Are you struggling to choose the perfect photography gear?
You’re not alone.
Deciding on the best photography camera equipment can be hard. There are so many factors to consider, including:
That’s why we created this article--an ultimate guide to choosing the best photography gear for your needs.
Let’s get started.
Buying Photography Gear Guide: Table of Contents
If you would like to skip ahead to an individual section, simply click below:
- The Photographer’s Gear Evolution: From Beginner to Enthusiast to Pro
- How Do Cameras Work?
- How Do Lenses Work?
- The Cost of a Good Photography Setup
- Mirrorless vs DSLR
- Canon vs Nikon
- The Best Camera for a Beginner Photographer
- The Best Lens for a Beginner Photographer
- The Best Camera for More Serious Photographers
- The Best Lens for More Serious Photographers
- What are the Best Photography Accessories to Buy?
- How to Pick a Tripod
- Where Should You Purchase Photography Gear?
- New vs Used Camera Gear
- The Best Store to Purchase Your Camera Gear
The Photographer’s Gear Evolution: From Beginner to Enthusiast to Pro
Not all photographers need the same gear.
Because different cameras offer different features. And some of these features are only useful for more serious photographers--while some of these features are only useful for beginner photographers.
As a beginner photographer, you want to give the camera some control over your settings. You don’t want to choose an aperture, a shutter speed, and an ISO setting on your own. Otherwise, you’ll spend too much time fiddling with settings, and you’ll miss crucial photos.
(You may not even know what these settings are. That’s completely okay--I’ll explain in a moment.)
That’s why beginners often appreciate simple camera modes, such as Portrait mode, Sports mode, and Night mode.
But professionals don’t need these additional modes. Instead, they want as much control over their cameras as possible. Fiddling with simple modes would hold them back.
The bottom line is that beginners, hobbyists, and professionals should be buying different gear. It’s important you have a sense of your experience level so you can get the perfect equipment.
- You should buy beginner gear if you have little or no experience with photography. You may not know what an aperture, shutter speed, or ISO setting is; if you do, you’re not comfortable picking these settings on your own.
- You should buy enthusiast gear if you’re fairly familiar with basic camera settings, but you wouldn’t feel comfortable using Manual mode all the time.
- You should buy professional photography gear if you’re extremely familiar with most (if not all) camera settings. You have no problem switching between Aperture Priority, Manual, and Shutter Priority.
Now, before we get into a discussion about choosing a camera and a lens, let’s do a quick overview of how cameras work.
How Do Cameras Work?
In simplest terms, light goes in through the camera lens and hits the camera sensor. This creates an image.
Therefore, cameras need light. Without light, you can’t capture a photo. You’ll only see blackness.
More light is generally good, and less light is generally bad. The less light you have, the more you’ll be restricted in your photography.
Now, the amount of external light is important. If you shoot under a bright sun, you’ll have a lot of light to work with. And if you shoot in a dark room, you’ll struggle to capture light.
However, you can change your camera settings to take in more or less light. Specifically, light is affected by three main camera settings:
- The aperture is a diaphragm in your camera lens. It gets bigger and smaller depending on your camera setting. The wider the aperture, the more light that makes it through. A wider aperture also creates a blurrier background (known as bokeh). We refer to aperture using f-numbers: f/1.8, f/4, f/8, etc. Smaller f-numbers correspond to a wider aperture.
- The shutter speed is the amount of time the sensor is exposed to the light. The longer the camera sensor is open to the light source, the more light it takes in. Shutter speed is generally written as fractions of a second: 1/2s, 1/25s, 1/100s, 1/1000s, etc. While longer shutter speeds let in more light, they also cause blurrier photos. Whereas fast shutter speeds will capture sharp images, but will let in less light.
- The ISO is the sensitivity of the camera sensor to light. ISO is written in round numbers: 50, 100, 200, etc. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the sensor. At high ISOs, the camera can take in a small amount of light and still create a bright photo. But at low ISOs, a small amount of light will result in a dark photo. One other thing to consider: Increased ISOs cause noise (also known as grain). So the higher the ISO, the worse your photos will look--all else being equal.
Nearly all cameras allow you to modify your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. But some cameras have a better range of shutter speeds and ISOs than others.
