I am thinking of buying a digital SLR camera. What things should I be looking for?
Things to look for when buying your first dslr:
Price. Far from me to tell anyone how to spend their hard earned cash, but having an idea of what money you want to pay will help.
Ergonomics. Does the body feel good in your hands? What about when you have your lens attached?
What brand? I'm a fan of Canon. Nikon is equally awesome. There are other brands as well, but I recommend the big two: Canon and Nikon.
Beginner/creative modes. Since this is your first camera, having modes that do some automation will ease you into using an SLR.
Entry Level/ Prosumer Level body. If you have a sufficient budget, consider which would serve you better: Buying a more expensive body now, with features that you can grow with, or a less expensive body with fewer features, leaving you more cash more lenses. In terms of producing great images the chain of importance goes: Photographer >>> Lens > Camera Body.
My first dSLR was a Canon 20D, a prosumer body. I chose it because I have larger hands, and the 20D size and weight felt better (twss), and I wanted something I could grow with.
The general answer to this question is: whichever gets you done with worrying about what camera to buy the fastest.
For some people, that means get whatever low-end equipment you can afford to start playing around — get an entry-entry level camera which strikes your fancy plus the kit lenses (and hopefully a decent prime). Treat that as basically disposable and use it to figure out your style and needs for the next step. For others, it might mean skipping that and going right to the higher end — short-circuiting years of longing and painful not-quite-there upgrades, arguably saving money overall.
One can actually do very high quality work with any DSLR on the market today. If you're in this for the long haul, what you start with doesn't really matter; what matters is getting started. If you later feel you made a mistake, changing camera bodies within the same brand isn't a big deal. Changing systems can be more of a challenge, but if you go the low-end entry route you won't have as much to worry about, and if you go the higher-end route the equipment should retain pretty good resale value. So don't be too scared to just jump in.
I do understand the desire to research before making a big purchase. There's nothing wrong with that to some degree, but it's easy for people of a certain mindset to go too far — a warning I feel well-qualified to give because I personally naturally fall pretty far on the side I'm cautioning about. So, despite the bold text above, I am going to thrown out a few more things to consider; specifically, I think the following questions and their answers are some of the most helpful on this site for anyone making this initial DSLR decision:
- How much do lens lineups vary across DSLR platforms?
- Are there disadvantages to a prosumer camera for a beginner, aside from cost?
And, actually, these days, it's worth considering if a DSLR is really the right choice. If you're sure, go ahead with the above, but otherwise, you might look at:
- What do I need to consider to choose between dSLR, mirrorless, or a compact as my first "serious" camera?
before taking the plunge. But even then, I really recommend jumping in. Getting started with a system you later leave behind is better than agonizing and delaying and wrestling with comparisons when you could be taking photos.
Things to consider when thinking of purchasing your first dSLR.
0. Am I all right with an "orphaned" system?
[Updated in 2023]: both Canon and Nikon haven't released a new dSLR body or lens for years, and are pretty much out of the dSLR business. While you can still find new copies to purchase in both mount systems, Canon and Nikon are now only developing mirrorless cameras and lenses for the foreseeable future. Technical innovation in mirrorless and far fewer mechanical parts (=> much cheaper to manufacture/service) means mirrorless is now the dominant camera type in the market. You want to think long and hard about whether mirrorless may not be a better path to pursue than dSLR.
You can get some astounding deals on the used market in dSLR gear and the lenses and bodies are perfectly fine to create quality images. And the lenses you purchase can be adapted to their relative mirrorless mounts (though there may be incompatibilities with Nikon Z with older Nikon F lenses). But moving forward and expanding or upgrading in a dSLR mount system looks very different than it did pre-2019.
1. Can I afford a dSLR?
If you've never used an interchangeable lens camera system before, realize that the cost is astronomical in comparison with fixed-lens cameras, because the camera body itself is just the start of your purchases and the basis of your system. It is also (weirdly) the most disposable piece of gear these days, unlike film camera bodies. That's digital electronics vs. mechanical devices for you. A single lens can easily outstrip the cost of the body. Support gear, lighting gear, filters, bags, etc. It can all mount up with surprising ease. IMO, you probably need 2x or 3x the amount you spent on a body/lens kit to get a basic system with a dSLR. Think in terms of US$1000-$1500, not $500, for a basic (low-budget) dLSR setup and about twice that for an extended or higher-quality setup. Needless to say, many of us spend a great deal more.
