Thanks in part to social media, photography is booming in popularity. And there’s no shortage of quality cameras to satiate the public’s desire for the craft. But the nuances of the market can be overwhelming, especially for beginners. Do megapixels still matter? What’s the difference between mirrorless and DSLRs? And is there even a reason to own a stand-alone camera when you have a smartphone? (Yes).
To help clear things up, we interviewed six professional photographers for advice on which models they personally recommend. Whether you’re looking for the most advanced digital body for the buck, or you simply want to try your hands at analog photography for the first time, these picks should help you save time and money, and most important, get maximum enjoyment out of image-making.
Mirrorless with mass appeal
The most technologically advanced digital cameras right now are of the mirrorless variety. Like DSLRs, they sport large sensors and interchangeable lenses, but there’s no internal mirror for bouncing light up into an optical viewfinder. Instead, the sensor beams a digital preview directly to a camera’s rear display or a small (digital) viewfinder. As a result, these models tend to be smaller and faster, with better video and autofocus capabilities than their DSLR counterparts. “We’re in an era where all the camera brands are offering really good mirrorless [models] for people who are just getting started with photography,” says New York City-based music and portrait photographer Jeanette Moses. Natalie Mitchell, a wedding photographer in San Diego, recommends as the best digital camera for beginners the Sony a6400, which comes with a retractable 16-55mm equivalent kit lens. “It’s easy to use when it comes to the basics of photography. Plus it’s compact and versatile for being a pretty inexpensive camera.” One feature that makes the a6400 especially user-friendly is its class-leading autofocus system; the system can lock on and track subjects—including human and animal eyes—with impressive precision.
An absolute legend of the modern photography era, few camera lines are more well-known than the Canon Rebel series. And even though mirrorless has surpassed DSLRs as the superior technology, Canon’s entry-level Rebel T7 DSLR is still a fantastic camera for the price, not to mention, widely available. “This is a camera that is great for learning the basics of photography!,” says Atlanta-based documentary photographer Rita Harper, who started her career with a Canon, as did Mitchell and Newark-based fine art and portrait photographer Chrystofer Davis. “My first DSLR was a Canon Rebel T3i and it was a great starter camera,” Mitchell recalls, who feels the same is true of the Rebel T7 today. Sporting a capable 24-megapixel sensor and a familiar design with plenty of direct controls, the T7 ships with a basic but useful 18-55mm equivalent kit lens and all the attitude of 1990s Andre Agassi.
Instant film fun
While Polaroid may be the brand most associated with instant photography, the majority of our experts recommend Fujifilm instant cameras instead, specifically the Instax Mini line. “You can pick up a Mini [camera] for under $100. Fujifilm also has the best deals on instant film,” advises Moses. The Mini 12 comes in four fun colors, and it’s super easy to use, says Davis. Simply turn it on, frame your shot and tap the shutter. In about 90 seconds you’ll have a physical print to call your own.
The smartphone may have killed off the vast majority of the compact camera market, but there’s still one segment that’s alive and thriving: premium point-and-shoots. And if you want the absolute best image quality from a compact, look no further than the 20-megapixel Canon G7 X Mark III, the best compact digital camera. “It’s user-friendly while still giving you quality images,” says Mitchell, who occasionally uses one while on the job. “I’ve made some editorial style shots using its built-in flash.” With a 24-120mm equivalent zoom lens, 8 frames per second bursts and a pop-up viewfinder, it offers capabilities typically found in much larger cameras. But it’s really the outstanding output that makes the Mark III so appealing. “It has a large sensor in it which gives you image quality over and above the point-and-shoots people may be familiar with from years past,” says Getty Images photographer Jamie Squire.
The easiest way to get started in film photography these days, or achieve the film “look,” is to use a disposable camera. But for a more environmentally friendly and ultimately, lower-price option, our experts recommend Lomography Simple Use cameras. Unlike disposables, these are meant to be used again and again. “You can have a disposable film aesthetic but at the same time, you can still reload the camera and keep it,” says Davis. Just as easy to use as its throwaway counterparts, Simple Use models feature built-in flash filters for extra creative versatility. They also ship preloaded with your choice of black and white, color or a range of other Lomography specialty film stocks. Mitchell appreciates the permanent nature of the camera. “Anytime we can be disposing of less waste I think we should try and do so. Plus, if you’re looking to continue with film photography, you’ll already know how to load the film!”
