Smartphones are a great tool to document your adventures. But it’s impossible to make your photos stand out from the crowd of iPhone tourists vying for the same shot. (Example: Horseshoe Bend only has 486,000 tags on Instagram).
In the end, there’s only a lot you can do with a phone. To truly improve your photography and videography skills, whether it’s to make the leap to professional work or just to increase your social media tracking, you’ll need to invest in a suitable kit. Thanks to today’s technology, this no longer means charging equipment for thousands of dollars. A basic starter camera, combined with robust capture and editing skills, will greatly contribute to adding professional enamel to your portfolio.
Buying your first camera setup can be overwhelming, and in my years as a professional photographer and cameraman, I’ve developed an idea of what equipment is worth the hard-earned money you had. Here’s a complete guide to what you need and everything you don’t need for your beginner kit.
A stylish new camera is useless without the necessary skills. One of the best things I did for my career was to take a black and white film photography class in college, which forced me to leave the automatic mode and learn how aperture, shutter speed, ISO and lens choice affect the beef taken from a photo. Going to the full manual on an old movie camera forces you to focus on framing and light, and makes you a more attentive photographer as it is limited to 36 frames instead of an almost bottomless memory card. Buy a Pentax K-1000 ($179), a roll of film, and find a class at your local community college, photography store, or check out online resources like Creative Live, where you can learn the basics of the movie for $29.
If you want to stick to digital photography or are interested in videography, take an online course through Linkedin Learning. With a cost of $20 per month for a subscription (the first month is free), they are affordable and offer a wealth of knowledge about everything from equipment choice to advanced post-production techniques. If you’re starting with a GoPro, the QuikStory feature in your app is an easy way to start learning how to edit. Automatically turn your clips into a consistent story, while allowing you to customize things like music, colors, and duration.
With the advanced ones that today’s smartphones are, aiming and shooting is no longer a great update. Interchangeable lens cameras, on the other hand, have larger sensors that let in more light, giving you much better image quality and depth-of-field control (for example, when the subject is in focus but the background is blurry) than a basic phone or digital camera.
There are two big considerations to keep in mind when buying a camera body: crop sensor versus full frame, and a single lens DSLR (DSLR) versus mirrorless.
The sensor is the part of the camera that captures and converts light, turning what is in your viewfinder into a digital image. While many cameras promote their megapixels (the number of individual light units that make up an image) as a measure of quality, megapixels don’t matter as much as the size of the sensor, because with a smaller sensor pixels can’t capture both light. Still, look for a body with between 16 and 20 megapixels for a clearer, less grainy result.
A full-frame camera will have a sensor larger than a crop and therefore give you advantages like better low-light performance. However, there is really no need to invest in one as a beginner. Their growing cousins are less expensive and are still able to take high quality photos. In addition, crop sensors are close to the standard size of many digital cinema cameras, making them perfect for video. Note, however, that a clipping sensor will act as a focal multiplier, essentially giving you a more enlarged shot than a full frame with the same lens. This means that a 75-millimeter lens in a full-frame camera will act more like a 50-millimeter lens in a trim (more on the lenses below).
When debating mirrorless versus DSLR, go with the former. As it’s name suggests, mirrorless cameras ditch the reflective glass in DSLRs that bounces light back onto an optical viewfinder. Instead, mirrorless cameras allow light to pass directly onto the camera’s sensor and into a digital viewfinder or screen. There is plenty of discussion out there about the differences between the two models, but the main advantage of a mirrorless body is that they can be made smaller and lighter without sacrificing quality, which is a superior choice when you’re on the move.
Sony’s line of mirrorless cameras from the clipping sensor offer many of the same benefits of their full-frame siblings such as A7Sii or A7Rii, such as a large autofocus, outstanding low-light capability, and stunning video codecs, but at a lower price. You can find a used a6300 body for less than $700 or opt for the new a6400 ($1000) if you have more to spend. I have used an a6300 as my travel camera for a few years and I love it. It’s lightweight and produces a fantastic image, as well as recording gorgeous 4K videos, good enough to use as a second camera in commercial shots. If you are looking for a body that can record videos and that stays equally well while still being highly portable, it is the a6300.
