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Best camera for beginners 2021: The ultimate starter camera

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Best camera for beginners: The ultimate starter camera
(Image credit: Canon)

Buying the best camera for beginners can be a tough task with so many options to pick from, even from within the big names brands of Canon, Nikon and Sony. You probably want to keep the price down for your first camera, and you want to make sure the camera isn't too complicated, but you also need something that will allow you to grow as a photographer – it all needs plenty of thought. Luckily, we've done a lot of the hard work for you.

From an entry-level DSLR to a Micro Four Thirds camera, you should be able to get setup, with a decent lens, for a few hundred dollars. Whatever you spend, it should certainly be a step up from the smartphone camera you may be used to using. 

The best cameras for beginners offer you lots of manual tweaks but also offer the auto simplicity that can make it easy to get started. As you learn, those manual settings can be worked with more and more for the ideal shot. Then you might want to upgrade your shooter with a new lens, perhaps a tripod or some decent editing software. But for now this guide will help you find the best camera for a beginner so you can get started confidently. 

It's worth noting that not all cameras come with a lens, which you need. So be sure that you're either buying a kit with everything or you have the budget to buy the body only camera and lens separately. 

Beginner camera explainer

This explainer gives you the heads-up on some camera terminology which might sound strange but can be useful to know when buying and using your snapper.

Megapixel
This is the count of pixels captured in an image. It's useful as it shows resolution, but don't focus too much on this as it's more useful for blowing up large prints of images than anything else. RAW images captured off most new DSLRs can print up to A3 size, and there's a new feature in Adobe Lightroom that lets you supersize an image without losing resolution, allowing prints of A1 and higher.

Aperture
This is the amount of light let into the sensor when taking a photo. The wider this is open the more light gets onto your camera's sensor. A wider beam of light can mean a lighter image, especially in dark conditions, but it can also mean more blur. It also allows you to create depth in your photos too - a lower aperture allows you to blur the background of an image while keeping the subject sharp. The aperture range is measured in f-stops (f/4 for example). 

Sensor
This is the part of the camera that detects the light in a shot. The larger the sensor the better the quality of the final image. Sensors are available in full-frame or 'cropped frame' size, which is usually 3/4 of a full-sized frame. Obviously, full-frame cameras cost more. That said most beginners won't need a full frame sensor but an APS-C or smaller Micro Four Thirds setup will be enough. 

DSLR vs Micro Four Thirds
A DSLR is a Digital Single-Lens Reflex Camera which uses, generally, either an APS-C or Full Frame sensor while a Micro Four Thirds uses a smaller sensor and different lens system.

Shutter
This is the piece of the camera that decides the amount of time that light flows through the aperture to form an image. Simply put: higher shutter speeds let light hit the sensor for less time, and you get a darker image. Allow more time for light to flow in, with a lower shutter speed, and you get lighter images.

Lens mount
This is important as it is the system which allows you to affix varying lenses to the camera. Generally each brand has its own mounting system and lenses made by that brand as well as third-party manufacturers. Some vary between camera types but there are often adapters to help here. This is worth researching if you plan to buy more lenses down the line as prices vary and the second-hand market could play a part for you.

Focal length
This is a term that applies to the camera lens. The longer the focal length the more zoom you're going to get, essentially. This figure, measured in millimeters, is worth balancing with the f/ aperture number to get the best range of options. A longer zoom lens with better aperture will be more expensive, so you may want to sacrifice aperture range for zoom, if shooting in the day only, for example. We recommend a kit lens of about 20-70mm for most beginners, as it's wide enough to do landscapes, but long enough to do a little zoom and portrait photos.

Best camera for beginners: Mirrorless vs. DSLR

Right now, there are two different options if you're buying a camera: mirrorless or DSLR. While we won't go into the technical differences here, there are a few things you need to know before making your decision on which to get.

DSLRs are an older and more established style of camera. They're more widely available, you'll find more lenses for them, and they can be bought cheaper than mirrorless models in most cases. While most manufactures continue to create new DSLRs and lenses for these cameras, the general perception is that the future is very much mirrorless. However, if you're just starting, a DSLR is probably the best camera for beginners.

