If you’re looking to buy a starter digital camera – either for yourself or as a gift – then you might be surprised to find that your options are fairly limited. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Are you crazy?! Every time I go into Best Buy there’re huge piles of little point-and-shoot digital cameras!” While this is true, there are very few of those that I would consider a “starter” camera. “Starter” implies that this first camera will be a start – that you’re looking for a camera that will be a jumping off point, and that you (or your gift-ee) might want to learn from this camera, and one day move on to something more advanced. Here’s what you should buy, and why.

Most of the point-and-shoot cameras available today (as well as many advanced cameras, including mid-range digital SLRs) pack special “scene modes.” When you put the camera into one of these modes, it biases its decision-making process to craft settings that are tailored to specific situations or subject matter. For example, if you choose a “sports” scene mode, the camera will try to make decisions that will give you more motion stopping power, so that you can shoot fast moving objects without blur.

While these modes can greatly improve your chances of getting good snapshots, they teach you nothing about the actual exposure theory that you need to know if you want to move beyond snapshot shooting. So, if you later upgrade to a more advanced camera, you’ll be hard-pressed to take more than simple snapshots.

If your hope is to one day move beyond snapshot shooting – no matter what kind of camera you ultimately end up with – then there’s no way around it, you have to learn basic exposure theory. A working understanding of shutter speed, f-stop, and ISO are essential for developing more artistic control of your photographic process, as well as for handling trickier photographic situations. With an understanding of these parameters, you’ll be able to decide when you want to blur out backgrounds, and when you want them sharp, you’ll have control of motion stopping power, and you’ll know how to expose your images in ways that allow them to later be adjusted and edited for specific results.

“But,” you might be thinking, “my camera has a scene mode for portraits that blurs out the background, so why should I hassle with learning it myself?” There are two answers to this question. First, the scene mode might not work so well in trickier lighting, such a low light. In these instances, you’ll need manual control to be able to get a usable shot. What’s more, because you know that you can adjust the image later, you might be willing to make exposure compromises that your camera’s scene mode won’t think of. Second, sometimes you want more or less blur in the background. The ability to choose a specific depth of blur is a powerful creative tool, and one that you won’t get from scene modes.

These same rules hold true for other scene modes. If you really want to ensure that you can get the shot you want in any situation, then scene modes won’t cut it.

Finally, if you’re really interested in photography, it can simply be a good exercise to understand the fundamental theory of the process. This understanding will help you shoot better pictures, and will expand your appreciation of great photographic works, as you learn to see them with a more trained, technical eye that is capable of appreciating what obstacles the photographer had to overcome.

The good news is that this theory is not complicated, it just takes some practice. The bad news is that nowadays, it’s hard to find a low-priced camera that offers the manual controls that will facilitate learning this theory. It’s a strange irony, but it used to be that you could get an all-manual camera for a very reasonable price, but you had to pay a lot of money for any automatic features. Today you can buy an all-automatic camera for a very low price, but you’ve got to pay to get any manual control.

In defining “starter camera” I set a maximum price of $300. Three hundred dollars is about the same price as a video game console or other high-tech hobby, and if you go much beyond $300, you run into trickier questions of “do I want an SLR?” If your goal is simply to find out if you’re interested in pursuing photography further, then $300 is not an unreasonable amount. There are, of course, decent point-and-shoot cameras for less money, and these provide a great way to experiment with the compositional aspects of photography, and through scene modes, a little bit of artistic exposure. But if you really want to get a taste for the down-and-dirty process of photography, then you should follow this definition of “starter” camera. If you decide that you are interested in going further, then you’ll have a more knowledgable base from which to make your next decision. If you decide you aren’t interested, then you’ll still have a very good point-and-shoot camera that you can use for your everyday snapshots.

My next criteria for a starter camera, is that it must have four modes beyond full automatic: Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Manual. These modes give you varying degrees of manual control, and if you move slowly, you can very comfortably build up an understanding of exposure theory (more on that in a bit).

Now here’s the shocking news: in my research I could find only one – count it! one! – camera that fit this description. All those gobs of cameras that you see at the local camera or electronics store, cameras from major photo players like Nikon and Olympus and Canon – of all of those, there’s only one sub-$300 camera that I could find that offers manual control, the Canon PowerShot SX120 IS.

