If you’re just starting to get serious about photography (or buying a camera for someone else), then finding a great camera is the first step. The hardest part? Finding a high-quality camera that is both advanced enough that you can learn what you need while also not being so intimidating you’ll give up after a month.
After weeks of research and testing the best beginner-friendly options under real-world conditions, we concluded that the Nikon D3500 (available at Amazon for $396.95) is the best camera for a beginner. This camera puts out high-quality images, it has simple automatic modes and manual controls, and it works with decades of Nikon lenses—from high-tech modern zoom lenses to classic prime lenses you can find at a yard sale.
If you don’t want a bigger camera with interchangeable lenses, but want to up your photo game, the Canon Powershot G9X Mark II (available at Amazon) is a fast, compact camera with great image quality and an easy-to-use touch interface.
These are the best cameras for beginners we tested ranked, in order:
- Nikon D3500
- Panasonic Lumix G85
- Sony A6400
- Canon G9X Mark II
- Canon Rebel T6
- Sony RX100
When you’re ready for your first “real” camera, Nikon’s D3500 is the place to start. Its compact frame and kit lens make it appealing to carry anywhere, and its sharp, 24-megapixel still images all work in its favor. Perhaps most importantly, its approachable ergonomics and simple menu system (with its beginner-friendly Guide mode) can have you shooting in minutes, or help you learn more advanced techniques if you want to dig in.
Even though you might find a DSLR intimidating at first, Nikon’s got you covered. The D3500 takes the power of a bigger camera and shrinks it down into a comfortable, portable package. It might lack advanced features like a touchscreen, but I found its built-in SnapBridge Wi-Fi incredibly simple to use. That means it’s a cinch to zap copies of photos onto social media via your smartphone when you’re still out and about.
Even if the rear LCD is a little limited, you’ll want to use the optical viewfinder to frame and capture shots instead. The viewfinder will let you see your subjects, AF point, and critical shooting info at a glance, all without the slight lagginess that sometimes can make an electronic viewfinder or screen tricky to use. Of course, you can use the D3500’s rear screen to frame your shots in Live View mode, but you’ll trade the camera’s faster phase detection autofocus for the convenience.
With this Nikon and its 3x zoom lens, you can shoot sharp photos a phone would struggle to capture. Plus, its pop-up fill flash is right up top if you ever need to brighten an unevenly-lit scene. It’s capable enough to capture the occasional video clip, too, with smooth 1080/60p available. We found that although you could easily get a day’s worth of snapping away on a single battery charge, you can’t top up the battery with a USB power bank.
Canon PowerShot G9 X Mark II
If a bigger camera just isn’t your jam, there are still point-and-shoot cameras that are worth checking out. Our recommendation is the Canon Powershot G9X Mark II, a minimalist camera that hides a deceptive amount of features under the surface.
Its 20-megapixel image sensor outshines many high-end smartphones, and the built-in 3x optical zoom lens lets you get closer to the action with the flick of a toggle. This lens lets in plenty of light to give you nice, out-of-focus backgrounds on your subjects, without some of the (albeit technically impressive) portrait mode software phones need to rely on. It even has a built-in neutral density filter, so you can shoot with the lens wide open in bright circumstances without getting a blown-out look.
Many of its controls have been adapted for a touch-friendly interface, giving you quick control of the camera as you shoot using its rear touchscreen. If that’s not enough, then a satisfyingly clicky dial surrounds the lens on the front, and you can use that to control aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, or even focus.
The battery on this camera is a little small, but you can easily charge it with the same backup USB batteries you’d use for a smartphone. We also found that video was a little iffy in low light, which gave us slightly grainy footage with lackluster autofocus, but it wasn’t bad enough to hamper our enthusiasm for this great little camera.
How We Tested
I’m Brendan Nystedt, a writer and photography enthusiast. I spent years testing cameras, DSLRs, laptops, and other consumer electronics for Reviewed full-time, and have also written extensively about gadgets and culture for WIRED.
As someone who has a passion for great images, I’m often the person that friends and family turn to for recommendations when they’re looking for new lenses or a great pocketable point-and-shoot. Increasingly, these people in my life are looking for a step-up from their iPhones or Android devices, and even though some people are happy enough with their phones, there’s a lot to be gained from owning a standalone camera still.
For this guide, I used my years of digital camera reviewing experience to make sure our picks were dead-easy to use. I also wanted to make certain that the picks also gave newbie photographers room to grow and learn. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that I was a beginner to digital photography myself, learning the ins and outs of what modern cameras had to offer, and the menus and controls can make a big difference.
Each camera we selected for this guide went through a battery of tests designed to reflect its performance in the real world.
We scored each camera on image quality in both dim and bright lighting. We also examined video quality and how well each camera coped with capturing fast-moving subjects such as neighborhood cats and moving cars.
