How To Buy A Good DSLR Camera For Beginners
If you’re ready to move up from your point-and-shoot, you’re probably wondering how to buy a good DSLR camera for beginners.
There’s never been more choice in Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras. However, that also means it can be more confusing than ever. Maybe the journey that I took to buy my first DSLR camera will be helpful.
In My 60s, I Was A Beginner
Until a few years ago, I didn’t have a DSLR. I own a number of point-and-shoots, but somehow, I had made it into my 60s without ever having learned how to use a DSLR camera.
But they say to lead a creative life, you should always have a beginner’s mind. One day, I decided I wanted to understand concepts such as ISO, aperture and shutter speed so that I could take better pictures. I wanted to be on Instagram and realized that “happy snaps” wouldn’t do it. Time to move up to DSLR.
Two Ways To Buy Your First DSLR Camera
How do you buy a good DSLR camera for beginners? I generally have two ways of buying equipment where I have no previous experience.
Either I do a massive amount of research, ask lots of questions and then make a decision, or, if I have access to an expert, I’ll ask that person for a recommendation, and 99% of the time, follow through on that.
My friend Peter is a world-famous photographer who has photographed seven Olympics and many heads of state, celebrities and business tycoons. He also teaches photography at a university and often helps students with camera purchases. That was perfect for me.
On his recommendation, I bought my Nikon D3200 (since superseded by the Nikon D3400).
Here Was My Criteria For The Camera
I told Peter I wanted to buy a good DSLR camera for a beginner because:
- I liked taking pictures with my point-and-shoots and now wanted to get better results
- However, I had never used a DSLR, so there was a chance I wouldn’t like it
- I wanted to start in Auto mode to get the feel of it, but my goal was to learn how to shoot in Manual with full control over my settings
- I didn’t know anything about lenses but would take the time to learn
- I wanted a good DSLR camera for beginners, but I also wanted to be happy with it for at least 5 years. I don’t like upgrading all the time, buying the latest gadgets.
- I didn’t have an endless budget, so I was hoping a good “beginner’s” DSLR would be suitable
At the time, the Nikon D3200 was new, and Peter had a chance to try it since Nikon periodically sends him cameras to use, and potentially recommend to his students.
After doing a bit of reading to familiarize myself with the D3200, I bought one. Simple as that. No shopping around or second guessing. I trusted the expert’s advice and followed through.
How Much Will It Cost To Buy A DSLR Camera?
Cost isn’t everything, but obviously it’s important. There’s little sense lusting after a $10,000 camera set-up if your budget is $1,000.
The good news about cost – you can buy a very good DSLR camera for beginners with extra lenses and accessories for under $1,000. You can get just the camera and one lens for about $500.
High-end technology continues to drop in price, and today’s DSLRs deliver terrific value at every price-point.
Whatever your budget, stick with a leading brand name, and you’ll have a good place to start your DSLR photography journey.
The Dividing Line Between Pro and Semi-Pro DSLR Cameras
If you’re shopping for a DSLR for the first time, you may wonder why you could buy one with a zoom lens for under $500, while others cost more than $5,000 for the body alone. They look similar, so what’s the big disparity?
There are a number of differences including features and ruggedness of construction, but one of the dividing lines between pro and semi-pro is the size of the sensor. In a digital camera, the sensor takes the place of the film.
Professional models have “full frame” sensors that are 24mm X 36mm, which is based on the size of traditional 35mm film.
Semi-pro cameras, like my Nikon D3200 have smaller “crop-frame” sensors. While Nikon and Canon both refer to crop-frame as APS-C formats, they are slightly different sizes. They maintain the same 2 X 3 ratio as the full-frame sensors, but the Nikon crop-frame size is a bit larger than the Canon.
Other manufacturers have even further sizes, but these are the most common.
Why Does Sensor Size Matter?
Simply, with a full frame sensor you’ll see more in your viewfinder and you get more image in your shot.
If you and a friend were standing side-by-side and one of you had a full-frame camera and the other a crop-frame model, each with the same lens, the full-frame would give you more picture at the sides and top and bottom because the bigger sensor “sees” more.
But that doesn’t mean if you’re a beginner, you need to jump right into a full-frame pro DSLR set-up.
Keep in mind that in the example above, the person with the crop-frame camera could “see” the same picture as the full-frame camera by taking a few steps back. Get a bit further away from your subject and you’ll have more picture in your viewfinder too. Changing lenses can also make a big difference.
