Beginner’s Dilemma #1: Choosing First Camera

Beginner Dillema 1 - First Camera
Will you pin this?

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.

Final Advice

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.



55 thoughts on “Beginner’s Dilemma #1: Choosing First Camera”

    1. Thanks Robert. I tried to hit that point in the article that crop sensors make a good choice to start simply because of budget. I think budget is a huge consideration to getting started.

    2. That was very helpful, i kinding of fell in to photography last year and I really enjoy it, i love filming cosplayers and skateboarding, I have been using my phones to take pictures, a moto 2 720p camera phone pic looks real good getting good feed back would like to step up to a pro like camera, and shoot at 1080p, and I love doing video, anymore advice, or am thinking about a go-pro, and just got a old fuj flim digital camera a345 could you tell me some thing about this camera, the only thing I worry about is buying a camera and it sits at home catching dust. And what’s the best way to go pro in photography, or at least make some coin thank you craig

  1. thanks for the info. I need help with getting a new lease for my Nikon ds3100. I enjoy taking family photos outside and want something that will let in a lot of light as well as allow me to take close ups of my daughter playing soccer from the sidelines, action shots. Any advice?

  2. Just a note that MFT is one of many “mirrorless” compact system cameras. Olympus and Panasonic are the main suppliers of these cameras. Sony make both 35mm and crop mirrorless cameras as well as DSLR looking cameras with fixed mirror and EVF. A hybrid of DSLR and mirrorless. Fuji, Canon and Samsung also make crop (or half) size sensor mirrorless cameras. Nikon has a 1inch sensor mirrorless including a waterproof version. Leica also has a 35mm mirrorless rangefinder.

    Just to clarify, MFT is not an alternative term to MIRRORLESS. MFT describes a smaller than original (micro M) Olympus DSLR lens mount now used in their mirrorless cameras (that includes Panasonic as they share the same lens mount) and FT part of MFT stands for Four Thirds which is the ratio (4:3) of two sides for the sensor. All other mirrorless and DSLR cameras are have a ratio of (3:2) which coincides with the ratios 6×4, 8×12 inch prints etc

    1. In addition, MFT sensors are about a ΒΌ the size (13x17mm) of full frame (24x36mm) sensors and crop sensors are half the size (18x24mm) sensors. The 1 inch sensor is an 1/8th the size of full frame at (13x9mm) These are approx measurements rounded off to the mm. The smaller the sensor the smaller the lenses but also less low light performance and greater depth field with comparative lenses of same apertures range.

  3. i respect your opinions and appreciate all the work you do…. But c’mon man – you guys always leave SONY out of the conversation. They make some great cameras, and in fact DESERVE to be in the conversation!

    1. The overall point of the article is finding someone that will help or mentor a beginner and getting something similar to what they have. If the beginner is giving it a go on their own, then there is simply more free help available on Nikon or Canon bodies. It is just easier to follow along when you don’t have to mentally switch the different terminology each manufacturer uses for the same thing when someone is starting out.

      So, while I agree that Sony is making REALLY good cameras (that a7II looks awesome), we are talking about someone brand new to photography trying to find their way and I don’t think that is the best choice for them right off.

      1. Jeff you are right of course that is more learning material on Canikon but Chuck is right too. Sony shouldn’t be overlooked as a competitive option. The reason is, and especially for beginners, Sony SLT cameras (A99, A7mkii and A58 are actually easier to use and understand than Canikon. Why? Because they still operate the same way except that their native operation is in live view mode. Which if someone moving up from a compact camera, they can feel more at home. I work in a camera store and when I show a beginner they pounce on it because the Sony focuses just as quick but they can see the setting changes on the LCD or in EVF before taking a photo. It’s helps them understand the effects of Aperture, Shutter And ISO have before taking the photo. They are a much more user friendly camera than true DSLR systems and perfect for beginners or someone who wants DSLR performance but doesn’t want to get right into photography. They are bought by pros and enthusiasts too. But for all their benefits they still do lack in minor but important ways for some people. For beginners though, they’re perfect I think.
        And let’s not forget too. Sony is driving most tech. these days. Their image sensors are in most cameras including Mirrorless, DSLR and some medium format cameras of Nikon, Pentax, Hassleblad, Olympus and Panasonic and possibly Fuji but in Fuji design. Even Canon bowed to Sony this year when they used the Sony 1″ sensor from the DSCRX100mkiii to make a competing model in the G7X. Sony is certainly the company to watch. FYI I use both Canon and Sony systems. The Sony cameras are still compatible with my Minolta pro lenses from film days and ALL lenses are stabilised via the body IS system. Bonus feature!! πŸ™‚

