DigitalCameraReview.com
Step-up Cameras for Moms, Dads and Grads
by Allison Johnson -  5/4/2010

A basic point-and-shoot is a good tool for capturing life's memories with minimal hassle. But when a beginning photographer starts looking for something faster with greater flexibility, that basic digicam starts looking a little tired. If the photographer in your life is looking at stepping up to an advanced point-and-shoot or DSLR, here are a few tips before you go shopping.

Megapixel Mania
We've been banging this drum for a long time now, but here it is again. Don't be fooled into thinking more megapixels makes a better image. Look instead for a good megapixel to sensor size ratio. For most purposes, 10 megapixels on a standard point and shoot sensor is more than enough.

The specs of a camera's lens are just as important as that of the sensor. A wider angle lens could open up more photographic opportunities, or you could look for a camera with a faster maximum aperture. Recently, camera manufacturers have focused their efforts on creating systems that capture better images in low light. Sony and Fujifilm have put some serious work into developing new sensor technology for better performance in poor lighting conditions. Our reviews of the Cyber-shot HX1 and FinePix F70EXR take an in-depth look at these new sensors.

More Control
Auto mode is a nice place to start learning the basics, but those who want more creative control will begin to feel constricted by it. If you'd like to stick to a fixed lens system but want more control over your images, there are plenty of options available. Advanced pocket cams and ultrazooms like Nikon's Coolpix P100 and Canon's SX20 put more zoom power full manual control into the fixed lens camera body.

Going Pro
If you're ready to upgrade to a DSLR, you'll find that the newest entry-level models are becoming surprisingly affordable. They include many of the same functions that made your old point and shoot easy to use - automatic shooting modes, live view shooting via the LCD, and a slew of in-camera processing options.

Many beginner DSLRs include on-screen tools to help the amateur photographer learn the ins and outs of finding the proper exposure in manual mode. Sony's Alpha a200 and a300 series cameras and the Nikon D3000 offer some help to the beginner in the form of on-screen visual guides.

Don't be afraid to step back a generation, either. If HD video recording isn't a priority, you'd have no problem finding a new or used DSLR that's recently been replaced by an HD-capable model. Buying a DSLR is just as much about buying into the brand of lenses as it is about the camera, so saving some money on an older camera body can free up some more cash for an extra lens.

Best of Both Worlds?
If it's the flexibility of an interchangeable lens camera you want but you'd rather not lug around a full-size DSLR, take a look at the latest Micro Four Thirds offerings. They combine a large sensor with a smaller camera body. Both Panasonic and Olympus have committed to the format and have plans to release more lenses soon. The Olympus E-PL1 is an excellent beginner model. It puts many of the functions of the higher-priced E-P1 and E-P2 into a more affordable camera. It also offers a Live Guide function that will help a beginner make the right changes to exposure settings.

Of course, all that style and advanced functionality don't come cheap. These kits start around $600, which is more than you'll pay for many ground-floor DSLRs. Take a good look at the benefits and drawbacks of MFT before you decide to go all in on one of these cameras.

Step on Up
More high-end features are making their way down to entry-level DSLRs and point and shoot cameras. Prioritize the features that are most important and do a little homework. It won't be hard to find the perfect gift for the photographer in your life.