And some cameras perform better at high ISOs than others. That is, some cameras create cleaner images at high ISOs.
How Do Lenses Work?
As indicated above, lenses take in light. That light goes through a series of glass elements until it hits the sensor.
The main distinguishing feature between lenses is the focal length. This is expressed in terms of millimeters: 50mm, 100mm, 300mm, etc.
Longer lenses get you ‘closer’ to your subject. Bird photographers love lenses in the 400-600mm range--because they zoom right in, so you can capture a detailed photo of a tiny sparrow.
Intermediate focal-length lenses, such as 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm lenses, give you a ‘standard’ field of view. That is, they allow you to see what your eyes see. The scene isn’t magnified, nor is it unusually wide.
You should also be aware that lenses have different aperture capabilities. All lenses have a maximum aperture--which is listed as part of the lens name.
For instance, the Canon 100mm f/2.8L macro lens has a maximum aperture of f/2.8. No matter what you do, it cannot widen the aperture to, say, f/1.8 or f/1.4. You can only take in as much light as f/2.8 will allow.
Another thing about lenses:
If you want a sharp photo, you have to make sure the lens locks focus on your subject. And you can do this in two ways:
- You can use the lens’s autofocus system. Here, the lens will automatically focus on a subject.
- You can use manual focus. Here, you spin a ring on the lens, which allows you to change focus at will.
Autofocus capability is a major selling point for quality lenses. Professional lenses tend to have faster autofocus than hobbyist lenses. And precise manual focusing is difficult with certain lenses, depending on the quality of the focus ring.
Photography Gear: The Cost of a Good Photography Setup
You may have heard that a good photography setup--one that will get you professional-quality photos--is extremely pricey.
Fortunately, that’s wrong.
While photography equipment isn’t cheap, you can capture great photos with basic, reasonably-priced gear.
A decent camera will set you back anything in the area of $250 to $500.
A decent lens will cost around $120 (on up).
I’ll talk more about tripods later on, but you definitely don’t need a tripod for amazing photos.
So, at minimum, you’ll pay around $400 for a quality camera setup.
Let’s get into the specifics:
In the past, DSLRs have dominated the camera market.
But in recent years, mirrorless cameras have surged in popularity.
So which is better, mirrorless or DSLR cameras?
In truth, both camera types do an excellent job. And you can use either to capture stunning photos.
There are a few key differences, however:
- Mirrorless cameras tend to be lighter and more compact. This is ideal for photographers who often carry their equipment on long hikes or while traveling.
- DSLR cameras tend to have longer battery lives.
- Mirrorless cameras tend to have better video capabilities. So for the serious video shooter, mirrorless may be the way to go.
- DSLR cameras have a better selection of lenses. This is especially important if you specialize in a more gear-reliant type of photography, such as macro photography and bird photography.
It’s hard to go wrong with either option--and it all depends on your specific interests.
So don’t worry too much about the choice!
As I said, you can capture stunning, professional-quality photos with either camera type.
Canon vs Nikon
If you’ve been active in the photography community, you’ll know that the topic of “Canon vs Nikon” results in a lot of heated debate.
Which leads to the question:
Which should you choose: Canon or Nikon?
First of all, it’s worth noting that Canon and Nikon aren’t the only brands out there. There are Sony and Olympus DSLRs. And if you choose to go in the mirrorless direction, Canon and Nikon aren’t the top brands--that mantle belongs to Fujifilm or Sony.
Both Canon and Nikon offer incredible equipment.
In fact, both brands are perfect for beginners, enthusiasts, and consumers alike.
So don’t worry at all about this choice. You’ll be fine with either option.
If you’re a beginner photographer, you’re going to want a camera with easy-to-use settings. For instance, you’ll probably appreciate additional ‘helper’ modes, such as Portrait, Landscape, and Action.
You’ll probably also appreciate a more lightweight camera--one you can use very casually.
I suggest you choose either:
- One of the smaller, budget-friendly DSLRs. These are made to fit in pockets and to carry around. They’ll be fairly durable, and will be an excellent first ‘real’ camera.
- An inexpensive mirrorless camera. These are light and easy to use. The main problem with mirrorless cameras is the lack of lens options--but this should only be a problem if you plan to specialize in a more gear-intensive genre of photography, as discussed above.
