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Buying a DSLR Camera
Taking the step from point-and-shoot to DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex) camera can be intimidating. Choosing a camera body, then working out which DSLR lenses are best for you and your photography style, is overwhelming.
I recently made the jump after being asked to take some print-publishable photos. My choices are explained below - matching my photography style.
But I've also included many questions and tips to help make your DSLR buying decisions easier - these were the questions I asked, and tips I followed to reach my decisions.
Choosing a DSLR brand
Both Canon and Nikon have a wide range of lenses available, including good macro and zoom lenses. Although Canon is often rated better for the strong zoom lenses (300mm and higher), used for wildlife photography.
I previously had a Canon Powershot S3 IS, with fantastic image stabilization, a great super-macro function and good zoom range. I was familiar with Canon's menu structure, so I knew the learning curve would be slightly less than if I switched brands.
But, most importantly for me, Canon's image stabilization is reportedly the best between all of the main brands. I shake a lot when taking photos, so a good system that compensates for my shakiness is a must-have.
Anti-shake does not necessarily mean image stabilisation - the ISO is usually increased to get a faster shutter speed (thereby reducing the 'shake').
If you need image stabilisation - test different cameras to see which system (in-body or in-lens), and which brand's technology works best for you.
When choosing a brand
- Are you already comfortable with a camera manufacturer's menu system and camera functions?
- Do you want to have the widest range of lenses available? (Canon / Nikon)
- Do you want to photograph birds or wildlife from extreme distances? (Canon)
- Do you need strong image stabilisation? (Both Canon and Nikon have in-lens images stabilisation, Sony, Pentax and other brands sometimes have in-camera stabilisation)
Tip: Set a budget
You will need to spend on a camera body and one or more lenses, plus accessories, so the costs can add up quickly. Setting a limit is the best way to make your choices easier!
Even though I had set a rough limit, the lenses I chose pushed me far over. That's before I've purchased the extra lens to complete my set!
Choosing a DSLR camera body
DSLR camera bodies typically go out of date in a couple of years, with upgraded and new models being released from most of the major camera manufacturers.
Sensors are improved, functions are added, and camera bodies become lighter with larger back viewing screens.
Tip: Don't immediately go for the highest megapixels - most DSLR cameras have very high megapixel (MP) counts, much better than most film DLSRs!
Full frame (FX lens)
Full frame (EF lens)
Full frame (α lens)
Crop sensor - 1.52x (DX lens)
Crop sensor - 1.3x (EF-S lens)
Crop sensor - 1.52x (DT lens)
Crop sensor - 1.6x (EF-S lens)
Full frame vs crop sensor
One choice you should make early on is which image sensor format you want to use.
Full frame sensors are much better for professional photography, especially when printing photos as posters.
Full-frame sensors are equivalent to 35mm print film, whereas the crop sensors keep the middle of the photo and 'throw away' the outside edges to varying degrees.
Crop factor explained
Full frame sensors are better for wide-angle, whereas crop sensors allow you to zoom in a little more with telephoto lenses.
Wildlife and sports photographers may like crop-sensor cameras to get the extra zoom distance, whereas landscape photographers prefer full frame cameras.
- Full frame lenses work on crop sensor cameras, but lenses designed for crop sensor bodies can damage full frame camera sensors - the back of the crop lens is much closer to the sensor.
- Full frame cameras are typically much more expensive than crop sensors. As I decided to spend more on my lenses, and less on the camera body, I was looking at the 1.6x crop variety.
Camera ergonomics - a comfortable grip
I had two DSLR camera bodies in mind when I started my search - Canon's new Rebel T4i (650D) or their older 7D. They both have the same sensor, but the software in the T4i is much improved with a strong focus on video.
When I held both of the cameras, I found the T4i fit my hand perfectly. None of my fingers mashed unintentionally against buttons when gripping the camera. Plus, the T4i had the rotating screen, which I loved on my old Powershot S3 IS.
The 7D fit in my hand less well, and was much heavier, something that I wanted to avoid as I get sore hands easily.
Other features to look for in a digital SLR camera body
- high-speed shooting (burst mode and fast shutter speeds) for sport and action shots.
