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  • Mike

I want to get into photography. What camera should I get?

Looks intimidating huh?

This question is all over the internet, and it’s used as a means for fanboys and paid shills from different manufacturers to promote their brand and latest gizmo filled cameras. The truth is that the camera is never the most important factor when considering what is good enough to get started. In reality, your phone if fairly new has enough of a camera in it to get started in photography. If you want an answer that involves a dedicated camera, then read on.

DSLRs Point and shoots, and mirrorless cameras are all great options to get started in photography. You need not shell out a lot of money to get started either. Used gear can be great, and you don’t need the latest and greatest gear. In fact you will be better served in the long run by cutting your teeth on something cheap and upgrading as your desire to try new things comes from research and experience than if you were to buy a super expensive camera and have no budget left for accessories.

Moving up to any camera from a phone will have instant benefits. Once you move away from your phone to even a very cheap camera you will be able to greatly customize your shots in ways a phone simply cannot do. As stated in previous posts, phones are unable to create bokeh or control f-stop by their very compact design. Bokeh is the blur behind a subject and f-stop is the hole the light uses to enter the sensor.

See how it gets fuzzy towards the distance until it becomes a soft mass of color? That's what bokeh is.

With no aperture control you have no control of blur, depth-of-field, or much control when it comes to choosing ISO. Even a point-and-shoot with shutter control otherwise known as “shutter-priority” will allow a lot of room for you to control blur of moving subjects.

Catching a shot like this requires a fast shutter.

If you just want to dabble in photography and don’t have much of a budget, a point and shoot is a good choice. I see older digital cameras at thrift stores for under $20 and you can find some fairly nice ones on for under $50. I won’t waste much time on this because very few people that want to do photography as even a fun hobby will not soon find themselves limited artistically by a point and shoot camera.

Now if you are planning to do anything like print your photos greater than 5x7 inches, or want to blow up your images on a screen beyond that as well, then you really need to move beyond even a point and shoot. There are several directions you can go towards.

You could get a “bridge camera.” Bridge cameras fill the niche between the “cheap” point and shoot cameras, and the much more expensive DSLR cameras. Bridge cameras usually lack an optical viewfinder but can do quite a lot more in some cases than point and shoot cameras. Bridge cameras usually have manual modes meaning that you will have a lot of flexibility. The only really downside to go this route is that you won’t have an interchangeable lens like on a DSLR. This may not be bad for someone getting started since the lenses that are on bridge cameras have a lot of zoom. Some bridge cameras even have “superzoom” lenses allowing them to perform like a telephoto lens.

I’m going to basically skip discussing mirrorless cameras due to their cost. Mirrorless cameras can be a great choice for a beginner. The caveat is the price. With DSLR cameras there is a long line of “outdated” models floating around. The same cannot be said for mirrorless cameras and lenses for them. As such the cost of getting into mirrorless is very high compared to the other options. I think mirrorless is great and the future of digital photography for a lot of us, but I would probably not send a beginner towards buying one unless they had the funds to dive into it.

DSLR cameras are the standard for digital photography. My thoughts on getting into photography as a hobby involve getting either a mirrorless or DSLR camera. The logic here is simple. DSLR cameras have been around for a long time and the road to the current generation is paved by previous models, all of them worth looking at. I found on at the time of this writing a Canon T3 with kit lens for $120. With such a low entry cost it seems best to suggest that someone gets right into the modular system of DSLRs as soon as possible. Gear can be aquired in small and cheap steps. Lenses can be collected and a new body can be an upgrade along the line. If you are getting started with a DSLR, don’t pay attention to the brand on the camera. Canon, Nikon, Sony, all of those are good companies and they make damn good cameras. Instead you should focus on getting a camera body and a good lens or two. One good lens on an old body trumps a mediocre lens on the newest and highest resolution camera.

Lastly I will reiterate my view. Choosing one camera over another doesn’t matter when getting into photography. Learning photography is a linear process. You gain skill and knowledge like building a tower of bricks. You build upon what you have learned and keep climbing up towards mastery. A great photographer can get great photos with a bad camera. A noobie can’t take amazing photos on a great camera because they have not gained a foundation of skills they can rely and fall back on.

“The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it!” He was right!
-Ansel Adams

Buying expensive gear will not make you a good photographer, that’s why you can start off with a cell phone and move up to better gear as you can afford it. If a cell phone is all you have right now then use it. The minute start to feel like you are missing shots because your phone camera isn’t giving you what you need, it’s time to upgrade. If you can afford to jump right up to a DSLR, then do it. But start with the basics, learn how to compose an image, learn how your gear works and how to take pleasing photos. Then as you build a skillset you will decide what you need to take even better photos. “I can’t do “this” because I don’t have a flash kit.” is a great example. “I can’t photograph these things because I need a good light source.” is another. When you nail the fundamentals you make everything else easy, and no price tag or piece of gear that tag is attached to will ever change that.

I’ll leave you with this personal anecdote. When I get started in photography I was reading a lot and my heart would always sink. I kept seeing expensive gear being used for amazing shots and equated the two. I thought to myself, “I can never take good photos because I can’t afford it.” I felt like photography was a pay-to-win game. When I look back it makes me very sad, it brings up painful memories. I still can’t afford the latest gear, but I wish I had known how fundamentally wrong I had been. Lately I’ve seen people out with kits worth several thousand dollars taking pictures, and I see lots of people with small and cheap cameras, or even phones doing the same. When I see some of the photos that have been taken by those photographers with thousands of dollars of glass and find that the photos are garbage I think to myself; “What a fool!” I’ve seen some local artists around me in the Sioux Falls area doing great things with beat up DSLRs and even cell phones.

You could easily take something like this without being a professional. Why aren't you?

I even saw one photographer that was using industrial work lights and sheets to take awesome portraits. What I have learned is that photography is really the great equalizer when it comes to gear. Don’t stress over the gear, stress over taking great photos, even if that means using a cell phone. Whatever you use just start trying to take better photos, the skill will come in time.

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