The Ultimate Camera Buying Guide for Beginners

Not sure which camera to buy?

It’s unsurprising with so many options and a long list of specs to pore over!

This guide is for anyone investing in a camera to learn photography; one that allows progression from complete beginner through to intermediate level. It equally applies when you’re buying a camera as a gift.

My students often ask what camera to buy and I’m always happy to advise, but it is a big subject. So, here it is condensed into a helpful camera buying guide for beginners!

For those of you starting out, also take a look at the How to learn photography guide, and for those of you living in or near Sussex take a look at my photography courses.

Content

  • Which Camera Specs Matter?
  • Which Type of Camera is Right?
  • Summary
  • Bonus – Other Features
  • Bonus – Accessories

Camera Specs

How will you know which camera to buy? Reviews are a great place to learn and seek out recommendations but you’ll also need to know what’s right for you.

Learn the most important features to help with your decision making…

Megapixels (MP)

The headline figure for many years has been the megapixel. In other words how many dots (pixels) make up each photo. The more dots the higher the image quality allowing sharper photos and ever larger prints.

How many megapixels are enough?

A 16MP camera will produce good quality prints up to 60 x 40cm or excellent quality up to 40 x 30cm. All cameras are capable of producing photos fit for social media use. Most current cameras offer at least 16MP or much higher.

Note: Megapixels are not the only deciding factor for image quality but it is the most obvious one advertised in the specs.

Focal Length

A measure of how far the camera lens can zoom in to make everything appear larger/nearer or zoom out to give a wide field of view. The latter is the friend of estate agents as it makes rooms look much larger! The focal length is shown in millimetres (mm).

Each camera’s zoom range is shown as zoomed-out focal length – zoomed-in focal length e.g. 70-200mm. Where a camera has an interchangeable lens – these numbers will depend on the lens or selection of lenses used as and when needed.

A fairly standard zoom range is 18-55mm and fairly flexible but won’t make distant objects / landscapes / wildlife/people appear large in the photo. For that, you’ll need a lens of 100mm or larger.

Image Stabilised Lens

Look for image stabilisation to minimise camera shake and bring your camera into its optimal working window more often. The ability to reduce shake is measured in stops and the higher the better e.g. 6-stops is better than 5-stops.

This tech will help with many forms of photography, but if you’re looking to shoot at night time (e.g. street photography, gig photography etc) then it’s a must have.

Lens Maximum Aperture

For some styles of photography – most often lifestyle, portraits and sometimes wildlife – it’s desirable to achieve a soft background known as shallow depth of field, shown here. For landscape photography, it’s much less important.

For this effect, look for a camera with a large aperture / small f-stop in the specs e.g. f/4, or ideally f/2.8 and lower.

The most cost-effective lens for a shallow depth of field is the trusty 50mm fixed lens. Very little money will buy you a f/1.8 or f/1.4 lens with excellent image quality!

Touchscreen

We’re all used to a touchscreen on our phone but not all cameras have them. It’s worth having one if it fits your budget to make photography that little bit quicker, easier and more pleasurable!

Size & Weight

Small cameras are great for carrying and they do say the best camera is the one you have with you!

The smallest type – known as the compact camera – prioritises size and is lightweight to easily carry with you. You’ll just about be able to learn photography whilst using a compact camera and more so with the better (more expensive!) ones.

Some of us are a little more committed (or should be committed??) and choose to carry a larger and heavier camera that offers superior quality and greater flexibility e.g. longer focal length zoom and more features. These cameras fall into the category of Bridge cameras or DSLR / Mirrorless as described later on.

Continuous Shooting Speed

Need to shoot fast-moving action such as sports, motorsport, birds or wildlife? Look for the frames per second spec (fps)for how many photos the camera can take in a second when the shutter button is held down. Ideal for not missing the decisive moment where there’s lots of movement. 6 fps is good, 10 fps is very good and 15+ is excellent and possibly overkill!

Price

Not a feature as such but a key consideration unless you have a money tree in your garden. Should your budget not stretch to the desired type of camera, consider purchasing a 2nd-hand previous model. Many camera’s from the last 10 years offer excellent image quality for a very reasonable price. Little changes in a year of camera development.


Exclusive prints to transform any room

Vibrant colours, beautiful textures and amazing landscapes. Framed and ready to hang


Camera Types

The camera to suit you will fall into one of the following three types. It’s helpful to understand a little about the pros and cons of each to make choosing one easier.

1. Compact

Price Range £50 – £1000

Pros: Compact size and weight, relatively cheap, relatively simple to use, most allow some progression into more creative photography

Cons: Limited image quality, lens zoom often limited, limited flexibility, usually no eyepiece viewfinder (personal preference)

When size is most important a compact camera will give you lots of features in a small and lightweight form. Some find they’re much more likely to carry their camera with them when it’s compact.

Size limitations bring compromises that will impact overall image quality and flexibility. As always, you get what you pay for.

The cheapest models offer just an automatic mode. The next step up brings extra modes for progressing your photography and having more creative freedom.

Most compact cameras don’t have an eyepiece viewfinder. Some prefer one, especially in bright daylight and others prefer using the rear screen. More expensive models may offer a pop-up viewfinder.

The lens is fixed and cannot be swapped or replaced. Zoom range varies from model to model; some are fairly limited and others much more extensive – allowing more situations to be captured. It’s important to get this right as the level of zoom needs to be right for you from the outset.

Note: Whilst £50 can buy you a compact camera, I would strongly recommend against it! A realistic starting point for a decent compact is £150-£200.

