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I need help deciding between a phone and an actual camera for amateur nature photography. I need something that can be ON by the time I've raised it and quick to focus when I'm in a hurry, and will be able to manage residual motion when I don't have time to steady myself because the thing's gonna fly away any second.

The main constraint is that I am relatively poor (by choice) and so this needs to be an either-or situation.

My background and context in photography come from these three cameras:

  1. Asahi/Pentax Spot-o-Matic with I think a very nice 50 mm f/1.8 lens. I didn't care about grain. I shot (what seems like) kilograms of high ASA film, developed the B&W myself and dropped the ASA 400 Ektachrome off at the corner drug store. I was so happy with my photos!
  2. Sony DSC-W55 (2007, 7.2 megapixels, NO Manual Mode, 3× optical zoom) ugh. Every time I turned it on it needed to reboot the computer, and couldn't put it in my pocket until it was powered down and the lens retracted.
  3. iPhone 6 vanilla (i.e. no photo app, lots of fumbling with screen controls)

Case in point. I think this orange dragonfly species is either a younger version of the red or a cousin, but they are much, much more sensitive to motion and get spooked at much farther distances than the red one:

All photos with my iPhone 6.

I have lots of blurry pictures of very colorful lizards running away because they've noticed that I've gotten too close, and some beautiful birds recognize my gaze and flee when they are only 100 pixels tall.

I need to decide soon if I should upgrade to an iPhone 11 or 12 with their better cameras than the 6 and actual optical zoom, or buy a used or new point-and-shoot or better actual camera.

Question: What are the key points I need to consider when choosing a point-and-shoot that I can use quickly with a fast lens (low f/no) and is also fast to focus and control, (used or new) and how can I compare that to getting an iPhone 11 or 12 with its better camera and optical zoom? Are there specific types of features that will allow people like me to shoot jumpy, skittish wildlife at a farther distance than I can do with my current phone?

note: per @Orbit's question in comments: I am walking in nature twice a day on my normal route, so the camera I use needs to be something I can carry with me all the time without being cumbersome or interfering with my daily activities. I need either a phone or smaller digital camera form factor so that it can be readily transferred between pockets and necks straps several times a day. I can't integrate the normal DSLR-sized camera form factor into my daily lifestyle and workplace for several reasons. Sooner or later I'll take it off and forget it or bang it on some equipment, and where I live and work if I always carried a big SLR in front of me ready to shoot it may make others uncomfortable. It is not rational because everybody has an excellent camera in their phones of course, but where I live and work it will simply be off-putting to others and that's beyond my control.

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  • @xiota No it seems quite the opposite! I've gone to great lengths to explain exactly why the camera falls short. "Case in point... took me 10 minutes to get even this close to it... I have lots of blurry pictures of very colorful lizards running away because they've noticed that I've gotten too close..." That's why I've mentioned "an iPhone 11 or 12 with their better cameras than the 6 and actual optical zoom". There may be better image stabilization in the newer phones (11, 12) as well, but I haven't tried one yet.
    – uhoh
    Nov 13 '20 at 5:14
  • @xiota as far as interchangeable lenses: "I need something that can be ON by the time I've raised it and quick to focus when I'm in a hurry" Pulling a lens out of my other pocket, exchanging lenses and putting the original lens back in my pocket doesn't really go well "...when I'm in a hurry". Another problem I've mentioned about the iPhone 6 in the question: "...and will be able to manage residual motion when I don't have time to steady myself ' Current one doesn't do that.
    – uhoh
    Nov 13 '20 at 5:19
  • @xiota item #2 mentioned my list is a compact camera with a built-in 3x optical zoom, certainly there are larger zooms now, and I mention the optical zoom of the newer iPhones as well, so I don't understand yet why interchangeable lenses would necessarily be required. The hurry is also explained in the question. The answers to each of the questions you are asking are already available in the question itself.
    – uhoh
    Nov 13 '20 at 6:17
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    You seem very happy with the Pentax. Why not pick up a used DLSR with a lens that zooms to 200 or 300 mm? It is bigger and heavier that the other options, but the photo's will be much better.
    – Orbit
    Nov 13 '20 at 8:48
  • @Orbit That is a very good question and I've updated the post at the end accordingly. Thanks!
    – uhoh
    Nov 13 '20 at 10:23
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The iPhone 12 Pro advertises a 5x zoom range, but in my look they didn't give a 35mm equivalent focal length. I would guess the range is something like 30-150mm or somewhat shorter. That is very short for wildlife, even lizards. It is hopeless for birds.

The point and shoot cameras have gotten extremely long lenses now, which is great for birds. It takes some practice to be able to find the bird in the narrow field of view and to hold the camera steady enough, though the image stabilization has gotten very good. When I am out I just leave the camera turned on all the time. My experience is that battery life is more determined by on time than number of photos for these cameras, so I always carry a spare battery. These cameras do not focus as fast as a dSLR, but they are pretty quick. The tiny sensor makes them somewhat more noise susceptible when the light gets low and you can't stop down to get depth of field, but they are much lighter and less expensive than dSLRs with long lenses.

