When it comes to purchasing your first proper camera you’ll most likely come into contact with a huge range of camera bodies, lenses and accessories that can ultimately all end up looking the same - especially to the untrained eye.
Coupled with multiple brands, model numbers and specs, buying a new camera may be an overwhelming experience to an entry-level consumer. With that in mind, we've compiled this beginner’s guide to buying your first camera. It covers cameras for all skill levels, what to look for in a camera if you’re just starting out, the right camera and lens models for different photograph subjects and some tips for established photographers looking to advance their tools and skill levels.
The best place to start when figuring out what camera to buy is to think about what you want to take photos of and go from there, we'll break down the features common in cameras without getting too technical and you'll soon see what might suit you best.
Types of Cameras
Let's start by quickly focuses on understanding the keywords that are used to categorise the various kinds of cameras available now.
Point and Shoot Cameras
The point and shoot range has been forced to innovate and improve itself more than any other camera in recent times, due to the exceptionally fast improvements to the cameras we now have built into most of our smartphones.
What these sorts of cameras typically offer a user is better stabilisation for clearer photos and performance in low light, improved colour reproduction and sharpness, with added benefits in durability & battery life too. This often makes them ideal to take with you for nights out, day trips, or on longer holidays.
Instant Film Cameras
The instant camera is sometimes referred to as a retro camera or polaroid, it's the kind of camera that prints the photo right after you take it, so you can share a physical print. While most are bordering on disposable in terms of features and quality, there are a few that stand out with larger, higher quality images, and when taken to parties, or used at weddings and overly social occasions, nothing can beat the fun that instant photography provides – everyone just loves it!
These are very specific cameras typically used for capturing construction, or landscapes. Often durable and equipped with fantastic battery life to make this kind of footage possible.
These often small cameras can go places others simply cannot, some being armed with rugged underwater savvy casings and some of the best stabilisation available. Simple to use, most of the best footage captured with these comes from them being mounted onto the helmets of mountain bikers, surfers and skiers.
And in case anyone is curious, Digital Single Lens Reflex refers to a digital camera which has a movable mirror behind the lens, when you take a photo this little mirror flicks up to allow the sensor to capture your glorious image. That aside DSLR cameras offer exceptionally good picture quality with interchangeable lens often that make them excel in many situations, both for still photography and video.
A fairly new camera technology named 'Mirrorless' that is, as the name suggests, one that doesn’t require a mirror. Mirrorless cameras are called “mirrorless,” rather than DSLRs being referred to as “mirrored,” only because they came second, they look and feel pretty similar! The important bit is that Mirrorless camera bodies can be made smaller than the traditional DSLR, while still being able to fit some of those fancy lenses that make owning a proper camera so wonderful.
A DSLR or Mirrorless is often the perfect first serious camera, these aren't too expensive and will provide everything you need to get to know a learn the ropes of shooting with these camera bodies. Manually configurable, yet still able to shoot with automated features that will assist in capturing high-quality images, so there’s no need to get overwhelmed with setting up your aperture and shutter speed on manual mode.
The beauty of interchangeable cameras means that you can swap, switch and interchange your lenses to suit subject matter, scenery, lighting and the overall vision you as a photographer have.
A lens’ focal length is the distance between the lens and the image sensor when the subject is in focus, more often than not measured in millimetres. In the case of zoom lenses (those with two numbers eg. 18-55mm), they state the minimum and maximum focal length. In layman’s terms, it’s the range of widths available to be captured by the camera with the lens.
The shorter the focal length (e.g. 18 mm), the wider the angle of view and the greater the area captured. The longer the focal length (e.g. 55 mm), the smaller the angle and the larger the subject appears to be.
The easiest way to remember this calculation is the more focal length = the more reach you have on a subject matter, or the closer you can get. For example:
A Prime Lens has a fixed focal length, such as the 55mm or 35mm lens.
The best place to start when you’ve first bought your DSLR is the standard 18-55mm lens. Almost all entry-level camera bundle kits will include this lens, but if you’ve just bought a body alone then worry not – every photography brand that manufactures DSLR cameras also manufacture the 18-55mm.
