Looking for a good starter camera with manual control that doesn’t have an overwhelming number of features? I’ve got the camera for you – with a price you won’t believe.
A great starter camera
For my daughter’s last birthday she wanted a camera. A “real” camera, according to her. Not the camera on her phone, not any of the point-and-shoot cameras we have lying around that were hers to use. She wanted one with big, interchangeable lenses so that she could learn how to be a photographer. I tried to talk her out of it—I thought she could still learn a lot with the equipment we had—but it was her birthday gift so I got her what she wanted. I went with an entry-level Cannon with a wide-angle lens and a zoom lens. I was told that it was the best camera for beginners.
It’s been about six months and she hasn’t used it much. Even though it’s probably considered a very basic camera among photographers who know what they’re doing, it’s actually pretty complicated for a beginner. And since it was fairly expensive (about $600), I’m always reluctant to let her take it with her. I’m sure as she gets older she’ll figure it out (and I’ll relax) and it will get more use, but for right now, it was a waste of money.
A better use of money would have been a much less expensive camera that I was sent to review, the Kodak PIXPRO AZ401 with 42x zoom. It’s smaller than a DSLR and doesn’t have interchangeable lenses, but has a lot of manual control, a resolution of 16 megapixels, and a 40x optical zoom wide-angle lens built in! It’s a great starter camera.
This Kodak PIXRO camera is considered a “bridge” a camera. Bridge cameras fill the space between point-and-shoot cameras and DSLRs. Many cell phone cameras give a decent amount of control, letting you mess you around with ISO and white balance and exposure compensation. But whatever zoom you have with a cell phone camera isn’t actually a real zoom. The phone is just cropping the image and making it look like it’s closer. (The only real exception to this is the Hasselblad True Zoom mod for Moto Z phones, which I own and will be writing about once I’ve used it more. Still, the 10x optical zoom mod itself costs way more than this PIXPRO camera – and that’s before you’ve spent anything on the phone.)Need an inexpensive camera w/optical zoom & lots of control? Check out the AZ401 from @KodakPIXPRO! Click To Tweet
So who is this particular PIXPRO for? New photographers who want a zoom lens without paying much. The Kodak PIXPRO AZ401 generally goes for less than $150, which is pretty incredible. It’s a great starter camera for someone who wants to learn what the different camera modes do, without getting bogged down in a million settings. And it’s a great camera to take on trips without having to worry about losing or damaging thousands of dollars worth of equipment.
Of course, you do make some compromises with a price that low, but I was really impressed with this camera for the cost – so much so that I trusted it as my only camera at a couple of important events last week. Let’s talk about the pros and cons. Please understand that I’m not a photographer – I’m still learning the basics of my own mirrorless camera. So I’m judging this camera as an average user, not trying to compare it to what a more expensive camera can do.
I took the PIXPRO out sightseeing in midtown Manhattan one day, near where I record my podcast. I’d already attached the neck strap and lens cap. It’s really important that you use the strap for the lens cap, because turning the camera on pops the lens cap off, and you don’t want to lose it before you even take a picture. (If you just want to see the LCD screen without the lens extending, you can hold down the “play” button next to the screen.)
I’d popped an extra four-pack of AA batteries into my purse. Yes, this camera runs on AA batteries! I think that’s a huge plus because AA batteries are cheap and available almost anywhere, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve needed to use my own camera and couldn’t, because I didn’t have a battery charged and ready. (If you want to make this camera rechargeable, you could get an inexpensive charger and some rechargeable batteries, and just use regular ones in a pinch). I used the camera almost constantly at a work event and it lasted about an hour and a half. On the other hand, just carrying it around with me and taking an occasional picture now and then, it hasn’t used much battery at all. It’s really only a concern for heavy use – make sure you have extra batteries with you.
Without reading any instructions I walked around taking pictures of buildings. The camera is very comfortable to hold, and because the lens is controlled by pushing a slider on the shutter button, you can operate it one-handed, even while zooming in and out. It’s a very smart design. And while there’s no viewfinder, the 3” LCD screen was very easy to see in bright sunlight.
The camera does have a small amount of on-board storage, enough for 9 or 10 pictures at a high resolution. You can get those off of the camera by connecting it to a computer with an ordinary micro-USB cable (not included). But you definitely want to have an SD card in there (not included), and it can be up to 32GB.
These were all taken with the automatic camera mode, on a very gray day. I haven’t edited them (except for a minor bit of cropping and straightening on a couple). Normally I wouldn’t post pictures that I haven’t edited, even with my much more expensive camera, but I wanted you to see what the camera produces on its own with no tinkering. In the first picture, the people moving around in the bottom of the frame are not blurry. In daylight the camera does a great job.
The next two pictures were taken from fairly far away. The first image is up on the side of a building (you can see how high in the picture above), and I took the picture from across the street. The second is up above a doorway. In daylight conditions on still subjects I had no trouble getting detailed images with the zoom lens.
This image was taken from the other side of the Rockefeller Center ice skating rink.