Mirrorless cameras are far newer, and your choice here is a little more limited - both in terms of camera bodies and lenses. This means they're more expensive, and there is less of a used / second-hand market for mirrorless cameras and accessories. In our opinion, we'd almost always recommend DSLRs for pure beginners... but with one very significant caveat. 

The reason you need to decide whether the best beginner camera for you is DSLR or mirrorless is that the lenses you buy do not automatically work across the different models. In other words, DSLR lenses won't work on mirrorless cameras unless you pay for an adaptor. And even then, it's expensive and you aren't getting the ideal digital camera experience.

For beginners, yes, we recommend DSLR overall. But for enthusiast and beyond... we really do think mirrorless is the way to go. If you need more, we have guides to the best DSLR cameras and the best mirrorless cameras to help you choose your path.


1. Nikon D3500: Best camera for beginners

Best camera for beginners: Nikon D3500

(Image credit: Nikon)

Nikon D3500

A great budget DSLR that feels good to hold and shoot with

Specifications
Type: DSLR
Sensor: APS-C
Megapixels: 24.2MP
Lens mount: Nikon F
Screen: 3-inch fixed, 921,000 dots
Continuous shooting speed: 5fps
Viewfinder: Optical, approx 95% coverage
Max video resolution: Full HD
User level: Beginner
Reasons to buy
+Cheap camera body+Loads of features+Comes with a versatile kit lens
Reasons to avoid
-No 4K video capabilities

If you’re looking for an instant start in serious photography, the Nikon D3500 is the best camera for beginners. It’s a DSLR, which means it’s slightly heavier than a mirrorless camera (there are plenty of other differences too - like shutter sound, lens options, etc) but we find that’s a good thing when you’re a beginner: it forces you to learn to handle the camera properly, and it can be better for stabilization when you’re using larger lenses. In fact, everything about the D3500 is designed to get you better at taking pictures - the grip is among the best we’ve seen in all camera bodies; the whole thing is very easy to use, yet surprisingly versatile; and the kit lens included with the D3500 is one of the best, most versatile lenses you can use. It covers an 18-55mm range, which is perfect for general photography, and gives you a bit of zoom to play with. Nikon’s DX-lens system, which the camera uses, has a wide range of options for when you want to get more specialized too, and they don’t cost the earth.

In terms of the camera itself, you get all the modes and settings you’d expect (and some you wouldn’t), and a decent rear screen for both control and LV shooting. The D3500 supports the Nikon Snapbridge app, which allows you to transfer files quickly to your phone (you can even set it to do this automatically, although it drains battery quickly), and it allows standard SD cards to store your images on. Battery life is good, at 1500+ shots per charge, although you’ll end up with fewer than that if you use the screen much and switch shooting types. It also has pre-set modes for beginners that automatically adjust the settings for certain types of scene - portraits, landscapes, inside and outside images. They’re useful to start with, and this camera is versatile enough to help you graduate quickly and start using Manual and Aperture / Shutter priority with ease to get some spectacular shots.

Overall, a superb little camera that won’t break the bank but will help you get started, and teach you how to take better images. It’s versatile enough to grow with you as your skills improve, and will last years before you need to upgrade to something meatier. Even then, you’ll be able to take all your additional lenses with you.


2. Canon EOS Rebel SL3 / EOS 250D: Best Canon camera for beginners

Best camera for beginners: Canon EOS Rebel SL3

(Image credit: Canon)

Canon EOS Rebel SL3

If you'd rather enter Canon's ecosystem, this is a good choice

Specifications
Type: DSLR
Sensor: APS-C
Megapixels: 24.1MP
Lens mount: Canon EF-S
Screen: 3-inch vari-angle, 1,040,000 dots
Continuous shooting speed: 5fps
Viewfinder: Optical, approx 95% coverage
Max video resolution: 4K 24p
User level: Beginner
Reasons to buy
+Intuitive to use system+Great Live View shooting
Reasons to avoid
-Not cheap-Could use more AF points

The Canon EOS Rebel SL3 / EOS 250D is a fantastic way to dive right into the advanced world of DSLR photography with the reassurance of a beginner focused camera. That means an intuitive system with clearly laid out controls and shortcuts along with some fantastic auto features. It also means great specs. The Live View shooting is particularly good which makes it ideal from those transitioning from a smartphone or point and shoot camera. 