I should note: While I’ve suggested more beginner-friendly choices, the above options will allow for professional-quality photos (once you know how to use them). As long as you’re using an up-to-date DSLR or a mirrorless camera, you can rest assured that amazing photos are within your grasp.
And if you’re still struggling, you can check out this video:
Where it gets trickier, however, is with lenses:
Even if you’re a beginner, you shouldn’t skimp on lens choice.
Lens choice is what actually makes a difference--if you end up with a poor-quality lens, your photos will be noticeably worse.
Fortunately, some quality lenses aren’t too pricey.
Now, there are two types of lenses:
- Zoom lenses offer a range of focal lengths. You can twist a ring on the lens, and go from, say, a wider view at 18mm to a close-up view at 200mm.
- Prime lenses only offer one focal length. If you want to make your subject appear closer, you have to ‘zoom with your feet’--that is, get physically closer.
Beginners often gravitate toward zoom lenses, because of the added flexibility.
However, I’d recommend the opposite:
Go for an inexpensive prime lens.
That’s because prime lenses tend to have very high image quality--whereas cheap zoom lenses often sacrifice sharpness for price.
Plus, prime lenses tend to offer wider maximum apertures, which allow you to shoot in low light.
And another reason: Prime lenses force you to master basic photographic composition from a single point of view. This can be helpful later on, when you’re thinking about the best compositions for your photos.
If I were to pick one prime lens, I’d go with a 50mm lens. They’re very inexpensive, and they’re a good focal length for many types of photography (including walkaround photography, street photography, portrait photography, and more). Plus, the image quality is stellar.
Another option is a 35mm prime lens. These offer a slightly wider field of view, and allow you to capture more ‘environmental’ photos.
Either option works--but if you don’t have a particular reason to choose 35mm, go with 50mm.
Choosing a camera is more difficult if you’re a more experienced photographer.
However, it can be boiled down to a few specific factors. They are:
- Do you need a full frame camera or a cropped-sensor camera? Full frame cameras use more sensor space, so they offer better ISO performance. Cropped-sensor cameras, on the other hand, work the way they sound: they literally crop the image in-camera, before you ever see it. This increases the effective focal length of the lens by a certain amount--generally 1.5 or 1.6 times the original focal length. This is great for wildlife and bird photographers, because you can get closer to the subject without purchasing a longer lens. But landscape photographers want a wider field of view, and tend to prefer a full frame camera.
- Do you need an ultra-rugged camera? If you’re often taking your camera out in the elements (i.e., if you’re a landscape photographer, wildlife photographer, street photographer, etc.) then you’ll need a camera that offers weather sealing. Otherwise, you’ll be fine with a slightly more plasticky camera body.
- Do you need a camera with good video capabilities? These days, almost every decent camera offers video. But they can differ in terms of the quality of the video, as well as the quality of the video accessories (flip-out LCD screens, mic quality, etc.).
- Do you need a camera with state-of-the-art tracking and high frame-per-second (fps) capabilities? If you’re looking to shoot moving animals, birds, or action sports, this will be essential. You’ll need a camera that has a large number of autofocus points and excellent tracking. You’ll also need a camera that offers 8+ fps (so you never miss a critical moment).
The first step is to answer the questions above.
Once you’ve done that, you’ll have narrowed your options down to a few cameras. For more specific recommendations, click here.
What Is the Best Lens to Buy as a More Serious Photographer?
If you’re a more experienced photographer, choosing a lens is all about the specific genre you specialize in.
This is because different genres of photography require very different capabilities.
But before I talk about photography genres, let’s discuss the main factors to consider:
- Focal length is the most important aspect of any lens. A long focal length is terrible for landscape photography, and a wide-angle lens is generally bad for bird photography. You need to choose your focal length extremely carefully.
- Maximum aperture is also a big factor. If a lens has a wide maximum aperture (e.g., f/1.2 up to f/2.8), you’ll be able to capture some nice shots in low light. But if the lens has a maximum aperture of f/4, shooting low light will be more difficult.
- Image stabilization is also important for photographers who work in low light. Good image stabilization will ensure you capture sharp shots while handholding at lengthy shutter speeds.
- Weight is especially important if you like to shoot while on the move. It’s a pain to carry around an ultra-heavy lens all day. So the lighter you can go, the better.
