Spring has arrived, along with birds and an itch to spend some quality family time outside. Now all you need is a good camera, one powerful enough to photograph the Pileated Woodpecker foraging in a tree near your house but straightforward and small enough to be used by the whole family, even kids with little fingers.
Your first instinct might be to go for a point-and-shoot, but chances are you already own one capable of taking high-quality images—a smartphone. And if you opt for a high-end model (a so-called advanced compact), you may spend close to what you would for the camera you really should be buying: one with interchangeable lenses. Either a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) or an interchangeable-lens compact (ILC) can be a great starter camera, but one that also lets your photographic ambitions grow with your family.
In some ways, both DSLRs and ILCs are comparable to a point-and shoot: An all-auto mode, standard in every model, makes them effortless to use. They’re also much smaller than even just a few years ago; some ILCs can fit in your pocket. But in other ways they are far superior: Much larger digital sensors—and proportionally larger pixels—enable the cameras to produce higher image quality, particularly in lower light. You're also buying into a system. You can upgrade the basic kit with a telephoto zoom lens, flash units, and other accessories.
Four of the cameras listed here are DSLRs or ILCs, while the fifth, a “superzoom” with a fixed lens, is also an attractive option. For comparison’s sake, focal lengths listed are the equivalents in full-frame 35mm terms, where 50mm is normal, 28mm is medium wide-angle, and 75 or 80mm is short telephoto. Prices shown are “street” value, or what you can expect to pay for U.S.-warranty goods at a reputable discount retailer. Note companies also typically offer a substantial rebate.
Canon EOS Rebel SL1
The Rebel SL1 is the smallest and lightest DSLR to date—an especially desirable quality for birders looking to lighten their packs. Laid on its back, the 18MP camera won’t quite cover a 4x6-inch print. It is designed to work with Canon’s STM image-stabilizing kit lens (a 29-88mm equivalent) for smooth and silent autofocusing during video. That’s a boon to still shooters, too, as it will focus smoothly on feathered subjects as they flit across the frame. Add Canon’s EF-S 55-250mm STM lens ($300) for telephoto reach roughly equivalent to an 8x binocular. (www.usa.canon.com; $700 with 18-55mm kit zoom)
Pentax puts more environmental sealing in its DSLRs than any of its competitors, and the company’s K-S2—only slightly bigger than Canon’s Rebel SL1—is no exception. Besides being a safer bet in sloppy weather, the 20.2MP camera has a tilting and swiveling LCD monitor that allows over-the-head and low-to-the-ground viewing—handy for, say, a Swainson’s Thrush lurking in the brush. And backyard bird photographers should note that the built-in Wi-Fi and NFC (near-field communication) allow remote camera control via a smartphone. The kit lens (a 27-75mm equivalent) protrudes a mere inch and a half from the camera body, and is also sealed against moisture and dust. Add a Pentax DA 55-300mm WR lens ($270) for a take on birds equivalent to a 9x bin. (us.ricoh-imaging.com; $520 with 18-50mm kit zoom)
Panasonic Lumix GX85
Don’t be surprised if people take this ILC for a point-and-shoot—the GX85 camera body won’t quite cover a 3x5-inch card, and the kit zoom lens protrudes less than an inch. (The viewfinder is electronic, which saves a lot of space.) But this 16MP camera can capture full-resolution shots in bursts of up to 10 frames per second, great for sequences of birds on the wing. It can also capture 4K video, or 8-megapixel images at 30 frames per second. (Now that will give you an action sequence.) Augment the landscape-friendly, 24-64mm equivalent kit zoom with a Panasonic G Vario 45-200mm zoom ($250) to approximate an 8x bin. (www.panasonic.com; $800 with 12-32mm kit zoom)
Low-Light Scenic Tool
Sony Alpha 5000
Sony, a pioneer of the ILC concept, produces a top value in the class, the a5000. This 20MP camera has lots to offer inside (including Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity to enable remote operation by smartphone). But other features make it ideal for outdoors: The kit lens, a 24-75mm equivalent, zooms from a landscape-friendly wide angle to a portrait-appropriate short tele. Add Sony’s signature Hand-held Twilight mode, which takes a multiple-shot composite for better low-light imaging, and you have a fine formula for tripod-free, low-light landscapes. Birders can opt for the Sony E 55-210mm tele-zoom ($350) for the magnification of a 6x bin. (www.sony.com; $450 with 16-50mm kit zoom)
Monster Zoom in Mini Package
Nikon Coolpix B700
This camera is the outlier here. Because its lens is non-interchangeable, it is technically a point-and-shoot. But as a “superzoom,” its lens has a jaw-dropping equivalent focal length of 24-1440mm. For reference, 1440mm works out to approximately the view through a 28x scope, or more than double the focal length of pro bird photographers' long SLR lenses. Now for the asterisk: Like all superzooms, the B700 achieves its enormous magnification by way of a tiny, fingernail-size digital sensor. As a result, performance can suffer in low light. But if you understand the limitations, this camera can prove great fun and utility for everyone in the family. (www.nikonusa.com; $500)