You’ve decided you want to get more serious about photography, move beyond just making snapshots with your cellphone, and perhaps even pursue making money from your hobby. You’re ready to start shopping for a better camera and the accessories that go with it.
Many articles about photography equipment for beginners will immediately start recommending makes and models. Or, if you walk into a traditional brick-and-mortar photo store, a salesperson might start showing you equipment, eager to make a big sale.
Ask other photographers, “What should I buy?” and many will launch into a list of equipment they like, probably favoring the make and model of the gear they own.
(Stay far away from “fanboys,” people who will tell you Brand X is the only way to go and only idiots would buy anything else.)
I’m here to suggest that, rather than immediately seeking a make/model answer to the “What should I buy?” question, you should instead start by asking yourself some more general questions.
Assessing your needs
Cameras and associated equipment will not make you a great photographer, any more than buying an expensive sports car will instantly make you a winning race car driver. To take that analogy further, why would you plunk down the big bucks for that exotic sports car when all you need is something to drive to the grocery store?
The same goes for simply buying the “latest and greatest” gear because that’s what other photographers are excited about, or because that make/model is the buzz of trade magazines and online photo sites. Porsche sports cars have a great reputation, but do you need one? The new mirrorless cameras from the big-name camera manufacturers are exciting, but are they right for you?
If money is no object (I wish that were my situation!), does that mean you should buy the most expensive, sophisticated camera and all the lenses and goodies to go with it? Will that guarantee you have the “best” and most capable gear that will ensure you make stellar photos?
I hope you don’t just reach for your wallet. Instead, do a little self-assessment and homework first.
So, let’s explore the questions you should be asking yourself as we dive into photography equipment for beginners.
What do you already know about photography?
If you’re looking for photography equipment for beginners, here’s the first question you should ask:
What do you already know about photography?
How much knowledge and experience do you already have? Have you only made some “pretty pictures” with a single press of the shutter button on your cellphone? Have you heard of the exposure triangle? Do you understand what ISO, shutter speed, and aperture are and how they interact to control exposure, depth of field, and motion capture? Have you had or might you have an interest in pursuing formal instruction to better learn both the artistic composition of photos and the technical operation of the camera?
Sure, you can buy a fancier, more expensive camera with the idea that you will “grow into it.” Of course, that more sophisticated camera with buttons, knobs, dials, and cryptic menus could also overwhelm you as a beginner. Sometimes simpler is better, especially when you’re still learning.
On the flip side, a cheap point-and-shoot, highly automatic camera might be easy to learn, but can very quickly create limitations for you as you grow as a photographer.
The real question here is, “How serious are you about photography?”
Do you simply want a camera you will use on occasion, perhaps take on vacation, and that will make good photos with its automatic modes? Or do you plan to make this a serious hobby in which you will invest time, study, and frequent practice? Do you want to dig in and really learn?
What type of photos will you be making?
Cameras don’t make photographs; photographers do. A camera is simply a tool a photographer uses to create a photograph.
In any endeavor, having the right tool for the job makes the work easier and gives improved results. So, when choosing the right camera for your photography, an essential question is, “What kind of photographs do I intend to make?”
I purposely use the word “make” rather than what many people say about “taking photos.” Snapshooters might take photos, seeing something of interest and quickly, without much thought, snapping a shot. Serious photographers, however, are craftspersons, thinking about composition, camera settings, and many other things involved in creating and “making” a photograph.
Whether you just want to take snapshots or make photographs will also influence what kind of equipment you should buy.
So what kind of photos do you want to make? What subject matter is your favorite?
I hear some saying, “I’d like to make all kinds of photos of whatever catches my eye.” So let’s ask the question this way: “What kind of photos do you envision making 80% of the time?” Photos of your kids as they grow up? Formal portraits? Landscapes? Vacation photos? Wildlife photos? There are hundreds of photo genres to explore and, while some camera and lens combinations might be able to handle a greater variety of these, expect to pay more for such photography equipment.
Specialized kinds of photography, such as bird or wildlife shooting where fast camera responsiveness and long lenses are required, will take more specialized gear. Perhaps you want to take photos of your kids playing soccer or engaging in other sports. You might consider an inexpensive point-and-shoot camera, but even if it does have a built-in 10x “superzoom,” will the lag-time between when you press the shutter and when it fires cause you to frequently miss the action? Will the tiny built-in flash have enough power to light your kid at the other end of the basketball court as he hits the winning shot at the buzzer?
Finding the balance between spending enough to have the most versatile equipment and yet not paying for things you will never or only rarely use can be hard. Back to the “80% factor” I mentioned: Buy the gear that will accommodate 80% of your needs. If you suddenly get to photograph that African safari and don’t have the equipment you need, then you can upgrade or, better yet, rent the equipment to handle that unique opportunity.
