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BUYING YOUR FIRST SLR
By Vandit Kalia
Updated November 2009

In this article, I've tried to find a fine balance between being objective and yet offering enough opinions to actually reach a conclusion that is a little more helpful that "they are all good". Valid though that assertion is, I think in hindsight that this is quite frustrating to someone looking for advice. After all, experienced shooters buy based on some criteria - why not share those criteria?

So what I have done is first provide the foundation for a whereby YOU can decide which camera is best for you, based on your specific needs. Then, I provide a few short-cuts which can help you reach a decision with a lot less effort on your part (which is a good thing - people make a camera purchase decision far more complicated than it needs to be).

TThis article will (hopefully) help you decide which DSLR to get.

One thing I will repeat from that article: there is no *single* camera that is right for everyone. Really. If there was, everyone would be buying it.

Which brand?

Nothing is calculated to incite greater zeal than an argument on which brand is better – Canon or Nikon. My only comment on that to repeat a quote by Phil Greenspun, of www.photo.net, which I came across a while ago and which has stayed with me since. Roughly paraphrased, it goes: “Go to any camera forums, and you’ll see that it is primarily beginners and gear-heads who argue over which brand is better. The slightly more experienced photographers (and gearheads as well) obsess about which lens is better. The most experienced photographers and pros fret about accessories like lens plates, ballheads and such.”

This is a very telling – and very accurate – quote.

Most experienced photographers realize that unless you have some specialized needs (big money telephotos, multiple flash setups, etc.), all the big brands make camera systems that let you translate your vision into reality. I have a Canon system right now, but if you took it away and gave me an all-Nikon system, I would still be able to take the photos I take (and make the same screw-ups that I do now). I might have to adjust my approach a little, and I might find it easier to do some things and harder to do others, but in terms of the end results, I'd get more or less the same results.

Honesty does compel me to say that at this stage in the DSLR world, Canon and Nikon do stand out ahead of the pack when it comes to digital camera bodies and also lenses. However, I should clarify that this difference really holds for advanced and professional users who are looking for cutting edge (read: expensive) performance - the kind that comes from $5000 bodies and lenses. Most hobbyists will find Pentax, Olympus and Sony (formerly Minolta) can also serve their purposes really well.

If anything, because they are smaller, these second-tier maufacturers - Pentax, Sony and Olympus - actually offer a lot more innovation in their bodies and a better price/performance ratio. For the general shooter, who likes to photograph a bit of everything, they offer really good options.

One thing that levels the playing field significantly for the second tier of manufactureres (Pentax, Sony, Olympus) is the coming of age of third party lens manufacturers. Over the last couple of years, Sigma, Tokina and Tamron have made lenses that are optically just as good as the Canon and Nikon equivalents - and cost a lot less, to boot. And these come in all mounts – including Pentax, Minolta and now even Olympus. That ameliorates the gap in lens line-up significantly.

So the big conclusion is: unless you are planning to spend tens of thousands of dollars in a camera system, you really cannot go wrong with any brand.

How many megapixels do you need?

Short answer: given that all DSLRs have atleast 10-12MP these days, it doesn't matter. Really.

Long answer: I have 20x30s made from a 6MP 10D. They look amazing. The trick is to shoot RAW, and then upsize. The armchair theorists (are there any other kind?) point out that up-sizing "creates" information and cannot be as good as more resolution. I cannot argue with the theory, nor do I care to. I do know that up-ressed A3 sizes prints come out absolutely spectacular with 6MP captures - and up-ressed 20x30s that appear tack sharp when viewed from a normal distance. So to all intents and purposes, 6MP + RAW gives you all the resolution that you need for most real world prints. Now, I do capture a lot more detail on my 21MP 5DMk2 - and you also gain the ability to crop images and yet make large prints... but if you are a beginner, how often will you be doing that?

All else being equal, a few MP more is always a better - but all else rarely is equal. And that takes us to our next topic....

What? There is more to a camera than just megapixels?

Yes, sirreebob, there is indeed more to a camera than just megapixels. The most obvious one is noise, especially at higher ISOs. Noise is the digital equivalent of "grain" and forms a sort of static background to every image. In virtually every DSLR today, noise is not an issue in the ISO100-400 range. From ISO 800 onwards, noise performance starts to differ, with different cameras providing different noise characteristics.

Why all this hoopla about noise anyway? Simply put - an image with less noise appears cleaner and crisper when blown up. So apparent image quality is determined not just by the number of megapixels but also by the noise levels of the sensor – in other words, it ain’t just resolution. Also, it is worth noting that a little noise isnt a bad thing - it gives a feeling of texture and avoids that "plasticy" look that results from over-zealous application of noise reduction.