2. Do I need a dSLR?
Four or five years ago, it was P&S vs. dSLR, so the decision was pretty clear. But today, there are quite a number of fixed-lens compacts with sensors and lenses with image quality rivaling dSLRs, and the entire class of mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras has appeared, and smartphone cameras get better all the time. What and how do you plan to shoot? Are you ok lugging 20 lbs of gear with you? 5 lbs? 1 lb? Do you hike for miles into the mountains to reach your landscape shot? Do you need to be silent and unobtrusive for street shooting? Do you plan to work in a studio? dSLRs are larger and heavier, and are the best cameras for fast action responsiveness, and as more mature systems have the largest options for expansion, the best used markets, and the largest 3rd party support. By comparison, mirrorless systems have only been around for a handful of years. But they're smaller, lighter, seeing astounding amounts of innovation, and yielding image quality at the level of dSLRs, but have smaller overall systems and less 3rd party (think: lenses, flashes, flash triggers) support from being so young. So, what/how you shoot also determines which type of camera might be better for you.
Features come and go and play leapfrog across brands and models. All of the cameras are good. None of them are bad. What you have to look at is the system overall.
3. What lenses will I need?
Don't think of lenses as accessories for your camera body. We know, P&S and phone cameras have trained you to think this way, but your camera body is actually the accessory for your lens collection. Sensors and bodies come and go. New camera body models are introduced and then depreciate at an astonishing rate. A lens, however, may not see a "replacement" for decades, if ever. Lenses often hold value in the long term, and in some cases, can even appreciate. Look to the glass. Canon and Nikon are often touted as being the best systems to look at simply because they have the largest selections and any 3rd party lens made for other brands are made for them, too. But Pentax makes pancake lenses. And Sony has Zeiss glass in its lineup. Learn about focal length, max. aperture, and what type of lens you might need for what you want to shoot. Then see if the mount system you're thinking of buying into has those lenses.
4. Am I OK with giving up P&S/phone camera convenience?
The focus on most articles about "upgrading" from P&S to dSLR emphasize the gains. Not many talk about the losses. dSLRs, by default, don't do as much in-camera processing as P&S cameras or the computational stuff smartphone cameras do (e.g., "portrait mode"). This is to give the photographer the choice of relying on the processor in the camera, or to tweak to taste by individual image with the RAW data. Are you prepared to get post-processing software and learn to use it? P&S cameras have small sensors and small slow lenses so that you can't misfocus easily. dSLRs let you misfocus all you want. That's how you get that bokeh you think you need so badly: having things out of focus. You'll have to master focusing the camera. P&S cameras have tiny lenses with very deep depth of field--so they can do macro. Bigger sensors and bigger lenses mean larger minimum focus distance. To do macro on a dSLR, you probably need a $400+ macro lens. You ok with that? Bridge P&S cameras have superzoom lenses that give you the equivalent "reach" of 500mm and 600mm lenses on a full-frame camera. Those types of lenses cost $1000+ on the dSLR side of the fence. You ok with giving up that reach? You will get a lot of gains from moving to a dSLR, but this isn't a straightforward "upgrade" in all areas: you are shifting from one type of tool to another. And of course, you're liable to be lugging a bag of gear around with you, not just slipping a camera into a pocket or purse.
And of course, fixed-lens or interchangeable-lens, mirrorless or dSLR, most dedicated cameras aren't internet-connected, don't automatically backup images to the cloud, or have your photos on your phone instantaneously ready for use in texts, emails, or apps, or are nearly as good at always being with you as your phone's camera. And there's nothing about a phone camera that stops you from practicing composition.
Most anyone who shoots with a dSLR will also have a compact camera as well for the added convenience and will still be taking pics on their phone. For most it's not "or"; it's "and". Think of it like big red toolboxes (that you still have to buy tools for) and swiss army knives. Tools for the task.
Find out what brand of cameras your photo friends own. The relative differences between Canon and Nikon are fairly small (and probably don't matter until you get very advanced), so a big advantage when starting out is buying the brand the people you hang out with have bought. That gives you a source of free advice, plus the ability to try out cameras and borrow lenses to see how things work.
