Five Best Cameras for Photography Students

Five Best Cameras for Photography Students

1500 844 James Tocchio

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.

Five best student cameras (5 of 5)

Nikon N2000

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 helps new fumbling fingers be assured their film is loaded correctly.

It’s hefty without being heavy, unbelievably inexpensive, and looks nice enough to satisfy the style-conscious shooter. It may not be the most glamorous machine, but the N2000’s got it where it counts.

Buy it on eBayBuy it on Amazon • Buy it at F-Stop Cameras

Canon A-1

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.

Read our reviewBuy it on eBayBuy it on Amazon • Buy it at F-Stop Cameras

Five best student cameras (1 of 5)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.

Read our reviewBuy it on eBay Buy it on Amazon • Buy it at F-Stop Cameras

Five best student cameras (4 of 5)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).

Read our reviewBuy it on eBayBuy it on Amazon • Buy it at F-Stop Cameras

Five best student cameras (3 of 5)Pentax K1000

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.

Buy it on eBayBuy it on AmazonBuy it at F-Stop Cameras

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.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio
  • I love it that you listed the N2000 at all, let alone first. It’s an incredibly affordable and capable choice. I have one and sometimes I reach for it instead of my F2 or F3 because it’s lighter and easier to carry — and if it got damaged or lost I wouldn’t cry too hard, because replacement bodies are so easy to come by. I last shot mine on a trip to the Smokies and it was just a wonderful companion to have along.

    • On last check, the N2000 was somewhere around $30 for a perfect body. That’s fantastic, especially for students who may be on a budget with hundreds of dollars worth of additional school supplies on the list.

      And yeah, the N2000 is great, as you say! I’m glad someone out there’s enjoying it.

  • Very nice article.

  • I would prefer a Nikkormat FT2 over a FTn. Mechanically they are equal, but the light meter of the FT2 uses the easily available LR44 battery, while the FTn was designed for a 1.3V mercury battery (outlawed in many countries). At least in Belgium, both of them are easy to find for more or less the same price.

    • That’s a great point. Although, to be honest I just use a 1.5V battery and it’s close enough for me. But that’s a secret… 😉

    • I totally agree with you. I purposely chose to buy the Nikkormat FT2 over the FTn because of the small, but significant, improvements over previous models, not the least of which is the use of 1.5v LR44 batteries for the meter. In addition, there is a better film ISO selector that is less prone to accidentally moving when bumped, along with the use of a much better focusing screen that has a split prism focusing aid, with microprism collar. I think the FT2 is the best of all the Nikkormats. The fact that I bought mine with a very decent 50mm f/2 lens for $65 makes me even happier with my purchase.

  • alittlemonkeygoesalongway February 2, 2016 at 7:03 am

    Isn’t the N2000 manual rewind? My F401 is. Definitely motor advance though. I like the combination.

    Great piece as always, nice human aspect to photography rather than leaning too hard into the specs list ✔️

  • Walked into my local camera store to drop off a few rolls of film last week. In their used case were three Pentax K1000 bodies. All were turned in by the same person. This was my first camera 36 years ago! I had to take a look at them. All three were mint. Each had a Pentax 50. Two of them were 1.4’s. I was surprised at how heavy and well-built these bodies felt. The viewfinder brightness also was a pleasant surprise. They were asking $69 for the body with a lens.

    When I came back a few days later to pick up my film they were still in case. I cherry picked the best body and the best 50/1.4. How could you not for $69! My first roll of film is still in the camera.

    About a month ago I found myself cruising Ebay look at Nikon F2 bodies with the non-metering heads. I think this K1000 may have saved me several hundred dollars. 🙂

  • I recently inherited all of my grandfather’s Pentax gear, which included a K1000, ME, ME Super and P30t plus a smattering of lenses. The camera of the four that i found to be the most enjoyable to shoot the the P30t. Many look past this aperture priority / manual camera due to it’s plastic body so they can be found in mint condition for cheap, but paired with a good lens, is just as good as any. They are lighter and quieter than the K1000 and the meter is easier to use than the K1000’s needle. Other than being a chuncky thing, it is slick as the rewind lever and shutter speed dial (which is very similar in style to today’s digital cameras) are recessed, but the ergonomics are nice and it is comfortable to grip. I think the simplicity and inexpensiveness would make it a great student camera. I recently gave it away to a friend who is just getting into photography, but i there were times when i would use it over my OM-1.

