“Best” and “for beginners” is usually an oxymoron — and that’s especially true when it comes to high-tech gadgets like cameras. A camera loaded with all the features won’t be much good in the hands of someone who doesn’t know how to use it. There can be a steep learning curve when it comes to photography!
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t upgrade — there are a lot of reasons to move into the DSLR territory. Maybe you’ve found that you enjoy taking pictures on your smartphone and want better quality. Perhaps your point-and-shoot just isn’t cutting it anymore. Maybe you’re going on a vacation and are searching for the best camera for travel or the best mirrorless camera.
Maybe you want to be able to control things like exposure and depth of field. Or you read our post on tips for beginners and want to be able to give more of that advice a try. Whatever the reason for upgrading to a DSLR or high-quality mirrorless camera, there is a perfect one out there for you.
In this article we’ll talk about some things to consider when buying a camera and give you recommendations on some of our favorite cameras for beginners. So let’s get to it!
Is a DSLR Right for You?
DSLRs may be the gold standard for both amateur and professional photographers but that doesn’t mean they’re the right choice for everyone. Here are some things to consider when deciding to invest in a DSLR or high-quality mirrorless camera:
Benefits of DSLRs for Beginners
Endless possibilities. If you know you are the type of person who really gets into your hobbies, you may as well start with a camera that will let you do everything. A good entry-level DSLR will give you the ability to shoot in manual mode, provide decent low-light performance, and have an endless array of lenses to choose from. And the good news is that the DSLRs that are designed for newbies offer a lot of automatic and semi-automatic modes that make shooting a breeze.
Room to grow. We’re going to let you in on a little secret: while camera bodies are important, it’s the lenses that really make the biggest difference when it comes to image quality. What this means for you is that you can buy a DSLR with a kit lens, then down the road, upgrade to fancier lenses if you decide that photography is something you want to stick with. In other words, a DSLR will leave you with lots of room to grow.
Flexibility. One of the hallmarks of DSLR cameras is the fact that the lenses are interchangeable. This means that one camera will let you do an awful lot of things. A macro lens will let you get up close and personal with things like insects and flowers while a wide angle lens turns a DSLR into a landscape-capturing dynamo.
Resale value. There is a large market for used DSLRs so if you do decide at some point that photography isn’t for you or—more likely—that you want to upgrade to an even better DSLR, you probably won’t have much trouble selling yours. This will help you recoup the costs if you realize you don’t like photography or help you purchase your next camera if you decide that you really do!
Downsides of DSLRs for Beginners
Cost. DSLRs aren’t cheap and, unless you buy a kit, you will also have to purchase at least one lens to go with it. That being said, you get a lot of bang for your buck!
Weight. These suckers are heavy! Crop sensor DSLRs aren’t light and when you move into full frame cameras the weight goes up even more. We’re not talking about lugging around a pile of rocks but they’re heavy enough that you probably won’t want to carry one around all day.
Features to Look for in a DSLR for Beginners
Price is an important point to consider when choosing a DSLR because your camera body isn’t the only thing you will need to buy. Along with lenses you may also want to purchase things like filters, bags, cleaning supplies, and a tripod. This can add up quickly! Be sure to leave some room in your budget for accessories.
Sensor size. A popular choice for beginners is choosing a camera with a cropped sensor (APS-C size). These sensors are smaller than full frame sensors but provide many key benefits to beginners: the cameras are smaller, lighter, much more affordable, and they use lighter lenses. One tradeoff is being forced to use a wider angle lens to achieve the same field of view and wider lenses tend to have poorer image quality around the edges. You’d also have to use a faster lens on an APS-C sensor to achieve an equivalent depth of field, which is not always possible. Lastly, cropped sensors can (but don’t always) have smaller pixels. This reduces dynamic range and creates a higher signal-to-noise ratio which makes the photo appear less smooth.