The SX120 is a ten-megapixel camera that offers a nice long zoom lens (it’s the equivalent of a 36-360mm lens on a 35mm film camera, which means somewhat wide-angle to very telephoto) that includes optical image stabilization to reduce handheld shake. It’s got a nice big, 3″ LCD screen. It lacks an optical viewfinder of any kind, but you’ve got to go to a $500 camera before you get one of those, and the optical viewfinders on point-and-shoots have always been lousy anyway, so this is no great omission. Canon puts a nice, simple interface on their cameras, and most importantly, it has all of the requisite shooting modes that a serious photographer will want, as well as a good range of ISOs.

If you’re worried that ten-megapixels seems small compared to other cameras that are out there, rest assured that this is not a concern. Ten megapixels is big enough to make a very large print, and you’ll probably find that ten megapixels on a point-and-shoot actually yields better image quality than a higher pixel count.

So that’s it. There’s no tricky decision to make, no nasty comparison data to wade through. If you decide that you want a starter camera, as I’ve defined it, then there’s only one model available (at least, that I’ve been able to find, I’d love to hear about anything that I missed). What’s more, it’s not a compromise of a camera. It’s got a very good lens, sturdy build, and yields very good image quality. It’s not a tiny, credit-card-sized camera, but if you’re curious about what “serious” photography might be like, then you might as well practice carrying something with a little size and heft, as it will give you an idea of what it’s like to carry a larger camera, and having to carry a larger camera is a certainty if you choose to stick with photography.

What’s more, if you order the camera from Amazon, it’ll only cost you $199.

Two Quick Lessons For the Beginner

So what do you do once you have the camera? First off, you have to learn to press the shutter button.Pressing the shutter button may seem very simple, but there are certain things to understand about it, because proper use of the shutter button is how you control your camera’s autofocus feature.

If you have a point-and-shoot camera, and are frustrated that it doesn’t take a picture right away when you press the button, be aware that this problem might be happening becuase you’re not pressing the button correctly. After you’ve framed your shot, you should press the shutter button down halfway. You’ll feel a halfway point, where the shutter button kind of stops. When you do this, the SX120’s autofocus mechanism will analyze your scene to try to determine what the subject is. It will then lock focus on that subject.
After it’s locked focus, it will beep and show a green circle on the LCD screen, to indicate that focus and light metering have been achieved. You can then press the shutter button down the rest of the way to take the shot.

This pre-focusing step is essential when using any camera with an autofocus mechanism, and it’s a habit that you must develop right away, if you want to shoot specific moments, and if you want to be able to craft compositions with more creative focus. .

The next thing you need to practice is an awareness of shutter speed. Your camera has two mechanisms for controlling the amount of light that strikes the image sensor. There’s a shutter that opens and closes, and an aperture that’s akin to the iris in your eye. When the shutter stays open longer, the sensor receives more light. But, as you can easily imagine, if the shutter is open longer, and you shake the camera during that time, then you’ll get a blurry image.

So, it is essential that you get in the habit of taking note of the shutter speed after you half-press the shutter button. On the SX120 , when you half-press the shutter button, the camera displays its shutter speed and aperture choice at the bottom of the LCD screen:

It’s the number on the left, in this case 1/125th of a second. Keeping track of this number while you shoot should become second nature, for when it drops too low, you will run the risk of blurry images that are the result of camera shake, and you’ll be unable to freeze moving objects.

You can practice your shutter speed awareness in Auto or P mode. Every time you half-press the shutter, take note of the speed. If it drops below 1/60th, you’re going to be in danger of soft or blurry images (there’s a more refined rule for determining what the slowest shutter speed you should use is, but for now, just take note if it drops below 1/60th). Don’t worry yet about what to do when it goes too low, just try to get in the habit of noting it.

To learn the next steps in understanding exposure theory, and to learn what to do when your shutter speed goes to low, pick up a copy of Complete Digital Photography. It will walk you through a very simple method for learning exposure theory, and then guide you through an advanced understanding and application of that theory.

And if you decide you’re enjoying your new hobby, shoot with the SX120 for a while. As your understanding grows, you’ll be able to determine on your own when you’ve outgrown the camera, and are ready to move on. But you should find that it provides enough depth and control to facilitate a lot of shooting and learning.