Now keep in mind that inherent noise level in the sensor and perceived noise in the image are different things. Some cameras apply pretty aggressive noise reduction software internally to make the perceived noise appear low. I prefer to have a camera that does little to no noise reduction processing in-camera, as I'd rather fix the noise levels in Photoshop myself.

f you plan to shoot in RAW mode and post-process all images yourself (recommended for maximum quality and pretty much essential if you want to extract top-quality poster-sized prints), then you don’t really care for the noise levels shown in JPEGs or what the camera does - what you care about is how well you can clean up the noise in Photoshop. This is what led me to buy a Panasonic LX-1: noise, while prevalent in JPEGs, was a non-issue in RAW processing. On the other hand, if you plan to shoot in JPEG mode (faster workflow and if you get it right in-camera, you get results that are virtually identical to RAW for prints up to A4 or even A3) , then you want to compare final results as provided by the camera.

While noise can be cleaned up really well in post-processing, as described above, it does tend to have an impact on resolution. So more pixels may not always give you better quality if noise is significantly higher. At some point, cramming too many megapixels into a given sensor will increase noise levels, regardless of technology advances – and this will yield a worse-looking print. However, at this point, DSLRs have not reached this stage yet - each new generation is offering more megapixels and lesser noise as of now.

The specs no one talks about, but should

Sooner or later, all photographers come across a scene where the dynamic range (the difference between the brightest and darkest parts of the scene) is too much for their sensor to capture. The eyes record the difference well enough, but on taking the shot, either the whites are washed out or the shadows go black, losing all detail. Welcome to the dynamic range limitations of the sensor or film. More dynamic range is good - it lets you reproduce what you saw more faithfully, without resorting to use of filters or extensive Photoshop post-processing. The captured dynamic range ultimately plays a very vital role in determining the impact of your image - yet how often have you heard it being stressed by any manufacturer?

What about speed, reliability and usability of auto-focus? Every manufacturer stresses the number of auto-focus points on their cameras - which sounds great but means nothing if you cannot change between those AF points quickly and seamlessly, without any fumbling around. Also, switching the AF point means nothing if the AF mechanism is too slow. Manufacturers do not talk about these aspects much, probably because it is harder to quantify into a catchy spec sheet, but you should!

While on the topic of usability and ergonomics - how easy is it to manually set the exposure on the body (either in manual mode, or by dialing in exposure compensation)? Is it something that takes a while or is it something that you can do quickly? While you can rely on the camera's exposure settings most of the times, the best shots are often made in tricky lighting and in these situations, you may want to modify the camera's suggested settings. A camera with intuitive ergonomics means that you are less likely to miss a shot while trying to do this. This is especially true if you are trying to capture the “decisive moment.” I’d happily go with a few less focusing points, even a slightly slower frame rate and a megapixel or two less, if that means a camera which is intuitive to use. After all, what use is having a lot of extra features if you cannot get the basics (exposure and focus) right? Yet how many of us take the time to compare bodies and take practice shots with them, in order to get a feel for these things?

Ergonomics are a big reason why I will never buy an SLR with a single control dial – to set exposure, you need to set 2 variables – aperture and shutter. Whether you do so in manually, or by dialing in exposure compensation to the camera’s suggested settings is unimportant: the only thing that matters is that you should be able to set the exposure to what you think is appropriate. For me, one dial simply doesn’t cut it for wildlife work. If you plan to do slower-paced shooting, one dial may be fine. Heck, if you are better coordinated than me at pushing small buttons, you may be able to manage with a single dial even for fast-paced action. Point is – you need to decide what works for you. Get out there and try the body out - see what it feels like in your hand. Practically speaking, this is the single biggest area of difference between various bodies and if one camera is going to jump out as being better, it will be here.

Other specs to consider (or ignore)

Burst rate & buffer size – Burst rate refers to how many shots a second the camera takes, while buffer size refers to the number of consecutive shots that can be taken before the camera needs to stop and write the shots to memory. These vary for RAW and JPEG, so take that into account if you are a RAW shooter. Equally important, what happens after the camera reaches this limit? Does it still let you take more shots, albeit at a slower pace? Or does it block you out entirely until all the previously shot images are processed? These are questions you need answered if you are planning to shoot action sequences, wildlife, sports, etc. 4-5fps is good enough for most wildlife (and at a pinch, you can get by with 3fps if you are an occasional wildlife shooter).

On-board flash – I have changed my mind about this. I used to consider on-board flashes useless, but they can come handy with portraits sometimes, especially for casual use. And since all entry-level cameras have them anyway, this point is moot.

