How to Buy the Right DSLR Camera

April 27, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Before reading this post you may want to read this previous post:
How to Buy the Right Pocket Camera which includes what "basic" features and functions to consider when buying a camera.

Things to Consider When Buying a DSLR Camera.

What's More Important the Camera or Your Lenses?

Price range has to come first. But this is not a simple issue.  Because you are considering a DSLR, the most important feature isn’t the camera.  It’s the lenses that you will use.  By far, over the years you will spend more money on lenses than on camera bodies, unless you’re a sucker for every camera ad in the magazine.  So first choose which manufacturer’s lenses you want to use.  This decision will lock you into a brand for many years.  Once you own half a dozen lenses, it’s very hard to divorce the brand for the latest new feature from the competition.  None of your existing lenses will fit onto the new brand, and you will have to spend a fortune to make the switch (just like real life, isn’t it?). 

Camera Bodies Come and Go But Your Lenses are Forever

Now here’s the good news. Having chosen a brand, the same lenses, with some minor exceptions, will fit onto all of that manufacture’s bodies.  And to add to the excitement, lower priced bodies often have most of the features you’ll want.  The expensive “advanced amateur” and “professional” camera bodies emphasize materials, such as magnesium instead of aluminum; water and dirt protection; and specialized functions, like very high bursts of images within a few seconds.  These are essential for shooting Amazon wildlife, but are not that useful at Disney World.

Camera Bodies

First, let’s talk about the three levels of bodies that may be available from a manufacturer.  

  • Consumer: This is the low end, characterized by lots of plastic and cool sounding names.  The insides will often use the same sensor, microprocessor and features found on the higher end models.  So what’s the difference?  Don’t drop it!  The professional who spent $8,000 for his camera body expects that it will take a reasonable amount of abuse.  If you get an $800 model, don’t expect much sympathy from the customer relations hot-line after you chase your camera bouncing down to the Colorado River from the top of the Grand Canyon.

  • Advanced Amateur or Pro-sumer:   This middle level is preferred by the serious hobbyists and most professionals.  Bodies in the group are found in the $2,000 to $4,000 range.   They have more metal instead of plastic, better sealing from the elements, and will often be the first group to offer the latest features.  But since most of the money that a manufacturer gets is from the consumer group, they soon are forced to include the new gizmos in those cameras also, usually within a year.

  • Professional: This group top of the line and not for us.  How do I know?  Because, if you are a professional who needs an $8,000 camera body, you are not reading this.  You work for National Geographic, and you probably got you editor to cough up the money anyway.  

How to Approach Buying a DSLR

So now, let’s consider the approach to use in buying a DSLR.  I’ll assume we are interested in consumer or advanced amateur models.   If you really like photography, I mean like as in, “I’ll be getting up at three AM, dear to shoot the pigeons at sunrise”, like photography.  Then you may want to consider advanced amateur models from Canon or Nikon.  For the past twenty years, these two manufactures have been dueling for the professional and semi-pro market to the point that few professionals use any other brand.  These companies have the money to develop new and better lens designs, more feature laden camera bodies, and the marketing to keep the cash flowing.   Use a Nikon or Canon and you will get the best quality for your money, period.  That said, don’t think that these two are your only choices.  There are awesome cameras and lenses coming from a dozen other manufacturers.  If another brand feels right to you, go for it.  Just remember, whatever your choice, you’re getting married to it and a divorce can be expensive.  

Starter Lenses and Your Camera Body

Oh yes… money is the key word.  The top lenses are expensive, as well as the latest bodies.  But over the long haul, investing in any of the top brands will serve you well, indeed.  If this is your desire, I suggest starting with a good zoom lens in the moderate wide-angle to moderate telephoto range, perhaps 24mm – 70mm.   Later you could augment this with a longer telephoto zoom such as a 70mm – 200mm.   Next buy the body.  This is less of a decision since it is meant to last just a few years until you wish to get a newer model with the latest features.  Here price is the most useful factor.  Since you spent a good deal of money on a quality lens, get whatever the checkbook will allow for the body. 

Beware of the Camera "Bundle"

Notice I didn’t suggest that you get a body and lens together as a set.   These “bundles” are inviting, however the lenses included are usually of a poorer quality.  Although, in all honesty, I have a couple and use them often.   The main reason I suggest that you buy the body and lens separately is to choose the high quality lens.  This will last your lifetime, and then you can pass it on to one of the kids.  Professionals often say, “Put your money in the glass”.   Only go for the bundle if money is too tight to opt for the good lens just now.  The “kit” lens from the bundled set will serve you well until you can afford to upgrade.

Stabilization Feature: Camera Body vs. Your Lens

The features desirable in a DSLR are not very different from the pocket cameras.   You want at least eight megapixels, a quality LCD screen, and image stabilization.  How that stabilization is achieved is something you need to consider.  The process of stabilizing the image has taken two divergent paths.  Some manufacturers, such as Canon have chosen to put the stabilizing mechanics into their lenses.  The disadvantage of this approach is that a little more money is added onto the cost of each lens with this feature.   Other manufacturers put the mechanism into the body.  This means that you pay only once and all of your lenses will produce stabilized images.  

So why pay for stabilization in your lens?  Because only if the stabilization is in the lens can its affect be seen in the viewfinder, a very good feature for long telephoto work.  Stabilization in the camera body is only apparent once the picture has been taken and can be viewed on the LCD screen or in a print.  There is also a case to be made that having the stabilization in each lens means you achieve the optimum stabilization for that particular lens configuration. 

