Can a better camera help you take better photos? Sure. Many higher-end DSLRs bring bigger sensors, more megapixels, nicer viewfinders, faster autofocus, better continuous shooting speed and 4K video capture to the party, so you’ll naturally be taking crisper more beautiful photos. (Today’s mirrorless cameras also pack similar features as standard DSLRs, in smaller and lighter bodies.) But taking nice photos and actually improving as a photographer are two different things.

I’ve toyed with trying to be a better photographer for a while. In December 2015 I bought my first point-and-shoot digital camera — specifically the well-reviewed (but a few seasons old) Sony RX100 Mark III. It was small and powerful, and I could tinker with its aperture and ISO settings and even delve into the brave world of manual shooting. Sure, I had an iPhone with a pretty decent camera, but it wasn’t at the same level and didn’t have that “feel factor” — it was millimeters thick.

After months of traveling with my Mark III, I wasn’t progressing as a photographer like I wanted. Aperture settings were difficult to understand; I would scroll through numbers like F9.0 to F5.0 to F3.2 without being able to visualize the difference between each. The zoom wasn’t great to begin with. And although the camera was more robust than my smartphone, it still didn’t feel like a photo-capturing weapon. That’s when I turned to an entry-level DSLR — affordable, adaptable, something I could really wield with two hands.

Tested: Nikon D5600

Body Type: compact SLR
Sensor: 24.2 MP DX-format CMOS
Lens Mount: Nikon F
Max Resolution: 6,000 x 4,000
ISO: 100–25,600
Max Shutter Speed: 1/4,000 sec
Viewfinder: fully articulated LCD
Video: 1080p at 60fps video

Buy Now: $797 (w/ 18–55mm )

I practiced with Nikon’s latest entry-level DSLR, the D5600, for a few weeks. Announced at CES 2017, it’s near identical to its 2016 predecessor, the D5500; it has the same sensor, autofocus, max resolution, shutter speed, ISO range and fully articulated touchscreen viewfinder. The main difference is that the D5600 comes with SnapBridge, Nikon’s Bluetooth image transfer service that allows users to upload photos to their other devices. If you’re anxious to upload photos to VSCO, Instagram or Facebook as soon as you take them, this is your type of upgrade.

The analog tools on the D5600 were a big step up from my Sony point-and-shoot. The 18–55mm lens I used was far larger and easier to use than the Mark III’s optical zoom; feeling the lens grow or retract gives you a much greater sense of control than just twisting a small dial and looking through a viewfinder. The sensor was superior, so my low-light photos looked nicer. The aperture boasts a wider range of settings and sends information to the viewfinder in a way that makes on-the-fly adjustments intuitive and quick. That said, like my Mark III, the camera wouldn’t give me direction and help my improve my overall photography skills.

1/400, f/5.6, ISO 100

I went to Henry Phillips, GP’s photography manager, who taught me the shoot-from-the-hip strategy: shoot in manual mode, try to learn while you go, then test out how good the auto mode is. I photographed products in my apartment like my Google wi-fi hubs, and at showrooms, like the LG G6 launch event. I took the camera hiking with my dog, Roxanne, and out to Carton Brewery to sample some of New Jersey’s best beers.

Not every photo was perfect, and plenty had to be scrapped. They were out of focus, the lighting on some was terrible, and others were just completely black. For instance, I wanted to take a photo of Roxanne sleeping in the afternoon. I wanted the shadows to be completely black and Roxanne’s sun-laden features to be illuminated — but this was a challenge, and I thoroughly confused myself meddling with the aperture, ISO and shutter speed. Ultimately I called 911 (Mr. Phillips), who instructed me to stop switching the ISO, as that’s mainly used to get in the right light-sensitivity range to creatively play with shutter speed and aperture. (Auto ISO seemed the right move anyway.) Afterward, I continued to mess around with shutter speed and aperture. Then, in an effort to self-educate, I compared the info for two photos with similar subjects. Progress was slow, and my confidence was far from high.

Did the D5600 make me a better photographer? Probably not. True, I took photos that I wouldn’t be able to take with my point-and-shoot, and definitely not my iPhone, but that’s to be expected with a more pro-level camera system. The biggest difference, for me, was the more serious feel of the camera and the ease with which I could adjust the settings. (The touchscreen was surprisingly nice, too.) It actually inspired me to take more photos while walking through the city to work or just going out to dinner — even though it couldn’t fit in my jacket. That’s something my Mark III hasn’t done in a while.

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