This is a detailed guide on how to choose and buy a DSLR camera. Our readers regularly ask us questions about different photo gear, but mostly about cameras. The questions range from “what should I get to create good-looking pictures?” all the way to “should I buy Canon or Nikon?”. Since I went through the pain of researching on what to buy for myself long time ago and have been constantly keeping track of the developments in this industry, I decided to write this “how-to” / “FAQ” on buying DSLR cameras.
1) I have never owned anything more than a point-and-shoot camera and want to buy a professional camera to create professional-looking pictures. What do you recommend?
This is probably the most frequently asked question by those who are just getting into photography. First of all, there is a common misconception that one can only create professional-looking pictures with a professional camera. This is absolutely not true. Some of the best photographs out there are shot with point-and-shoot cameras and people even manage to take awesome pictures using their phone cameras. Personally, I love shooting with my LG G4, just like I love shooting with my iPhone 7 Plus – I have gotten many great images with these handheld devices, some of which I have published right here at Photography Life.
Does it mean that the camera does not matter at all? Not necessarily. For most people out there that are just getting into photography, it really doesn’t. For professionals who make a living selling pictures, it does big time. See “A Camera is Just a Tool” part of my Nikon vs Canon vs Sony article, where I go into more details about this.
Digital photography, first and foremost, is about light. Beautiful light creates beautiful photographs. Once you learn how to work with light and how to compose your images, you can start taking stunning photographs and your gear won’t matter that much. Knowing your camera functionality and technique are next. Most people that shoot with point-and-shoot cameras don’t even know how to operate them! They just put their cameras in “Auto” mode and don’t bother to figure out important camera settings and modes. True, “Auto” modes are great, but if you look back at all your photos, did your camera produce great photographs every time you took a picture? I’m sure it didn’t! There are several common reasons, which apply even to professional cameras:
- Bad Light
- Bad Subject
- Bad Composition
- Bad Technique
- No Creativity
If you take all of your photographs and sort the good ones versus the bad ones, I’m sure the majority of the bad ones will be the ones taken indoors (birthdays, parties, etc) and the majority of the good photographs will be the ones taken in bright sunny days. Wonder why? Again, it is because of light. In low-light conditions, a point-and-shoot camera boosts the sensitivity of its sensor (ISO), resulting in a lot of noise (remember those grainy pictures that you wish were a little bit cleaner?), while in bright conditions with good light, a point and shoot automatically decreases camera sensitivity, stops down the lens (aperture) decreasing noise and resulting in beautiful and sharp photographs (good tips on using a point and shoot).
But point and shoot cameras have limitations. Even if you master the light and know your point and shoot inside out, the camera will not be able to do some of the things a DSLR can. So, here is a list of advantages DSLR cameras have over point and shoots:
- Ability to change lenses and depth of field. A point and shoot has an integrated general purpose lens, while you can get a wide range of lenses for a DSLR. If you are wondering why you would need different lenses, take a look at this shot:
You would not be able to get this shot with a point and shoot (unless you had digiscoping gear) because the coyote would not let you get that close. Even if it did, it would feel threatened and run away or perhaps even attack you. I used a long telephoto lens to produce this picture and you cannot mount a lens like that on a point and shoot. Ability to mount different lenses is quite powerful, since you can capture anything from landscapes with wide lenses to little birds with long telephoto lenses. Another big advantage is something called “depth of field“. See how the background is blurred on the above photo, while the coyote is sharp and in focus? A DSLR allows you to change the depth of field and you can control the background blur on your photographs (also known as “Bokeh“), from smooth to harsh.
- Overall better image quality. A DSLR has a bigger sensor than a point and shoot, resulting in less noise, faster speeds and better image quality.
- Shutter and focus speeds. DSLRs can acquire focus very quickly and take multiple shots per second. Have you ever tried to photograph a flying bird with a point and shoot? Moving subjects are extremely hard to photograph with point and shoot cameras because they lack good focus/shutter speeds.
