This Is the Best Camera for Beginner Photographers

The latest cameras announced by Canon and Sony are some of the best they have produced. These are professional cameras with high-end features and price tags to match. What if, however, you're just starting out in the industry and in need of a professional-grade camera but don't yet have the budget? 

In a recent video, we discuss why the Canon 5D Mark II is the best camera you can buy if you're just starting out. This 12-year-old camera is still an incredible option today for a number of reasons, and in this article, I'll be discussing what these reasons are. 

Old, Not Dated

The Canon 5D Mark II was released all the way back in 2008. So much has happened during that time that it seems like a whole lifetime ago. Twelve years in the world of technology is a long time, and due to that, many people tend not to consider these kinds of cameras. I think this is a mistake, because the 5D Mark II is still an incredible option, especially when you consider the price point.

This camera can be bought from MPB.com here in the UK for around £450, and in the US, it can be bought for just over $550. Although the website does have less expensive versions available too, I wouldn't recommend buying a camera with a high shutter count. 

At that price point, this camera sits perfectly within the budget of many photographers that are just starting out. The other implication of this price point is that it sits within the same bracket of many APS-C cameras currently on the market. For many people starting out, cameras like the Sony a6000 are popular options. Many beginners pick to purchase an APS-C camera when they first start out predominantly due to the price point; however, a secondhand 5D Mark II may be a better option instead. 

When you compare the 5D Mark II to the current APS-C camera at around the same price point, you'll find that in low-light situations, the Canon often outperforms them. The difference against the a6000, for example, is more than a stop when shooting at high ISO. If you're shooting at 6,400 on the 5D Mark II, you'd need to shoot at around ISO 3,200 in order to match the amount of noise in the image.

When you start to compare the 5D Mark II to flagship APS-C cameras like the Fujifilm X-T4 and the Sony a6600, the Canon performs extremely well when it comes to low-light performance. At ISO 6,400, the differences are negligible, and the 5D Mark II comes at a fraction of the price. For this reason, the 5D Mark II is still a very capable option for photographers just starting out or on a budget. 

A Professional Camera

The Canon 5D Mark II was the workhorse camera when it was first released. This is the camera that many professionals trusted in and for good reason. The construction of the camera was second to none at the time of its release, and even today, the build and design mean that it's made to last. 

One of the useful advantages the 5D Mark II has is that the shutter speed can go up to 1/8,000 s, which is a full stop faster than many current APS-C cameras. Even the Sony a6600 has a maximum shutter speed of 1/4,000 s. In real-world shooting environments, this really does make a difference. In the video, I discuss how I needed faster shutter speeds than 1/4,000 s when shooting at wide apertures outdoors. 

EF 50mm f/1.8 II, 1/5,000s, ISO 100

There is also the point of the 5D Mark II being rated for a greater number of shutter actuations, which adds to its overall durability. This is a 5D series camera, meaning that its weather-sealing and build quality are of a very high standard. There are few situations where this camera cannot be relied upon. 

It's Full Frame

Many might scoff at this point, but it can't be discounted. It's a ful frame camera, which provides a few great advantages. The angle of view, for instance, makes a huge difference in real-world shooting. Take, for example, the EF 50mm we shot within the video. This "entry-level" wide-aperture lens will not be able to produce the same kind of images on an APS-C camera. The wider angle of view with the shallow depth of field is one of the major reasons people upgrade to full frame. APS-C cameras with the same lens simply cannot produce that look as effectively. 

The larger sensor allows you to make full use of your lenses without any crop factor compromises. This is useful for almost every kind of photography, save maybe sports and wildlife, where the extra reach of the smaller sensor can come in handy. 

For portraits, having the ability to better control your background blur is extremely helpful. Even with inexpensive lenses like the EF 50mm f/1.8, you're able to produce images with shallow depth of field, which isn't as easily achievable with a smaller sensor camera. If you shoot landscapes or architecture, being able to shoot with a wider angle of view can make all the difference. It's easier to zoom in or crop into an image than it is to move further away from a subject, because sometimes, there's no option to move farther back.

Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II, f/8.0, ISO 100

Many photographers that are just starting out tend to purchase an APS-C camera with the aim of upgrading to a full frame system later. I think it's a better idea to start with a full frame camera because from a price perspective, it's definitely within reach. This also prevents any confusion when it comes to compatibility between formats, and there are no adjustments required due to differences in the angle of view. 

The Lenses

When you put a high-quality lens on the front of the 5D Mark II, you can produce brilliant results every time. To test this, we shot some images for a company using the 5D Mark II, and in that real shooting environment, the 5D Mark II performed extremely well. Shooting with lenses like the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS and the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art produced results that the company we shot for were very happy with. I don't think there's a better benchmark than a happy client; that's what really matters. 

Even if you're not in a position to purchase high-quality lenses immediately, you have the format to be able to make use of them when you eventually can. In the meantime, you can rent lenses for your camera, and once again, you don't have a crop factor compromise to deal with. Renting is a great option, and this is something that I did early on in my career. Lenses like the Canon 24mm tilt-shift are quite expensive, and when I couldn't afford to buy it, I rented. If I had had an APS-C camera at the time, I wouldn't have been able to make proper use of that lens.

Essentially, buying a full frame camera to begin with affords you far greater potential.

Why Not the Canon 6D? 

One of the most popular comments I've seen from a number of people is about how the Canon 6D is a better option. I disagree for a number of reasons.

First of all, it's more expensive on the secondhand market. That extra money could be better used towards lenses or accessories. The second reason is that the 5D is better than the 6D in several key ways. The build and durability of the 5D Mark II are far better than the 6D. Weather-sealing is a key point to consider, and the rated number of lifetime shutter actuations is greater on the 5D too. 

Even when it comes to handling, the 5D has a proper joystick, better ergonomics, and overall better design. The 6D does have slightly better autofocus in comparison to the 5D Mark II; however, the differences are negligible in real-world environments, especially once you've calibrated your lenses. I know this because I've shot extensively with both systems, and I've owned a 6D camera for a number of years. 

Ultimately, you're paying more for the 6D to get slightly less of a camera. 

Final Thoughts

When you're first starting out, getting the most for your money is extremely important. This is why I think that a 5D Mark II is probably the best option. If you can find one in good condition with a low shutter count, it should serve you well for years to come. There are professionals that still shoot with a 5D Mark II that they bought years ago, simply because it's such a brilliant and reliable camera. For the money, there are very few options that compete with the kind of value the 5D Mark II offers. 

My final recommendation is that you buy secondhand cameras from reputable companies. This is because they offer great after-sale care and also a warranty to give that extra peace of mind. 

Check out the video linked above to see how the 5D Mark II performs. 

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28 Comments

James Noud's picture

I suggest an apsc camera, for example a Canon 80d, bought refurbished when Canon offers a two lens kit for very low prices. Why apsc? Both the cost and weight of the additional lenses. Mirrorless converts are dumping apsc lenses at very attractive prices. And...unless your selling your work, apsc offers high quality for less than full frame. I have generated over 15k worth of work to real estate agents photographing high end homes without a complaint about quality, using Canon apsc bodies.

Usman Dawood's picture

A secondhand Canon 80D costs more than a 5D II. You're better off buying the better camera.

James Noud's picture

Add in the costs of lenses and that will quickly change.

Usman Dawood's picture

But there are plenty of inexpensive and great lens options available full-frame. In fact there are more for the larger sensor than there are for apsc. I mean the 50mm f1.8 is a perfect example and we used that in the video.

chrisrdi's picture

^^^^^^This is Trew^^^^^^ 90% of my lenses are older glass. I get very similar results when compared to their more expensive modern counter parts. If I had bought modern new versions of all the lenses I have it would have cost me over 4.5 grand. Instead I have about $2000 in my lenses and that's only because I bought a second hand Nikon 70-200mm VR2. If I had gone with the Nikon 80-200mm f2.8 D it would have axed off $500. Even better if I had gone with the 70-210mm f4 ( I learned I don't really need f2.8) I could have axed off about $800. Like you said, there are plenty of options out there for great pro gear for not a lot of money. I hope people stop buying into the new gear hype thinking you have to have the most expensive, latest, and greatest gear to get paid work. You really don't any more.

