Monday, 22 June 2009

A DSLR buyer's guide

Why am I writing this? mainly as a place to fix my ideas so I can point all those who ask me in one direction. Am I an expert? By no means. Are there other resources out there for this? For sure. But hopefully I have some different and balanced views to add to the mix.

Any discussion on buying stuff, especially with specific model recommendations will date quickly. I'm going to try towards views that will last a little longer. I will, however,give my views on the manufacturers based on my experience (which is limited in some cases).

This is also aimed at the "my first SLR" crowd: those stepping up from a pocket camera. even if you've used film SLR before, some of this advice won't really be aimed at you.

Many will disagree with me, especially more advanced photographers. But I'm basing what I advise on what my non-photographer friends and family have to say on cameras and want and need from a piece of kit.

There will be no talk of cost or budget, except this: if you are on a limited budget or thing £500 is a lot to spend on a camera then find the cheapest deal you can on any entry-leevl camera from any manufacturer and learn to use it well. If that's you, move on, nothing more to see here.

First - why an SLR?

As I see it, DSLRs offer 5 distinct advantages compared to pocket cameras:

1. More Depth of field control (for a discussion on that - read Mike Johnston at TOP)
2. Larger print sizes possible (pixels don't IMO, make for prints, sensor size does).
3. Lower noise for better low-light, non-flash photography
4. Interchangeable lenses to cover all possibilities.
5. RAW shooting giving more processing scope (although some pocket cameras now have that, too).

If you don't want any of those advantages, I suggest using something other than an SLR. Printing is a big one here - if you're not going to print large (bigger than 8x12"; A4) or at all then an SLR will have limited advantage.

There are also disadvantages:

1. Size & weight - they are a lot bigger & heavier than the alternatives
2. Dust on the sensor - changing lenses means at some point you will have to clean the sensor
3. good kit cost money - cheap options tend to give poorer results, unless you're careful and take the time to learn

If any of these is serious problem for you, again there may be better alternatives.

So Now you've decided you want the advantages and can weather the disadvantages, what are you going to use it for? I'd break it into broad categories:

  • General travel
  • Landscapes, macro
  • Sports & Wildlife
  • Street photography
  • People and portraits
The more of these you want to do, the more flexible the system you will need. If you wan to narrow it down to one or two, then you can pick a more specific system.

The other thing is how much you'll use it and how serious you want to get. If you're going to devote serious time to photography, it's worth getting better gear, if this is just for better holiday snaps then cheaper options exist.

Once you've got past that point, there are then 2 major things to consider in buying: lenses and ergonomics. As far as I'm concerned, at the level I'm pitching this, all cameras are equal in their ability to produce good images and provide controls to do what you want them to. Any discussion on these matters comes down to subtle preferences. As this is aimed at those without an SLR yet, you've not got to forming views on this yet. regardless of what you may read elsewhere, there is no "best" camera or system.

Ergonomics - how is it to hold?

To get a feel for a camera, you need to hold it. is the grip comfortable? too small, too large? Are the buttons easy to reach? Does the weight feel OK? If a camera is not comfortable to use and carry, you're not going to take it with you and then it's just a paperweight. It's a very personal thing. For example, many photographers find Nikon to be the most ergonomic, but I hate them - they are uncomfortable in my hand when I first pick them up and I don't like the button placement. You will have your own preferences.

Main functions to look for: shutter button, front and rear dials/adjusters, menu. these should be easy to reach and intuitive to find (i.e. you can find them without looking).

So what about those lenses?

There is a bunch of advice out in web-land on buying SLR lenses. most of it, in my (less than humble) opinion is rubbish. here's my take, especially aimed at all you new-to-SLR types. I'll do it by category. But first - manufacturer. Buy lenses of the same brand as your camera body. The cheaper options from Sigma/Tokina/Tamron etc may look attractive but they are not always fully compatible and can fail unexpectedly (far more so that original brand kit). You do not want to be the poor girl coming up to me on a trip of a lifetime asking if the fatal error message can be resolved (as happened to me in Tanzania).

General & travel

If all you're doing basic snaps of friends, family and places you visit then you'll not need anything too sophisticated (and I'd suggest you carefully consider whether an SLR is for you). You'll want a reasonable range zoom lens and image stabilisation. Stabilisation can be in the camera (like Pentax and Olympus) or in the lens (Nikon, Canon). In camera is more versatile, in lens is better in some (not all) cases. The basic kit lenses that are in the 17-55/85 range are perfectly OK. to get much better you have to step way up in price.

As a second lens, consider one of the 50/55-200mm type zooms. The new ones give pretty good pictures, are light, compact and quite cheap. Or go for a 70-300mm (for Nikon & Canon, only consider the stabilised versions, trust me). bit bigger, but generally a bit better, too.

For the rest of the categories, I'll be thinking in terms of specialism. That is: you want to really focus and do a lot in that category specifically.

Landscapes & macro

For macro - getting close to small things - you really want a proper macro lens. You can use extension tubes (basically it's a hole to move the lens further from the sensor) for occasional use but results aren't as good and they aren't as easy to use.

