People on the beginners photography course often ask for advice on what to buy when starting out in photography. They’re not always easy questions to answer as, like everything, “it depends”, but here’s some general guidance I have some confidence in.

This guide assumes you want a standard DSLR camera.

Which camera?

Canon 700D

I really hate this question as I bought my mid-range Nikon D7000 a few years ago and am very happy with it, so I haven’t really been paying attention to the market, but I can help you get the lay of the land. (Info correct as of 2015 – new cameras are always being released but you should be able to figure out where they fit.)

With DSLRs the main brands are Nikon and Canon. At a beginners level they are pretty much the same in what they do. Some prefer the controls on the Nikon, some prefer the Canon. Both brands break their Entry Level camera into two ranges.

The lowest range of Nikon is the D3000 series. Every year they release a new model and add 100 to the number, so the current one is D3300. The Canon equivalent is their 4-digit series, currently at 1200D. These cameras are perfectly good but the price is kept down by removing “unnecessary” features. If you don’t plan on developing your photography much in the future then they will be fine and take lovely pictures, but if you plan on pushing what you can do then you will soon find these models frustrating.

The “Upper Entry” level from Nikon is the D5000 series which is currently at D5500. Canon’s version is the 3-digit series, recent models being the 600D, 650D, 700D, 750D and 760D. These cameras still lack some of the professional features, but not to the dramatic degree of the lower-entry ranges, which is reflected in the slightly higher prices. If you want a good camera that will serve you well for a few years and enable you to learn new things, these are great for beginners. They also hold their value fairly well so you can sell them on should you want to upgrade quickly.

2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
Upper-Entry Nikon D5100 650D D5200 D5300 D5500
Upper-Entry Canon 550D 600D 650D 700D 750D / 760D
Lower-Entry Nikon D3100 D3200 D3300
Lower-Entry Canon 1000D 1100D 1200D

Of course there are other manufacturers who are making some very nice cameras, and you should definitely consider them, but I find most follow the systems laid out by Nikon and Canon and will fit into those ranges. So if you want, say, a new-ish upper-entry Sony camera, look for the one that’s the same as a Nikon D5300.

Older models are always cheaper, even when bought new. You can often find the model from a couple of years ago on Amazon for significantly less than this year’s. Also consider refurbished 2nd hand cameras. I would avoid anything over 3 years old though as the sensor technology dramatically improved around then.

Which lenses?

Lenses can get very expensive, partly because making lenses accurately is still a very expensive process and you really do get what you pay for. That said, the whole point of getting a DLSR is so you can switch out lenses. So where to start?

Lenses are broadly in two categories, Prime and Zoom.

You camera probably came with a zoom lens, usually something like 18-55 or 18-70. These numbers are the effective distance of the lens from the camera sensor in millimetres, and the further away, the more they “zoom” in. A smaller number will show more of the landscape and a larger number will crop in.

Zoom lenses use a large number of lenses which pushes up the price, particularly from the big brands (Canon / Nikon) who won’t sell poor quality equipment. You can get cheaper zoom lenses from the likes of Tamron and Sigma but be aware the quality won’t be so good. I bought a cheap Sigma 70-300mm zoom lens when on holiday which is fun but the images are not perfectly sharp. I wouldn’t want to use it professionally.

50mm Prime Lens

Prime lenses do not zoom – they’re fixed to a specific distance. This means they have less going on inside which can lower the price. The more popular prime lens is the 50mm which costs around £100 from both Nikon and Canon. That does crop quite tight though so I prefer the 35mm prime which was a little more expensive.

The best thing about prime lenses is they are capable or much wider apertures. Your kit lens probably won’t go further than f3.5 but a 50mm prime will widen to f1.8. In layman’s terms that means you can make the background really really blurry. They also force you to think more about composition rather than lazily zoom in, making you a better photographer.

Warning: if you have one of the entry-level cameras above, you will need a lens with its own motor. Some lenses, particularly the cheaper primes, need to be powered by the camera itself, but the entry level models omit this to keep prices down. Double check before buying.

To start your lens collection I’d get a 50mm prime – it will change your life. If you want to experiment with zoom lenses look at the Tamron / Sigma ranges around £100-£300. Above that you’re no longer a beginner!

Which tripod?

The simple answer is this: never buy a cheap tripod. And by cheap I mean under £20. At best it’ll wobble like crazy when extended. At worst it will just break after a few trips out. Flimsy tripods are find if you’re using a compact or a Go-Pro but for anything with a bit of heft you need some sturdy kit.

Professional tripods are, of course, great, but they start in the £100s which is a bit excessive for beginners. If you know you’re going to use a tripod all the time then get one, but if it’s an occasional thing they’re unnecessary.

The sweet-spot is around £40 for a study budget tripod. I like the Velbon DF-61 as it’s hefty enough to withstand a strong breeze and to hold a big DLSR with zoom lens, but won’t break the bank. It’s also fairly lightweight. Sure, it wouldn’t last long used by a professional, but it’s perfect for the occasional use. I bought a bunch to rent out to students and have been impressed. There are other makes, of course. The rule of thumb is find the cheapest and go up two price points.

What other stuff?

The biggest danger of getting into photography is endlessly buying accessories. Every photographer has a box or drawer of bits and bobs which seemed like a good idea at the time but are rarely used. So here’s some things you probably won’t regret getting, although no promises!

Lens Hood – This sits on the end of the lens and is designed to prevent lens flare, but that’s not why you buy one. Its main purpose is to protect your lens when you inevitably bash it into a wall or drop it on the floor. That ring of plastic could save you £££s.

Camera Bag – This is a very personal choice, but I’m a big fan of the Lowepro Event Messenger series. I can get my camera, spare lenses and laptop in one bag with room to spare, which is great, but I can also use it for every day stuff, which a lot of the “specialist” camera bags are terrible at. Also they’re not that expensive.

Remote – This is a cable with a shutter button at one end which allows you to take a picture without touching the camera itself. Very useful if you’re taking a long exposure with a tripod as you avoid any camera shake. The remotes made by your camera brand will probably be stupidly expensive for what they are, but there’s a massive market of budget ones. They might not be great quality but they work. You should be able to get one for your camera on Amazon or eBay for £5-10.

That’s the core stuff, I think. Enjoy!