- You see what you shoot. A DSLR is constructed with reflex mirrors, which means that you look through the lens, instead of a see-through hole in the camera. This is especially useful in long telephoto lenses, because you can adjust focus on your subject as if you are looking through binoculars.
- Lots of ways to control the camera. Although some of the new point and shoots have a good number of manual controls, DSLRs have the most ability to control the camera. You can customize everything from ISO to focus points and even create your own custom layouts (in more advanced DSLRs).
If you want to see a more detailed comparison between point and shoot and DSLR cameras, please see Lola’s point and shoot vs DSLR camera article.
Anyway, let’s not waste time on point and shoots – after all, you are reading this because you want a DSLR! So, what would I recommend? The answer, unfortunately, is not going to be short.
There are many types of DSLR cameras available today, from DSLR-like and entry level DSLRs, all the way to professional-level DSLRs that have the most features and versatility. They are generally classified in three categories/classes: a) amateur, b) semi-professional and c) professional. Different brands have different classifications, but the latter three are generally the same across all brands.
Let’s talk about these categories really quick. As the name implies, the “amateur” target market is for entry-level DSLRs that offer least versatility and features to cut down the cost. This category is the most affordable and is an excellent choice for amateurs because less features mean quicker learning. Expect to pay between $500-$800 for a good camera kit (a camera kit is comprised of a camera with one or more lenses). Examples of amateur cameras: T3i, Nikon D3200/D5300, Sony Alpha A3000.
The next category “semi-professional” is between the amateur and professional categories. It is more versatile than the amateur, has better construction and possibly weather sealing and sometimes inherits features from the professional cameras. Obviously heavier than the amateur cameras and is generally more compatible with older lenses. Expect to pay between $1000-$1800 for a camera body only. Examples of semi-professional cameras: Canon EOS 60D, Nikon D7100/D300s, Sony Alpha A77.
The last category “professional“, again, as the name implies, is for professional photographers. You get the most features, most versatility and speed, best construction, best sensor technology, best focus system, weather sealing and many other bells and whistles not found in amateur or semi-professional categories. These cameras are money-hungry, between $3000-$10000 for a body only. Examples of professional cameras: Canon EOS 5D Mark III/EOS 1D X, Nikon D800/D4, Sony Alpha A99.
Some people break down the categories into more segments, but it gets too confusing so I won’t go there.
Anyway, let’s move on to planning your purchase. A lot of websites on the Internet recommend setting a budget before buying a camera, then based on how much you want to spend, they provide the best available options as of today. Personally, I think it is a waste of time and money. You have no idea what price to pay and different people have different budgets, so, how can you even set a budget? If you are rich and your budget is unlimited, does it mean that you should be purchasing a professional camera just because you can afford it? Absolutely not! Coming from a point and shoot environment, a professional camera will be too complex for you and I can almost guarantee that you will not be able to use it properly. So, why waste money and your precious time? It is very entertaining to see people trying to get rid of their Nikon D3s because the camera is “too much” for them and they can’t use it.
Don’t worry about budgets or features! If you have never owned a DSLR, buy an entry-level amateur camera and forget about everything else you have read and heard so far. If you have never done serious photography before, trust me, you will go through a big learning curve, even with an amateur DSLR. You will eventually learn how to use the three kings – aperture, shutter speed and ISO to compose beautiful pictures. Once you shoot enough pictures and learn all of the features of the camera and want to move up in a category/class, you can then either sell your camera and buy a semi-professional or professional DSLR, or keep your original amateur DSLR as a backup body. By the way, compared to point and shoot cameras, DSLRs are very good in keeping value, as long as the camera functions and there is no visible damage. Talking about good value, I sold my first DSLR for about $100 less than what I bought it for, after using it for more than a year! If you take a good care of your gear, you will be surprised to see what people are willing to pay for it.
Let’s move on to the next important question.
2) What brand DSLR should I buy?
