Lee Ibarra shot his first digital photo in 2004 and was instantly hooked.
Photography is now a passion for Ibarra, a 27-year-old custom flooring contractor based in Bakersfield. His cameras of choice? An iPhone that accompanies him at all times and a pair of high-end Canon EOS digital SLRs that he uses for more critical work.
"My intent when using the iPhone is to share. I can take a picture, edit it, sharpen it and post it in less than five minutes," says Ibarra, who also likes the unobtrusiveness of his iPhone. "I can walk around with an iPhone and people will not even notice, where my DSLR can attract too much attention."
A photographer with a fondness for landscape photography who particularly enjoys shooting in CaliforniaÊ¼s eastern Sierra, Ibarra also recognizes that the DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) is still a vital tool for serious photographic work. "DSLRs are not going away," said Ibarra. He frequently will shoot the same scene twice, once with his iPhone for reference and to instantly share with his friends, and with his Canon EOS 5D Mark II for its unsurpassed image quality and ability to capture fine detail.
Although reports of the death of the digital camera market at the hands of the iPhone and other smartphones is greatly exaggerated, there is little question that those devices are causing a seismic shift in the digital camera world, greatly impacting how consumers are buying cameras.
The cameras Ibarra uses seem to reflect that shift. Sales of inexpensive point-and-shoot or "compact" digital cameras powered the digital photography revolution for years, but it didnÊ¼t take long for tech-savvy consumers to realize that the cameras included in smartphones were equal or superior to most of the industryÊ¼s compact cameras.
According to the NPD Group, a leader in market research, 50 percent of smartphone users are relying on their phones rather than digital cameras for their "on the go" photography. Sales of inexpensive point and shoots fell a whopping 17 percent last year, which NPD attributes to consumer reliance on smartphone cameras.
But the dismal news for the compact camera market has been offset by some encouraging news for other industry segments, specifically digital SLRs and the newer but not yet widely accepted mirrorless cameras.
A report released this summer by NPD revealed that nearly half of current digital camera owners planning to buy a new camera plan to spend at least twice the cost of the average point-and-shoot camera.
Encouraging news for camera manufacturers, this seems to indicate that buyers like Ibarra may want to combine the simplicity and convenience of smartphone cameras with stand-alone cameras that offer more features and manual control.
And with some digital SLR cameras now available in the sub-$500 range, manufacturers are hoping for big holiday sales to offset the declines in the compact segment.
For the consumer looking to buy, now is the time. Prices are as low as theyÊ¼ve ever been, even among higher end DSLRs, and image quality and camera performance, particularly in the DSLR and mirrorless markets, is better than ever. And keep in mind that most cameras offer pretty good video capabilities.
For holiday shoppers, hereÊ¼s a quick, but admittedly general, guide to whatÊ¼s available.
Digital SLRs -- affordable, fully featured and unsurpassed image quality
Unquestionably, the digital SLR is king. They offer the best image quality across all industry segments, are better suited to low light shooting, offer full manual and automatic control, shooting modes that allow emerging photographers to take greater control of how their images are processed, access to controls that make learning much easier ,and wide selections of lenses and accessories for building a system.
Even an entry-level digital SLR is a far superior imaging machine than virtually all point-and-shoot cameras. Spend a little for a point and shoot, and you may have bought yourself a paper weight. Spend a little for a digital SLR, and you have a top-flight picture taking machine right out of the box. TheyÊ¼re that good!
Entry-level DSLRs with a nice starter "kit" lens, like the very popular Canon Rebel T3 or the Nikon D3100, can be found for around $475. For those who like the latest and greatest, thereÊ¼s the Canon Rebel T4i, a marvelous camera that happens to be the worldÊ¼s first digital SLR that can be operated from its rear LCD screen. ItÊ¼s around $900 with a basic kit lens, but can be found for as low as $750. This author has tried it, and itÊ¼s fantastic.
