Getting started in photography often feels overwhelming. Imagine a child walking into the world’s largest toy store and being told to only choose one thing. That’s you figuring out what photography equipment you need.
There are several great camera brands to choose from, and dozens of excellent cameras from each brand. And that’s not even counting lenses and accessories. So what do you do?
Here’s everything you need to know about essential photography equipment for beginners, including best options currently on the market.
[ExpertPhotography is supported by readers. Product links on ExpertPhotography are referral links. If you use one of these and buy something we make a little bit of money. Need more info? See how it all works here.]
Figuring out which camera you should buy is anything but easy.
You can get started with a $500 camera or a $2,000 one. That pricier camera will have more features and probably last you longer.
But it can be daunting to get started on an advanced camera with controls designed for pros, not newbies.
Here’s what to keep in mind.
Mirrorless, DSLR or Advanced Compact
Start your gear search by narrowing down the category that best suits you and your type of photography.
There are more than three categories of digital cameras. But DSLRs, mirrorless cameras and advanced compacts have the most features for anyone that wants to get serious about photography.
DSLRs are the traditional go-to for anyone wanting to get serious about photography. DSLRs have all the advanced features, large sensors, and swappable lenses. But they are bulkier than mirrorless cameras.
Mirrorless cameras are the DSLR’s lighter weight sibling.
Most mirrorless cameras available today can shoot right alongside a DSLR in many scenarios. But the entry-level models tend to be a little higher priced than an entry-level DSLR.
Advanced compacts are the “point-and-shoot” cameras for the serious photographer. No, we’re not talking about a $200 point-and-shoot, we’re talking about the compact cameras that pack in a larger sensor along with advanced features like manual mode and RAW photography.
Advanced compacts can be great for travel and unobtrusive street photography. But they are more limited with a fixed lens and many have a smaller sensor than a DSLR. You’ll also pay a premium for that small size. Many of them are more expensive than an entry-level DSLR.
Crop or Full Frame Sensor
Within each category, cameras still have a wide range of different features — so what items on that long list of technical specifications should you be paying attention to?
The biggest indicator of a camera’s image quality is the sensor, which is like a miniature solar panel that actually captures the digital image. The larger the sensor is, the higher the image quality is. Some advanced compacts will have a one-inch sensor.
This is good compared to your smartphone, but small compared to a DSLR or mirrorless cameras.
Within the mirrorless and DSLR categories, most sensors fall into three categories, starting with the smallest: Micro Four Thirds, APS-C, and full frame or 35mm. All three are good, but both image quality and price typically improve as the sensor size increases.
Micro Four Thirds and APS-C are often plenty for beginners, but there’s a catch. If you start investing in Micro Four Thirds lenses and then find a few years down the road that you want to jump up to full frame, your lenses won’t be compatible and you’ll have to buy new ones.
Along with the size of the sensor, consider the megapixels — the more megapixels a camera has, the more detailed the photos will be. More isn’t always better. Cameras with fewer megapixels often snap better low light images.
Cameras with megapixel counts in the 20s are often great for beginners, but you can go higher if you have the budget.
Speed should also be a major consideration. The easiest way to get an idea of how fast a camera is? Look at the maximum burst speed, written in frames per second. A 10 fps camera is a pretty fast camera, ideal for capturing fast subjects, such as sports and children.
A 5 fps burst speed is more common for a budget model. It’s often sufficient for hobbyists but those shooting sports and other fast subjects may want to consider a faster camera.
If you want to get serious about photography, you should also make sure the camera you choose has manual modes and RAW shooting. Mirrorless cameras and DSLRs have both. Advanced compact cameras often have these features.
It’s a good indication that you’re just looking at a plain old compact and not an advanced one if the only available modes are automated modes, without manual listed.
That said, here are a few current options to consider in each category.
DSLR Cameras Under $750
DSLR Cameras Under $1,500
Mirrorless Cameras Under $1,000
Advanced Compact Cameras
The camera lens is the other half of the equation. Factors like how sharp the image is, how blurry the background is, and how much of the scene is included in the image are all determined by the camera lens.
The focal length of a lens determines how much of the scene the camera captures. A 35mm lens captures a wide angle that includes much of the scene. A 300mm can crop in close on a far-off subject.
Zoom lenses have more than one focal length in the lens, like the 18-55mm lens often bundled with most camera bodies.
Prime lenses have a single focal length. There’s no zoom but these lenses are often brighter, sharper, and sometimes cheaper.
If you want a very blurry background or want to shoot images in low light, an f/1.8 prime lens can make a big difference.
Along with focal length and aperture, you should also consider image stabilization. Stabilization helps prevent blur from camera shake. The longer the focal length is, the more important stabilization becomes.
Specialty lenses offer a more specific purpose or look. Macro lenses are designed for close-ups. Fish-eye lenses are so wide, the horizon curves. Tilt-shift lenses compensate for perspective distortion (and can also create neat effects).
The lenses that are bundled with the camera body are often a good start, but not the best lens that you can buy. The best lenses to add to your kit vary based on what you want to shoot.
Priced at right around $200 for many brands, a 50mm f/1.8 lens offers brighter performance and a more blurred background than most kit lenses will offer. It’s great for portraits, taking pictures of kids, street photography and more.
An 85mm f/1.8 or f/1.4 is also a great portrait lens. It typically sits at a much higher price point.
A 70-300mm or longer is excellent for getting up close. Whether that’s for photographing birds or sports.
For something brighter than a kit lens with the same wide-angle versatility, a 24-70mm f/2.8 is an excellent but often expensive option.
