What Camera Should I Buy & How Much Should I Spend on My First Camera?

What Camera Should I Buy & How Much Should I Spend on My First Camera?

What Camera Should I Buy? and How Much Should I Spend on My First Camera? These are, by far, the most common questions I find myself answering again and again when I’m teaching photography.

It sounds straightforward and simple to answer, but that is not the case at all. The question itself is motivated by a few misconceptions that beginners have about equipment and its role in photography. The question cannot be answered without first addressing these misconceptions.

The goal of this article is to help beginners overcome the first stumbling block in the process of learning photography—equipment selection.

Equipment and Photography

The role that photography equipment plays in photography is simple—photography is not possible without a camera and lens. There is no way around it. At the very least, you need a smartphone or a point-and-shoot camera to start taking photos.

The necessity of having photo equipment before venturing into photography creates the first misconception of its importance.

What Camera Should I Buy & How Much Should I Spend on My First Camera? 1
I took this photo in 2004 with my point and shoot camera Fuji FinePix S602 from a moving car. This was the very photo that triggered my interest in photography, and particularly, in travel photography. A few months later I bought my first DSLR.

Misconception #1

Photography equipment is the most important part when you begin learning photography

Truthfully, I consider photography equipment to be the least important part of the equation. I call this the photography equipment paradox.

Let me explain.

When we start learning something new like playing a musical instrument, singing or painting, the goal is always the same—to meet and fulfill our potential. The level of our potential is defined by our natural talent.

Photography is no different.

When we start learning photography, our skill level is incredibly low, maybe between 2% and 5% of our potential. An entry level camera is good enough until we reach, let’s say, around 40% of our potential. Then, an entry level camera becomes a limiting factor. A middle range camera is good for up to 70% of our potential and a high-end camera can take you all the way to 100%. Please know that the actual percentages are not important here, they are simply a guesstimate.

Related: Top Rated Canon Rebel t7i Bundle Deals

What this means is that regardless of what equipment you purchase, the limiting factor is always your skill. If you buy a high-end camera, it will only cause frustration and disappointment in the beginning as you realize your spouse or friend is taking better pictures with their smartphones.

What Camera Should I Buy & How Much Should I Spend on My First Camera? 2
The featured photo I took in 2005 with my first DSLR, entry-level
Canon Digital Rebel, and $100 kit lens, Canon 18-55mm.

Misconception #2

To improve your photography, you need better equipment.

I blame big camera manufacturers spending millions of dollars on marketing to imprint in consumers’ brains the false concept that “you’re only as good as your equipment.”

It is fascinating that no one judges a guitar player by the price of his guitar or a writer by the size of his pen; instead, people judge them by their music and writing. However, it is common for people to judge photographers by the price and size of their equipment.

Related: Best Compact Cameras for Professional Photographers

Over the years, many photographers have tried to fight this misconception by emphasizing the importance of skill over equipment.

Your Camera Doesn’t Matter by Ken Rockwell

Below are two quotes from Ken Rockwell’s blog:

“If you can shoot well, all you need is a disposable toy camera or a camera phone to create breathtaking work”.

“It’s always better to spend your time and money on learning the art and technique of photography rather than spending a fortune on cameras and equipment”.

Pro Photographer, Cheap Camera

The funny guys at DigitalRev TV created a video series tiled Pro Photographer, Cheap Camera where they challenge professional photographers by giving them cheap, ridiculous equipment like Barbie or Lego cameras. Every single time, professional photographers manage to produce outstanding results.

The Best Camera is the One That’s with You

In The Best Camera is the One That’s with You, Chase Jarvis tries to convey the message that photography is not about megapixels and dynamic range, it’s about telling stories.

Here is the harsh reality: Your photography does not progress because you spent $2,000 on your camera and lenses but invested absolutely nothing—zero dollars and time—in improving your skills.

What Camera Should I Buy & How Much Should I Spend on My First Camera? 3
I took this photo with my $300 compact camera Panasonic Lumix LX5.

