Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Best Cameras For Beginning Photographers

You Are What You Drink - Palmdale, California
Is equipment important to photography?
You think you might be into photography. You think you might want to become a photographer. What should you buy? What cameras should you own?

I asked similar questions about 14 years ago, and the answer now is a lot different than the answers I was given then. Photography has changed so much over that time.

For those interested in photography that are trying to figure out what their "first" camera should be, my recommendation is unorthodox: a cell phone camera. You should start with the camera that you most likely already own and maybe have with you right now. Cell phone cameras are perfectly capable photography tools. Even if you don't own one, I bet you know someone who has an old cell phone sitting in a drawer somewhere unused (and cell phone service is optional).
California Sunset - Stallion Springs, California
Captured using a free cell phone.
More and more professional photographers are turning to their cell phone camera. Why?

-Because the quality is good enough for the internet and prints typically as large as 8"x10" (sometimes smaller, sometimes larger, depending on the cell phone). Most of the time that is all of the quality that one needs.

-Because cell phones are small and lightweight and travel really, really well. You always have it with you, and nobody pays attention to you if you have it out.

-Because sharing is quick and easy. Within a few minutes of capturing an image, people from across the world could be viewing it.

-Because the "style" is the current fad. Thanks to apps like Instagram (and others) that allow you to post-process right on your phone, there is a certain look that one can create with their cell phone images that is in high demand. Yes, cell phone photographs can be profitable.
Adversity - Palmdale, California
Captured using a free cell phone.
But for the beginner, this is the point: all principals of what makes a photograph great apply just as much to cell phones as they do to $10,000 cameras. If you cannot create great photographs using a cell phone you won't be able to with a $3,000 DSLR, either. Learn photography first on the camera you already own before investing a bunch of money in something you don't really need.

Once you are able to create interesting images that speak your voice using your cell phone, then I recommend an old film camera. You can find an unwanted (but perfectly capable) Single Lens Reflex or Rangefinder cameras for very little. You might even know someone with an old film camera collecting dust in a closet. I have three different film cameras that I found for less than $50 each (and each included a lens).

The reason that an old film camera is beneficial is because it forces the photographer to learn the technical aspects of photography. Because modern digital cameras can do everything automatically, few take the time to learn what does what on a camera. And because they don't know, they have less control over the final images that they create. While knowing how a camera technically works will not in itself improve your photography, having complete control over your vision will.
Backyard Feed - Palo Verde, Arizona
Captured using a free 35mm SLR that the previous owner no longer used or wanted.
Another reason film is beneficial is that it forces the photographer to slow down and put more thought into each image. With a DSLR, one can snap hundreds of frames within a few minutes, and each frame costs nothing. With film, there is a cost in the purchasing and development of film. With each frame you have something to lose.

It is beneficial to train yourself to rely on ensuring everything is as you want it rather than relying on quantity. People will snap 100 frames hoping that one will be good. Instead, it is better to slow down and make sure everything is just right prior to opening the shutter. Film cameras help with this lost skill.

This needs to be said before we go any further: it is better to invest in the knowledge of what a good photograph is rather than expensive equipment. Spend your effort learning vision, not reading some stranger's opinion on a message board about what camera is best. That person probably can't create a great image, but they can quote technical data from a controlled sensor test.
Clasped - Tehachapi, California
Does it really matter what camera I used to create this? No.
At some point you will likely (but not necessarily) decide that you want a brand new DSLR. In fact, that is probably why you are reading this to begin with. Hopefully you will take what I wrote above to heart, and, prior to spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars, you will have learned how to create great photographs and to have vision.

"The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it." --Ansel Adams

The skill of the photographer is far more important than the make and model of camera. A great photographer can craft great images even with poor equipment. A poor photographer cannot craft great photographs even with great equipment. It is so much more important to craft great photographs than to own great equipment. Most people have this backwards. Great equipment is never a prerequisite to great images.

As of this writing, the DSLR camera that I recommend to beginning photographers is the Nikon D5200. In my opinion, this camera has the best value (quality vs. price) out there, and you should be able to get five good years of service out of this camera (digital technology goes obsolete much too quickly).
Summer Mow - Tehachapi, California
No one cares what camera, lens, or software was used to create this.
There are many other good cameras out there that would serve just as well. I own a Pentax K-30 and Samsung NX210, and I'm very happy with both. It's actually more difficult these days to purchase a bad camera than a good camera, because there are just so many good cameras. Besides, a good photographer can make do with bad equipment, because equipment is not nearly as important as you probably think.

I should also mention software, since you are probably considering Photoshop. There are excellent alternatives to Photoshop that are free! Start off with one or more of those free photo editing tools, and if you still feel you need Photoshop, by all means make the investment.

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