Cameras 2021: what to look for when buying an entry-level camera, and the best budget options

Professional photographer and content creator Craig Sinclair has built his livelihood on capturing amazing shots. Here, he shares his knowledge on how to identify what you need in a camera, and which are the best beginner cams available. 

Wednesday, 21st April 2021, 12:48 pm
Photographer Craig Sinclair’s shot of Ben A’an in the Trossachs, looking down on Loch Katrine

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What should you look for in an entry-level camera?

There are many things to consider when buying a camera. Photography can be an expensive hobby, especially if you're working to improve over time – you'll find yourself wanting more accessories, and coveting the latest technological advances.  

So start with a camera that remains within budget– splurging on something you can scarcely afford will not serve you as a novice. Once you've an amount in mind, consider what you're most concerned about: image quality, ease of use, or ergonomics. Ideally, you want to find a balance between all three.  

The cameras recommended below won’t have the premium features of professional cameras such as full-frame sensors, megapixels over 24 and weather sealing, which means that you’ll be limited if taking photos in extreme environments. 

But these models are ideal for those that are getting to grips with photography, and still provide high specs and plenty of attributes to play with to keep you interested, and develop your skill-set as you go.  

How to pick your first budget camera?

Fit your camera buying choices around two things: your budget and what kind of photography you are looking to explore.

Features such as sensor size, lens quality, and image formats will all affect the quality of your pictures.  Whereas camera modes, auto-focus, interface, wireless functions, and viewfinders will help you capture, edit and distribute your images easily and quickly.

Saving money on the latest photography tech

For your first camera, you don’t want to be spending ridiculous amounts of money on the latest tech only to find that photography isn’t for you. Instead look at cameras from 2015-2017.  

The cameras at this period are a gold standard in many aspects.  

What these older cameras lack in auto-focus features and performance, they more than make up for in offering a great learning experience when it comes to manual shooting.  

You’ll also be sure to find a camera in your price budget brand new- as well as second-hand. Not only is this more affordable (providing you find a reputable seller), but also more eco-friendly. 

MPB.com is a useful hub for buying and selling used camera gear, which is graded by the site itself.

What features should I look for that will help me take better photographs?

If you are looking to learn photography at the basic level, it’s important that your camera has manual as well as automatic features. 

The automatic features will help you to expose your images as you learn how your lens’ aperture, and camera’ s shutter speed and ISO affect the exposure, quality and style of your photos. As your skills improve you can experiment in manual modes to gain more control over how your photos look.

Other features to consider looking at our panorama modes (for high quality detail landscapes that are wider than standard ratio photos), image bracketing (for multi-exposure HDR-looking photographs) and HD and 4K video recording.

Future-proof your photography gear

If you think you might upgrade your camera body or upgrade to a different camera system as your photography skill progresses, consider whether you can adapt your lens to the new camera, or whether it’s best to cut your losses and attempt to resell your gear.  

It’s worth investigating when purchasing whether your gear has any resale value a few years down the line. Typically cameras lose value over time as technology advances but lens technology doesn’t tend to get upgraded all too often unless new camera systems are launched, so you may be able to recoup some costs there. 

Sensor size for entry-level photographers

As an entry-level photographer, you will get more bang for your buck looking at cameras with two of the smaller sensor sizes found in DSLR and mirrorless bodies - APS-C and micro four-thirds (MFT).  

Not only do smaller sensor sizes tend to be more affordable, but so are the lenses that are designed for these sensors. If you want to get the best value, find a camera with an APS-C sensor for the right balance between image detail, performance, size, and budget and with one good lens, you will not need to upgrade for a while.  

There are plenty of APS-C camera bodies out there, but if the camera and lens combinations for this sensor are still beyond your budget, MFT cameras are smaller and size and therefore tend to be packed with more features such as image stabilisation.

Edinburgh in snow, captured by Craig Sinclair

What is the best camera and lens brand?

Each camera has its own proprietary mount that connects the lens to the camera. Each camera brand has its own native lenses designed to fit its mount and optimally perform with the camera. 

However some native lenses are more expensive than others. Luckily, most camera manufacturers allow third party’s to make more affordable lenses that are compatible with these camera mounts.

