Digital Camera Smackdown



smackdown_cameras.jpgHi Amy,
This is not a beauty question – or really a baby/pregnancy question but I have written to you before and you always give the best advice so I think you would be the best person to help! I need a camera. I have looked on-line at review sites and tried to research but the truth is I was 1) never very good at research 2) apparently kind of slow because I don’t really understand a lot of what is written. And that is the root of the problem. I want a good digital camera but have little experience with good digital cameras!
Since my daughter was born I have become obsessed with photography. This shouldn’t be a HUGE surprise to me seeing as how my mother owns a photography business, doing mostly weddings and family portrait type stuff and I even worked for her in High School and right after graduating from college. I am really a beginner hobbyist who has become frustrated with the beginner cameras and I am ready to move to the next step.
I want to be able to take clear, crisp pictures of my one year old, lightening streak daughter even if there is low light. My current 50 dollar digital camera (cough) won’t let me focus unless I have the flash on – but the flash completely washes my daughter out and I can’t capture any of the ambient light with the dumb old flash. I want to be able to pull off action shots since she spends 99.9 percent of her time running, I want to be able to focus on one object and blur the background, you know, basic freshmen art class stuff! I want a nice lens, the ability to get other lenses as I progress and the ability to learn by trial and error and experiment. BUT I don’t want to spend 599 dollars on a camera that isn’t what I wanted or far too sophisticated for me. So I know you are thinking to yourself go ask your mom you nitwit but my mom is firmly planted in the film era. She does have digital cameras that she uses but is far more comfortable using film. Also our aesthetics are a bit different (I like candid photos and she really really likes portraits with the husband standing behind the wife with his hand on her shoulder..or *shudder* the arm shelf ala awkward family photos…old school) so she doesn’t really understand the concept of wanting a camera that will capture someone mid jump/spin/tumble.
Any advice would helpful since this is something I have been trying to figure out since July. Actually if you could just point to a camera and say “get this one” it would really help because at this point I am up to my eyeballs in reviews and descriptions!
PS it is kind of beauty oriented since my daughter is beautiful and I want to take beautiful photos of her!

One day, back when I was pregnant with Noah, a box arrived in the mail. A couple boxes, actually. I was expecting maybe another package of receiving blankets, but instead it was the digital SLR camera — a Canon Rebel XT — that my husband had carefully researched for several months, along with additional lenses and UV filters and a tripod and an external flash. And the invoice, complete with price. Which I proceeded to FLIP OUT OVER.
That said: oh, please, step away from the point-and-shoots and spring for the digital SLR. I mean, a small camera is great to have for the diaper bag, be it a Flip or your iPhone or a pocket-sized Canon or Nikon, but for the kind of photography you are talking about, and the features you mention, an SLR will be the best investment ever. Ours certainly was, despite my temporary attack of the Pregnancy Frugals. I can’t imagine all the moments and gorgeous shots I would have missed while waiting for a flash to recharge, or being unable to shoot in low light, or being able to take high-res photos that allow for better, easier editing afterward and great at-home printing.
Like I mentioned, we use a Canon Digital Rebel. Ours is the olden-day equivalent to today’s EOS Rebel XSi. We have a 35mm lens and a 17-85mm zoom lens with image stabilization, which I cannot recommend enough, particularly for fast-moving subjects or if your hands aren’t the most steady. Jason picked the Canon over the Nikon (the only other option at the time) because of the reputation of Canon’s sensors and color quality. We’re getting ready to upgrade our camera body this year (something in the realm of 12 – 15 megapixels) and will go with Canon again. I love, love, love my camera, even though I do tend to default to the pre-sets more often than I should. I have little patience for fiddling around so I admit I’m not always using the camera to its full potential. But I have even LESS patience for endless tweaks in Photoshop (and am not a fan of baby photos that are super-obviously-heavily messed around with), and am always pretty happy with the basic, straightforward pictures I can take without waiting to adjust everything. When I do take the time to mess with the settings, though, there’s no stopping what you can do.
I have also used Sony’s Alpha SLR — which I was given for free at a weekend event for Sony, full disclosure — and I found it a bit more intuitive in terms of the menus and settings. This made the fiddling-around part easier, even if you only half know what you’re doing. However, the color of the photos it produced was simply not as good as the Canon. Everything came out a little red/magenta tinted. (Easily fixable with Photoshop, though.) When my father-in-law expressed an interest in upgrading to an SLR, we gave him the Sony and he’s been absolutely thrilled with it.
And then there’s the Nikon, which I have never personally used, beyond occasionally messing with other people’s at Blogher. It’s a very good camera, and takes very good pictures. My impression (from literally MINUTES of playing with it) was that it was a bit more complicated than the Canon, but that’s probably not true — more of a case of the buttons being in different places, or something dumb like that. My husband, of course, is Team Canon to a ridiculous degree (once he learned the topic of this column he’s been yakking NON-STOP about the sensor business and why Canons are better than Nikons for an hour now blah blah blah). I’ve gotten him to accept the fact that I’m a Mac to his PC, a Democrat to his Republican…so I’m not going to push the Canon v. Nikon business at all.
While the Sony wasn’t the right camera for me, I did get something else that weekend that I absolutely LOVE, and think you should TOTALLY BUY, no matter what camera you end up buying. Instructional DVDs by Me Ra Koh: Refuse to Say Cheese and Beyond the Green Box. Her aesthetic matches yours completely: forget the cheesy posed portraits and capture those awesome candid moments — those funny faces and poses that say so much more about who your child is than a forced smile in a Christmas sweater. These DVDs will help you take better photos, easier, and actually figure out what all those doofy settings on your camera actually mean, in a way you can ACTUALLY UNDERSTAND. My husband can read the reviews and the camera’s user guide…I can’t. I just…don’t get the technical descriptions, and before meeting and talking with Me Ra I didn’t know the difference between ISO and White Balance and aperture and zzzzzzzzz. She’s a mom and she’s funny and she’s awesome. Anyone who’s shopping for a camera or simply wants to know how to get more from their camera, or just really really wants the best-looking holiday card next year should check out her DVDs.
Photo by ssh

