There’s a certain question that I get asked virtually every single day. People need to know what camera they should buy for their upcoming high school or college photography class. It’s a great question, and one that I’m always happy to answer, as it means that someone’s about to begin a process of discovery that often grows into a lifelong passion for the medium.
After fielding this question three times today, I’ve put together a quick article showcasing what I believe are five of the very best cameras for new students of photography. These cameras provide everything that most high school teachers and college professors insist their students’ cameras offer, while being affordable, quality machines.
Take a look, pick the one that suits you best, and get shooting!
I mentioned that the cameras in this list will satisfy the requirements of most photo classes. But what does this mean?
For the most part, photo instructors will want their students to have a camera that offers manual shooting (in which the aperture, shutter speed, and film speed are controlled by the user), manual focus, and a built-in light meter.
Additionally acceptable are auto-exposure modes that will help the student learn the impact of each adjustment; cameras that are capable of shutter-priority and aperture-priority shooting modes. It should be noted, however, that most professors will ask that students use these modes only as stepping stones toward learning full manual control.
The cameras should be affordable, reliable, uncomplicated, and able to take a beating. And since we’re definitely hip, stylish kids, we want a camera that looks good too.
So let’s get to it. Here are five fantastic cameras for the photography student.
Though I love the truly vintage machines (and your professor likely will too), I wanted to include a more modern camera on our list for those who aren’t so into the old stuff. And I can think of no better machine than the exceedingly capable and very affordable Nikon N2000.
This camera offers a truly modern package for the student photographer, and it’s a camera that replicates the feel of a DSLR more than any other on the list. For students used to shooting a modern digital SLR, The N2000 will be a great fit.
Able to accept Nikon’s legendary F-mount lenses, and capable of every shooting mode one will need in a photography class, it’s a camera that will get out of the way and let the journey begin. Automatic film advance streamlines the less exciting parts of the process, and the super-informative viewfinder allows for rapid assessment of the shot to be taken. An audio warning tone helps new shooters understand when a shot will be under-exposed or when camera shake may be a factor, and the film safe load window help new fumbling fingers be assured their film is loaded correctly.
It’s hefty, without being heavy, and looks nice enough to satisfy the style-conscious shooter. It may not be the most glamorous machine, but it’s got it where it counts.
The Canon A-1 is the more-capable sibling to Canon’s AE-1, and it’s a camera equally at home in Photography 101 as it is in the hands of a money-making photographer. It’s one of the best looking, classically styled SLRs around. Small, discreet, and offered only in black, it just looks like a professional machine. And while the A-1 debuted in 1978, it offers nearly everything one would expect from a camera made yesterday.
It’s capable of shooting in full manual, program, aperture priority, and shutter priority modes, and thanks to this full suite of shooting modes it’s a fantastic option for the photography student. A massive, bright viewfinder full of information helps the shooter know exactly what’s happening when the shutter is released, and the straightforward controls allow for uncomplicated shooting.
Build quality is good. While not as robust as some of the German machines or mechanical Nikons, the A-1 is still a fairly reliable camera. The ABS plastic shell surrounding the metal core can be prone to impact damage, and the micro-processors used in this machine have a somewhat deserved reputation for conking out. The key is to find one that looks like it was pampered and ensure it works before handing over the cash. Once you’re sure it’s working properly, buy it. It’s one of the best cameras ever made.
Nikon Nikkormat FTn
The Nikkormat FTn is a really fantastic enthusiast-level machine. More importantly, it’s a Nikon through and through. Though billed as the lesser sibling to the world-renowned Nikon F, the disparities between the Nikkormat and the F are surprisingly few. It’s solid as a rock, and all the important design ethos of the F carry over to the Nikkormat, resulting in a camera that’s punching far above its weight (and price).
This is a camera that will last multiple lifetimes (a truth evidenced by the sheer number of them still firing away). It’s made entirely of metal, and it’s a true machine in the most literal sense of the word. Relying on batteries only to power the light meter, it’s a machine that will give the shooter that wonderful feeling of shooting a classic camera, and promote learning like few others.
The FTn is the version to get, as it displays the selected shutter speed in the viewfinder and incorporates the center-weighted metering formula that Nikon still favors to this day. Couple this gorgeous camera with a slick prime Nikkor and you’ve got a camera that’s capable of anything, and one that can even grow with you.
Minolta SRT Series
Although fewer people have heard of Minolta compared with other brands like Nikon and Canon, the cameras made by this Japanese company were among the best in the business for more than half a century. Of their mechanical machines, none were better than the SRT series, and they’re perfect for the student on account of their impeccable quality and incredibly affordable price.
These tank-like cameras are hearty, strong, and extremely capable. They’re simple machines that never break, and will work for decades and decades. They feature a truly massive viewfinder, which makes manual focus and composition easier than with many other cameras, and the metering system is second-to-none in its generation. Minolta’s legendary CLC system meters an average from two spots on the pentaprism ensuring that shots made in even the most challenging of lighting situations will expose properly, a feature that will surely help students figure out the basics of exposure.
The silky mechanics and tight build quality of these cameras will appeal to those who prize true quality over brand recognition. Hunt down the SRT101, or 202 as these are the most full-featured, while avoiding the SRT100 (on account of its criminally slow maximum shutter speed of 1/500th of a second).
And finally we have the Pentax K1000, a camera that’s nearly synonymous with film photography class. This camera has been the go-to camera for decades on account of its reliable build, affordability, and its no-nonsense approach to the craft. Over 20 years of continuous production, the K1000 sold more than 3 million units and wormed its way into the hearts of just as many newbie shooters.
Its simple, straightforward design is easy for any new shooter to quickly understand, while the fully mechanical construction ensures that the shooter will never have to worry about last-minute breakdowns ahead of a looming deadline. Its light meter is the only component that requires battery power, and it’s able to accept a truly massive selection of lenses, many of which are world-class performers.
Of all the cameras on this list the K1000 is the simplest, and some might say perfect, camera for beginners. It offers everything you’ll need in Photo 101, and nothing you won’t.
While there are hundreds of other models that would be great for the student photographer, these cameras are the ones with which I’ve seen students thrive. They fit the bill without breaking the bank, offer exceptional performance, and look damn good doing it.
If you have a camera that you think deserves to be on the list, let me know about it in the comments.