We also scored each camera subjectively, with a specific focus on making sure each camera was approachable, easy to learn, and comfortable to use. After all, it’s no good to buy a camera with the intent of jumping into the world of photography, only to use it once and lock it away in a drawer out of frustration.
To come up with rankings, we weighted each factor that we evaluated to best meet the requirements of a newbie photographer.
What You Should Know About Cameras
What is a DSLR?
A DSLR is an advanced camera that lets you see through the camera’s lens using a viewfinder. The average DSLR has a large sensor that can capture a lot more light than a point-and-shoot or a smartphone camera. Before the advent of modern mirrorless photography, DSLRs were the best digital cameras you could buy and ranged from amateur to professional. Today, they’re still a great option for many photographers.
What does DSLR Stand For?
DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex. This refers to the internal design of the camera—it has a single lens and uses a reflex mirror and prism to send light from the lens into the camera and to the viewfinder. The optical nature of the DSLR means that instead of looking at a little digital screen inside the viewfinder, you’re seeing through the camera’s lens, eliminating any delay from when the action’s happening and when your eye sees it.
What is a Mirrorless Camera?
A mirrorless camera goes without the moving reflex mirror and prism of a DSLR and instead relies on an LCD screen to show you what you’re about to take a photo of. Whether it’s on the camera’s rear screen or in an electronic viewfinder you put your eye up to, mirrorless cameras can often be smaller than a DSLR because of the simpler design.
How Do I Clean a Camera?
For elements of the camera on the outside (like outer lens elements and displays), use a soft microfiber cloth to gently remove grease and oil. For dust, grab a can of compressed air or an air puffer to blow it away. If you notice dust building up on the inside of your camera, and it impacts image quality, contact a professional to arrange for a deep clean of your camera’s internals.
Other Cameras We Tested
This mirrorless camera is a good camera for still photos, but it’s secretly a video powerhouse. We love this camera for the sharp 4K footage it shoots and impressively deep video functionality that Panasonic gives users.
It has a nice electronic viewfinder, an articulated touchscreen, and a body that’s well-designed and easy to grip–so there’s a lot to like. Plus, it’s also a little older, so it’s easy to find a good deal on it.
I decided against picking the Lumix G85 because it’s not as easy to use as the Nikon D3500, even if the Panasonic is more advanced when it comes to video. For the money, the Nikon will give you higher-quality photos with its bigger sensor, slightly more reliable autofocus, and has better smartphone connectivity to boot. And then, there’s the fact that the D3500 is about as compact as the Lumix, making the Nikon option more powerful and just as portable. Unless video is your number-one concern, grab the Nikon.
Sony’s mid-range A6400 is like many of Sony’s more recent mirrorless cameras, featuring a corner-mounted viewfinder and a flipping touchscreen that works for off-angle work and even selfies. It has a flat body that makes it less bulky than some other cameras, but at the expense of ergonomics and comfort. The kit I tried included Sony’s 16-50mm power zoom lens, which retracts to keep the camera’s profile slim when you’re not shooting with it.
That said, this advanced Sony had some of the best image quality of the cameras we tested with impressively fast autofocus and quick burst speeds, aided by startlingly precise face and eye detection software. If you need to shoot a lot of fast-moving action, this is a great camera to consider.
Unfortunately, because of its higher price, harder-to-use controls, and more complicated menus, we don’t think it’s the best fit for beginners. The Sony A6400 is an impressive camera, but one that’s way better suited for someone with photography experience who knows that they’ll get every ounce of performance from their $1,000 purchase. But, for a beginner, you can get way better bang for your buck with the two picks we listed at the top of this article.
Canon’s low-end DSLR was an obvious pick for this guide due to its popularity and great price. It is a very basic DSLR but has a lot of things you might like. It has standard wi-fi connectivity, a dead simple menu system, and it shoots passable HD video.
Where the Canon is a real letdown is when it comes to image quality and its overall build and design. Its sensor isn’t quite as good as what the Nikon has to offer, its noisy zoom lens feels chintzy, and the camera just feels cheap and insubstantial compared to the others on this list.
While the Rebel T6 often sells for less money than the Nikon D3500 (and sometimes in a two-lens kit, or even with bonus accessories included), the Nikon is well worth the higher price you’ll pay.
This point-and-shoot is a classic, but not one we enjoyed revisiting. Wrapped in metal, Sony’s RX100 was the first compact with a 1-inch sensor, and set the standard for other cameras that came after it. You can often buy one for a song since it’s been on the market since 2012, and even though it’s gained an extended family of pricier, better, cousins, remains on shelves.
Unfortunately, you get what you pay for. A camera this old is going to be long in the tooth, and even something as groundbreaking as the OG RX100 has not aged well.
Not only is it less intuitive to use than the touch-friendly (and very similar Canon Powershot G9X II), it also falls behind in speed and features, and it’s even harder to hold on to. With the price difference so slight at time of writing, we greatly prefer the newer, better Canon option here.