Wednesday, September 12, 2007

How to buy your first Digital SLR camera

So you're thinking about buying a Digital Single Lens Reflex Camera (DSLR). First off, good for you. You've finally joined the rest of us in the 21st century. I know how hard it was for you to let go of the vintage feel of watching your film develop in a dark room, but really, how much time do you have for that anymore? And, unless you're an over eager hobbiest, my guess is you don't have access to a dark room anyways. So DSLR it is. But now what? There are so many choices, and so many dollars to be spent, and potentially wasted on a camera far too advanced or far over priced for your photographic needs...Luck for you, you found my blog ;)
Summing it up
First off, you need to figure out what you are going to be taking pictures of. I like to break DSLR consumers into 3 categories. If all of the below fit, you are wise beyond your years. =)
1.) The Sporty Parent: Little Timmy and Sally are weekend warriors, and your life revolves around getting 300 pictures of their game winning goal, their home run swing, or just capturing the kids playing in the pool. You want photos of activities. You are generally on the sidelines observing and cheering on the situation. You want to show off your kids / friends in sports illustrated style action shots. Uses: Sports, Action, Telephoto lenses, shooting from greater distances.
2) The Quarter Life Artistic Crisis: On your road trip away from the daily grind, you find solace in the open road. The expansive skies. You find emotion in a sunset, or a dew encrusted flower. You love hiking, hugging trees, vibrant colors, and you want to capture these natural wonders with a camera capable of doing so. Uses: Landscapes, nature, sunsets, low light situations, tri-pods, wide angle lenses.
3) The Budding Wedding Photographer: You like people. You want to make people look good in your photos. You're tired of eyes half closed from blinking, washed out faces, red eyes, and tiny subjects. You aren't afraid to get close up and shove your camera into any moment. Uses: Portraits, Weddings, Parties, Indoor, People, Products, Tight shots with Flashes.
Of the three there are well suited options, which I will get to below. Of all three there are great versatile camera set ups that will allow for shooting in any situation.

Pricing It Out:
How much do you want to spend on this? DSLR camera bodies (without the lenses) range from $400 dollars to $2000. Lenses range from $200 to $10,000.
First, ask yourself if there is any way to make money from your shots. Are the hordes of soccer mom's willing to shell out some dough for their kids captured at their greatest. Are you thinking of doing some photo gigs on the side with your friends? If you camera, can in any way return some investment, spend as much as possible.
If you are doing this for personal endeavors, you want every dollar to count. This camera will last you for a while if you buy it right, and you should buy just the right product. Too little camera won't allow for any growth in the subject area, and too much camera might be wasted in areas you never utilize.
A incredibly good base model DSLR is the Nikon D40 (photo left). (about $600 w/ lens)
and or the Canon equivalent the 350D Digital Rebel (about $650 w/ lens)

See dpreview's review of the D40 here and the Canon Digital Rebel here. These cameras would be great for somebody who doesn't expect to grow much in the hobby, and wants a little more control over the photos than a typical point and shoot camera will provide. You will still find some shutter lag (time between clicking the shutter button and when the camera actually takes the picture) And you will find a limited selection of lenses for these models. Keep in mind for less the $200 more, you can get a substantially better camera.

A mid-ranged pro-sumer (not quite a pro, better than average consumer) model would be the Nikon D80 (about $900 w/ lens) and the Canon Digital Rebel Xti(about $800 w/ lens).

See the Nikon D80 dp review and theCanon Digital Rebel Xti review. Both of these cameras are great. Leaps and bounds better than the entry level models mentioned above. These two will give you everything you could ever need in a camera on a non-professional level. Although, even some professionals have been known to use these cameras. The lenses compatibility with these are far greater than the lower models, and even some of your old film SLR camera's lenses will work with either of these.
In case $900 is too much for this camera. See the Nikon D70. The model the D80 replaced. The price has plummeted on this model, and it is still, by all means, an incredible camera. One I have worked with for well over 2 years. For maybe about $700, you can score one of the D70s. See the D70 review.

There are higher model cameras available, the Nikon D1x and D2x, but well...if you're about to drop 2000 dollars on a new camera, you're one of two people who shouldn't be here. 1. A professional who is very bored. 2. Somebody with no experience, far too much money, and a learning curve ahead of them that would challenge even Ansel Adams.

