Giving the gift of memories: How a camera purchase can make the season bright

People have been documenting life on film for over a century. Today, cameras are everywhere, with most of us having one with us on our mobile device at all times. Yet there are still many good reasons to invest in a high-quality photography setup this season to effectively, or even artistically, capture a family's once-in-a-lifetime moments.

"The first would actually just be quality -- quality of the image or file," said David K. Hauver, a product buyer and tester at Samy's Camera, which has five full-service stores in Southern California and offers online retail, photography classes and rentals.

The tiny image sensors in smartphone cameras severely limit their abilities in low-light situations (such as school performances or holiday parties) and high-speed action shots (such as sports or someone special's performance in "The Nutcracker"). For the same reason, inexpensive cameras cannot achieve the photographic effects that digital single-lens reflex setups are capable of.

"When you're looking at photographs by professional photographers and you see a portrait where a person's perfectly in focus and the background's out of focus, you can't really achieve that truly with a phone," Hauver explained. "Everything is going to be in focus , so you're really just sort of documenting an area rather than telling a story with the photography."

This eye-catching effect, known as background blur, can make a subject "pop."

This and motion blur, which can greatly enhance action shots, are not possible on a point-and-shoot or phone camera. Though editing software and apps may be able to simulate these effects on an existing photo, they pale in comparison to true in-the-moment creativity and expression.

"You're sort of applying somebody else's filter to your photo and claiming that as your artistic creation," Hauver said.

Semi-professional photography has never been more affordable and accessible. Whereas even a couple of years ago it was hard to purchase a good camera for under $1,000, today comparable equipment can be purchased for half that amount, a perfect price for a whole-family gift.

"If somebody just wants something very basic -- wants that larger-size sensor that's going to be better in low light and ... be able to create photographic effects -- you really could spend as low as $500, with a lens," Hauver said.

Contemporary cameras are amazingly intuitive to operate, too. Users can start with a camera's "auto" setting and then gradually wean themselves toward full control via "program" modes (where the camera handles the basics but the user can make adjustments) or settings where the camera determines, for example, just the shutter speed or aperture and lets the photographer personalize the rest.

With results instantly viewable on the camera's screen and the "delete" button ever-available, honing photography skills by trial and error is faster than ever before.

"I do suggest some sort of a course at some point. But without it you can ... essentially teach yourself photography pretty quickly," Hauver said. "It's a far cry from developing rolls of film in a dark room!"

People love to frame family photos and send them to relatives, so the ability to print these is perhaps more important than for any other type of picture. This process, too, has become incredibly cost-effective and convenient.

"These days you can get fantastic printers for about $100," Hauver said. "And the pictures are pretty amazing, considering the cost."

This holiday, you can go from emailing blurry photos to printing lasting memories for the whole family with one easy purchase.

-Paul Rogers for Samy's Camera

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