Many people have a basic camera phone or point-and-shoot camera these days, but if you are going to take a photography class or otherwise get more serious about improving the craft of photography, you may want to consider the kinds of equipment you will need to be able to experiment more in-depth with the technical and creative sides of photography. There are an overwhelming number of camera models on the market to choose from, but in this guide I have tried to boil it down to a select few for those who have never shopped for a more advanced camera before. The approximate prices listed are current as of September 1, 2014.
Whether we are looking at the models below or considering other options of your own, my criteria for evaluating cameras starts with some very important requirements:
* The camera must allow Manual control of aperture and shutter speed. This is most easily confirmed by the presence of an “M” mode on the main shooting mode dial.
* The camera should have an interchangeable lens system. Basically, you want the option to switch out lenses (wide angle, telephoto, macro, etc) for different photography subjects.
* If you are planning to use an older or used camera, make sure the battery is reliable or get additional backup batteries. There’s nothing worse than everything and everyone being ready for a shoot and your camera running out of batteries!
Budget Cameras ($350 or less)
Cameras in this section are going to allow much more creative control than camera phones and most point-and-shoot cameras, and will be adequate for many basic photography classes. But they will be more limited in functionality than more expensive cameras, making you want to replace them sooner with an upgrade as you get serious about photography. The units I have listed belong to the compact mirrorless class of cameras, which allow for interchangeable lenses while still remaining very portable and affordable. The tradeoff is usually that they will be slower than more expensive cameras, and they will also tend to be noisier or grainier than higher-end cameras due to the size of the image sensor.
Nikon 1 J1 with 10-30mm lens: $250
This is one of the most basic digital cameras with an interchangeable lens system, and probably the least expensive option at the time of this writing. However, even though the price is very attractive, keep in mind that the image quality will suffer in low-light situations, and it’s fairly possible that you will outgrow this camera sooner as you delve deeper into photography and desire greater control and lens selection.
Olympus PEN E-P1 with 14-42mm lens: $269
This is a capable camera that conforms to the Micro Four-Thirds standard, which means that you will easily be able to acquire additional lenses from a number of manufacturers when you are ready to expand your craft. In my opinion, the versatility offered by this model over the Nikon 1 J1 is well worth it if you are shopping in the sub-$300 range.
Canon EOS M with 18-55mm lens: $305
This is a very interesting camera offering by Canon that uses the same image sensor as many of their higher-end DSLR cameras, but in a very compact form factor and low price. You can also purchase an additional lens mount adapter in order to use standard Canon lenses with this camera. If you think you’d ever like to upgrade to a more serious Canon DSLR, this is a great way to get started at a low cost of admission.
Entry-Level Digital SLRs ($550 or less)
Cameras in this section are true digital SLR (DSLR) cameras will be very good for many photography applications, have lots of lens and accessory options, and will last for a long time if you take care of them. It’s astounding to see how a $500 camera today can outperform even $2000 cameras from just a few years ago!
Nikon D3100 with 18-55mm lens: $409
This is Nikon’s entry-level DSLR, and it offers great performance for the price. It is a very capable camera that will offer everything an aspiring photographer needs to create exciting images. One bonus feature is that in the video recording mode, the camera can continuously refocus on your subject, just like a camcorder.
Canon T3i with 18-55mm lens: $549 (I’ve seen much better prices than this during sales!)
Canon has since replaced the T3i with newer models, but this camera still offers amazing performance. It is easily the camera I have most often recommended to budding photographers, and for good reason. Of the models listed on this page, I have the most personal experience using this camera, which has proven to be a winner in terms of image quality, features, and price. One bonus feature is the flip-out LCD screen which will allow you to shoot from extremely high or low angles to get unique perspectives.
Consider adding the following equipment to your photography supplies:
A very good tripod at the $50 range is this Dolica tripod. It’s reasonably lightweight for travel, while having enough stability for most consumer DSLR and smaller cameras.
Blow dust and other particles off of your lenses and gear with this Giottos air blower for less than $10. This is much better than blowing with your mouth and getting spit on your lenses! I rarely bother to wipe my lenses with cleaning solution, but I frequently use the air blower as a simple and effective part of camera maintenance.
I have many different backpacks and camera bags over the years, but the one that I have continued to use all these years as a travel pack is the $60 Lowepro Slingshot 102 AW (technically I had the 100 which was the older version). It’s just enough for me to hold a camera with lens attached and two or three other lenses and a few small accessories. The main design innovation is that you do not have to take off the backpack to get to your gear, so it’s great for traveling. It also has straps for securing your tripod to it, but I’ve never used that feature before. If I have a very important professional shoot, I will of course use my bigger case, the Lowepro Pro Roller x200, but for basic photo trips, I turn to the Lowepro Slingshot.
Finally, if you’re looking for an external flash, please see my Basic Flash recommendations page!
Higher-End Cameras and Additional Gear
There are a whole lot more options out there in terms of cameras, especially if you are willing to spend more than $500 for a camera and lens combo. For example, you can see what I use in my professional photography work on my Gear Page.
If you are looking for a camera that is even more powerful or has even more advanced features than what is discussed in this article, please send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org so I can get a better idea of your requirements and make a custom recommendation for you! I can also provide suggestions for many other kinds of camera gear.