The 18-55mm is a great lens to start learning with. The ‘standard’ of beginner lenses, it suits most immediate photographic needs with a decent wide-angle range and the ability to zoom in on faraway subject matter. This lens is great for learning about rule of thirds, placement of subject matter, cropping, angles, aperture, and all the other basic principles of photography. The lens works with all auto and manual modes on your camera, and gives you the ability to manually adjust focus, or let the camera do that for you.
The best place to start when learning how to capture images with a telephoto lens, the 55-250MM (or 55-200mm/220mm) allows you to zoom further on subject matter and capture stunning close-crop photographs at a distance. Like the 18-55mm, this lens also comes equipped with both AF and MF modes, giving you the ability to learn how to manually adjust focus or just let the camera do it for you. For a beginner, the 55-250mm lenses can appeal with its ability to offer a dynamic range of shots, as well as being at the cheaper end of the telephoto lens price range.
Twin Lens Kits
Perfect for beginners, a Twin Lens Kit contains an entry-level DSLR body, an 18-55mm lens and a 55-250mm telephoto lens (the recommended entry-level telephoto lens). This will set up a beginner photographer with the tools needed to explore a range of photography and subject matter, including sports, wildlife, nature, portrait, travel and lifestyle.
One a photographer has mastered these two lenses, the next upgrade recommendation would be to look at purchasing a Prime Lens, specifically the f/1.8g 50mm lens.
Upgrading to a prime lens is usually the next step for a photography enthusiast looking for a lens past the standard beginner options. With a fixed focal point, the 50mm comes in two aperture modes: f/1.8g and the f/1.4g – the latter being more expensive – and offers the ability to take beautifully focused photographs in a constrained depth of field. Coined the “nifty fifty” by photographers worldwide, the 50mm lens gives you eight times more light capture than that of a typical lens kit in the 1.8g alone. Prime lenses typically produce nicer bokeh than standard lenses, sharper focal points, and are light in weight so they won’t weigh you down in terms of portability and ease of use.
To be considered a ‘macro’ lens, a lens must be able to produce a life-size image of an object on the camera, with a magnification of 1:1 at its closest focal setting. Although at first this may not sound that impressive, the photographs captured with these lenses certainly put those thoughts to bed. Macro lenses allow a photographer to create massive enlargements from shots of tiny subject matter – even more so than a zoom or telephoto lens. While bulkier than the average lens, these are perfect for photographing still life, small objects such as coins or stamps, nature, details in eyes and other body parts. For the enthusiast wanting to capture stunning detail and create beautiful images, the macro lens is the way to go.
Aperture, Wide Angle & Telephoto
Aperture entails how much light a lens is capable of gathering. Apertures can be expressed in several different ways: F4, f/4, 1:4 and so on, but they all represent the same thing. The lower the number, the larger the aperture, and thus the more light the lens will allow to collect.
If you’re wanting to shoot in lower light (eg. at night, in dark places like clubs or bars, or do street/event photography) without a flash, go for a lens that has a lower number in its aperture.
Larger apertures also add a decreased depth of field to a photography (i.e. how much of the picture around the focus point appears blurred), which is an important aspect of creative photography and something to keep in mind. If you’re going to be primarily shooting portrait photography, it’s best to purchase a lens with a low number/large aperture.
Any lens wider (with a smaller number) than 50mm (full frame) or 35mm (APS-C) is considered a wide-angle lens. It’s able to capture far more subject matter in a shot than your regular focal length lens. (See: Focal lengths 12mm and 24mm above.) A lens is considered wide-angle when it covers the angle of view between 64° and 84°. These lenses are fantastic for street, event and travel photography.
A telephoto lens is a specific type of a long-focus lens in which the physical length of the lens is shorter than the focal length. They allow a photographer to produce a close crop on a model, which allows the photographer to take a close-up shot without intruding on their subject. These lenses are great for shooting wildlife, portrait, sport and street photography.
We hope this guide has shed some light on the different camera models available for different skill levels and the features of each model. We'll continue to update this as new technology becomes available, and explain the new keywords to look for - so you can confidently shop the full range of cameras available today!