For landscapes there are a variety of ways to go. Most basic kit lenses cover wide angle quite well. For better results, you'll want a more expensive lens with a similar range. You do not need an ultra-wide (in the 10-20mm range). They are good for a specific type of shot (with very near and very far objects in the picture) but otherwise all you get is dots in the distance. My favourite landscape lens is a 70-200mm for getting in a bit closer. I've taken good landscapes with a 300mm. Generally, the best step-up from the basic kit lens will be a 24-70mm, but they're quite expensive. There are some other options, but they vary by system.

However, lenses won't be the best money spent. You'll get far more value from a good tripod and cable release before you start to benefit from more expensive lenses. Well controlled tripod photography with a basic lens will get better results than poor hand-held and expensive lenses. If you're doing a lot of landscape work spend £500 on a good tripod system rather than a better lens. Then save for the lens.

Sports and wildlife

To do this properly, we're talking expensive. Taking picture of the animals you see on holiday can be covered by the basic 2-lens kit I mentioned in the general section. Otherwise, we're talking long and fast (large aperture). 300mm minimum. Often longer.
Here, an aside on crop factor.
most DSLRs have a sensor that is smaller than 35mm film frames. this give a crop factor which makes you're lenses effectively longer. A 1.6 crop factor means a 300mm lens is like a 480mm on 35mm. The crop factor of 2 of the four-thirds system really helps here, you'll need shorter (thus smaller and cheaper) lenses.
You'll also want something in the mid-zoom range (those 70-200mm lenses are great) to go with the big stuff. And probably a second body. And, and, and...

As a first-time buyer, think simple and go with the general 2 lens stuff.

Street photography

Out and about in town, snapping people and buildings, nothing beats a "normal" fixed focal length (prime) lens. Something in the 24-35mm (50mm starts to get a bit long when up close). Dave Beckerman wrote a great article on this, go read.

This would be my recommendation for lens number 3 (after the 2 general lenses).

People and portraits

Again, this is the territory of prime lenses, typically a bit longer than for street photography. 50-100mm is the usual range. Best value would be to buy a 50mm f/1.8 lens - virtually all manufacturers make one and it'll be cheap, probably the cheapest lens they make, but with good image quality. That would be my recommendation for lens number 4. Next level up, consider something around 85mm.

So which system?

I'll go through them by manufacturer with my opinion. Personally I use Canon, have a lot of lenses and have spent a lot of money on kit. But I started with the most basic, cheapest entry SLR camera they made over 13 years ago. For the same actually money you can get camera about a thousand times more capable.

If you're buying on budget (i.e. the cheapest you can put your hands on) I'd go for the second least expensive camera on offer from any manufacturer. typically Canon or Nikon. Why not the cheapest? Better lens. Usually the next one up from cheapest has a slightly better lens 9Canon and Nikon start offering the longer image stabilised versions of their cheap lenses). Or get a camera with stabilisation in the body.


Quite frankly, there is so little difference between the two systems overall (especially at the cheaper end) that it all comes down to personal preference. Nikon at the moment seem to be a bit ahead on image quality especially in low light (high ISO). Give it 12-18 months and that'll change (Canon were ahead for years). As I say, I like Canon and hate Nikon, just to hold and use the options menus. Many think the exact opposite. They both have much wider ranges of lenses and accessories than the others.

That said, I wouldn't recommend them as systems for general photography for newcomers to SLR. read on...


For general, about town and travel stuff, I think Pentax offer the best value. Lots of function for the money in their bodies and some really nice, small lenses at modest prices. I also like the button layout and the shooting modes on offer. Offer cameras with built-in stabilisation, which is a good thing. Not so good in specialist long lenses but that's only an issue for wildlife and sports specialists.


A long history of quality cameras, especially the lenses. Lens quality reputed to be very high. they also have some very small DLSRs. Also have built-in stabilisation. Use the four-thirds sensors with a 2x crop factor, making them a good choice for sports and wildlife (they've got a couple of really good looking long lens options).

I haven't really seem them in action but if I was starting again, Olympus would probably be my top pick as a balanced range of gear and good functions on offer.


A strange one. At the top end they're currently offering the very best in image quality and some very, very good lenses. I've been seriously considering replacing all of my landscape gear with Sony. However, their lower end seems much more limited. Out and about, users report being very happy but the same can be said of almost all cameras. Not sure i'd recommend them unless you want to get into doing some serious landscape stuff.

Micro four-thirds

The new kid on the block from Panasonic and Olympus and not strictly SLRs (no mirror or optical view finder). I've been seriously considering these as my travel camera due to small size and light weight - ideal for hiking or all day around town. Currently a bit of a wait and see, but the Panasonic stuff is worth looking at if all you do is general travel photography.

More important than any of that will be learning how to use your camera properly. If all you do is stick it in auto-everything mode and snap away you will have wasted your money.

Just one man's opinions and it does run counter to quite a lot of current advice on the web. However, I have based this on talking to a lot of people about what they actually want/need from a camera. Often that is somewhat different than what a lot of pundits believe it is. And if you do intend to get serious about this photography nonsense, then be prepared to spend some fairly serious money.

1 comment:

  1. This is the best objective attempt I’ve seen at giving advice regarding DSLR buy that I’ve come across on the net. Well done

    kind regards
    Sune / Jonson PL


I like comments, especially constructive ones.
Comments get emailed directly to me before publishing , so if you want to get in touch drop a comment.
All comments moderated by me before being published, keeps the spam at bay.