Although image quality should be your top priority when choosing a camera, there are two other factors to consider. A durable, weather-sealed body, although not necessary in an initial configuration, is ideal for shooting in different conditions when on the road. WiFi capability is an added travel advantage, allowing you to quickly share photos of your trip to Instagram without having to transfer them to your computer and then back to your phone.
Many people never take off the lens that was connected to their camera when they bought it. This may work as a start, but you will get much better results by investing in decent glass. The general rule is that it is better to spend your money on lenses than on the body of a camera, as this will make a much greater difference in image quality. If you’re buying your new body, save some money by skipping the kit lens and instead buy one or two better ones after the fact.
Since lenses are often brand specific, it’s important to consider which one you plan to stick with long term before investing in good glass. That said, with the Sony E-Mount, you can buy adapters for almost any lens, which is another reason why I recommend going to the route a6300.
Another important consideration is whether you want a zoom or a main lens. Zooms allow you to adjust the focal length while the primes are fixed and force you to zoom in and out of your subject, but often have a wider aperture range and are generally sharper (not to mention cheaper).
What you should look for on a lens depends on the type of photography and videography you plan to do. Following with my a6300 example above, here are a few to consider:
For zoom targets, the Sony 18-105 F4 ($600) is a great off-roader with a good focal range that lets you capture everything from desert landscapes to portraits of friends. If you want to shoot more shots in the wild in wide-angle, the Milky Way, or often find yourself in low-light situations (such as slot cannons in Utah), 16 mm 1.4 ($450) sigma is a great choice.
Personally, however, I think buying one or more 35 or 50 millimeter lenses, such as Sony’s 35mm 1.8, ($450) is the way to go. Sure, you’ll need to do some exercise to zoom in or out, but you’ll be able to produce a stronger picture and have something more suitable for traveling, as they are generally lighter and more portable.
You can always wrap your camera in some clothes and put it in your suitcase. But if you’re investing in new equipment, it’s worth packing it well so it’s not destroyed by sloppy baggage handlers or bumpy roads. Small camera bags are cheap and do a decent job, but a dedicated camera package is a better buy. A good one can serve as a versatile travel backpack, with enough room for snacks and extra layers along with protective compartments for your body and lenses.
Thule’s Enroute 20L Camera Backpack ($120) is an excellent choice because the durable nylon outer fabric helps keep things dry, and the removable internal camera compartment ensures your body and lenses are well protected. In addition, its side access allows you to get your camera out quickly when the perfect shot is presented.
Complete tripods are difficult to handle and difficult to transport. The Joby Gorillapod 3K kit, ($50) on the other hand, is highly portable, with flexible legs that allow you to connect it to just about anything for more height.
For the video, go with a gimbal. It gives you a huge quality boost over a tripod, allowing you to capture smooth, cinematic shots that will increase the production value of your images more than any other piece of your kit. Ronin SC from DJI ($439) is made for small mirrorless cameras and adds a selfie mode that is ideal for vlogging.
Vloggers should also consider a small microphone that can be connected, such as Rode’s Compact VideoMicro Camera Microphone ($60). Nothing ruins a video faster than bad audio, and it captures a much better sound than a camera’s built-in microphone.
With photography and videography, shooting is only half the battle. The real hard work comes once you get home and you have to decide what to do with the hours of footage and thousands of photos on your hard drive. Adobe’s Creative Cloud photography plan starts at just $10 per month and gives you both Photoshop and Lightroom, the only two tools you need as a beginner. Lightroom lets you organize your photos and make quick edits to things like color balance and clarity—an excellent introduction before diving into The most advanced features of Photoshop.
For video editing, Mac users should start with iMovie. It is free, intuitive and very powerful for a beginner who is only interested in making quick edits of vlogs. For more advanced PCs or movies, you can always add Premiere Pro to your Adobe subscription for $20 per month. Again, LinkedIn learning has classes on using each of these editing tools.
Lead Photo: AleksandarNakic/iStock