Don't overbuy. You can buy a really good camera in the entry level; even if you outgrow it, having a second body around is a good thing, or you can sell it and upgrade. If you get serious about this, you probably WILL outgrow it, so don't overspend. Buying more expensive cameras means buying features you won't need, use, or understand and might make growing into the hobby harder and frustrating. The Canon Rebel is a great way to get started.
Do you really need a DLSR? There are some really nice cameras that just don't happen to have interchangeable lenses. We've used the Panasonic Lumix superzooms for years, the current model is the DMZ-fz35) and it can turn out really nice pictures without many limitations. Another is the Canon G11. Consider whether you need a DLSR or whether you're really looking for a good entry level camera (how badly do you need/want interchangeable lenses?) -- some of these high end point and shoots match entry level in image quality and are less expensive and more convenient.
if you stick with a DLSR, figure out your lenses first, and don't cheap out on them. Assume you'll upgrade your camera body 2-3 times before upgrading your lenses -- if you pick your lenses well. So be willing to spend a bit more on lenses and buy a less expensive body. It's a good investment. Avoid "kit" lenses that come bundled with bodies. waste of money, IMHO.
I like as an entry level set something like the Canon Rebel and a good third party lens with a decent superzoom capability, like the Sigma 18-200 (I wrote a bit about why I prefer that lens to the Tamron I actually own here: http://www.chuqui.com/2010/01/a-few-thoughts-on-lenses/) -- the cost difference between the rebel with a kit lens and the rebel body only is about is about $250-275. You can buy the body only and the sigma for pretty much the same money and get a much better and more flexible lens..
consider renting a camera for a week with the lens you're considering. Make sure you like the results, make sure it's comfortable in your hands.
So, I recently bought a used camera. To decide which to buy, I developed this technique:
- Make a list of all features that are important to you.
- Assign a point value from 1-10 to each feature. Give a 10 to something essential, a 1 to something that barely matters.
- Write down the stat for the feature for all of the cameras that you are interested in.
- Give no points to the camera that does the worst for a feature. Give 1 x the point value for the next worst. Give 2 x the point value to the next camera and so on. Do this for every feature.
- Add up all of the points for each camera, then divide this by the price.
This method is a little complicated, but it pays off. It made it clear to me which camera was the best deal.
The tricky part about landscape and wildlife is that they sometimes imply different, if not opposite requirements. Landscape often demands a camera/lens combo that can capture as wide a scene as possible. Wildlife usually requires one that can zoom as far as feasible to capture an elusive animal from a safe distance.
To take pictures of a large landscape you can either stitch several photos together, or rely on a wide angle lens (in the 15-30mm range for example). The size of the camera sensor here is important. If you have enough resource to buy a full frame (35 mm equiv) camera, you will be able to use wide and ultra wide lenses to their full potential. On smaller-sensor DSLRs, wide-angle lenses have smaller angles of view that depend on the corresponding crop factor.
Most consumer cameras use APS-C sensors, which effectively "zoom in" by a factor of x1.6. What it means is that your new 16mm lens behaves like a 25.6mm. Your 50mm like 80mm, etc. No matter how wide your lens actually is, you will not capture a scene as broad as if it had been mounted on a full frame camera/sensor. This is not all bad though, since a lens is usually optically better at its center anyway. Ultra wide lenses can also introduce a lot of unpleasant optical distortions.
There are two sides to this coin. What is detrimental to wide landscapes is good for distant wildlife though, because you can zoom even further with a telephoto lens mounted on a APS-C sensor. The crop factor still applies, this time to your advantage. A 200m zoom suddenly behaves like a 320mm, allowing you to get that much closer to a bird and use cheaper lenses.
You didn't mention your budget, so keep in mind that full-frame cameras are usually much more expensive than consumer APS-C cameras. They are bulkier and heavier as well, requiring sturdier tripods. They also demand better lens/glass if possible, since they are using the whole image circle.
I don't do too much landscape, but I take a lot of pictures of large abandoned buildings. In this scenario I really benefit from a 16-35mm lens mounted on a full-frame sensor. I do have a 70-200mm lens as well to shoot from a distance. If I'm willing to compromise a bit of optical quality I can always use small lens extenders to reach x1.4 to x2.0 further.