- good microphone and an autofocus (AF) that tracks your subject when shooting video.
- a good back screen (rotatable) - lets you shoot even when holding the camera far away from your eyes!
- a large range of ISO settings - useful for low-light photography.
- a range of 'auto' modes - automatically chooses good camera settings for night, portrait, landscape, macro, sports, and more.
- a good, pop-over built in flash - a non-powerful flash is as good as having none, as is one that casts shadows because it doesn't pop up high enough above the camera body.
Tips when choosing a camera body
- Decide what sensor type suits you - full frame or crop.
- Go to a store and hold the camera. Note where your fingers rest, if you can access the buttons easily. Will you get tired from the weight, or is the body of the camera putting extra pressure on a sensitive spot?
- If you want the camera for travelling, a lighter crop-sensor camera body and a flexible kit lens may be a good choice.
Note: The new mirror-less/micro four-thirds (mFT) and other 'third generation' cameras, with interchangeable lenses are often favoured by travellers because they are light and flexible, although some report a much lower image quality.
What you want to photograph will influence your camera choice
- Macro, portraits, food and night shots - you need a good ISO range for low light.
- Wildlife / sports - you need very fast shutter speeds, with a burst mode, and possibly weather sealing to protect against moisture, dust and sand.
- Concerts - both a high ISO range and very fast shutter speeds to capture action in low light.
- Landscape - very high pixel count for producing high quality, large prints, and a good ISO range. You may also want to have built-in HDR capabilities.
- Travel - something light, easy to travel with, and robust.
- Video - some DSLR cameras these days can shoot HD video with good quality sound capture and an auto-focus that can track your subject.
Tips for new DSLR owners
Camera gear review sites
Read lots of reviews both by professional photographers, and on Amazon, but always take them with a grain of salt.
Look at the sample pictures taken with various lenses, especially on sites that discuss the negative points of the cameras.
DPReview - the go-to site for in-depth reviews and same photos. They are a little slow in reviewing newer gear though!
Ken Rockwell - with reviews of many lenses and cameras, both pro-level and consumer level, although he does seem to prefer Nikon. He provides many sample photos, using the same subject matter - great for making comparisons!
Digital Photography School - with many free tutorials and reviews of gear from both enthusiasts and professional photographers. They also have an easy to follow, excellent guide to going professional with your photography, with tips covering both gear and publishing.
The Digital Picture - equipment buying guides focusing on photography style. With a definite focus on Canon gear, with much less detail in the Nikon reviews.
DSLR camera accessoires
I'm still adding accessories, but doing it slowly, researching each addition thoroughly. This is where a lot of the budget can 'disappear' to if you aren't careful.
- Software - management and editing software that can handle large raw files is a must, such as Photoshop Lightroom, Corel Aftershot Pro, or Apple Aperture.
The free Gimp may handle raw files from older cameras, but it can't yet deal with mine.
- Bag(s) - the search for the perfect bag is the bane of photographers everywhere. Lowepro are considered one of the best protective brands for camera bags.
It's best to see the bags in person, before you make a decision though!
- Hand-strap - to reduce fatigue when gripping the camera, especially as I usually walk around with my camera in my hand (not around my neck).
- Cleaning kits - sensor cleaning kits, including an air-blower and wet sensor cleaning swabs are a must.
- Tripod - I have a Gorillapod, which is fine when I can use a tabletop and my macro lens, but I'll need something taller and stronger for the zoom lens, but light enough to take hiking.
A full sized tripod is a must for landscape photography, and possibly for portraits.
- Flash units and other lighting equipment - stand alone flashes that can be positioned around the room and controlled remotely can help when taking portrait or other photos indoors.
- Extra batteries and memory cards - these let you take photographs for longer, especially important when travelling.
Perhaps more important than buying the camera body
Choosing the right DSLR lenses!
Once you have chosen your camera body, you need to choose which lenses are right for you.
Follow this guide to buying the right digital SLR lenses - it could stop you from making the wrong decisions, save you time and money!
Your experiences and tips
How did you decide on your camera body when you upgraded from a point and shoot to a DSLR?
Did you buy any accessories you haven't used?
Let us know in the comments below!