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A Beginner’s Guide to Buying a Camera (2021 Edition)

a beginner's guide to buying a camera

Are you searching for your first real camera? Do you want to know what to look for and how to choose?

In 2021, you have plenty of options, but talk of megapixels, mirrorless technology, viewfinder type, and other technical terms can get very confusing, very fast. That’s why, in this camera buying guide for beginners, I’m going to break it all down for you.

Specifically, I’m going to cover the different types of cameras and the key features to look for, plus I’m also going to share some simple tips for getting the right model for your needs.

Let’s dive right in.

Price

camera with money

Brace yourself: High-quality photography equipment often requires a significant investment.

All cameras cost money, and sometimes lots of it – so determining your budget is a good place to start.

In my experience, the easiest approach to camera budgeting is to come up with a narrow price window. If you think you want to spend under $1,000 USD, you’ll be overwhelmed with choices, but if you aim for the $800-$1,000 range, your options will be much more manageable.

While you’re mulling over your camera budget, consider what other accessories you may need or want. Don’t blow your entire budget on a camera body with no lens. And depending on the type of photography you plan to do, you may want to acquire a tripod, external flash, extra batteries, and memory cards.

Types of cameras

Now that you’ve (hopefully) determined your budget, it’s time to figure out which camera type is right for you.

Generally speaking, you have four main options:

  1. Point-and-shoot cameras
  2. Bridge cameras
  3. DSLRs
  4. Mirrorless cameras

many cameras in a group

Point-and-shoot cameras are compact and convenient. In general, they’re designed for beginners, and they feature automatic modes for easy, no-knowledge-required photography. Unfortunately, the lenses are built in and non-interchangeable, though they usually cover a wide zoom range. Quality-wise, point-and-shoots run the gamut from cheap and uninspiring to pro-level compacts.

Bridge cameras take the point-and-shoot concept and kick it into high gear; while bridge cameras don’t offer interchangeable lenses, they do offer more control over camera settings, along with larger grips, improved ergonomics, and more rugged bodies.

DSLRs are the classic, fancy-looking cameras with all the buttons and big lenses. Lower-end DSLRs offer good image quality and give users a ton of control, while higher-end DSLRs include an array of advanced features, such as lightning-fast continuous shooting, complex autofocus tracking, and an ultra-rugged frame. You’ll find a mind-boggling assortment of lenses and flashes, as well as a myriad of other gadgets for all sorts of creative effects.

Mirrorless systems are all the rage these days, packing the features of DSLRs into smaller bodies. They offer a great compromise of quality and versatility, and thanks to advances in mirrorless sensor technology, many photographers view mirrorless as the future.

Of course, at the end of the day, none of these camera types are obviously best – rather, they’re good for different users and different types of photography. Choosing a camera type is about recognizing what you want to photograph and how you want to photograph it, rather than grabbing the option with the flashiest features.

So if you’re after an ultra-compact model designed for beginners, I’d suggest picking a point-and-shoot camera, especially if you don’t ever plan on moving past the basics. On the other hand, if your goal is to do serious photography, an entry-level DSLR or mirrorless camera is probably best; these cameras offer excellent image quality at a reasonable price.

Of course, if money is no object, you might consider purchasing a high-level DSLR or mirrorless camera, though these models mainly distinguish themselves in terms of high-level features that you may not have much use for, so think long and hard before you spend thousands on a body like the Sony a7R IV.

Sensor

Once you’ve picked the perfect camera type, you’ll need to understand how to compare different sensors, which vary in three key ways:

  1. Size
  2. Resolution (megapixels)
  3. High-ISO capabilities

Let’s take a closer look at each characteristic in turn:

Sensor size

buying a camera with a sensor

The bigger the sensor, the better the image quality (all else being equal). For this reason, big sensors tend to be pricey, and they also tend to make their way into the hands of professionals rather than beginners.

In fact, the largest consumer sensors are known as full frame and are the size of a 35mm film negative. But the majority of cameras on the market pack sensors smaller than full frame; these are usually referred to as cropped, or APS-C. Then there are smaller sensors still, known as Four Thirds, and even smaller sensors (though once you get below Four Thirds, you’ll be looking exclusively at compact and bridge cameras).

If capturing sharp, clean images is your main goal, then I’d recommend purchasing a Four Thirds sensor at the very least (and I’d urge you to consider APS-C and even budget full-frame options). That said, larger sensors do correspond to larger camera bodies, so a smaller sensor is a tradeoff worth considering, especially if you plan to travel frequently or you like the idea of carrying a camera around in your pocket.

Note that larger sensors often offer more megapixels, the importance of which I discuss in the next section:

Resolution (megapixels)

These days, high-megapixel cameras are all the rage. You have cameras like the Canon EOS R5 and the Nikon Z7 II packing 45 megapixels, the Sony a7R IV reaching to a whopping 61 megapixels, and talk of an 80+ megapixel model from Canon.

