I was asked this question a few days ago.
The person who posed the question was not interested in becoming a photographer. What he really meant to ask was "How did you get started in photography?" Or perhaps he meant "How much time and money did it take to get you where you are?"
The question is actually a good one, and one I believe most people ask (usually to themselves) when they are considering photography. It deserves an answer. And it leads to more questions: What camera should I buy? How much should I spend? What brand is the best? Do I have to get Photoshop? Is my computer good enough? What about film? Do they still even make film? How should I print the pictures? There are many, many other questions, as well.
It can be hard to know where to begin.
First, there are three basic catagories photographers find themselves in: Snapshooter, Hobbyist, and Professional.
The snapshooter is someone who wants to take good pictures, but has no interest in creating art. He or she simply wants to capture the people, places and events around them to post on Facebook or, on occasion, put them in a picture frame or scrapbook. Snapshooters have little, if any, understanding of how photography works and usually prefer cameras that work automatically.
The hobbyist is someone who wants to create art with their photographs. He or she will share his or her creations on Flickr or, on occasion, will frame and matte them to be hung on the wall. Hobbyists will have at least a basic grasp of how photography works and usually prefer equipment that has at least some manual controls.
The professional is someone who earns money from their photographs. He or she may have a website, may be a wedding or stock photographer (or any other genre you can think of), may even have a Blog. Professional photographers have a good grasp of how photography works and usually prefer equipment that has the capability of full manual operation.
Knowing which category you are in and (more importantly) which one you wish to be in is the first step to answering the "how to get started" question.
If your goal is to be a snapshooter, the answer is easy: use the camera on your cell phone. You always have your phone with you, and, as long as you have the quality set to the highest level, it has more than enough resolution for Facebook or 4"x6" prints. Depending on the cell phone and what plan you have, it's also easy to upload to the internet or text, so sharing is a walk in the park.
Pool Chairs & Lake
(Taken with a camera on an obsolete 2G cell phone)
Should you desire more resolution (perhaps because you might want 8"x10" prints), a digital point-and-shoot camera is the right choice. Every camera brand has a good quality option for $150 or less. Wait until "Black Friday" or some major holiday when electronics are on sale, and you could spend less than $100. And you'll have all that you need in a camera and then some.
But what about megapixels? What about optical zoom? And which brand is best? It doesn't matter. Any digital camera from any brand that has an MSRP over $100 (and even some that are less than $100) will be capable of producing the image quality you desire. The differences from brand-to-brand and camera-to-camera will be minor, and nothing worthy of worrying over. Yes, there are differences--one might be slightly more user friendly, one might have just a little more resolution, one might have this or that--but for the snapshooter, the differences are hardly noticeable, if at all. Google it, read a few online reviews, and then look for a good sale.
If your desire is to become a hobbyist or professional photographer, the answer is a little more tricky. We'll discuss that in "How To Get Started In Photography, Part 2".