Last year, for the first time in five years, the number of cameras sold actually increased. While I’ve got nothing other than personal anecdote to back it up, I suspect that people are loving taking photos on their smartphones so much that some of them are actually deciding to buy a dedicated camera.

If you’re one of those people thinking about making the leap from using a smartphone to a camera, here’s what you need to know.

The Advantages of a Better Camera

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Camera quality isn’t something that’s easily reduced down to a single number. While manufacturers like to tout stuff like megapixels, they’re only one factor in image quality. Things like sensor size are actually more important. Dedicated cameras definitely have more megapixels on larger sensors, but they also have other advantages.

The biggest advantages of dedicated cameras aren’t obvious in perfect conditions. If you want to take a selfie or photo of your friends with really great light, it will be hard to tell the difference between a shot taken with a phone with an excellent camera, like the iPhone X, and a camera. Instead, where dedicated cameras excel is in the edge cases. They’re much better in low light, or when you want to take photos of fast moving athletes, or zoom in close to capture photos of hummingbirds. There are many kinds of photography that a smartphone just can’t do.

Decide Whether You Want a DSLR or a Mirrorless Camera

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Right now there are three kinds of dedicated cameras available: point and shoots, mirrorless cameras, and DSLRs. While point and shoots are still better than smartphones in some ways, they’re more of a step sideways than a step up. If you’re in anyway serious about photography, you’ll be much better served by a mirrorless or DSLR camera.

Mirrorless cameras and DSLRs are both interchangeable lens cameras. This means that you can swap the lens depending on what subject you want to shoot. The difference is that DSLRs (literally, Digital Single Lens Reflex camera), use the same design as old film cameras, with a mirror that reflects light to the viewfinder so you can see what you’re taking photographs of, while mirrorless cameras skip the mirror and use an electronic screen or viewfinder. There are pros and cons to both systems, which we go into in our guide to buying a high quality camera, but briefly: DSLRs are bigger and heavier, but tend to be better for the same price and give you a wider range of lenses to choose from. Mirrorless cameras are smaller and lighter, and can be used with old lenses, but cost more money for the same features.

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Which format you go with is up to you—they’re both a lot better than a smartphone—but bear in mind that lenses aren’t often compatible between systems, and can last for a long time. The kind of camera you pick now, is most likely the kind of camera you’ll be using in ten years.

Learn to Use Manual Controls

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One of the best things about a proper camera is how much control you have over what it does. There are apps that give you manual control of your smartphone cameras, but they are still much more limited. If you’ve bought a camera, you need to learn how to use it properly to get the most from it.

There are three main settings you need to learn how to use: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Together they make the “exposure triangle”, and determine how your photos will look.

You should also make sure you shoot in RAW, a file format that retains a lot more information than JPEG or PNG.

Decide What Kind of Photos You Want to Take…and Accessorize

Most entry level cameras also come with a “kit lens” (it’s normally an 18-55mm lens) which is great for everyday snapping, but not ideal if you want to do something more specialized. The good thing is DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are incredibly flexible.

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Once you decide what kind of photography you’re most interested in, whether it’s street photography, portrait photography, astrophotography, landscape photography, or whatever, you can invest in the gear that helps you do it.

For example, if you want to take portraits, you should buy a great, wide aperture portrait lens. On the other hand, if you’re more interested in landscape photography, you should get a tripod and a wide angle lens.

Get the Right Software

Taking a photo is the only thee first step in making great images. You also need to edit them. You don’t have to do a lot, but you need the right software to do it.

Photoshop is the de facto standard editing app, and at $10 a month, has never been more affordable. You also get Lightroom which is the best app for keeping your photos sorted and editing your RAW files.

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If you’re just starting out, however, you might not want to sign up for Adobe’s subscriptions service. Instead, you should check out some of the cheaper alternatives to Photoshop. There are even some Lightroom alternatives out there.

Buying a DSLR was one of the best thing I ever did; hopefully you’ll enjoy the jump from a smartphone to a dedicated camera. If you’ve any questions, ask away in the comments.

Profile Photo for Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like The New York Times and on a variety of other websites, from Lifehacker to Popular Science and Medium's OneZero.
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