When shopping for a camera, most people start by Googling around a bit. But if you’ve done that, you probably spiraled into a search loop seeing the same few brands and recent models recommended. So how should you narrow down which one of those fancy cameras to buy?
I’m gonna help you figure out the answer to that question shortly, and if you want, you can skip straight to the camera buying guide. But first, give me a chance to challenge some of your preconceptions about photography. It might help you avoid a big mistake.
When you research cameras online, you’re normally reading reviews from people who are obsessed with gear and make their living by convincing you to buy expensive things. But the truth is that you don’t actually need to spend that much to make great photos.
On this website, we try to be real about stuff like that, which is pretty easy since we don’t personally profit from recommending products. By the end of this article, you might be convinced not to spend thousands of dollars on a shiny new camera. Sorry if that kills your buzz.
Note: This article includes some affiliate links. If you click one and make a purchase, we’ll get a small commission. But 100% of these affiliate profits go to charity, and we never let affiliate relationships affect our recommendations (learn more).
Why You Don’t Need an Expensive Camera
Reason 1: Some of the world’s best photos were made with ancient equipment.
Have you ever gone to an art museum, looked at some of the most incredible images captured by history’s greatest photographers and thought, “Too bad they didn’t use a Nikon Z7II to shoot this instead”? Well, neither have I.
The merit of a photograph isn’t determined by the equipment that was used to make it. Much more important are the skill and creativity of the photographer behind the lens. If we can still appreciate photography from 1929, 1969, or 2009 today, then the very same equipment that was used at those times can still make great photos right now.
Am I saying you should actually shoot with a 90-year-old camera? No. But if you think that dropping an extra $3,000 on gear is going to make the difference between bad and good photography, you have been misled by corporate marketing. Take some time to master whatever camera you have — even if it’s an old hand-me-down. You can do amazing work with very little money.
Reason 2: Better cameras don’t make better photos.
The reason professional photographers spend loads of money on state-of-the-art technology is not so they can take better photos! It’s so they can take photos in more diverse situations.
The key to getting the most out of the camera equipment you own is understanding what conditions it’s capable of shooting in. If you want to capture a brightly-lit landscape with the entire scene in focus, your phone will perform just about as well as a professional camera.
On the other hand, if you’re shooting in the dim light of a cave, or you need to capture the game-winning play of an NBA game, or your subject is a small bird on the opposite side of a canyon — then your choice of equipment matters a lot more.
My advice is to start with a less expensive camera, and learn what it’s capable of. Push your equipment to its limits, and figure out what things it can’t do. Once you know the answer to that question, avoid those scenarios for a while, and you’ll begin to thrive in the situations your equipment can handle.
If you find yourself avoiding one type of photography repeatedly, and you really wish you didn’t have to — then it might be time to buy some stuff to address that specific shortcoming.
Reason 3: You might not be the type of photographer who benefits from expensive equipment.
There are two types of photographers who will get pretty much no extra value from a big, fancy camera: The point-and-shooter, and the light packer.
The “point-and-shooter” is someone who wants to take nice pictures, but has very little interest in learning the technical aspects of photography. There’s no shame in being this person. Actually, most people shopping for a new camera fall into this category.
Ads tell you that your photos will come out better if you buy a nicer camera, but that’s really only true if you’re willing to devote a good chunk of time learning about photography. Do you see yourself staying up late at night watching YouTube tutorial videos, reading technical articles, and taking thousands of boring test shots to learn your camera’s features? Do you do that with the camera you already own? If not, then buying a fancier camera is probably a total waste of money.
The “light packer” is someone like my wife. Lauren has access to tons of expensive equipment, and she knows quite a bit about photography! Yet, she still takes 99% of her photos with a smartphone because she just doesn’t want to carry an extra thing around with her everywhere.
Be honest with yourself. If you don’t get excited to strap several pounds of expensive metal and glass around your neck every time you go for a hike, then you should probably just stick with your iPhone, because that’s what you’re gonna end up using whether you buy a nicer camera or not.
