This is often followed by “what camera should I buy?”.
Perhaps the best way to start would be to go to the end and work backwards. “What sort of pictures do you want to take and how will you use them?”.
The answer friends and family, shared online means sticking with your phone camera and perhaps learning the basics of composition. This desired outcome is not about learning how a camera works but all about how pictures work.
To capture the amazing places I go and make prints could mean a decent quality digital camera with a zoom lens and adding some time to learn post-production and printing (or post-production and finding a reliable print shop). This is also all about how pictures work, with enough about the camera settings to be able to capture scenes as intended.
I’ve been given a camera and want to learn to use it can be much more focused. This is a technical how-to that is tightly constrained to a specific camera’s functions and capabilities. But once the camera has been mastered, what then? I could learn how to operate a lathe but unless I have an outcome in mind it would be an empty technical skill. I think that learning to use a specific camera should be directed by what it will be used for. Shooting fast sports needs different settings to macro work or portraiture, so you would be learning less but it would be more relevant and useful.
Because all the social influencers are using one of these is a scary response. Perhaps the best that can be offered is a description of the workflow and some advice on the costs. Camera possession as social confirmation is a strange edge-case. My preference would be to suggest a cheap and simple digital point and shoot to try. If they like the results and persist, then we can talk about how or if to upgrade, based on what they want to be able to do.
The ‘given a camera’ and ‘want to be like them’ responses could also be part of an enquiry that was “I want to learn to use film”. I think this needs the same response of ” what do want to be able to do?”. Why go to all the bother and expense of using film if you are already getting the results you want? And if what you want is to learn to control the camera more, digital is by far an easier learning tool than analogue, as it’s so much quicker to see the results (plus the results are not dependent on a further step, so there is one less variable in the process).
With all of these, I think the best approach is to start with old, cheap and simple. This is because you don’t know what you really want until you learn what you want to be able to do. Once you find yourself pushing against a constraint in your kit, then you know what kit you really need. And you might get bored and give up too, so why invest heavily at the beginning? As an example, I go scuba diving. For this I wear an inflatable jacket that also carries the air tank. The jacket can be inflated to control my buoyancy underwater and to float me on the surface. There are many different types of jacket and they can cost a lot of money. The one I use for normal diving is functionally OK, even though a bit awkward to use. But it has loads of buoyancy if needed, so is great for the diving I do with novice divers in open water. I also have a second jacket that I use in the pool when training. This is a different design that has the buoyancy arranged on the back, either side of the tank. The jacket is very comfortable to wear and holds me easily in a good posture underwater. But if I ever needed this jacket to support me on the surface it would fail: the buoyancy bags would roll me face-down in the water. Fine for snorkelling, not fine for general safety.
It’s similar with cameras and photography. Starting with secondhand kit means a soft entry and a chance to learn what you like or not and what you need versus what you have. Do I need depth of field preview? Never used it. Do I need to be able to change focusing screens? Not really. Do I need light metering? Yes please. Rangefinders? Why make things harder? Autofocus and focus confirmation? Yes very please. Good high ISO performance? Very useful. Wide range of lenses? Absolutely. Small, light, rugged and available? Definitely.
So those requirements cover several different types of photography (or use cases, as we nerds say) and result in several types of camera. Each camera has a job, as opposed to buying something very clever and having too much power most of the time. I confess though, that I am as guilty as many others of having more kit than I need. My only defence is that it was all the cheapest I could find, in the usual quest to find out if X is better than Y. Everyone raves about the Lomo LC-A for example. Tried one, didn’t like it, swapped it for something else more functional and suitable for my needs.
I’m an IT guy, so I was often asked the equivalent question of ‘what computer should I buy?’. This got the same answers of ‘what do you want to be able to do’ and ‘will this change over time’. Wanting to do a bit of t’interweb and email leads to a different solution from editing video.
So, circling back to where we came in… I think there are two avenues to explore. Learning to take pictures is a lot about learning what makes a picture work, and this means studying pictures. It means working out what you like in a picture and the types of picture you like. Then you can study how to get the effects you like in the type of pictures you want to take. Things like exposure, aperture and shutter speed make sense when they are linked to results. Learning to use a camera is a technical skill that can be learned but has very little to do with the final pictures (as long as the camera settings are about right – but that is why we have automatic modes).
The bonus from this is that, if someone is learning how to get the type of pictures they want rather than how to operate a camera, they might be less inclined to give up when it gets difficult. Every step forward would be towards what they want, rather than just one possible method of getting what they want or a further descent into a technical rabbit hole.
Speaking of rabbit holes – anyone who keeps asking for a camera recommendation should go here.