Misconception #3

Photography as a hobby is very expensive and not everyone can afford it

Photography has never been as affordable as it is today.

With the latest advances in sensor technologies and globalization, every company on the market has access to the best and latest technologies, which means they’re building outstanding cameras.

Today, entry-level camera models from nearly every manufacturer can produce outstanding photos. The only difference between the brands is the user experience, not the quality of the photos they produce.

To start learning photography, all you need is a basic DSLR or Mirrorless camera and a kit lens. Nothing else—no secondary lens, no filters, not even a tripod.

What Camera Should I Buy & How Much Should I Spend on My First Camera? 4
Here is another photo I took in 2005 with my entry-level DSLR setup (Canon Digital Rebel XT, Canon 18-55mm). I shot it handheld without a tripod or any filters.

Plan of Action

The appropriate plan of action is to buy an entry-level camera with a lens kit and stick with it for a year (or longer) until it becomes a limiting factor as your skills as a photographer outperform the potential of the equipment.

Do not worry about missing the moment your skills surpass your equipment; trust me, you will know. Depending on your style of photography, the limiting factor can be anything from the dynamic range of the camera sensor or the lens speed to the speed of the camera or focusing capabilities. Only then is it time to upgrade.

Related: Best Cameras for Backpacking and Hiking

Based on my experience, it takes about a year to learn the general concepts of photography—exposure, aperture, shutter speed, focusing and how to use the camera controls. From there, it is a long process of learning how to apply those basic concepts to produce meaningful photographs.

In my case, I stuck with my original Canon Digital Rebel and kit lens for about a year. This is when I realized that landscape photography truly excites me so I complimented my gear with a wide angle zoom lens. I kept shooting with the Digital Rebel for another year before upgrading to a better camera and lens.

What Camera Should I Buy & How Much Should I Spend on My First Camera? 5
2005, Canon Digital Rebel XT, Canon 18-55mm

Do not worry about choosing the wrong brand. By the time you have outgrown your entry level camera, it will be obsolete and, if you aren’t happy with the brand, you have the freedom to choose anything you want. Since your initial investment in photography gear was minimal, the switch will be painless.

How Much Should I Spend on My First Camera?

To be honest, there is absolutely no difference in what camera type you buy—DSLR or Mirrorless. Although I consider the DSLR to be outdated technology, it will not slow down or hinder your progress in any way.

Now, I am finally ready to answer the question: “How much should I spend on my first camera?”

Expect to spend anywhere between $500 and $700.

What Camera Should I Buy?

Here are a few ideas about what camera models to consider. I’ve done my best to feature all the major brands and various technologies. The next step is to purchase your camera and start learning!

Nikon D3500

DSLR, Sensor: 24MP APS-C, ISO: 100 – 25600, Shutter: 30 – 1/4000s, Weight: 12.9oz / 365g, Dim: 4.9 x 3.8 x 2.7″
Fujifilm X-T100

Mirrorless, Sensor: 24MP APS-C, ISO: 200 – 12800, Shutter: 30 – 1/4000s, Weight: 15.8oz / 448g, Dim: 4.8 x 3.3 x 1.9″
Panasonic GX85

Mirrorless, Sensor: 16MP Micro 4/3, ISO: 200 – 25600, Shutter: 30 – 1/4000s, Weight: 15oz / 426g, Dim: 4.8 x 2.8 x 1.7″
Canon Rebel SL2

DSLR, Sensor: 24MP APS-C, ISO: 100 – 25600, Shutter: 30 – 1/4000s, Weight: 14.3oz / 406g, Dim: 4.8 x 3.6 x 2.7″
Olympus E-M10 Mark III

Mirrorless, Sensor: 26MP Micro 4/3, ISO: 200 – 25600, Shutter: 60 – 1/4000s, Weight: 14.5oz / 410g, Dim: 4.8 x 3.3 x 1.9″

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by Viktor Elizarov
I am a travel photographer and educator from Montreal, Canada, and a founder of PhotoTraces. I travel around the world and share my experiences here. Feel free to check my Travel Portfolio and download Free Lightroom Presets.

