Buying your First DSLR

I've had a couple of emails asking about buying your first DSLR and what I recommend starting with, so I'd put together a quick guide about what to look for when searching for the best model for you.

Determining which DSLR is actually a matter of personal choice, and your available budget will play a big part of which camera and lens you are going to be able to get.  Remember that with a DSLR you are investing in a system of camera and lenses, so you need to look at both to get the full benefit of having a DSLR. I always recommend to get the best body you can afford without sacrificing on lens quality.  This often means passing on the "kit" lens (the lens that is bundled with your camera) and getting a better one.  Let's look first at what to look for when buying a camera body.

What Brand?
There are lots of camera brands out there, but probably the most well-known of these are Canon and Nikon. Although other manufacturers make great cameras too, getting one of these brands means that you have a greater choice of lenses (both new and second hand) and you will find it easier to get information on how to use them on sites such as these.  You won't go wrong with either of these, but of course there are plenty of other models on the market to take a look at too - that really is personal choice.

Which Model?
Unless you have funds to spare, your first camera is likely to be a crop sensor as all of the entry level cameras are. Full frames cost a lot more money but handle noise much better than a crop, and have more advanced features - if you have the available funds, feel free to jump into the full frame but they are beyond what you are going to need as a beginner. I personally would spend the money getting a better lens instead, and upgrading your camera body at a later date.  See the post Best DSLR for Photographing Children for more information on the Canon camera bodies currently avaialble - although this is slightly out of date (I'll be updating it with a new post next year) it should suffice for now.

What Should I be Looking For?
When looking at more depth at the camera models in your price range, there are a couple of things to keep in mind.

MegaPixels really relates to how large you can print your pictures out to. You need to have at least 10 Megapixels to be able to print out some decent sized prints, but you will find that most entry camera models have at least that. Unless you are planning on printing to very large sizes, this will be just fine for you.

ISO Capabiliites
Another thing to look at is ISO capabilities (the sensitivity to light) of your camera. The higher the ISO number the more you will be able to take pictures in low light without flash.   This usually goes up to around 1600 on entry levels to around 3200 or 6400 on mid range. It's worth pointing out thought that just because the camera can take pictures at those numbers, it does not mean it the camera will perform well at those numbers - most will start to produce excessive noise a a couple of stops before the number it is capable of. In other words, a camera with a ISO capability of 1600 will start to see excessive noise at ISO400, and a capability of ISO3200 will be usable to ISO800.  You will find that full frame cameras handle noise a lot better than crop sensors but they are definitely more expensive.

Frames Per Second (FPS)  The faster the frames per second, the more pictures you will be able to take in burst mode, so if you intend to take a lot of motion shots (sports, wildlife, free range toddlers) the higher the number should be. That said, even your entry level DSLR's will be miles better than your point and shoot in this regard, and the rates are quite similar among the entry level cameras at around 3fps. Again, when you move up into more expensive cameras, some of these will have fps rates of around 7 - again you are paying for the added functionality.

If you have one area that is more important to you than the others (for example taking photos in low light) then search for a camera with the highest capabiliites in that regard, and get the best body you can afford after you have considered the price of getting a different lens rather than the kit one.

Why Don't I Want a Kit Lens?
If you just intend to leave your camera on Auto and don't mind having to use your pop up flash, then getting the kit lens with the camera is fine.  However, if you want to gain more control over your photography (and I'm assuming you do before you are reading this site) then you are going to struggle with the kit lens. The reason is because these lenses have a variable aperture, usually something like 3.5 - 5.6.  The focal length is probably going to be around 18-55 (which is a good range) but the problem with the variable aperture is that when you are zoomed at 55mm range, your aperture will be just 5.6 - that's really not enough to give you a lot of control.

 In fact, your lens is probably more important than the camera body (to a certain degree) which is why I always recommend going for a lesser body and upgrading the lens if you need to keep within a budget. Lenses are incredibly important to the quality and sharpness of your images, and also to the ability to focus quickly.  For that reason, I always recommend skipping the kits lens and buying the body only. You can put the money you have saved and put this towards a better lens. (See Best Lens for Photographing Children for some more info - again it's due a bit of an update and a couple of lenses added to it but you'll get the idea!)

The almost universal upgrade lens is the "nifty fifty" aka the 50mm f/1.8 , and is one that I would recommend that you get instead.  The reason is that the F1.8 will let you get lots of yummy light into your camera, it's a great focal length on a crop sensor camera (which all entry level cameras are), it's incredibly sharp, and best of all, it's really inexpensive.  (What more can you ask for?!) The only downside is that there is no zoom, you have to move with your feet. I don't find that to be a problem, and a lot of people swear by these fixed lens, known as primes, because they are generally sharper than a zoom.  (Despite it being less than a third of the price of my zoom lens, I still use this one all the time because I love it!) It's just a great lens to start off with.

If you do decide to go with the kit lens too (in some cases there is very little difference in the price between body only and body with kit lens), you will find that most come with a lens in the 18-55mm Lens range which is great - this will enable you to shoot landscapes at the low end and portraits etc at the high end.  You sometimes will get offered a telephoto zoom instead at around 75-300mm ; this is better for sports and wildlife where are going to be a distance away from your subject, although you can get nice portrait head shots with it too. For small children, they are likely to be relatively close to you so I would say 18-55 range. If you have older children and your main reason for buying is for sports day, plays etc then the 75-300 will be better suited.  (There are Super Bundle where you can get both lenses for very little extra).   These lenses really aren't going to give you a lot of control or exceptionally sharp images, but if you want the added flexbiilty that having these will give you, then by all means do so.