- Build quality is important for photographers who subject their gear to harsher conditions. Nature photographers, in particular, should think about weather sealing.
- Autofocus capabilities matters for most genres. As a rule, faster autofocus is better. You don’t want to wait while your lens hunts for your subject. If that happens, you’ll undoubtedly miss the shot.
- Image quality is probably the biggest factor of all. This is mostly discussed in terms of sharpness. That is, can you capture sharp photos with a lens, consistently? If the answer is ‘No,’ then it’s not worth paying for the lens.
Now that you have a sense of the lens qualities that matter, let’s talk about different genres of photography and what they require.
- Wildlife and bird photography require lenses in the 300-600mm range. Fast autofocus is essential. And the wider the maximum aperture, the better.
- Street photography requires lenses in the 25-85mm range. Fast autofocus is a plus, as is a wide maximum aperture. You’re also going to want to look for lighter lenses, as you don’t want to carry around big, heavy lenses all the time.
- Landscape photography generally uses wide-angle lenses in the 10-40mm range. Weight generally won’t be an issue, as wider lenses tend to be very light. For landscapes, image quality is paramount. Landscape photographers require corner-to-corner sharpness in every shot.
- Macro photography uses lenses in the 60-200mm range. These lenses are specially made to focus extremely close to your subject. Nearly all macro lenses are sharp, but image stabilization is a real positive.
- Portrait photography uses lenses in the 35-200mm range. 50mm lenses and 85mm lenses are portraiture standards, but 35mm is good for those who like to experiment for more environmental shots, and 200mm is good for tighter photos. A wide maximum aperture is essential for that gorgeous background blur. Autofocus is important, especially if you shoot a lot of moving subjects (e.g., children).
- Still life photography uses lenses in the 50mm range. Image quality is the only factor to consider.
Hopefully, you now have a sense of the best lens for your needs.
But if you’re still uncertain, I’d suggest watching this video:
Now it’s time to turn to photography accessories for beginners.
Photography Gear Guide: What are the Best Photography Accessories to Buy?
Let me preface this by saying:
If you’re a beginner photographer, you don’t need to purchase any accessories.
A camera and a lens will do just fine.
However, as you get more experienced, you may find yourself looking to enhance your photography setup.
One excellent accessory is a camera bag (or a good backpack). The best bags tend to be large and durable. They’re perfect for traveling with your camera equipment. And they’ll keep your setup safe when you carry it around.
Another useful accessory is a tripod.
To be clear, not all photographers need tripods. Many professionals don’t use them. It all depends on your interests.
Who should purchase a tripod?
Photographers looking to take high-quality:
- Landscape shots
- Night shots
- Architectural shots
- Bird/wildlife shots (with an ultra-long lens)
- Long-exposure travel shots
- Detailed macro shots
- Indoor portrait shots
On the other hand, you won’t need a tripod if you’re a more fast-action, in-the-moment kind of photographer. That’s why street photographers rarely use tripods. Same with event photographers. In such energy-filled environments, a tripod is just a restriction.
For those of you who are looking to purchase a tripod, you’re going to want to think about a few main factors:
- Minimum and maximum height
- Ease of use
First, you want to make sure the tripod is the right height for your needs.
You don’t want to choose a tripod that only extends to five feet if you’re seven feet tall--that would cause you a lot of unnecessary pain when you’re doing casual, standing shots.
Also, macro and landscape photographers often require a low minimum height. You want to get down close to your foreground subject.
For photographers who often contort themselves into different positions to get the perfect shot, you’re going to want a tripod with a lot of flexibility. This is especially relevant for macro photographers, who often shoot at unusual angles. Look for tripods that allow the center column to be reversed, as well as tripods that have no center column.
Weight is an issue for many photographers. Nobody wants to carry more weight than they must. If you’re a travel photographer, or if you often take your gear on long treks into the wilderness, you’re going to need a lightweight tripod. This means going for carbon fiber legs--which are sturdy, lightweight, and expensive.
Studio photographers, on the other hand, may be fine with a heavier aluminum tripod. This will give you sharp photos at a more reasonable price.
