So you got fed up with your compact digital camera and its limitations. You’ve seen those breathtaking photos taken with big black cameras. You want to be regarded as a real photographer. You might even want to make some money. Only one question remains: what should you buy? How would you choose? NB: UPDATED in September 2012 with the latest facts and figures.
Do you know what you are getting?
A dSLR is something many hobbyists are secretly lusting for, but they don’t know exactly what it is, except a vague notion similar to “it’s like my compact, only better”.
If I had to describe a dSLR in one word, that would be “versatile“. A dSLR can be used for almost anything you want – from taking pictures of insects to weddings, landscapes or astronomy.
- interchangeable lens – depending on the type of photography you want, you can buy lenses optimized for that task, instead of the one-size-fit-all lens of a compact.
- optical viewfinder that goes through the lens via a mirror or prism – you can look through the camera lens for perfect framing and see much more detail than using the LCD screen.
- faster autofocus – the camera will focus much faster and with better accuracy.
- no shutter lag – there’s no delay in between pressing the shutter release button and taking the actual picture – you won’t miss that perfect moment.
- no delay in between pictures – you can shoot at least 3 frames per second (depending on the camera model it can be even 12 frames per second), perfect for action shots.
- less noise in low light – you can shoot in low light and still get usable image.
- size – you can’t fit a dSLR in your shirt pocket and if you get more than one lens, be prepared for a camera bag or even backpack.
- less beginner-friendly – compacts are designed for simplicity and instant gratification, while dSLR require some learning in order to be used effectively.
- no live view – not all cameras have a live view mode, and even those that do are not optimized for it, resulting in some compromises in terms of autofocus,optical viewfinder size and so on.
- no movie mode – not all cameras have a movie mode, and even those that do have significant limitations.
The disadvantages are getting fewer with each generation as more cameras come with usable live view and movie mode and even built-in help screens. There’s also a whole new class of “bridge” cameras with interchangeable lenses but with the rest similar to the compacts (Sony NEX 5 and 7, Panasonic Lumix, Nikon V1) but here I’ll be discussing “real” DSLR cameras.
Forget about brand
This is something guaranteed to cause controversy. When it comes to camera brands, people get religious. For some reason, people don’t argue loudly about HP vs. Dell or Audi vs. BMW, but when it comes to Canon vs. Nikon, people will defend their favorite brand to the death; if some poor soul dares to suggest another brand, like Sony or Pentax, murder ensures. I heard people saying “Nikons have the best quality“, “I trust Sony to make good electronics“, “I’m a die-hard Oly fan“, “Annie Leibovitz uses Canon“, “Pentax means value for money” and so on.
Choosing a camera based solely on brand is great if you want to show it off, but not if you intend to actually use it
There are five main dSLR manufactures (I list them alphabetically): Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sony and a few smaller ones of which I will only mention Sigma because of its unique Foveon sensor. I took Olympus off this list because now (autumn 2011) they are in big financial trouble.
Let get this straight: in terms of quality, all of them are great. Sony got into dSLR business by buying everything from Minolta, so all of these brands have a lot of history behind them. Each of these can list innovations, awards and achievements.
When you compare two cameras in the same range (entry-level, advanced amateur, etc.) the differences in terms of quality or features are very small. I won’t attempt to debunk any myths (there are too many of them), but all manufacturers produce cameras with great reliability.
Don’t buy a camera, invest in a system
With compacts, most people would just buy the camera and that’s it. You could buy a Panasonic now and a Fuji two years later.
Choose wisely as you’ll be stuck with it
Remember how I said that the keyword for dSLR is “versatility”? It’s quite possible that in the beginning you won’t even know what type of photography you’ll want to do. As you gain more experience, chances are you’ll want to buy more stuff for it, so the system will grow with you.
A likely scenario: At first you’ll get the camera body and the included kit lens. Then you’ll buy a telephoto lens; then a flash; then a wide-angle zoom; then a polarizing filter; another flash; a remote release; a vertical grip; a prime lens; and so on. Myself, in 8 years I got 7 lenses, 3 filters, 3 flashes and a wireless flash/remote release.
So in time you’ll most likely buy new camera bodies but will want to keep the lenses and other accessories. Because of that, you’ll be less likely to “jump ship” from one brand to the other (technically you can, but you’d be wasting money).
By ecosystem I mean everything that’s available for a brand: camera bodies, lenses, third-party lenses, accessories, stuff you find on eBay, tutorials, seminars, and more.
Canon and Nikon are competitive and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, with Sony being a strong contender
While the brand may not matter, the market share does. Why? If you want just the camera and the kit lens, market share doesn’t affect you. However, if you intend to keep investing, choosing a big brand means that you can easily find all kinds of accessories for it, whereas for a small brand, you’ll have to hunt to find what you need.
Global market share data for 2010 shows Canon at 44.5%, Nikon at 29.8%, Sony at 11.9%. If we take in account all cameras, the order becomes Canon, Sony, Nikon. Read more on Bloomerg’s Sony, Nikon Narrow Gap to Canon With New Digital Camera Models.
