What camera should a beginner buy?

What camera should a beginner buy?
Stident on old collage chum George Neal had never picked up a camera till I got him shooting a Fujifilm X-20. Later he ugraded his camera to a X-T1. Here is George on the left with both camera next to Piet Van den Eynde on a recent trip to India.

Student and old college chum, George Neill, had never picked up a camera till I got him shooting a Fujifilm X-20. Later he added an X-T1 to his kit. Here is George on the left with both cameras next to Piet Van den Eynde on a recent trip to India.

One of the more frequent questions I get asked, is “What is the best camera I should buy if I am a beginner?” Honestly, these days there are so many choices, which can make it confusing and overwhelming. But the reality is it doesn’t have to be. I tell newbies to step back, take a breath and answer a quick question or two. Then I give them usually one, possibly two answers. They are almost always happy if they follow my advice.

I start off by asking one simple question: “What are you going to be photographing?” It might seem simple, but so many people get ahead of themselves. They see all their photographic potential well before they have developed any photographic prowess. “Are you going to be shooting a wedding anytime soon?” Most will not. I probe a bit more. “Is this camera for birthdays, family vacations or maybe a new baby?” If they are honest and that is all they want to photograph I usually have a good idea what camera I am going to suggest they use.

If all you are shooting is selfies, then a smartphone is the perfect camera for you.

If all you are shooting is selfies, then a smartphone is the perfect camera for you.

But, if I get a real sense they want to up their photographic game, to desire to be creative in their new found interest, my answer will be different.

Let’s look at the birthdays and family vacations folks. Most of these – if left to their own devices – will run out and buy a new DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex, think Canon Rebel). They will probably get it with the 18-55mm kit lens and a few folks with cash to spare will purchase a telephoto with the kit. They leave on vacation with dreams of becoming the next Ansel Adams or Steve McCurry. Before they depart, they usually do a cursory look at the manual and then off they go.

If truth be told, they never take the camera off “P” or the little green “Auto” box. They rarely switch the lens from the 18-55 mm to the telephoto. The vast majority of the time they are using their new toy like an iPhone. So, I usually tell these people, to just use their iPhone. Most of the time, in most of the locations they will be shooting, the iPhone or any smartphone will give them just as good of photos as their DSLR. Not because the DSLR is incapable of making better pictures, but because the user is unwilling to use the camera to get even close to its potential.

There are many reasons for this and in teaching photography to loads of aspiring Ansel Adams on weekend classes I have found the main reason is simple. People are too confused or intimidated by the digital array on the back of their cameras. Too many buttons. Too many menu options. On top of that, they have no clue what an aperture is or what it does. They sometimes know that a shutter “flips” or “closes” but they are not real sure where it even is. When I explain what these two rather important elements of the photographic process do, they get excited. They see the potential. But once they figure out where the buttons on their Canon are or where the menu settings on their Nikon are, they seem even more frustrated. It is all just too overwhelming!

Even the simplest DSLRs can get very confusing with their digital displays and hidden menus.

Even the simplest DSLRs can get very confusing with their digital displays and hidden menus.


But here is something fascinating. When I show them these same concepts, aperture, shutter, etc.. on my Fujifilm X-camera, something clicks, sometimes literally. It’s true. It’s like a light comes on when I show my Ansel Adams the aperture ring and click through the f-stops. I tell him when you turn it one way the lens opening gets smaller, turn it the other way and it gets bigger. When I show him, the shutter speed dial and he sees the list of numbers relating to the shutter speeds he somehow grasps it. I have come to believe we humans will always relate quicker and easier to the physical world of analogue than to a virtual digital one.

Here are the analogue dials on a Fujifilm X-T1.

Here are the analogue dials on a Fujifilm X-T1.