Should you get Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax, Olympus, FujiFilm aghhh, there are too many! This is a very important question, because it will affect your future purchases. One thing for sure, once you buy your first DSLR and get serious in learning photography, it will not stop there. You will need more tools to create better looking photographs and will definitely be spending money on accessories. To start with, you will need a good camera bag to store your DSLR and your lens(es), an additional battery so that you don’t run out of power when you are out shooting and an additional memory card (you will definitely want at least one of these). Then, once you learn your camera, you will start finding limitations in your gear and such tools as a tripod, extra lenses (wide, macro, telephoto, etc), filters, external flash and many other things will run through your mind and will make you want to buy them. This phenomenon of the craving to purchase more and more gear is called “NAS” (Nikon Acquisition Syndrome) by Nikon users and “LLL” (L Lens Lust) by Canon users or a more generic “GAS” (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). Either way, it gets some people to a point, when they think that a particular camera body, or a lens, or extra accessories will create better pictures. Yes, tools do help photographers to create better pictures, but only if you are able to use them properly.
So, why is the brand important? Because all brands make their tools proprietary! You cannot mount a Nikon lens on a Canon body and vice versa (the same goes for almost all other brands, except some Fuji DSLRs that use the Nikon mount). This means that if you purchase a Canon DSLR, you can only buy lenses that are compatible with the Canon lens mount. The same applies to pretty much all other proprietary tools such as external flash units, body grips, batteries, etc. Once you choose a brand, it is extremely hard to switch to another one, because you would basically have to get rid of everything that is incompatible and replace it with the brand you are switching to, which will cost you big time. Therefore, choose your brand very carefully.
If you ask for my opinion on what brand to go for, my answer is “either Canon or Nikon”. Despite the tremendous growth in DSLR market and new emerging players such as Sony, both Canon and Nikon sell more DSLRs than any other brand in the market, have solid records of outstanding performance, spend lots of money on R&D, provide the most choice of lenses & other accessories and have excellent customer service. You would not go wrong with either of the brands, because they compete head to head and continuously release pioneering products.
There are plenty of articles on Nikon vs Canon (I recommend to read my Nikon vs Canon vs Sony article), and if you start researching this topic, you will end up nowhere. Some forums have never ending debates on what brand is superior and waste so much of their time discussing this useless topic, instead of shooting pictures. Here is a small compilation of both brands compared, which should hopefully help you choose what you want. Again, this is solely my opinion…
- Nikon’s ergonomics are superior to Canon’s. Some people say “Nikon DSLRs are created by photographers, while Canon DSLRs are created by engineers”. Nikons are easier to use and learn than Canons, especially for beginners.
- Nikon’s “Auto ISO” feature works much better than Canon’s.
- Nikon typically has a better focusing system in mid to high-end models.
- Canon has better availability. Compared to Canon, Nikon has much less manufacturing capability, so availability is always a problem. Although it has been improved during the last couple of years, it is still a major issue for Nikon, especially on some semi and pro-level lenses.
- Canon is cheaper. This can be debated, but I personally think that Nikon gear is always costlier than Canon. Canon has good incentive and rebate programs, while Nikon only does it on overstocked and old gear.
- Canon has a better choice of lenses. Canon clearly has a lead on lens choice and definitely does an excellent job in making their lenses available.
So, weigh in what is more important for you and make your own decision. Again, none of the above truly matters. Buy either Canon or Nikon and never look back! Concentrate on taking pictures, not evaluating better choices, because there will always be something better out there.
3) What other accessories/tools should I purchase with the camera or after I buy the camera?
I separated the list to “must haves” and “optional”:
- A decent camera bag that can hold your DSLR along with two or more lenses. Lowepro and Tamrac offer excellent choices from entry-level to professional bags.
- At least one extra camera battery.
- At least one extra memory card, preferably 2 GB or more. Sandisk and Lexar offer the fastest memory cards on the market.
- A clear filter to protect your lens. Both Canon and Nikon provide good options, as well as companies such as B+W and Hoya. I personally use B+W because they have superior optics compared to other brands.
- A good lens cleaning kit. Some microfiber cloth along with a lens cleaning fluid is a must have to keep your gear clean. Nothing hurts pictures like greasy fingerprints on your lenses. I personally use Nikon’s lens cleaner kit that I bought for $10 from B&H, but you can also use any other lens cleaning kit.