Modern digital, retro flair
No camera came more highly recommended by our experts than Fujifilm X100V. It has “the look and feel of a film camera but shoots digitally,” says Harper. Perhaps this is why it has developed a cultlike following and is currently on back-order in most places (don’t worry, Fujifilm expects it back in stock later this year). Now in its fifth iteration, the X100V sports a fixed (nonremovable) 35mm equivalent lens, which Squire says is “the ideal focal length for what is classically thought of as street photography.” Plus, a fast f/2 maximum aperture makes it a great choice for lowlight work. “And it has a phenomenal sensor,” adds Squire. Despite the retro package, the X100V is jam-packed with modern technology, like a tilting touch screen, the ability to shoot 4K video, an advanced autofocus system and a range of analog-inspired digital shooting modes. Which is to say, it’s as capable as it is stylish.
Whether you’re a lover of the great outdoors, or simply someone prone to dropping, scratching or otherwise destroying tech gadgets, there’s one tough-built camera that outshines the rest: the Olympus TG-6. Squire likes it because it’s “waterproof, freeze-, shock- and dustproof.” This makes it well-suited for a variety of extreme activities. “You can take this camera underwater and get great shots,” adds Squire, making it a great digital camera for travel. But even if you’re more city-slicker than nature dweller, the TG-6 has appeal. Davis likes the Olympus because “you can be out in the pouring rain and the camera is still going to function as it’s supposed to—it can withstand many conditions,” including freezing East Coast winters.
With today’s high-end point-and-shoots churning out amazing image quality, there’s almost no reason to carry a bulky camera kit. Moses recommends the Sony RX100 VII for a range of uses, including travel, particularly for those seeking a compact point-and-shoot-style camera with advanced features. She notes that “it has an impressive [24-200mm equivalent] zoom range, a pop-up electronic viewfinder and a microphone input which makes it decent for vloggers too.” The autofocus is also incredible and it can shoot up to 20 frames per second. Davis appreciates the versatile zoom range, especially given the RX100’s size. “The fact that you have such long reach with this compact camera really makes it very powerful.”
While vlogging is no doubt possible with a smartphone, you’ll get far better video and audio quality, not to mention creative control, using a modern digital camera. And few cameras are more purpose-built for vloggers than the 4K-capable Sony ZV-1F. “The [20 mm equivalent] wide lens makes it good for filming yourself, it has a decent microphone with a detachable windscreen and neat features like product showcase mode, which automatically detects objects in a person’s hands,” says Moses. Meanwhile, Davis calls out its portable size. “I’m always thinking about the compactness of a camera. You can take this camera out, pop out the [selfie-style] touch screen, and you can just vlog your everyday life.”
DSLR that delivers
If you’re the kind of person who prefers an optical viewfinder over an electronic one, you’ll be pleased to know there are still plenty of dependable DSLR models available, including the Nikon D7500. “If someone were starting out in the realm of DSLRs, I think the D7500 is a great choice. It’s like a mini version of the [full-frame] Nikon D750, with a smaller [APS-C] sensor,” says New Orleans-based based travel writer and photographer Jenny Adams, who’s been shooting with a D750 professionally for years. Better suited for stills than video, the D7500 features 8 frames per second bursts, a super-reliable autofocus system, fantastic ergonomics, a tilting touch screen and impressive image quality.
Perfect for portraits
Most modern digital cameras are capable of capturing flattering portraits, but some offer undeniable advantages over their peers. The Fujifilm X-T5 has it all, including reliable face and eye autofocus tracking, a range of compatible portrait-appropriate lenses, best-in-class resolution and a plethora of eye-pleasing JPEG color modes. Davis particularly appreciates the X-T5’s analog-inspired roots. “You have Fujifilm’s color science within the camera, meaning that you can use different film simulations.” These are based on the brand’s historic film stocks and include both black and white and color options (19 in total). Davis also likes being able to “manipulate photos in the camera, so you don’t have to spend a lot of time in front of your computer.” Plus, with the ability to quickly transmit images from camera to smart device using the Fujifilm XApp, sharing portraits with subjects couldn’t be easier. This camera doesn’t come kitted with a lens; both the Fujifilm 50 mm f/2 and 56 mm f/1.2 R WR, sold separately from the camera, are fantastic portrait primes.
The advice, recommendations or rankings expressed in this article are those of the Buy Side from WSJ editorial team, and have not been reviewed or endorsed by our commercial partners.