For many people interested in upping their camera game, the choices are overwhelming.
Even as someone who worked at Best Buy for three years, and sold cameras among other things, I too felt overwhelmed by the choices at my disposal.
Having cycled across the U.S. with a cell phone and a "point and and shoot" camera, I found myself relying entirely on my cell phone by the end of the trip.
Four years later, I regret that decision. Both devices were limiting me as a photographer in a universe of endless photos.
Cell phones are easy, they're lightweight, but what they have in megapixels, they lack in three major elements: optical zoom, functional flexibility, and image sensor size.
Really the number of megapixels a camera has are mostly a distraction in today's camera game, and the focus of the buyer should be on my three major elements.
With a point and shoot, compared to a cell phone, there's often a barely significant increase in optical zoom, potentially more functional flexibility, and a larger image sensor.
Functional flexibility is the power to override the camera's automatic settings to manipulate focus, shutter speed, depth of field, and light sensitivity.
If you make the jump above a "point and shoot", functional flexibility is where your camera skills will start to shine.
The image sensor is perhaps the most critical eleent, which I will cover shortly.
Above the "point and shoot" there are even more categories which can generically be divided as single-lens reflex cameras (SLRs), mirrorless cameras, and film cameras. We'll define these as "real cameras".
Among the "real cameras" there's a two tier system based on the camera's image sensor. (As a note, the sensor senor size proportionally affects the optical zoom on a lens, but this will not be a consideration for most first time buyers)
Cameras typically above $1,000 have a "full frame" sensor, which is a sensor equivalent to 35mm film format sensor in use for the last 100 years.
Cheaper "real cameras" have a crop-frame sensor, a sensor with a surface area typically 60% smaller than a full frame camera.
For the similar sensor reasons real cameras are better than cell phone cameras, a full-framed camera is better than a crop frame camera.
There are crop and full frame versions of the SLR and mirrorless variety. These different cameras will have other differences as well, but for a newbie to the "real camera" game we can throw those out the window.
When buying a real camera for the first time, focus on the three main elements I identified: optical zoom, functional flexibility, and image sensor size.
A real camera can be identified by answering "yes" to these questions:
1. Is the camera lens interchangeable (effectively changing the optical zoom)?
2. Can the automatic settings on the camera be manually overriden?
3. Does the camera have an APS-C crop frame sensor or larger?
If the answers are all yes, what's left to decide is how much money comes out of the wallet.
More expensive does often equate to "better". But I'm not advocating a full frame camera for first time buyers.
For me, I purchased a Nikon D5300 (crop-frame). This is essentially the next step up from Nikon's entry level "real camera". And I purchased the next step up for two clearly defined reasons: WiFi, and a variable direction LCD screen.
WiFi let's me dump pictures from my real camera to my cellphone anywhere (even without Internet signal or service). From there I can throw pictures up on instagram (@MannyCLE) as if they were taken on my phone. Absolutely no computer required.
The variable direction LCD helps me take pictures with the camera flat on the ground. Only then can I see what's going on down there.
One buyer tip: if you're looking to save money, buy last year's model of the real camera you're looking at, right when the new model comes out. That's the best time to catch a discount.
I paid $550 for my Nikon D5300 and lens at Best Buy, right when the D5400 (the mostly unchanged new model) came out for $950.
My camera, and the standard 18-55mm kit lens I bring (27-82.5mm crop adjusted) weighs 1.73lbs.
I put the camera in a Pelican 1150 case which weighs 1.98 lbs. I carry a spare camera battery and a 1.3 lb Anker 26,800 mAh externally battery for all my charging needs. Even out here for a full week between power outlets, I've carried on normal operation thanks to the external battery.
Memory cards vary greatly in price depending on the source, and the time of purchase. Recently, I've found 32 GB SanDisk SDXC cards for as little as $11 on Ebay. I've also picked up 64GB SanDisk SDXC card at Best Buy for $55 within the last 3 months.
In total, taking pictures with a real camera adds 5 lbs to my hiking bag. I don't even think about the weight, or dollars spent, because my Nikon helps bring me and the people I share these photos with closer to the environment I'm walking through from border to border. You just can't take these photos with a cell phone.