So which way should you go?  Again it depends on all of the other factors I mentioned earlier.  If you choose Canon for their optics, you have to accept the fact that you will pay for image stabilization when you buy lenses.  If you like Olympus, (a great consumer brand, by the way), you have to accept that their stabilization is in the body, and won’t be seen through the viewfinder before the picture is taken.

Weighting in on Camera Weight.

Like the pocket cameras, a DSLR should feel good in your hands.  As the price increases, so does the weight.  This is due to more glass with wider maximum apertures, metal bodies instead of plastic, and add-on options such as vertical grips with extra capacity battery chambers.  The result is that most professionals have developed large biceps or hire Sherpa footmen to carry their equipment.  If weight is a discomfort to you, stay with the consumer bodies and less add-on gadgets.

Tips to Get the Most Value When Buying a Consumer Camera.

  1. Now, for those of you who don’t want to break the bank on a lifetime hobby, here are a few tips to get the most value from a consumer level camera.  Lower end DSLR cameras and lenses have come a very long way.  They virtually didn’t exist only a few years ago.  Now they comprise most of the DSLR market and it’s growing.  All this means is more value and lower prices.  Understanding this fact should encourage you to shop around for the best camera to meet your type of photography. 

    I would suggest this setup as a good starting point.  Image stabilization in the body is available in many consumer cameras now.  A zoom lens with a very long range, such as an 18mm to 200mm is a good first step.  Add to that a wide angle in the 10mm to 16mm range for those wide indoor situations, a small camera backpack, and a tripod and the whole deal should run you under $3,000 if you shop around.

  2. One other accessory that you should consider for a DSLR is a 2x tele-converter (sometimes called a tele-extender).  This is an optical device that goes between the camera body and the lens.  It effectively doubles the focal length of any lens attached to it.  So now your 200mm zoom becomes a 400mm.  You would expect to pay in excess of $2,500 for a 400mm lens.  The tele-converter costs under $300.  Great deal, isn’t it?   Well you knew there had to be some catch.  The tele-converter will reduce the amount of light getting to the sensor by 2 stops (or 75%).   So you MUST use a tripod.  And don’t expect auto-focus to work either.  But for a few hundred dollars and a little manual focusing you now have the ability to get a great shot of Keith, or Justin from those cheap seats.

  3. Round off your new camera system with a few filters. 

  • A Circular Polarizer is a must for darkening skies in landscapes.  It really brings out those puffy clouds.  It’s also great for reducing glare on the surface of lakes, streams and other wet scenes such as streets or autumn foliage after a rain.  This greatly improves how the final photograph looks. 

  • A UV filter which reduces ultra-violet light (no big deal) is a great way to protect the front of your expensive lenses.  It won’t reduce the amount of light and costs a lot less to replace than to have scratches removed from your lens.

At the risk of alienating landscape photographers everywhere, here is one of the secret ways to get great daylight shots of those jaw-dropping vistas.   First, let me explain the problem.  Our eyes are very good at quickly switching our concentration to different points within a scene.  As we focus on the foreground with its deep shadows, our eyes quickly open to let in more light.  When we concentrate on the bright sky, with the setting sun bouncing off of the cumulous clouds, our eyes narrow to reduce the light.  As a result, we always see the world in front of us correctly.   Cameras can’t do that.  They take in the entire scene even though the range from darkest shadows to brightest sky is too much for the sensor to handle.  Our pictures, therefore ether have shadows with no detail or skies that are overexposed and all white. 

Graduated Neutral Density filter: Sunglasses for Your Camera

  • The Graduated Neutral Density filter will darken the sky while leaving the foreground as is. These are rectangular filters that are dark at the top and clear at the bottom.  Where the different shades meet in the middle, it is softly faded to eliminate any sharp line showing up in the photo.  Some fanatics buy special square filter holders to accept them.  That is a waste of money and time. 

    Since with a DSLR you see through the lens, just hold the filter in front of the lens (it can touch) and position it so that the dark part covers the sky and the middle is near the horizon.  Than snap the picture.  Put the filter back in its protective case and tuck it into your bag or as I do, my back pocket.  I’ve had many a quizzical stare at my backside because I forgot that my filter was still sticking out of my back pocket as I entered a fancy restaurant or some other formal event.  Graduated Neutral Density Filters are well worth their cost.  I haven’t had that much attention given to my backside since I turned forty.

 4.  Finally, I want to mention the other things that must be in your bag as you leave the store. 

  • Whether you buy a pocket camera or DSLR, you need to get an extra battery.  It’s a well known fact, the only time your battery will die is when you are taking the once-in-a-lifetime shot of Shamu jumping out of the pool and landing on the pretzel stand.  Cold weather also has the effect of draining a battery much faster than in the heat of summer.  So buy an extra battery, keep it charged, and carry it with you. 

  • You should also have a least three memory cards.  I advocate against using large capacity cards.  If they go wrong, or you fumble and drop it into Niagara Falls, you have lost everything from this vacation and also last Christmas, and, Oh Yah, little Samantha’s fifth birthday too.  Get 2GB cards.  They are cheap and they will still allow you to record a few hundred images.  Why three memory cards?   One for the camera, one for your pocket, and one for your wife’s pocket... because you forgot to put the spare in your pocket.  Don’t get cheap on me.  You just spent a lot on a camera, a few more dollars for spare cards is a good idea.

When you get home, plug in the batteries to charge, read the manual, and dream of all of those wonderful three AM trips to photograph the pigeons at dawn.

Related Blog Posts:

The Smart Way to Buy Lenses for Your DSLR

How to Prevent Condensation and Keep Your Expensive Lenses Safe


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Read About Carl's Travels

I've completed a few photo tours of our great country and lived to write about it.   To read about my misadventures along the way, please visit my blog Travels into Wild America. 

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