Ok to start off, I know this can be quickly overwhelming, especially because there are so many things that go into getting a camera. When I first started shooting, I learned on a point-and-shoot because it was cheap and because it had allowed me to get a handle on things like shutter speed, aperture and ISO. It wasn’t for five more years that I even really understood how those things related to one another.
Basically, I want to recommend a camera that you can use for 3-5 years. I don’t want you to waste your money on what are called “kit” lenses, which are the ones that come bundled with the bodies on Amazon or whatever. They aren’t very good and you won’t want to use them past the first year you are shooting, and you can get a great lens for the same cost if you purchase it separately.
Here is the other thing: you will likely stick with whatever company you pick right now. Canon, Nikon, Sony, Fuji… you’ll decide on a format, invest in lenses, and then always stay with that company because of that investment. So I’ll explain what I can about company philosophy in addition to a camera choice because that will help you decide who you want to throw your money at for the rest of your life.
There are two types of cameras we will be considering here: DSLR and mirrorless. What is the difference? Well, one has a “single lens reflex” mechanism, which is what is the set of mirrors that bounces what the lens sees up through the diopter (the eye hole). This type of system is the oldest, and most reliable at this time. Why? Well, because companies have found a way to put auto-focus sensors on the mirror itself through a complicated process and tons of trial and error have made phase detection a thing (more on that here), which right now are more accurate and faster than what mirrorless can do with the same technology.
What is mirrorless? It’s a camera that doesn’t use any type of mirror system like you find in a DSLR, and instead uses electronic elements, including an electronic viewfinder. If you’ve ever used a point-and-shoot, this is a type of mirrorless. Mirrorless technology is undoubtably the future, but it’s still got a ways to go to match the accuracy and reliability of DSLRs. The benefit is that they tend to be a lot smaller than DSLRs and require fewer moving parts that can break. Instead of putting autofocus sensors on the mirror, those are located directly on the sensor. Some camera makers do a better job than others at getting this right, but everyone is trying their hand at it and hoping to strike gold. The downside is that on-sensor autofocus can be very inaccurate, and battery life tends to suffer due to the power required to run screens.
Basically, the difference here is philosophy and R&D. Nikon and Canon have less invested in mirrorless because of their success in DSLRs. The other players are trying to be the best at mirrorless because it is the movement of the future.
For your sake, since you’re just starting out, what you instead are probably concerned about is usability, reliability, and lifespan of product. Luckily, mirrorless or DSLR doesn’t really factor into any of those as they are all pretty much on a level playing field. Just understand what you’re getting, and that should be good enough.
Every camera below has what is known as APS-C sized sensor or smaller, which is what you have to work with when you go with a smaller budget. Smaller sensors aren’t necessarily bad, but they do have their ups and downs. For more information on what sensors mean, visit this handy post where it’s very well broken down.
So with that, here we go (in no particular order):
Company philosophy: “Give the people everything, then throw in the kitchen sink.”
Summary: Small, lots of features that look excellent on paper, mirrorless. Sony is on the up, with new equipment being released quickly and steadily. Sony also makes the sensors for many of their competitors, giving them an edge up when it comes to the technology standpoint.
- Pros: Small, easy to use, and always come packed with features and options (many you will never use). Great ISO performance compared to competition
- Cons: Lackluster battery life. Mixed bag when it comes to autofocus reliability. Sony upgrades equipment way too frequently. Real-world use of the tons of features is hit or miss. Complaints about their repairs/service team have been unpleasant and widespread.
Best Camera for Beginners: a6500
It is on the high-end in terms of price, and if that’s going to make you balk you can check out its still solid predecessors the a6300 or a6000, but I tend to recommend getting the newest now so that bodies have the longest possible lifespan. The a6000 has its faults (like poor ISO and mediocre autofocus), but it’s an absolute bargain at the low-low price of under $500 (depending on when and where you buy it).
The a6500 is a great camera, and has what is called an APS-C sized sensor. For more information on what that means, you can see here. It takes the E-Mount, which is the same lens mount that the higher-end Sony cameras take which means you’ll be able to take near any lens you buy for it with you if you decide to upgrade. The a6500 takes decent sized images (twice the resolution of an iPhone image) and can shoot very fast. It also has what I think is the most advanced mirrorless autofocus system out there, which means that even though it’s not perfect, it’s the best and most accurate autofocus you can get on a mirrorless camera. This is a totally solid choice, and though more expensive than the other options I am going to recommend, it’s probably going to last a while and you will likely grow to love it.