More on Photogrpahy:
How To Take a Beautiful … er, Charming Holiday Family Self-Portrait
How To Take Group Shots Of Your Kids
Reviews of Kids’ Digital Cameras
Digital Cameras for Kids (Reviews) (Part 2)


About the author

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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21 Responses to “Digital Camera Smackdown”

  1. Kailee Jan 18 at 11:34 am Reply Reply

    Yes, most definitely go for the digital SLR. My life has changed since we purchased our Canon EOS Rebel XSi. I’m a lot like Amy, and I use mostly all automatic setting, but I am excited about looking into those instructional DVDs.
    Also, we got ours at Costco. We got a great little bundle with two lenses, a camera body, and a carrying case. We shaved a few bucks off of the prices advertised at Best Buy and the camera stores.
    A good quality camera is such a great investment. Have fun and experiment, experiment, experiment!

  2. JesC Jan 18 at 12:33 pm Reply Reply

    The must have lens (regardless of whether you go Canon or Nikon) is the 50mm f1.8. It roughly $100 and it is a MUST for low light and beautiful bokeh. It’s often called the best $100 you can spend on photo gear and I couldn’t agree more. Canon vs Nikon will always have their pros and cons, if possible try them both out in a camera store to see what feels better in your hands. But definitely get the 50mm!

  3. Natalie Jan 18 at 1:30 pm Reply Reply

    I lovelovelove my Canon Rebel T1i even though I only ever use the manual-for-dummies settings. I don’t know how we tolerated our crappy digital cameras for so long… Good luck!

  4. Doug Jan 18 at 2:22 pm Reply Reply

    I’m a professional photographer, and I think the Rebel makes the most sense, although Nikon’s bodies are very nice as well and you can’t go too wrong with either one. I agree with the advice to get a 50 f/1.8 as well – it’s going to be awesome in low light, isn’t very expensive, and will be more sharp and clear than the cheap kit lens that typically comes with these cameras. It’s also something you can use later on fancier SLRs if you go that way. It’s a real eye opener how nice prime lenses are compared to zooms (it’s possible to get a zoom just as good – see Canon’s L lenses – but they can be thousands of dollars each).

  5. Rachel Jan 18 at 2:33 pm Reply Reply

    I’ll be the devil’s advocate here and caution you against getting a DSLR right off the bat. I got my husband a Nikon D90 with 18-200 lens for Christmas, and he LOVES it but says it’s a big adjustment from a point-and-shoot. You have to put a lot more effort into making sure things are in focus and well lighted. Also, they can be big and bulky and you can’t throw them in your purse like you can with a point-and-shoot. Also pricey. Nice lenses are crazy expensive. My husband’s camera and lens together were $1500 ($1800 with $300 rebate).
    Check out the Canon G10 point-and-shoot. My husband used it for years and loves it. We have absolutely gorgeous vacation photos, and he says there’s things it does better than the DSLR (like macro shots).
    I’d also look into photography lessons or classes. Any camera you get is only going to be as good as your abilities.
    Good luck!

