If the photography bug has bitten you and you want to get a little more serious about it, here is the camera to start with!
The Answer Is…
Getting straight to the point the answer of which camera you should buy as you begin your photography journey is frustrating – IT DEPENDS!
Seriously. A recommendation on which specific camera a beginner should buy is 100% not the same for everyone. There are as many reasons to recommend a specific camera as there are choices. There are more than 85 different manufacturers of camera equipment throughout the world today, each accompanied by very technical specifications that may be difficult for a beginner to understand. Digital over film is pretty well a given today, but sifting through DSLR, MFT, full frame, crop, megapixels, noise performance, EVF, OVF, ISO, and a host of other technical choices is far from easy. So how do you pick what is right for you? Read on for how you should decide which is right for you.
Most Important Factor
Familiarity! Wait, we are talking about a beginner trying to make sense of which camera is best for them and the most important factor is familiarity? Let me explain. I was in this exact position in December of 2011. I had enjoyed taking photos for a while using various point-and-shoot cameras, but had decided I was ready for my first big-boy camera so that I could finally capture my kids being awesome at everything without getting dark and blurry shots. I didn't actually know what I was doing and fell into a choice that turned out to be good for me, but my advice for you would be to figure out who around you may be able and willing to help you get started, and get something similar to what they have. Something your mentor is familiar with. It will be a lot easier to follow a mentor, and for them to answer your questions, if you have something from the same manufacturer. As a beginner you have a lot of technical elements to learn about the exposure triangle (shutter speed, aperture, ISO) and numerous other shooting techniques, it will be easier for you to do so if you are using a camera body similar to what your trainer has.
DSLR vs. MFT/Mirrorless
When you set out to get a “real” camera you probably already thought it should be a DSLR. Digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras have been around for many years. The name comes from a little mirror inside the camera body that flips up and down as you take pictures are what a huge portion of professional photographers use. What you may have been surprised to find as you start researching cameras is the surging popularity of the “mirrorless” or micro-four-thirds (MFT) cameras. This wasn't really a choice I had to make when I was looking in 2011, but MFT and other mirrorless cameras are serious cameras in packages that look and feel a lot like those point-and-shoot cameras you have probably owned. An MFT or mirrorless camera could very well be a good option for your first camera, but again make sure you have a mentor that is familiar with them to help you get going. There are some technical disadvantages (as well as some technical advantages) to MFT / mirrorless cameras that you would need to learn and understand, but more importantly there is not quite as much help (free or paid) out there for them as there is for DSLR – yet (stay tuned).
Crop vs. Full-Frame
If you think DSLR is for you then you have a secondary choice in a “crop” sensor or a “full-frame” sensor. There are some serious technical details that we could go over here, but basically the crop sensor is smaller than the full-frame sensor, which means it gathers less light and less data as you click that shutter button. There is a very large price difference between the two as crop sensors are usually put into camera bodies with cheaper components, while full-frame is usually in a body that is built to better withstand weather and dust. Not only is a full-frame DSLR usually quite a bit more expensive than a crop sensor DSLR, but full-frame bodies cannot use lenses built for crop sensor bodies. If you have a full-frame body you have to buy full-frame lenses, which are quite a bit more expensive (and higher quality) than lenses made for crop sensor bodies. On the other hand, crop sensor bodies can use the lenses built for full-frame.
Given the description so far you may be thinking that if you can afford it full-frame should be the choice for you, and it may be. However, even if your budget allows going with a full-frame DSLR for your first camera there may be a good reason to start with a crop sensor. A crop sensor will be a little more forgiving in something called depth-of-field, meaning it is easier to make sure all or most of the photo is in sharp focus. Really, the biggest thing to help drive your decision for your first camera here will be your budget. If you have the budget for a full-frame body and a couple of full-frame lenses, then go for it. If not, crop sensor bodies and lenses are still very capable of producing professional results, and a great way to learn on a smaller budget.
Canon vs. Nikon
OK. It should be apparent that you really can't make a “bad” choice when it comes to your fist camera. MFT or DSLR, crop or full-frame, if you invest in anything beyond that $200 point-and-shoot you are going to have what you need to learn about the triangle exposure elements of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. You can do great with other DSLR manufacturers, but I think right now the best way to get started into photography is with a body from Nikon or Canon. There is more help available and there are more lenses available for Nikon and Canon than there are for other manufacturers. You have more flexibility to figure out what you want to do with photography as you learn more about it. You can do great things with either manufacturer, but unfortunately you can't mix them. Meaning you can't (easily) put a Canon lens on a Nikon camera body or vice-versa. Interestingly, this is not the case with the MFT market where the lenses are more compatible across manufacturers, but you need to be aware of this as you are considering which to buy.
I already outlined that most important factor is to follow in the footsteps of a mentor to make it easier for them to help you. Building a little more on that, if your mentor has a Canon body and you choose to get a Canon body as well, you will have the ability then to borrow a lens from them. If you go out and shoot something together, they may be willing to let you use a lens out of their bag for a few shots so that you can see what it is like. It is also very helpful with terminology. The camera manufacturers call the same thing different names, so when your mentor uses a term it will be easier not to have translate what that term means between manufacturers.
Beyond following your mentor, being overly generic, I think there are two things to consider with Canon vs. Nikon. In general, Nikon currently has better quality sensors. The full frame sensor in the Nikon D810 is pretty well the undisputed world leader for image quality. In general, Canon currently leads in speed (focus and shots per second) and lens quality (slightly). But really, as you are starting out, either manufacturer is going to be significantly better than anything you have had so far. Either would make a fine choice for learning the technical makeup of photography. This is why following your mentor becomes the most important factor until you know enough about the technical details to decide on your own what you want.
If you have no idea which one to get and have no mentor to get you started, check out Jim's guide here.
12/2014 Update: Jim and Darin have an AWESOME podcast with professional photographer Tony Northrop talking about some of the differences between Canon and Nikon camera bodies. Give it a listen here.
3/2015 Update: Tony Northrop published a really good YouTube video going through in a good amount of detail the difference between the Nikon and Canon choice. Well worth a few minutes to listen before you make this decision. Still, I recommend that it is most important to find someone who will help you learn to use the camera and invest in the brand they are using.
Used / Refurbished Market
A very large used / refurbished market is another reason a beginning photographer should consider going with either Canon or Nikon for their first camera. As photographers develop their skills, decide they want to specialize, or just upgrade their equipment they will frequently sell their old equipment to help finance moving on. Much of this equipment has been cared for very well and is nearly as good now as it was when they purchased it new. Look in your local classifieds and on sites like eBay to find deals on used equipment. You may not want to purchase used gear without seeing it. You may also want to enlist some help from an expert (maybe your mentor) who knows what to look for and validate (i.e. loose focus or zoom rings on lenses, dusty/moldy lenses, bad sensor pixels, high shutter actuations) the equipment is in good working order.
There are refurbish sites from Canon and Nikon that often will save you a least a couple hundred dollars vs. buying something new. In fact, if you watch the refurbished sites for a few weeks they frequently have very short lived clearance sales that taken another couple of hundred dollars off. They are so short lived that if you see a clearance on the refurbished site and take time to think about it, you are likely to miss it.
The last thing I wish I was told when I was getting started was the important of post-processing. There will be an article written on this specifically, but you need to know that you cannot get the results you see from these professionals without spending some time on the computer. In fact, unless you use an MFT body that has some very cool wireless features built-in, you won't be able to do anything with your photos until you get them on the computer. This is where training is really important and you should check out the classes from Improve Photography over at photoclasses.com. You can also get some free help getting started through Jim's Photo Basics guide here.