Recently had a good friend ask for a favor for a friend of theirs. His friend was starting a photography business and was looking for gear advice. He mentioned me to her and then asked that I create a starter gear list for her. As usual I started with “Who am I to answer such?” and then I pushed past that and said yes. I did not engage regarding skill level to keep things simple on my end. Neither was a hard budget provided so I used my minimum requirements as my guide. Just about any camera out would do to be honest. As an obsessive hobbyist currently pursuing distractions by way of creation I am not currently looking to turn what I love into a serious endeavor. But I am not being asked about the business side and I can talk gear all day long. Helps that I have already written posts about almost all of this gear already. All I had to do was put it together in one place.
The ask was for a list of top five bang for buck cameras. In addition to current pricing I added considerations for future upgrades in mind and provided an upgrade option where applicable. And here we go.
Will add a cost-effective mild wide to mild tele zoom lens option and an upgrade option where applicable. Prime lenses can come later as needed. Primes are faster wide open, but most close down the aperture for portraits so the added focal range versatility for group, single person, and headshots is an advantage starting out.
I recommend full-frame if you can start with that, but the first two options will be APS-C.
I will be sticking to mirrorless options since DSLRs are being phased out across most brands.
Will only be listing options that can be purchased new at this time. The used market would explode this list beyond a reasonable size.
- APS-C: Sony a6100 ($748) (My review of this camera)
- Camera: All around best bang for buck APS-C camera in my opinion. It is let down by a thin quality zoom selection.
- Upgrade: You could spend more on a higher model Sony APS-C, but all have the same sensor and most of the same features so the a6100 is the best bang for buck option.
- Lens: Sony E PZ 18-105mm f/4 G OSS Lens ($598) Slower aperture with a wide focal range at a reasonable price.
- Upgrade: Tamron 17-70mm f/2.8 Di III-A VC RXD ($799) Less focal range, but a faster aperture.
- APS-C: Fujifilm XS10 ($999)
- Camera: Sony is my first recommendation bang for buck but many prefer the Fujifilm APS-C cameras for their look, feel, ergonomics, and image quality.
- Upgrade: There are less expensive older Fujifilm models than the new XS10, but it is worth the extra spend since it has many features of the more expensive models. For a starter kit there is little reason to spend more.
- Lens: FUJIFILM XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 R LM OIS Lens ($699)
- Upgrade: No need to spend more initially, especially considering how expensive higher-end Fujifilm lenses are.
- You would really have to like Fuji to go with this option since better value can be had elsewhere. There are full frame options below that cost less.
- Full Frame (Camera and lens): Sony A7II lens kit ($1,598)
- Camera: An older camera that is still on sale for a reason. It is a solid full-feature camera for stills with excellent image quality and in camera Image Stabilization.(My review of this camera)
- Lens: The 28-70mm kit lens above performs far beyond its price point and easily worth the spend for a starter kit. (My last review of this lens)
- Camera Alone Upgrade: Sony A7III ($1,698) This camera has also been out a while, but still stands toe to toe with newer cameras. Excellent image quality with better AF, 2 memory card slots, 4K video, and better ergonomics. For a little more it can be had with the 28-70mm kit lens mentioned above. You could spend more for a newer Sony, but this remains the best overall Sony value in my opinion. (My review of this camera)
- Lens Alone Upgrade: Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 Di III RXD ($879) Faster aperture lens that is sharper and adds a bit more of a focal length range. You could spend more, but for the money there is no better lens. (My review of this lens)
- Full Frame (Camera and lens): Canon EOS RP Mirrorless Digital Camera with 24-105mm f/4-7.1 ($1,299)
- Camera: The EOS RP is possibly the best bargain on this list, when considering prime lens prices. For a similar or lower price than the two APS-C options above this camera brings full-frame performance. While close to the Z5 below this camera costs significantly less than the Sony full-frame options above. A secret weapon for me above other brands is the excellent, reasonably priced STM prime trio. A great camera value is not really a value if you cannot afford the glass for it. (My review of this camera)
- Lens: While not as fast as other options on this list this lens has great reviews and performs well above its price point while offering a broad 24-105mm focal range.
- Camera Alone Upgrade: In my opinion to start out with the asking price of, admittedly great, more expensive RF cameras is currently not worth it.
- Lens Alone Upgrade: Canon RF 50mm f/1.8 STM ($199) I will break my zoom only lens rule here. Canon makes a prime lens so good and costs so little money that I recommend anyone with an RF mount camera to buy it. It also has a focal length that is very flexible and is traditionally used for many kinds of portraits. At f/1.8 it is also bright enough to be used in low light situations without flash or can be used to get a shallow depth of field. It is so good that I bought an EOS RP just to use with this lens. (My review of this lens) There is also the constant aperture 24-105mm f/4 which also gets fantastic reviews, but at more than double the price I think the variable aperture variant above is fine to start out with.
- Full Frame (Camera and lens): Nikon Z 5 Mirrorless Digital Camera with 24-50mm ($1,296)
- Camera and Lens: Not as familiar with mirrorless Nikon. Their lens options are a little larger and more expensive than I would like, but Nikon is a solid option. Chose this kit as it is the least expensive full frame Nikon option.
- Camera Alone Upgrade: Nikon put itself in a weird spot with their current line up. Older, more expensive Nikon cameras like the Z6 cost more, but do not have features like 2 card slots. Newer models like the Z6 II are great, but cost significantly more but do not bring many additional features that warrant the extra spend for someone just starting out. The Z5 was created as a bargain option and they hit the nail on the head.
- Lens Alone Upgrade: Nikon Z 5 Mirrorless Digital Camera with 24-70mm f/4 ($1,596) If you were to spend more I would recommend getting the same Z5 with a better lens for a little more money.
Next up is lighting:
- I would recommend getting an inexpensive all in one lighting stands and umbrella kit. Not as sturdy as more expensive options but brings everything you need to get started. I bought my first kit just to get going and ended up using it for years. It also included light bulbs for constant lighting (Great for portraits with film.) and the stands also worked just fine with my flashes. All for less than $60. (Here is a post I wrote about using that constant light kit for the first time)
- Stand Upgrade: Years on I purchased heavier duty Flashpoint stands from Adorama. Not necessary to start out with, but handy as lights and modifiers get heavier.
- Modifier Upgrade: Umbrellas are very flexible but as time goes on you may want to use more advanced light modifiers. That is a rabbit hole of its own but I also recommend Flashpoint Glow lighting modifiers. They offer many options and great value. (My light modifier review)
- I recommend Godox or Flashpoint flashes (Same flashes with different names). The TT350 models (I recommend getting two.) are a great starting point and cost only about $70 apiece where factory options typically cost many hundreds each. I recommend the least expensive R2 trigger model for about $60 apiece. (Here is my Godox flash system review)
- Upgrade 1: As you start looking at more powerful lights the Flashpoint/Godox V1 lights are great. Larger, more powerful versions of the lights above. Their regular price is quite a bit more, but not when compared to similar more expensive brand options and they often go on sale for much less if you are patient. (My V1 review)
- Upgrade 2: Flashpoint eVOLV 200 TTL Modular Strobe (AD200 Pocket Flash) Bought as my first strobe I have found no reason to upgrade further. What I did do was add a second which can also be used with an adapter to double up for more power. (Small review is in my Godox review)
Well that is about it. List could change at any moment as the mood strikes me. And as I mentioned near any camera produced in the last few years would do. I most often use years old cameras. If this list is above their budget there will be a used gear list to follow. A pleasant distraction.