If you are a parent, the obvious answer to “What’s the best camera to photograph my kids” is a pro DSLR, such as a Nikon D5, and a fast lens, like a 24-70mm f/2.8. However, those don't travel well in a diaper bag, so what’s a parent factoring carrying kids into his purchasing decision to do?
There are three types of cameras to consider as you look for something to capture your kids’ moments. Sure, a smartphone will get the job done, but when it comes to printing enlargements, zooming or anything that moves, a camera that can also take phone calls just won’t cut it.
Here are things to think about as you look for something that will let you get the moment, but won’t take up too much space add to much weight to your day.
Compact Point-and-Shoot Cameras
Point-and-shoot cameras in the $100 range that you see languishing in sad big-box store camera displays will not get you better picture quality than your phone. Sure, they can claim some optical zoom, but usually their sensors and image processors are even less sophisticated than your phone. Sometimes, you’ll actually get worse quality. For instance, both the Canon PowrShot ELPH 180 and Nikon COOLPIX A10, the cheapest point-and-shoots from the major manufacturers, shoot less-than-full-HD video at only 720p. When the iPhone 4 could do full HD in 2011 and had a touchscreen Retina display to boot, to not have any of these things in 2019 is pretty unacceptable. Higher-end phones such as Google’s Pixel series even incorporate all sorts of computational imaging technology that helps them leap over what’s available in a compact camera.
While there’s the crowd screaming about how good superzooms such as Nikon’s COOLPIX P1000 are, chances are you won’t need that much zoom for a family photo camera. The price point of these cameras aren’t very family-friendly either. The $1000 for the P1000 for instance goes a lot farther in the other categories here.
While some case could be made for rugged compact cameras such as the Olympus Tough TG-5 camera that’s freeze-proof, water-proof shock-proof, crush-proof and dust-proof, many phones are catching up to this level of protection, and so these qualities lose their value without an added bonus in image quality to go with it.
If you got a cheap compact camera for Christmas, I'd find a way to kindly ask for a gift receipt.
There are a lot of compact cameras out there that are packing larger sensors, such as 1” or APS-C size. While I love fixed lens compacts such as the Fuji X100F, a prime lens isn’t always the best for a family outing. Capturing the kids and the scenery doesn’t always allow for zooming with your feet.
There are a lot of options here, from super zooms with 1” sensors to extremely compact options with the same. I’ve spoken with my dollars here, owning a Canon PowerShot G3 X for when I want the long zoom (like say, the zoo) and the compact G9 X for when I want something small to throw in the baby bag.
I labeled this category “Premium” because of that sensor size I keep harping on. The 1” sensors in both of these cameras will give me significantly better image quality compared to a cell phone or the compact point and shoot category above, which makes these cameras worth carrying around.
Sony and Panasonic also make great cameras in this category, with the RX10 (at an eye-watering $1700 for the latest model, but much better pricing on the still-decent older models), RX100 series, and Lumix LX10. Panasonic even managed to stuff an even larger Micro Four Thirds sensor into its LX100, and I’m definitely a fan of those even larger sensors in small packages.
The only caveat to this class of camera is that while image quality definitely punches above its weight here (the G9 X is literally the size of a deck of cards), autofocus tech just isn’t really there. Despite what marketing materials and all the fancy green boxes on the screen tell you, if you have particularly squirrelly children in all but the best of light, you won’t really be able to keep them in focus.
It’s for this reason I recommend this class of cameras to those with young, inert children. A 3-month old won’t escape from your grasp and run away from the camera, and so this is perfectly acceptable in that case. As my kids have gotten older, and more mobile, I’ve found myself gravitating towards the next category.
Compact Interchangeable Lens Cameras (AKA Mirrorless Models)
Yes, I used to lug around a Nikon D610 and only the finest portrait lenses such as the 85mm f/1.4. It was dumb. Not from an image quality perspective, but from size and weight. I couldn’t fit things into a small bag carried double the bags and weight. I ended up enjoying my experiences with the family much less.
And so I’m finding that the ideal camera to take in the go bag with the kids is something Micro Four Thirds-ish. I often speak of the fabled Panasonic Lumix GM1, which is still an absolute gem if you can find one, but I’ve also gone with the slightly larger Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II, which for the small weight penalty over the GM1 adds an electronic viewfinder, in-body image stabilization, an articulating screen and much better controls, if not better image quality.
The big advantage to carrying something in this range is that you get much better autofocus capability and the ability to use a small, compact lens when you’re on a day trip with the family. However, by being able to change lenses, you can also carry lenses with more capability when needed.
The Final Word
So if we’re keeping score, save your money and use your phone if you’re considering a cheap compact camera. Those models are just not worth carrying the extra device, but things really start to improve when you step up to 1” sensor premium compacts and interchangeable lens cameras. For the particularly fast kids in your life, you’ll really want a mirrorless model. I have a combination of both, and these days, the DSLR only really comes out for formal family portraits.
Are you a parent? What do you carry when you’re out with your family?