Wondering which is the best beginner photography camera?
When you’re looking for a camera it’s easy to get caught up in the technical details in deciding the best beginner photography camera. As a beginner photographer it can be very overwhelming, but it doesn’t need to be.
Even the language of photography is a lot to understand at first, so you’ll find this glossary of photography terms really helpful.
How I decide what camera to buy
Here’s my camera story, from beginner to professional. You might be surprised at what really matters when buying a camera. Maybe it’ll help you simplify the decision on what camera to buy first…
I bought my first SLR camera when I was backpacking around Australia. It came about because the compact camera that I’d taken with me had an accidental altercation with a wall and lost. Long story for another time.
For the first time since I was seven, I was without a camera. I mentioned this to a friend one evening as we were sitting on the warehouse roof on an apple farm in the Adelaide hills watching the sun go down. He was a local and knew of a second-hand camera shop in town, so suggested we go there the next day.
Shopping for my first “proper” camera
So the next day, barely containing my excitement, we drove to the second-hand camera shop. Remember, I was a backpacker i.e. permanently watching the pennies. So, as I looked at what camera to buy, I was looking at price tags first, camera second and make last. I didn’t even think Canon or Nikon.
I can hear you gasp. Shock horror! How could the brand not matter? Well, I hadn’t been exposed to the great big Canon or Nikon camera debate at that stage. I’ll backtrack a bit.
It was 1992, I was 22 and I had grown up in South Africa during a time of sanctions. The only photography magazines I could get my hands on were months out of date and bought at a shop where you paid for your magazines by the kilo. I always ended up with a random selection of anything to do with photography.
Cameras were crazy expensive, even the ones at the only second-hand camera shop in Cape Town. It never occurred to me while in South Africa that I could own an SLR. I’d thought my (late) little compact was quite the business.
So, there I was, in my concept of paradise – a camera shop with affordable “proper” cameras! My photography adventure (obsession) was about to ramp up a notch.
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My first SLR
I selected a late seventies fully manual Pentax with 55mm kit lens. And I loved it! This camera travelled with me for the next 3 years, so most of my travels were shot on this little beauty.You don't need the latest or greatest camera to take stunning photographs. Click To Tweet
Do you know what the best part of this camera was? It was fully manual. I had to learn how to do everything. Auto is awesome, but when auto is not an option, you have no choice but to learn how to use your camera. Best thing ever!
Why it was a great beginner photography camera
That’s what made it the best beginner photography camera. When you’re starting out there’s so much to learn, so you don’t need the latest and greatest camera on the market.
Oh, and of course it was film, 35mm film to be precise. And as I was a broke backpacker there was no shooting off loads of shots until I got it right. Every click of the shutter button cost, so I had to think about every shot.
I always had a tiny notebook with me and I used to write down:
- where in the world I was
- date, time
- frame count
- shutter speed and film
So, basically an analogue version of exif data, which is something you’ll learn is really helpful in digital photography.
I still have all those notebooks and as I flick through their well-worn pages I’m taken back to those places, just as any diary would. Like when I was at the quayside of the ferry terminal in Santorini, Greece. In the last hour of sunlight, I photographed one of the ferry workers taking a break on a huge bollard in between ferries arriving and departing. (I still love that photo more than 20 years later.)
By then I was favouring slide film, Fuji Velvia to be specific. It was beautiful film. So popular that one of the camera presets on Fuji mirrorless cameras is based on it. You can read more about this gorgeous film here on kenrockwell.com.
Fuji Velvia was ISO 50 and all I had was a rickety old lightweight tripod that my dad had passed on to me. I remember that tripod from when I was little. Who knows how old it was, but it was ideal for travelling light.
Because my favourite film was ISO 50 and I enjoyed low light photography, I had to master slow shutter speeds and wide apertures.
When photography is your life
Back then I spent everything I had on photography.
While living in London I cycled everywhere so that I didn’t have to spend money on bus fare. It also allowed me to get out and about all over in the early hours of Saturday and Sunday mornings looking for landscapes and design elements to photograph. In London. Only a huge city. You’d be amazed at the landscapes you can shoot in a city. But more on that another time.
If I hadn’t had that out of date old Pentax, I would never have learnt as much as I did, as fast as I did. Oh, and the absolute obsession to shoot might have had something to do with it too.
It was the best camera for me. Not the best camera out there, but the best for me at that time.
Further reading: 5 basic photography tips I wish I’d known as a new photographer
Why I chose Nikon
In 1995 I bought a Nikon F90X. Not for the most obvious reasons.
I was weighing up the pros and cons of Pentax, Nikon and Canon. As you know they’re all excellent cameras. However, my most important criteria was actually toughness. My camera needed to be tough, because I was still backpacking and planned to continue for quite some time longer.
I buried myself in reviews in photography magazines and concluded that I needed to go with Nikon, even though it was slightly heavier. I’d read many articles about how tough it was.
I loved that camera. Actually, I still have it and I bet that if I went out and bought some film it would still work like a dream. It went half way around the world with me and was with me when I started working as a photographer some years later. In fact, I retired it only when I reluctantly gave in to digital in 2007.
