Which camera should you buy?

The range of cameras out there can quite bewildering, which I why I get asked this question a lot from people wanting to do my Beginners course. Ultimately it depends on what you want to achieve, how much you have to spend and what you’re physically comfortable holding. And some of that you won’t know until you’ve started using the camera.

But there are some simple, broad-strokes guidelines to buying your first camera which I shall attempt to outline, based on having given this sort of advice to a number of different sorts of people.

The short version

If you want a camera that will introduce you to photography as it has been practiced for the last 100 years and which will serve you well through most situations, get an entry level Nikon or Canon DLSR. The current basic Nikon model is the D3500 while the current basic Canon is the 4000D. If you look after them they’ll keep their value should you want to trade up.

Now, on to the various options, which I’ve broken into four categories.

Phones and Compacts

I’ll start with the sort of cameras people like me aren’t supposed to recommend because they’re not “professional”, but it’s important to stress that the camera on a high-end mobile phone is quite impressive these days. The latest Apple and Samsung phones also incorporate a lot of computer processing, merging multiple images taken with two lenses, producing images that can surpass those taken with “proper” camera. While this might not be photography-as-we-know-it, if your ultimate aim is to create nice, clear images of things and to focus purely on your composition, a decent phone might well be enough.

Compact cameras, which just have one shutter button and not many controls, I’m a little unsure about. You’re paying for the same level of imaging technology as a camera-with-functions but without the functions, so it’s probably worth upgrading a bit. Yes, they are small and easy to carry around, but so is your phone. I’d use the money you were going to spend on a compact and upgrade your phone instead.

Bridge cameras

A couple of Bridge cameras. Note the M-A-S-P dial.

The “bridge” camera is essentially the technology of a compact camera in a larger body with more buttons and dials and a bigger lens. This means it’s nicer to hold, easier to control and can take a wider range of photos, but is ultimately as limited as a compact camera.

On the plus side, they usually have the same sorts of controls as a DSLR (look for the big dial with M-A-S-P on the top) for a much lower price, so you can practice DSLR photography before committing to a real DSLR camera. This is what I did circa 2005 when I started thinking about photography but wasn’t ready to commit. A year later I sold my Fujifilm bridge camera and bought a mid-range Nikon DSLR.

In 2018 I’m not sure I’d recommend getting a new bridge camera as you can get a much better entry-level DLSR for the same sort of money. But if you have access to one, or see one second hand, it can be a good “training wheels” camera to play with.

Ranges of bridge cameras to consider getting second hand for about £100 would be Fujifilm Finepix and the Lumix FZ series. If a bridge works for you, great! If you get frustrated after a year you know you’re serious and ready to move up.

Mirrorless cameras

(Covered by my Beginners course)

The mirrorless camera is a relatively new style of camera which aims to combine the ergonomic shape of a traditional compact camera with the quality and functionality of a DSLR. The highlight is the ability to change lenses along with a high quality sensor which is reflected in the price.

That said, while the guts are similar to the DSLR, they operate quite differently. The “mirrorless”-ness means when you look through the viewfinder you’re looking at a digital screen, not through the lens as with a DLSR (see below). There’s also a lot less space for buttons and dials, so compromises will be made.

There are two broad types of mirrorless I’ve seen in my classes. The first moves all the functionality to fiddly buttons and menus on the back screen. This makes them seem simple but makes doing advanced things quite frustrating if you like operating your camera by feel.

Tiny buttons and no dials.

The other type pushes the functionality to classic-looking dials on the top of the camera and the lens dial. This mimics controls of pre-1980s SLR film cameras, often moreso than the modern DSLR.

Shutter speed and brightness are all controlled with chunky dials, aperture on the lens or with the thumb. No fiddly menus.

I have used and admired the Fujifilm X-T1. The X-T20 is the current model and sells for £850 (at time of writing).

But this market is constantly changing and I don’t keep tabs on it so I’m reluctant to recommend specific cameras. I’d recommend visiting a camera shop and trying some out.

Entry Level DSLR cameras

(Covered by my Beginners course)

If you’re confident you don’t need your camera to fit in your handbag or jacket pocket, and you want to push your photography beyond common subjects and scenes, you’ll probably want to get a DSLR camera.

DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex, which means when you look through the viewfinder you’re looking through the big lens, seeing exactly what will be recorded by the sensor. This means you look through the camera, not at a screen on the camera, which arguably makes the camera closer to something you wear, like glasses, rather than something you hold. It becomes an extension of you.

Common features of the DSLR are the ability to change lenses (as with the mirrorless), a larger sensor capturing more light in more detail, and more accessible controls and dials. Once you’re familiar with your DSLR camera you should be able to change the settings without moving your eye from the viewfinder.

That said, the entry level DSLRs do neuter some advanced features in order to make the camera cheaper and easier for beginners. This is not necessarily a problem, though, as they tend to keep their value so when you’re ready to trade up you can sell them on.

Canon and Nikon DSLRs. They do exactly the same things in subtly different ways.

I’m going to concentrate on Nikon and Canon, because they’re the popular brands that have good resale prices. Other brands are perfectly fine (especially Sony who are doing really interesting things) but maybe better considered when you’re more advanced. An entry level Nikon or Canon is a safe all-round bet.

Nikon’s entry level cameras are in two series’. The cheapest and most basic is the D3x00 series with a new model coming out every couple of years. The D3500 is just out at time of writing (Autumn 2018) and costs £500 on Amazon. The previous model, D3400, is £400 while 2014’s D3300 is £300. You get the idea.

If you’re looking for a camera that will last you a good few years, I wouldn’t go older than the D3300. If you just want a camera to try out, by all means go older. I see a lot of 3100s in my class and they’re perfectly fine.

Nikon’s upper-entry range is the D5x00 which follows the same numbering system. The current model is the D5600 which came out in late 2016, so it’s due for a new model soon. This sells for £650 with older models hovering around £4-500.

The D5x00 is a good all round camera, not as stripped back as the D3x00. A professional would find it a bit frustrating but it’ll see you through beginners and on to some interesting photography.

Canon’s entry-level DSLRs run fairly parallel with Nikon’s. Their low-end model is the xx00D (four digits before the D). The older models worth looking at are the 1200D and 1300D while the current models are the 4000D (£300) and 2000D (£500). These are in the same ballpark as Nikon’s D3x00 range.

Next up is are the Canon x00D cameras (three digits before the D) which are similar to Nikon’s D5x00 series. The 100D and 200D are lighter, while the 700D, 750D and 800D are more fully featured. A new 800D currently costs £650.

All those prices are new from Amazon in November 2018, and you can obviously find them cheaper second hand or refurbished.

  Nikon Canon
Current Models D3500 4000D / 2000D
  D5600 200D / 800D
Older Models D3300 / D3400 1200D / 1300D
  D5300 - D5500 100D / 600D - 750D

Wikipedia have timelines for Nikon and Canon DLSRs which I constantly refer to to make sense of it all.

Nikon or Canon?

This is the impossible question, so I’ll just say that when teaching people I find the Canon’s button placement to be more intuitive, which is very important, though Nikon’s information screen is more illustrative. Canon cameras tend to be lighter while Nikon cameras tend to be tougher. Except when they’re not.

So yeah, much of a muchness really!