This isn't the cheapest beginner camera but then you do get a solid build, great battery life, impressive 24.1MP sensor capable of 4K 24p video and a Wi-Fi connectivity. You could argue it's a better model than our best camera for beginners overall, the Nikon D3500, but we don't feel it's quite as good in terms of value.

You get a 63-zone metering sensor but the autofocus is limited at just 9-points. This isn't ideal if you want to grab quick shots or like snapping things that move. That said, it does mean you must work on becoming a better photographer to overcome this shortcoming which is part of why this is a lot cheaper than the higher end DSLR options.


3. Fujifilm X-T200: Best beginner camera for ease of use

Best camera for beginners: Fujifilm X-T200

(Image credit: Fujifilm)

Fujifilm X-T200

If you want to start out as a point-and-shoot photographer, this is ideal

Specifications
Type: Mirrorless
Sensor: APS-C
Megapixels: 24.4MP
Lens mount: Fujifilm X
Screen: 3.5-inch vari-angle touchscreen, 2,780,000 dots
Continuous shooting speed: 8fps
Viewfinder: EVF, 2,360k dots
Max video resolution: 4K
User level: Beginner/Intermediate
Reasons to buy
+Large vari-angle touchscreen display+Great looking classic design+4K video
Reasons to avoid
-Basic external controls-Not a X-Trans sensor

The Fujifilm X-T200 is a very good looking camera if you're a fan of classically designed snappers. It remains really light and compact thanks to the mirrorless style that this APS-C sensor toting camera offers. That means a portable way to use a 24.2MP sensor that's able to capture 4K quality video.

This uses an electrically powered 15-45mm kit lens as standard, making this a very simple point and shoot system that's even better thanks to the relatively high-res 3.5-inch vari-angle touchscreen display. But you can go into more detail using the albeit simple external physical controls. Or dive a bit deeper into the menus and really take control of your shots.

It lacks some of the features seen in our overall best camera for beginners, the D3500, but is still a potent snapper.


4. Sony Alpha A6000: Best value for money mirrorless

Best camera for beginners: Sony Alpha A6000

(Image credit: Sony)

Sony Alpha A6000

Mirrorless is the future, and if you want to get started early, this is a top camera

Specifications
Type: Mirrorless
Sensor: APS-C
Megapixels: 24.3MP
Lens mount: Sony E
Screen: 3-inch tilting touchscreen, 921,600 dots
Continuous shooting speed: 11fps
Viewfinder: EVF, 1.44million dots
Max video resolution: Full HD
User level: Beginner/enthusiast
Reasons to buy
+Great value for money+Hybrid AF works really well
Reasons to avoid
-No touchscreen -Videos only in Full HD

The Sony Alpha A6000 is now over five years old but the fact that Sony has maintained it this long should speak volumes. That means the price has dropped considerably, making it a great option for a beginner who wants a camera that will go with them as they progress.

Most of its specs still hold up well today, including the 24.3MP APS-C sensor, 11fps burst shooting mode, electronic viewfinder and the inclusion of both Wi-Fi and NFC. The focusing system is particularly impressive, with 179 phase-detect AF points combined with 25 contrast detect points, making it great for moving and static subjects alike. 

As long as you’re happy with no touchscreen and videos being output in Full HD quality, this is one of the best cameras for beginners who want to go mirrorless.


5. Panasonic Lumix GX80: Best compact Micro Four Thirds camera

Best camera for beginners: Panasonic Lumix GX80

(Image credit: Panasonic)

Panasonic Lumix GX80

A great compact camera, and ideal back-up snapper

Specifications
Type: Mirrorless
Sensor: Micro Four Thirds
Megapixels: 16MP
Lens mount: Micro Four Thirds
Screen: 3-inch tilt touchscreen, 1,040,000 dots
Continuous shooting speed: 8fps
Viewfinder: EVF
Max video resolution: 4K
User level: Beginner
Reasons to buy
+Compact and simple+Affordable+4K video
Reasons to avoid
-16MP sensor limit

The Panasonic Lumix GX80 is a Micro Four Thirds camera that manages to stay very portable and low on price despite offering features like 4K video and 8fps burst shooting. You are limited to a 16MP sensor though, which might sound lower than a lot of the competition but in reality is more than enough for a beginner.