How will your photos be used?
Before digital photography and the internet, a photograph meant a print. Today, it’s becoming rarer and rarer to see printed photos. Some of these statistics are from 2017, so they’re already dated, but still amazing to consider:
- An estimated 1.3 trillion photos are taken each year
- 75% of those photos are taken with cellphones
- Less than 13% of photos are taken with dedicated digital cameras
- Approximately 121.5 million digital cameras were sold in 2010; that dropped to 14.8 million in 2019
Do you wonder why companies such as Olympus have folded and even the largest digital camera makers are struggling? Sure, you’re reading this because you intend to continue pursuing digital photography, but the question I’m heading toward is, “What percentage of your images do you intend to print?”
Do you need a high-megapixel camera?
Top-end camera manufacturers like to boast about the high-megapixel cameras they are producing and, yes, these can produce some amazing images. Cameras from the top manufacturers now tout specs showing sensors between 40 and 60 megapixels (with prices to match).
The question is: If the vast majority of the images you shoot are only for display on your monitor or online, do you need such high megapixel counts? You can print a beautiful 300 DPI 16” x 20” print with a 4800 x 6000 pixel (28.8 MP) image.
At the time of writing, the Sony A7R IV is the highest megapixel full-frame camera, and it produces a 9504 x 6336 pixel (60.2 MP) image. Printing that at 300 DPI would give you a nice 20″ x 30″ print, and it would be quite easy to go far bigger than that.
On the other hand, if the largest you’d ever print is 8″ x 10″ (about an A4 size using European standards), a 7.2-megapixel image would be just fine. Most current smartphones produce higher resolution images than that.
I don’t mean to confuse you with math. But I want you to ask yourself the question, “Do I expect to be printing my photos and, if so, how large might I print them?”
Do you need an expensive, full-frame, high-megapixel camera if all you’ll ever do is share your work on social media?
Size, weight, and environmental factors
You’ve heard the saying, “The best camera is the one you have with you.” I suppose the corollary to that is, “The worst camera is the one you left at home” (or in your car, or anywhere that is not with you). If you buy a camera (and lenses, and tripods, and other equipment) that becomes a nuisance to bring along, or makes you wish it were smaller and lighter, you’ve probably bought the wrong gear.
Interestingly, many people believed the way to save on size and weight was to move to the latest mirrorless cameras. Yes, mirrorless cameras are marginally smaller and lighter, but lenses for them are not appreciably smaller and lighter. Many mirrorless cameras also draw more battery power, and so the weight saved with smaller equipment is offset by having to carry more batteries. About the only thing that has grown appreciably lighter are photographers’ wallets, because the new smaller, lighter cameras often carry a premium price.
Something else to be considered when shopping for photography equipment for beginners is where and how the camera and accessories will be used. If you’re taking a camera on vacation for travel photos, how much equipment do you want to pack and carry around all day? If you’re a backpacker or outdoorsman, do you want to take a tripod? An array of lenses? Might one of the more sophisticated bridge cameras be a better option for a travel camera?
Another consideration might be the operating environment in which you intend to make photos. If you will frequently be in dusty environments, you may not want a camera with interchangeable lenses. Maybe you frequently shoot in the wet, rain, snow, or in other inclement weather. If so, a camera that is weather-sealed might be worth considering.
If you intend to pursue photography for many years, you will want to give consideration to upgrading your equipment as you improve, as new innovations come along, as you diversify in your shooting, or even as equipment wears out.
Photographers who shoot with interchangeable lenses often find that they soon have more money invested in good lenses than their camera bodies. “Good glass” that can still be used when a camera body is replaced becomes a good investment. Because camera manufacturer lens mounts are usually proprietary to that brand, once you select a make and purchase a few lenses, you will likely want to stick with that manufacturer in the future, rather than sell off everything and start all over.
New, used, or refurbished?
Some people only want to buy new equipment and, if paying full-price for equipment to get factory-fresh gear with a full warranty is worth it to you, go for it.
But sometimes, when researching photography equipment for beginners, substantial savings can be had by buying well-cared-for, used equipment (with stress on well-cared-for). Here’s a good article from Jaymes Dempsey about considerations when buying used photo equipment, and here’s another by Tom Mason. I have had generally good experiences buying used equipment because I:
- Buy from photographers I personally know who take good care of their gear, or
- Buy from top resellers such as B&H, Adorama, KEH, and others that check and give their used equipment full inspections, ratings, and even limited warranties, or
- Buy directly from manufacturers who service, inspect, sell, and warranty refurbished equipment.