The downside? You’re going to see this camera upgraded at least three times before you’re ready to get a new body. Sony has an absolutely annoying habit of upgrading their mid-level cameras at a wicked pace. The a6300 wasn’t even a year old yet before the a6500 was released this year, much to chagrin of Sony fans. If you can take the pain of watching your camera quickly become outdated though, this won’t bother you much.
Company philosophy: “We know what you want better than you do.”
Summary: Solid, quality DSLRs that have been the hallmark of beginners for the last 20 years. They are most loved for their prime lenses (lenses that don’t zoom), as they have a “look” to them that is unique.
- Pros: Very easy to use (easiest of all those shown here), and the buttons and feature layouts don’t change much from the lowest-end camera to the top of the line piece. Good battery life. Cheap and quality lenses to choose from. Really good repairs/service program, arguably the best.
- Cons: Tend to be a bit light on features (no matter the camera). ISO performance is average-to-weak compared to competition. Company is slow-moving.
Best Camera for Beginners: Rebel T6s
The Rebel series has been the go-to, solid option for beginners for years now and that hasn’t changed. My first digital SLR was a Rebel, and that camera sustained me for years as I learned the “what” and “why” of photography. The T6s makes very few advances in technology compared to its predecessors, but that’s likely because it doesn’t have to. It does a very solid job of being a very able-bodied camera, and it will be able to do most of what you as a beginner will ask of it. It doesn’t fire nearly as fast as the a6500 (but why would you need it to, honestly), and it doesn’t have the clarity and “look” to its images that Fuji offers. But… it’s not expensive, it’s solid, and it is a great way to get to know DSLRs.
Canon tends to upgrade the Rebel series once a year to a year and a half, but rarely to a degree where you’re going to feel like you’re missing out. You most certainly will want a new camera by about year three with this one, but luckily for you, nabbing a ridiculously cheap and quality 50mm f/1.8 (it’s $125) or the 35mm f/2 ($550) with your Rebel means you’ll be taking those great lenses with you when you upgrade.
Unfortunately, Canon is a very slow-moving company. It took far too long to get the 5D Mark IV professional camera that was released last year, and even that disappointed many Canon faithful.
Company Philosophy: “Get it right the second time.”
Summary: Very solid DSLRs that excel at autofocus accuracy and whose sensors love the greens and blues.
- Pros: More settings and customizable features. Great battery life. Excellent telephoto lenses. Outstanding autofocus and autofocus specificity.
- Cons: Heavier bodies, more complicated settings and buttons.
Nikon has a somewhat hilarious habit of making a camera, and then the public discovering tons of problems with it, so they release it a second time and everyone loves it. The D800, D600 and D700 all had this happen, and their successors all became well-loved bodies as soon as the bugs were all worked out. They seem to finally have gotten over this with recent pro-level bodies released in the last year, which is great. I just couldn’t resist having a little fun jabbing at them for it again.
This is much harder for me to do with Nikon than with anyone else, mostly because their incremental options are so vastly different in price. The D3400 is a decent camera with decent features, but it’s a camera you’ll likely grow out of very quickly. I would recommend the D5600, except the United States just got this camera and it’s not widely available until late January. It’s still a likely good pick-up, but the jury is still out on that one. That leaves the D7200, which is nice except it’s nearly double the price of the D3400 and lens options with Nikon tend to be pricier than with someone like Canon.
Look, all these cameras are going to be solid choices, it’s just a matter of how long they will feel good to you. The D7200 will have the longest lifespan for a new photographer, but it’s also locked behind a much higher pay wall than the D3400, which might as well be free with that $500 price point. It’s also a better camera than the aforementioned $550 a6000, so if you plan to spend this small amount, you don’t have a better option.
So with that all said, you will probably want to go with the D3400 if you want to live life with Nikon. It might only last you a couple years (the shortest life span of any camera I have recommended here), but with such a low barrier to entry (and a free lens since you can’t buy this thing body-only) you probably won’t have a big problem buying a much nicer Nikon when you’re ready to upgrade. Bear in mind though, the resale value of this camera will be basically $0.
Company Philosophy: “All hail the golden age of film.”
Summary: Exceptional mirrorless cameras that defy logic with great autofocus, beautiful image rendition and great battery life.
- Pros: Great battery life. Totally unique quality of images. Great focusing. Small size and weight.
