Photo Tip of the Month: Cameras on the Cheap – Champagne Tastes on a Beer Budget

The Window

Good portraits can be taken with modest or small cameras, such as the one with a Brazilian girl, taken with a Leica D-Lux 4 (the same as a Panasonic DMC-LX3) compact camera, which fits in a pocket. This allows us to take a camera anywhere. But unlike most camera phones, we can take fantastic looking photos suitable for magazines or gallery shows.

An amazing sunset.  Fascinating looking people.  Vibrant landscapes.  Whether traveling abroad or exploring our own neighborhood, we want to take great photos without busting the bank.  Is this possible?  I get asked for recommendations for good bang-for-the-buck cameras more often than any other question, so I’ll start here.

When film cameras were king, camera technology didn’t change that much.  Sure, cameras got smaller as they went along, but a good camera made in the 1960s wasn’t all that different from a good camera made twenty years later.  Not so with digital cameras, which are continuing to evolve at a breakneck pace.  What does this mean for us?  We can get great cameras that have features that didn’t exist at that price point – if at all – even a few years ago.  We have, for example, the Sony Alpha A55 or A75 interchangeable lens cameras, with their groundbreaking translucent mirror technology, allowing light to pass straight through to the sensor without needing to move the mirror away to allow exposure.  What does that mean?  Less bulk, and fast continuous shooting rates previously unthinkable at this price.  Mirrorless cameras such as the Panasonic G2 also cut down on the size and weight, removing the optical viewfinder and the swinging mirror.  Cool.  Better cameras for less money.  I like it.  Oh, and it has a touch-screen.  Even among more “normal” DSLRs, you have major bang-for-the-buck cameras like the Canon T3i or even a Nikon D3100, which you can grab for under $600 with a kit lens.  Even these last two DSLRs are still lighter and smaller than professional DSLR cameras, such as the venerable Nikon D3s, an incredible full-frame camera which is amazing for low-light photography, although the $5000 you spend for it may lighten your wallet enough to compensate for its weight.

But, you say, that’s fantastic, but some of us still can’t afford the new Sonys or Canons or Nikons.  But these enormous leaps in new technology can often drive the price of cameras that are just a few years old down.  Buying used cameras such as the Nikon D50 DSLR for under $200 can get our foot in the door.  This is a camera that I owned for years, and I used it to take photos that appeared in books, encyclopedias, newspapers, magazines, the Huffington Post, photo assignments for Jimmy Page and Jack White, and even winning photo contests.  While not state of the art, it’s good enough that you can’t really blame the camera if you aren’t getting great looking shots. And there’s always film cameras.  You can get amazing deals on film cameras that people are virtually giving away.

What kind of lens would you use with a DSLR?  Depends.  You need to start thinking about how you like to shoot.  What’s your photography personality?  Do you tend to prefer wide-angle?  Telephoto?  Portraits?  Something else? As I fell in love with photography more and more, I explored this with what I call a “walkabout lens”, an 18-200mm AF-S VR Nikkor telephoto, which is extremely flexible for many sorts of situations, which is why I love it for travel photography.  It’s not without its drawbacks, though.  It’s a little heavier than many fixed-length lens (prime), has lens creep, alters its aperture as you change the zoom, and isn’t quite as sharp as a prime lens.  For prime lens, a good choice is a high-speed 50mm lens, such as a the AF F/1.4D 50mm prime, or what must be one of the best bargains in DSLR photography, the AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D from Nikon, which sells for under $125.  New.  Brand new.  They’re a good travel lens, and are outstanding for portraits and low-light photography.  And at 8 ounces, they’re light.

And there’s always compact cameras to consider.  Fuji X100 makes a good lightweight camera, although at about $1200, it’s not cheap.  The Panasonic Lumix LX3 is physically identical to the Leica D-Lux 4, a fantastic camera that does surprisingly well in low light situations, at a little over $500.  I own the D-Lux 4, and can assure you that it takes vibrant, sharp photos.  The Panasonic G2, Canon G11 or G12, and other compact cameras are quality cameras worth looking into.  They’re lightweight and small.  I like that. In a later post, I’ll discuss why I never leave on a trip without a compact camera.

-Ken

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