Dear Lifehacker, My 15 year old son has really started getting into photography – it has quickly become one of his favourite subjects at school. I’d love to get him a decent camera (under $1000) that can grow with him and his skills, for a few years at least. What’s the best direction to go in? Cheers, Mum
It’s great that you want to indulge your son’s passion. Photography was my favourite subject in school and I ended up turning it into a job to make ends meet while I struggled through a media degree at uni. It’s a skill that you can translate into a bunch of different parts of your life, too – learning about the composition of photos gives you an insight into graphic design principles, and learning about exposure gives you a scientific understanding of how camera sensors work.
If you want to buy your son a camera to learn on, you’ve got a few choices to make. If he’s a budding photographer, we can rule a few things out straight away – you should get him a camera with interchangeable lenses rather than a compact, because trying out different lenses with different focal lengths and optical quirks teaches you a lot. You should also get him a camera with a viewfinder, so he can put it up to his eye to compose photos. You should also invest in some photo editing software like Adobe’s Photoshop Lightroom, because post-processing is just as important a skill to learn as photography itself.
Do you mind buying a second-hand camera? If you don’t, you can save a fair bit versus buying a brand new model. Second-hand camera bodies depreciate significantly. While you’ll still have to buy (at least one) lens for the camera – and camera lenses rarely fall in price from their brand new value – you’re still saving a good amount of money. Especially for a camera that you might want to upgrade within a couple of years, second-hand is a good idea.
And then there’s the question of which kind of camera to buy. A really simple differentiation to start with is the difference between a digital SLR and a mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera. A digital SLR uses the same single-lens reflex mirror box design that cameras have used for the last 150 years, bouncing light through the camera’s lens, against a mirror and up into a pentaprism and into an optical viewfinder – showing you exactly what your camera is seeing. A mirrorless camera eschews the mirror, like the name implies – and instead uses a digital viewfinder or rear screen to display the image that the camera sensor is seeing. Here’s three short pieces of background reading for you.
In 2016, neither is an obviously technically superior choice, and your son will be able to take awesome photos with either camera. Personally, for the ease of learning and understanding camera fundamentals – getting a grip on the effect that changing shutter speed, ISO and aperture has on the photos that you can capture – I’d go straight to either an enthusiast-level digital SLR or an equally competent mirrorless camera. The most important thing is having a decent control scheme, which will make it equally easy to shoot in automatic or manual modes.
For around $1000 if you shop around, you’ll get yourself a Canon EOS 760D with a kit 18-55mm zoom lens, or a Nikon D5500 and 18-55mm. These are both good choices and will give your son room to grow his skills and try out different things. If you go for a second-hand body and lens, though, there’s a chance you could step up to a semi-professional model like Nikon’s D7200 or Canon’s EOS 80D. Those cameras are better built, have more versatile control schemes and better viewfinders.
Within the mirrorless camera world, you could pick up a Fujifilm X-E2S or Olympus’ great E-M10 Mark II, both of which will come bundled with similar wide-angle zoom lenses. Second hand you could find the older but easier to control E-M5 Mark II or Fuji X-T1. Mirrorless cameras are smaller and lighter than their DSLR counterparts, which is very useful if your son is planning on taking it out a lot and actually using it.
With any camera you buy your son, you should also do one very important thing: buy him a second lens in addition to that kit zoom lens. Zoom lenses are great for learning composition, but they can sometimes be a crutch — it’s easy to stand where you are and zoom to take a photo. If you buy a prime lens — like Canon or Nikon’s ‘nifty fifty’ 50mm primes, or even a 35mm prime — you’ll be teaching your son how to zoom with his feet, and how to control aperture to adjust depth of field.
If I was buying someone $1000 worth of camera and lens right now, I’d go and buy a second-hand Canon or Nikon DSLR, a kit zoom, and a nifty fifty. That’s a great starter kit that’ll snap incredible photos and give any amateur room to learn.
To give you a bit of background, I started with a Canon EOS 350D, then moved on to a Panasonic GF1, then a Pentax K-7, then a Nikon D7000, then a Fujifilm X-Pro1 and an X-E2. Now I have a couple of Samsung NX-1s. I’ve wasted a lot of money moving between different brands and lens systems. Even though glass retains its value really well, choosing the right system the first time around can save you a lot.
And after playing about with the new Canon 5D Mark IV, I’m thinking about an upgrade in the not too distant future. Yes, buying camera gear can become a bit of an obsession. Caveat emptor.
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This story originally appeared on Gizmodo.