What is the best camera for beginners? While this seems like a straightforward question, and many websites will just throw a list of camera options at you, the answer can be more complex than one specific camera recommended for every newbie photographer. Giving this question some thought and considering a few options may pay future dividends as a novice photographer evolves into a photographic artist. One certainty is that an entry-level camera should be easy to use, convenient to carry and employ, as well as being intuitive, while also allowing for growth. All of this should combine to foster a passion for photography.
We all know that today’s smartphone—an electronic device that happens to have a built-in camera—is, in many ways, the best camera for a budding photographer. In fact, phone cameras are so good that most photographers—neophytes and professionals alike—are taking more and more photos with their phones and forgoing larger and more complex cameras. Not since the introduction of the 35mm format has a camera type brought so many people into the wonderful world of photography.
Yet, the smartphone camera has limitations in design and performance, two factors that often drive people toward a more capable photographic platform. Here is where this article comes in to play—for scenarios where you, a friend, or a family member shows real photographic talent with a smartphone, and the consensus is that it is time to get a “real” camera.
So, let’s explore the different types of cameras available, to give you, the novice and/or shopper, some food for thought by listing the pros and cons of each platform.
Before we dive in, it is important to state that almost every contemporary camera, including the highest priced, most sophisticated models, have fully automatic modes, which make it easy for any beginner to nail everything but composing the shot. You need not know the science behind exposure and setting your aperture, shutter speed, ISO, to pick up the best “professional” camera from a leading manufacturer and take a great photograph.
Almost all cameras will allow you to take control of exposure, focus, shooting modes, and more manually—all subjective picture-making decisions that can yield a more nuanced, artistic shot. But, the ease of adjusting controls manually varies from one camera to the next. For a beginner with the potential for artistic growth, ease of implementing manual control should be a major purchase consideration, because the budding photographer will likely “outgrow” some of the auto modes and want to take control of certain aspects of the picture-making process.
Finally, don’t overthink this point, but the newer the camera, the better it will perform in many ways. Each new generation sees incremental improvements in image quality, low-light performance, autofocus speed and accuracy, and more. Does this mean an older digital camera is incapable of capturing a great photograph? Of course, not. But, in the digital world, newer almost always means better.
While “mirrorless” cameras were around long before the SLR camera, in the form of large format cameras and rangefinders, the digital mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera is a relative newcomer on the block. Mirrorless technology has matured to the point where many professionals, as well as traditional SLR manufacturers, are making the switch to digital mirrorless and the mirrorless camera has replaced the DSLR as the digital camera of choice.
The difference between the DSLR and the interchangeable-lens mirrorless digital camera is the absence, in the mirrorless camera, of the mirror that reflects the image captured through the lens up through a prism and out to an optical viewfinder. Without a mirror, the mirrorless camera shows you the image through the lens electronically on a screen or through an electronic viewfinder (EVF)—you no longer look through the lens optically.
- Image Quality: Like the DSLR, top image quality is a hallmark of these cameras.
- Flexibility: Again, like the DSLR, lenses range from wide fisheyes to extreme telephotos.
- Growth Opportunities: There is room for growth here, as well—same as with the DSLR systems.
- More Growth; Adapted Lenses: Mirrorless cameras also allow you to adapt lenses from different manufacturers for virtually limitless optical options.
- Sharing: You may share gear with friends who operate the same system.
- Size/Weight: Mirrorless cameras are usually lighter and smaller than their DSLR counterparts.
- WYSIWYG: With an EVF, you can see your exposure accuracy while you compose your shot. What you see is what you get.
- Multiple Parts: The mirrorless camera also needs a separate lens. Again, we have a modular system, so be sure to consider owning and carrying multiple lenses and accessories.
- Complexity: Like the DSLR, they are complex machines—even the entry-level models.
- Intimidating: Plenty of buttons and knobs to intimidate the beginner.
- Battery Life: Because they are smaller than DSLRs, their batteries don’t last quite as long, necessitating carrying extra batteries and/or a charger.
- Optical Experience: One pleasure of DSLR shooting is looking through a beautiful lens optically. The mirrorless camera only shows a digital representation of what the lens sees. Some photographers scoff at this.
- Sensor Size: Mirrorless cameras have sensors ranging from full-frame (same size as 35mm film) to half of that size. Some photographers prefer the aesthetics of larger sensors.
- Size/Weight: Above, I said, “lighter and smaller than their DSLR counterparts,” but some can be almost DSLR-sized. Mirrorless lenses, especially those for full-frame cameras, can be large and heavy, as well. Regardless of how they match up against DSLRs, their size will be a big adjustment for those transitioning from the smartphone.
- Cost: These cameras can cost as much, or more, than DSLRs.
Here are some recommended entry-level interchangeable lens mirrorless camera options:
Right or wrong, the digital single-lens reflex camera (DSLR) was the default for a beginner camera. This is the camera that most people think about when they want to step up from the smartphone camera or, in days past, something like a disposable point-and-shoot camera. At B&H Photo, this remains a type of camera that many rookie photographers, or their benefactors, are interested in purchasing.
- Image Quality: DSLRs provide top image quality for beginners, but this quality is also dependent on getting a good lens.
- Flexibility: Interchangeable-lens flexibility allows you to shoot from super-wide-angle fisheye lenses to extreme telephoto, provided you have those components.
- Growth Opportunities: You may add lenses, accessories, and more to a DSLR kit, or get better lenses and upgrade to a better camera body to match—room for growth.
- Sharing: If you have a friend with the same type of camera, you could share lenses and accessories without buying your own.