But what do all those megapixels get you? Two things: big prints and cropping latitude.

In other words, a 61 MP camera will let you produce gigantic prints with tons of detail, or it will let you crop in on your subject for a magnified view.

Unfortunately, higher megapixel counts do come with several significant drawbacks. For one, more megapixels tend to reduce high-ISO capabilities so that you’ll capture noisy, messy images in low light. Also, resolution is directly correlated with file size, so you’ll fill up your memory cards and computer hard drive much quicker with a high-resolution camera.

Before you go out and buy that 40+ megapixel camera, ask yourself: do I really need that many megapixels? Sometimes it pays to skimp!

camera memory card

High-megapixel cameras come at a price: they eat up storage on your memory cards and hard drive.

High-ISO capabilities

Some cameras can shoot at ISO 3200, ISO 6400, and beyond without producing significant noise, whereas others struggle to produce usable images past ISO 800.

Here, the difference is partly a function of size, where larger sensors offer better low-light performance, but also a function of sensor technology, where certain sensor types (often found in the most expensive cameras) outperform others.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to determine a camera’s high-ISO capabilities from its specification sheet alone, so it’s important to read hands-on reviews before purchasing any particular model, especially if low-light photography interests you.

Lens quality (and lens selection)

A sensor is only as good as the lens you put in front of it. If your lens is blurry, then you could have the best sensor in the world, but your photos will turn out blurry, too.

If you’re aiming to purchase a point-and-shoot or bridge camera, compare the zoom range of different models. Ask yourself: How much zoom do I need? Some lenses cover huge ranges and can therefore handle many genres of photography from landscapes to birds and everything in between. Other lenses feature more limited zoom ranges, which might be fine or might become an issue, depending on your interests.

camera lens

With DSLRs and mirrorless models, you must purchase at least one lens – otherwise, your camera can’t capture photos. Fortunately, the lens options are nearly endless, and there are lenses for pretty much every photographic genre, from portraits to street to wildlife and beyond. Many cameras are offered as kits that come with the camera body and lens. These “kit” lenses are usually lower quality but can certainly produce good results.

Some lenses are more expensive than others, based on several main factors: they let in a lot of light, for one, and they produce very sharp, undistorted images. They also might feature longer focal lengths or large zoom ranges and are often built to more exacting and durable standards.

Really, choosing the perfect lens is often as hard as choosing the perfect camera. As a beginner, though, it often makes sense to start with a kit lens, spend time developing your photographic interests, and then upgrade to more specialized lenses as needed.

Additional key features

Up until this point, I’ve focused on the camera essentials – the characteristics that you should always think about before picking a camera.

But there are plenty of additional features worth considering, depending on the genres that interest you. In this section, I’ll highlight a few of the big ones, starting with:

Autofocus and drive speeds

If you want to photograph action – sports, wildlife, or birds – then you need a camera with advanced autofocus and high continuous shooting speeds.

Look for models that feature complex tracking algorithms (e.g., human or animal eye AF). Also look for 10+ frames per second, as well as a deep (50+ frames) buffer.

Durability

Some cameras are built to last, whereas others struggle to handle a light rain.

If you plan to shoot most of your photos indoors, durability may not matter to you. But if you’ll be capturing landscapes, wildlife, sports, or even outdoor events, the more weather-sealed your camera, the better.

Ergonomics and handling

Some cameras are comfortable to hold plus they’re easy to operate, thanks to helpful features such as fully articulating screens, touch functionality, and autofocus joysticks.

man with a camera pointed upward

For each camera you consider, make sure to look carefully at the specification list. If there’s a feature you desperately want – such as a fully articulating touchscreen – make sure you grab a camera that includes it!

Other

Here’s a long list of other features worth considering:

  • Wireless connectivity
  • Built-in flash
  • Hot shoe (for an external flash)
  • Dual memory card slots
  • Image stabilization
  • RAW file support
  • Video capabilities (HD, 4K, etc.)
  • External microphone support
  • Shooting modes (for creative effects)
  • Battery life
  • Weight

Guide to buying a camera: final words

Buying a digital camera can be intimidating, and it often feels like the choices never end. Hopefully, this article has offered you some clarity – and you’re now ready to make your first camera purchase.

Also, it’s important to remember: While camera choice does matter, pretty much every model out there is capable of great shots. So don’t stress too much!

camera silhouette at sunset

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Jeremie Schatz
Jeremie Schatz

is a freelance photographer, photojournalist, journalist, copyeditor and videographer for a variety of clients and companies in the United States and Thailand. Find his portfolio of colorful images and more of his writing at Exposed World Photography and on Facebook.

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