        1. Yes, Sony cameras are looking REALLY appealing. The price is right too, with the A7II expected at about $1,800 for a full frame camera. A Sony could make for a great option for a first camera – if the beginner can find some help. I also agree that Sony has the gas pedal all the way down while Canon and Nikon seem to be oblivious. Hopefully it came through in the article that I don’t think a beginner can really can’t make a “bad” choice on a first camera. As one of the comments said in Facebook about this post, just get something and start shooting. Get on the path toward understanding the basics of photography. All that said, I do think there is an advantage for a learning shooter in getting the same manufacturer camera as their mentor so that they can follow them precisely along the way with the buttons and menus.

          The Sony menus, buttons, and EVF may very well be easier and make things better for a beginner. But how helpful is that going to be when they are trying to follow a YouTube video of a Canon camera? When I first started shooting, even though I found free help where the camera was identical, I was having a hard time following. It is really pretty technical to do digital photography, and it may be a little hard for you who have done it for a long time to remember that. Took me the better part of 6 months as a hobbyist photographer who had never taken any classes on the topic to even understand what was being said in podcasts and other instruction videos (free and paid).

          There is “lingo” that is used by photographers that is difficult for those trying to get into the club to understand. Even worse, I have seen my fair share of photographers not be willing to share the secret handshake to get into the club, as if we beginners have a certain amount of time to pay before getting in. My hope with this article (and series of articles for beginners) is to offer the advice I wish I had been given what I was starting to help make sense of what at first feels like drinking from a fire hydrant. I think this has a lot more to do with people giving up as they get started in photography, than which manufacturer they went with on their first camera. I simply think that a budding photographer is better off matching their camera with someone who will help them drink from that hydrant, and right now (may change in coming years) that is a lot more likely to be Canon or Nikon. But if that mentor shoots Sony, all the better to get started on a system that is thinking more about the future than there is evidence for Canon or Nikon.

    2. Yes! I always think the same thing when reading”Which Camera to Buy” articles. I switched from Canon to Sony and I am in love. Sony is definitely worth mentioning =]

  4. Hi,
    I would like to know your valuable suggestions regarding photography, I am a beginner and i want to buy Canon 1200D with 18-55 & 55-250 lens. Will it be good for photography.

    1. Pradipta, thank you for contributing to the improvephotography.com community with your question. The Canon 1200D (also known as the T5 here in the U.S.) is a fine camera. Significantly better than any point-and-shoot or smartphone at 18 megapixels. It lacks the articulating LCD screen (the LCD in the 1200D is locked into the back of the camera, but can swivel out on the 700D/T5i), a touch screen LCD (also on the 700D/T5i), and stereo audio for movie recording (also on the 700D/T5i).

      That said, it will be a great starting point into digital photography. The lenses that come with the camera are a good way to get started as well, but they are “kit” lenses (meaning they come in a kit with a camera) for a reason. They won’t produce the highest quality photos and are quite limited on the aperture as you zoom where they will only be able to open as wide as f/5.6. Still, I would recommend them as wonderful way to get started. Get the camera and start shooting. Learn the exposure triangle of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO (watch for an article coming out soon on this). If as you get into it you find you want to continue, you will want to get better lenses and a better camera, but the 1200D is a great way to get started.

      Good luck to you and stay tuned for more advice for beginners!