Key Consideration – Your Lenses Will Be Your Biggest Investment
As of this writing, full-frame camera bodies start at about $1,800, and crop-frame models about $500.
However, your cost calculations must take lenses into account. Most photographers have a few lenses, and that means they will likely be your biggest overall cost. Note, that lenses for full-frame cameras are substantially more expensive than those for crop-frame cameras. So, given that you’ll likely have three or more lenses in your bag, that may influence your decision.
Also, most crop-frame cameras generally include a lens. This is typically an 18mm – 55mm lens. While some pros may deride this “kit lens”, there is nothing wrong with it. It’s fine to get started and you can shoot thousands of wonderful shots with that lens while you learn how to really use your camera.
In contrast, full-frame cameras are generally sold “body only”, so if you choose that route, your first decision will be what lens to buy.
The Other Benefit Of Crop-Frame Lenses
Lenses are named for their focal length, but that’s a bit misleading. For example, because of the different sensor sizes, a 35mm lens for a crop-frame camera gives you approximately the same image as a 50mm lens on a full-frame camera.
Where this becomes more important is for larger zoom lenses. Take a zoom lens that extends to 300mm on a crop-frame camera. You get the equivalent zoom of a 450mm lens for a full-frame model. The big difference is price. The 300mm crop-frame lens is about $700. A full-frame 400mm lens is about $2,300.
The cost of lenses is one of the key reasons that even some pro photographers keep a crop-frame set-up.
Lenses Between Camera Types Are Not Fully Interchangeable
One of the big questions people ask is whether they can buy a less expensive crop-frame camera and lenses that go with it, and then use those same lenses if they move up to a full-frame body.
This opens up a can of worms. Technically, the answer is yes. As long as it’s the same brand, the lenses will fit on the camera and work. But you may get surprising results because the lens is not matched to the sensor size.
There are ongoing debates and discussions about this, but most pros agree that you should buy the best lenses for the camera you have.
In the future, if you move up from crop-frame to full-frame, you can:
- Keep both systems – it’s always good to have a spare
- Sell or hand down your crop-frame camera with lenses (there are established markets for used photo equipment in good condition)
- Interchange lenses as long as you know what to expect
The Big Names In Cameras
How do you choose among the brands? If you have no previous brand affiliations, I would go with either Nikon or Canon, simply because that’s what most professionals use.
They have the most dealers around the world if you ever need help or want to buy accessories. You’ll also benefit from the greatest selection of lenses, whether Nikon or Canon brand, or from third-party lens manufacturers such as Sigma, Tamron or Tokina.
If you have a photographer friend you can count on for help with one of the brands, you might choose that one. Starting out on a DSLR, help from a professional can save you hours of fumbling around especially when you make the move to manual mode.
Pros Of Full-Frame Cameras And Lenses
- These are the cameras that most professionals use.
- You’ll be able to choose from the broadest range of cameras with varying feature sets. If you’re simply looking for the best, this is where you’ll find it.
- You’ll have the widest choice of lenses, both camera brand and third-party.
- This is where newest features are introduced first, so if you want “all the features”, these are for you.
Cons Of Full-Frame Cameras And Lenses
- Both cameras and lenses cost more than crop-frame models. Sometimes, a lot more.
- Full-frame cameras are generally sold “body only”, so you’ll need to buy a lens to start.
- Typically, full-frame cameras and their lenses are heavier, which might be a factor if you travel a lot.
Pros Of Crop-Frame Cameras And Lenses
- Lower cost for both cameras and lenses.
- You generally get at least a kit lens with your body, so you can start shooting right away.
- Telephoto (zoom) lenses can cost significantly less for the same level of magnification.
- The camera bodies tend to be a bit smaller and both cameras and lenses are lighter in weight.
Cons Of Crop-Frame Cameras And Lenses
- Not as many models to choose from for either camera bodies or lenses.
- Won’t include some of the high-end features found on top-of-the line full-frame models. For example, a smaller range of ISO settings and not as many frames-per-second shooting.
- You see a smaller picture in your viewfinder.
How Do I Feel About My Nikon D3200 Now?
Since I bought it, I’ve learned a lot more about cameras and photography in general. Photography tends to be a lifelong learning process and I’m very happy with the D3200. It’s been a dependable camera and introduced me to a whole new way of seeing.
I don’t tend to be a gearhead, and don’t need the prestige of owning the latest greatest. My focus is on developing an eye for composition and and becoming a better overall photographer.