Flexibility. You probably already have an idea of what you want to shoot but keep in mind that your photographic interests may expand once you see what your new camera can do. So don’t limit yourself. Look for features that will allow your camera to be used in the widest array of situations possible. You’ll want to be sure that you’re investing in a body that supports all the lenses you think you might want to use, has good low light capabilities, and allows for things like manual shooting and off-camera flash. Because you just never know where your photography might take you.
Megapixels. The number of megapixels a camera has affects the amount of information the sensor is able to record. In other words, the more megapixels, the more detail your photos will have. If you just plan to post your photos on Facebook this isn’t a big deal but if you want to print large pictures to hang up, you’ll want more megapixels. While DSLRs go up to 50 megapixels and beyond, beginners (as well as most amateurs and many pros) don’t need that high of resolution. A camera with 16 megapixels or more will suit beginners just fine.
Frames per second. The number of frames that a camera can shoot in a second matters mostly for photographers who want to shoot moving objects. The more frames you can take in a second, the better chance that you are going to get exactly what you are trying to capture. Photographers who shoot sports, wildlife or energized toddlers will especially appreciate faster shooting rates.
Kit lens. One of the ways to cut down the cost of a DSLR setup is to look for a “kit” which will come with a lens and body. This can be a great way to save money when you’re first getting started. While many kit lenses (with some notable exceptions) are fairly low level, they are a cost-effective way for beginning photographers to get their gear at a good price — and if you decide to upgrade to better lenses you can always sell your kit lens down the road.
Flip screen. While not a big deal for people who are purely photographers, flip screens can make a huge difference for folks who also want to take video. If you plan to use your new camera for videography or vlogging, look for one with an articulating screen.
Remember that you are investing in a system. When it comes to picking your first DSLR it’s important to remember that you aren’t buying just a camera — you are investing in an entire line of bodies, lenses, and accessories. If you know that you want to take a certain type of photo be sure that the body you pick supports the types of lens you want to purchase. A Canon body won’t support a Nikon lens without a bulk-adding adapter and vice versa. You can visit our comparison guide of the Canon t5 vs t5i for more helpful information. If you begin with an APS-C camera body and lenses designed for these smaller bodies, if you upgrade to a full frame camera, you’d need to upgrade all your lenses too. Be sure to check out New DSLR Owners: What You Must Know About Full Frame vs Crop Frame Sensors Before Choosing a Lens.
What about mirrorless cameras? While most people who are getting into photography think they want a DSLR, many should consider mirrorless options as well. Mirrorless cameras are becoming wildly popular among photographers because they pack in many of the features of a DSLR in a much smaller body. Many professional photographers, especially those who haul their gear around, have given up DSLRs entirely for the back-saving size of a mirrorless. You’ll notice some mirrorless cameras in our suggestions below. We’re including them because they function a lot like a DSLR but come in a much smaller package and they’re definitely worthy of spots on this list!
Good Cameras for Beginners
With all that in mind, here are some cameras that work really well for beginners. These are all reasonably priced crop sensor cameras that offer lots of options for lenses and can grow with you as a photographer.
1. Canon T6i
($65 for 7 day rental / $699 retail, lens included)
Canon’s Rebel line has been the entry point for aspiring photographers for a while and this latest edition is worthy of the moniker. The 24 megapixel crop sensor camera shoots photos at 5 frames per second (FPS) and 1080p video at 30 FPS. Its 3? articulated touch screen makes it a great option for aspiring videographers. Released in 2015, the T6i has more megapixels than its predecessor the T5i (24.2 vs. 18) and more than twice as many autofocus points. Beginners will appreciate this camera’s accessibility — it gives you all the manual controls of a higher-end DSLR but with lots of automatic and semi-automatic options to use while you’re learning.
2. Nikon D3300
($39 for 7 day rental / $399 retail, lens included)
If there is a camera that can give Canon’s T6i a run for its money for beginning photographers it is the Nikon D3300. This camera is a well-priced powerhouse, boasting 24 megapixels, and a burst rate of 5 FPS. A 3? LCD (but fixed) screen and the ability to record 1080p video at 60 FPS makes this a good choice for videographers as well. The D3300 was released in 2014 and has been a very popular choice for beginners ever since. Because this camera is only sold as a kit, you won’t have to purchase lenses to go with it.
