Not Your Everyday Banana

by Bart Arondson

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I am considering buying a cheap second-hand DSLR with a nice long zoom lens (at least up to 200mm) for photographing nature in particular. I have a lovely Panasonic LX5 which takes great macro pictures, but I am missing the capability to take pictures at a distance with nice bokeh.

I am not looking for professional quality images, but it would be nice to have a reasonably fast autofocus to capture fast-moving subjects. There are plenty of older Nikons and Canons (and everything else) on eBay; any suggestions as to what I should look for and what I should avoid?

My budget would be under €400 - and yes, there do exist cameras with OK zoom lenses at that price second-hand; however, I think the question can probably be answered usefully for different budgets as well.

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A budget would be very useful... –  ElendilTheTall Jul 21 '11 at 14:53
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2 Answers 2

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Craig is correct — the DSLR and lens should be considered separately. If you do find a bundle that has both you want then, of course, you can buy it, but first decide which cameras and lenses would be satisfying.

As I am mostly familiar with every lineup, I'll speak from that perspective ;)

Going used is a great opportunity to find excellent values. You may be missing low-light performance or the ultimate gimmicks — I mean features — like video capture and live-view, but you'll get more of what matters.

Every brand has a low-end lineup and one or more high-end lineups. You should really go for the higher ones, because they are built to be more durable, and so have a better chance of staying in good shape and having shutter-cycles left. Usually, the are rated to take between 3× and 10× more photos. As a bonus, you will get better ergonomics, more direct controls and larger viewfinders.

If you go with Canon, for example, an XXD camera like the 30D or 40D falls into this group. For Nikon, that would be the D70, D80, D90 or any Dxxx, like the D200.

Since you are considering telephoto and nature photography I would actually go with Pentax, Sony, or Konica-Minolta (acquired by Sony). The advantage is that these cameras have in-body stabilization which will save you money on the lens since you do not have to pay for in-lens stabilization.

You may be able to find the Konica-Minolta 7D which is built like a tank, the Sony A700, the Pentax K10D or K20D which are great. These last two Pentax cameras are weather-sealed as an extra bonus. A quick search on eBay shows the K10D for under $300 and the A700 for just over.

Then, you can find a compatible lens. On the cheap, you have to compromise on image quality and speed, so I suspect you will want to go for a 70-300mm or 75-300mm of the respective brand or a third-partly like Sigma. I see a Minolta 75-300 for Sony or KM cameras for under $100 on eBay. Most other brands go for a similar price.

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I would argue that the D7000 is in there with the Dxxx ones, though it's unlikely you'll find many of those used at this point. –  Billy ONeal Jul 21 '11 at 16:56
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Great answer, thanks! Just what I was looking for. –  Joel in Gö Jul 21 '11 at 21:25
    
Live view is a gimmick? –  rfusca Jul 21 '11 at 21:50
    
Should have been more specific, Live-View is a gimmick on most DSLRs :) As far as I am concerned, only Canon (XSi onwards) and Sony (A33 onwards) get it completely right. Still, I even use it occasionally on my Pentax DSLRs to see anything at all while using an ND400 filter. –  Itai Jul 21 '11 at 22:09
    
@Billy - Yes, I was going for those that you would normally find used, so not the D7000, 7D, K-5, etc. –  Itai Jul 21 '11 at 22:12
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@ElendilTheTall is right; without a budget it's hard to get specific. But there are some general points to look out for.

I'm most familiar with the Nikon lineup, so I'll speak from that perspective. My understanding is that Canon falls into a similar situation.

Firstly, consider the body and the lens to be separate entities, perhaps even separate purchases. The features and capabilities provided by bodies and lenses do not overlap. Getting a "DSLR with zoom" is a misleading way to think about cameras.

If you're choosing price over features, pretty much any of the Nikon DSLR series (from the D40 on up) will be sufficient. They're all good cameras. Of course, as you go up in price & newness, you'll get "better": higher quality, more features, higher numbers where it counts.

The one thing you should look out for is getting a camera that limits your options. In particular, lower-end Nikon bodies do not have built-in focusing motors, which means they can't autofocus with anything but AF-S lenses. See the Nikon Lens Compatibility Chart for a pretty inclusive list.

For that reason, I recommend at least the D50 (but not the D60, or the D3x00/D5x00). If you get anything without an AF motor, there's a pretty good chance you'll be kicking yourself if your ideal lens ends up needing one for AF.

However: get a newer body if you can afford it. There's a lot of nicer features as you go up the list (D70, D80, D90, D300, D7000). Keep in mind that you're also want to going to spend money on good lenses, and those will stay relevant much longer than the bodies. What you choose will depend entirely on your needs and budget (both present and future).

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In addition to AF-S, AF-I lenses will also auto-focus with any Nikon DSLR. –  Imre Jul 21 '11 at 18:45
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