Choosing a Beginner Camera for Yourself or Your Student

The first question many of our photography students ask me is, “which camera should I purchase?” The answer is a lot more complex than you might imagine but also a lot less expensive than you probably expected.

Do you really need a camera?

The first thing to consider when purchasing a beginner camera for your student or yourself is if you need to purchase one at all. Both my daughter and I have won awards for photos taken with an iPhone and I recently attended a lecture by a man who published an entire book of breathtaking iPhone photos called That Tree. Even more recently someone has filmed an entire movie using an iPhone. These accomplishments highlight the real core of what photography is – it is not the equipment – it is the photographer’s ability to work within the confines of the equipment they have. The image heading this article was taken with an iPhone.

Taken with iPhone, Edited with Enlight Photo App

Image Copyright Kristie Burns – Taken With iPhone 7s Plus – Edited with Enlight Photo App

Using less equipment is actually a good thing.

In fact working with less equipment is actually a good thing. If you, as a photographer, were to go out into the field with all your equipment you would become visually overwhelmed and distracted. Instead of being able to focus on taking the best photo you would be stuck deciding between a wide-angle landscape, a macro shot of a plant and a telephoto shot of that bird you see on the tree. Instead, it is more effective to choose what you will be photographing and go out into the field with that choice already made.

When I go out with my 70-200 Canon 2.8 I ignore the wildlife in the distance and focus on what is closer to me. I usually choose to take this lens into areas where there is less light – like in the woods or a forest – as the 2.8 comes in handy and allows me the extra light I need in these situations. If I go out to take photos and only bring my Iphone I focus on landscapes, close up photos of plants, people, architecture and unusual angles, colors and reflections.

Will I miss the shot of a lifetime?

If you really feel you are going to miss the “shot of a lifetime” you can keep extra equipment in a backpack with you but just keep one piece out. Although I have to share that I used to do this and never ended up using the extra equipment I carried so I stopped doing it. I may keep some extras in my car now, but not with me.

But what if I want more than an Iphone? How do I choose?

While using just an Iphone is a completely legitimate way to learn about photography it does have  limitations. Visually, a street photographer or landscape photographer may not find the lack of telephoto an issue. However, quality may become an issue if they wish to enlarge their photos beyond 11” x 14”. If you feel you want the freedom to enlarge your photos beyond 11” x 14” you may want to go beyond an Iphone.

Lack of telephoto lens may be an issue for others. I love taking photos of wildlife and to do that you need a long telephoto lens.

Another restriction in taking photos with an Iphone is the lack of control. You can download apps to give you more control over camera speed, lighting and ISO. However, even the apps have to work within the limitations of the phone camera. Tonal ranges are quite impressive in good light with Iphones. However, in low light the tonal ranges and details in your photo will be lost.

So what is next?

Once you feel you need to move beyond an Iphone I would recommend a bridge camera to start with. Some may argue with this choice and say you need to start with a “real camera” – a digital SLR. However, I strongly recommend a bridge camera as your first camera because, you will actually not know what you want or need in a professional camera until you have taken thousands of photos. Every photographer has different needs. If you start with a less expensive bridge camera ($200-$350) you will learn what your needs are and will not feel badly about then moving on to a more expensive digital SLR ($800 and up just for the body). However, if you start with the more expensive digital SLR and then decide it is not what you want, you will not have a lot of budget left to move to a different camera.

How do I choose my camera?

When I first started as a photographer in 1984 the choices were simple – you chose a good strong camera body and a good quality lens. In fact, it didn’t really matter, ultimately, what you chose, because everyone was using the same film. I could take just as good of photos with my Pentax K1000 as a professional did with their fancy Nikon as long as I had a good quality lens on the camera.

This does not hold true today. Everyone is not using the same “film”. In today’s world your camera is your camera and film so you will need to choose carefully based on your needs but also based on quality. There are a few key points to take into consideration:

  1. Megapixels: Megapixels are basically how many pixels are fit into a one inch square of your photo. Each megapixel is one million pixels. So if you had a 14MP camera you would have 14 million pixels per inch. If you had a 24 megapixel camera you would get 24 million pixels per inch. Of course the more pixels you get, the more details your photo will have so more seems like it would always be better. However, you also need to consider number two below. You also want to consider how many megapixels you actually need . If you want to fig out how many megapixels you actually need you can refer to this fantastic article by The Spruce here:
  2. Camera Sensor: The camera sensor is actually the “film” of your camera and is very important to the final quality of your photos. Although it is sad that this is not highlighted more in ads for cameras it is not surprising. It is much easier to sell a camera by bragging about how many megapixels it has rather than admit it’s sensor may be sub—par. Creating a good quality sensor is expensive and creating larger sensors (bigger is better quality) requires cameras to be larger, more bulky and have shorter telephoto options. So the camera with the best sensor may not always be the most marketable camera. But as a consumer you need to consider this as one of your most important decision-making points. An image sensor is the part of the camera hardware that captures light and converts it to the image. The larger your sensor is, the more information your camera can take in and the better the final image will be.
  3. Camera Build: Some cameras are built with cheap plastic and others with high quality matrerials. Some have fantastic weather sealing and some you won’t be able to use even in a heavy fog or light rain. The good thing is that the camera build does not impact the quality of your photo – it just impacts where and how you can use the camera. If you choose a camera with a lower quality build you may need to be more careful. That is OK with many people, especially if they consider the camera they are purchasing a “first camera” or a “backup camera” and not the one they plan on having for many years.
  4. Lens Quality: Lens quality is key to taking great photos. The lens is where the light and image come into the camera to create your digital image. You need this lens to be sharp, clear and manufactured with high quality. If you are going to purchase a cheap lens or camera with a cheap lens you might as well stick with the Iphone because I have tested out some less expensive cameras and the results are disappointing. My Iphone literally has better and sharper results. Nikkor Nikon lenses, Canon lenses, Pentax, Zeiss, and Leica lenses are some of the best on the market. However, be sure to check the lens on the camera and not the brand name. It is the lens manufacturer that is important. This is not always the same as the camera brand.
  5. Personal Preferences: Cameras come with a large range of options. Once you have narrowed your choices down using the first set of criteria you will probably not find a camera that has everything you want, but you will be able to make some choices. Some will offer a very long telephoto range, however, this usually comes with a smaller camera sensor. Some will offer macro options and some will not. Some cameras are faster than others in focus, telephoto speed and other areas which may make a difference if you are using the camera for wildlife or sports photography. Be sure to look at all the specs on the camera and decide which is the best fit for the kind of photography you are doing.

 Does it need to be new?

A lot of manufacturers try to convince you that you need the latest version of their camera. However, this is often not true for two reasons. First, the new version of the camera is not always better. Check and compare the new version with the old version. You will often find the older version is better in many ways. Modern camera makers have been taking the needs of vloggers and videographers into account lately and have often been ignoring the needs of the photographer in their upgrades.

You also need to consider how much quality you really need, too. Sure, you can get a 32MP full-frame camera. But do you really need that quality when you will never print an image larger than 8” x 10”?

Truthfully, many older bridge cameras from the Nikon Coolpix, Nikon D and P-Series, Canon Powershot, Panasonic Lumix and Sony Cyber-Shot lines are fantastic (as well as their new ones). These lines add new cameras to their series each year. However, within the entire series you can find some great cameras. We still have our Nikon Coolpix P510 camera from 2012 (I’m writing this in 2018) and photos taken on it still win awards.

How can I find all this information and compare cameras

When I am making a decision about buying a new camera I rely on because it shows me every single spec of each camera I am considering in an easy to read and very organized format. This website has saved me from buying some bad cameras in the past because they looked so good “on paper” but when I plugged them into the compare (to my current camera or to each other) I was able to spot some flaws. I once had an amazing bridge camera picked out as a “back up camera” I wanted to take kayaking with me. I was going to buy it and was so excited – until I put it into and realized the sensor was about half the size of some of the other cameras I had considered. So it was back to the drawing board. I knew I would be disappointed in the photo quality if the sensor was not large enough. Small sensors are also poor for low light situations, which I encounter a lot of.

The final thing to ask is, do I need it?

As a professional photographer I have a rule – don’t purchase anything until I absolutely need it.  So I may love a macro photo a fellow photographer took with their new macro lens or I might adore a photo I see online that was taken with a $7,000.00 600mm 2.8 lens but do I really need them? Have I found myself in a situation more than ten times where I have said, “Wow, I really wish I had a macro lens right now.” The answer lets me know how much I really “need” that new piece of equipment.

If you have any additional questions please write to me at:

If you are interested in taking my photography course you can visit

Two cameras that come highly recommended from other photographers and I are (I do not get a commission from these listings and they are subject to change as additional information becomes available):

Nikon P900 (the 1000 has a longer lens but its almost impossible to take photos with it without a tripod so I don’t recommend the P1000)

Panasonic Lumix FZ1000: The new one does not have any additional photographic features that are important – just upgraded video.

If you, as a photographer, would like to add your own tips to this article please submit them to:

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