- An absolute must have is the Giottos Rocket Blower to blow the dust out of your lenses and your camera sensor. I don’t know what I would do without this puppy – it travels with me everywhere I go.
- One or more external flash units. An external flash unit should be listed as a “must have” if you are planning to shoot indoors and in low-light situations. The in-camera (internal) flash will give you the same “point and shoot” look in pictures that you are trying to get away from. An external flash allows you to point the light at the desired direction and you have a lot more flexibility and control over your subject.
- A good, sturdy tripod for landscape and night photography. Bogen/Manfrotto and Gitzo offer great choices from entry-level to professional.
- A good circular polarizing filter. Both Canon and Nikon offer excellent choices, as well as other companies such as B+W. I personally own the German 77mm B+W Kaeseman MRC filter, which is one of the best polarizing filters you can buy.
- Specialty lenses such as Macro, Fisheye or Telephoto allow you to create different types of photography. For example, if you are planning to photograph birds or other small subjects, a telephoto lens will be almost required to produce good-looking photographs.
4) What about megapixels?
Haven’t you heard about the megapixel myth yet? All camera manufacturers, unfortunately, engage in a megapixel race. It is definitely a marketing tool, because most people think that more megapixels mean better image quality. If you look at the point and shoot market, people tend to buy the cameras with most megapixels because they think that a larger image will have more details on it, compared to a smaller one. This is absolutely incorrect, as image sharpness has nothing to do with the number of pixels. A 12 megapixel blurred image (because of bad technique, focusing error, etc) will look much worse on a print compared to a 6 megapixel sharp image.
Megapixels only matter to professionals (especially pro landscape photographers), because when they sell photographs, large print size is extremely important. More megapixels are also useful to bird photographers, because birds are small and very hard to reach, so photographers end up cropping (also called “digital zoom”) their images.
Long story short, forget about megapixels while buying a camera! You are not a professional and by the time you become one (if that is your intent), you will have a professional camera with more pixels anyway.
5) Where should I buy my first DSLR and photo gear?
Any reputable local reseller would work, as long as you are not getting ripped off because of a higher price, local taxes and other fees. If you want the best price, however, I would recommend buying your photography gear online. The below online stores are the ones I use on a regular basis. I believe some of them also ship their items internationally.
I prefer to order everything through B&H Photo Video. Sometimes I look at other websites for availability and lower price, but typically B&H is pretty good about getting items in stock, so I just buy through them. They are absolutely the best to deal with when it comes to customer service. They also get most of the orders processed the same day, which is great compared to other vendors. When B&H has items back-ordered, I purchase from Adorama – they are also a very good company to deal with.
6) What are the best books/resources to learn about photography?
The best book on digital photography is Bryan Peterson’s “Understanding Exposure“. I learned a lot from this book and it will definitely help you to get started. It covers all the basics of photography and even covers some advanced techniques for you to practice. Make sure to practice everything you learn – I would read the book with a camera in your hands. There are lots of other great books by such authors as Ansel Adams, Joe McNally and Scott Kelby that are absolutely worth reading.
In addition to traditional books, there is a wealth of information online. Here are the sites I visit regularly and learn a lot from (in no particular order):
There are many more websites on the Internet that provide lots of useful information and I’m sure you will find your own favorites soon.
Photography is not about the gear, but about how you take pictures. Most professional photographers will agree with that, since there are way too many people out there that think great pictures are only possible with expensive equipment. You may own a Mamiya or a Hasselblad with the best and fastest lens available and still make crappy pictures nobody likes. Again, a camera is just a tool in your bag – it is your creativity that produces great looking photographs.
I hope this guide helps you in picking your first DSLR and please let me know if you have any comments or questions.
We now have an interactive tool that helps selecting DSLR cameras – see our “DSLR Camera Purchase Guide“.
If you have enjoyed this article, please check out our in-depth Level 1 Photography Basics Course, where we explore all the basics of photography in much more detail. It is an intensive, 5+ hour course with enough material to not only get you started today, but also to serve as a reference material in the future.