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Best student camera: top gear for school and college photography courses

Best student camera: top gear for school and college photography courses
(Image credit: Getty)

Looking for the best student camera for college? In this guide we will suggest some of the the best student cameras – aimed at those studying photography at school, college, arts foundation course, or even university. 

All these models are great system cameras to learn the nuts and bolts of stills photography. They all shoot video too - as many photography students will study multimedia too, so this is useful. However, if you are majoring in videography and filmmaking, check out our guide to the best camera for film students too, and the best instant cameras can be really useful for ideas, ad hoc scrapbooks and brainstorming.

Obviously, your college may tell you want to buy. Someone we know, who is studying photography at ‘A’ level, was recently asked to get herself a Canon APS-C sensor DSLR; presumably because the college already had a range of Canon lenses and accessories she could use, and because this is a sensible affordable option (we recommend two of these below).

There will undoubtedly be, and continue to be, many students of all ages in a similar position – those who want a ‘proper camera’ that will help them pick up the creative basics of photography, but who won’t be in a position to spend big bucks on their camera purchase. With this in mind here’s we’re examining what we currently feel are some of the best cameras for photography students.

An alternative point of view is that, with mirrorless cameras on the rise and sales of DSLRs flat-lining, conventional wisdom might suggest opting for the former for a degree of future proofing. Plus there’s the fact that mirrorless models are more compact, portable and possibly less daunting for absolute beginners. But doing so would be to ignore the fact of many decades of SLR and latterly DSLR use, which has resulted in there being plenty of lenses and accessories to go around – perhaps some are already owned by family members and friends – that students will be able to make use of without spending their own money.

Some students will also want to try out film and darkroom photography as part of their course – so may additionally want to check out our guides to the best film cameras and darkroom equipment around right now (most of which have to be bought secondhand).

With all of the above in mind, here we’re examining what we reckon are the best student cameras…

The best student cameras in 2021…

(Image credit: Canon)

1. Canon EOS Rebel SL3 / EOS 250D

Best budget camera for film students

Type: DSLR | Sensor: APS-C CMOS | Megapixels: 24.1MP | Screen: 3-inch tilting touchscreen, 1,040,000K dots | Viewfinder: Optical TTL | Lens mount: Canon EF-S | Autofocus: 9-point phase detection | Maximum stills burst speed: 5fps | Video resolution: 4K UHD at up to 24 fps | User level: Beginner

Compact and lightweight for a DSLR
Variable angle touch screen LCD
Great system of lenses and accessories
Still bigger than mirrorless rivals

We rate the Canon EOS Rebel SL3 (known as the EOS 250D in Europe) as one of the best beginner-targeted interchangeable lens cameras ever. A boast for sure, but a quick look at its up-to-the-minute spec – including latest Digic 8 processor, Dual Pixel CMOS AF technology, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, flip out and twist LCD screen and 4K video capture for the first time at this price – provides a quick indication of why; and that’s without even mentioning access to the most comprehensive lens line-up in the business, providing first time users with plenty of growing space. Also impressing us here is battery life in delivering a sizable 1,070 images at full charge. Good handling, operation, decent image quality and responsive touch screen add up to make this one a very capable all-rounder. Canon lenses and accessories for the EOS system are easy to find, and affordable, making this a great system for any student of photography

(Image credit: Nikon)

2. Nikon D3500

Feature festooned entry-level DSLR from the photo stalwart

Type: DSLR | Sensor: APS-C CMOS | Megapixels: 24.78MP | Screen: 3-inch LCD, fixed, 921K-dot resolution | Viewfinder: Optical TTL | Lens mount: Nikon F, DX format | Autofocus: 11 phase detection focus points with one cross-type sensor | Maximum stills burst speed: 5fps | Video resolution: Full HD 1920x1080 at up to 59.94fps | User level: Beginner

Affordable and approachable
Responsive auto focus
Great system of lenses and accessories
Fixed rear screen
No 4K video option

