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Originally published April 6, 2012 at 7:18 PM | Page modified April 6, 2012 at 10:04 PM

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For great photos, nothing beats a dedicated camera

Camera phones leave a lot to be desired. The picture quality has improved but still isn't up to that of a good point-and-shoot.

San Jose Mercury News

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Most of the pictures I've taken in recent years have been shot with a cellphone. I'm guessing that's true for many of you, too.

So at the risk of sounding like I'm out of touch with the latest trends, I'll confess something: I recently purchased not one, but two, digital cameras. Neither was for me; I bought a digital single-lens reflex camera for my wife and a point-and-shoot for my young son. But I've been using the new cameras as much or more than their intended owners and — to my surprise — much more than my camera phone.

I got my first digital camera — a high-end Sony that was a precursor to today's DSLRs — around the turn of the millennium. About five years later, I bought a high-end point-and-shoot for my wife.

Compared with today's cameras — even cheap point-and-shoots — they're slow, have few features and take crummy pictures. That made the choice to use a camera phone even easier.

The pictures I've taken with iPhones and Android phones are often as good or better than the ones I could take with my aging digital cameras. What's more, I could use applications like Hipstamatic, Camera+ and Retro Camera to create cool effects without having to upload the pictures to my computer first.

But for all their advantages, camera phones leave a lot to be desired. The picture quality has improved but still isn't up to that of a good point-and-shoot, much less a digital SLR. With their low-powered flashes, tiny lenses and small image sensors, phone-based cameras usually produce awful pictures in dark or low-light situations and are poor at zooming in on subjects. And while smartphone pictures are great for sharing on Facebook, they're often too grainy to print out.

Part of my yearning for a new, high-quality camera was sentimental. I have two young kids, and I worried that when they grew up I was going to regret not having any high-quality pictures of them.

So I've been itching to upgrade our digital cameras for a while now and have long wanted a digital SLR, which is the contemporary version of the old, film-based single-lens reflex camera. Digital SLRs are bulky, often expensive and use interchangeable lenses that can add thousands of dollars to their cost. But their large image sensors and high-quality optics can yield amazing pictures.

It used to be that if you wanted a digital SLR, you had only a handful of models and two brands to choose from: Nikon and Canon. That's not the case anymore. In addition to the Big Two, you can find digital SLR cameras from Olympus, Sony, Panasonic, Sigma and Pentax. And you can find dozens of models, with prices ranging from less than $500 to more than $5,000.

Despite that variety, I didn't do a lot of comparison shopping when I bought my wife's new camera. I knew I didn't want to spend much more than $1,000. I also early on leaned heavily toward getting a Canon.

My dad, my father-in-law and my brother-in-law all own Canon DSLRs. They haven't all been completely happy with them, but all three of them have bought a variety of lenses for their cameras. Given the high cost of those lenses, that was a big consideration for me. I knew we'd likely be able to borrow or swap lenses with our family members, which is something we couldn't do if I bought a Nikon or a Sony.

I looked at three different models: the Rebel T3i, the 60D and the 7D. All have 18-megapixel sensors. The primary differences are how quickly they can shoot photos and the range of shooting settings. I ended up choosing 60D, the middle model of the three, because it had a great range of shooting options. Plus, I didn't want to spend several hundred dollars more just to take one or two more pictures per second, which was the main difference between it and the 7D.

I have to say, I've loved it. Even though it's not really mine, it's become perhaps my favorite tech-related purchase in years. It's bulky but still has become my go-to camera.

And my backup camera these days is not my smartphone but my son's new point-and-shoot.

When I bought that camera, I wanted one that would have a good optical zoom and a wide range of shooting modes, as well as one that would take macro shots and overall generate decent-quality pictures.

And because it was for my young son, I also wanted a camera that was small and lightweight and inexpensive enough to be replaced if and when he drops it.

Fortunately, there are lots of point-and-shoots that fit those criteria these days. I ended up getting my son a Sony Cyber-shot that was on sale at Best Buy for around $170. It, too, has been a lot of fun. One of my favorite features is one that automatically takes a panoramic shot as you move the camera in a half circle.

So, while camera phones may be the hip thing, there's still a place in my pocket or in my hands for a good old — well, brand new — digital camera.

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