These days, when most people think of a camera, they’re really just thinking about their smartphones.
It makes sense: the image sensors baked into modern smartphone handsets, in the right circumstances, can take some stunning shots. However, those circumstances, most often dictated by the amount of light you’re shooting in and the lenses built into the handset, are limited. In order to take your photography to the next level, investing in a dedicated, high-quality camera that is both advanced enough that you can learn what you need in order to use it, while also not being so intimidating you'll give up after a month, is a must.
The recommendations in this guide are based on thorough product and market research by our team of expert product reviewers. The picks are based on examining user reviews, product specifications, and, in some limited cases, our experience with the specific products named.
When you're ready for your first "real" camera, Nikon's D3500 is the place to start. Its compact frame and kit lens (and optional interchangeable lenses) make it appealing to carry anywhere, and its sharp, 24-megapixel still images all work in its favor. Perhaps most importantly, its approachable ergonomics and simple menu system (with its beginner-friendly Guide mode) can have you shooting in minutes, or help you learn more advanced techniques if you want to dig in.
Even though you might find a DSLR intimidating at first, Nikon's got you covered. The D3500 takes the power of a bigger camera and shrinks it down into a comfortable, portable package. It might lack advanced features like a touchscreen, but I found its built-in SnapBridge Wi-Fi incredibly simple to use. That means it's a cinch to zap copies of photos onto social media via your smartphone when you're still out and about.
Even if the rear LCD screen is a little limited, you’ll want to use the optical viewfinder to frame and capture shots instead. The viewfinder will let you see your subjects, AF point, and critical shooting info at a glance, all without the slight lag that sometimes can make an electronic viewfinder or screen tricky to use. Of course, you can use the D3500’s rear screen to frame your shots in Live View mode, but you’ll trade the camera’s faster phase-detection autofocus for the convenience.
With this Nikon and its 3x zoom lens, you can shoot sharp photos a phone would struggle to capture. Plus, its pop-up fill flash is right up top if you ever need to brighten an unevenly-lit scene. It's capable enough to capture the occasional video clip, too, with smooth 1080/60p full HD video available. We found that although you could easily get a day's worth of snapping away on a single battery charge, you can't top up the battery with a USB power bank.
If a bigger camera just isn't your jam, there are still point-and-shoot cameras that are worth checking out. Our recommendation is the Canon Powershot G9X Mark II, a minimalist camera that hides a deceptive amount of features under the surface.
The image quality produced by its 20-megapixel image sensor outshines what many high-end smartphones are capable of, and the built-in 3x optical zoom lens lets you get closer to the action with the flick of a toggle. This lens lets in plenty of light to give you nice, out-of-focus backgrounds on your subjects, without some of the (albeit technically impressive) portrait mode software phones need to rely on. It even has a built-in neutral density filter, so you can shoot with the lens wide open in bright circumstances without getting a blown-out look.
Many of its controls have been adapted for a touch-friendly interface, giving you quick control of the camera's shooting modes and options as you shoot using its rear touchscreen. If that's not enough, then a satisfyingly clicky dial surrounds the lens on the front, and you can use that to control aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, or even focus.
The battery life on this product is a little underwhelming, but you can easily charge it with the same portable USB battery packs you'd use for a smartphone. We also found that shooting video was a little iffy in low light, which gave us slightly grainy footage with lackluster autofocus, but it wasn’t bad enough to hamper our enthusiasm for this great little camera.
This mirrorless camera is a good camera for still photos, but it’s secretly a video powerhouse. We love this camera for the sharp 4K footage it shoots and impressively deep video functionality that Panasonic gives users.
It has a nice electronic viewfinder, an articulated touchscreen, and a body that’s well-designed and easy to grip--so there’s a lot to like. Plus, it’s also a little older, so it’s easy to find a good deal on it.
While the Panasonic is more advanced when it comes to video, it's not as easy to use as some others.
Sony’s mid-range A6400 is like many of Sony’s more recent mirrorless cameras, featuring a corner-mounted viewfinder and a flipping touchscreen that works for off-angle work and even selfies. It has a flat body that makes it less bulky than some other products, but at the expense of ergonomics and comfort. The kit I tried included Sony’s 16-50mm power zoom lens, which retracts to keep the camera’s profile slim when you’re not shooting with it.