  6. Alissa Jan 18 at 3:05 pm Reply Reply

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE my Canon Rebel. I also just got a Canon 430EX II speedlight (external flash)to use with it, which ROCKS. I’ve taken two photography classes, but with my one year old boy it’s either automatic setting or nothing, because I don’t have time to fiddle with stuff when I am chasing him around. And the photos are still awesome.
    You’ll be SO happy you went the SLR route, I promise!

  7. Candace Jan 18 at 3:41 pm Reply Reply

    WE LOVE our Canon Rebel, just got it for Christmas and the pictures are amazing. It is relatively easy to learn but has many advanced functions for difficult shots or more “arty farty” shots of you and your baby, as it were :) LOVE the SLR, definitely worth the money!

  8. Anonymous Jan 18 at 4:33 pm Reply Reply

    Before our son was born, we were in the same boat as you, but not quite ready to shell out for an SLR. We ended up buying a Fuji Finepix SD 6000, at the suggestion of a friend who is a professional photographer (He shoots on something much, much fancier, but he knew what we were looking for and did the research for us). We have been so, so happy with it. It has enough manual options that you can learn absolutely a ton by using it, it takes great pictures without the flash in low light, and has an extremely small shutter delay. It also has a continuous shooting mode for when you need to capture a running, twirling toddler. The other benefit to this camera over an SLR is that it takes video.
    We actually recently sold it to my sister and put the money toward an SLR because we felt financially and skill-wise ready to take the plunge. I would definitely recommend the Fuji as a lower-cost option!

  9. JCF Jan 18 at 4:33 pm Reply Reply

    Before our son was born, we were in the same boat as you, but not quite ready to shell out for an SLR. We ended up buying a Fuji Finepix SD 6000, at the suggestion of a friend who is a professional photographer (He shoots on something much, much fancier, but he knew what we were looking for and did the research for us). We have been so, so happy with it. It has enough manual options that you can learn absolutely a ton by using it, it takes great pictures without the flash in low light, and has an extremely small shutter delay. It also has a continuous shooting mode for when you need to capture a running, twirling toddler. The other benefit to this camera over an SLR is that it takes video.
    We actually recently sold it to my sister and put the money toward an SLR because we felt financially and skill-wise ready to take the plunge. I would definitely recommend the Fuji as a lower-cost option!

  10. Shannon Jan 18 at 7:34 pm Reply Reply

    I thought about getting an SLR as well for taking pictures of our baby, but we actually ended up getting the Canon S90, and we LOVE it. We got it on sale so it was about 1/3 cheaper than the SLRs, and it’s a small point-and-shoot so we can carry it around easily in the purse/diaper bag. It does all the things you’re talking about, capturing great pictures in low light with no flash, and with a “kids and pets” setting to help capture motion. I don’t even mess with the buttons except to turn the flash off, and we get great pics every time.

  11. Chelsea Jan 18 at 9:35 pm Reply Reply

    I’d like to recommend buying your camera from a local camera shop. Besides getting the warm-fuzzies for supporting local business, you get a lot of support and help from the staff, and often there are free classes/events with purchase.
    Our big holiday gift was a Canon Rebel XS, and paid about $80 more to buy from a shop in town than we would have at Amazon. We had the benefit of lots of help choosing the right camera for us, being able to handle it before buying, and about $400 worth of classes came with the camera. We took the first pair this past weekend and they were amazingly helpful.

  12. Amy J Jan 18 at 9:43 pm Reply Reply

    I have a Nikon D90. I did the research on the DSLRs looking at Pentax, Nikon and Canon. Pentax just did not take the pictures I wanted, and made odd noises. Nikon and Canon (sorry Jason), took just about the same picture. I went with the mid-level Nikon for 1) it felt good in my hand 2) had the autofocus motor in the body of the camera (can use all lens types, including older ones without the auto in the lens, and I am lazy) 3) My friend has a Nikon D3 and was willing to teach me and loan me lenses. All of that to say, go try out a Nikon D60 and a Canon XSi or T1i and pick the one that feels best. Here is the sight I did the reading research at (I love my camera and have taken wonderful shots around DC and on trips. Not too hard to carry around because I know what kind of pictures I will come home with)

  13. Della Jan 18 at 10:38 pm Reply Reply

    Until you get your new thing, a hack for the blown out flash thing:
    Put a piece of opaque tape over the flash. I have also ripped pieces out of white plastic grocery bags and held those over the flash; in that case, making sure not to actually hold your finger over the flash while holding up the piece of plastic is the toughest part.
    And let me second the thing about “invest in a class before you invest in a camera”.
    And FWIW, we got a $200 (1 year ago) Panasonic DMC-FS20 and love it. It’s not super fancy, but I have a wrist strap on it, it fits in my pocket, and it has some setting stuff that you can play around with if you actually WANT to.