3. Sony a58
($28 for 7 day rental / $598 retail, lens included)
This 20.1 megapixel crop sensor DSLR was released in 2013 and is a good option for photographers who want an alternative to Canon and Nikon. The a58 can shoot 1080p video at 30 FPS but because it lacks an articulating screen (the screen does tilt for framing shots in awkward situations), it’s probably best for those who are more interested in photography than videography.
4. Fuji X-T10
($56 for 7 day rental / $699 retail, lens included)
Aspiring adventure and travel photographers will love the X-T10’s array of features and tiny size. Released in 2015, this 16.3 megapixel mirrorless camera has a burst rate of 8 FPS and records video at 1080p. Like the Sony a58, this camera has a tilting screen, not a fully articulating one, which makes it a less than ideal option for those who want to do video — but if you are looking for a small camera that excels at photography, the X-T10 is an excellent choice.
5. Nikon D5500
($58 for 7 day rental /$796 retail, lens included)
Nikon’s D5500 is a crop sensor camera that is starting to venture into “prosumer” territory and it is a good option for those who want something with more features than our lower-level models without going whole hog into the more expensive full frame cameras listed below. This 24.2 megapixel camera has a burst rate of 5 FPS, shoots 1080p video, and boasts a whopping 39-point autofocus system. With a 3.2” swiveling LCD touch screen, this camera also works well for video.
6. Canon Rebel SL1
($47 for 7 day rental / $499 retail, lens included)
Canon’s SL1 is a shrunken-down version of the other cameras in the Rebel line. What this means for you is that this is an entry-level DSLR that’s smaller in size than a lot of its competitors. But don’t be fooled by its size. The advantages of the T6i over the SL1 include megapixels, burst speed, and an articulating screen for shooting video but that doesn’t mean the SL1 should be overlooked. This is still a powerful camera that comes in a small package — at a great price. As with all of the cameras in Canon’s Rebel line, beginners will love how accessible the features in this camera are even to a total newbie!
Professional Level Cameras for Beginners
Professional level cameras may have a higher price tag but they also come with more features and capabilities than entry-level DSLRs. A professional grade camera will typically (with some exceptions) have a full frame sensor, better low-light capabilities, higher burst rates and megapixel counts, and better autofocus — all of which are good things for photographers.
These cameras often lose some of the automatic modes that beginner DSLRs offer so if you purchase one you are going to have to spend some time learning to shoot in manual and semi-manual modes. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, because it will force you to learn to shoot manual sooner — which you will want to do eventually anyway. Starting out with a pro-level camera is a great option for people who know they want to take their photography seriously. It may also save you money in the long run because you won’t have to upgrade your body as soon.
Features Exclusive to Pro Level Cameras
Full frame sensors. Most professional-grade cameras will have full frame sensors, allowing for higher dynamic range, better low light performance, and a shallower depth of field.
Faster autofocus Unless you are shooting things that never move, autofocus is a big deal! Few things ruin a shot more than missed focus and fast autofocus helps minimize the chance of that happening. The better your autofocus (and the more adept you are at using it), the more “keepers” you will have. Learn more about how to control autofocus in All About Autofocus: Focus Area vs Focus Mode for Beginners.
Ruggedness. It is important to remember that cameras, like anything else, can break. The higher the quality of your camera, the less of a chance that this will happen. Higher end cameras tend to be sturdier and more weatherproof than their entry-level counterparts
Here are a few of our favorite professional level cameras for beginners:
1. Canon 5D Mark III
($129 for 7 day rental / $2,499 retail, body only)
Look inside any professional photographer’s bag and there is a really good chance that you will see a Canon 5D Mark III. This camera is the workhorse of the photography world and one of the best on the market. Beginners will appreciate the 5D Mark III’s low-light performance, higher burst rate (6 FPS) and fast and accurate autofocus. This is simply one of the best cameras you can buy and, while it will take some learning for a true beginner, with this camera the sky is the limit. This camera was released in 2013 and has been upstaged by the recently-released 5D Mark IV. Regardless of its age, this camera has stood the test of time and has a worthy place in any photographer’s bag.
