Cameras rank high on the list of most difficult pieces of gear to shop for. Especially for beginners, the litany of specs to sift through—aperture, shutter speed, autofocus, frames per second, focal length, sensor size, and more—is simply overwhelming.
I recently went through the process of upgrading from my trusty iPhone to a real, interchangeable-lens camera and experienced this struggle firsthand. Having never taken a photography class in my life, I hadn’t the faintest idea what any of those terms meant or which ones I should care about.
Ultimately, hours of research and the advice of a few photographer friends led me to the Sony a7ii ($1,000), the company’s cheapest full-frame mirrorless camera. Mirrorless cameras are lighter and smaller than DSLRs, so they’re easier to carry in a backpack, and the a7ii’s in-body stabilization and respectable ISO range are ideal for shooting outside in variable conditions. Sony and other brands make mirrorless cameras for a few hundred dollars cheaper, but they have smaller sensors (the images they create are not as big) and generally don’t afford the user as much control over as many settings as a midrange body like the a7ii. I figured that spending more money up front would leave me more room for growth in the future.
But the camera that’s right for me isn’t necessarily the one that’s right for you. “You should know a little bit about what you want to shoot before you invest in a camera,” says Kevin Zansler, Outside’s photo-studio manager. “If you’re doing fast-action sports photography, you’re going to want something with a high frames-per-second rate. If you’re doing nightscapes or starscapes, ISO matters more. Certain cameras are better suited for certain things.”
Here are some of the primary decision points you’ll come across in your search for a camera and advice on how to navigate them, with insights from Outside’s photography team.
DSLR Versus Mirrorless Cameras
What They Are
Traditional digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras use internal mirrors to reflect light from the lens into the viewfinder. Mirrorless cameras skip the reflectors; light travels directly through the lens onto the sensor (and the rear LCD screen), and the viewfinder simply displays a digitized version of what's on the LCD screen.
Why the Choice Matters
Since DSLR technology is older, these cameras are generally more affordable. They’re also much bigger and heavier. Mirrorless cameras tend to be pricier but also much smaller and lighter. (And the presence or absence of mirrors does not measurably change the quality of the image produced.)
The same amount of money will get you a nicer DSLR body than it will mirrorless, but the added weight might mean you leave it out of your pack on long, hard days—the very outings that will probably yield the best photos. “What good is a camera if you’re not going to want to carry it around?” says Zansler. Remember to consider usability in addition to technical specifications.
What They Are
Sensors are the digital equivalent of film, collecting light from the lens and translating it into an image. The bigger the sensor, the more light it will take in and, thus, the more detail the camera will be able to capture. Most sensors are either APS-C size (23.5 by 15.6 millimeters) or full-frame (36 by 24 millimeters).
Why Size Matters
The main benefits of a larger sensor are increased level of detail and increased image size. “You can make much larger prints, and your images will have better depth,” says Zansler. That’s not to say that cropped sensors produce poor-quality images. A camera with an APS-C sensor will likely still be better than your iPhone. (This depends on the lens you use. More on that further down.) More importantly, it’s way easier on your wallet.
Cameras with full-frame sensors cost significantly more than those with APS-C sensors. If you get serious about photography, you’ll want a full-frame sensor because of the superior images. But Zansler says they’re not necessary for most beginners. However, since APS-C and full-frame bodies use different lenses, going with an APS-C camera means you’ll need to buy all-new lenses if you decide to switch to a full-frame body a few years down the road.
What It Is
ISO is a measure of how sensitive your sensor is to light. All cameras have a range of sensitivity levels, which you can adjust. At lower ISO levels, your sensor picks up less light. At higher ISO levels, your sensor picks up more light.
Why It Matters
A high ISO is critical for shooting in dark, overcast, or otherwise low-light conditions. High ISO levels are also helpful when shooting moving subjects that require a fast shutter speed, because fast-moving shutters let in less light (i.e., the camera needs to process all the light it can get in that split second).
Nicer sensors have higher ISO ranges, which means increased sensitivity in low light. They’re also more expensive. Most midlevel DSLR and mirrorless cameras have ISOs up to 25,000, including the a7ii. Meanwhile, top-end bodies go over ISO 50,000, like the Sony a9, which costs $4,000. Most beginner photographers will be well served with an average ISO range unless they plan on shooting professional-quality action or night photography.
What It Is
Stabilization technology counteracts the blurring effects of camera shake.
Why It Matters
If you twitch your hand while clicking the shutter button, stabilization ensures your image won’t come out fuzzy. This can be particularly important in outdoor-adventure situations if you’re capturing moving people or shooting without a tripod.
Nowadays, many mid- and high-end cameras have stabilization technology built into the body. For cameras that don’t, you can purchase lenses with it. Both come at a premium of several hundred dollars (on the low end) but can pay dividends if you plan to be moving around a lot while you shoot.
What They Are
A series of concave and convex glass strips housed inside a metal or plastic tube that collects light and focuses it on your image sensor.
Why They Matter
Lenses control everything about how your image turns out. The distance between your sensor and the point where light comes together inside the lens, called focal length, determines how wide or close up you can shoot. (Low focal lengths make wide shots, high focal lengths make close-up shots. Zoom lenses have adjustable focal lengths within a range.) The amount of light your lens allows in, called aperture (denoted with the term f-stop), determines exposure and the degree of background blur.
Nicer lenses have better maximum apertures (confusingly, this corresponds to lower f-stop numbers) and top-quality glass for all-around sharper images. Generally, fixed-focal-length—or prime—lenses are cheaper than zoom lenses with equivalent specs.
After paying upward of $1,000 for a camera, it’s tempting to cheap out on the lenses. However, many photographers argue that nice lenses are the one piece worth the extra money, even for beginners. “You can shell out for a nice camera body, but if you put crappy glass on the end of it, [the quality of your body] is not gonna show,” says Zansler.