That said, this advanced Sony had some of the best image quality of the cameras we tested with impressively fast autofocus and quick burst speeds, aided by startlingly precise face and eye detection software. If you need to shoot a lot of fast-moving action, this is a great camera to consider.
Unfortunately, because of its higher price, harder-to-use controls, and more complicated menus, we don’t think it’s the best fit for beginners. The Sony A6400 is an impressive camera, but one that’s way better suited for someone with photography experience who knows that they’ll get every ounce of performance from their $1,000 purchase. But, for a beginner, you can get way better bang for your buck with the two picks we listed at the top of this article.
Canon’s low-end DSLR was an obvious pick for this guide due to its popularity and great price. It is a very basic DSLR but has a lot of things you might like. It has standard wi-fi connectivity, a dead-simple menu system, and it shoots passable HD video.
Where the Canon is a real letdown is when it comes to image quality and its overall build and design. Its sensor isn’t quite as good as what the Nikon has to offer, its noisy zoom lens feels chintzy, and the camera just feels cheap and insubstantial compared to the others on this list.
While the Rebel T6 often sells for less money than the Nikon D3500 (and sometimes in a two-lens kit, or even with bonus accessories included), the Nikon is well worth the higher price you’ll pay.
Each entry-level camera we selected for this guide was scored on image quality in both dim and bright lighting. We also examined video quality and how well each camera coped with capturing fast-moving subjects such as neighborhood cats and moving cars.
We also scored each camera subjectively, with a specific focus on making sure each camera was approachable, easy to learn, and comfortable to use. After all, it's no good to buy a camera with the intent of jumping into the world of photography, only to use it once and lock it away in a drawer out of frustration.
To come up with rankings, we weighted each factor that we evaluated to best meet the requirements of a newbie photographer.
Mirrorless vs. DSLR vs. Point and Shoot
When it comes to picking the right camera for a beginner, there's one choice you'll need to make immediately: point-and-shoot, DSLR, or mirrorless? These are the three main types of digital camera, and they differ greatly in design. While there are simple and complex versions of all three, here's how they generally work:
DSLRs (or Digital Single-Lens Reflex cameras) are the traditional "real cameras" that you've seen for decades. They're bulky, mostly made by Canon and Nikon, and they have a large viewfinder on top that lets you see through the actual lens, giving you an exact view of what you're shooting. Though there are entry-level models that make things simple, they all offer full manual controls and lenses you can take off and swap when you want a different type of shot.
Mirrorless cameras are similar, but typically smaller cameras because they don't have this optical viewfinder. Instead, their viewfinders are usually digital, giving you basically a small video of what the camera is looking at. There are a lot of advantages to this, mostly if you care about shooting video, but the biggest difference is they're smaller and lighter cameras with fewer mechanical parts.
Point-and-shoots are any camera in which the lens can't be removed, though some have big zoom lenses and some have lenses that don't change at all. Though you may think that smaller point-and-shoots are less fancy than the larger ones with giant zoom lenses, there is a spectrum. There are compact point-and-shoots that have full manual control and large "superzoom" cameras that are meant to be used by true novices.
What Kind of Camera Should I Get?
Deciding between these three is about your priorities. If you plan to get a camera to travel with, get something small and compact that you won't mind bringing with you everywhere. If you want something you can experiment with, your best bet is likely a DSLR or mirrorless camera that will let you try out a variety of lenses. If you plan to shoot things far away, or capture video, make sure you get a camera that can handle that.
Part of the equation here is cost. Most interchangeable lens cameras come with a basic lens that doesn't offer a lot of creative possibilities. Point-and-shoots may be more restrictive, but oftentimes the built-in lens on a high-end point-and-shoot will be nicer than the basic lens that comes with a DSLR.
That is one of the reasons we really like Nikon DSLRs; the lens mount on Nikon DSLRs hasn't changed in decades so you can still attach old, cheap manual lenses and get some great photos.
Ideally, you want a camera that's as light and portable as possible, without sacrificing anything. That way it won't weigh you down during hikes, guided tours, or other physically strenuous activities you might do on your trip.