Picture modes – Do yourself a favor, buy a couple of books on camera basics, and ignore those various picture modes (night, landscape, sports, etc.). Learning the basics of the technical stuff (aperture, shutter, exposure) is quite easy actually, especially now that digital gives you instant feedback of what you've done.

Mirror lock-up – by letting you lock up the mirror prior to taking a shot, this feature eliminates vibrations caused by the SLR mirror moving at the time of taking a shot (this is especially noticable in the 1/5-1/15 second shutter speed range). It is quite useful for landscape work, and not so useful for candids, action, wildlife, sports.

Size of viewfinder – personally, I am not too bothered by the size and magnification of the viewfinder as I rarely use manual focus (see my article on the Art of Autofocus for tips on how to get AF right). But if you like manual focusing, then you’ll appreciate a bigger, brighter screen.

Weather-sealing – this is nice to have if you have extra money lying around. Personally, I don’t give a toss about weather sealing. Weather sealing only is effective if both your camera body and your lenses are sealed – and a 50 cent trash bag does a fantastic job of keeping your camera and lens rain free.

Weight and robustness - All-metal bodies are great to hold, but ever tried carrying hiking long distances or even walking all day in the city with a 1-series Canon or its ilk? There is a reason I go through a procession of compact digicams, trying to find the perfect complement to an SLR. Light is better, at least for my needs. I don’t plan to drop my gear, and I’d rather avoid the daily aggravation of extra weight and take my chances with dropping a so-called “flimsier” polycarbonate body. And besides, a metal body is no guarantee that your delicate sensor, electronics and mirrors will be ok if you drop a body. Don't believe me? Well, what are crash helmets made of? Hint: it isn’t metal.

Spot meter – With histograms, the need for careful and laborious spot metering is no longer needed. Simply take a test shot and adjust exposure accordingly – if you have time to spot meter a scene, you have time to take a test shot. I know this will shock purists, but hey, a tool is a tool. You don’t use long multiplication anymore, do you? The hard part in photography is figuring out the aesthetics - the technical side is relatively easy to master (and no, using the green mode doesn't qualify as mastery). Complaining about the "dumbing down" of the technical part (like metering and focusing) is akin to saying that a scientist who uses a computer to perform a calculation is not a real scientist because he relies on automation. My feeling is: why not use the most efficient tool for the job that you can? Personally, I have *never* used a spot meter since switching to digital and have never had a frame ruined by my treason.

Flash sync speed - Nature photographers, specially those who plan to do macro, or those interested in freeze-action photography will want a camera with higher sync speeds. This feature is only really used by experienced photogaphers, so it is quite likely that it doesn't mean much to you (and trying to explain the fundamentals of flash photography is really outside the scope of this article). If you plan to use a flash, try to get a sync speed of atleast 1/200 - faster is better.

Putting it all together

Ok, so now you know what the various features of an SLR are. Great, but that really hasn’t gotten you any closer to deciding which one to get, has it?

Well, the unfortunate news is no one can recommend a single camera for you. What you need to do is start by figuring out what you plan to shoot – someone interested in wildlife is going to have different needs from someone interested in street photography or commercial photography or landscapes or portraiture. Also think of your end goal – small prints, big prints, web display, professional sales, gallery displays, etc.?

This will give you a list of “must have” and “nice to have” features that you should look for in your chosen system.

Then try to predict what your camera system development path is going to be. How much do you plan to spend now, and do you plan to add to your system later? $1000 to spend now with more to spend later is going to result in a different plan of action than $1000 to spend now with no more expenditure later. Keep in mind that unless you have an immense budget, you will have to make some compromises. My explanation of the various features should help you decide which ones are important to you, and which ones are not.

A few general suggestions I have, carried over from the previous version of this article: if you are buying a camera to use as a higher-quality point and shoot, get the entry level DSLR in the manufacturer's line. If you are looking at photography as a creative, involved hobby in which you are going to spend time and effort in developing your skills, get atleast the mid-range bodies. If you are a pro and are reading this article for advice, it is time to consider a new profession.

If you need more help, there are plenty of forums where you can ask for help. But try asking questions that will clarify your own needs and/or the value of specific attributes – and then reach your own conclusion. This works better than asking “what camera should I get.”

However, I still get a lot of emails asking for help in summarizing all the above. As a short-cut, I am going to make some specific budget/category recommendations below:

"Better than my P&S" - The SLR for people who just want to take better shots, not get into technicalities

So you have a P&S, but the pictures aren't all that great. Or maybe the zoom range isn't so special. You want something better, but by damn, all you want to do is just take photos, not take a course, read books, attend college or fiddle around with gadgets and manuals.