For those photographers longing for the full-frame view of their old film cameras, Nikon and Canon have introduced the D600 and EOS 6D, respectively. At around $2,100 for body only they sound expensive, until you consider that cameras in this class cost between $3,000 and $7,000 just a few years ago.
Bottom line: A digital SLR, even at the entry level, will pay immediate dividends in superior image quality, maximum camera control and the ability to build a system.
New kid on the block -- mirrorless cameras
Mirrorless cameras have gained popularity in Europe and Japan, but have been slow to catch on in the United States. The recent NPD study has given this market segment some hope with a finding that consumer awareness of mirrorless cameras had doubled since 2010.
So whatÊ¼s a mirrorless camera and why would you consider one?
A mirrorless camera is a small interchangeable lens camera that rivals a compact point and shoot in size but has a large camera sensor. When light enters the lens of a DSLR, it enters upside down. A mirror is included in the camera to reverse the image so the photographer sees it right side up. This contributes substantially to the weight and size of the camera. A mirrorless camera uses an electronic viewfinder instead of a mirror. This allows the manufacturers to place the most important component for high image quality -- a very large sensor -- inside a very small camera body. The result is near digital SLR quality in a compact body.
Perhaps because of brand loyalty -- youÊ¼ve heard it before, right?: "Are you a Canon or a Nikon shooter" -- mirrorless camera sales have been sluggish in the United States. Canon and Nikon are not major players in this segment. Olympus, Panasonic, Sony and Fujifilm are among the more highly regarded mirrorless camera makers.
They are likely to have wide appeal to travel and "backpack" photographers because of their light weight. And because there is no mirror to flap up and down, they offer remarkable shooting speeds, in the neighborhood of 10 frames per second or even more. On the down side, the interchangeable lenses can add an awkward bulkiness to the small bodies. Lens selection and accessories are fairly limited, and can be expensive. Mirrorless cameras start in the neighborhood of $500 and can move on up to more than $1,000 for the higher-end models.
In a world of hurt -- the point-and-shoot
The most troubled camera segment is also where consumers must exercise the greatest caution. There are literally hundreds of point-and-shoot models, and if ever the saying "you get what you pay for" rings true, it is in this segment. The marketing of these cameras has long been a sore point with knowledgeable photographers, as unsuspecting buyers frequently think they are getting a great camera, only to face disappointing results.
Many buyers think the number of megapixels translates to a superior camera, and the manufacturers push this aggressively. The sad truth: Point-and-shoot sensors are simply too small to hold large numbers of pixels, and image quality suffers greatly when too many pixels are packed onto small sensors. The sadder reality: Many of these cameras touting high megapixel counts offer acceptable image quality in bright light but are virtually unusable in low light, and are sluggish performers. Add another, completely worthless marketing gimmick -- digital zoom -- and difficult to access controls, or no controls at all, and itÊ¼s easy to see why consumers are turning to their smartphones.
There are, however, some very good point and shoots. They reside at the high end of the segment. The Canon Powershot G series has long been highly regarded, as has the Panasonic Lumix LX series. Their two newest offerings, the Powershot G15 and the Lumix LX7, are receiving favorable reviews. They come with fast lenses, full manual controls and easy to navigate features. Panasonic also created quite a stir with the release of the Lumix FZ200, featuring an unheard of 25mm to 600mm f2.8 lens.
But higher-end point and shoots are pretty close to DSLRs in price, $400 to $600, and while these top models offer good features and image quality, they still fall short of DSLRs. Unlike a digital SLR, which offers excellent performance and quality even at the entry point, itÊ¼s "buyer beware" when it comes to choosing a point and shoot. Good ones can be found, but consumer awareness and some solid pre-purchase research is a must.
John Harte is a Bakersfield-based corporate, sports and wedding photographer, a photojournalism instructor at Bakersfield College and a photography instructor at the Levan Institute for Lifelong Learning.