    Great site by the way!

    • James – Founder/Editor August 16, 2016 at 9:58 pm

      Thanks. I know that camera as well and you’re right. It’s an undervalued sleeper. Happy shooting!

  • Great article, and good choices. The only caveat I would add is to make sure to purchase a metal body K1000, over the later built plastic ones.

  • The K1000 is a great camera, but for a Pentax there are far better options that are extremely similar. The KM,KX, and the Spotmatic F are all better options than the K1000, and can be found in great condition for similar money most of the time.

    And for the Nikon I don’t see choosing a Nikkormat over the FM. Or even the FE.

    You definitely nailed the Minolta choice. The SRT-201 or 101 would be an excellent choice.

    The Canon A-1 is a wonderful camera that is just as excellent today as it was when new…I have two…but only if you are shooting in Tv, Av, or P. It is a bear in manual mode, and for that reason I would not advise it to a student. The only Canon A series that is a good manual mode camera is the manual-only AT-1, and it is a better option than a K1000 in my mind.

    • Wholeheartedly agree with this viewpoint on the K1000. It was a camera that I started my SLR journey on, but was quickly replaced by an ME and then ME Super, and finally with an MX (Which I did not even know existed, in those pre-internet days). By far the most capable is the MX, being small and light(ish) vs the K1000, has an all-important timer (K1000 doesn’t – think long exposures) as well as a depth of field preview. And a window for your film box to remember what you’re shooting. Considering that students are a) starting out and b) need to learn the limits of photography, the K1000 is simply hobbled compared to the much more capable MX. So please stop with the trope of K1000 student camera!

  • I’m always wondering why students pass over much more capable cameras for the K1000. They buy this camera without even thinking twice. The meters just aren’t built to last. I come across so many non-functional ones that I can only surmise that the ones that do still work are on their last legs.The one pictured in this article is the absolute worst version of this model you can find. It’s the very latest edition, which means that most of its components are downgraded to the cheapest they could find. This camera started off made in Japan, then Hong Kong, then China. The version with SE stamped on them are mostly plastic and from China. There is nothing outstanding at all about the build quality of the pictured K1000, in fact this version suffers especially from silver separation in the prism.

    The only redeeming quality of the K1000 is it’s mechanical operation, which means that so long as you don’t get one that locks up at slow shutter speeds, the camera will meet the minimum qualifications of being a camera for a long time. This is an extremely low standard to hold a camera to.

    • The Hong Kong manufactured models are just fine and built almost as well as the Japanese models. My K1000SE is from Hong Kong and seems to be made with metal in all the right places. I think one of my other K1000s is from mainland China but I don’t have it with me. I think that one’s meter is dead.

  • I grew up remembering my father used to take pictures with a Pentax SLR camera. It really looked robust and at my age that time, quite intimidating. Never got the chance to try that camera myself, but i’m sure it’d be the best tool for me to learn more about photography. SLR camera encourages you to explore and learn more about exposures, shutter speeds, and perfect lighting. The thing with these cameras is, if you make a mistake, you won’t get a second chance. And if you do, it might take you a while to recreate the same shot. One thing I don’t like about SLRs is film, and how costly it is right now.

  • OM2n. Astonishingly compact and light, superb design and manual controls (shutter speed ring, focusing and aperture controls are all around the lens ). The OM System accessories and Zuiko lenses are great and very cheap. TTL and flash metering was way ahead of its competitors. Can absolutely carry it everywhere in a coat pocket or handbag, so idea for street photography. The big bright viewfinder image that ‘pops’ into focus is a thing of beauty in itself.

    Hard to draw the line at five choices. Excellent article, I’d happily use any of the suggestions above, first SLR I used (aged 7) was a Pentax Spotmatic F,

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio