Music Photography by Joe Papeo

My Holiday Camera Buying Guide

I can not begin to tell you how many emails I get asking what camera someone should buy their spouse for the holidays.  Its a tough question to answer.  So I’ll give you my opinion, which is worth the bandwidth it is being displayed on, and a little advice on some specific cameras.

First, most people should not own a DSLR.  There, I said it.  The reason being is that most people who own one never take it off auto mode.  Auto mode on a DSLR is the same thing as Auto mode on a point and shoot.  So now you get to carry around an expensive and heavy point and shoot that will give you the same exact results.  That would be like carrying around a cell phone circa 1994 because you think that bigger means the reception will be better.  Okay, maybe not the best analogy.  And at the price point that many people budget for a DSLR purchase, the lenses they will afford are actually slower than their pocketable counterparts.

Point and Shoot

So let’s say you are looking to buy mom a point and shoot to take pictures of the grandkids.  And you can substitute any person into this scenario.  I just mean someone who is going to put the camera on auto, turn the flash on and take some pictures to put up on Facebook.  My current favorite in the ~$150 range is the Canon 300 HS .  This camera has a decent zoom at 5x optical, advanced Auto modes (might sound like an oxymoron, but its not), HD video and is one of the slimmest cameras in its class.

The Advanced Intermediate

Maybe you are buying for someone who knows a little about the exposure triangle.  Did I lose you?  Okay, does your spouse mention things like aperture size and slowing down the shutter?  Do they complain about noise at high ISO?  If you are buying for someone who wants to get some decent point and shoot pictures in lower light without using flash.  Like someone who wants to take a camera to a concert and not end up with really blurry images they post on Facebook that no one can tell if its James Taylor or Taylor Swift (2 points if you know the connection).  This is what we call a bridge camera; it bridges the gap between point and shoots and DSLRs.  You get the form factor of a point and shoot with the manual controls of a DSLR.  The budget for a camera like this will jump up to the $300-$500 range.  Some will even allow you to add an external flash or use flash triggers.  I know, too technical, I am sorry.

There are a few camera in this range I recommend.  The Canon S100 or last years model, the Canon s95, is the size of a compact camera like an Elph, but has an f2.0 lens on the wide end and handles high ISO very well.  The S100 just came out and the s95 can be had for a steal right now on Amazon.  The new model is a tad better at high iso, has 2 extra megapixels (big deal), a different texture to the camera, and a few other changes that most most find significant.

The Canon S100

The Canon s95

If you would like to have more of a bridge camera with the controls on the outside for easier access and the ability to add a flash, both Canon and Nikon make one I recommend.  Both of these are larger than the above camera.  I wouldn’t call them a pocket cam but you wont need a bag with a shoulder strap to carry them around.

The Canon G12 has an f2.8 lens on the wide end, can go up to iso3200, and handles it pretty good, has controls for aperture and exposure compensation on the outside, and can handle the use of an external flash.  I own one of these as my “i dont want to take my DSLR” camera.  I like it well enough.  But remember, photographers never like everything about a camera.  This camera is under $400 on Amazon right now and I paid $500 a couple of months ago.

Another camera similar to a G12 that I would strongly consider is the Panasonic Lumix LX5.  The big reason I chose to G12 over this camera is the fact that I own Canon DSLRs and can use my flashes with the G12.  Otherwise I would have saved $100 (at the time) and went with this camera.  Sort of a cross between an S100 and a G12.  Its not as good with high ISO as the Canons but its close, and the Panasonic has a Leica f2 lens.  The size is somewhere between the 2 Canon cameras.


Lastly, from our friends at Nikon comes the Nikon P7100.  This is another bridge camera and very similar to the G12.  Deals well with high iso, has a fast enough lens and a 7x optical zoom.


But I really want a DSLR

If you are ready to make the jump into DSLR photography there are a lot of good cameras on the market right now.  Budget DSLRs are at a good spot in their product life cycle to be more than most beginners can handle.  They perform very well and with a little training, you can take amazing pictures with them.  I’ll focus on a few starters.  Anything more than that you probably know enough not to be reading this.

Canon T3i is an 18mp camera with high definition video.  Buy a kit that comes with a Canon 18-55 is lens and add the Canon 55-250 is to it.  For around $1,000 you get a great starter set up.  The lenses are not the fastest, but these cameras handle high iso very well and you’ll learn how to make up for the smaller aperture on the kit lens.  This set-up should cost between $700-$900 depending on the sales or rebates happening at that time.  The Canon T3 is a dumbed-down version of the T3i.  Its lighter, not made as well, less auto focus points, lesser quality movie mode, etc.  Picture quality is great, and if you dont beat up your equipment, this is a good camera for you.

Feel like shooting Nikon?  I don’t need to explain each models in this category.  Think of the Nikon D3100 as the T3 and the Nikon D5100 as the T3i.  The difference between the Canon models is a similar difference between the Nikon counterparts.  Pick your poison, but plan on sticking with that system for a while.  You can’t go wrong with either.

A Word About Megapixels

Stop focusing so much of your buying choices on how many megapixels a camera has.  It has almost nothing to do with the quality of picture a camera takes.  In fact, usually high megapixel cameras in th eprice range you are looking at, will have a negative impact on image quality.  See, the camera sensor is a certain size.  The more megapixels the more they have to cram in to fit on the sensor.  More megapixels means smaller pixels and more noise in images.  Even a 10mp camera allows photos to be blown up to 12 x 18 comfortably, and if you really need bigger, there is software out there that will aid to help blow them up for you.

The Book Every Newbie Should Buy

Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson is quite possibly the most informative, easy to read introduction to photography book on the market.  If you are buying a bridge camera with manual controls, or a DSLR, please buy this book and read it.  It takes about 3-4 hours to read and you keep your camera on your lap while you do so.  No one can make someone as comfortable with the exposure triangle as Bryan can.  And there are some spectacular pictures in there.


That about does it for my buying guide.  I know some people will nitpick some advice I have given.  I can’t please everyone.  I tried to keep this as to the point as possible without getting too technical.  Heck, you probably forgot half of what I wrote already.  Remember, I shoot Canon, so if this seems a bit more geared towards Canon it’s because that is what I know best.  At least when it comes to DSLRs that is where my knowledge is.  For point and shoot and bridge cameras, I think even Nikon shooters will agree I have covered the best options in each price range.  Feel free to comment, post questions, or shoot me a private email with any other questions you might have.

If you found this article useful, and you plan on buying something, please remember I am an Amazon and Adorama  affiliate.  If you could use the specific product links in the article, or link through to one of the stores from the banners or links on the right, it would help to support this site that I run.  Here’s hoping all your photographers are sharp this holiday season.


3 Responses to “My Holiday Camera Buying Guide”

  1. Christine Helling Sheal says:

    I thought this article was going to be about where to buy a Disc camera…in all seriousness, "Understanding Exposure" is the best guide ever written. Your list is a bit Canon heavy but we all have our faves.

    • Brian Smith says:

      A disc camera? DSLR? Wait for a month or so (until the Consumer Electronics Show) when Cannon and Nikon unveil their new top end cameras…

    • Brian Smith says:

      I have the Cannon g10 point and shoot (earlier version of the one on your guide) and I love it. If you still have German connections the new Leica point and shoot is amazing.

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