I have a lot of friends ask me about getting into photography and they all seem to be at where I was, five years ago. I wanted a better camera than my phone so I could take good travel photos, photos of food and people in daily life. Sound familiar?
The problem is, the first camera I bought was...the Canon 5D Mk 2, a full frame DSLR that cost half my bank account. I basically dove into the deep end of a pool and then doggy-paddled my way to the surface when it came to photography and while I've never regretted it, I wouldn't recommend it for most people.
Thankfully, people smarter than me have written a wealth of guides. I'm here to link you to the best ones and give a layman's explanation to demystify all the technical language.
Disclaimer: I am largely self-taught Canon photographer and these are general tips gleaned from personal experience, not expert opinions. Always happy to learn more - leave me a comment if you have things to add!
Do you need an upgrade?
Could a point-and-shoot camera serve you instead? 'Proper' DSLR or even mirrorless photography is an expensive hobby. Many expensive cameras are bought and then languish in cupboards because the owners don't realise that the craft is a process. It's like assuming buying an expensive paintbrush will automatically help you paint well.
The decision to buy a DSLR or mirrorless camera should, ideally, be an upgrade from what you're already doing with your phone. You should be shooting regularly and editing your photos and be enjoying the process.
Any smartphone nowadays has a pretty decent camera already so master the art of phone photography first will make the process a lot easier. Same goes for existing DSLR cameras you may already have. They're good to practise on before you shell out for a brand new camera.
Pick your system and brand
Once you've decided you're down for a camera, decide firstly whether you want to go with a mirrorless or DSLR system. If you want to do photography as a casual hobby, a low cost mirrorless camera is your best bet.
If you think you'd get more serious about photography after mastering the basics and want to achieve professional-grade photos one day, consider a DSLR. Here's a good mirrorless vs DSLR comparison and a guide to picking your DSLR.
Lenses designed to maximise the quality of the larger sensor on full frame cameras can easily cost more than $1000 each, so if you're just starting out, stick to crop sensor lenses that are much cheaper. You generally can't use crop sensor lenses on full frame cameras. Full frame lenses on crop sensor bodies will create a 'crop' factor, meaning the image will be more 'zoomed in'.
'Try' your camera in store
Stores like Georges, CameraHouse or Ted's stocks bodies and lenses and have staff who know what they're talking about and can advise you. There's nothing like actually having a feel for the camera in your hand. You can tell I didn't try mine out. If I did, I probably would have bought a lighter one (but really, #noregrets).
Things to note in store
Megapixels tend to get hyped up but they don't matter so much if you're mostly intending to share the images online - large megapixels only really matter when you're printing the photos in large scale
Flash - most entry-level DSLRs and mirrorless cameras have built-in flash but some don't and you have to buy them externally
Lens range - there are ways to use other camera brand lenses on your camera but, generally, people tend to stick with the lens range of that brand when they're starting out. Have a look at the prices of the lenses available and the range
Video capabilities - If you're intending to shoot video as well as photos. Not all cameras have video functions
Learn the basics and edit
A well edited photo taken on a lower grade camera > a non-edited photo taken on an expensive camera.
Editing sets your photos apart from others and makes your photos 'your own', so get used to the idea you should edit your photos (and hopefully enjoy it!).
SHOOT RAW IMAGES INSTEAD OF JPEG if you can - it takes up more memory but gives you much more flexibility when editing your photos (this article shows you how to switch to RAW)
You can also edit with your smartphone especially if you have Wifi on your camera and can transfer your photos on your phone quickly. This is much faster than editing on the computer, albeit less precise.
Recommended phone apps: Snapseed, VSCOCAM, Lightroom, Instagram. A guide to basic mobile editing I wrote up last year is here: Insta 101.
Recommended computer programs: Adobe Lightroom is best for bulk photo-editing. You can use Adobe Photoshop or free software in a pinch or even Mac/Windows image editors.
Don't be lazy
The biggest tip for improving your photography is frequent practice and experimenting with new things. Your camera is an expensive tool and it shouldn't be collecting dust! Become the 'photographer' friend, take your camera everywhere and...just go shoot. Train your eye to recognise angles and interesting compositions. Study your favourite Instagrammer's photos. Train your friends to wait until you're done taking photos of your food before they eat (#protip)
Size (and weight) matters
I recommend starting light. Your priority at the beginning is frequent shooting and practice (see above) and a large, heavy DSLR can deter you from that It will be tough to travel with too, unless you're committed to carrying around your DSLR (it's possible. I've done it every time).
More lenses > body
If you get a DSLR, I'd recommend using your $$$ on buying more lenses over a pricier body because that's what creates the most tangible visual difference in your photos. There isn't too much of a difference between the brands in one price bracket, except for small differences in specs.
For landscapes, look into wide lenses (24mm and lower). For portraits, look into buying a fast prime lens that is <f/3 so you can achieve bokeh (aka. the 'blurred background effect'). If you're a Canon shooter, a 50mm f/1.8 lens is a good place to start practicising - it's cheap and versatile and great for helping you understand how aperture works.
If you're travelling or just want something for street photography, zoom lenses (18-55mm or 24-70mm Canon) will be useful and versatile as you can get away with just the one lens.
Get involved and share
Photography is at least partly about the people. Find people who share your hobby and learn from each other. Share your photos on Instagram and photography communities. And maybe make some awesome friends along the way.
Join your university's photography society if you have one. Join Igers Sydney or your local Instagram community and participate in Instameets to meet other photographer and creatives. The Photography subreddit is also a good place to ask questions. Digital Rev has a wealth of videos where they test out particular lenses.
Jen’s Camera Guide: Incredibly comprehensive and explains all the nitty gritty terminology
Guide to best beginner DSLRs (generally <$800): TL;DR Nikon D3300 or Canon 750D
Best mirrorless cameras (ranges from $600 - $2000)
Best point-and-shoots (no lens changes but cheapest and lightest)
Canon GX series - These seem like a great point-and-shoot range for people who want a no-fuss travel camera, especially if they don't plan to delve further into DSLR photography. Does everything you could want it to do (video, Wifi), but you're limited by a single lens.
Fujifilm X-T2 - I have several friends who own this and swear by it. The only downside I've seen is that there are so many settings that it can be a bit overwhelming to try and figure them out. But it is worth it to read the manual in this case.
Fujifilm X-T10 - I've played with my friend's XT10 and it's very light and nifty, even if the digital screen looks anachronous to its design. A cheaper alternative to the X-T2/X-T1.
GoPro - Generally great if you're doing something more action packed or video-based. The image quality isn't great for still images unless it's only web/Instagram, but it's lightweight, waterproof, easily clipped onto a bag and can stand being smashed around a bit. My friend Carol combines the Go-Pro with a selfie stick and takes awesome action photos using the slight fisheye effect.
Sony Nex-7 - We were gifted the Sony Nex-5 by a family friend and I really enjoyed taking this around for a few months in 2012 before I decided to commit to using my 5D properly. It was light and easy to use, but hard to achieve bokeh with the f/3.5 lens.
Canon 550D - Purely for nostalgia because this was actually the first camera I used (it belonged to my grandfather) and it started my interest in photography. A very basic but light camera that introduced me to the Canon system.
5 years later...and still so much more to learn.