Described by us as one of the best, most affordable and moreover lightest DSLRs you can buy, in offering an impressive 1550 shot battery life, a 24MP APS-C sensor, Full HD video, built-in mono microphone and fixed 3-inch LCD on the backplate, Nikon’s D3500 very much ticks the right boxes for student photographers seeking to embrace a system that additionally has the support of a multitude of lenses and accessories. Yes, we don’t get 4K video here or Wi-Fi connectivity, unfortunately, but we can capture Full HD video to just shy of 50fps. Other pluses include a decent grip and redesigned button layout at the rear, which makes the Nikon D3500 easy to handle and avoids accidental button presses. Overall the camera’s performance is responsive and its images are well exposed, vibrant and sharp. As with the Canon EF lens system, Nikon F-mount lenses are widely available at sensible prices. No wonder we concluded this was the best budget DSLR for beginners when we first tested it.

• Read more: Nikon D3500 review | Nikon D3500 vs D3400

(Image credit: Nikon)

3. Nikon D850

Best professional DSLR for advanced students

Type: DSLR | Sensor: Full frame (FX format) CMOS | Megapixels: 45.7MP | Screen: 3.2-inch tilting touch screen LCD, 2,359K-dot resolution | Viewfinder: Optical TTL | Lens mount: Nikon F, FX format | Autofocus: 153 point phase detection focus points with 99 cross-type | Maximum stills burst speed: 9fps | Video resolution: 4K UHD including 4K time lapse | User level: Professional

Very impressive detail
4K full-frame video capture
Professional build
Need to invest in swift memory cards to cope with its data demands

There are some good deals to be had on Nikon’s remarkable full frame sensor D850 partly thanks to it being four years old. While it isn’t a beginner’s DSLR by any means and would be better suited to older or more advanced students, it delivers a spectacular degree of detail while its feature set provides future proofing, including 4K video for fledgling filmmakers and the ability to achieve continuous capture speeds up to 9fps with optional grip. The DSLR’s abilities are so wide ranging it can probably do anything, suggested our original D850 review – and is a great camera for serious professional use. Useful day-to-day features include a silent photography mode that avoids alerting subjects to your photographic fumblings, while it can eke out an impressive 1,840 shots from a full charge of its battery. An extraordinary combination of resolution and speed, we reckon the Nikon D850 is jaw dropping-ly good.

(Image credit: Canon)

4. Canon EOS Rebel T100 / EOS 4000D

The cheapest sensible student camera around

Type: DSLR | Sensor: APS-C CMOS | Megapixels: 24.1MP | Screen: 3-inch tilting touchscreen, 1,040,000K dots | Viewfinder: Optical TTL | Lens mount: Canon EF-S | Autofocus: 9-point phase detection | Maximum stills burst speed: 5fps | Video resolution: 4K UHD at up to 24 fps | User level: Beginner

Easy to use
Keenly priced
Lots of compatible lenses and accesssories
‘Just’ 3fps burst shooting
Plastic-feel finish and lens mount

A 18MP starter DSLR boasting Wi-Fi connectivity and Full HD video capture, the Canon EOS Rebel T100 (aka EOS 4000D) may not offer the very latest tech for its budget price – its 9-point AF system and small 2.7-inch LCD are fairly dated, for example – but it’s a decent place for those at High School to begin learning the photographic ropes (and a sensible choice for those studying GCSE and ‘A’ level photography in the UK)  . If you can overlook the plastic-y feel then the button layout is logical and easy for the first time user to navigate. 

The AF system is fine for general shooting with fairly static subjects, but can struggle in more challenging scenarios. However the 63 zone dual layer metering sensor linked to all AF points fares better and a 500 shot battery life is fair, if unremarkable. While not the best in class, the Canon’s JPEG files deliver pleasing colors and a range if Picture Styles is offered to enable fledgling users to get creative from the off. A cautious choice for parents who don’t want to blow their children’s inheritance.

