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My daughter is in 6th grade and wants a more professional camera than her current cheapo Kodak $99 camera.

Should I get her an SLR? What features should I look for? Manual focus and aperture settings? Should I get one that allows lenses to be changed? What kind of camera setup can I get for under $500? We would probably also use her camera as well sporadically.

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10 Answers 10

up vote 29 down vote accepted

Wow, do I disagree with the idea of a bridge camera.

If your budget is $500, seriously consider an older model dslr with a 50mm f/1.8 lens.

Why?

  1. Prime lenses force composition. There's no other way around it-- in order to get the shots you want with a prime, you have to think about what you're doing. Zooms offer a shortcut in this regard that is great if you know what you're doing or don't care, but if you're learning, a prime is essential. With few exceptions, pocket cameras and non-dslrs do not have primes.
  2. Speed. A DSLR is simply a faster, more responsive camera. If your daughter is serious about this, serious enough to have you consider buying this much kit, then the shutter lag in a point and shoot (even a g12) that will happen in anything that's not broad daylight will be very frustrating. DSLRs are simply more responsive, because of the way the focusing mechanism works.
  3. Serious depth of field capabilities. Apertures of 1.8 on a larger chip make for more background blurring and focal isolation. It is possible to experiment with this kind of thing with a non-slr (for instance, with a canon s95), but having the entire range is extremely useful, especially for experimentation.
  4. Image quality. A $400 slr, with its larger chip, should easily best a bridge camera or a point and shoot for image quality. Cameras in this range should definitely offer RAW processing (which she'll want if she wants to experiment with the full range of image processing), but even so, the larger chip and pixel size in a dslr make it hands-down better than a same-generation point and shoot or bridge camera. The exception to this would be something like the olympus ep-1, which has an slr chip in it and should give comparable quality (but is, I think, outside of the price range you want).

I taught a class recently filled with high school students who wanted to get into photography. Those with SLRs could easily grasp the concepts of the lessons because these cameras, by and large, have the controls to manipulate image quality, and these controls tend to be very intuitively available, once the user knows what to look for. Students with a point and shoot or a bridge would struggle to be able to set aperture, shutter, ISO, etc, because each camera manufacturer is different not all of them offer all the requisite functionality to really learn image capture.

So, go for the DSLR, 50mm kit. Then she can save her pennies for other lenses or gear as she needs them.

EDIT: As for particular brand, it depends on whether or not this is a surprise. If it's a surprise, any of those you've listed will work, though, as I pointed out, bypass the kit lens for the 50mm f/1.8. If it's not a surprise, then have her try the bodies out in the store to see which ones fit her hands the best. I personally dislike the entry-level Canon bodies because of my enormous hands, but she may like them for exactly the same reason.

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A 50 mm on an APS-C body is kind of too long for a “standard” lens. I would rather go for a 28 or a 35, unless her daughter is into portrait. –  Edgar Bonet Nov 28 '10 at 19:15
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agreed, but the 50mm f/1.8 is ~$100, so within her budget more easily. –  mmr Nov 28 '10 at 19:59
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I too agree. I've never agreed with the use of a compact (in the sense of a small sensor camera) for someone who is serious about wanting to learn. For someone like that, the limitations of compacts are just too great. –  Nick Bedford Nov 28 '10 at 23:33
    
Yes and no. Yes for point that it is more portrait lens on APS-C - No because it gives great quality for price. I used to shoot with 50mm on APS-C for whole year - it is sometimes bit uncomfortable BUT it forces you to think. –  Rafal Ziolkowski Nov 29 '10 at 11:40
    
Add 5.) A SLR is the only camera, where you really can compose a picture because of it viewfinder. No, stretching out the arms and looking on a small screen is not comparable and neither is a partially grainy electronic visor. –  Leonidas Nov 29 '10 at 16:31

If you want to take her from the point and shoot world up to the next level, then one option to consider is the bridge camera. It's basically a hybrid between a point and shoot and a dSLR and offers some of the benefits of both without commiting you to a system at this stage. With a bridge camera, you get a lot of the feel and handling of an SLR, but without interchangeable lenses. You get a lot of the ease of use of the point-and shoot world without giving up a lot of control.

If you do go dSLR, there are a ton of very good entry level options. The optimal choices there really depend on what she wants to experiment with and so it can be tricky to advise. If I was to break down the classic three, then:

Pentax - Popular amongst landscape types. The entry version is the K-x and it probably stands as the best in class for high ISO performance which is great for low-light conditions. There's an added bonus with the K-x in that they offer a wide range of color choices for the body, your daughter may like that, and the body is very small for a dSLR.

Canon - Popular amongst the portrait types. There are a number of entry versions, but the T2i is probably the one I'd pick. Canon offers best in class resolution on their sensors, so they can oft pick out more detail at lower ISOs versus the competition. A big upside to Canon, shared by Nikon, is the availability of gear. They have lots and it is readily available.

Nikon - Popular amongst the sport shooters. Again, a number of entry versions are available, but the D3100 is probably a very strong choice. For one, it has the sensor performance of the K-x, but it autofocus performance and accuracy is probably the bigger win here. When it comes to action, Nikon is hard to beat.

That's the break out I've observed, but it is important to note that all three options are great cameras that can be used across the "disciplines" I described, it's just relative strengths and weaknesses.

Anyways, whether you go bridge or dSLR, it is very important to first put the cameras into her hands before you buy. Tricky, I imagine that this is a Christmas present you're contemplating, but a very big part of what she will get from the camera will depend on how it handles for her. Keep that in mind, how it handles for you, with your hands and eyes, is not going to be the same for her. I can't stress that enough, she needs to spend some time with the options.

Finally, I think it's great that she's into, and excited by, photography. It's a great art and, in my opinion, you're never too young to start. Two of my neices are really getting into it, at ages 8 and 9, and I couldn't be happier. They're using point and shoot now, but if they continue to enjoy it, I'll probably be the one that puts an SLR in their hands.

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You might also consider a film SLR: for the stated price, you can get a very nice used SLR plus excellent lenses, particularly if she's willing to do manual focus, and older mechanical SLRs have much more satisfying noises and feel than modern cameras. Of course, you have to put up with film developing, but you can have the film developed and scanned without prints if you prefer to have the images on the computer.

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Photography is as much about having a good camera as painting is about having a nice set of brushes - it is an essential tool but less important than the artistic skill or in this case a good eye for composing shots. Since she is just starting, you should make her understand that more than the camera in hand, it is what is behind the camera that is important. She should spend next few years with a camera that will allow her to practise the basics of photography, grasp the workflow - as she is developing an eye for the necessary observation.

SLR would be an overkill right now - instead get her a versatile compact like Canon G11/12. It is a capable enough system that will allow her to go beyond the auto and learn about various modes (P/Av/Tv/M), shoot AEB etc. Another factor favouring a compact is that she can carry it anywhere and shoot more spontaneously.

Spend the spare money on some good photography books and find a good local photographer/photography club ready to give her some advice/lessons. Take her out for occasional photowalks and let her discover the joy of photography.

Few years down the line when she has found out the kind of photography she likes, she will tell you which camera you need to buy her!

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In addition, the size of a DSLR, even entry level, can be quite heavy for a 6th grade girl I would imagine. If its too heavy to use constantly, she may tire of the hobby itself quickly. Additionally, the increased "attention" from the unsavory types with DSLRs is even less welcome for that age group. Definitely agree with a versatile P&S. –  rfusca Nov 28 '10 at 3:16
    
See my comments below-- I could not disagree with this comment more. –  mmr Nov 28 '10 at 4:42
    
@mmr - I agree with the points you make in your answer (she would definitely get better pictures and ultimately learn more from a DSLR)... but I'm imho, we're still talking about a 12 year old kid (not a high schooler) that's all my comment was trying to reflect. –  rfusca Nov 28 '10 at 4:53
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@rfusca-- I had to pry my DSLR from the protesting hands of my then-12 year old niece and nephew. Don't underestimate kids because of their age; not only did they find the size completely usable, they actually produced a few keepers in a style I definitely wouldn't have tried. –  mmr Nov 28 '10 at 14:50
    
With a compact bridge-camera she won't learn to appreciate the technique of taking photos, namely everything that has to do with the aperture: depth of field, diffraction effects (sharpening). If you recommend that she learns the basics then stay to your advice: grant her a really good view-finder (SLR) and adjustable aperture with a noticable effect (SLR). FYI: started with my fathers EXA I at the age of 10. Yes, that one has a full steel body and I had a nice 33mm and a 50mm Zeiss. That is what the bag is for. –  Leonidas Nov 29 '10 at 16:24

Picking up on the good advice to get a basic camera with a 50mm ish (equivilant) prime, as well as the size / weight considerations for a young girl, one option you might want to consider is a first generation Micro Four Thirds camera with a 17mm or 20mm prime. These are smaller and lighter than a traditional SLR with a mirror and in most situations are every bit as flexible, and much better than a bridge camera.

You'll also get around a 40mm equivilant focal length, which is a really nice lense for natural looking photos that rely on good composition. As has been pointed out, a 50mm on an APS-C camera is around 80mm equivilant, which isn't as versatile, and you really should be looking at a 35mm or similar to get 50mm equivilant.

Because there's a new generation of Micro Four Thirds cameras coming out, you can pick up a Panasonic Lumix G1 (or a GF-1, if you really want to keep the size down) for good prices now, and spend the extra on a good prime. Of course, the same financial logic applies to getting an older generation APS-C with a more expensive 35mm lense, but they'll still be bigger and heavier than a Micro Four Thirds camera.

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If your daughter is interested in photography you should definitely get her something that will allow her to adjust exposure and play with the settings. All DSLRs can do this, but are a bit bulky.

If you want to get under $500, you basically have to options:

  • An upper-class compact like Canon Powershot G12 which has all the manual controls as well, but is a bit smaller than an SLR, and costs about $500 at Amazon.

  • Entry-level DSLR (EOS Rebel XS if you're into Canon) with a kit lens. This is the bulkier option, but gives you the through-the-lens viewfinder and interchangeable lenses, as well as better pictures in low light and clear "upgrade" path -- for example you can then buy a fast 50mm lens for $100 and shoot completely different pictures. (The camera with kit lens also costs $500 at Amazon)

For all the differences and explanations, see comparison at Snapsort. You can get both of these types of cameras from other manufacturers, but the basic differences will be similar to these two.

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Any reason to stay away from a used DSLR like the Olympus E-520 for $400? –  WilliamKF Nov 27 '10 at 21:46
    
@WilliamKF: If you choose to go with an DSLR getting a used one might actually be a better option since she can probably live without 12 MPix resolution, and it's going to be less painful for your wallet if it gets dropped. Regarding DSLR brands, I'd prefer Canon or Nikon since they have the widest range of accessories available (including used and 3rd party) -- that might be useful in the future. –  che Nov 27 '10 at 21:54

agreed on the G12 or similar style camera. At this point, I think spending money on an entry level DLSR is probably overkill. Get them a good higher end point and shoot. the G10/G11/G12 is one of the cameras professional photographers carry as their "not carrying the big camera" camera, or the own their spouses carry.

One exception to this -- if your daughter is interested in photography that involves nature photography where a zoom is needed, the Canon isn't the right camera; the zoom there maxes out aorund 200mm (35mm equivalent), which if she's interested in birds and butterflies instead of people and portraits won't be enough. In that case, look at a camera like the Panasonic DMC-FZ35 or FZ40, which have optical zooms out to 400mm or so; we've used that family of camera fairly extensively and for that kind of photography is a better bet.

also get them a few memory cards, and a tool to process the images on their computer (iPhoto on a mac, Lightroom on a PC), so they have everything to get going.

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We have Photoshop CS5, so I expect that is more than enough software wise. –  WilliamKF Nov 27 '10 at 22:00
    
Advanced compacts like the Canon G12, Panasonic LX5 or the Nikon P7000 are a great choice: all of them are very compact and powerful cameras and even if you end up buying an DSLR later they serve really well as a backup camera –  t3mujin Nov 28 '10 at 14:00
    
"spending money on an entry level DLSR is probably overkill". I disagree. G12 is 480€, and it is still compact camera with all its limitations. Pentax K-x with a kit, a very good DSLR to learn the photography, is 460€. You can always "upgrade" a DSLR with a new lens, and you can achieve more with such a camera. Using "higher end" point and shoots means paying the same price, and getting less. Suggesting Lightroom ($300) for someone with the total budget of $500 is nonsense too. RawTherapee (free) is more than enough to learn to process photos. –  sastanin Nov 29 '10 at 14:01

This may not be the answer you want, but I'd suggest a film SLR. A few years ago I was in sixth grade and wanted to move up from my cheapo radio shack digital point and shoot. My dad went into his closet and pulled out two minolta film slrs with lenses and gave them to me. Since then, I have become a much better photographer. If your daughter wants to see how she likes slr photography or wants to improve her photos and technique, I'd get her a film slr, coming from personal experience.

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In my opinion, buying an "advanced" compact camera is almost always a mistake. Especially for someone passionate and willing to learn about the photography. I did it myself.

"Advanced" compact cameras approach the prices of the DSLRs and the mirrorless cameras, but do not offer even comparable performance. Yes, you can get a compact camera with manual controls, but in the end after all the effort the user makes to take photos, the result is less than optimal. Paying more than $200 for a camera with a small sensor (anything smaller than 200 mm²) is not going to help to take better pictures. You pay for features which are not backed up by performance. And you do not have a way to upgrade. Buying a compact camera is a dead end solution.

For example, Canon G12 is currently 480€, and what you get for this money:

  • a small crippled sensor (43 mm², I expect bad low-light performance, grainy images, poor tonal fidelity, and the depth of field which is hard to control)
  • probably a mediocre and non-changeable lens (probably not good at all at some focal lengths and apertures)
  • an electronic viewfinder (eye strain, especially in dark or very bright environments)
  • slow operation

In the same time, an entry level Pentax K-x with kit lens is 460€ from the same merchant. And it is a very good camera. Good sensor, decent optics (and you can upgrade to a better lens), optical viewfinder (the user can see how exactly the scene he is taking photo of is looking), manual controls.

Or Olympus Pen E-P1 with a pancake (17 mm) lens from the same merchant is 505€. Again, good and potent camera. Smaller than a DSLR at the cost of the missing optical viewfinder.

And I agree with the others, that starting with a fixed focal length is a good way to learn.

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you sound like you're critiquing the G12 without actually using or studying it. I've talked with many professional photographers who'd disagree with you; the lens isn't mediocre, the sensor isn't crippled... George Lepp uses that line of cameras for many of his gigapixel panos, for instance. Many pros are turning out publishable images on it. The compact cameras can be cost effective and have the advantage of, well, compactness, meaning it's easier to carry them around conveniently. Not a bad idea if you're just starting out. –  chuqui Dec 5 '10 at 8:56
    
I don't critique G12. This is just a typical representative of the class. It has its uses (like a second or in-pocket camera), but I don't think it's a good camera for an aspiring photographer. Regarding the lens, Imaging Resource reports that “Chromatic aberration is moderately high at wide-angle. The color fringing is bright and extends fairly deep into the frame”. Sample shot from G12: imaging-resource.com/PRODS/G12/ZG12hVFAWB_250LL.jpg So, yes, I agree that compact cameras can be cost effective, but at $500 they are not. And regret buying such a camera once. –  sastanin Dec 6 '10 at 11:24
    
Now, regarding the sensor. Here is a comparison of Canon G12 vs Olympus E-PL1: cameralabs.com/reviews/Canon_PowerShot_G12/high_ISO_noise.shtml Olympus, even with a small Micro Four Thirds sensor, is clearly much better. And, unlike G12, it can produce better images if a better lens is used. –  sastanin Dec 6 '10 at 11:31
    
And the verdict of Camera Labs is “The biggest problem for the PowerShot G12 though is the availability of cameras sporting DSLR sized sensors and removeable lens mounts, that are roughly the same size and weight. Almost unbelievably, models like Sony's Alpha NEX-5 are actually smaller and lighter than the G12, at least when fitted with a fixed prime lens”. –  sastanin Dec 6 '10 at 11:36

My suggestion is the cheapest SLR camera from Nikon or Canon and a good prime lens (at least f2.8).

You can buy them used but not too old (2 years is fine I think). Older DSLR had several problems on the sensor.

Avoid the kit lens because their quality is really terrible for artistic/professional use. Nothing wrong for the casual tourist but a beginner could be depressed by their results.

I suggest also to buy some manuals but most important some photo book by famous photographer and try to reproduce their shots.

Cameras are not important at all, lens are quite important but the critical element is the mk1 eyeball!

good shots!

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