- Cons: Their X-trans sensors are all APS-C, meaning you don’t get the benefit of larger sensors even on their top-tier offerings. Lenses can be expensive, as generally only Fuji makes them. Not particularly ergonomic.
Best Camera for Beginners: Fuji X-E2S
Fuji came out of nowhere and was the first company to really have a lot of “oomph” behind their mirrorless offerings. On paper, they don’t seem as nice as Sony cameras, but don’t be fooled: these are absolutely excellent pieces of technology.
I could easily recommend the Fuji XT-10 as well as the X-E2S, but the benefits of the XT-10 over the E2S are likely lost on beginners. Basically, the E2S is a great camera that has a fantastic sensor and will feel like a reliable piece of hardware. Fuji is all about the image, with a no-frills attitude that means a somewhat confusing menu system that will take some getting used to. Some of their higher-end cameras like the X-Pro2 have a mixed style viewfinder which is awesome, but that doesn’t mean a full-time electronic viewfinder (EVF) like the one found on the X-E2S won’t be great as well.
You will likely be very happy with the X-E2S for many years, and given that Fuji takes their small size seriously (both their bodies and lenses are tiny, in contrast with Sony who is making some rather large lenses these days), this is a great traveler’s camera manufacturer. All their bodies are small, compact and easily stowed, as are most of their lenses. It’s hard to describe the “look” you get with Fuji cameras, but it’s really unique. They decided to build a digital sensor to mimic film as much as possible, and fans will say they did a damn fine job. This is the only digital company to attempt something like this, and their body design and aesthetic are outward trappings of inward philosophy.
Company Philosophy: “Stabilize all the things.”
Summary: Some of the best dynamic range (which means detail in both highlights and shadows) of any mirrorless, with a compact and retro design.
- Pros: Surprisingly crisp and detailed images. Image stabilization on the sensor, meaning you don’t have to rely on lenses to have it. Lightweight. Lots of lens options from various manufacturers.
- Cons: Average battery life. Poor video performance. Fewer megapixels than the competition.
Best Camera for Beginners: OM-D EM-10
Olympus went all-in on the mirrorless bet years ago, with the format known as “micro four thirds.” To better understand that, head back over to the sensor size breakdown I mentioned earlier. Their first few attempts were pretty awful, but in the past five years (after cleaning up their financials and kicking out the corruption) Olympus has made some lovely cameras, most notably the OM-D EM-1, which is getting rave reviews. Not too far behind it, however, it the sturdy and lovely OM-D EM-10.
Every Olympus camera is Micro Four Thirds, which describes both the sensor size and the lens mount. This means you have several options from companies who make lenses for the format, and aren’t just locked into one company like you are with Fuji. Also, Olympus makes great cameras for very cheap. The OM-D EM-10 is outstanding, and it’s not much more expensive than the PEN series, which is designed to be just slightly more than a point and shoot. If you have to pick, I’d of course recommend the OM-D over the PEN thanks to a more advanced sensor and 5-axis image stabilization over the PEN’s 3-axis. Images are crisp, ISO performance is surprisingly good despite the tiny sensor size, and the camera rewards even shaky hands thanks to excellent in-body stabilization.
Olympus struggles with the same issues that Fuji does, with a sometimes overwhelming and bizarre menu format that can leave beginners scratching their heads. But if you’re willing to put in the time to understand how to make the camera work for you, then you’ll be rewarded with outstanding images… especially for the price.
These are my recommendations, and of course there are more. Pentax, Panasonic and several others all make great beginner cameras, and you’ll likely find a lovely experience with any of them. What you have above are my choices, based on my experience, and influenced by the hundreds of photographers I personally know and respect. That means that this list is just recommendations from me, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best one out there.
As we move further into 2017, this list may start to feel outdated as new cameras hit the market, and we’ll revisit it if we have to, but that doesn’t mean the philosophy and pros/cons of each company change. Those tend to be constant.
One final thing to remember: photography has many, many hidden costs. Once you acquire a camera and a lens, you’ll find that the strap may not be as comfortable as you would like it to be. Then you’ll realize you want to have more than one lens on you when you go out, so you’ll need a bag. Not long after, you’ll want to start to understand editing and how to make your photos look better, so you’ll start looking into Photoshop and Lightroom. Memory cards, long-term storage, and online backups of images… the list seems endless. But remember one thing no matter how inundated with “stuff” you find yourself:
You wanted to be a photographer because you wanted to take beautiful images. Never forget that.