In terms of market share, the safest choice would be Canon or Nikon. Both companies are widely supported and have a ton of lenses and all kinds of accessories (including many from third parties) available for them. After buying the business from Konica-Minolta, Sony invested massively, taking some market share from Canon and Nikon and squeezing Pentax and Olympus into a corner. There is very high quality stuff available for Sony (does Zeiss ring any bell?), but you won’t find everything you can think of for them. Olympus is pretty much out of the picture and Pentax’ future is uncertain.
A few quick searches on eBay to illustrate my point:
Pentax lens“: 13,000 results;
Sony lens“: 28,000 results;
Nikon lens“: 45,000 results;
Canon lens“:62,000 results.
What features to look for
Get an entry level camera, save your money for quality glass (lenses)
All cameras boast lots of features; sometimes they offer the same thing under a different name.
Generally speaking, I advise you against buying a high-end camera as your first. The best camera money can buy will not automatically make beautiful pictures for you – if anything, the multitude of options will only confuse you. The forums are filled with people with Sony A900, Canon 5D Mark II or Nikon D3, all complaining that their cameras are “crap” or “broken” because they can’t get a decent picture out of them. Further, an entry level camera with a good lens will produce better images than a high-end camera with a crappy one. I cannot stress this enough: buy a camera body you can easily afford and save money for good lenses.
Megapixels. We all know bigger is better, right? Well, like all things in life, it’s not that simple. Bigger resolution is great, but the final image quality depends a lot on the sensor size. Most dSLR sensors are about 24×16 mm (APS-C size). For them, as resolution increases, noise increases too. I’d say that with the current technology, 16 Mp is the right balance. Of course, the so-called “full-frame” sensors present in high-end cameras, with a size of 36×24 mm can achieve resolutions of 24 Mp – but we’re talking about your first dSLR, right? A 12 Mp sensor can give you a 12″x16″ (approx. A3 size) picture at the highest detail and much more if you don’t need to get very close; I made a 10 feet (3m) billboard from a 6 Mp image. Higher resolutions allow you to crop large parts of the picture, but I believe you’re much better off by learning to frame effectively in the first place.
With compact cameras, you pretty much rely on the back LCD to show what you’re doing in a WYSIWYG fashion, with the optical viewfinder (if it existed at all) being nearly unusable. Until recently, dSLRs did not have a live view on LCD at all.
LCDs can be useful, but they do lead to drawbacks in design and performance; most notably, if you use Live View, the autofocus will be again slow, negating the speed advantages of SLRs over compacts. If you feel you must have it, make sure the LCD can be tilted, so you can look at it with camera over head or very close to the ground. It’d be also worth looking into the a55 and a65 SLT line from Sony, a new breed of cameras that essentially eliminate the problems associated with Live View.
Another feature adopted from compacts, some newer dSLRs have a movie mode, usually HD. Movies on dSLR is a mixed bag. On one hand, it can get you a beautiful, film-like look; on the other hand it’s severely limited in terms of autofocus and exposure, making it useful only for controlled environments with little motion. The only camera I’d use to record fast action would be Sony SLT line. Canon now offers a “hybrid AF” solution but it requires special lenses that are not widely available yet.
Shooting in low light and/or with telephoto lenses can be tricky without a tripod. Almost all dSLR cameras have some sort of stabilization. There is a trick though: Canon and Nikon provide stabilization in their lenses (“IS” lenses for Canon and “VR” lenses for Nikon), while Sony, Pentax and Olympus have the stabilization feature in camera body. The difference is very important because for Canon and Nikon you need to buy IS/VR lenses, which are quite more expensive than ‘normal’ lenses, while with the other manufacturers the stabilization will work with any lens. The effectiveness of stabilization is about the same in both philosophies (3-4 stops); the stabilized lenses have the advantage of you seeing the actual stabilized image in the optical viewfinder, while stabilized bodies enable you to use any lens for the same effect.
Some Nikons do not have an in-body autofocus lens motor. This means that although the camera itself is relatively inexpensive and small, you need to spend extra on lenses with built-in motors.
Hold it in your hand
Actually holding the camera in your hand can help you decide
Even if you plan on buying your camera online, I still recommend you to actually walk into a store and hold the camera in your hand and take a few pictures. All the features in the world don’t matter one bit if you hate the way it looks or it’s not comfortable in your hand or you find the layout of the buttons cumbersome. When I bought my first dSLR (after years of using a film one), I had my eyes on a certain camera based on reviews and pictures, but in my hand it felt cheap and uncomfortable.
Don’t bother asking the salesperson for advice on what to buy; chances are they are either clueless or biased toward a brand or will try to steer you to an expensive model.
I tried to keep this guide as unbiased as possible and provide you with information to help you make a decision, rather than make a decision for you. Below, I’m listing some cameras on Amazon that at this time (September 2012) I believe would be good choices for you:
|Canon EOS 650D||Nikon D3200||Sony Alpha a37|
|Pros: Good balance of features
|Pros: Highest resolution
Cons: Fixed LCD, lacks some features
|Pros: Quick Live View, In-body stabilization, Highest FPS, fast AF in movies
Cons: Electronic viewfinder only, small LCD