Christmas is coming and so is Christmas vacation season, in order to prepare, many of us try to buy the best beginner friendly camera to capture our moments like the pros. Unfortunately, there are thousands of options titled with fancy photography lingo and marketing jazz that distract you from what you actually want: a camera that takes good pictures. This article is meant to point someone in the right direction based on my personal recommendations for cameras.

Cameras are expensive, in fact, decent entry level DSLRs will set you back at least $500. There are a lot of options, so let’s start with making the right purchase. First, let’s nail down what you are looking for:

Disclaimer, I am not being paid for any of the links provided here and all camera recommendations are from personal experience or the experiences of photographers I know.

For Portraits & Life Snapshots

The most common usage for entry-level DSLRs is for family snapshots and photos of backyards. I don’t have data to back this up, but I’m going to assume that these two categories are up there (with railroad track photos coming at a close third). That being said, a camera for situations where you are in a backyard BBQ or an indoor house party needs to be light, small, and have a great sensor for low-light scenarios. A pop up flash is also a great feature in many entry level cameras, and although many photographers shudder at the idea of pop-ups, the reality is no one wants to be the guy with the 2lb. $400 strobe at the family party.

Pictured: Not a fun party

Pictured: Not a fun party

When looking for a camera, ignore the hype over higher megapixel count and make note of its ISO capabilities instead. ISO is the camera sensor’s sensitivity to light, so having a higher number usually means that you can boost your light performance considerably in a situation that requires it (at the cost of noisier images, entry level cameras can only perform so well). A common ISO range for DSLR’s under $1000 nowadays is above ~6400 ISO, so look for cameras on or above that range.

In the case of portraits, lenses are also a huge factor. We’ll get to this in another section, but for now just understand that money spent on glass is never money wasted. The “kit” bundles you can buy on Amazon and Ebay seem like great deals, and in most cases they are, but you will be receiving average (sometimes less-than-average) “kit” glass aimed at beginners. If you’re looking for variety and flexibility in your photos, these are the way to go for now. If you’re looking for sharper, more professional photos that can give that “creamy bokeh look” then you’ll need a “fast” lens.

Note the blurred background

Note the blurred background produced by wide aperture.

Contrary to their name, fast lenses aren’t necessarily faster at anything, and can be told apart from other lenses by the lower F-stop numbers in their names (ie: the Canon 50mm F1.8 and Nikon 50mm F1.8). Also called prime lenses, these lenses are not zoom lenses but are instead characterized by their fixed focal length (ie: non-zoominess) and their wide apertures. The benefits of prime lenses outweigh their few cons: they’re almost always lighter, smaller and provide considerably better image quality per price than their zoom counterparts. The best part? The lower the aperture number, the more light they let in, so you can easily snap beautiful photos in dimly lit places like concerts, parties and the occasional basement dungeons.

My Suggestion for portraits? Purchase a camera body and a fast lens individually:

Portrait Recommendation - Low Budget: Canon T5 Body Only & Canon 50mm f1.8 STM

Portrait Recommendation - Higher Budget: Canon 6D Body Only & Canon 50mm f1.4

If you want something smaller and lighter, then my favorite camera is right for you. A Sony A7 with one of the sharpest lenses ever made should handle all your portrait and general needs, albeit without zoom ability. It’s also the camera I used to shoot pretty much my entire portfolio.

Alternate Recommendation Sony A7 & Zeiss 55mm f1.8

For Travel & Street Photography

The advent of digital cameras and social media has changed popular conception of photographers from creepy middle-aged men offering “free senior portraits” in their home studio to visible and (somewhat) respected artists who make an impact in the world by telling stories through their photos. If you’re interested in engaging viewers with compelling urban photos, be it through street or travel photography, then your optimal camera will be small but powerful. In this case, mirrorless cameras win out due to their size, weight, fast autofocus, and oftentimes more modern features like WiFi & NFC.

Capturing images quickly is essential

Capturing brief moments quickly and on focus is essential to street photogs.

Speed, size and weight are all qualities that mirrorless cameras excel in, so we’ll be discussing from the viewpoint of one of these tiny superheroes:

The Sony A6000

The Sony A6000

The Sony A6000, while not the best street photography camera out there, is definitely one of the best small cameras on a budget. It represents many of the features street photographers crave: the ability to shoot fast (11 frames per second), focus quickly (hybrid autofocus), capture detail (24mp sensor with no AA filter), and weigh next to nothing (the metal body of the camera weighs 16 ounces). The look of mirrorless cameras also provides a not so obvious advantage: the vintage looks and small size keep your camera discrete and safe. In unsafe areas, it can be a comforting thought to know that no one will be eyeing your camera.

Since the A6000 is one of my favorite secondary cameras, so the recommendation comes naturally:

Street Recommendation - Low Budget: Sony A6000 Body Only & Sony E 16mm Wide Angle Lens or Sony FE 28-70mm F3.5-5.6 OSS

An optional arrangement with a native E-mount zoom allows for sharp wider angle shots perfect for landscapes and tight street photography spaces:

Street Recommendation - Higher Budget: Sony A6000 Body Only & Sony 10-18mm Wide Angle

A favorite of many photographers I know, the Fuji is new to me, but is a beautiful camera that takes beautifully crispy photos. Well worth exploring as an option:

Alternate Recommendation: Fujifilm X100T

Wildlife & Sports

I know that lumping these two categories would likely make afficionados on either side angry at me, but let’s face it, when I think of shooting wildlife and sports, all I think of is: Big Telephoto

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Courtesy of Wikipedia

I’ll admit, I have very little practical experience with either wildlife or “official” sport photography, so take my advice with a grain of salt if need be. You’ll need a camera that both shoots fast and focuses quickly, as well as a sharp zoom lens with the ability to catch fast moving subjects. My recommendation would be the 7D, a pro-sumer camera that just recently received an updated MK. II version. The 7D line is famous for its fast autofocus (and fast everything really) so it’s a natural option for those serious about shooting fast, quick, and far. For the lower budget MK.I you can find a used body for relatively cheap, although I’ll be linking to a new version here.

Sports, Action & Wildlife Recommendation - Low Budget: Canon 7D MK. I & Canon 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS II

Sports, Action & Wildlife Recommendation - Higher Budget: Canon 7D MK. II & Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS USM

I’ll be updating this post if it gets enough traction, let me know if you have any questions or comments on anything I should add!