How to Choose a Good Beginner Photography Camera

What to look for in a starter camera

A man taking photos of the Hollywood sign with a DSLR camera.

 @TonyTheTigersSon via Twenty20

Getting started in photography is fun and exciting, and a little confusing when you start looking for that first beginner photography camera. There are so many options it's hard to know exactly what to look for in a camera. This article helps outline the most important factors to consider when buying your first starter DSLR camera.

Types of Cameras to Consider

A common saying in the photography industry is: "The best camera is the one you have with you." Smartphones make it easy to always have a camera with you, and their capabilities are constantly evolving and improving. But if you're ready to get serious about photography, you may find that smartphone camera is too limiting for the types of images you want to take.

The first thing budding photographers should do when considering a camera is to look at what's available on the market. There are plenty of options:

  • Point & Shoot Cameras: These cameras are on the lower, smaller end of camera forms. They have no removable lenses, and are best for quick snapshots.
  • Bridge Cameras: These cameras are a step up from the point & shoot form factor, but they have many of the same capabilities. What sets bridge cameras apart from point and shoot cameras is the super zoom lens most of these cameras have.
  • DSLR Cameras: DSLR are the most common cameras used by both amateur and professional photographers. These cameras have interchangeable lenses often feature optical viewfinders.
  • Mirrorless Cameras: Mirrorless cameras are much like DSLR cameras, except they're missing the internal mirror that's integral to an optical viewfinder. This means that while these cameras have interchangeable lenses, they also have digital viewfinders, which some photographers don't trust.
  • Film Cameras: Film cameras may seem archaic in this digital age, but there are many photographers who still shoot strictly on film. That's because these cameras have manual controls and can create very specific images.

Choose a DSLR Camera

As a beginning photographer, you'll probably want a DSLR camera to learn on. That's not the last decision you'll need to make, but since DSLR is the most popular format for beginning and professional photographers, this article will focus on the important DSLR features to consider when buying your first camera.

DSLR Features to Consider in a Starter Camera

It's not uncommon to talk to multiple people about choosing a beginner camera and get several different lists of features to look at. But the truth is, you probably won't need to worry over all the features you're hearing about. Since you're choosing a camera for a beginner photographer, there are some features you probably won't need until you've advanced your skills.

Before You Start Considering Camera Features

Before you start compiling the list of must-have features for your new camera, there's something else you should take into consideration: what kind of photography you want to do.

You may begin your photography journey with strong feelings about the kind of pictures you want to take, whether it's wildlife photography, landscape photography, fashion photography, portrait photography, or something entirely different. Your choice of photography could dictate the type of camera you get. For example, some crop sensor DSLR cameras are better suited to macro photography, while some full frame cameras are better for fashion photography.

Once you've figured out where you want to begin your photography journey, you can begin looking at a list of important features.

Sensor Size Could Be Decided for You

As previously mentioned, the type of camera you decide to use could be determined by the images you want to take. That's because sensor size can affect your images. There are several sizes of image sensor:

  • Full Frame: This is a true 35mm camera sensor. It's often referred to as large format, since this is an uncropped sensor. There are some differences in image sensors between manufacturers, but the size is what's most important here, because it allows you to catch more detail in an image. Large format cameras are often used in fashion photograph and sometimes in landscape photography.
  • ASP-C: This sensor type is also referred to as a crop sensor because it's a cropped version of a 35mm sensor. Due to its versatility, this is the most common type of sensor in DSLR cameras. It works sufficiently for most types of photography, and it's preferred for macro because you gain a closer crop naturally using a DSLR with an ASP-C sensor.
  • Point & Shoot: The sensors in point & shoot cameras are smaller than full frame or ASP-C sensors. Point & shoot cameras are best for quick snapshots and informal photography.
  • Smartphone Camera: Smartphone cameras are gaining more and more features with each release of a new version, but the image sensors in smartphone cameras are still smaller than those used in any other type of camera. With digital help, though, these sensors can often capture great images and since most people have their smartphone with them all the time, they're often the device used to capture important images.

