Maybe you think the camera built into the back of your phone is all you need. You may be right. But you may also have loftier goals or higher standards.
Isn't My Phone Good Enough?
Probably. It's there in your pocket already, and with all of the social sharing apps and filter apps for tricking out your pics, your smartphone's camera very well may be all you need. There are advantages to owning a "real" camera. They perform better in low light, they capture colors more accurately, and they are better at snapping action shots of moving subjects. But if you're just looking for a point-and-shoot to take pictures of your friends or your kids, we'd recommend you spend that same money elsewhere: Upgrade your smartphone to one with a better camera, like the iPhone 4S.
Today's best pocket-sized point-and-shoots probably do everything you need -- they have the same sensors as entry-level DSLRs, and they allow for extensive manual adjustments. If you want to take the next step, look at a Compact System Camera, or CSC. These have small bodies, big sensors and detachable lenses. Like bigger pro cameras, CSCs let you screw on different lenses depending on what you need for the picture you're taking -- a macro lens, a zoom lens, a low-light lens -- giving you a level of versatility and performance that approaches pro DSLR without the bulk.
One of the most popular types of Compact System Camera is called Micro Four Thirds, a new technology made by Olympus and Panasonic. Other manufacturers, like Sony and Nikon, are making their own cameras that operate much like Micro Four Thirds cameras. They also have small bodies and detachable lenses.
Any camera you're going to pick up this year should be able to shoot HD videos as well. Most cameras can do 1080p, but some less-expensive models can only shoot 720p -- your smartphone may be able to capture better video than that. Something else to pay attention to is file type. Make sure whatever software you're using to edit your videos (iMovie, Sony Vegas, etc) can handle the files your camera spits out.
Decide how much effort and money you want to sink into your hobby. If you want to take the best pictures in all conditions, even if it means carrying a bag full of gear, go for a DSLR. Be aware that DSLRs are pro machines -- they're costly ($1,000 and up) and require some knowledge to operate, so a book or some other instruction may be in order. If you want to take stellar photos but don't want all the bulk and hassle, consider a Compact System Camera with a detachable lens (around $800). These also have a learning curve, but they're easier for novices to figure out.
If you'd rather keep things cheap and simple, there are plenty of great point-and-shoot cameras under $500. But first, think about whether or not you actually need one. If your phone's camera leaves you wanting, consider buying a better phone before spending the same money on a point-and-shoot camera.
One final bit of wisdom: Buying a better camera will force you to learn more about photography, but buying a simpler camera will get you shooting now, and shooting more often.
Photo by Ariel Zambelich/Wired