Remember to choose a lens that’s compatible with your camera body by matching the mount of your camera. If you’re shooting with an APS-C Nikon or Canon, however, you can use full frame lenses with the same mount.
The full frame lenses will be more expensive and the view will be cropped on your APS-C camera. But if you upgrade to full frame in the future, the lens will still be compatible.
Sure, it’s a small accessory. But without a memory card, you can’t take any pictures. The three biggest things to remember when buying a memory card are compatibility, space, and speed.
First, make sure you’re looking at cards that are compatible with your camera. Some take SD cards, some CF cards, and some XQD cards. Even within those categories, sometimes a camera only accepts SDHC or SDXC. Check your camera body specs if you’re not sure.
The size of your SD card determines how many photos you can fit on a single card. This is largely a personal preference, whether you use one big card or several smaller ones.
Keep in mind that the more megapixels your camera has, the faster your card will fill up. You’re not going to want to put a 4 GB card inside a 50-megapixel camera.
Finally, look at the speed rating of the memory card. Inexpensive memory cards are often a class four. Your camera will be slower at shooting photos, as well as slower bringing up photos on the camera’s LCD screen with them.
You’ll want at least a class 10 for an entry-level DSLR with HD video. For more advanced cameras and 4K video-capable cameras, you’ll want Ultra High Speed Class 1 or 3. Just make sure your camera is compatible with UHS.
For the best memory cards out there, check out this article on Best Memory Cards for all Photography Budgets.
A flash is an excellent accessory to add once you’ve mastered the manual modes on your camera.
Besides just brightening a photo, a flash can add contrast to an image, fill in dark shadows, and add sparkle to a portrait subject’s eyes.
Like cameras, flashes come with different features and price points. Starting out, you’ll want a flash with TTL, which is like the flash’s auto mode. If you don’t need to use a flash with a long 300mm lens, a basic flash with TTL is enough.
When you buy that flash though, buy a flash diffuser or a bounce card. Mixed with flash compensation and manual flash mode, a diffuser or bounce card will help soften the shadows and make the use of a flash less obvious.
The Mag Mod diffuser is a good option. There are also $10 inexpensive flash softboxes on Amazon that work but aren’t as seamless to use.
Some photographers swear by their tripods. Others end up leaving them in a closet collecting dust. A tripod isn’t essential for every photographer.
Landscape photographers tend to get the most use out of a tripod. A landscape photographer can use a tripod to turn water into magical blur using long exposure.
Other photographers might use a tripod for shooting in low light. Sometimes it’s good even to just take the weight of the camera off your shoulder.
When looking for a tripod, be sure to pick up one that’s the right height. You don’t want to slouch to see through the camera’s viewfinder.
The tripod’s maximum capacity shouldn’t be less than your camera with your heaviest lens and accessories attached. The size and weight of the tripod when folded should also be a consideration if you plan to travel with it.
For more on choosing a tripod, read Best Budget Tripods and Monopods guide.
Editing your images will allow you to correct minor exposure errors, perfect the colors in your image, straighten a crooked horizon, and more.
But what program do you use?
Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom are arguably the most popular options. Lightroom will organize and do several types of photo edits. Photoshop is there for the more elaborate editing tasks. You can get both with a $10 a month subscription.
Not sure you want to pay for a subscription as you’re just getting started? Free image editors like GIMP and other paid photo editors like Skylum Luminar and Corel Paintshop will all help you to polish your images.
Just like with different cameras, they have different features and different usability. You can download a free trial to try the program out before you commit to one.
There are a few other accessories you may want to consider. These accessories aren’t as expensive as the rest, and can make your new photography hobby even more enjoyable.
A camera bag will not only fit all your gear in one place, but keep it protected with padded inserts too. Shoulder and messenger bags are more compact options. But backpacks will distribute the weight over two shoulders instead of one.
Filters can introduce creative effects and are still relevant in the digital age. Colored filters and soft focus filters are now easy to create with a photo editor. But some filters can’t be replicated with software.
A polarizer will allow you to enhance or reduce reflections. This filter can also make the sky appear more blue and foliage more green.
A neutral density filter will darken the image so that you can take long exposures during the day. Or use a wide aperture in bright sunlight.
A graduated neutral density filter will prevent the sky from becoming an overexposed white mass.
A rain cover can keep your gear protected if you get caught in a storm. There’s fancy options out there. But there are also rain covers that basically amount to a camera poncho and sell for under $10.
A camera cleaning kit will help prevent ruining an image because of spots on the lens. You’ll need at least a lens cloth, but lens wipes and brushes can also come in handy too. Never use a cleaner not designed specifically for cameras on a lens. You might ruin the special coatings on the lens.
A color calibration monitor kit will make sure that you’re editing the colors you think you’re editing. Colors can vary greatly among different monitors. A calibration kit will help prevent you from scratching your head when your printed image looks nothing like the one on your screen.
You can also pay for color correction when you print images instead. But you won’t be able to control the results and won’t have that color calibration for those online images that you share. Options from Spyder start at $60.
An external hard drive will prevent your computer from filling up quickly with all those digital files. You can choose one that will just sit on your desk next to your computer, or one that will allow you to backup files in the field.
Photography Equipment Is About What Works for You
The biggest thing to remember when buying camera gear is that different styles of photography require different things. While a photographer interested in sports is going to want that 10 fps camera, a portrait photographer won’t make speed a priority.
By understanding the basics of photography equipment, you can choose what gear will work the best for your style.
To get started, you’ll need a camera, lens and SD card. As you grow, you’ll likely want to expand your gear kit with a flash, tripod, and other accessories like filters.