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.
So you think a DSLR may be for you?
Take a look at the Small Beans DSLR guide for parents to compare some different models and brands.
Still not convinced that a DSLR is for you?
Do your think you might be better off with a compact? Or have you heard that the new mirrorless interchangeable cameras / Compact System Cameras 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 work for parents.