Lenses:
The above prices and were quoted with the assumption that when you purchase the camera it will come with a standard DSLR lens. Generally something like a 18-70mm lens. What does that mean? 18-70mm is a fancy way of describing the effective depth of field your lens is capable of attaining.
18-77 mm lenses are good for landscape photography and subjects you can get up close to. If your subject is relatively still and within 10 feet, this is a great lens for all around shooting. This is the go to lens for most amature photographers. It is also good for relatively wide shots, of open landscapes or sunsets. Good for the quarter-life-artistic-crisis consumers. And the budding wedding photographer.
70-300mm lenses are good for sports photography that you can get within 100 ft of your subject. Say the sidelines of a little league game, or soccer. This won't get you close to pro sports athletes from the nosebleed seats, but if you're on the field with the players, this size lens will get you tight up shots of your subject. These can also work dramatically in portrait photography. Getting very tight on the face and blurring the background for a very professional look and feel.These lenses are great for the Sporty Parent and the budding wedding photographer.
300-700mm lenses are for subjects very far away. These are you standard telephoto lenses and can get extremely pricey.

The Megapixel Myth
No, more megapixels does not necessarily mean better photos. Basically what megapixels refer to is the amount of data that camera stores for each picture. Just because there is more of it doesn't make it better. A ton of poor data will still give you a poor picture. What really matters in digital cameras are the nitty gritty components of the camera that most people are unaware of. The digital processor for example, the light sensors, and the quality of the optics inside both the lens and the camera body all add up to the quality of the image. Megapixels are nothing more than "sponges" soaking up the information all those aforementioned parts put out.
So, it is possible for a 6 mp camera to take better photos than an 8 mp camera. Keep this in mind when looking at cameras. Megapixels is a catchy sales word that takes attention away from the more important pieces of the camera. David Pogue wrote a great article about this in lehman's terms at His article here

Accessories
Still with me? Bravo!
So, if you aren't overloaded enough by now, don't worry...it gets worse. Buying a DSLR requires a small amount of required accessories. The most important being the flash. If you want decent indoor pictures with no red eye, and dramatic lighting, this is the cheapest (relative term) and easiest way to do so. No I'm not talking about the built in flash, no DSLR on the market has a decent one. I am talk about this:

A giant, geeky, photographer must have, the speed light. If you buy nothing else make sure this is it. This model sells for something around $200 and is great.
Other accessories that are just as important:
The Tripod: Buy the heaviest, simplest tripod you can afford. The heavier the better, as light weight tripods tend to vibrate more to the camera and blur images. Try to look for tripods with quick release heads.
The Memory Card: The fastest card the best. I'm talking about the speed at which the card stores the image. You'll see this advertised on clearly on the front of the box. What this means is, if you are trying to snap rapid shots of someone running across a soccer field, if you card lags and takes a while to write the images, the camera will stop taking pictures and wait for it to catch up. Cameras will buffer this, and instead of being able to take 10 shots in 2 seconds, you might only get 6 or 7.
The Battery: Buy and extra battery and keep it charged. Nothing is worse than being in the middle of no where when your battery dies. Most of these cameras use rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, meaning you can't just pop in 8 AAA batteries and get back to work. You need to specific battery for your camera, and at least 2 of them. Especially if you're doing a lot of indoor flash photography.

Why Nikon? I chose to compare Nikon and Canon in this guide primarily because they are the industry leaders. My father, being a professional photographer (The LA Times, NY Times, Time Mag, etc.), only uses Nikon. Much of my life was paid for by that tool. So yes, I am somewhat biased. I own a couple Nikons myself. And while I've never used a canon, and don't have anything against them, I highly recommend Nikon. Nikon consistently produces better optics and sensors, and while canon seems to be turning this trend, Nikon will give you the best value for your dollar at the present time.

Obviously there's a lot to consider here. I barely glazed the surface. I hope it helps. If you have any further questions, please don't be afraid to contact me at www.davidhgatley.com.

-David

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11 comments:

Lulu said...

Thank you for this great post. I learned a lot from reading all the information you have provided. I want to pursue photography as a hobby, and I am reading as much as I can on the types of cameras available out there to decide which one is better for me.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article.

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gate valves said...

what a nice blog. i learned a lot today by reading your blog. Before i jumped in to Digital SLR photography, i used film for quite some time. it gave me an advanced training in taking shots. When i first used my nikon d90, it kinda gave me a hard time because im not familiar with most of its functions. Time passed by with a lot of practice, i finally got the knack out of it. You can also attend photography lessons if you have some time. It can really help you if you really want to be good. lessons without practice is nothing ., so practice a lot.

mc

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MB said...

Thanks for the very nice post! Been thinking of getting a new DSLR camera and I can't decide what to get. Will definitely try your advice! Thinking of getting one of the top rated cameras in the market today. Thanks!

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