Camera Buying Guide: Choosing the Best Camera
Okay, enough of my ranting about why you don’t need a new camera. You’ve gotten this far in the article, so you’re obviously pretty serious about buying something. Now let’s work out what the best camera equipment for you actually is.
Rather than just listing which cameras, lenses, and flashes to buy, I prefer to focus on which features are the most important — and which ones you can completely ignore when shopping. This will let you pick the best camera equipment from any manufacturer you want (they all have good stuff if you know what to look for). But I’ll also compare and link to some specific cameras I like at the end of this section, to make your life easier.
To develop your photography skills, the only basic thing your camera absolutely needs is manual exposure settings. Any digital camera with interchangeable lenses will tick this box — and even some compact “point-and-shoot” cameras will have this, too. Look for both a “manual mode” and an “aperture priority mode” somewhere in the camera’s dials or menus. If it has both of those, you’re good to go.
For overall image quality, there’s one digital camera feature that’s more important than anything else: sensor size. If you’re considering paying extra to get a little nicer camera body, prioritize getting a “full-frame” (35 mm) sensor before looking at other features. It will affect image noise, color quality, depth of field, and so much more.
Next up, you should research a camera’s high-ISO performance. Look at some full-resolution sample photos from the cameras you’re considering at their higher sensitivity (ISO) settings. This will show you how well they can handle low-light scenarios without help from a tripod.
Getting a little pickier, you might look at a few other semi-important features in a camera body:
- Button layout — Make sure your most-used settings are easy to access, not buried in menus.
- Build quality/weather sealing — This can be important if you plan to shoot in the rain or bang your gear around a lot.
- Video — Some digital cameras are designed with video as an afterthought. If you plan to use your camera for more than just stills, read some video-specific reviews of the cameras you’re looking at.
As you read reviews and marketing materials, you’ll also encounter a few other stats that are mostly irrelevant. Feel free to totally ignore these features in modern cameras:
- Resolution (megapixels) — In the early 2000s, this was really important, but today, all new cameras have sufficient resolution. 12+ megapixels* is more than enough for most people, and every modern camera meets this requirement.
- Frame rate — Unless you shoot sports professionally, you can probably ignore this. 3 frames per second is plenty for everyday stills, and the majority of cameras shoot even faster than that.
- Processor speed — Every new camera brags about its newer, faster processor. The truth is that camera manufacturers just use whatever speed processor is needed for each individual camera. They’re all fine, and there’s no sense in comparing them.
You’ll also notice that interchangeable-lens cameras come in either “DSLR” (digital single-lens reflex) or “mirrorless” varieties. At this point, both systems are great. DSLR cameras have slightly faster autofocus, better rapid-fire shooting, and longer battery life, whereas mirrorless cameras are smaller and lighter with better image stabilization and about the same photo quality*. The world is moving further in the mirrorless direction over time, but I wouldn’t sweat this distinction too much unless you shoot a lot of video. If you do, mirrorless cameras will probably be the clear winner.
Specific Camera Recommendations (2021 – 2022)
For simplicity, I will only compare Nikon cameras in this section. Canon, Sony, and Olympus also have great cameras to choose from, and all the other info in this article still applies equally well to those systems.
For someone who just wants to buy a basic, brand new camera to learn techniques with, I’d recommend a Nikon D3500* (DSLR) or Nikon Z50* (mirrorless). But if you really want to score a deal, try an older, used camera, like a Nikon D7000*. You can still take amazing photos with it, and you’ll save yourself a huge amount of money by allowing someone else to absorb the depreciation hit for you.
If you wanna take the plunge and get a brand new camera with a full-frame sensor (the single most important upgrade you can buy), I’d consider a Nikon D610* (DSLR) or Nikon Z5* (mirrorless). The cheapest full-frame Nikon you can buy is probably a used Nikon D700*, which is old but still fantastic. Be aware that it has no video capabilities, though. Another good used option would be the Nikon D800*, which is slightly newer and does record video.
Picking the Best Camera Lenses
Lenses aren’t as easy to pick as camera bodies. There are really only a few key features to look at, and the rest comes down to reading reviews and looking through sample images (or testing the lenses yourself). I’ll do my best to quickly describe the basic features, and then I’ll jump right into recommendations.