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  • Thanks! It seems that you are encouraging me to stop by a point-and-shoot shop and see just how they've changed since my Sony from 2007.
    – uhoh
    Nov 13 '20 at 4:00
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    The smaller point and shoots do not have nearly as long a lens as the larger ones. That is a conflict in your desires that you need to resolve. I use a Nikon P900. The 2000mm effective lens is great for birds, but the camera is 900g in weight. I also have a Canon 7D with the 100-400 zoom, which is 640mm effective or so but well over a kilo (2-3?). When the right focal length is less than 1200 I prefer to crop the Canon, but over that the reach of the Nikon beats the Canon large pixels and better lens. I wouldn't use less than 600mm effective. Nov 13 '20 at 22:02
  • These are good points. I've never used a really long lens except a few tests with someone else's camera. I was thinking that something like 2x to 5x relative to my phone's normal FOV would already be a helpful boost for me, and hadn't thought about going to much farther distances. If the only time I used a camera were on hiking trips I'd consider an SLR, but the "problem" is that I walk through natural areas twice daily and spot wildlife routinely. There's something totally new to me perhaps once a week. This has given me pause, and a lot to think about.
    – uhoh
    Nov 13 '20 at 23:05
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    Especially if you are casually walking birds are far away. If you go for a shorter lens you commit yourself to working hard to get close to them. Most of my walks are 3-5km. I carry both the P900 and a pair of 10x42 binoculars every time. I have gotten a chest harness for the camera, which I use on rather longer hikes, 10-20km. I don't find the weight of the two a problem Nov 13 '20 at 23:53
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    The TG-6 only has a 100mm equivalent lens. That is hopeless for wildlife. It looks like a great camera for shooting your friends kayaking because of the extreme water resistance, but not for what you say you want. The Panasonic DC-Z80K is $400 and goes out to 1200mm. I had an older Panasonic and was happy with it at the time. I would not even try anything with less than 600mm effective zoom. Nov 21 '20 at 3:50
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Bias warning: I've been a film photographer for about fifty years, and never really taken to digital; further, I use Android on my phone.

My advice: get another Spotmatic or other, more sophisticated film SLR. If you still have M42 lenses, so much the better. M42 hardware is inexpensive (even now, with prices on the rise as younger photographers "discover" film), in large part because it's old and lacks the sophistication that's more in demand among those who learned on fully-automatic digital equipment.

There are excellent very long lenses for M42; I have one at 400mm f/6.3 that, when I bought it, cost almost nothing (it'd probably run under $100 even now). Film is better now than it's ever been -- Kodak's Portra 800 is fast enough to let you stop down to your lens's sweet spot and still have enough shutter speed for a long lens. Add to that a "photo sniper" setup (commonly found for Zenit M42 cameras, including a long lens with good optics) and you can "hunt" your dragonflies from far enough away that they won't spook, and do it in color.

Then get C-41 processing chemicals and process that film yourself, as well -- it'll save the cost of the chemical kit after only a couple rolls, vs. dropping the film off and waiting a week or two to get it back (and possibly not having the option to receive the negatives for your own archiving and storage).

If you're a hybrid worker, shooting film but scanning and post processing in digital, be aware that I'm getting 30 megapixels from a 10 year old used Epson 4870 flatbed scanner -- a modern scanner like a V700 will get more than twice that, though there's considerable disagreement on where the optical limits are for those scanners (hint: if maximum scan resolution is important, look into multi-sample and fluid mount).

Bottom line, an M42 body, good lenses, C-41 chemistry to use with your existing B&W processing equipment, and a flatbed scanner will set you back less than a two year old DSLR or mirrorless, give comparable final resolution, and (IMO) be more fun.

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  • Thanks for your answer! Because I'm currently fairly poor and while enthusiastic, a poor photographer, my current technique is to shoot a dozen times to get one good one, and buying equipment and film sounds quite exciting, it's out of reach at the moment. But things always change so I'll keep this in mind.
    – uhoh
    Nov 21 '20 at 3:05
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Get another iPhone or stick with the one you have for a bit longer. It's up to you if you'd rather get a compact camera, but your complaints about the iPhone and Sony compact camera also apply to current camera models.


I have lots of blurry pictures of very colorful lizards running away because they've noticed that I've gotten too close, and some beautiful birds recognize my gaze and flee when they are only 100 pixels tall.

You would still have this problem with a majority of compact cameras.

... couldn't put [Sony DSC-W55] in my pocket until it was powered down and the lens retracted.

This will be an issue with cameras with larger zoom ranges you would need to stay far enough from critters to avoid startling them. Compact cameras without an extended zoom range will be no better than an iPhone.

I need something that can be ON by the time I've raised it and quick to focus when I'm in a hurry

Nothing will be faster than already on.

... took me 10 minutes to get even this close to it.

Weren't you in a hurry?

I need to decide soon...

Why are you in a hurry?

What are the key points I need to consider when choosing...

You've already listed the criteria that are important to you.

Are there specific types of features that will allow people like me to shoot jumpy, skittish wildlife at a farther distance than I can do with my current phone?

Longer lenses on larger cameras, including superzoom compacts. But you've already ruled out that option.

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  • Q: Why are you in a hurry? A: personal constraints unrelated to photography. Q: Weren't you in a hurry? A: Each situation is different and each animal subject behaves differently. Birds and lizards flee irretrievably, but while dragonflies fly away they return a few moments later, so over time I can slowly approach over several cycles of flying away and returning. Sometimes they come right back, sometimes they take longer "grand tour" of the pond before returning to original spot. A longer focal length lens would have allowed a photo from where I stood when it was first spotted
    – uhoh
    Nov 13 '20 at 22:52
  • A: "You've already listed the criteria that are important to you." ...that I could think of at first. Through all of the questions posed by you and other users you've helped me work the problem much farther, and even more points have been raised here and in other answers. This is the magic of Stack Exchange. Thanks!
    – uhoh
    Nov 13 '20 at 22:58
  • Thank's for your thorough exploration of my question and all its aspects, you've given me plenty to think about. All answers here are good and helpful. As discussed in this commented I'm going to do some research now and see how good and bad the current compacts are, it's been so long since I've used one I'll need to refresh myself.
    – uhoh
    Nov 21 '20 at 3:03

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