Canon’s lenses are also the most versatile as they can be easily paired with camera adapters to be used on Canon’s mirrorless cameras and other camera brands.

Sony has a small number of native lenses in comparison to Canon, which come in at a heavier price due to their build quality and superb performance on Sony cameras.  

However, there are plenty of third party options from Sigma and Tamron which are more affordable. You can also use Canon lenses with the right adapter at the cost of performance (well you wouldn’t use a charger for an iPhone and expect it to work perfectly with an Android phone). It’s worth noting that Sony lenses can’t be used on other brand cameras.

Panasonic’s MFT mount is relatively new but not short of affordable native and third-party lens options which can also be used on other cameras sporting the MFT mount.

Mirrorless v DSLR?

There was much resistance when mirrorless cameras were launched to compete with the bulkiness of DSLR. DSLR’s work by reflecting the projected image from a lens into the camera’s viewfinder. The mirror mechanically flips up when the camera’s shutter button is released to expose the sensor to the lens.  

This analogue form of photography is still widely used today, and has many benefits such as lower power consumption at the sacrifice that your viewfinder blacks out while you are taking your photo.

Mirrorless cameras however, have a mechanical shutter that moves up and down like a curtain. This means that mirrorless cameras can be smaller and lighter, but older models of mirrorless cameras might use up more battery power, as the viewfinder is fully electronic as well as any larger backscreens.

How many megapixels are good for photography?

For photography the more megapixels you have, the more detail you have. Anything above 24 megapixels will give you great quality images that will look great on large prints - if you are in that way inclined. However, if your photos will live online or on a computer, anything above 12 megapixels is more than enough.

Here are five 'starter' cameras you can trust  

Canon EOS 2000D DSLR Camera with 18-55mm IS Lens

Canon EOS 2000D DSLR Camera with 18-55mm IS Lens

Let’s start with a staple in the entry-level category. The Canon 2000D (also known as the T7) is equipped with a 24MP APS-C sensor for capturing great detail and dynamic range. 

This is the perfect camera to focus on your photography without the distraction of flip screens and auto-focus, but still have useful tools such as RAW image capture and manual and auto exposure modes.

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Nikon D3500 with 18-55mm kit lens

Nikon D3500 with 18-55mm kit lens

Nikon is a staple in the photography world. Their entry-level camera is an impressive proposition, offering everything you need to start capturing impressive shots without fuss. 

It has a 24MP APS-C sensor, comfortable ergonomics and fast autofocus to capture in-focus photos - even if your subject matter is on the move. 

For those interested in investing in the Nikon system, this is the best way to start.

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Sony 6000 with 16-50mm kit lens

Sony 6000 with 16-50mm kit lens

This lightweight, rangefinder-style camera is a fantastic option.  

This APC-C camera is the youngest sibling of the famous A6500, once used by videographers around the world.

Despite its age, it has a brilliant and compact 16-50mm zoom lens, Full HD video recording, fast auto-focusing, fun creative styles (like filters) with a 24MP sensor providing detailed images with connectivity options to send images to your smartphone via the Sony Imaging Edge app.

This is a great all-round hybrid camera for anyone who wants to take quality pictures and video easily with no frills.

Buy now

Olympus E-M10

Olympus E-M10

Olympus isn’t the biggest name in the camera world, but the mirrorless E-M10 offering is packed full of features thanks to the space it saves with it’s 16MP MFT sensor, making it a great all-rounder. 

The E-M10 has an in body-stabilisation which means steadier images when you would have to normally use a tripod, a touch flip screen and Wi-Fi and bluetooth connectivity for editing photos on the go. 

The 2x crop-sensor will make it difficult to capture wide angle photographs or vlogging but perfect for wildlife photography and landscapes.

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Canon M50 with 15-45mm kit lens

Canon M50 with 15-45mm kit lens

Despite previous advice, this mirrorless camera from 2018 is pretty well rounded in terms of modern features that will make photography sessions easy - and if it’s easy, it’s fun.

Featuring a fully articulated back screen from shameless vlogging and selfies, the camera also sports 4K video recording, digital stabilisation and the tremendous auto-focus that Canon is known for. 

If you get it with the 15-45mm kit lens (24-72mm full-frame equivalent), you can own a great performing, lightweight APS-C camera for under £650.

Buy now