There really has never been a better time to be a photographer than the present. Camera manufacturers have hit their stride after some awkward early years in the digital era, and most cameras from your smartphone to your DSLR now pack an incredible amount of technology into smaller bodies that give photographers unprecedented control over the image-making process.
We have Bluetooth-enabled cameras that can wirelessly send images to your phone. We can take pictures and change the point of focus in Playback mode. We can record videos in resolutions we never thought possible and extract single frames. We can shoot handheld for several seconds without any camera shake.
And cameras are getting more affordable, too.
In the early days of digital, every new camera marked a fairly significant upgrade over its predecessor. Manufacturers were developing their technology at rapid pace, desperate to improve image quality and establish a foothold in a new market.
These days, image quality is pretty stellar all around, so unless you have very specific needs, pretty much any camera you choose will deliver sufficient quality. And for someone just getting started this is great news.
Because cameras have improved so much over the past decade, it’s not so imperative that you have the latest and greatest. Cameras from a few years ago offer plenty of spec and power to make the sort of images you want, and as others have replaced them in their manufacturers’ product ranges they have come down in cost considerably.
So you don’t have to spend a ton of money on your first ‘proper’ camera. It’s also worth noting that technology from the upper end of product ranges tends to trickle down to the entry-level models every couple years. So waiting and cutting your photographic teeth with an older camera can pay other dividends in the future, too.
So if you’re just getting started in photography and you’re on a tight budget, what are some of the key things you should look for?
Price – but not for why you’d think
OK, so this is an obvious one. Unless we’re Mark Zuckerberg, we all consider the price. But there are other reasons beyond your bank account for not wanting to splurge on a top-of-the-line model straightaway.
What if you don’t have the time you thought you did to spend on photography?
What if you find you just don’t have an eye for a picture?
What if you don’t like it?
It happens, and it’s OK! But wouldn’t you feel better about things if you’d only spent a few hundred dollars or pounds figuring that out, rather than thousands?
Entry-level DSLRs like the Nikon D3400 and D3300, and Canon EOS 1300D, can be found in this budget price range, and older high-end cameras like the Fuji X-Pro1 can also be purchased cheaply second-hand.
It’s also worth taking a look at the refurbished market where you can find deals on manufacturer-refurbished models.
Another key consideration when buying an entry-level camera is ease of use. A good starter camera is one that is straightforward to use so that you can hit the ground running and begin experimenting with different functions and techniques.
Again, the entry-level DSLRs from Canon and Nikon are great for this, even offering their own guided tutorials that take you through the steps of how to achieve different effects. The Olympus PEN models are also quite user-friendly and good cameras to learn with.
What you want to look for specifically is a camera that offers a mix of fully automatic shooting options and scene modes so you can easily and quickly adapt your settings to the scene you’re trying to shoot.
While the camera will help you along by automating these adjustments, you’ll start to soak in the changes it is making and before long you’ll know instinctively when to open up the aperture, slow down the shutter speed or increase the sensitivity!
And as you gain this confidence and as your skills increase, you’ll want more creative control. A good entry-level camera should therefore also be able to grow with you. You’ll eventually want to shift that mode dial over to Manual and start taking more control over your exposures.
Maybe you like what the scene modes have achieved but want to push an effect even further. A good beginner camera will let you do that. This again is where Nikon’s Guide Mode, for instance, can be a useful feature to help you get the most from your camera.
Get a lens kit
For cost and practicality, it’s a good idea when buying your first interchangeable lens camera to get what they call a ‘kit’. This typically includes the camera and an 18-55mm standard lens. Some kits might also include a second zoom at the telephoto end.
When you buy a kit you often can save quite a bit of cash on the lens. Usually you’ll be getting the lens for about £50 more than if you’d just bought the camera body on its own.
What’s more, so-called ‘kit lenses’ have come a long way. Nikon’s newest standard lens, for instance is retractable, saving space in your camera bag. And you can get very good results from standard lenses, as well.
They also give you the flexibility of shooting from a wide variety of focal lengths, which is important when starting out and learning your craft.
And there is another point to make here: when you buy a camera, you’re also buying into that manufacturer’s system. This is perhaps the greatest advantage of having an interchangeable lens camera. You can continue to add to your arsenal over time.
As you gain confidence and find the subjects you’re most interested in, you can add lenses and flashguns and other accessories that are designed to help you capture these types of images.
This is why many photographers stick with the same manufacturer their entire lives. No one wants to update their entire collection of lenses every few years!
Finally, while we’re still on the topic of lenses, not only does each manufacturer offers its own lenses, but there are many third party companies like Sigma, Tamron and Tokina that sell very good lenses at prices that are often priced well below the camera manufacturers’ own equivalent optics.