The darker details of this statue got lost a little bit, but it’s nothing an editing program couldn’t fix in a few seconds.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, always a gorgeous subject.
I finally had to look up some instructions when I wanted to play around with the other modes, because I couldn’t figure out how to access the settings for things like aperture and exposure compensation (FYI, pressing the little +/- button near the shutter button gets you to those settings – not sure why I didn’t try that). Everything else was very intuitive. Again, these were produced by the camera – no tinkering.
The PASM modes work much like they do on DSLRs. In Program mode you can change the ISO and exposure compensation. In Shutter mode you can also change the shutter speed. Aperture mode lets you change the F-stop from 3 up to 10.9, as well as the exposure compensation and ISO. And Manual mode lets you adjust the F-stop, shutter speed, and ISO.
The exposure compensation was very handy when I was taking landscape shots on a dark and stormy day. This first picture is with no exposure compensation:
This one is with the exposure compensation up to 0.7. The sky is less foreboding, but you can see more detail in the trees.
Face Beautifier mode is supposed to make skin tones look realistic, but I didn’t find that it made all that much of a difference (and none of my “models” would let me post pictures). There are a bunch of scenes to choose from in Scene mode, but I haven’t had much of a chance to try them out yet (no fireworks, snow, or sunsets for me lately!).
Panorama mode worked really well. Oddly enough, after each panoramic shot that I took the camera told me that my picture wasn’t lined up correctly, but then it processed and saved the shots anyway, and they looked great! I’m thinking the wind might have played a part in that. Zooming in I could see one tree looking a little bit blurry, but that was it. Everything lined up perfectly.
Video on the camera is great. It can record in HD at 720p, and the camera did a really good job of staying in focus at a concert when I zoomed in. The church where this performance took place (Trinity Church) was not brightly lit, and I didn’t have anything to rest my arms on as I was taking video, so this was a really good test and it passed with flying colors.
In dim light
In the dim light the difference between a good picture and a blurry picture was the ability to brace my arms against my body. Here’s my favorite one:
And a trip to Trinity Church isn’t complete without paying your respects to Alexander Hamilton’s final resting place.
Using the full zoom was hit or miss. Zooming out part of the way worked really well, but full zoom is where you see the limits of the camera’s image stabilization and focus. This first picture is some trees and power lines at full zoom. Most of the leaves are mostly in focus, as are the power lines—not super crisp, but good enough—but a branch in the foreground is not. On the other hand, I think it bears repeating: that’s a 40x zoom for $150.
Full zoom again. This one was crisper.
Again, this is at full zoom. I couldn’t stay quite still enough to get a crisp shot of my neighbor’s vine. To get really great pictures at full zoom I think a tripod might be required. Tripods don’t have to be expensive, especially for an inexpensive camera.
Getting close-up shots with the lens extended also caused some focusing problems. I was eventually able to get what I wanted in focus, but it took some trial and error and I had to get farther away than I wanted to. Macro mode helped, but not as much as I wanted it to.
Can you see the bee and fly hiding in the grass?
Here’s the bee again, but I couldn’t quite get him—or most of the grass—in focus that time.
I was not all that happy with some of the shots that I took at full zoom. The image stabilization at full zoom isn’t great, so without a tripod it was very difficult to get a crisp shot. Anything after about 2/3 zoom was difficult to get a good focus on. Resting the camera on a ledge or railing helped.
In general the autofocus was a bit temperamental, sometimes giving me fantastic shots and other times giving me a little blur where I didn’t want it. For taking pictures of buildings, landscapes, and people who are posing, it was good. But I would not recommend this camera for people looking to zoom in and take action shots. It’s really one or the other.
You do give up a few features at this low price, like WiFi, touchscreen, and an accessory shoe. But I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a camera with so many options for so little money. You can let a child use this camera without holding your breath, or put it around your neck for a day of sightseeing without worrying about getting mugged for an expensive camera. I was a little concerned that the lens cap just pushes on instead of twisting or snapping into place – there were a couple of times that the cover came off as I was taking the camera out of my bag. So I always pack it in a soft corner of my purse in case the cap comes off.
And a little editing
I wanted to end by showing you an edited image, because normally I would never post an image without doing some brightening and color boosting, and even a little sharpening if it needed it. The first image is what the PIXPRO camera took and the second image is after literally 45 seconds of tinkering on BeFunky, a site I wrote about a little while back. Like I said before, even when I’m taking pictures with my big camera—which cost six times what this camera costs—I do some things to improve the images before using them in a post, so it’s only fair to show you what that treatment does to a picture taken with the PIXPRO AZ401.
So there you have it. This inexpensive camera is capable of taking great shots. But for the price, don’t expect it to work miracles. Comparing it to cameras that cost much more simply isn’t fair. It would make a great gift for someone looking to learn photography who isn’t ready to take the plunge into a DSLR, but wants more control and zoom than a cell phone camera can give.
The best price I’ve found for the KODAK PIXPRO AZ401 is at WalMart.