Excellent savings can often be had by purchasing used when new equipment is just coming out. Photographers with GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) just have to have the latest, greatest thing. Many of these shooters, eager to trade up, are willing to sell their slightly used equipment for bargain prices.
Now, as a beginning photographer, you don’t need the newest cutting-edge equipment, because you likely still have to master the basics. If last year’s top (and now slightly used) camera can be had, helps you learn the basics, allows you to better understand your needs, and fits the bill at a reduced price, so what if you only have it a short while before you upgrade?
Who to purchase from?
Some good advice about buying photo equipment (or anything else for that matter) is the Latin phrase caveat emptor. You likely know that means let the buyer beware.
It used to be that you could walk into a camera store and deal face-to-face with the store owner or at least a salesperson. Even then, you always had to be wary of the unscrupulous salesperson who, once you were pegged as a beginner without much knowledge, would try to upsell you into purchasing far more gear (or more expensive gear) than you really needed. You hoped instead that you’d get a dealer who really wanted to understand your needs and outfit you with the best equipment suited to your budget and needs. This second type of dealer would ask the kinds of questions we’re exploring here, knowing that a satisfied customer would tell others of their good experience and thus bring in more business.
Sadly, these kinds of brick-and-mortar camera stores are becoming rare (the last dealer in my town closed shop about a month ago after 74 years in the photo business). That doesn’t mean there aren’t reputable online dealers who offer good customer service on photo equipment. You just have to do your research. Talk to experienced photographers and ask them where they buy their equipment, who gives good deals, who provides good advice and service, and who honors warranties.
Always be cautious of dealers who have questionable reputations and, even more so, offer deals that are too-good-to-be-true. Often photo equipment manufacturers will require all dealers to offer their equipment at the same price, and so where you shop won’t change the price. Some dealers will thus come up with their own incentives and offer packages of accessories they throw in to sweeten the deal. Look carefully at whether this is really worthwhile. You might get a cheap cleaning kit, a worse-than-nothing tripod, or a shoddy camera bag, stuff that’s not worth it if it tempts you to do business with a shady dealer.
Also, beware of the dealer who tries high-pressure tactics to get you to add on stuff you didn’t initially intend to buy or a questionable “extended warranty.” And beware of “gray market” equipment, which most manufacturers won’t warranty at all.
Using online buying guides
I have refrained from suggesting any specific makes or models targeted as specific photography equipment for beginners. If, after asking yourself the questions I’ve outlined, you think you’re ready to begin looking at specific gear, there are some great places to check out.
Here on the Digital Photography School (dPS) site, check out the Cameras & Equipment section.
Another place I particularly like is the Digital Photography Review site (DPReview.com) and their Buying Guides section. The Cameras by Use Case pages are great for helping suggest makes and models based on how you intend to use your camera.
I’ve primarily discussed cameras, but if you’re shopping for tripods, lighting equipment, or any other kind of photo accessories, places such as dPS and DPReview offer a wealth of information. There are also forums where you can learn from other photographers about the ins-and-outs of specific gear.
Do be cautious, however. Fanboys and trolls like to hang out in places like that, so don’t just go with the first opinion you read.
Photography equipment for beginners: The questions to ask
I’ve thrown out a lot of stuff here, so let’s summarize with a list of questions to ask yourself:
- What are my needs for a camera (or other photo gear)?
- How much do I know about photography?
- How serious do I intend to get? Will I pursue learning opportunities?
- How often will I use this equipment?
- What kind of photos will I be making (use the 80% rule)?
- Do I want to specialize in a particular photo genre/subject?
- How will I use my photos? (Online? Print? Sell?)
- How much resolution (megapixels) do I need?
- Is size/weight an important factor?
- Where will I use my gear (environmental factors)?
- Do I plan to upgrade, add lenses, and add accessories?
- Do I want new gear, or might I consider used or refurbished equipment?
- Who should I buy from? A store, an online dealer, or a private individual?
- Have I done research (via buying guides, and/or discussions with trusted photographers)?
Now take my money
Some people aren’t much for researching purchases and simply want someone to tell them what to buy. It’s easy to find salespeople perfectly willing to tell you what you “need” and take your money.
I suspect that, if you’ve read this article, you are not one of those people.
So, in writing this guide to photography equipment for beginners, my aim is not to tell you what to buy, but rather to have you ask yourself the right questions. If you do that, you can best make a wise purchase and get the photo tools that best suit your task.
The ultimate objective is that you learn and grow as a photographer, enjoy photography, and make increasingly better photographs. Best wishes!