I want to start this guide with a full disclosure. I own a Canon, and though I have done significant research on Nikon for the sake of this guide, I just don’t have the four+ years of experience (and I’m no expert!) that I do for Canon, so please keep that in mind. I am not endorsed by either Canon or Nikon, and I have written this guide based on my own experiences only. I have spent a lot of time and energy helping Flickr users, readers, or friends on an individual basis shop for their first DSLR, and while I’ll still happily answer any questions you might have or help you personally shop for “what’s right for you”, I’ve decided to put together this little resource guide as a good starting point for anyone looking to purchase a DSLR. Since this is a beginner’s guide, I will try to keep all of the technical speak to a minimum. After you read this, you can browse among the hundred other really great reviews out there that include everything before you make your purchase.
Why do I want to purchase a DSLR?
This is the first thing you should ask yourself. Seriously! I know it may sound silly, but really think about it! Your answers can and will vary (family portraits (new baby, perhaps?), hobbyist, photography classes, film is expensive, your point and shoot just isn’t good enough anymore, etc) but the common link should be the word “quality”. If you want quality photographs, the flexibility and control that a DSLR offers, and the experience of quality lenses, then this is the guide for you.
It’s all in the glass.
Now listen up, folks, and listen well. You can have the best body in the world, but if you’re carting around a 15-55mm standard kit lens, it won’t make a lick of difference. This is the most important part of this guide, so if you read nothing else, read this: Your body can last you a good four to six years, at least! But your lenses will last you much, much longer. Buy quality lenses. When you’re buying a DSLR for the first time, your focus should be more on the lens than the body, which is not something you’d think as first time buyer! For example, if you’re looking at a 50mm 1.4 and a Canon T2i, but you can’t afford both, drop your body to the Canon T1i instead of dropping your lens to the 50mm 1.8. A good piece of glass is worth every shiny penny.
So recommend something, already!
Nikon has some really, really promising entry level cameras for a lower price than Canon, but if video is important to you, or if you’re looking to get a better intermediate camera eventually, you might want to go with Canon. From what I’ve seen, Nikon has some really fantastic entry level options, and then some fantastic top of the line professional equipment, but not much in between. Which is better? Honestly, they are both great. They have differences and similarities, but what it boils down to is personal preference. Why did I go with Canon? Both my manual camera and first digital point and shoot were Canon, so I was familiar with the interface. That’s it! No big secret there!
The Nikon D5000
The Nikon D5000 is a great starter option. It’s almost the same camera as Nikon’s D90, save a few minor (or are they?) details, but since the kit for the D90 is a thousand dollars, it will be included in the intermediate guide. (If money isn’t an obstacle for you, and you want Nikon, go for the D90!) If you’re just looking for entry level photography (family photos, trips, something for your purse) and that’s it, I’d go with the D5000 and get a banging lens. If you’re more of an enthusiast and find yourself in love with photography, go for the D90 and you won’t regret it. They both use the same sensor (which also happens to be the same sensor as the D300S!) If you plan on filming home movies or doing a lot of video as well as photography, you should see the Canon T1i below.
The Canon T1i aka 500D
Well, my first move was to research the T2i, simply because it was the upgraded version, but I kept coming back to this bad boy. Why? Because the T2i was a thousand dollars, and if you’re going to spend that much, spend it on an intermediate body. The T1i is a powerful camera providing pro-like image quality, fabulous video, and has the advantage of being small and light weight. See a fabulous and detailed overview here. Again, if you’re looking for intermediate my recommendation is the 50D, but I have a sneaking suspicion a newer model is going to be released soon.
Now, I can really only in good conscious recommend lenses for Canon users because that’s what I know from experience. Perhaps a Nikon user I trust (Emily? Bronwyn? Diana?) would be willing to write a sister guide for the Nikon lenses (or even bodies too!) and we could link to each other! For now, this is what I recommend for those going with a Canon body.
For those of you looking for an “all purpose” lens that zooms, I’d recommend the 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6. What you should know, however, is that though the zoom is handy and nice to have, the “3.5-5.6″ number part means it’s not so good indoors. The lower that number, the faster the lens, and the smaller the focal point can go. Generally speaking, if you want a number lower than 3 (more light is let in, faster, etc) you’re looking at a prime lens (unless you’re willing to pay a lot more.) So if you’ve been browsing Flickr and you’re looking for that smooth, silky look with a small sharp object in part of the photo- they’re probably using a prime. Or at least a lens with a lower number. (This number is called an f/stop, in case you were wondering.) But if you aren’t looking to shoot indoors or in other low light conditions, and zoom is really important to you, then this is the lens for you. If you’re looking for a lens that is great indoors and outdoors, and you don’t mind not having a zoom, go prime!
I recommend the 50mm f/1.4 (this is what I have, it’s love), or the 85mm f/1.8, or if macro food photography/insects/flowers/ is more your thing, I’d recommend the 100mm f/2.0. I’m trying to keep this list short, and which lens you buy is based entirely on how you plan on using your camera, but if it helps, I have been using a 50mm f/1.4 every day since I picked it up. Almost every shot you’ve seen on this site (as of May 18th, 2010) was taken with a starter Canon XTi and a 50mm f/1.4. The 50mm is the most commonly purchased lens out there.
I feel I should note one more thing, however, and that’s if you’ve gone with the T1i, because it’s a crop sensor, the 50mm will act more like an 80mm in that it’s quite close to your subject! You have to back up pretty far for family shots, they have to squeeze in, and arms length self portraits are pretty much out of the question. If the 50mm is too close for you, I’d recommend a 30mm or 35mm instead. Now, if you’re looking for an f/stop lower than 2.0 in the same price range as these other lenses, an off brand (specifically a Sigma 30mm) is recommended. (2.0 is my favorite f/stop, so I wouldn’t mind.)
Well, that about wraps it up for the beginners guide. If I’ve left anything out or you have any further questions, please feel free to let me know via comments or email. I hope this helps you!
*Originally I included more cameras in this guide but then it was super long and really in my opinion these are the best choices for beginners, but they certainly aren’t the only choice! If you have any more questions about specific camera bodies and want to just shoot me an email, I will happily help!