Of course, it's not one or the other. As jrista pointed out in the comments, you can capture perfectly great landscapes with a telephoto and go for a different, compressed look.
- Field of View Crop Factor (Focal Length Multiplier).
- Telephoto Landscapes by Andy Mumford
Most cameras nowadays support much the same options for using an aperture priority or shutter priority modes, as well as your full auto options, so that isn't a great way to set them apart. Most of the major brands will give comparable image quality too.
When thinking about cameras specific to a task, you need to think about how you'll use it; In the case of landscape or wildlife photography you might want to consider features such as weather proofing, and differences between models. It is also important to consider weight if you're going to be carrying it around (along with lenses, tripods, waterproof clothing, kitchen sink, etc.)
I'll assume a $1000 budget. Adjust as required.
The best entry level DSLR is probably the good quality well known brand one that you determine will help you achieve what you want. All the top name brands perform well enough to start with and to learn on, there are some differences and some features that may suit you better, but without a personal "fitting" it is unlikely that anyone here will be able to say with certainty what will work for you. If you have a friend who already owns equipment of a given brand that may make a difference - as may the existence of a local club that focuses on a given camera brand.
The usual "safe" choices are Canon or Nikon (alphabetical order - either OK) but also very safe are Olympus & Sony and there are a number of entirely adequate other offerings.
No eg $1000 camera system would be the camera of choice for a professional wedding photographer BUT any wedding photographer worth their $ would be able to take reasonably good wedding photos using such.
If you especially value low light photography you may wish to look at good used lenses that have a reasonably large maximum aperture (f/2.8 or better). All camera makers also offer something like a 50mm f/1.8 prime lens at an utterly bargain basement price in terms of performance per $. Some also do a 35mm f/1.x but these are sometimes more costly enough to eat more of your $1000 budget than you can really afford.
Many entry level DSLRs have kit options with one or two low cost and relatively modest quality lenses. These are usually lower cost when bought this way than if bought separately and the quality is usually good enough to be useful while you are learning.
"Best brand" recommendations usually bring out brand purists and the arguments never cease. I'm going to mention one brand for a special reason - you can decide if it matters enough. I started with a Minolta SRT303b film SLR decades ago due to a friend's recommendation and have used mainly Minolta and then Sony (who bought Minolta's camera business) ever since. [I also have D700 Nikon but that's irrelevant here]. Optically and functionally Sony's DSLR line is similar in performance to Canon or Nikon or Olympus or ... . There is one major difference.
All Sony DSLR camera have "in body" antishake to provide image stabilisation. Most other manufacturers provide antishake mechanisms in selected lenses. Lenses with anti-shake cost a premium over lenses without it - in some cases the lenses may cost around double the non-equivalent stabilised lens price. As the Sony cameras have in-body stabilisation ALL lenses are stabilised. You get 2 to 3 stops of improvement by using Sony antishake (always turned on by default). This means that a Sony with only modest low light performance can compete in many cases with a very good low-light performance camera when photos are hand held and when hand stability is a limiting factor. My A77 Sony is 3 times worse noise-wise than my D700 Nikon, but hand held in low light the Sony is often a match for the Nikon (heresy!!!) due to the ability to use lower ISO and lower shutter speed. When subject movement is the limiting factor no camera stabilising scheme helps and the D700 'tramples' the A77 with ease. Whether this matters depends on what is important to you, but I have found that the ability to use ANY Minolta AF lens and have it stabilised as of right is very valuable. [eg The Minolta 500mm mirror lens is the only only 500mm AF stabilised mirror lens ever made].
FWIW - Sony make the sensors for the top Nikons, so much of the differences are in presentation and processing and not raw sensor performance.
As this question was originally asked five years ago and still keeps getting asked over and over again by beginner photographers and enthusiast consumers alike, I'll try to bring few fresh points to the table.
This answer assumes that you have already decided to purchase a dSLR. But if you are still not sure whether to get into the dSLR world, please do read inkista's answer here.
Also, bear in mind that this answer is limited to the 'first' dSLR purchase.
The dSLR industry has made incredible strides in technology which has enabled choosing a camera which can make bad pictures very rare. This, counterintuitively, makes selecting a 'good' camera quite difficult. So, try to keep the following in mind:
- Price: Like the saying goes, "The best camera is the one that's in your hands", a top of the line camera that you cannot afford is of no help to you. So, buy a dSLR that you can afford.
