The Beginner’s Guide to Buying a DSLR
What DSLR should I get? That is one of the most common questions I hear, and with this post, I’m hoping to help you answer that question.
If you already have a DLSR and you’re looking for an upgrade, you can probably skip this. Then again, you might as well read this – somebody is bound to ask you the same question some day.
Getting back to the point, if you’re buying your first DSLR, which one should you get? To answer that, you have to ask yourself quite a few more questions. Keep in mind that we won’t be discussing any specific brand or model. Instead, we’ll be asking questions that will help you figure out which camera to get.
Also keep in mind that image quality probably won’t be an issue here. Almost all DSLRs in the market today will perform similarly. Yes, some will be better than others, but if this is your first DSLR, the biggest issue will be how much better it performs than your current point-and-shoot.
How much are you willing to spend immediately?
I’ll ask the question again, how much are you willing to spend immediately? When you buy a DSLR, you’re not just buying a camera – you’re buying into a whole system of lenses, lights, and other gear. A camera and a lens are all you may be getting now, but eventually, you’ll be spending quite a bit more on two or three lenses, a flash or two, and quite a few other things. That being said, we’re trying to figure out which kit you’ll be getting now.
Put simply – if you can’t afford it, then don’t even consider buying it. On the other hand, if you can afford it, it’s something you should probably consider.
Check online. Check your local retailers. Check the 2nd hand market. Find out what options you have available and list them down. DSLRs don’t come cheap, so finding out what your options are is definitely a good idea.
Once you know what your options are, then you can ask yourself the next question.
How big are your hands?
I know it might seem like a strange question, but let me explain first.
The major players in the industry have DSLRs that come in different sizes. One player seems to be focused on making smaller cameras, but for the most part, cameras come in three basic sizes: small, medium, and large. Quite conveniently, these sizes usually correspond to three classes of cameras: entry-level or consumer, enthusiast (sometimes called pro-sumer), and professional. Not surprisingly, their prices also fit into similar categories: expensive, very expensive, and I-can-buy-a-@$#%-car-for-that-price.
If you’ve got tiny hands, then you’ll probably end up with a small, entry-level camera. You might be able to afford something better, but if that’s what feels comfortable in your hands, it’s likely the one you’ll enjoy using more. It may not have the latest and greatest set of features, but since technology trickles down, the latest entry-level camera still has quite a few tricks up its sleeve.
If you’ve got big hands and a small budget, don’t fret. If you want the latest model but can only afford a small camera, squeezing a little more out of your budget to add a battery grip could work for you. If you’re willing to buy used or refurbished, you can upgrade to one of the bigger cameras – you won’t have the latest technology, but you’ll have something that feels comfortable in your hands.
Look around and check out a few camera stores. Get your hands on some different cameras and see how they feel. At this point, size is pretty much your main concern – you want to figure out which cameras feel right in your hands, as well as your budget. When you figure this out, then you can come up with a shortlist.
What do others say about your choices?
You know which cameras feel good in your hands, but you don’t know how well they actually work yet. This is when you gather reviews from others. Ask your friends, check online, bug your neighbor, harass your local camera store clerk, and check out the local photography club. Others can tell you what they like and don’t like about the cameras on your list. Of course, you should still take whatever they say with a grain of salt.
You can also check out, not just what people say, but what they do with the cameras you want. Flickr has a nifty little tool they call the Camera Finder which lets you look for images taken by a certain brand or model of camera. You probably won’t see any significant differences between different cameras, but it will definitely prove one thing – not getting the latest and greatest model won’t keep you from taking great images. Like I mentioned earlier, practically all DSLRs today will give you much better image quality than your current camera.
This is very important – what systems are your friends and family using?
Like I mentioned, when you buy an SLR, you’re not just buying a camera. I strongly suggest getting something that lets you share equipment with people in your circle. You’ll probably start out with only one body and one lens, but if you buy the same brand that some of your friends have, then you immediately have quite a few toys to play with. Of course, this assumes that they trust you enough to be lend you some of their toys.
Of course, you won’t always be mooching off others. Eventually, you’ll fill up your gear bag with other goodies that you can share with them too. Before that though, comes another advantage of sharing a system with friends and family: the chance to test gear out before buying. If, for example, one of your colleagues at work has a new wide-angle lens that you’ve been reading about, you can try it out yourself before you decide to buy one. If you don’t want to go that far, you can at least grill him extensively about how well a certain piece of equipment performs – online reviews can only say so much, after all.
Yet another advantage of sharing a system with others is the potential for sales and trades. You can see your friends treat their equipment, and they can see how you care for your gear too. Should a friend decide to sell a lens you’ve been thinking about buying, you can get a pretty good idea of the condition it’s in, and consequently, how much it’s really worth. You could also get a friend’s discount, or maybe some other deal. Also, if you decide to unload any of your gear, you might have some ready buyers immediately.
At this point you’ve probably trimmed your list down to one or two choices, and this is the point where I give you some actual advice on what gear to get. Here it is: whatever model you choose, get the kit lens.
Yes, I know there are some who will argue that the kit lens isn’t that great. They will insist on getting expensive lenses that, admittedly, perform significantly better than the usual kit lens. I’m telling you to ignore them.
Right now, you don’t know what the kit lens can do yet, so don’t knock it. Right now, you don’t know what kind of lenses you’ll want. Heck, right now, you don’t know what you can do with your (future) DSLR yet. What the kit lens will do is allow you to do a little bit of everything. It won’t be that great at anything, but it’ll still do a pretty good job. It’s not the fastest lens, but it’ll work for most of your needs. It’s just wide enough to give you a wide angle, and just long enough to give you a little telephoto. When you learn what you want that your kit lens isn’t giving you, then you spend more on other gear. For now though, stick with the kit.
Ok, I’ll backtrack a little on this point. One lens you might want to consider getting immediately is a nifty-fifty. Most manufacturers, or at least the two biggest players, have a 50mm f/1.8 (we’ll get to lens nomenclature some other time) that’s just cheap enough to be worth buying immediately. Aside from this though, I’m telling you – stick with the kit lens!
I think that pretty much covers it. To those of you thinking of buying a DSLR, I hope I helped you out.
To the rest of you, if you’ve got some tips that I missed, please leave a comment and tell me about it.
• Luis • 10 July 2009 •