Cheap Cameras To Learn Photography With

Originally Written for SPIN:

The photography interest is really picking up due to the introduction of Digital and that allow people to quickly see the results of settings that they have input into the camera.  When I was learning photography, photography class is expensive as it is really a hobby for those who can afford to process films when they are learning the craft of photography not to mention the lens, having to cover the size of the 35mm film, or what we call the full frame sensor in DSLRs now, is not a cheap purchase.

Being cheap does not necessarily mean is a good thing because the time and effort of the craftsmanship put into lens in the ‘old’ days are certainly much better than what we see now. The reason is very simple, the lens don’t need to do a lot because the medium, the 35mm film, is pretty large and also lens of old usually are glass based instead of plastic ones we see today.

I for one welcome the smaller cameras as friends of my generation and the older generation who owns fantastic 35mm legacy film SLRs will appreciate that the lens size and weight for the APS-C sensor size cameras(Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony DSLRs) are lighter and yet do not sacrifice too much of image quality.

If my students and SPIN members have handled the heavier DSLRs they would appreciate the weight we have to carry to take pictures.  Imagine the weight of the 35mm full frame DSLRs and its lens but that is the sacrifice we make to bring back images that we are proud to capture.

The problem comes when manufacturers wants camera to go smaller than the current crop of DSLRs and hence the introduction of the Micro Four-Thirds (MFT or m43) systems, Pentax Q and now the Nikon N1 all are of smaller sensor size.  The thing is that sensor size and image quality usually go hand in hand because a smaller sensor requires the lens to bend the light more to reach the sensor. Hence the need for super wide angle offerings of their lens. I have touched on the subject here (

Also for the purpose of not stepping on people toes, amateurs are defined as

amateurs plural of am·a·teur (Noun)

1. A person who engages in a pursuit, esp. a sport, on an unpaid basis.

2. A person considered contemptibly inept at a particular activity.

So by saying a person is an amateur doesn’t mean a person is lousy. I would define it as someone who is learning or honing the skills in the pursuit of becoming good in photography.

And when I tell a person that it is good to have a compact camera first to learn, I do not meant that you are not good or cannot own a DSLR. 

The main thing I have in mind is to let my audience know the type of commitment they have to put into to learn the some advanced settings of the DSLR and also the possibility and commitment to buy lens and equipment that would allow the person to improve on the area of photography he/she choses to pursue as there are many types of photography such as food, macro, landscape, portraiture and studio to name a few.

DSLR is really an ‘investment’ into a system so that it grows with you along with your love of photography. Changing from one system to another is tedious, a strain on finances unless your work is a professional and needed a good system to get the best results possible and have the finances to back the shift.

I really don’t see a point in getting a DSLR so that one uses it with AUTO setting or just relying on kit lens throughout the journey as an amateur that are on par with Advanced Compact Cameras or A-CC in terms of Image Quality.

This is my heart for those who listens to my suggestions: I am out to help you maximise your hard earn money and not to go through the heart ache of buying the wrong stuff as I have over the years.

Let’s get down to business.

Beginner 1: Compact Cameras – Simple (CC-S)

Compact cameras are cameras that are compact in size. Because of the size, the sensor has to be pretty small from the area of the little fingernail or even smaller especially on Mobile phones to save space.Compact cameras can come into two groups: Simple and Advanced.

The simple ones can be easily picked up by the absence of the manual settings or what the Nikon/Canon put it as ‘Creative Zone’. Because the CC-S do not have manual settings or what we call the P,S,A,M modes, they rely primarily on automatic and for a bit more advanced users, the scene modes. Some may even have P modes.

The CC-S are great for beginners to learn composition and is pretty for those who wants an idiot proof camera. But being idiot proof means the camera takes control and not the user.

To expect such cameras to be at the level of a full manual camera in the hands of a skilled user is an futile exercise and yet people equate the pictures they see to the camera ALONE and not the user.  No wonder there are so many people buying DSLRs and then are confused why they can’t get what they see from other people’s camera.

Beginner 2: Compact Camera – Advanced (A-CC) and Super Zooms (cameras that look like DSLRs but have Electronic View finders and have a x10 zoom range)

A-CC are also compact cameras or small cameras in size that also have the abilities of a DSLR. That means they can set P,S,A,M for creative work.  Just imagine a small compact camera, with extra buttons or dials that allows more creative controls and they have brains like DSLRs. The problem is that they still have small sensors and its associated problems.

I would suggest that this is the best group of cameras for someone to start learning photography without committing to a DSLR camera system. I am not saying one cannot take good pictures with it, or pictures from these cameras will be bad everytime. What I want my friends to understand is that these cameras will give the best bang for their money just to learn photography.

Twilight Zone: Electronic-Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens System (EVILs)

Examples: Nikon 1, Olympus Pen, Panasonic MFT, Pentax Q, Sony NEX

One cannot deny the attraction of EVIL cameras. They are certainly smaller in size and that was the selling point of Canon DSLR as they captured more lady users before these cameras came into the market.  Olympus saw the need for such a small size camera so they came out with the MFT system to compete with Nikon and Canon.  Judging by the Japanese market, MFT is taking shares away from the DSLRs (based on The Straits Times report, the same cannot be said of the Singapore market)

The other attraction is the promise of changing the lens to suit the shooting situations. This is the exact same benefit of DSLRs but in a smaller package.  The lens are smaller and lighter thanks to a smaller sensor and the use of plastic lens.

However the value system will take a test when it comes to mirror-less interchangeable lens systems. They are like compact cameras but they have a lens system to think of. That means they are actually on the same financial commitment with a beginner DSLR set and may even be more expensive than a entry level DSLR.  But are they the same?  My answer is no.

A DSLR would be a better long term investment when one understand what he/she wants in terms of their photography but not to the point where they are serious amateurs. (Serious Amateurs have  the need to adjust settings fast and know the PASM at the back of their hand and the tool they use should allow them to do photography easily. This is something I will touch on when I talk about differences in entry level and Mid to high end DSLRs)

Generally DSLR is designed ergonomically better than the these cameras. It has a grip, dials for quick changes and normally, the lens/body weight balance is there that actually helps to stabilise your stance and allows shake free photography.

Having an entry level DSLR gives the user the opportunity to grow the hobby with the exact lens that they need in the long run plus they are better able to handle complex settings when one goes into light painting, creative use of light, sports etc.

If I am at the crossroads to buy a camera to learn photography, I would prefer to buy a good advanced CC than getting the EVIL camera.  This way I will slowly understand my need for a camera and then choose the appropriate camera System to go along with my likes and wants.

That’s why questions such as “Which Camera brand is better for DSLR?” is an unfair question and certain a loaded question because one buys a camera based on his or her UNIQUE needs and is good ONLY for that person. PERIOD.

If you guys already bought an EVIL camera, then my suggestion is to maximise the use of the camera, understand where your frustration are with such systems and then find the right DSLR in the future to meet those needs.

I will touch on how to buy DSLR here:

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