There's a tilting 3-inch display as well as an electronic viewfinder which give the beginner options to find what works best in varying situations. The intelligent auto mode is super smart and makes this a very capable point and shoot camera if that's all you need. Or dive into the settings for control of shutter speed, aperture, exposure and more using that portable 12-32mm retracting pancake lens. Thanks to the Micro Four Thirds lens mount there are lots of affordable compatible lens options to upgrade as your develop. 


6. Canon EOS M200: Best cheap mirrorless camera for beginners

Best camera for beginners: Canon EOS M200

(Image credit: Canon)

Canon EOS M200

A basic, but inexpensive way to get started with mirrorless photography

Specifications
Type: Mirrorless
Sensor: APS-C
Megapixels: 24.2MP
Lens mount: Canon EF-M
Screen: 3-inch tiltable touchscreen, 1,040k dots
Continuous shooting speed: 6.1fps
Viewfinder: No
Max video resolution: 4K
User level: Beginner
Reasons to buy
+Brilliant price for specs+Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and NFC connectivity
Reasons to avoid
-No viewfinder -Battery life

The Canon EOS M200 is a superb affordable mirrorless option that punches well above its price. For starters there's a full APS-C dual-pixel 24.2MP sensor which can capture 4K video all with Digic 8 processing. This is also very simple to use and small enough to take with you easily.

Of course there are compromises for that price, like a crop on the 4K video, lower than DSLR battery life and no option to line-in a mic if you need better sound. But they're all fairly specific needs and for most beginners this will serve them well.

You still get plenty of manual options to play around with and there are a huge number of lenses to pick from thanks to that Canon EF-M mounting system. Get the right one and this will offer up to 143 autofocus points making it a really impressive setup that will be forgiving for even the most novice of users.


7. Nikon D5600: Best beginner camera for advancement

Best camera for beginners: Nikon D5600

(Image credit: Nikon)

Nikon D5600

A superb beginner camera packing enough power to grow with you

Specifications
Type: Mirrorless
Sensor: APS-C
Megapixels: 24.2MP
Lens mount: Nikon DX
Screen: 3.2-inch articulating touchscreen, 1,040k dots
Continuous shooting speed: 5fps
Viewfinder: No
Max video resolution: 1080p
User level: Beginner/enthusiast
Reasons to buy
+Super image quality+Great touchscreen
Reasons to avoid
-Live View lags-SnapBridge isn't the best

The Nikon D5600 is a DSLR that works for beginners but also packs in a bit more power than your average starter snapper. As a result this is a great option for anyone that wants a camera that can stretch their ability and give freedom to progress. That said, the advanced autofocus system helps all user levels while the WiFi makes for more advanced control options. The screen is fully articulated making it great for selfie style vlogging and beyond. Being Nikon this is also super reliable, solid and will be a powerful contender for a long time to come.

This camera can connect to your smart devices via Nikon's Snapbridge app, which is a wonderful idea... but one that often falls short in reality. While the app does as promised, it's slow to connect - especially with older DSLRs like the D5600 - and the latest version is VERY unstable. Shame.


8. Pentax K-70: Best alternative rugged beginners camera

Best camera for beginners: Pentax K-70

(Image credit: Pentax)

Pentax K-70

If you want something tough, for exploring, the Pentax K-70 is a good pick

Specifications
Type: Mirrorless
Sensor: APS-C
Megapixels: 24.2MP
Lens mount: Pentax K
Screen: 3-inch 921k dots
Continuous shooting speed: 6fps
Viewfinder: No
Max video resolution: 1080p
User level: Beginner
Reasons to buy
+Rugged and portable+Great for fighting the shake+Excellent value
Reasons to avoid
-Needs more autofocus points-Soft lens kit

The Pentax K-70 is not the newest camera on this list but it is still a viable contender against the other big name brands that dominate the camera world. What this offers that sets it apart from the rest is a truly rugged build meaning you can go out into the elements without worrying that the wet, cold and dirt will do it damage. 

But the K-70 is more than just a tough cam. This also packs in an impressively clear articulating screen so you can see your shots even in that rainy weather, for example. While the kit lens is on the soft side this is a lot of camera for the money.

Beginner Camera Owner Tips

What lens should you buy, with your beginner camera?

