February 9, 2022

What’s the best beginners camera?

Are you interested in taking up photography? With so many makes and models, what should you look for in a beginners camera?

When someone signs up for my Switch to Manual workshop, the booking screen always asks what camera the person will be using. I initially did this to research all the buttons and dials we would use during the session. After nine years of running the workshop, I have seen hundreds of different makes and models and can usually work it out in a few seconds without checking manuals. As Switch to Manual is for new or inexperienced photographers, I thought it would be good to see what cameras were used and then give you some things to consider when buying your first beginners camera.

What beginners cameras do I see?

I have looked back at the last twelve months to see what gear people use when they come on the Switch to Manual workshop. Unsurprisingly, Canon and Nikon make up over half of the camera brands, with Canon just edging it as the most popular. However, the Nikon D3500 is the most popular model. DSLR cameras also make up over half of the body styles, followed by mirrorless cameras that touch over 25%. Fujifilm and Panasonic are the third and fourth most popular brands. Surprisingly, Sony only makes up 10% of the beginners camera usage.

It’s interesting to see the age of cameras used. 20% are more than ten years old. Almost 50% are between 5 and 10 years old, with the remainder being more recent camera models. I often see that people starting their photography journey inherit a beginners camera from a friend or relative.

What camera should beginners use?

I am too old and wise to say a make and model that is the perfect beginners camera. Some will tell me that Nikon is far superior, others that Fujifilm wipes the floor with every other model. In practice, most of the cameras I have seen are perfectly adequate as a beginners camera. However, after watching new photographers get to grips with their cameras, I have picked up some trends that you may want to consider when buying (or inheriting) your first camera.

Is a Bridge Camera good enough?

Of all the cameras I see attendees use, the cheapest to start your photographic journey is a bridge camera. They are usually very light, which is great for popping in your pocket and snapping when you head out for a walk. One of the hardest things to learn when starting out is how to compose a picture. So, having a light camera that doesn’t discourage you from taking it out with you is a good thing. However, bridge cameras usually have a limited aperture range which can mean that you have limited capability to influence the depth of field of your images.

A bridge camera also limits your capability to upgrade in the future. Everything you buy at the outset is fixed. You’ll not be able to buy a wider or longer lens. However, they often have super-zooms built-in, giving a huge reach.

The final issue with bridge cameras is that the sensor size has to be relatively small to fit in the case of such a small camera. The smaller the sensor is, the less capable of dealing with low light photography and introducing noise to your photos.

You shouldn’t rule out starting your photographic journey with a bridge beginners camera, but be aware of the limitations. I have used a basic bridge camera in the past when scouting a location to take good quality snaps and seek out different compositions without trailing around a big DSLR. A bridge can be a brilliant second camera to keep your eye in if your budget allows.

DSLR v Mirrorless

The big debate in camera circles is whether mirrorless cameras are better than DSLR’s and if the former will take over from the latter. I think we can firmly put that debate to bed – in the near future, camera manufacturers will not be producing DSLR’s anymore, and every new camera will be mirrorless. Sony and Fuji made that move about ten years ago, and Canon signalled that their current flagship DSLR, the 1DXiii, will be their last DSLR.

Does that mean you shouldn’t buy a DSLR as your first beginner camera? Definitely not. The underlying principle of how exposure works is the same. The only difference is whether the light hits the sensor by bouncing off a mirror or not. A budget DSLR will be cheaper than the bottom of the range mirrorless camera for a good few years. While lenses will eventually only be made for mirrorless cameras, plenty of stock is available for existing DSLR-fit lenses, particularly if you buy big manufacturers such as Canon or Nikon. You can still buy good quality second-hand film camera lenses today. They may not have all the bells and whistles of the latest ultra-high-speed, image stabilised models, but they still do the job. That’s going to be the case for DSLR-fit lenses in the future too.

Second-hand or new?

In the last 12 months, the oldest camera on the workshop has been the Sony A700, launched in 2007. I can’t remember the actual workshop, but I can guarantee that a 15-year-old camera could change the shutter speed, aperture, ISO and metering modes. Any camera that can do these four things is a good beginner camera. These four things allow you to explore the creativity that manually exposing gives you.

I purposely split the age of cameras into three groups. Cameras less than five years old, those older than five and less than ten, and the ones older than ten years. Let’s start with the oldest. Digital cameras greater than ten years old will have mechanical parts that will probably start getting toward the end of their lives. They may also have been stuck in a draw for a few years and could have dust or mould inside them.

Five to ten-year-old cameras may be less likely to have some mechanical issues, but the technology in these cameras was toward the start of the development cycle. They will be able to do everything the latest models do, but maybe not quite as good. In the last five years, cameras have got to the stage where sensor technology has matured. The latest cameras are excellent and will last for quite a few years, and you can expect great results.

If someone is offering you an older digital camera to start learning, then accept it. It’s going to be able to do the job, and if you decide photography isn’t for you, then you’ve wasted nothing but had the gear to try. If you need to buy your first beginner camera, I would recommend one no more than five years old to benefit from more advanced technology.

But brand X is better than the rest

I can guarantee that someone will ask what camera I use when I give a talk at a camera club. I can almost always guarantee that a discussion about why my preferred brand is much better or worse than a different brand will ensue. Let me be controversial – it doesn’t matter! I have seen cameras from seven different manufacturers in the last twelve months, and they all took photos.

There are things that I like about Canon cameras because I have had them for 20+ years. But, I can accept that the colours as taken aren’t as vibrant. I also think that the ISO performance isn’t quite as good as some manufacturers. Both these things are easily fixed in post-production.

I get frustrated with Nikon’s user interface. To switch on the ability to see a histogram needs several button presses going through three or four levels of menus. Nikon also seems to have been affected by the tsunami in Japan, meaning it’s a little behind in the development cycle.

Fuji cameras look iconic, and the photos are always a little more vibrant. However, in looking retro, the shutter speed dial and aperture ring are hard for beginners to grasp.

Smaller bridge cameras have a fiddly process to switch between changing the shutter and aperture settings, leading to other settings being activated by mistake.

When choosing a brand to buy a beginners camera, try and visit a camera shop. Ask the person behind the counter to show you where the basic controls are to change the shutter, aperture and ISO and decide for yourself how easy they are to use. If it feels good in your hand, then go for it – every system will have its quirks, but you will get used to them after a few weeks of using.

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About the author

As well as running Edinburgh Photography Workshop, Rich Dyson is a professional photographer. His photographs are regularly used in newspapers such as The Times, Guardian and Daily Telegraph. He also had two solo exhibitions as well as being featured in a members sponsored exhibition in the Scottish Parliament. You can see and buy his photography at richdysonphotography.com