Michael Rapp's picture

Agreed, if all the other features you need are up to par, too - like image buffer, autofocus speed, face/ eye detect,
Imho, low ISO capability isn't the holy grail, just one of many features. And the kind of work where the client actually notices a slightly grainier image is a small bandwidth - especially in web consumption. It all depends on the line of work you want to do. A budding sports photographer I would push towards a used Canon 7d II with one or two decent lenses. It all really depends. For my 2 cents, at least.

Usman Dawood's picture

The 7D II is absolutely the camera I’d recommend for that kind of photography too. Brilliant camera .

JuiH Tan's picture

hi, in general i would feel that a 5D series of camera would be good to learn with especially with the wide availability of lenses. i'm not so sure however whether a Mark ii would be a good beginner camera to purchase or own for the following two reasons.

i found that the evaluative metering of my 5D Mark ii was unreliable in conditions of backlighting especially when shooting in jpeg where i would be unable to recover data as opposed to shooting in raw. even when i tried to use exposure compensation or manual exposure, i was unable to determine the exact exposure for the photographs.

i had previously shot on an EOS-1 which was the camera i owned prior to my 5D Mark ii on slide and colour negative film and was able to obtain the correct exposure even though the camera launch dates were separated by more than a decade and a half. in that sense i would not consider a 5D Mark ii to be a fully Professional camera. the evaluative metering of my 5D Mark iv is significantly more reliable and accurate.

i think though that if i were to teach a friend photography that i might either choose a Fujifilm Mirrorless such as an X-T2, or an actual film camera such as an FM2 with their analog dials and controls. i think that learning with analogue controls gives a more sensory way of picturing the exposure controls with the range of shutter speeds and apertures and iso values visible and understandable, and also adjustable in a more tactile way.

Michael Krueger's picture

For an actual beginner just learning I would never recommend the 5D Mark II, for someone with photography knowledge needing a camera for work it would depend on the situation and type of photography.

It's not so much the age of the camera that bothers me, but the fact it's an old bulky FF DSLR on a dead platform. I just couldn't recommend anyone I know to invest in one.

Pure image quality isn't everything, there are other features and camera ecosystems to consider along with user experience.

Teemu Paukamainen's picture

Aaaaand the pure image quality you mentioned from the newer entry-level cameras is better too nowadays. Continuous AF on the 5DII is pretty awful too. Plenty of reasons NOT to buy that old dinosaur. :)

Stuart Carver's picture

Sorry but this is just another misleading article from the author.

Your logic of avoiding 95% of the lenses and only sticking to a Couple of prime lenses and 3rd party 85mm is completely flawed. Just reeks of yet more gearhead snobbery from Usman Dawood.

My only hope is someone starting out with photography doesn’t stumble across this rubbish.

Usman Dawood's picture

The lead image and most of the shots were taken with the EF 50mm f1.8. I also don’t own 95% of lenses to be able to put them in a video.

Stuart Carver's picture

But you are literally saying don’t buy APS-C because you can’t achieve the results (which is hugely debatable) then trying to claim that buying an 8yr old full frame camera is a better option on the back of one cheap prime lens which is nothing that hasn’t been said 1000 times before (nifty fifty).

For less than a thousand pounds I can get a Nikon D5300 with kit lens, 35mm, 50mm (both of which will give you the Instagram Bokeh you seem obsessed with), a Sigma 10-20 f3.5 and AF-P Nikon 70-300 telephoto lens. I don’t know the Canon ecosystem but I can guarantee the same can be achieved.

Let’s see you price up a set of full frame lenses that cover that range, not just selectively tell the reader 1 or 2 lenses to suit your rhetoric. The whole idea of supposed ‘journalism’ is to remain impartial and offer all the facts, this article does neither.