If you decide to go down the route of the kit lens, one other piece of equipment that you might want to get is a Lightscoop .  You are probably going to have to use your flash for indoor shots with a kit lens, in which case it's a great idea to soften the light somewhat so your subjects don't look all washed out. See my post on the why I like the Lighscoop for more information.

This is really personal choice (and budget) but I really would recommend getting the 50mm F1.8 so you can start to get that level of control, either as an add-on to the kit lenses or instead of.

Someone also asked about what IS means is regard to lenses - this means Image Stabilsation, which helps to avoid unintentional motion blur caused by your hand shaking. IS is a good thing as it helps you to shoot in low light or with lower shutter speeds and helps stop you getting blurry images.

I know this is quite a quick overview on what essentially is quite a large subject (there are a lot of cameras out there!) but hopefully I have helped you think about what is important to you.  Quite frankly, the truth is your budget is most likely to be the deciding factor in what to get!! (What I want and what I have are two entirely different things)

Any questions, please ask in the comments form below and I will do my best to answer!

Other Posts You Might Like:

What Do The Lens Numbers Mean?
What is the Nifty Fifty Lens?
The Lighscoop - my new favorite camera accessory!
What's In My Camera Bag?


mommy ara said...

That lens upgrade has been in my 'to buy' list since I bought my Canon EOS 450D with the kit lens in 2009. It just wouldn't fit in the budget! My brother-in-law gave me a set of colored diffusers (http://www.amazon.com/Warming-Cooling-Screens-Pop-Up-Diffuser/dp/B002QLEZ2A) earlier this year but I still have not taught myself how to use it.

Audrey said...

It's an expensive hobby, no doubt about it! In my opinion it's worth the upgrade especially for the price. Haven't used or seen those diffusers but anything that softens the flash is a good idea!

Amy said...

The nifty fifty is on my Christmas list!! I want it so bad! I have an unrelated question for you regarding photography. Not sure if you've ever had this happen before, but when I'm taking photos, using my built in flash, I will sometimes get a busy message on my screen and I'm unable to use the camera for a few seconds. Any ideas on what I can do to fix this problem?? Its frustrating when I've had to wait for the camera and miss a shot. :-(

Audrey said...

Hi Amy, it will say busy if you are using the pop up flash and have taken a few pictures, it's the flash overheating slightly , it needs time to cool down. Only solution is avoiding pop up flash in the first place by bumping up your ISO, or investing in an external flash which doesn't have the same limitations. Sorry but apart from that there's not much else to do! The other thing to look at is the type of SD card you are using some are slower to write to than others. If its only when you use flash though, it's more likely to just needing a few seconds to cool down. Hope that helps x

Anonymous said...

Thank for the post! It help my decision to get a SLR camera.

Shannon Loehr said...

Thank you for this post! I am debating whether to get the Nikon d7000 or the Canon d60...The more reviews I read the more confused I get! Haha. I wanted to ask you, which lens would be your second purchase? A non-prime...? Also, is a lens worth getting if there is no image stabilization? I am looking at the Tamron 28-75 2.8, but am not sure what other lens I would want to compliment my prime 50 1.8 that I want to buy first :) Thanks in advance!!

Audrey said...

Hi Shannon, I'd recommend a zoom for a second lens and tsomething in the 24-70 range (or thereabouts) is great as gives a good focal range. A nice low aperture of f2.8 is great too. I have the tamron one (the canon version being out of my price range!) and its a good lens, slightly less than sharp than the 50mm but makes up for it by being a good all-rounder. This lens has VC (vibration control) which is the same as IS. you don't need IS but it is particularly good for heavier lenses which cause your hand to shake more, it just helps stabilise it. If you didn't have it, you'd need to use a higher shutter speed to make up for it. Hope this helps!

Shannon Loehr said...

Thank you SO much! That helps me a lot :)

Unknown said...

Glad I stumbled upon your blog. My daughter is getting into gymnastics and my great pocket camera just can't cut it. Having undergrad minor in photography I feel bad that I haven't kept up my equipment since college. Since I want to take pictures of my daughter for the family, and we have to be in the stands, which I guess this question covers all sports, would you still recommend the tamron? Needing to capture fast moving athletes I wonder if the f2.8 would limit me or force me to need to push the iso higher than I'd like.

Steve said...

Sorry for the anon post above. I just read in another post you recommend a 75-300mm lens. For indoor sports, can you make a recommendation for a lens? $500 is probably the top end of my budget. I'm probably asking for too much for my budget.

Audrey said...

Hi Steve, I can't recommend anything specific, I'm afraid my little one is too young for indoor sports so is not yet a requirement of mine! However, I would probably recommend getting a zoom one in and around the 70-200 range, one with a F2.8 aperture (don't go for a F4, you'll struggle with getting in enough light to your camera with this) The canon version is meant to be superb, but out of your price range, so I would consider the Sigma version? I believe you will get this for your budget and the reviews are pretty good. You might still struggle with having to push up your ISO (although the IS on both of these lenses helps you to use a lower shutter speed) as indoor sports halls can be quite dark, so I have heard others use primes (lenses that don't zoom) as they stop down lower (1.8 or 2.0) thereby letting more light into your camera. The downside is that you have to move with your feet. The 85mm F1.8 seems to be quite popular for this, and is again in your price range. Lastly, if you are likely to be quite close to the action (ringside) then you might need one with a shorter focal length than the 70-200, say 24-70mm. Sorry, there probably isn't a perfect lens for this - as always there is a bit of a compromise to be made!

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