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My younger sister is going to college to study photography, and I want to surprise her with a camera this holidays. I'm no camera expert (but I've been doing my research).

Should I go with a lower-entry level DSLR (such as a Nikon D3100), or higher entry level DSLR (something like a Canon T3i)? I think the upper level would be better, but I don't know if it is "too much" for a beginner photographer or is it OK and she'll be able to use it in her later years of college or first few years after she graduates.

I'm also a bit worried about the camera being too big for her to handle with out her giving it a try first (she's about 5'1" and has small hands).

What are your recommendations or suggestions?

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    \$\begingroup\$ If they are going to college to study photography specifically, they must either have some photo equipment or at least a preference for what they have used before. I think the only answer would be to ask the user what they would prefer. You could also contact the school or check their website to see if they have recommendations for the first few classes. \$\endgroup\$
    – dpollitt
    Nov 21, 2011 at 21:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ possible duplicate of Are there disadvantages to a prosumer camera for a beginner, aside from cost? \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Nov 21, 2011 at 21:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think the question I just linked covers the is-upper-level-too-much issue pretty well. (There are thoughtful answers on both sides of the question.) \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Nov 21, 2011 at 21:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ If she's in photo school then for all you know they're starting out with film. Much better to ask her what she needs, surprise or not. \$\endgroup\$
    – user4894
    Jun 30, 2014 at 21:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ It is my experience ( from the way back ) that Most college level photography classes require a camera that has the ability to be used fully manual. This is to insure that one develops a strong foundation of the principles of shutter speed, aperture, and ASA, ( ISO ). A wise and sound requirement in my opinion. ALSO you need to make sure if the instructor requires Digital or Film. A Canon A-1 or AE-1 for a film camera would be my choice but there are equally good cameras buy other makers. \$\endgroup\$
    – Alaska Man
    May 20, 2020 at 21:29

3 Answers 3

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Print out a nice gift certificate for her and let her choose the camera. And don't worry about the small hands. I know a small handed photographer that has no problem with big equipment.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 to letting her choose. This really is a personal decision! \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Nov 21, 2011 at 21:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ great suggestion \$\endgroup\$
    – trican
    Nov 21, 2011 at 21:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ thing is she lives in Mexico and I'm now living in the States, and electronics are quite more expensive over there than here. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 21, 2011 at 23:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ eg Rebel T3i ~= $1,000 USD; D5100 ~= $1,100USD \$\endgroup\$ Nov 21, 2011 at 23:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ @FranciscoNoriega: Let her research on her own, and try a few cameras at Best Buy... or she can try out my T3i... I'm in Guadalajara, too. :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Flimzy
    Nov 22, 2011 at 3:26
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You're going to get loads of great suggestions regarding Nikon 3100/5100/7000 & equivalent Canons, but I'm going to go slightly left of field and suggest a second-hand film camera - the Nikon FE2 with a 50mm 1.8 lens. It's a wonderful old film camera with great craftmanship. A good example on Ebay will cost you about $100-120, and perhaps throw in a few rolls of good black-and-white film or slide film to cross process for a great present in my opinion.

Also the main reason I'm suggesting a film camera, is because if your sister is going to be doing a photography course in college it's more than likely that the first 6-9 months will be using old school film based cameras and darkrooms techniques (though it might be worth checking that out if you can?). Also the Nikon FE is a completely manual camera thus forcing the user to really understand and appreciate being in full control.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Not a bad suggestion considering most college photography classes. Pretty much any old-school 35mm SLR will do; I have and love a hardy old Pentax K1000. \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Nov 21, 2011 at 21:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ The photography minor at the 4 year college I went to is currently requiring a DSLR and not a film camera. \$\endgroup\$
    – dpollitt
    Nov 21, 2011 at 22:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ Hmm, it looks like her degree does includes over 600 hrs of photography laboratory/darkroom (b&w/color, basic, advance, fine prints etc)... I think my dad used to have an old film camera that had exchangeable lenses (I think canon).. I'll check with him first \$\endgroup\$ Nov 21, 2011 at 23:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ One option might be a film camera and a mirrorless compact system camera (Micro 4/3rds, Sony NEX, Samsung NX, Nikon V, or even Pentax Q). That way, the old school and the way of the future are covered. \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Nov 22, 2011 at 3:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd steer towards the FM2 rather than the FE2. It's a little more expensive used, but there's a reason for that -- it has a flash sync speed of 1/250s, which makes it usable for daylight fill-flash work (or eliminating indoor ambient lighting); it's built like a tank; and the battery is only used for metering (everything else is purely mechanical) so if you can't locate a button cell (and there are modern 1:1 substitutes for the old mercury cells) you still have a camera you can use. Add a vintage selenium meter and you're battery-free. \$\endgroup\$
    – user2719
    Nov 22, 2011 at 3:55
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My younger sister is going to college to study photography, and I want to surprise her with a camera this holidays.

Just don't. This is not a matter of warming up somebody for a hobby. She will have very specific needs for specific gear and will get instructions for what she should be getting. This is like "my brother is going into professional cycling and I thought I'd surprise him with a bike".

There just is no way that some people on the Internet will know better than her educators what kind of stuff she should be getting. And even they did, she'd not get credit for ignoring her educators' proposals.

And she'd need to balance between being polite and sabotaging her education.

A gift certificate already sounds like a better idea, but it may be that she'd be best off putting down a bunch of cash at some specific place giving student credits, so if you don't tie your support to a specific camera shop, you are likely being most flexible in helping her shoulder the costs of her first steps.

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