Different sensor sizes require different lenses. Most manufacturers don't have lenses for full frame sensors that also work with ASP-C sensor cameras. So, the sensor size you choose could determine the types of lenses available for you to shoot with.

Shooting Speed May Be Important

Another feature that could be dependent upon the type of photographs you want to capture is the shooting speed of the camera. If your main interest is sports photography, or even some types of nature photography, you'll want a camera capable of capturing images very quickly.

Determining the actual shooting speed of a camera can be complex, but there's a cheat you can use. Look at the number of frames per second (FPS) the camera can capture when set to burst mode. For most types of photography, 5-7 FPS will allow you to capture nearly every image you want, including most sports matches your kids will participate in. However, if you need high-speed captures, then look for 10 FPS or more to be sure you can grab the image you need without the camera bogging down during the processing of those images.

Pay Attention to Controls and Shooting Modes

If you're reading anything about photography, you've probably seen professionals say something like, "If you ever want to take truly great images, you have to get away from scene modes and use only manual settings."

That's great advice, but as a beginning photographer, you could be a few months away from understanding all the controls and settings on a DSLR and how to use them. If you want to take pictures before you get that all figured out, scene modes can be a useful tool. Look at the available scene modes on the cameras you're considering. Most will have basic scene modes like portrait, close-up, landscape, and sports. You may also be able to find night modes, video modes, and several semi-automatic modes such as shutter priority or aperture priority.

Decide which of these modes are important for the types of photographs you want to capture, look for those modes, then use them. These automatic and semi-automatic modes are great tools for getting started in photography as you learn the nuances of the craft.

Should You Buy a Kit or a Camera Body & Separate Lenses?

A camera kit includes the body of the camera, one or two basic lenses (called kit lenses), and often will also include other accessories. Alternatively, you can buy the camera body, then purchase the lenses and other accessories you want separately.

Kits are often less expensive, but the lenses included in kits can have some limitations. For example, most kits will have an 18-55 mm lens that maxes out at an aperture around f/3.6. That's not terrible, but if you want to work in low-light conditions or you're dying to learn how to create portraits with amazing bokeh, you probably want an 18-55 mm lens with an aperture of f/1.8. That lens is considerably more expensive.

However, camera kits are a great way for beginning to make the leap to DSLR and have the tools necessary to start taking pictures. And they really are less expensive. Since most beginners will need time to learn skills and techniques, kits are often sufficient to get started. You may eventually want to upgrade your lenses, but to get started quickly, kits are a good option.

If you decide to buy a camera kit, one thing to check before you do is the type of lens the camera body uses. Manufacturer's lenses aren't often cross-compatible, and lenses for full-frame cameras aren't usually compatible with lenses for crop sensor cameras. You can get some lens converters, but still make sure you can buy the lenses you want in the future.

What's Not Important in Beginner Cameras

One of the things that's less important than you might believe in finding the right beginner camera is the brand. Yes, there are those who whole-heartedly believe Nikon is better than Canon or Sony, or maybe they believe the opposite, but brand is not an important consideration. Nearly all DSLR camera manufacturers create DSLR cameras that operate in similar ways.

Some may offer better features in one area, while others offer better features in another area. It's not important what the name brand, is. What matters is you get the features that are important to you. Whether those features happen to come from Pentax, or Sony, or Canon, or Nikon is not important.

Contrary to popular belief, megapixels is also not one of the most important considerations for DSLR cameras. That's not to say megapixels are not important. They determine the resolution of the images you capture, and the better the resolution, the more you can do with an image in terms of cropping, recoloring, or other post-processing. However, most manufacturers offer roughly the same range of megapixels. You may see them vary by 10-20 megapixels here and there, but it's not significant enough to make a difference for beginning photographers.

The Camera Doesn't Make the Photographer

Ultimately, the thing to keep in mind when looking for a good beginner camera is the camera doesn't make the photographer. A good photographer can use the equipment they have to capture amazing photographs. So, find a camera you're comfortable with, then get busy taking photographs. That's the only way you're going to learn to capture the images you want to share with others.