Your choices are easy - all the big manufacturers make excellent entry level SLRs. Canon has the its Rebel (1000D) series, Nikon has the D40x, Pentax,Sony & Olympus also have bodies targeting this segment. These cameras come with a good range of auto-exposure options and include a handy zoom lens packaged as part of the kit. Buy the body that is easiest for you to handle and operate. Or buy the body that you find the most appealing, visually. Or buy the camera body that is on sale. It doesn't really matter - any of them will do the job.

As I discuss in my Starter Lenses article, this kit zoom lens is a decent enough lens to get you off and shooting (especially as it costs next to nothing as part of the kit), but it isn't necessarily the best lens out there. Shoot with it and see if you are happy with the results - if you'd like to upgrade, you can get better quality lenses, as well as broader range of focal lengths, starting at $200 or so.

A Learning Tool - The SLR for people who want to learn photography

Typically, the standard recommendation for beginner photographers (not casual snapshooters) is to "get the entry level SLR." For people who want to learn photography, I strongly feel that this is not the best advice.

Why? Because they are geared towards people that use them in full-auto mode, entry-level SLRs do not provide for a full range of manual controls - and whatever manual controls they do provide are very awkward and clunky to use. As a result, once you learn the basics, you'll tend to outgrow thse cameras very quickly.

You'll be frustrated by how inconvenient it is to over-ride the camera's automatic settings (and if you are serious about photography, you'll need to do that quite often, believe me). You'll miss the ability to select auto-focus mode, metering mode and shooting mode independently. As your skills progress, you'll also miss several advanced features like mirror lock-up, depth-of-field preview and more.

People who are interested in learning photography and need a camera that will grow with them should look into the mid-range "prosumer" bodies, targeted at serious amateurs, that all the manufacturers have on offer. As of right now, Canon and Nikon have 2 bodies in this category. These are the 50D and the 500D for Canon, and the D90/D300 for Nikon. The lower end of these are for casual hobbyists, and the upper end of these bodies are good enough for professional use in some cases.

You should look for features like depth of field preview and ease of operation, especially when it comes to exposure compensation, focus lock, exposure lock and auto-focus point selection. Optional but nice-to-have features include: mirror lock-up, spot-meter and rear-curtain flash sync. One "luxury", which is in fact a great productivity booster, is the availability of custom features on these mid-end bodies: these let you customize the settings and buttons of the camera to fit your preferences.

Yes, these cameras a little more expensive than the entry level cameras, but they will last you a long time.

People stress the importance of "camera systems", but unless you have specialised needs (see below), any of the five - Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Olympus & Sony have a more than ample range of lenses to meet the needs of all general hobbyists. Don't fall into the trap of Canon or Nikon only - look over your needs and you may find that the smaller three may have what you need, and at prices lower than Canon and Nikon's. And don't let anyone tell you that their lenses are not as good: that is simply not true..

The Specialised Tool - The SLR for people who have specialised needs

Special body requirements might include high-speed auto-focus, a fast motor-drive or super ruggedness - features useful to action, wildlife or extreme photographers. These features are typically found in the pro bodies offered by the manufacturers.

Specialised needs may also require special lenses or accessories: so if you have a special interest, such as architecture, close-ups, etc., do check to make sure that your system provides the lens or accessory needed for this purpose and at prices you can afford. That last part bears remembering: there is no point choosing Canon because of its 600mm image stabilized lens, if you wil never spend the $7,000 it takes to get one. You may be better served getting a Nikon or Pentax body, which will work with a wider range of older, manual-focus but affordable super telephotos. Sounds obvious, but I know many people who seem to have missed this concept.

If you think you may want to specialize in some area later but are not sure, and are worried about making the wrong decision, don't worry about it - even for specialized needs, the gap between manufacturers is minimal. As your interests grow, your camera system will evolve and your initial camera will in no way, shape or form hold you back.

FINAL CONSIDERATIONS

Find a category above that fits you. Go to a store and try the various options. Ignore the salesperson if he says "camera A is better than camera B" a a general statement. Camera A may indeed be better than camera B in one specific area or the other, but the key word is *specific*. Broad generalizations about A being better than B are either due to ignorance or sales bias.

In the end, buy the camera that feels "right" in your hand - sits comfortably, has proper sized buttons, easy to access dials, etc. If more than one camera feels right, buy the cheaper of the two and save your money.

I will re-iterate - the reason it is so hard to decide on which camera is better is because the gap between cameras is very small... small enough to be inconsequential. So you really cannot make a bad decision. Get that purchase over with, and go take photos instead.

 
     

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