Switching to a digital camera
I still shoot with Nikon, because when I switched to digital I saw no reason to move away from a camera brand that had served me so well. Simple as that.
I pay no attention to the Nikon vs Canon vs Sony debate. All the top brands are amazing and will produce incredible quality. The only factor that may need improving is the photographer.
Sorry to say it, but the gear is not going to do it. When commercial photographers first started using digital cameras, they had significantly fewer megapixels to play with than your smartphone has today. And their photos appeared on billboards!
In 1999 Nikon produced the first camera that was completely built and designed to be digital. It was the D1, had 2.74 megapixels and cost $6,000.
Even an iPhone 7 has a 12 megapixel camera.
In 2007 my first foray into digital photography was with a Nikon D80. It was a mid-range DSLR camera and had 10.2 megapixels. It was a great camera for starting in digital as it didn’t cost much and was quite lightweight. I’d just left my husband and taken half his debt, my clothes, a couch, my computer and camera with me. I was back to being broke. Again, spending a fortune on gear was not an option.
I cannot tell you the frustration I experienced going from film to digital! At the time I was also adjusting to the light in the UK versus the sumptuous light quality of South Africa.
Actually, I don’t need to tell you what it was like learning how to use my camera properly. You might well be going through something very similar right now. Just like many beginner photography members of The Lens Lounge.
Starting over with digital photography
At first, using a DSLR was like starting photography from scratch. I was horrified at the quality of my images and I really had to start thinking about what I was doing again. I hadn’t had to think so hard in years. It felt like going back to basics.
I read and I photographed and I read and I photographed some more. Nothing was safe from me and my camera. I photographed everything! I looked at the results, analysed my settings and gradually got to know the camera. Then I started taking some decent pictures again. Whew!
In 2008 I was back to photographing weddings and for this I needed a more adaptable DSLR camera to cope with dark churches. Also, if you shoot weddings, you absolutely have to have a backup set of equipment. My finances were still tight, so I bought the best I could afford at the time, plus a damn fine lens. The lens is where it’s at.
Further reading: Expensive lens or expensive camera – which is better?
I got a Nikon D300 and the truly beautiful 24 – 70mm F2.8 Nikkor lens. As my finances started to allow some breathing room in 2009 I bought another exquisite lens, the 70 – 200mm F2.8. With these lenses I shot hundreds of weddings.
Oh, but the glass
The lenses are still going strong and will continue to do so for many more years. Long after your first DSLR camera has been replaced a few times. That’s one of the beauties of good glass. If you’re going to spend on anything, spend on superb lenses. They’ll make your life easier by being fast, reliable and accurate.
Good glass will give you the best opportunity to create gorgeous images.
I bought a Nikon D700 in 2010 when I opened my first studio. The D300 became my backup camera and the D80 was sold. The main reason I bought my Nikon D810 in 2014 was that it had a video facility and two memory card slots. I use this camera to shoot videos for the courses we offer. It’s since been superseded by the Nikon D850, which looks amazing, but I don’t feel the need to swap it yet.
The body is showing signs of wear and it’s well used, but my D700 is still going strong. Actually, so is my D300, but I gave it to my partner, who became interested in photography.
I often use my D700 in conjunction with my D810. In a fast paced outdoor location environment it helps to have a good range of focal lengths to lean on. So, I’ll have the 24 – 70mm f2.8 lens on one camera and the Nikon 70 – 200mm f2.8 on the other.
I have other lenses, but these two are my go to lenses. I don’t like swapping out my lenses mid-shoot, especially in a windy, dusty or salty environment.
Why I didn’t buy the very best DSLR camera
You might well wonder why, as a professional photographer I opted for the D810 instead of the D4. Weight. Simple as that. The D810 is lighter.
I have weak wrists and a dodgy back (both thanks to gymnastics) and I just wouldn’t be able to cope carrying and handling any extra weight for several hours at a time on location. As it is, my D810 with my 24 – 70mm weighs 2kg. I have to shoot at a higher shutter speed than many photographers so that I don’t pick up camera shake.
2kg is quite enough weight for me to heft about for a couple of hours. Especially with the rest of my gear in my camera bag on my back, a reflector hanging from the bag straps and a Spider Holster around my waist to hold the camera that’s not in my hand.
So, my advice when you’re thinking about camera gear, wanting to get the best camera in the hope that it’ll improve your photography…
- Improve your photography first
- Think about your needs, what you shoot and how you shoot
- Then decide on gear
Further reading: How to develop your photographic style effortlessly
Your needs determine your camera gear
Don’t spend on upgrading your gear if you don’t yet know the answers to:
- your physical needs
- what you like to photograph
- how you photograph (your style)
Keep photographing until you know. Then buy what will work for you. Don’t worry about what cameras others are using. They aren’t you.
Whatever beginner photography camera you decide to buy, the learning curve will be steep, but it will be worth it. To get there faster and with less frustration, you’ll need help learning about:
- the buttons, dials and number on the camera and lens
- and the basic concepts of photography
Which is why I created a photography course for beginners just like you.
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