I am also learning the post-processing routine (working my way through Adobe Lightroom right now, which at one point was intimidating, but now I love it).
Not Yet “Too Good For My Camera”
I truly believe that photography is 90% the eye and skill of the shooter, 10% the equipment at hand.
As far as I’m concerned, it will be a long time before I think I’m too good for my camera. To quote an old saying, “It’s a poor craftsman that blames his tools.”
Camera Accessories You’ll Want / Need
After you’ve bought a camera and a few lenses, you may want to take a break on spending. But here are some accessories that will soon be on your list.
A Padded Camera Bag Or Backpack
You’ll want to protect your camera, lenses and accessories. Take time to think about how many lenses you’ll want to take with you and how you travel. Many photographers like backpack bags that tend to have more padding and more rigid interior compartments, but there are also numerous over-the-shoulder padded bags. I’m happy with my over-the-shoulder bag.
Look for features such as padded pockets to accommodate your laptop.
A quick note – when you’re flying, always take your camera bag as carry-on. Never, ever, ever – did I mention never, ever – check it as luggage. If your equipment is lost or damaged as checked luggage, it is specifically not covered in compensation. You’d be out of luck – it’s all in the fine print when you buy your ticket. Do not let any airline employee convince you otherwise. If you have to pay to bring it onboard, do so.
You’ll Soon Want A Good Tripod
Anytime you’re shooting at a shutter speed of 1/60 of a second or less (dim light, sunrise, sunset, long exposures to get that smooth looking waterfall), you’ll want to put the camera on a tripod to get crisp shots.
Don’t be too cheap here. Yes, you can buy tripods for under $50, but they won’t be sturdy enough for ongoing use. There are a number of good traveller tripods that are lightweight and include the mounting head and carrying bag for about $150 – $200.
If you want to splash out, a $1,000 will get you an Italian Gitzo tripod.
Get A Shutter Release To Use With Your Tripod
Choose either a cable release or remote release. With your camera on a tripod, you’ll want to fire the shutter without touching the camera. Pressing the shutter button at speeds under 1/60 of a second can introduce camera shake and your shots won’t be crisp.
Buy A Good UV Filter For Each Of Your Lenses
A UV filter looks like a clear filter but cuts out ultra-violet rays which can give your pictures a bluish cast.
But perhaps most importantly, it protects your lens from scratches and dust. Check the physical size of your lens (it’s on the lens and it’s not the same as the focal length – my 35mm lens takes a 52mm size filter) and buy one for each lens.
Make sure your lens is spotlessly clean and then screw on the UV filter and leave it there.
Clean With Microfiber Cleaning Cloths
Your UV filter will get dust on it and you don’t want to scratch it. Keep a package of microfiber cleaning cloths in your bag.
My DSLR Camera Kit
Right now, I work with:
- Nikon D3200 camera
- Nikon DX AFS-Nikkor 18 – 105mm lens, f/3.5 (my every day “walking around” lens)
- Nikon DX AFS-Nikkor 35mm lens, f/1.8 (small, fast prime lens, good in low light, close to human vision)
- Nikon AFS-Nikkor 70 – 300mm lens, f/4.5 (zoom lens on loan from a friend)
- MeFoto Q2 Tripod
- A Nikon shutter release cable
- Optex UV filters
- Hoya Circular Polarizer filter
- Sandisk Extreme memory cards
- Lens cleaning cloths
- A Tamrac shoulder bag that holds everything except the tripod (has room for my laptop and external drives too)
The next piece of equipment that I’d like is a wide-angle lens, say a Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 10-24mm f/3.5 to get more panoramic landscape shots.
From My Perspective
Please note, this post was written from my experiences. It’s only been a few years that I’ve learned to use a DSLR camera. But I thought it would be interesting for you if you’re looking to buy a good DSLR camera for beginners.
I did not include the new mirrorless cameras as I have no experience with them.
I still use my point-and-shoot cameras which include a Panasonic Lumix DMC LX5 (great features, ok zoom and a Leica lens!) and my Canon SX-700 which has a 30X zoom on a camera that fits into my shirt pocket.
Final irony… most of the shots of me on this page were taken by Marlene using the Panasonic Lumix. I took the shot of our son with his DX3300 trying out the 300mm lens. He took the one of me on top of the rock with his DX3300. However, most of the other shots on this site were taken with the Nikon DX3200 in manual mode. All were edited in Adobe Lightroom.