  5. I was considering purchasing the Nikon D750 and wondered how you felt about that particular camera? It isn’t on your preferred list. I do realize it is new so that may be why.

    1. @Kathy,

      The D750 is a great camera! You are right that the recommended gear page here at improvephotography.com is old enough the D750 couldn’t be on it yet. The point of this beginner’s dilemma post was really to suggest the most important factor in choosing a camera would be choosing one where you can get some help with it as you get started. If you are a beginner, find out what a friend into photography has so that you can ask questions and get help from them. It is also quite a bit easier to find free help for any Canon or Nikon camera body online right now than other brands (Sony, Panasonic, Fuji, and others) even though the other brands have some VERY compelling and capable products.

      There have been some reports online about an issue with the D750 called a “flare problem,” but from what I have read it isn’t really anything to be worried about. If you are a beginner, then starting with the D750 is one the expensive side in my mind. If you can afford it and some lenses, great! If budget is a constraint, it might be better to start of with a little cheaper camera (D7100 perhaps at half the cost) and get better lenses than to jump in with the D750.

      1. Well I am not a beginner as such. I currently have a Nikon d32oo. I have taken a few classes and continued access with the instructor. I find the clarity poor on the 3200 . I have used the 7100 and the clarity is still lacking for me. I want to be able to advance myself but I want to make sure I have the equipment needed. This is what I am looking at getting.. the 750 with a 24-70mm F 2.8, 50mmF 1.4G. I also debated switching to the Cannon 7d Markll. Not sure which would be the better choice in the long run. Any suggestion with that scenario?

  6. You are so accurate about the “lingo” and drinking from the fire hydrant! I am a beginner and I often feel SO overwhelmed at all there is to learn! Camera bodies, lenses, lighting, ISO, aperture, shutter speed, post processing (just photoshop alone can overwhelm a person!) Thank you for being willing to share your knowledge, wisdom, and your opinion! All of these numbers and letters and abbreviations are hard to follow, and you seem to put things in terms that I find simpler to soak up, so thanks again! (I even appreciate and learn from the feedback in the comments and your replies)

    1. @Lara,

      So glad to hear you are finding it helpful! I was in your position not very long ago, I can remember drinking from the fire hose very well πŸ™‚ Keep checking back often on the site as there will be many more articles targeted at beginners specifically. Photography is a ton of fun, especially after you figure out the exposure triangle and some about post-processing. Don’t give up, took me about 12 months before I felt comfortable at all as a beginning hobbyist.

  7. It is funny Sony it is not mentioned in your article since the sensors used from Canon and Nikon are Sony!! Besides in terms of electronic parts…I bet development from experts on the matter makes a difference. Mirrorless allows you something mirror DSLR cameras may actually lack, more fps on less expensive frames (camera body) and with the right electronics better autofocus (look at the Sony A6000, it is hideous!) another factor would be the lenses but IMH experience Sony less expensive lenses (apart from Carl Zeiss range) makes it even better choice. To sum up a shame most of blogs I have seen only refer to Canon and Nikon which are not leadind the way in terms of better features at a more competitive price tag.

    I recommend try before you buy even though you use not all the features or shooting modes….

    1. @David,

      Canon is still holding out in making their own sensors, but as you have very correctly stated, Nikon does use sensors from Sony – which for several years has been beating Canon in terms of resolution (megapixels) and ISO performance. We will see how these new Canon 50+ megapixel sensors test out.

      Still, the overall point of the article was that it really doesn’t matter a lot what you buy first, the more important thing is finding the best way you can get help in learning it. If there is a mentor in a friend or acquaintance, makes a lot of sense to get something similar to what they have. If that is a Sony, Panasonic, Olympus, or Fuji mirrorless, awesome. If their isn’t a person to go to in their circles, at this point in time there is more free training available for Nikon or Canon than the other models. They have just been around longer.

