The time has come for you to ditch your smartphone and buy your first ‘nice’ camera. Not that smartphone cameras are bad, but there’s nothing like learning to shoot with an actual camera and see what one can produce. The options are limitless. But sometimes a ton of options can be a little daunting, so I am here to help.
And quickly before we get started some of these links take you to Amazon to purchase the item, which I then make a commission off of, if purchased. Full disclosure here.
Buying Your First Camera
First you must ask yourself what you are looking to use the camera for. And what are your goals. Do you want to just learn how to take better pictures? Or maybe you have an upcoming overseas trip and you want something more than your camera phone. Do you want the ability to monetize taking pictures? Maybe charging to take family or portrait pictures?
Next, know that most camera brands all have something to offer. They all have pros/cons and everyone has their own opinions. I’m currently obsessed with Fujifilm’s color science. I have heard Nikon’s RAW files provide a lot more flexibility in post processing. And I have also heard Canon cameras produce ‘warmer’ images.
If none of that made sense, great! You’re shopping for your first camera, something to learn with. It won’t be perfect and over time you will form your own opinions. Once those are formed, you gain some experience and are more comfortable with cameras then you dive deeper and purchase that more expensive model with all the bells and whistles.
My first camera was a Nikon D3000. Back then I knew of only Nikon and Canon. And after handling a few of their entry level cameras I simply liked Nikon’s grip & shutter feel better than Canon’s offering. I learned how to shoot in manual mode, gained my ‘eye’ for composition and developed my overall style of photography.
Once you’ve settled on your reasons/goals for buying your first camera, ask yourself how much you’re willing to spend. For the most part you will be buying into a camera system. Say you pick a Nikon camera, then you have to buy Nikon compatible lens. Not all have to be made by Nikon, but a 3rd party lens would still have to be specifically designed to fit Nikon.
Generally, entry level ‘kit’ lens are close to the 17-55mm range. Which gives you a wide angle to take landscape shots but also the ability to zoom in and take portraits. ‘Kit’ is the term given to lens that come with cameras. And they are really good at general use. That might even be all you need.
Some may consider purchasing more of a ‘zoom’ lens as well. One that can reach past 55mm, which will help when taking pictures of wildlife or sports. My first 2 lens were a 17-55mm ‘kit’ lens and a 55-200mm zoom lens. This gave me the ability to switch out lens based on my need for reach or general shooting.
Features/Options To Consider
There are also cameras with built-in lens. Which can be helpful by saving space or keeping you from worrying about having to change lens. But you won’t have the ability to change them down the road or upgrade the lens.
Upgraded lens may let more light in, allow you to take better portraits or even just zoom in further to catch that beautiful bird sitting on a branch.
Most current compact, mirrorless and DLSR cameras can produce close to a 20 megapixel image. While many smartphones have 12 megapixels. This allows for higher quality images and the ability to print larger.
For the most part megapixels are no longer a huge reason to select a specific camera, especially an entry-level camera. Factors like size and budget outweigh the megapixels a camera can produce.
JPEG is the most commonly used image format. Most images you see online are JPEG. Your phone captures in JPEG as do all the cameras I’m referencing in this article. They’re easy to move, resize and can be edited pretty easily.
But having the ability to switch formats and capture RAW images can be huge down the road, especially if you want to monetize your photography.
This format captures a lot more details than JPEG files. It records all of the information from your camera’s sensor without stripping any details away.
You might not see the difference when looking at your image on your cameras LCD screen, but when you go to edit your image you will definitely have more flexibility. This comes at cost however, as RAW files take up a lot of hard drive space. And your SD cards will fill up faster.
Some smaller cameras remove the viewfinder to save space. Which means you can only take pictures using the LCD. It’s not necessarily a bad thing but sometimes its harder to see an LCD screen due to sun-glare.
Something to keep in mind if buying the cameras online. I find it easier to shoot with a viewfinder. Plus it provides that traditional feel of taking pictures.
Manual Controls/Physical Buttons
Another thing to consider are the physical buttons available on a camera. Some options may be only selectable by digging through the camera’s menu, which can be time consuming.
Most entry level cameras have a dial where the user can select between Auto, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Program or Manual. There may be others, like landscape or portrait. But those first mentioned are key.
But further settings like ISO, Metering Mode, and Exposure +/- can be helpful when they’re actual buttons.
After covering some of the basics to look out for, next comes choosing the camera type. Camera types can be broken down into compact, mirrorless and DLSR options. I go into more details for each below.
These are cameras with built-in lens and generally smaller bodies than both mirrorless and DSLR. But other than that, compact cameras can take very similar quality photos when compared to entry-level mirrorless/DSLR cameras.
Most compact cameras give you the ability to switch out of Auto to select your aperture, shutter and ISO. And may or may not have a viewfinder.
Biggest reason to ditch your cellphone for a compact camera would be the ability to learn shooting in manual mode and have that previously mention higher megapixel output.
These offer flexibility, size benefits and a fixed lens. But if you wanted to be able to switch lens and get a camera system that can grow with you, mirrorless or DSLR is the way go.
DSLR or Mirrorless?
Digital Single Lens Reflex (or DSLR) is likely the camera type you picture in your head when you think of a big or ‘nice’ camera. These cameras have been around a while and use mirrors to allow the user to view directly through the lens (or TTL). You see what the lens see.
These mirrors add size and bulk to the camera. But you are able to capture action better and not have any lag.
Their lens are interchangeable, they have viewfinders and have a good amount of physical buttons.
Mirrorless cameras are the newer guys on the block and are similar to compact cameras but with mirrorless cameras you can change lens. They also generally have more features and higher megapixels.
Although they have been around for a little while, they have drastically improved within the last few years. Allowing them to compete directly with DSLR as a primary camera.
Mirrorless cameras do not use a mirror to see through the lens, thus allowing them to be less bulky. These cameras basically create a live video of what the lens see for the user.
Mirrorless vs DSLR
Both mirrorless and DSLRs can be competitively priced for a first camera. And by weighing some pro/cons of each you’ll be able to pick the right one for you.
Some mirrorless cameras use an Electronic ViewFinder (EVF) vs an Optical ViewFinder (OVF) for DSLRs. Sometimes an EVF can lag and drain a ton a battery. The same can occur if the camera doesn’t even have a viewfinder and solely relies on a LCD screen.
DSLRs are more efficient with battery life and as previously mentioned they are able to see what the lens sees without lag.
Entry-level mirrorless cameras may also not be as good as a DSLR with fast-moving subjects or with low-light focusing.
But if small size and being light weight are desirable features, all of these can be worthy trade-offs. Just make sure to carry an extra battery (or two) for extended trips.
Both mirrorless and DSLR cameras will have more physical buttons than compact cameras for easier access. And again, both will produce about the same image quality.
If you really wanted a compact that can go toe-to-toe with mirrorless cameras, check out the Canon Powershot G1 X Mark III or the Panasonic Lumix LX100 II. Both of these more expensive cameras have a little bit of zoom while the FujiFilm lens is fixed. Which accounts for the size difference.
If interested in DSLR models, it comes down to Nikon D3500 or the Canon Rebel T6. Older models of each of these will work as well. Like the Nikon D3400 or Canon Rebel T5. Don’t go too old though as you will start reaching image quality that your current cellphone can match.
(If you decide on a Nikon, you should click here and read my post about what lens to buy next!)
Again, remember this is your first camera. Something to learn on and get you started on your photographic journey. I’d recommend having a $500-$800 budget set and either choosing a mirrorless or DSLR instead of a compact. This will give you an opportunity to have your lens choice grow with you and not be as limiting in certain photo situations.
Good luck and happy shooting!