The most prominent feature of a camera lens is its focal length, typically measured in millimeters (mm). The bigger the number, the more “cropped in” the field of view (which is good for stuff that’s farther away). The smaller the number, the wider the angle of view. Some lenses have a variable range of focal lengths, and these are called “zoom” lenses. They’re more versatile, but also more expensive for the same quality level as non-zoom (“prime”) lenses.
Note that focal lengths are only comparable and consistent when used on camera bodies with the same size sensors. A 50 mm lens means something completely different on a full-frame sensor than on a smaller-sensor camera. The larger the sensor, the larger focal length you need to achieve the same field of view.
Another important feature is maximum aperture. This will be written as a number with “f/” in front of it. The smaller the number, the larger the maximum aperture (which is better). For example, an f/2.8 lens has a larger maximum aperture (better) than an f/4 lens. A larger maximum aperture will allow you to shoot in lower-light scenarios more easily, and will allow you to control depth of field (blurry backgrounds) better.
It’s also desirable for a lens to have a high autofocus speed. Unfortunately, this isn’t a stat that’s readily provided by camera manufacturers in marketing materials, so the only ways to compare it are to read lens reviews, or try different lenses out yourself.
Finally, some lenses have built-in stabilization features that reduce blur from shaky hands. Nikon calls this “Vibration Reduction,” and Canon calls it “Image Stabilization.” It’s a nice perk if you can get it.
Specific Lens Recommendations (2021 – 2022)
For simplicity, I will only compare Nikon lenses for full-frame cameras in this section.
The key to choosing lenses is making sure you have a good range of focal lengths covered so that you can get the framing you want in any situation. From there, you can decide whether to pay more for things like maximum aperture, stabilization, and overall quality based on your budget and your needs.
If I were buying on a budget, I’d prioritize nice lenses over an expensive camera body. Lenses hold their value well because they can be used for many years across many different camera models, and they don’t experience digital rot. You can save more money and spend less on camera gear over your lifetime if you consistently skimp on camera bodies.
The “holy trinity” of great all-around Nikon DSLR zoom lenses is the 14-24 mm f/2.8*, the 24-70 mm f/2.8*, and the 70-200 mm f/2.8*. When you’re ready to drop some serious cash on camera equipment, just get those and never look back. (If you have a mirrorless Nikon camera, you’ll need an adapter to make them work, or you can buy similar Z-mount lenses* instead, which is probably a better option.)
How and Where To Buy Cameras and Lenses Cheaper
Truth be told, I actually never buy camera equipment brand new any more. I get every single body, lens, flash, and filter used on eBay — even if I’m buying a recent model. Nice camera gear is built to take a beating, and most used stuff is just as good as new for way less money.
When buying used, keep three things in mind:
- Physical condition tells you a lot about how equipment has been treated. Get detailed photos, and avoid things like saggy rubber grips and broken buttons. Check lenses and sensors for scratches and internal debris.
- Digital camera bodies have a shutter click count, just like an odometer in a car. Make sure to ask for this information and compare cameras based on it. You can easily check a camera’s shutter count online.
- Camera manufacturers sometimes sell different versions of equipment in different countries. If you live in the USA and don’t buy a USA version of a camera or lens, you might find it impossible to get your stuff repaired in the future. Non-US versions are sometimes called “gray market.”
When you buy your camera equipment used, you’re allowing the original owner to take the brunt of the depreciation for you (just like when you buy a used car). That means you’ll get a higher percentage of your original capital back when you eventually sell your gear in the future.
Dropping cash on camera gear can be addicting, so it’s important to step back and make sure you’re truly getting value from everything you buy. Each dollar you save can be deployed as investment capital and help you achieve freedom from mandatory work. This buys you the ultimate luxury — enough time to get out there and take amazing photos in the first place. Just consider that before you click “add to cart.”
* This recommendation was written in late 2021. As time goes on, the specific models and numbers will certainly change, but the fundamentals about which components are critical in a camera have stayed the same for decades. This camera buying guide was written to help you focus on the most important features of photography equipment, regardless of what year you’re reading it in.