You should also consider how easy it is to set up the tripod. If you’re often assembling and disassembling your tripod, you may need something a bit faster to set up. Here, leg locks will make a bit different. Clip locks are easy to use but a bit slower--whereas twist locks are faster, once you get the hang of them.
Now, the final big factor to consider is sturdiness.
Here’s the thing:
A tripod is no use to you if it shakes. It needs to be able to withstand whatever you subject it to--so that you can come home with tack-sharp photos.
The stability is affected by a number of factors, including:
- Material of the tripod legs
- The number of legs
- Whether the tripod uses an extended center column
- The number of leg sections
There are also tradeoffs. For instance, carbon fiber tripods tend to be extremely sturdy, but are also very expensive.
Unfortunately, sturdiness is difficult to evaluate from the specs alone. My suggestion would be to read reviews on the tripods you’re considering, and look for comments about sturdiness.
Where Should You Purchase Photography Gear?
First, you have to decide whether to purchase new gear or used gear.
New vs Used Camera Gear
I’ve purchased a lot of used equipment. I’ve also purchased a lot of new equipment.
And in recent years, I’ve started to gravitate toward buying new, especially when it comes to cameras and lenses.
- If you buy used gear, you’re almost certainly purchasing without a warranty. This means that you’ll be unable to get any compensation if your equipment breaks two months after your purchase.
- When you buy used, you have no idea how the equipment has been treated. Of course, if you buy online you can often evaluate the gear upon receipt and (if it’s not as described) you can send it back. However, there are problems that might not be noticeable at first, but surface later on--things like water damage, sand particles in the mechanics, and faulty lens connections. Plus, if you’ve bought online, sending back equipment can be a hassle. And, in my experience, you have to return used equipment a lot--I’ve received lenses with fungus, sand, large dust spots, and smudges.
Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t purchase used. But you should think very carefully before you do. I’d consider buying used cameras or lenses if:
- The item is described as in truly excellent condition--where the owner barely used it for whatever reason, and
- The item is significantly cheaper used than new, and
- You questioned the owner, who has assured you that the item has no flaws of any kind.
In this case, you might consider purchasing used, especially if the ‘used’ price is within your budget, while the ‘new’ price is not.
Otherwise, buy new.
It’ll save you money in the long run.
The Best Store to Purchase Your Camera Gear
When buying photography gear, you have a number of options.
For new gear:
- The manufacturer or its authorized dealers, such as Amazon, B&H Photo, and Adorama
- Non-authorized dealers (which can often be found selling new items on eBay and Amazon)
- Brick-and-mortar camera shops, including smaller stores, as well as giants such as Best Buy
And for used gear:
- Secondhand camera shops
- Online secondhand sites, such as eBay, KEH, and Amazon
- Online forums, such as those on Craigslist
I’d suggest avoiding brick-and-mortar camera shops, whether new or used. The prices tend to be a lot higher than you can find on websites like Amazon, and the selection tends to be a lot less impressive.
On the other hand, it can be valuable to hold gear before purchasing it, simply to evaluate the weight and feeling of it in your hands.
If you prefer to hold gear physically before purchasing, you might consider going to a store like Best Buy and getting your hands on some options. Once you’ve made your decision, you can purchase that equipment online.
If you’re buying new, I’d suggest purchasing from an online store--ideally, from an authorized dealer. Sometimes you can find deals from sellers such as Amazon that you can’t find on the website of the original manufacturer, so be on the lookout for these. Keep an eye out during the holidays, which is when lots of deals appear.
Now, non-authorized dealers may offer the same camera equipment for a lower price. But this comes with a cost: Manufacturers generally won’t honor a warranty on these products.
That’s why I suggest sticking with an authorized dealer.
If you’re buying used, I’d recommend using reputable outlets like eBay and Amazon. While you can occasionally find good deals on forums, you’re not protected by any buyer guarantee--which makes any purchase very risky.
I’d also suggest checking out the secondhand camera shops in your area. You might be able to find some interesting deals on very old equipment--though newer equipment tends to be pricier in stores than online.
Photography Gear Buying Guide: Next Steps
Now, once you’ve followed this guide, you’ll have the gear to create professional quality photos.
No doubt about it.
The next step is to start using that gear. Learn all about it. Learn how to work it.
And practice, practice, practice!
Images and text by Jaymes Dempsey.