Usman Dawood's picture

That’s not snobbery though that’s a fact. It’s not debatable either. You can’t get the kind of results full frame can with apsc if you’re shooting with the same lens.

Stuart Carver's picture

Have you priced up that kit with the full frame camera yet? Or are you expecting this beginner to just make do with a 50mm?

And yes it is debatable, the difference in depth of field between the 2 formats is so negligible it makes little difference, I can put a 50mm f2 lens on an APS-C camera and have virtually nothing in focus at f2, with the background sufficiently blurred out to give good subject separation. There are countless examples of photographs with great ‘Bokeh’ taken with APS-C cameras, and the shots you reference above could have been taken on any camera, there is nothing otherworldly about them that only a full frame camera could achieve.

Usman Dawood's picture

Yes I agree with what you say, however, full-frame produces better results.

Also in terms of pricing up a full kit, it really depends so I intentionally strayed away from this because the potential is huge. Having said that, I have written an article specifically for architectural photography on another site, where I do price up a full-frame kit. So for architecture I could offer a full kit and for that I'd say 5D II with a 17-40mm.

Shooting architecture with an aps-c camera is less than ideal, especially when you start shooting with tilt-shift lenses.

Stuart Carver's picture

Not going to disagree with the Architecture comment but not sure it would fall in line with someone just starting out, id say its one of the more difficult genres and requires someone to master general landscapes and get their compositional eye in first.

The tilt shift lens thing is an interesting point, i may be wrong but i think Canon and Nikon are the only 2 who have done one out of the major players? seems weird the others haven't bothered, namely Fujifilm for the X system(as you say APS-C might not be the best for it) and especially for the GFX system which would lend itself perfectly to a tilt shift lens id imagine.

Usman Dawood's picture

I've tried the tilt -shift combination with the GFX and although individually both are brilliant, for one reason or another, there are visible distortions when you adapt the two. Still usable but kind of defeats the point when you have distortion for architecture.

I've heard Fuji may be producing their own TS lens for the GFX which would be amazing so hopefully that happens but for now yes, it's mostly just Canon and Nikon.

Stuart Carver's picture

Im not an expert on it by any means but i guess the GFX 23mm is more workable than a wide angle lens on the other formats as its naturally got less distortion but still not going to be as good as the TS lenses at straightening lines up. I dread to think how much a dedicated GFX TS lens would cost, 4/5k at a guess.

sam dasso's picture

"What if, however, you're just starting out in the industry and in need of a professional-grade camera but don't yet have the budget? "
If you starting a business and don't even have a budget for professional grade tools, then you destin to fail because you don't have money for everything else you going to need. Tools are very small fraction of business start up cost. But if you're beggining hobbyist, then any new camera that fits you budget will do. Forget about old used absolete technology.

Alan Myers's picture

I'm a long time Canon shooter. Switched to the system first with film cameras, then to digital in the early 2000s. Still have my 5D Mark II, along with several APS-C models (and a pair of film EOS-3, which hardly see any use but I can't bring myself to sell at today's values). For use on them, I've got a shelf full of lenses.... mostly, but not all Canon glass... some of which dates back to when I shot film.

Largely I agree with your hearty recommendation of the 5DII as a good option. It is still a very useful and usable 21MP camera that's fully capable of making pro-quality images. Like ALL cameras, the glass put in front of it is far more important than the camera itself. And if money saved by buying a older, used camera allows someone to put more $ into better lenses, it can pay dividends in better results both in the short and in the long run.

HOWEVER, it really depends on what the user will be shooting. Yes, for portraits, scenic shots, archetecture, even macro in some cases, a full frame camera is a good choice and a used 5DII can be a great value. But a sports or wildlife shooter... anyone who will be working with telephotos a lot... will probably be better served with an APS-C camera.