Another big point for choosing a Fuji X-System camera is the EVF or Electronic View Finder. This as opposed to the Canon, Nikon or virtually any other DSLR’s OVF  or Optical View Finder. The DSLR’s OVF is like looking through a window. You see the same thing you would see if you took your eyes away from the camera. The only real addition is adding some digital information in number form at the bottom or side of the frame. However, in a Fuji, you have something entirely different, an EVF. The EVF gives the photographer immediate feedback and a real-time representation of the photograph you are about to take. With the EVF, you see the exposure, the depth of field (that is the effect the aperture has on the depth of focus.) Plus you have other information laid on top of the view if you choose. Things like a histogram that gives you a graphic overview of your exposure. You can see if any part of your image will be blown out or underexposed. You can add a green level line that shows you something like a horizon line in an airplane – granted; the latter can often be found on DSLRs, too. The Fuji can add a “Rule of Thirds” grid to help the new photographer learn better composition and of course, it shows you the same settings you find in the DSLR’s OVF like shutter speed and aperture information as well as what mode you are shooting. If you’re shooting in a specific crop mode, like square, the EVF will show you that square crop. With a DSLR, you have to imagine your square crop. And the beauty is, if you shoot raw, you can still revert to the original 2:3 aspect ratio later on. Same deal with the Film Simulations. You want to know what a particular scene would look like in Black and White? Just set one of the Black and White simulations and the EVF will update accordingly. And as long as you’re shooting Raw or Raw + JPEG, you still have the original color data in your file.

An EVF will give you the same data a DSLR view finder will give you with one important difference. The EVF gives you a real-time depth of field preview.

An EVF will give you the same data a DSLR view finder will give you with one important difference. The EVF gives you a real-time depth of field preview.

Some people might say, that a DSLR can provide an electronic view using the live view on the back of the camera. Three issues with this argument. First is when you hold out your bulky DSLR away from your face to use live view you drastically destabilize the camera. You go from anchoring the camera like a tripod against your face/eye with your two hands (three points of connection with your camera) to only two floating in the air. The second point, whereas the DSLR live view screen does give you a video image and can give you an idea of exposure; it doesn’t give you a real-time representation of your depth of field. There is a convoluted way to do this using live view[1. You can check out how to use live -view to preview depth of field HERE] But it is not seamless like an EVF. There really isn’t any comparison between the two. And lastly, have you ever tried looking at a camera LCD in the blaring sun? You don’t see much, do you? The EVF, especially on the Fujifilm X-T1 with its optional ‘long eyecup’ is much better protected from incoming sunlight and will, therefore, give you a much more realistic preview.

Of course, there are people out there that can handle digital buttons and menus and don’t mind waiting to see what they shoot until after they shoot it. I am sure there are plenty of them. But, what I have come to believe, in no uncertain terms, is that the average beginner will understand the concepts of photography quicker and will have a better understanding how his or her camera works using a camera like the Fuji X-System.

This is why if I see that Ansel or Steve need only to take a quick passing photo I suggest they use their smartphone and for the most part they will be very happy with their results. But if I sense even a hint of a desire to be creative I propose that they buy a Fuji X-System camera. I either tell them to get the X-E2 or the newer X-T10. These two cameras will give them the creative latitude they need and the analogue controls to help ground them in their new found hobby.

I can already here you sceptics crying foul! “But,” you say, “You are a Fuji X-Photographer! Of course, you will say Fuji is the best!” This is a bit of red herring, seemingly plausible, though ultimately irrelevant. I am an X-Photographer precisely because I believe in what I just wrote (and more). I don’t believe in what I wrote because I am an X-Photographer.

So if you are an aspiring photographer who hates fighting with dials and switches, and you are having trouble getting your head around the basics of photography, I suggest in all honesty, you consider your next camera to be a Fujifilm X-System.





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About The Author

Matt Brandon

Matt is a Malaysia based humanitarian and travel photographer. Well known as a photographer and international workshop instructor, Matt’s images have been used by business and organizations around the globe. Matt also on the design board for Think Tank Photo, a camera bag manufacturer. In 2013 Matt founded the On Field Media Project to train the staff of non-profits to use appropriate technology to produce timely as well as quality images.

1 Comment

  1. Pete Perry

    I think a body like the Nikon D100 or a Pentax K1000 would be ideal for a beginner.

    I say this because those bodies don’t have any special scene modes and don’t do very much for you. They do, however, give you everything you need to learn how to take some amazing pictures where you can learn how to create all the works of art that you see others creating.

    My first DSLR was a Nikon D100 and my first real camera was a Pentax K1000.



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