      It isn’t to say anything about the relative quality or usability of the cameras. A beginner needs to get down the exposure triangle and what they want to shoot before they can take an opinion themselves on what type of camera they will enjoy using. If they start off with a Sony mirrorless I think that could make things a bit harder to follow along when the training is demonstrated on Canon or Nikon. But it is really a fairly small stumbling block, certainly doesn’t make it impossible. More important to pick something up and get started.

  8. I just recently found your site and have been listening to your podcasts, I bought a Canon 60D about a year ago and then wanted a long lens to shoot wildlife, did a little research and talked to a couple of camera stores and they all said that the Tamron 150-600 would work great. I took your recommendation for a tripod and ball head, Sirui K10X and the Feisol CT3442 which work good. But after reading your site and hearing podcasts am worried I did not choose a very good combo.
    I am a beginner and maybe went too much to soon but am really worried about my choices.
    Thanks, John

  9. Selina MacDougall

    Hi there, i am a beginner in photography who is looking to buy a DSLR Nikon camera between $500 and $900, at the moment i have the Nikon D3200 Digital SLR Camera 18-55mm + 70-300mm in mind. do you think that this would be a good camera to start with?

    1. The D3200 is an awesome camera to start with. Now get out there and learn the exposure triangle and how to nail the focus. At some point you may outgrow the camera, but it is more than adequate to learn how to be a great photographer

  10. Hi my daughter has took art photography at school would this camera be OK for first 1 canon sx410 20mp 40xx 3inch TFT LCD screen plz help

  11. Hi,
    I am a beginner and I am curios to know if the Nikon D60 with a 55-200mm lens would be a good option for me?
    Is it very good HD quality?

  12. I am completely overloaded with reading camera reviews! I want a good camera to take sports pictures. I’m a beginner, so I don’t want to break the bank until I’m sure of what I’m doing. Can you recommend something not to complicated that could meet this? Thanks!

  13. Im going to be honest I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT IM DOING with a camera but i am interested in photography. As a beginner where should I start. As far as getting familiar with picture taking. I know its a lot with angles lighting etc. do you know of any sites or videos for beginners as well as a beginner camera. Long as its better than the iphone 6 camera I’m ok with that until i get familiar with everything. Thank you

  14. Question I am deciding on a prob point and shoot camera for my 12 year old grandaughter, she’s has never had a camera but is interested in getting started. Want to keep cost under $200 which ones would you recommend

  15. Sir, I’m a beginer. I love nature photography.
    And i’m interested in making of short films, so i’m in confusion which is the suitable camera for me…
    In DSLR with 5x+ zoom (nikon) at low price(below $500).
    Plz help me…

  16. Pls what camera can I get as a beginner. Looking at d Nikon 7000d but it’s quite expensive so I want to be sure am taking right stable steps to learning.

  17. Hi this was super helpful I’ve always wanted a good camera and been fascinated by pictures I’ve been trying to find out the best start up camera seeing as how I’m a kid. I honestly wanted a Polaroid first but learned how expensive the film was I only have a hundred right now from babysitting and I’m looking for a good cheap camera I think a crop frame would be good for me but do you have any suggestions on which one I won’t be able to by a lens quite yet but I do what a good camera please let me know.

  18. I would easily recommend to all of the beginners the Nikon D3200. It has very good image quality even with the kit lens, and has all the neccessary features to get you started with DSLR photography. You can buy refurbished D3200 from Nikon including the 18-55mm kit lens for 250-300$. You can get surprising results with this very cheap combo, once you master it.

    After learning all the technical settings, and finding out your style (indoor, outdoor, sport, portrait, events) you can get a cheap zoomlens, or a low-light lens for ~150$, either to cover more distances, or to avoid using the flash for indoors.
    More importantly, with the D3200 you will learn, that good lenses are MUCH more significant when it comes to image quality, than the camera itself.
    You simply don’t need to invest 1000-2000$ to get started as a beginner photographer.

    And just a totally random tip, to help improving: try to never ever-ever use the built-in flash of your camera. Literally. Forget that it’s there (it’s low quality anyways). You will earn invaluable camera handling experience this way.

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