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This is, by far, the most common question 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.
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.
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.
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.
To improve your photography, you need a 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.
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, the 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!