14 thoughts on “What Camera Should I Buy & How Much Should I Spend on My First Camera?”

  1. Do you have any idea why so few cameras offer an F2.8 (fast-ish) lens anymore? I had several point and shoots or hybrids over the years that worked well, and offered the short DOF focus that assists with artistic compositions.

    • Hi lance, I’ve been thinking about the Canon EOS SL2 (200D), and you can get a EF50mm f1.8 for around €145 (similar in dollars), or an EFS-24mm f2.8 STM lens for €206 ($). Hope that helps somewhat!

      • 50mm on a cropped sensor equals to 75mm on a full frame. It is a good portrait lens but not very practical for every day shooting.

        • Thanks for the very prompt reply. What would you recommend for everyday shooting? I am also interested in shooting video interviews. Thanks for your time.

  2. Thanks for the article. I’ve had my entry level mirrorless for about 3-4 years and recently feel limited with just the kit lens. I’m looking to upgrade within the next year. I’ll probably stick with mirrorless as I prefer street and travel photography and invest in a couple of quality lenses.

  3. Really good advice, thanks for taking the time to post.

  4. It’s nice to see someone recommending mirrorless cameras as options, but this is truly NOT a real world, good plan.

    If you start with 100 learning photographers and give them ONLY a kit lens for a year, 89 of them will have taken up knitting or coin collecting instead about halfway through.

    People don’t buy ILCs because it makes sense…they buy them because they LOOK COOL. Part of looking cool is changing lenses. If you can outsmart your desire to look cool, ILCs rarely make sense for a first serious camera. ….buying a good 1″ sensor, LIVE VIEW, point and shoot makes a much better learning tool.

    …..spend $800 now, sell it for $600 in a year, and you’ve rented a great camera like the FZ1000 with a wide angle to long telephoto for $4 a week. THEN buy an ILC with lenses that make having one worth it. Because having only a kit does NOT make having an ILC make sense.

    And I’m sorry, but with the right camera and the right system, it doesn’t take a year to learn how to operate a camera…..it takes about 5 hours. But too many people learn the OLD system and try to learn on DSLRs…..that takes a little longer. But we’re still talking about JUST 6 basic things.

    We teach people to drive a car SIX HOURS. You can learn to fly a plane in 30 hours….if you spread that out over a YEAR, and use a camera instead, that’s using your camera and learning about it less than a half an hour a week! No one does that.

    Of COURSE it doesn’t take a year to learn to use a camera. You’re making the very common mistake where you recommend what YOU did, because it’s the only experience you have. That’s totally unfair.

    I teach the basics of camera operation in 3, 90 minute classes. 90% of everyone is comfortable with the camera after that….and most of the 10% that aren’t, ARE DSLR users.

    Yes, gear matters.

    • There is a huge difference between knowing the functions/features of a camera and knowing how/when to use them in various situations. I agree with Viktor. It takes about a year to go from point-and-shoot (or automatic mode) to correctly focused and exposed photos most of the time.

      Would you get on a plane with a 30-hour experienced pilot? What would happen if the pilot doesn’t know how to land the plane in a 20 mph cross wind?

  5. I started traveling to Europe regularly a dozen years ago. My camera “kit” consisted to 2 Nikon (film) SLR’s and 7 lenses. With the demise of film, I started looking at digital cameras. In the end, I selected a Canon G3 X with the (effective) 24-600mm lens and digital image processor. Given the wide range of this camera/lens, I no longer have to lug several lenses nor change (and possibly drop) them as I walk through crowded streets. I love the convenience.

  6. I use a bridge camera (FZ300) and can get beautiful results with it. It allows me to go hiking without having to drag a ton of lenses with me and with one snap on close up lens I get wonderful macros. I don’t think a beginner needs a mirrorless or DSLR.


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