Most of the best cameras for beginners come with their own 'kit lenses'. These are designed to be as versatile as possible, and to cover the range that most starter photographers shoot at. So, generally speaking, you'll start with a lens that covers the 20mm-55mm range. Some may go wider to about 17mm, some will go longer to 70mm. A kit lens with a range between 20mm-55mm is fine for most beginners, and will allow you to take wider landscape shots with ease, and have a little room to zoom in on your subjects for things like portraiture. Most kit lenses run between an aperture rating of f/4 to f/22, which is more than enough for both close up portraiture, everyday shooting, and night photography.

However, you may want to get something more specialized to accommodate a specific type of photography. This will mean spending a little more, but can make a huge difference.

Zoom lenses: Generally, anything that has a maximum focal length of 200mm and above is considered to be a zoom lens. Pick one of these up for wildlife photos, or things like sport photography. You can get super zooms that run up to 600mm, but they are huge and VERY expensive.

Wide angle lenses: For these you need a lower focal length, so most wide angles are 10mm-20mm lenses. You'll use these most for landscape work, or taking group pictures of people.

Prime lenses: These are lenses with fixed focal lengths (usually 35mm or 50mm), and they're designed for portraits and street photography. The beauty of prime lenses is they have lower aperture ratings (usually about f/1.8 to f/2.8), which really allows you to blur the background image of a portrait or product shot.

Macro lenses: When you get too close to a subject your lens will struggle to focus on it. Use a macro lens, though, and you can magnify up-close detail, which is great for product photography, and can result in striking portraits too.

We think that beginners will get the most use out of zooms and prime lenses. Macro is very specialized, and wide-angles are almost redundant with the lower focal lengths of most modern kit lenses. You'll find that most of your shots, for general photography, happen between the 35mm and 70mm range, so kit lenses cover you for this.

Do you need other kit with your beginner camera?

To begin with, the only other kit we'd recommend is a camera bag and a memory card. When it comes to a bag, something waterproof, well padded, and light is best. Some camera bags add all kinds of pockets and security features, but we find that keeping the rain away is the biggest concern for most beginners.

You'll also need a memory card. The vast majority of cameras for beginners take standard SD cards, which start at about $10-20 from most electronics retailers. At beginner level, the speed of your card makes almost no difference, so don't worry about premium SD cards - just get something that is cheap and sturdy. We recommend you get a couple of smaller cards, in case one fills up when you're out shooting.

What else could you buy? We usually carry a spare battery when we are out shooting, so pick one of these up as a secondary purchase, once you know how to handle your camera and how many shots you get per charge. We also recommend getting a tripod, if you want to try out longer exposures. Generally speaking, you'll lose definition on handheld shots where your shutter speed is above 1-2 seconds, no matter how steady your hand is, so for long exposures of 2-30 seconds, a tripod is a must.

You could get a remote control for your camera, and there are generic ones available for a few dollars. This allows you to snap pictures without touching the camera itself, which is perfect if you're trying to take selfies with a proper camera.

Other accessories include cleaning kits for lenses and sensors, tulip attachments to reduce glare on your lens, polarizing filters and specialized filters to adjust the light that comes through your lens, battery grips, and - if it isn't built-in - separate flash units.

Should you use editing software?

Yes. Yes, you should. Almost all photographers - beginner or professional - use photo editing software, and it's amazing the difference that it can make. Something like Adobe Lightroom will allow you to enhance your pictures and clean up basic imperfections (like dust spots on a lens), whereas more advanced editors like Photoshop CC will allow you to significantly change your photos and create whole design projects from them.

There is no downside to using editing apps, and you'll find that even some of the free ones for your phone are powerful enough to make a difference to your shots. Our only piece of advice here, if you're a beginner, is to make sure you don't get lazy, and do all your best work in editing. You should always aim for the perfect shot in camera, and then just enhance it or clean it up afterwards. Snapping any old pictures, and applying filters afterwards, won't help you improve.

Matt Golowczynski is a London-based journalist and photographer. Matt has contributed to a variety of publications including What Digital Camera, Amateur Photographer and Stuff, and his work has also appeared extensively online, on the likes of Dpreview, TechRadar and Shortlist. His photography has appeared in the likes of Condé Nast Traveller, Time Out, The Independent and Kerrang!