2. Sony a7RII
($153 for 7 day rental / $3,198 retail, body only)
The Sony a7RII is a giant of a camera – in a really small package. This mirrorless camera’s 42 megapixel full frame sensor is one of the best on the market and has become a staple in the arsenals of many an adventure and travel photographer. Don’t believe us? Check out the work of professional surf photographer Chris Burkard who does 70% of his work with this little dynamo. Beginners will love that this camera takes pin-sharp pictures and fits in the palm of your hand. This camera is as good as any DSLR — and way smaller.
3. Nikon D810
($148 for 7 day rental / $2,799 retail, body only)
Released in 2014, the D810 is Nikon’s top of the line full frame camera and it is a sound option for beginners who are wanting something powerful and looking to learn. This camera directly competes with Canon’s exceptional 5D Mark III — and in some ways it wins. The autofocus on the D810 works great, even in the dark, and it handles high ISOs exceptionally well. It is highly capable at shooting portraits, sports, landscapes, and just about anything you throw its way.
4. Canon 6D
($78 for 7 day rental / $1,399 retail, body only)
The well-priced 6D is Canon’s “entry-level” full frame DSLR but it’s a formidable competitor in this field. While this camera’s autofocus isn’t as fast as some on this list, it excels in many other ways. The 6D’s 20.2 megapixels and 4.5 FPS burst rate are good enough for most applications and it performs well in low light situations. Because this camera is newer than the 5D Mark III, it includes some of the technology that the 5D lacks—like WiFi and GPS capability. This camera is slightly smaller than some of the other full frame DSLRs in this category, making it a bit easier to carry around. This camera is an excellent option for aspiring professionals who are looking for a combination of both features and value in a full frame DSLR. There has been chatter in recent years about a 6D Mark II but no official announcements have been made as of this writing.
5. Fuji X-Pro 2
($104 for 7 day rental / $1,699 retail, body only)
The X-Pro 2 is a good option for people who want the power of a DSLR and the size of a mirrorless camera without having to drop a ton of money to get it. This camera, which was released in 2016, improves on Fuji’s popular X-Pro 1 with increased autofocus capabilities. This may be a crop-sensor camera but it still makes this list due to its small size, 24.3 megapixel sensor, light weight, ability to shoot at 8 frames per second, and beautiful image quality. For photographers who are looking for DSLR capabilities in a small and affordable camera, the X-Pro 2 is hard to beat.
6. Nikon D610
($85 for 7 day rental / $1,499 retail, body only)
The D610 sits in the comfortable middle ground between the entry-level full frame DSLRs and super high end options like Canon’s 5D Mark III and Nikon’s D810 — and it even has some advantages (like faster burst rate) over some of its higher-priced siblings. Beginners will love that the D610 provides a way to get into full frame professional-level DSLR photography without spending a lot of money to do it. The D610 is the perfect camera for an enthusiastic beginner to buy with the hopes of growing into.
Whether you are looking for an entry-level DSLR to get started with or a pro-level camera that you can grow into, there is no doubt that there is an option out there for you. A great way to find out which gear is right for you is by staying informed. Check out our Canon comparison series featuring the Canon 5D Mark III vs 6D, the Canon 7D vs 6D, or the 70D vs 7D. Don’t forget that if you are having a hard time deciding between cameras you can always rent a few to see which you like best. Few things make your decision easier than having the camera in your hands to play with. When it feels right, you’ll know! Once you have your gear, make sure you check out all of our tips and tricks including our guide for the best low light cameras to help you make the most of your shots.
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