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If your main goal is buying a camera, you have to decide for yourself whether an entry-level DSLR, a point-and-shoot/compact digital, or a smartphone is your best bet. It really depends on what you’re planning to do in photography.
The Entry-Level DSLR
I wouldn’t recommend entry-level DSLRs for everyone. However, if you’re interested, you can get started in an entry-level DSLR with kit lens for as little as $400. Less, if you buy used.
Why buy a DSLR rather than a smartphone? I’m not sure that’s even a choice… you’re probably going to buy a smartphone. But if you’re buying a smartphone to be a very good camera, you’re probably spending $800 or more on that phone. Most people do. If you don’t need a high-end phone just for photography, what else do you need it for? My phone, the Moto One 5G Ace, ran me $250. The cameras work, though they’re not great. The phone has a mid-range processor, but it’s not like I’m doing CAD design on a phone.
And think about this: that phone will probably need to be replaced in a few years. The DSLR will still be delivering good photos for you in a decade. You may upgrade, you probably should buy some better lenses, but that’s up to you and where you want to push your photography.
The main caveat about DSLRs: they’re going away. Don’t get me wrong: in a decade, you’ll still be able to buy used bodies and lenses. But the manufacturers are scaling back. Fujifilm left DSLR manufacturing in 2010. Panasonic was pretty much ending their short run of DSLRs around the same time. Olympus ended their line in 2013. Sony ended their A-Mount system in 2019. Nikon just discontinued their two lower-end DSLRs. Canon has announced they’ll never make another flagship DSLR model. Both companies are scaling way back on lenses. Why? Nope, it’s not smartphones, it’s mirrorless cameras. Only Pentax sees a future in DSLRs.
There’s another concern, that of smartphones versus cameras. I’ll get there, but for now, let’s follow the camera party… it’s not over, they just moved next door to mirrorless.
The Entry-Level Mirrorless Camera
In 2008, Panasonic and Olympus introduced the modern mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, sometimes called MILC, sometimes just dubbed mirrorless. Yeah, it’s kind of silly to name a technology after what it doesn’t have, but we did have SLRs and TLRs — reflex cameras, using mirrors to redirect light from a lens — since the 1880s (TLR) and 1930s (SLR).
Another acronym that didn’t really catch on, but is more descriptive, is EVIL: electronic viewfinder, interchangeable lens camera. The mirrorless camera trades off the mirror for an electronic viewfinder that “sees” and focuses using the same sensor used for taking the actual shot. Early on, the electronic viewfinders were a bit slow and low resolution, but these days, they’re very good. This design allows smaller, lighter cameras, less mechanical complexity, and faster burst shooting. It also greatly improves the use of the camera for video.
So another thing to think about is an entry level mirrorless camera. There are options from Canon, Nikon, Olympus/OMDS, Panasonic, and Fujifilm. While I kind of liked the consumer-oriented Canon EOS M system, everyone in the photographic industry expects Canon to abandon the EOS M system soon, especially since they introduced the EOS R10, an $1,000 entry level model in their EOS R professional system (their older EOS RP is also available at about that price today).
You’re not going to find anyone’s mirrorless camera plus lens new for $400, but you can get started for around $600, If you buy used, you can get a decent combination for around $300, especially from Olympus, Panasonic, or Fujifilm, who have offered cameras at many tiers and who’ve been in the mirrorless game longer.
That Missing Piece: Knowledge
The use of a camera and the use of a smartphone for photography — for your best photography anyway — are two fundamentally different things. And that is probably where you should focus your choice.
If you’re thinking about a smartphone as a camera, you’re probably not all that serious about learning photography. That’s a fair position to take, and one that’s very possible today. With a flagship smartphone — this is the Honor Magic4 Pro, which I was sent by Honor to write about — you have an advanced AI processor, somewhat larger cameras than in older phones, multiple fixed cameras that can simulate a zoom lens without making the phone gigantic, and especially, advanced software. This kind of phone is using a combination of deep-learning artificial intelligence and computational photography to deliver very good photographs in nearly any situation. You literally do just point and shoot.
If you buy a DSLR or MILC, you might initially be disappointed. Yes, just about all cameras, consumers or professional, have an “auto” mode. They auto-focus. But they’re not using anything close to the level of computational magic that makes a smartphone shoot better than a normal, experienced user would like do with the the phone. If you want the best result from your camera, you need to learn how to use it. You need to learn photography, and keep learning. I started when I was a kid in the early 1970s, and I’m still learning.
So I brought up the Honor Magic4 Pro just so you don’t think I’m only using that Moto One 5G Ace. When Honor sent me the phone in May, it was the 14th rated phone of all time on DxOMark, a web site that does extensive testing of cameras, lenses, and smartphone camera systems. They do have a new model, the Magic4 Ultimate, which is currently in the top position. Anyway, here’s a shot I took with the Magic4 Pro, standing on the landing right outside my “he shed” at my house near Bethany Beach, DE. Here’s the thing: it was way too dark to see. I could only see the streetlight and the moon. I pointed, a shot. The photo isn’t fantastic, but pretty much any smartphone from ten years ago would have delivered a noisy black nothing.
Here’s the same shot with my Olympus OM-1 and the M.Zuiko 12–40mm f/2.8 PRO lens. And, of course, my brain rather than an AI. Note that the Honor had an f/1.8 camera, so it even had a bit of an advantage on exposure time, albeit with many shots taking on a smaller sensor. This is a 5 second hand-held exposure, by the way.
My point here is that, if you’re serious about photography, you will eventually benefit from having a real camera. If you’re not that interested and just want snapshots, phones are great, and your photography will get better — technically better — every year you upgrade. Without learning anything! That said, I’m not recommending that you just don’t learn. If you’re happy shooting on a smartphone, you can still learn to use it better. You can study photographic composition on a phone. You can also choose your subject wisely and many not shoot in near total darkness. If I had shot these in daylight, I doubt, on Quora or other social media, that you would have known the phone shot from the camera shot.