Posted on 01/01/2009. By Pete Otaqui.
I’m writing this post since a friend (hi, Emma!) asked me for some advice about buying a first DSLR.
Introduction to DSLRs
The first thing to understand, as you’d find out if you search around is that with DSLRs one is actually buying into a system rather than just buying a one-off piece of kit. The lenses are interchangable, and if you do end up with more than one, it makes sense when you want to upgrade the camera that you only need to upgrade the body as long as you stick with the same make, you can keep all your lenses and they should work fine.
In this regard, I’m really only going to suggest the two big makers in the market – Nikon and Canon. You could also look at Sony or Olympus – who make very fine cameras – but if you are thinking that you may want to take your photography further in the future the former two will, I think, give you more options.
Lenses and focal lengths
The biggest thing about DSLRs, apart from the manual controls you get, is the wide variety of different lenses and filters you can slap on the front of your camera. You will probably get at least one lens with your first camera (they cost much less to buy as a “kit” with a lens included than to buy the body and identical lens separately) and they can vary so it’s worth getting an understanding of the numbers and acronyms that infest the industry.
Focal Length is a number given in millimeters, and refers to how “telescopic” the lens is, with a bigger number magnifying things more (a very small number will give you a super-wide “fish eye” kind of effect). These numbers usually range from about 18mm (wide angle, good for landscapes, group shots and indoors) right up to 300mm and beyond (super telephoto, good for sports, wildlife and portraits). Your first lens will ideally be a zoom lens (this means it has a range of focal lengths) and will give you a range somewhere between 18mm and 135mm. The next lens you will likely want will be a higher focal length, up to 200 or 300mm.
IS & VR refer (in Canon and Nikon terms respectively) to lenses that can help reduce bluriness due to shaking. This is especially great with a long focal length lens (high power magnification also magnifies the movement of your hands) and also in low light. It’s not 100% necessary, and will not remove all camera shake, but it helps (and it costs a lot )
F number or “F stop” is a number in the range of 1.4 up to 6. This number (lower is better) describes how much light can get into the lens; the more light you can use the more freedom you get over exposure controls (as well as just a better image anyway). A seemingly identical pair of lenses with a high F-number and a low F-number will cost a huge amount more and less repsectively. Note – this number refers the minimum f-stop that the lens is capable of, and you will be able to “stop up” to a higher number. That probably doesn’t mean much to you, but if you get into photography it will!
Macro lenses can truly magnify a close up object to appear larger than it does with the naked eye – imagine looking through a very low-powered microscope. Some lenses you will see will offer a “macro” capability, and this is a nice feature if you like taking picures of flowers, bugs, cat’s noses, jewellery, needlework or anything else very close up.
It will probably help if you have an idea of how much money you want to spend. You are likely to be able to get a camera-and-lens kit for under £400. Are you happy to go up to £600 if you get a lot more for your money or a better lens?
If you are really counting the pennies – and who could blame you at a time like this – then definitely look at trying to get a second hand one, preferably not more than about 2 years old. This can be an excellent way into the world of DSLRs because if you save yourself a couple of hundred pounds by buying an out-of-date camera body you could put the money towards a really nice lens which you can keep for years (even when you become a pro and upgrade to supery dupery £10,000 camera body in the future).
Try out some cameras – but go prepared
One thing to do before you make up your mind is to go to a shop and actually try out the cameras in question. This is worth spending some time thinking about before you go especially since not only the cameras, but the very things you can do with them are going to be new to you and having a list of things to remember will help a lot. Here’s a few points:
- Make yourself a “call-sheet” of photographs to take that will be easy in a shop environment. For example: a portrait of the sales person; a close up of some small print, or a piece of jewellery you take along; a “landscape” of the front of the shop and also the view through the front door (to check how the lens and camera handle very different ranges of lighting and shadows). If you can, also try some shots that would not be easy (or even possible) with a compact camera, e.g. a manually-focused photograph with a small item off-centre in the picture is actually visible and most of the frame is blurry.
- With as much research into what these things mean as you are comfortable with, try various manual settings with the camera in your hand in between actually taking shots to see how comfortable it is. For example: “aperture priority” and “shutter priortity” modes; white balance; manual focus; bracketing; flash forced to be on and off; focus type (spot, average, weighted, etc); exposure compensation
- Take a laptop with you, and load the pictures you take with each camera onto it so you can view them more closely. Any decent shop will not mind you doing this at all, and they should really provide you with a memory card reader so you can get the images on to your machine. You shouldn’t need any special software as you aren’t going to edit the photos, just preview them.
- Be prepared to go and look at the cameras available in a shop and go away without buying anything, but with some more knowledge of what to research on the internet. Speaking of which …
Search the web!
There is a huge amount of information out there about all the cameras you might be interested. In fact, since the entry level DSLRs are by far the biggest selling, it’s often a matter of sifting the signal from the noise. Possibly the most comprehensive site available – it certainly has exhaustive many-page reviews – is DPReview .
Gizmodo has a review of four recent entry level DSLRs, which is quite good aside from a couple of points. I feel that “Live Preview” modes more or less completely defeat the point of having a DSLR. I haven’t handled the supposedly best-in-class Olympus but I really don’t think one could realistically get an equivalent experience looking at digital screen rather than through the viewfinder – so I consider those points irrelevant.
I guess that wraps it up. For what it’s worth, I am a Nikon fan and have been since the days of 35mm film. I currently have a Nikon D80 with the 18-135mm lens that came bundled with it and a cheap and cheerful Sigma 70-300mm lens with a macro capability. You can see some of the stuff I (or in fact, we since Laura has been getting into photography) do with it over on my flickr account .
If you’re interested let me know and I might write a post on some project and photograph ideas to try out with your new camera once you get it!