(Image credit: Sonhy)

5. Sony A7 II

A full-frame mirrorless camera bargain

Type: Mirrorless | Sensor: Full-frame CMOS | Megapixels: 24.3MP | Screen: 3-inch tilting touchscreen, 1,228,800 dots | Viewfinder: 0.5in-type, electronic EVF, 2.4m dots | Lens mount: Sony E | Autofocus: 117-point phase detection | Maximum stills burst speed: 5fps | Video resolution: Full HD at up to 60fps | User level: Enthusiast

Bargain price for full-frame mirrorless camera
In-body image stabilization
Easy to use
Video is just 1080P Full HD (no 4K)

A compact system mirrorless   camera rather than a DSLR this one, but Sony’s A7 full frame series has proved so popular and this one is so reasonably priced in comparison with full frame DSLRs that we had to recommend it for photography students. Featuring a reasonably chunky grip and buttons grouped conveniently on the right hand side of the camera where they’re easily reached via a thumb, the second-generation A7 II is equipped with Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity for sharing images with smartphones, making it very appealing for anyone seeking their first foray into full frame photography. Add in the ability to customize settings and also tilt the LCD screen to extend its creativity, and here we have a camera that users won’t tire off quickly as their own experience grows. 

See Sony A7 vs A7 II vs A7 III

(Image credit: Fujifilm)

6. Fujifilm X-A7

Compact and lightweight Fuji mirrorless

Type: Mirrorless | Sensor: APS-C CMOS | Megapixels: 24.5MP | Screen: 3.5 LCD, vari-angle touch screen, 2,760K dot resolution | Viewfinder: None | Lens mount: Fujifilm X mount | Autofocus: 117 selectable AF points | Maximum stills burst speed: 6fps | Video resolution: 4K at up to 30fps | User level: Beginner

Great image quality
Large high resolution LCD
Great for vlogging
No eye level viewfinder
No body integral anti shake

With the caveat that schools and colleges may well be looking to sway your purchase decision based on which system they might already have a generous supply of lenses and accessories for, the Fujifilm X-A7 is otherwise a safe bet for those seeking a ‘proper’ camera for their photography course – and could be a more manageable option for those with smaller hands than a DSLR. This is a compact and lightweight entry-level mirrorless camera with the advantage of a vari-angle LCD screen, 4K video shooting at 30fps and plenty of creative modes via which the user can express themselves as their skillset grows. 

While a 440 shot battery life might not be up there with the latest DSLRs, it’s quite respectable for a mirrorless camera, and here we get both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity options too. While there are marginally cheaper mirrorless options on the market than the X-A7 we’re yet to encounter one that matches its combination of AF performance, ease of use and image quality, making this a decent all rounder.

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7. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

An old-school DSLR that still delivers, even now

Type: DSLR | Sensor: Full-frame | Megapixels: 30.4MP | Lens mount: Canon EF | LCD: 3.2in touchscreen, 1.62million dots | Viewfinder: Optical | Maximum continuous shooting speed: 7fps | Max video resolution: 4K | User level: Professional

Professional spec DSLR
Responsive touchscreen
Impressive live-view AF
4K video crop
Middle of the road resolution

The EOS 5D series is one of the most popular professional cameras of the modern era - and the current Mark IV model is a great choice for the advanced student, look for a pro-spec full-frame camerea. On paper, the EOS 5D Mark IV looks a distinct second best to rival cameras with higher resolutions, faster frame rates and better 4K video features – the EOS 5D Mark IV applies a heavy 4K video crop that makes ‘wide’ shots more difficult. Nevertheless, the 5D Mark IV has proved itself a very effective, durable and versatile camera for countless professional photographers, and its Dual Pixel AF technology gives it a peppy autofocus performance in live view and video modes. This camera was launched way back in 2016, so it is quite possible to find attractively priced second versions.

Read more: Canon EOS 5D Mark IV review

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Gavin Stoker

Gavin has over 30 year experience of writing about photography and television. He is currently the Editor of British Photographic Industry News. He writes on a number of subjects for Digital Camera World, including on binoculars and spotting scopes. He has also written for a wide range of publications including BBC Focus, Empire, NME, Radio Times, MacWorld, Computer Active,  What Digital Camera, T3, and Rough Guide books.