You recognize this in a followup response and recommend the 7D Mark II. I agree. But the price of one, even used, may be a bit too high. People looking for APS-C on a tight budget shouldn't overlook some earlier models that are nearly as good. Among Canon APS-C I would recommend original 7D (18MP) or 50D (15MP). I've used both extensively and they have build quality, controls and functionality very similar to 5D-series and 7DII.

60D and later are good, but got more "plasticky" and lost the AF "joystick". 60D itself also lacks Micro Focus Adjustment (which, inexplicably, both 50D & 70D have). 40D and earlier are less robust, and much lower resolution. 30D and earlier have lower resolution, less dynamic range and less color depth (12 bit vs 14 bit). 90D is another matter entirely, recouping much of the earlier xxD series qualities and with huge 32.5MP resolution, but is the current model, so won't save much $.

Between the two, 7D has better AF and faster frame rate, bigger buffer than 50D. 7D also use a newer type and better, but more expensive battery (same one as 5DII, 7D & 7DII). But also many 7D saw hard "pro" use and may have "high mileage". (My two 7D each have 150,000+ 'clicks' from approx. 5 years use.)

One feature introduced on 7DII and found on most later Canon DSLRs and mirrorless that I would miss with an older camera is Flicker Free (aka, Anti-Flicker), which resolves most of the exposure issues shooting "under the lights" in stadiums and arenas. There simply isn't any good workaround for that problem for sports shooters who can't use a slow shutter speed.

There also are a host of potential accessories for these "mid-level, semi-pro" cameras. They use larger batteries giving more shots than many "entry-level" camera models. There also are vertical/battery grips for them, doubling battery capacity as well as providing comfortable vertical grip and controls. There is even wireless networking available for them (both Canon WFT modules and 3rd party like Camranger), offering much greater distances and faster data transfer than built-in WiFi.

You mention the higher top shutter speed (1/8000 vs 1/4000). But along with that there also is a higher flash sync speed (1/250 on the above APS-C, 1/200 on 5DII). While it will be slightly slower in many cases, this also effects the sync speed with studio strobes (varies a bit, depending upon the strobes).

Personally, I never had any problem with my 5DII's Evaluative metering. I found it better than some earlier cameras, while some later models have certainly improved upon it. Any camera's reflective metering system will have its quirks and nuances that the user needs to learn to work with. But the inherent and unavoidable limitations of relective metering, in general, are why I usually keep a separate incidence/flash meter handy ( currently a Sekonic L358... a discontinued model... but L308 is same except doesn't have radio triggering option).

So, while I agree with your 5DII recommendation for some people, I don't think it's the ideal choice for everyone. In some cases.. particularly sports & wildlife, but maybe other things too... an APS-C can be a better choice. You get a larger lens selection with APS-C, since they can use all EF and EF-S lenses (approx. 90 from Canon alone, currently... And over 125 million of them made since the late 1989s)). Full frame such as 5DII still have a very good selection, though it's a bit less (about 60 Canon, right now.). There are aome excellent "crop only" lenses, which might be smaller, lighter and less costly than full frame capable lenses. But even when using a full frame lens on a crop camera, there can be advantages. I often shoot handheld all day with an EF 300mm f/4 IS USM on one of my 7DII. That lens weighs <3 lb., is about 3" diameter and 10" long, and costs approx. $1300 new. To frame the same subject the same way from the same distance with full frame, I'd need to get out my EF 500mm f/4 IS USM... 8 lb., 6" dia., 15" long, $9000 new... and will be a lot less mobile because for anything more than a few minutes I'll need a good solid tripod to it it upon (adding another $1500 or so cost).

Certainly... For some folks a used 5DII would be a great option. But other folks who want to shoot other stuff maybe should look at a used 7D or 50D instead. Or they might shop used in other brands.

It all depends upon what the user plans to shoot. They should get the best tool for the job... while spending as little as possible on the camera in order to have more $ to put toward "good glass".

Personally, I just added a Canon M5 mirrorless and a few small prime lenses to my kit. For an unobtrusive street camera, for candid portaits, and perhps some travel (when that's practical again), I deliberately chose a compact APS-C model. I also wanted a viewfinder. I'm experimenting with manaul focus lenses, sort of remeniscent of film days rangefinders... But am a bit concerned I've gotten dependent upon autofocus!

