Cameras are expensive. New ones can cost anything from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars so how much should you spend? Let’s dig in.
Figure Out What Your Budget Is
Before looking to buy a camera, you should sit down and work out what your maximum possible budget is. Once you start looking, it’s very easy to let that number creep up, and soon you’re spending your emergency fund, college savings, or rent money on a shiny new Nikon.
There are great cameras available at pretty much every price point so before seriously starting your research, make sure you have a maximum ballpark amount you’re prepared to spend.
For this article, I’m going to use a few example budgets to suggest potential cameras:
- Less than $300
- Less than $1000
- Less than $3000
You can obviously use your own budget numbers, but these ranges are a pretty good starting point.
What Photo Gear Do You Already Have?
A lot of people, when they first get started with photography, overlook an important point: the camera is only one piece of gear. The lenses you have are at least as important as the camera—I’d argue they’re more important. You also need SD cards. Different kinds of photography need other gear, for example, for landscape photography you also need a tripod, and potentially some filters.
If you’re buying your second camera, then you probably already have some lenses and other gear. If this is your first camera, then you’ll also need to factor into your budget the cost of buying everything else. You can’t just buy a camera in isolation.
Most entry level cameras come with a basic kit lens included in the price. These are typically 18-55mm lenses with a fairly average maximum aperture of between f/3.5 and f/5.6, depending on the focal length you’re at. Kit lenses are really versatile and are pretty great for street, travel, and landscape photography. They’re not ideal for portraits, but you can get cheap 50mm f/1.8 lenses that are. If you don’t already have a collection of lenses, then I’d recommend getting a camera with a kit lens.
How Much Camera Do You Need?
Modern digital cameras are seriously good. Even decade old cameras are great, so we’ll definitely be considering second-hand camera options. Different cameras, however, have different specialties.
Entry level DSLRs, like the $400 Nikon D3500, take incredible pictures in almost all circumstances. If the light is good, you’ll be hard pressed to tell the difference between the photos you get from a D3500, and a much more expensive model like the D500.
Where more expensive cameras matter is when conditions start to get trickier. If you want to shoot good photos in really low light, take long bursts of fast-moving athletes, or film 4K video, then you will start to push the limits of entry-level cameras.
Think about what you’re planning to use your camera for—and if you can, go back through your old photos and see what you’ve used your old camera for. If it’s just family snapshots and vacation photos, then you’re going to have a lot more low priced options. If you need a more powerful camera—or want a full frame camera—then you’ll either have to have a higher budget or go second hand.
New or Second Hand?
There’s a lot to be said for buying second-hand cameras. They’re surprisingly rugged bits of kit and, if you buy from a reputable camera store, you’ll get a camera that’s been checked over by experts and likely comes with a warranty. You’ll be able to get high-end features—like full frame sensors, fast burst rates, and great low light performance—at a lower price point by getting a slightly older model.
Even if you’re just starting out, second-hand gear still has some advantages. A second-hand entry-level camera is by far the cheapest way to get started—and a great way to find out if photography is actually for you. I started out with a $100, five-year-old camera.
On the other hand, buying new, if it’s within your budget, gets you a pristine camera fresh out of the box and a manufacturer’s guarantee. That peace of mind isn’t available with second-hand cameras.
Okay, now that you’ve thought about things, you should have decided:
- What your maximum budget is.
- Whether you’re just buying a camera, or need to buy a camera, lens, and potentially more.
- If you want a brand new camera or are happy with a second hand, older model.
Let’s look at how these options play out at three potential price points: less than $300, less than $1000, and less than $3000.
Less than $300
For less than $300, you have to go second-hand or find an older model of an entry-level camera that’s been marked down. The Nikon D3500 ($400) with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens is the follow up to Review Geek’s favorite beginner’s camera, the D3400.
I’d personally start by looking for a new D3400, perhaps one that a camera shop had used as a display model, with the kit lens. Since the D3500 is only $400, it should be possible to find a new-ish D3400 under budget. If I couldn’t find one nearly new, I’d consider a second hand D3400 or, if I wanted a Canon camera, look for a second hand or refurbished Rebel T6.
Less than $1000
$1000 is a serious camera budget. The two main options are:
- A brand new mid-level camera, like the Nikon D5600, Canon 80D, or Sony a6300.
- A second-hand professional or prosumer camera, like a Nikon D750 or Canon 6D.
You also have the option to go with a slightly cheaper camera, like a new D3500, and buy some very good lenses.
Unless you really need professional features or have a big budget for some reason, $1000 is more than enough for most people to get set up with whatever camera gear they need.
Less than $3000
Brand new full frame cameras generally start at around $2000. The main professional models—the Nikon D850, Canon 5D MKIV, and Sony A7R III—all cost around $3000 for just the camera body. These are the absolute best cameras that any amateur photographer realistically needs. More expensive cameras tend to be exclusively designed for the needs of professionals.
With $3000 to spend, your options are either a brand new top of the line camera or a second-hand version of one of the previous models and a lens or two. If you’ve got this kind of money to drop, you probably know how you want to spend it, though.
Photography, like golf, is the kind of hobby where you can always spend more money, although it won’t necessarily make much difference. You’re almost certainly better off spending time developing your skills.
While more money will get you a better, newer camera, there is no reason to feel the need to spend more than $300. In that range, you can get a great camera to get you started. If you do have more money—or are more serious about your photography—there are good options at every price point between there and $1000. After that, you start to really get into professional gear—and as a result higher prices, with less noticeable differences.