The Unicorn Academy Guide to Amateur Photography (Lesson One): "What Kind of Camera Should I Get?"

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I see this question float around the internet a lot, and it excites me when someone approaches me directly with it. I think back to when I “took the plunge” and got my first DSLR, and how inspired and excited I was to have such an awesome tool in my hands. My first camera was a Nikon D70s that I bought from a friend, and I used that camera for many years before I wound up with two cameras in my kit, as well as a full-frame Nikon D700.

One important thing to think about before making the gigantic purchase is to ask yourself whether or not you are planning to take your camera off Automatic. If you really do not see yourself wanting to go beyond simply “pointing and shooting,” I honestly would think twice before purchasing a DSLR. In my honest opinion, it would be expensive to purchase something that you are already doing with your smartphone. If you haven’t heard about the cameras on the latest iPhones or Samsung Galaxies--they’re pretty good and that is all that most people need.

I’m not making fun...I’m being serious. Smart phones have amazing cameras now. You may laugh at the concept of selfies, but “Portrait Mode” is seriously cool….

However, if you want to take it a step further and learn how you can control and manipulate your images to get them the way you want them to look, then HELL YES you should get a DSLR! Whether you are a student, looking to just take it up as a hobby, or are thinking down the road that you might see yourself working in the field professionally--it’s good to remember that we all start somewhere. Basically, a camera is a tool and it is the photographer that creates the images.

Wait...what's a DSLR? DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex. If you have ever had pictures taken professionally, this is the type of camera that is used. What this means is light enters the camera through a single lens that goes through a series of mirrors or a prism and then enters the sensor that captures the image.

In the days of film, these cameras were simply known as "SLRs."

Prospective photographers are always wondering about what brand to work with. I’m a Nikon girl, but you know what? It doesn’t really matter. Nikon, Canon, and Sony all make fine cameras from beginner to expert level. Pentax and Olympus are also a couple of good brands that make excellent DSLRs, but the aforementioned trio definitely are the most well-known. If you don’t know where to start, do some research and figure out what bodies other beginners like and are buying. What features were they looking for? How easy was it to figure out how to use? Below are three great beginner cameras that I’ve used and known a few others to use, and they really like them. Most camera companies will make it a point to create models that specifically cater to beginners:

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Nikon D3400 ($532 New on Amazon with 18-55 lens)

Canon Rebel T6 ($499 New on Amazon with 18-55 lens)

Sony Alpha a68 ($692 New on Amazon with 18-55 lens)

....If you haven't noticed already, an 18-55 is the standard lens sold in a "kit" with a camera body.

I strongly recommend buying used, especially with your first camera. You may not know how serious you’ll get with this new hobby, and you don’t need the fanciest camera on the market to take pretty pictures and figure out what kind of photographer you are. Be prepared to spend anywhere from $500-1200 on a brand new camera body or kit (where the body comes with a lens). Save the money, and you might find you want new lenses with the money you save...or a new body down the road. Honestly, I’ve only ever purchased used equipment myself. Companies are producing new cameras every year, and lots of people want to upgrade when that happens, which means older models are available on the market at a reduced rate. You can find used cameras in great condition from KEH, B&H Photo, and Amazon (just be careful of seller ratings, and make sure there are enough positive reviews so you know you’re getting it from a reliable source). A couple great used cameras that are mid-level and extremely user friendly are the Nikon D90 (I owned this camera and LOVED it) and the Canon 70D. If you’re curious about video, I started out with the Nikon D5100 and the D7000 series is pretty awesome for that as well.

If you are just starting out and don’t see yourself using the camera beyond personal use, I would stick with a crop sensor over a full-frame sensor. Full-frame cameras are great, and as a professional I prefer it--however, you can still take great shots with a crop sensor and you won’t be spending extra money on something that isn’t completely necessary.

What is a sensor? It is the device that takes the light that comes through the lens and converts it into an image. Full frame sensors are true to the surface area of 35mm film, whereas crop sensors are slightly smaller. Crop sensors exist because at one point in time, this is what all digital cameras had. As technology advanced, eventually full frame sensors were developed. As a professional, I strongly prefer a full-frame sensor, but as a beginner or hobbyist, you may not be able to tell the difference or find a need for a larger sensor.

 Diagram from  Nikon

Diagram from Nikon

I’m not trying to have a Nikon bias, but I know these cameras as I’ve owned several. Nikon crop sensors are “DX” and full-frame are “FX.”

 Image from  B&H Photo

Image from B&H Photo

For beginners I also recommend getting a kit where your camera body comes with one or two lenses. Photography is an expensive hobby, and if you are just using your camera to take pictures of your family or on vacation once a year, you will likely have all the equipment you will ever need.

Remember to do your research (Check out  and find the camera that is best for you--every photographer is different and we all can use different tools. Good luck shopping, and I can’t wait to see your first pictures! If you do take photos with your new camera and happen to be actively following this series, please tag them #UNICORNPHOTOACADEMY on Instagram! It'll be fun to share our pretty images with each other.

Sincerely,

The Girl in the Unicorn Pajamas