2. Bridge

Price Range £300 – £1500

Pros: Flexible and Fully featured, allows progression into more creative photography, lens zoom often very good

Cons: Larger than compact cameras and similar size to DSLR, lens can’t be replaced or upgraded, slightly limited flexibility compared to DSLR

For those who would like a halfway between a compact and DSLR/Mirrorless camera. A bridge camera is larger than a compact camera and will often provide additional features and functionality e.g. a larger and more flexible zoom lens, an eyepiece viewfinder in addition to the rear screen etc.

Like compact cameras, the lens is not fixed and can’t be changed.

3a. DSLR

Price Range £400 – £3500

Pros: Image quality, excellent selection of 2nd hand options, lenses can be changed to suit subject matter / upgraded, excellent flexibility

Cons: Larger than compact cameras, doesn’t always come with a lens if advertised as body only

It is sometimes shortened to just SLR. DSLR cameras offer superior image quality and greater creative freedom when compared to compacts. The lens is interchangeable and can be freely swapped for shooting different subject matters or upgraded for improved image quality.

The weight and size are the down side. Entry-level models are usually relatively light but certainly heavier than a compact. The weight and size significantly increase for professional model DSLRs where they become more durable, weather proofed and with larger electronics for improved image quality.

3b. Mirrorless

Price Range £500 – £4000

Pros: Image quality, ultimate flexibility, slightly smaller & lighter than comparable DSLR, can use lenses made for other cameras/brands using an adapter

Cons: More expensive than DSLR, limited 2nd hand options being recent compared to DSLR, doesn’t always come with a lens if advertised as body only

An evolution of the DSLR resulted in a smaller and lighter camera with these advantages: Changes applied in the camera can be seen through the viewfinder before pressing the shutter e.g. enabling black & white mode will show the world in black & white through the viewfinder.

It is possible to achieve something similar on a DSLR camera – known as Liveview – but using the screen on the back and not the viewfinder. There are several downsides to Live View but it has its place.

A massive bonus for mirrorless cameras – use lenses made for other cameras by using a simple adapter e.g. Use Canon lenses on a Sony camera. It’s an excellent option for anyone who has a collection of vintage or modern lenses collecting dust. There is a small downside; autofocus can be slower to function and the adapter adds a little extra size.


Summary

The ideal camera for you will depend on a combination of your needs and camera features.

Where small size is most important

Buy a compact camera if the size is your primary concern and you’re happy to make sacrifices. Look to spend £200 upwards on a quality camera from a reputable brand such as Sony, Canon or Panasonic.

Where image quality and overall flexibility matter most

Opt for a mirrorless or DSLR camera for ultimate image quality, excellent features and the ability to upgrade and swap lenses to suit the situation. Mirrorless cameras are a little better and more compact but come at a higher price for both the camera body and lenses.

Where you need something in between

Choose a bridge camera for most of the ability of a DSLR but the simplicity of just having one lens. OR buy one of the smallest mirrorless cameras that use interchangeable lenses e.g. Sony A6000 or Canon M200.

Where money is tight

I’d always recommend a second-hand DSLR camera that’s no more than 10 years old.


Read on for extra bonus content…

Other Features

Many cameras of the same price point have very similar features but it pays to understand the options available. This is even more true when comparing cameras of different ages e.g. previous generation versus the current generation or when looking at second-hand cameras.

Viewfinder and Screen

Not all cameras have a viewfinder and some rely on just the rear screen – although largely just compact cameras. In bright conditions, the screen alone can be hard to view and this is where the eyepiece viewfinder excels. Some prefer to use the viewfinder regardless and this comes down to personal preference.

Screens vary in a few ways: Screen articulation e.g. is the screen fixed or can it be angled for improved viewing when holding the camera at waist height or above head height. Some screens can be rotated into a stowed position for protection when not in use.

Screen sizes vary and have increased over the years for improved visibility. Touch Screens have in recent years become available improving usability e.g. pinch to zoom when playing back photos and touch to set the focus point and take a photo.


Accessories

What else will you need?

  • Memory card to save photos
    Most often these are SD or Micro SD cards and any brand can be used on any camera. In a small number of cases other types are used e.g. some Sony cameras use the proprietary Sony memory cards. Check which you need by checking the camera details online.

    The larger the card capacity the more photos and videos can be stored. 32GB is plenty enough for thousands of photos. When taking many rapid-fire photos it pays to invest in a fast memory card otherwise your camera stops taking photos until it’s caught up again
  • Spare battery
    When out all day or travelling it pays to have a spare battery or two. The camera manufacturer will sell you some but aftermarket ones can be bought for a fraction of the price with very similar performance.
  • Camera bag/backpack
    Invest in something to carry your camera in – keeping it dry and protected. Many types and sizes exist e.g. messenger bags, backpacks. Find one with the right amount of room for your camera and accessories
  • Tripod
    When camera shake is a problem or when you want to take your time to compose the shot a tripod is a must. Start with something relatively cheap to see how much you use it before investing in something more stable and hard-wearing.

Picture of Matt Goddard

Matt Goddard

Matt is a professional landscape photographer and the sole content author here. Based in Sussex, he centres his work around his home county and surrounding South East England landscape. Matt has taught photography to over 150 students on a one to one and group basis since 2016. Visit Full Biog
custom logo
4.8 Stars - Based on 43 Reviews
facebook logogoogle logotrustpilot logo
Item added to cart.
0 items - £0
Share to...