What Camera to Buy First

A strategy and philosophy for beginner photographers investing in gear

By: Garrett Stroup

January 24, 2020

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How I Started

This is a rare occasion where I am writing a blog post that does not completely apply to my background. When I got started in photography, my wife and I had received a Nikon D3400 DSLR 2-lens kit as an unexpected Christmas present from her parents. I realize that not everybody who has an interest in photography can rely on a family member providing solid starting gear like I was lucky to receive, and that cost is often the biggest entry obstacle into the world of casual to professional photography. That all said, I am asked all the time by acquaintances and friends for sound advice to start a loved one or significant other into the realm of photography. With such a plethora of different camera brands, levels of cameras, and an infinitely wide (no pun intended) range of lenses, it can be a crazy world to even consider where to begin navigating and performing research, to maximize the value of photography gear for your money.

Our Actual First Camera - D3400

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Avoid Entry-Level Cameras

This is going to sound extremely counter-intuitive, but hear me out. One of the worst mistakes I feel new photographers commit is blindly buying the entry-level cameras and kit lenses touted by photography companies. Photography companies are experts at telling you what you need, and positioning their products physically, and in price, where you will run into them and think "wow, what a great gift idea - a camera!" without actually knowing anything about it. The honest truth is that most entry-level cameras and camera kits do not offer the most value for your money. Take our D3400, for example. I wasn't 4 months into owning the camera before I bumped up against restrictions of the camera that forced me to upgrade to a higher-tier model. More specifically, the D3400 did not offer flash high-speed sync. Neither did the D5600. In fact, I had to purchase a D7000-series or higher camera to gain access to that feature. Camera companies are great at showing you that an entry-level DSLR is an upgrade to whatever camera phone or tablet you typically take your photos with (and they aren't wrong), but they are not great at concisely laying out the features you miss out on with their lowest-tier offerings.

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So What Should I Buy?

This is the crux of the issue, isn't it? With SO MANY different cameras out there, and their unique quirks, how DOES one go about finding a camera that will provide solid value, without breaking the bank? Adding insult to injury, aspiring photographers soliciting advice in a forum or Facebook page about which camera to buy typically receive a lot of undue snark and pomp from the photography community, or unhelpful questions such as "Well, what do you plan to shoot?" While a valid question, any experienced photographer should have an understanding that any given individual's journey in photography often comes with a myriad of unexpected twists and turns. For example, I never expected to be shooting concerts and weddings. Yet, here I am!

That all said, my approach is simple: buy for quality and versatility. But how does one accomplish that? Also simple! A lightly-used, previous generation, full-frame, mid-to-upper-range camera. To illustrate the point, I will highlight two different "routes" for a beginner photographer, and explain why I believe this is the best way to go. Looking at the two pictures below, you will see one option that will look very attractive to a beginner photographer: the D3400 two-lens kit. Note the price, $849.95 (+ tax and shipping).

Underneath the picture taken from Nikon's website for the D3400 kit, I took a screenshot of a post in a Facebook camera gear buy/sell group, in which a reputable group member is selling two gently-used, low shutter count Nikon D750 cameras (mid-level professional camera). Prices on each? $845 and $795. No tax, and likely free or negotiable shipping. I discuss some of my favorite places to pick up camera gear on a previous blog, 5 Ways to Buy Lenses for Cheap. The seller states that one D750 has taken a little over 5,000 photos, while the other has seen just north of 17,000. What is Nikon's estimate on how long the shutter mechanisms will last before needing replacement? 150,000 actuations. That means one camera has 145,000 expected photos left, while the other has 133,000. In practice, many people have had the D750 go 250,000+ photos without needing a shutter replacement. Even when the shutter assembly does go, a $200-300 bill will buy you a replacement installed directly from Nikon.

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But Won't I Miss the Free Lenses and Other Add-ons?

The fact is that anybody who falls into photography as a serious hobby, or a business pursuit, will quickly outgrow any of the freebies touted by photography companies with their entry-level offerings. Much like my experience outgrowing the D3400 within a few months' time, I found myself purchasing a Nikon 35mm f/1.8 DX and Nikon 50mm f/1.8 FX lens very shortly into owning the camera, as the increased sharpness and wider aperture allowed for better portraits and environmental photos. Because of my need to upgrade so quickly, I really did not use the Nikon 18-55 and 55-200 lenses that I received with the camera more than a handful of times each. Not to mention, resale on kit lenses is essentially impossible. I say all of this to reassure you that you are not missing much by not purchasing a kit with all of the "extras." 

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The Difference Between Cost and Value

One pitfall that many photographers fall into is buying the absolute cheapest option, no matter the differences between two products in features and performance. Heck, people have a tendency to do this generally throughout life. With photography gear, however, it is very important to understand the value of an object, and separate yourself from the bottom-line cost. I cannot tell you how frustrating it is sometimes to tell somebody a great gift idea for a photographer friend or family member, only to have them say "But I see flashes for $30 on Amazon." When it comes to photography, if the price is too unrealistic to be true, either you are buying a counterfeit, a deeply-discounted gray market (non-US retail) item, or something lacking in functionality or performance. In the case of the aforementioned $30 Amazon flash, you are going to miss out on amazingly helpful features, such as: built-in wireless capability (additional trigger needed for more $), through-the-lens (TTL) automatic flash power calculations, and high-speed sync (HSS). This would be fine for somebody who understands everything about flash (inverse square law, manual settings, overcoming slow shutter speeds with filters, perhaps how to use a light meter), and has some wireless transmitters already on-hand. However, most people do not have this comprehensive understanding, and frankly, most established photographers do not want the $30 flash.

To contrast, and illustrate this point further, take the Godox V860II as an example. Somebody looking at this listing on Amazon might say "But that's a $180 flash! That is expensive!" Well, not really, no. The Godox V860II has built-in radio and optical triggering functionality (master AND slave mode), TTL, HSS, a lithium-ion battery pack that adds a ton of convenience and saves money over AA batteries, and is significantly more powerful than most speedlights. In fact, comparable lights from Nikon, Canon, Sony, and even dedicated companies like Profoto, will run you $300 - $1,200. Does the Godox V860II cost more than the $30 Amazon flash? Sure! But the value is incredible when compared to other market offerings.

Flashpoint Rebranded V860ll-F (for Fujifilm)

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Wrapping It All Up

To bring all of these ideas together, the best way to begin a photography collection is to invest in high-quality, capable gear. I recommend narrowing down what you expect your photography needs to be, finding brands that support those needs the best, and researching the used market. My best tips for picking up used photography gear can be very helpful to learning all of the various outlets to find quality, used equipment. When investing, think about versatility and longevity. Picking up a used, previous or current-gen full-frame camera with a couple of compatible lenses is absolutely a great way to start your collection and get out shooting!

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GES Who Photography

Dedicated wedding, event, portrait, and headshot photographer based out of St. Augustine, FL. Serving Northeast and Central Florida.
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