P.S. I just remembered... When I first got my pair of 7D, I thought the images seemed "soft" compared to those from my 5DII and 50D's. Ultimately, I concluded Canon had put a too strong AA filter on the sensor, which was easily rectified with some additional sharpening in Photoshop. In later cameras that used essentially the same 18MP sensor (such as 60D and T5i) Canon seemed to back off on the AA filter strength. Compared to 50D, I found I was using nearly 2X as much sharpening with RAW files from 7D ( which get no in-camara sharpening, the way JPEGs do). 7D buyers should experiment, but are likely to end up doing 60%, 80%, or maybe even a little more sharpening than "usual". This is not a concern with 7DII. Their images need far less sharpening.

Also, in your original article I seem to recall you qualified your 5DII recommendation, calling it the ideal camera for an "aspiring pro"... Naming it a solid budget choice for someone starting a portait or wedding business, for example. I certainly agree with that... Especially weddings which no one should EVER try to shoot without AT LEAST two cameras, in case one fails. In fact, they should have one or more backups for all key pieces of equipment before trying to ahoot weddings. There aren't any "do overs" with weddings! You might be able to reshoot posed shots, but it won't be the same and it will be costly, both to your wallet and to your reputation. A pair of 5DII can probably be bought for $1200... About half the current cost of a single 5D Mark IV, or less than 1/3 the price of an EOS R5!

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Jan Ilnicki's picture

I'm using canon for several years - crops 350D, 500D, 40D fullframe 5D, 5DIII, 6D. 5DII is good recomendation to beginner (even completly beginner) who is thinking little bit more serious about photography - buy used 5DII with 17-40L, 70-200L/4 (with IS will be better) an 50 1.8 and you have everything to start - this lenses (used) are reasonably priced and the resale value propably will be the same when you decide in future to change it to samethig better - the cost of use (used lens) for 2 or 3 or even more years willl be propably close 0$.
Do not buy apsc crop canon camera - apsc canon camera with chip apsc lenses is the best way abandon photography - to acheve good results with canon apsc camera you need expensive and good lenses and this photos will be still worse than photos taken with canon fullframe, apsc with chip lenses it is essencially waste of time and money. Additionally value loss on apsc lenses are usually huge.
Of course that type of camera (5DII) is rather big and weighty this can be a problem - but if you are not thinking about photography little bit seriosly do not buy DSLR maybe do not buy any camera - use your telefone to make pictures.

Josh Wright's picture

Pentax K1000

Dinah Beaton's picture

Haha, me too. I just love my Pentax K1000.

F K's picture

We've come such a long way from the days of the 5D2 and the standard for requirements has changed. On the list I'd at the very least add wifi and maybe the ability to charge the camera via usb. Plus it needs to be small enough that it can be carried just about everywhere when paired with a prime or zoom lens. It's no use having a camera if you don't take it with you and that is a big inhibiting factor to beginners in photography.

Tony Messner's picture

Agree agree agree......i will never come across a better camera for my own stage of photography long live the canon 5d mk ii

Dinah Beaton's picture

You mention the 7D, I have thd 70D and love it. A friend of mine in Zimbabwe is a professional wildlufe photographer and has capturef outstanding images with his 70D. We both bought the 70D around the same time. Equally i have some fabulous images I'm very proud of as an enthusiast

TypIcally though, he decided to upgrade to the 7D for all the reasons the 7D adverising campagns promised this would push his professional work up to a much higher and finer level.

But after trial and error and disatisfaction at the unimpressive results (his words) and handling as well, I think he mentioned, he gave it to his daughter, also a keen photographer.

I find that very interesting because the 70D is often mentioned in articles as an excelkent camera even though quite old now. So I'd be very interested to hear your opinion on the 70D.

In the neantime i will look af the 5D ll again so thanks fir this article

Taras Falkovskyi's picture

6d is a much better solution