- The DSLR Era is Coming to an End: Most major manufactures have announced the end of their DSLR cameras—from entry level models to the flagship pro models—in favor of mirrorless cameras. This might made future expansion of your system difficult.
- Multiple Parts: The DSLR needs a lens. Because the camera is only one part of a modular system, you should carefully consider your tolerance for owning and carrying multiple lenses and accessories.
- Complexity: Even the simplest DSLR is festooned with multiple buttons and controls and pages of menus.
- Intimidating: With that complexity comes an intimidation factor for many beginner photographers.
- Size/Weight: If you are accustomed to shooting with your smartphone, the DSLR’s size and weight will be shocking. Carrying it around everywhere might become tiresome.
- Gear Envy: Unless you have the professional gear, you may eventually feel the need to upgrade your camera and lenses.
- Cost: DSLR cameras, even the entry-level ones, represent more than a casual investment in photography.
Bridge cameras are, in the simplest terms, point-and-shoot (non-interchangeable lens) cameras that are larger than the traditional pocket-sized point-and-shoot or compact camera and have incredibly expansive zoom lenses that go from wide-angle to telescope-like telephoto. Like the DSLR or mirrorless camera, they have a full suite of controls and settings that allow the novice to shoot in fully automatic mode or full manual mode, or somewhere in between.
- Image Quality: The sensors are usually smaller than mirrorless and DSLR cameras, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get amazing photographs.
- Flexibility: The built-in lens satisfies your needs for wide-angle and super-telephoto coverage.
- Convenience: You only have to pack your camera. No extra lenses needed.
- Size/Weight: They are lighter and smaller than many DSLRs—especially when you consider the focal-length range.
- Cost: The bridge cameras represent a fantastic value when you consider the image quality, and flexibility of the permanently attached super-zoom lenses.
- Image Quality: Depending on the model, this type of camera might have a fairly small sensor that is not ideal for making very large prints.
- Simplicity: Many bridge cameras offer full manual controls, but they are simpler, overall, than the interchangeable lens cameras.
- Size/Weight: They are larger than other point-and-shoot cameras. And, when the lenses are extended, they can be pretty darn big.
- Focus Speed: Manufacturers are constantly improving autofocus performance, but these cameras might focus a bit slower than a DSLR or mirrorless interchangeable lens camera.
Point-and-Shoot or Compact Cameras
The point-and-shoot / compact camera market has been undeniably crippled by the smartphone, and that is a shame because these cameras have never been more capable than they are right now. Some point-and-shoot cameras are small enough to fit in your pocket, and they can produce photos that will run rings around anything your smartphone, or even an entry-level DSLR, can create. The compact camera is a diminutive machine that sports either a non-interchangeable fixed-focal length or zoom lens. Like the mirrorless and bridge cameras above, you compose by looking at the LCD screen, an EVF, or if the camera is rangefinder-like an off-axis optical viewfinder.
- Image quality: Some point-and-shoot cameras have lenses and sensors that are identical to or rival DSLR and mirrorless cameras.
- Size/Weight: They can be even smaller than a smartphone. Drop it in your pocket or your pack and forget about it.
- Convenience: Like the bridge camera, no need to carry other lenses around with you.
- Image quality: Like the bridge camera, sensors can be small, and that has limitations in challenging lighting conditions, or when making large prints, but some compact cameras have the same sensors that their larger interchangeable lens siblings have, so image quality is as good.
- Simplicity: They can be the simplest of cameras, more easily suited to automatic functionality, but some do allow for full manual control, as well.
- Shooting speed: Autofocus speeds are good, but they haven’t caught up with DSLRs yet in every scenario.
Passion for photography does not have to be digital. In fact, there are real benefits to experiencing analog film photography, because it can teach a very different approach to the art. We are hard-pressed to think of any drawbacks to entering the world of photography with a film camera. In fact, the experience of shooting film will certainly lead to an appreciation of the art that will pay dividends for any photographer, regardless of whether they continue to expose film or switch to digital down the road.
As with the digital options outlined above, film photography can take the form of SLR cameras, point-and-shoots, or more traditional “old-school” methods, like the rangefinder and view camera.
- Appreciation: Film is the foundation of the art of photography. Shooting film teaches an appreciation for the medium that cannot be replicated in the digital world.
- Thought Process: Given a finite number of images per roll, the film photographer tends to give the pictures he or she is taking more careful consideration. This usually leads to better and more rewarding images.
- Cost: These days, you can generally pick up an older film camera for a song. Even the professional-level film cameras of yesteryear are relatively inexpensive when compared to top-flight digital models.
- Cost and availability: Entering the film world can be inexpensive; staying there might not be. The combination of film purchase and developing costs can add up quickly—not to mention the availability of these items, as well as potential costs for scanning or printing—whereas the costs of digital capture are minimal, especially when reusing a single memory card.
- Limited ability to share: You cannot connect your film camera to your smartphone to share photos instantly, but you can scan your negatives or prints and then share a digital reproduction of the film shot.
- Time: Digital capture provides instant gratification. Film capture provides mystery and anticipation. You won’t know if you got the shot for hours, days, or even weeks after you released the shutter. That experience runs counter to our contemporary consumer culture.
For recommended film cameras for beginners, please visit our B&H Used Department's selection of 35mm film cameras since there are only a few new film cameras in production.
OK, so, we did not give you a definitive answer to the question, “What is the best camera for beginners?” but, hopefully, we have given you some valuable pointers to consider when it comes to buying or acquiring the best camera for a beginning photographer. Please feel free to ask questions or leave messages in the Comments section, below. Are you a beginner yourself, or purchasing a camera for one? Talk to us—we can help you make the best choice.