  14. Sorelle Jan 18 at 11:01 pm Reply Reply

    A really good in between option is this camera line from Panasonic which has a lumix lens. We have one and it’s both reasonably compact but still has a great wide angle lens and other basic features of s DSLR
    Good luck and have a great time taking pictures of your baby!

  15. Jenn Shock Jan 19 at 9:29 am Reply Reply

    The Nikon D3000 is the perfect DSLR for beginners. It is much cheaper than other Nikon models so you won’t break the bank. It is very user friendly and it has taken some magnificent pictures for me. I too was getting tired of the point-and-shoot washing out my baby boy. I can use my D3000 without a flash and get some great pictures of a wiggly baby. I think my hubby paid less than $500 for mine.

  16. Drew Jan 19 at 9:35 am Reply Reply

    We just bought a Pentax K20D this fall (mostly my husband’s toy), and it is wonderful. Not so great on the automatic settings, but we get amazing pictures out of it. One of the big selling points on the Pentax is that you can use all Pentax SLR lenses on any of the Pentax camera bodies, even the film lenses. We found this sight remarkably helpful in deciphering the camera jargon:

  17. Becky Jan 19 at 3:36 pm Reply Reply

    I love my DSLR (Canon XSi), but it’s not for everyone. It’s big, the lenses can get expensive, and I’m one of those snobs who only uses it in manual mode, which drives my husband crazy if he wants to use it to get a picture of (gasp!) me. If you’re not ready for a DSLR yet, try the Canon SX120IS. I’ve played around with it, and it’s really an amazing package, in terms of price, size, and features. For a compact camera, it does a decent job in low light. You can go all-out auto with it, or start playing around with some of the features and less-automated settings.
    If you find yourself playing around with the features more and more, then jump into the DSLR. But it sounds like what you want is a smaller camera that has some auto modes and some manual modes. (If you want to go a bit bigger and more expensive, there’s also the Canon G11, as mentioned by someone else.)

  18. Karen Jan 19 at 5:30 pm Reply Reply

    In case your budget doesn’t really allow for a SLR no matter how awesome they are (and they are definitely great cameras), I highly recommend the Canon PowerShot XS110IS. Actually, any Canon Powershot is a good buy and they come in a variety of price ranges.
    We actually downgraded to this camera from a nicer Sony because of the improved picture and flash quality. We almost never have a flash problem and when we do, we zoom in and stand farther back. Fine compromise to save $1000.
    And I second the suggestion to buy from a local retailer. The service and great information about your purchase are worth the extra 5%.

  19. epoh Jan 21 at 3:54 pm Reply Reply

    As a pro photographer I get asked this question rather frequently. My recommendation is to visit your local camera shop and handle the Nikon and Canon and see which feels better to you. Canon and Nikon entry-level dSLRs take comparable photos and have comparable lenses and accessories. Next step – find a local photography board (a la and buy a used dSLR body. You can save a ton of money and still get an amazing camera. A definitely pick up the 50mm f/1.8 lens!!

  20. kakaty Jan 25 at 4:41 pm Reply Reply

    having just (finally!) jumped on the DSLR bandwagon at Christmas I can say I very recently went on research overload on this subject.
    First – Nikon and Canon, at entry to mid levels are about as same as you can get (sorry, Jason!). So, go to a camera shop or Costco or wherever you can find versions of both and find out which one feels better in your hands. Which one has things where you want them. I was totally Team Canon until I picked up a Nikon and it just…felt right. I didn’t like the way the Canons were weighted.
    Second, if price is an issue look for a good local camera store with refurb cameras and lenses. I ended up going with an on-line store ( and getting a factory reburb on the Nikon D40 body and 2 lenses I wanted. (Nikon D3000 is the big new entry level but most review sites say that the D40 is more camera for less $$). All of them carry a Nikon warrenty.
    I knew that we would most likely upgrade in about 5 years if we liked the DSLR format, I also got a camera that had a good resale value, and lenses that would most likely transfer to an upgraded body. That takes the edge off sticker shock.
    We got a full set up with the body, 2 memory cards, back-up battery, a camera bag, 18-55mm lense and 55-200mm lense (both with stablization) shipped for just under $600. Not cheap, but a reasonable investment.
    And, OMG – the photos? they are AMAZING even though I don’t know what I’m doing.

  21. Margo Jan 26 at 3:48 pm Reply Reply

    I invested in a Pentax K200D this summer after doing some extensive research. This camera weighs a little more than most SLRs (over a pound) but it’s weatherproofed. It captures great lowlight pictures inside the house without a flash, and doesn’t cost as much as comparable SLRs. The shake reduction is in the body, not the lenses, which is another plus.
    Also- I learned how to use it from Ree at her blog “The Pioneer Woman.”

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