the new camera type causing a bit of a storm in the photographic world. Hailed as the camera that will replace the DSLR, they offer amazing image quality on a par with a DSLR (often using the same type and size of sensor) but in a much more compact and portable body (sounds exciting, right?). CSCs are smaller than DSLRs because the manufacturers have removed the bulky mirror boxes and prisms you find in a DSLR. Some CSCs have electronic viewfinders (which replace the optical viewfinders on a DSLR) while others just have an LCD panel on the back of the camera. They have interchangeable lenses and full manual override of all the settings, much the same as in a DSLR. As wonderful as this all may sound, they do have some worrying downsides over DSLRs as far as parent photographers are concerned. Their autofocus systems differ from those found on DSLRs, and most models are unable to track moving objects well, particularly when the object is moving towards and away from the camera (I’m thinking fidgety child). They also tend to struggle to focus well in lower light, which if you like shooting in natural light indoors with active children, this is a real show-stopper. They are brilliant for landscape photographers who are under no pressure to focus on fast-moving objects in lower light, but less suitable for parents photographing wriggly children indoors. My take on CSCs are they are definitely ones to watch. Technology is changing and improving all the time, and in a year or two when the manufacturers have worked out clever ways to improve the focussing systems, these could be a real viable alternative to the DSLR for photographing children. But until then, I firmly believe that the DSLR is a safer choice for parents. Despite the fact they are cheaper to make (less mechanical parts) an entry-level CSC is currently about the same price to buy as an entry-level DSLR.
Where Compact System Cameras (CSCs) win:
Where DSLRs win:
Faster and more accurate autofocus, better battery life, optical viewfinder
My driving instructor never once showed up in a Lamborghini. Although the idea of whizzing round the streets in a high-performance, luxurious sports car sounds appealing, in reality I know I would have found it very challenging to handle and would have been terrified of breaking it. And driving it round a town where you have to stick to 30mph, the Lamborghini would have been more than a little surplus to requirements.
It’s worth bearing in mind the image of learning to drive in a Lamborghini when you’re looking for your first DSLR. Many people advise you to get the highest-specification you can afford, but I think as a beginner, when it comes to choosing a DSLR you can actually make life harder for yourself if you choose an advanced model. They tend to be bulkier and heavier, the sheer number of options and preferences can be overwhelming and real overkill for someone starting out (don’t get me started on autofocus systems). To top it all off, they cost more money to buy (and it doesn’t end there – many advanced models need more expensive lenses and accessories.
If you look at the DSLR range offered by the major brands, the most basic models cover all the requirements that a parent photographer needs and more. The entry-level models coming out now are brilliant – with features and quality that you only found in top-notch pro cameras a few years back – with the added advantage of being easier to use. So you can rest assured that you don’t need to look further than the entry-level models (unless you have cash to spare, or you’re an aspiring pro..and even then I would advise learning on a basic model first!)
Nikon’s latest entry-level SLR has some really impressive features and performs extremely well. For parents who like to shoot in natural light indoors, it handles low light really well, and the image quality is high thanks to the quality CMOS sensor, Nikon’s latest processor and 24 megapixel resolution. It has a very high frame rate for an entry-level camera of 5 shots per second, and this combined with the accurate 11-point focussing system should mean that you can keep up with your energetic children. Designed for people starting out with DSLR photography, the compact body is lightweight and the menus and button layout are designed for ease of use. We really like the new retractable kit lens which takes up far less room in your bag than older kit lenses. It also shoots HD video, so no need to lug a separate camcorder around.
Like this but want to spend less?
Look out for Nikon’s older entry-level model which can be picked up at really good prices. The Nikon D3200 has a slower frame rate (4fps instead of 5), a slightly older processor and the image quality is not quite so good in low-light, but as a beginner you are unlikely to notice the difference.
Canon’s latest entry-level model performs really well and delivers great image quality, particularly when teamed with a good-quality lens like the Canon 50mm f/1.8 prime. The low-light performance, 3 fps frame rate, image resolution and autofocus is a little less impressive than the Nikon D3300, but it costs a fair bit less and the specification is more than enough to keep a new photographer happy for a year or two. It also offers HD video and a special ‘feature guide’ in-built learning tool.
Like this but want to spend less?
Take a look at the older entry-level Canon EOS 1100D. It may be four years old with fewer megapixels (12 as opposed to 18), but both models have the same processor, there’s not much difference in the autofocus performance and both offer 3 frames per second. There’s also a movie mode (although not HD). I own one and love it – it’s lightweight and easy to use, and it produces some exceptional photos if you know how to use it properly. You can pick these up new at bargain prices, and I promise you won’t outgrow it very quickly.
If you want to spend a little more on a camera with more advanced features, the Nikon 5300 is a good choice. Offering a high-resolution 24-megapixels (handy if you want to make very large prints) and Nikon’s latest whizzy processor. It has an impressive 39 focus points and a high frame rate of 5 per second, so it will perform brilliantly when you’re photographing fast-moving children. It doesn’t have the magnesium alloy body or weather sealing you get with many more expensive models, but you do get a lot of features for your money. We like the large fold-out LCD screen and the fact that the polycarbonate body keeps it nice and light to carry around.
Like this but want to spend less?
You could take a look at the older Nikon D5200 model which is a little heavier, a little slower, and doesn’t quite have the same image quality in low light. However, it does have an articulated screen, a movie mode and the same sophisticated focussing system. For an even more low-cost option, the lower-spec Nikon D5100 is also worth taking seriously. It may not be quite as sophisticated as the latest model, but it is still a brilliant camera which should be more than adequate for a parent photographer starting out.
This is the smallest, lightest DSLR on the market (weighing only 380g), so is a great choice for anyone worried about carrying a bulky camera around. It has a really useful touchscreen LCD and performs really well in low light (with an ISO of up to 12,800). Despite its small size, the buttons and controls are well laid out and it is intuitive and easy to use. You shouldn’t ever miss the moment with this camera. Boasting a high 4fps frame rate, it is a quick and responsive with a fast start up time and it doesn’t suffer from shutter lag. The video mode uses Canon’s highly praised high speed autofocus.
This model has good low-light performance and its 18-megapixel resolution should be more than enough for the needs of a beginner or intermediate photographer. It focusses quickly and accurately in video mode as well as for stills (in fact it is considered by many to be the best entry-level camera for video). We like the large fold-out LCD monitor and the easy to use interface, including Canon’s in-built ‘feature guide’ learning tool.
Like this but want to spend less?
The Canon 650D is almost identical to the 700D, but despite this you can pick it up at a cheaper price if you shop around.
For an entry-level camera, the Pentax K-500 certainly packs a punch. It has an impressive spec: 16 megapixel resolution, brilliant low-light performance, a quick start up and minimal shutter lag, and a lightning-fast burst rate of six frames per second. Whereas the Nikon and Canon cameras featured here have cheaper pentamirror viewfinders, the Pentax has a more sophisticated and costly pentaprism viewfinder. The pentamirrors on the other models only display 95% of the frame, the K-500 shows 100% of the view (something usually only found on more expensive models). The K-500 also has in-built image stabilisation to help prevent image blur at low shutter speeds. An added benefit is it is compatible with all Pentax k-mount lenses, so you can use older second hand lenses (as Nikon and Canon mount lenses are the most popular, there are more bargains to be had with old Pentax lenses!)
Like this but want more?
The Pentax K-50 has an identical spec to the K-500 but with a couple of added extras. It has a weather resistant body which keeps out dust too, and it is available in 120 different colour combinations so you can really make your camera your own.