Many modern point-and-shoot cameras are made of metal, making them impressively strong. But don't be careless—these gadgets contain precision-engineered motors and glass lens elements that can be dislodged or damaged. Take care of your travel camera by keeping it on a strap and try to keep the bumps and scrapes to a minimum.
Does Sensor Size Matter?
Yes. The general rule of thumb is that larger sensors can capture more light, making a camera more capable in a wide array of shooting scenarios. Bigger sensors can also render images differently, making for blurry backgrounds of subjects. This look is known as "bokeh," and even though smartphones can fake it with software, the real deal can often look much more convincing.
Do I Need a Camera Bag?
It's a good idea. Camera bags often give you enough room to protect not only your camera but also your must-have accessories. It's a surefire way to keep track of your camera, charger, spare batteries, and memory cards.
Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority Modes
These modes let you set either the aperture (how much light is let into the camera's lens) or the shutter speed (how fast the shutter opens and closes) while the camera controls the rest of the aspects of taking a photo. These two modes will either let you control the depth of field with the aperture or how much blur is in a photo of a moving subject with the shutter while taking other considerations out of the equation.
Exposure compensation is a control that lets you easily tell the camera that you want an image to be brighter or darker. The camera will then alter its own settings to accomplish the effect you want. Some cameras even have a dial that lets you set how much you want to change the look of the final picture.
Prime vs. Zoom Lenses
Lens terminology is extremely confusing to first-timers, but the most basic thing you'll need to know is prime versus zoom. Zoom lenses are any lenses that let you "zoom" from one perspective to another. Though we most often think of this as getting a close-up shot of something far away, there are wide-angle zooms as well that do the opposite. If a lens has two different focal length numbers (e.g. 18-55mm or 16-35mm or 18-200mm) then it is a zoom lens.
Prime lenses don't let you zoom in or out, but just give you one fixed perspective (e.g. 50mm or 35mm or 24mm). Since the glass lens elements don't need to move at all, these lenses are usually lighter and cheaper than similar-quality zoom lenses.
One confusing note here is that you can't easily compare the millimeter focal length numbers from between two cameras unless they have the same size image sensor. Explaining why is a bit beyond the scope here, but most lenses are listed with a "full-frame equivalent" focal length. A "full-frame" equivalent from 35mm to 50mm is pretty close to "normal" or roughly what your eyes would see standing at the same distance. If the focal length number is bigger, the lens will produce pictures that are close-up, if they're smaller, it'll give you a wide-angle view.
In a nutshell: if you want to take pictures of things far away, look for a lens with a bigger focal length, if you want to shoot wide-angle photos, get a smaller focal length.
What Else Do I Need?
For most cameras, the only thing you'll need to add to your purchase is an SD card to record your pictures to. You can check out our roundup of the best SD cards here, though pretty much any newer card will do great. Many mirrorless and DSLR cameras are sold as bundle deals from major retailers, so you can usually get a camera, a bag, some filters, and maybe an extra battery thrown in with your purchase.
The biggest thing to consider if you buy a mirrorless or DSLR is another lens. In most cases, your camera will come with a 3x zoom lens that isn't worth much. For these cameras, we always recommend getting a basic prime lens. You especially want one with something like f/1.8 or f/1.4 in the name, since these give you the really smooth out of focus backgrounds that make shooting with a proper full-sized camera so appealing.
Brendan is originally from California. Prior to writing for Reviewed.com, he graduated from UC Santa Cruz and did IT support and wrote for a technology blog in the mythical Silicon Valley. Brendan enjoys history, Marx Brothers films, Vietnamese food, cars, and laughing loudly.
Séamus Bellamy is a senior editor on Reviewed's Electronics Team. When he's not busy ensuring his team's The Best Right Now roundups are up-to-date, he spends his time reviewing, smartwatches, tablets, fringe tech, and writing how-to guides.
Our team is here for one purpose: to help you buy the best stuff and love what you own. Our writers, editors, and lab technicians obsess over the products we cover to make sure you're confident and satisfied. Have a different opinion about something we recommend? Email us and we'll compare notes.