If you are someone who's really serious about making great pictures and wish to take your craft to the next level, you need to understand that it is better to have some money left to spend after buying your first dSLR because a dSLR is usually not the only factor to make great pictures. You might need to get a different, if not better, lens. For example, you might want to buy a portrait or wildlife specific lens to suit your tastes or needs. Or you might need to buy a good steady tripod, if you wish to go long-exposure.
The bottom line is that there are other accessories that are non-trivial for the serious amateur-hobbyists. This is something that makes bundle-pricing an attractive thing when it comes to camera gear. Look if you can find a good deal that can get you things like an extra lens kit, tripod, extra memory card, extra battery for a little price increase. Although the kind of tripods that are sold in cheap deals not really of the best quality, a basic tripod is good enough for beginners.
If you are someone who's only buying a dSLR with the expectation that it can simply deliver better images for your vacations, events or family trips, you might not have to bother much about most accessories mentioned above. But spare batteries, a good camera bag to keep your gear safe, fast memory cards that actually can record Full HD or 4K video are still things that should take some attention of yours.
And it is very surprising that this factor can really help eliminate many available-but-not-affordable options to you and help to narrow things down.
- Brand: Something that many people do not realise in this regard is that it goes beyond personal brand preference. It is something like the ecosystem that you'll get locked into. It goes without saying that most brands today produce gear that is virtually incompatible outside its own brand. This means all your future accessories like camera lenses, external flashes and batteries are limited by your brand selection.
This again is of great importance to the serious amateur hobbyist photographer. That is because at some stage in your life, you'll want to grow into a better lens for the zoom or the aperture range. You don't want to limit your future by making a poor choice today. If you choose a Canon/Nikon, they offer a very wide range of camera lenses, flash accessories that are definitely very much more that sufficient. Sony currently (as of 2015) makes some fantastic camera bodies, whereas the availability of lenses is relatively low.
For the normal photographer, understand that almost all well-known brands are making just enough models of lenses to give a little amount of creative flexibility.
The bottom line here is that it is very frustrating if you find yourself limited by the options offered by your camera manufacturer. And it becomes a huge pain-point if you have to migrate to a new manufacturer (for this reason) in the future - meaning, you have to buy similar gear again. The decision you make now will have lasting effect.
- Ergonomics: Try to explore as much as possible before making your decision final. Your experience with your camera depends on how much you are comfortable, if not in love, with your camera. Make sure you try out a camera from the local store and see how it feels to you - in person. This is something that can sometimes make an impression that can make or break the deal.
Is it too heavy for your taste? This is a crucial element because it shall take up considerable space/weight when packing for vacations and when out shooting for long periods of time. Most full frame cameras tend to be heavier and larger than the APS-C sensor range cameras, so you need to compromise on extreme image quality versus convenience.
- Specific feature support: Despite the great technical improvement across the range of dSLR cameras, few cameras brands or models have particularly limited functionalities in some remote area of settings. Understand that although almost all cameras all considerably much above average on the whole, they might be lacking one or two specific things or be different from other models. That very functionality might be a deal breaker for you.
For example, some entry level Canon cameras do not offer external microphone support for recording audio along with the video. There are some notable variations in the minute details like frame rates, resolutions supported when it comes to video recording. So, if you plan to buy your camera with a very specific use case in mind, like heavy videography, make sure you cover the corresponding minute details that matter to you before purchasing the camera.
- Your Patience: This is something you should know when buying your first dSLR. Whether you are the casual photographer or the serious amateur hobbyist, understand that a dSLR is only a tool that forms a small part of the bigger picture or the craft. And usually comes with one or two dials for controlling the various modes, many menu screens for the various settings, built with the intention of giving more control over the final image. Learn to embrace it.
Don't simply be intimidated by the sheer number of settings or menus or modes. You might be in for a fairly steep learning curve. But there are some excellent resources available online. Try to learn how a dSLR works in conjunction with the fundamental physics principles of light (such as the exposure triangle) rather than trying to master the settings without knowing the context or intention for which each setting was created in the first place. An educated and informed decision in using a particular setting can greatly help in improving your final output and most importantly the satisfaction involved with the process.