A Rookie Guide to Digital SLR Cameras

There comes a time in every point-and-shooter’s life when he or she wonders if there is more to photography than a palm-sized block of aluminum stowed away in one’s pocket. The ultracompact point-and-shoot has come so far in the last ten years that it’s tempting to write off DSLRs as largely irrelevant to most people’s lives, not offering enough utility to offset their bulky presence and hefty price tag. As soon as I bought my first truly great ultracompact a few years ago, the Casio EX-Z750, I was in this boat. 7.2 megapixels in your pocket… what more could one possibly need? After eventually moving up to the excellent 7x zoom Casio EX-V8, I told myself I would never need a DSLR.

But then I tried one for the first one, on loan from the fine folks at Nikon. A Nikon D80. Seemingly the “it” camera for the last couple of years. This article will not so much be a review of the D80, but rather a guide for DSLR virgins considering purchasing their first full sized digital camera.

First and foremost, will you use it?

We all love toys. We all love expensive toys. But nobody loves an expensive toy they never use. If you think you’re going to buy a DSLR and carry it around everywhere with you, you’re probably wrong. It’s heavy around your neck, it’s easily lost or stolen if you put it down in a public place, and it will never blend into the fabric of your life like a pocket camera will. In other words, be prepared to take it with you when you know you will be using it (e.g. sightseeing, stormwatching, portrait-taking, etc), but at all other times, it will probably stay at home. For this reason, even after you buy a DSLR, it’s probably good to keep your ultracompact point-and-shoot as your standard carry-along camera. Even on vacations, there will be plenty of times when the smaller camera is the only one on you at any given time. Again, I recommend the Casio EX-V8 as a fantastic ultracompact choice here. For the last few years, Casio has made the best all-around point-and-shoots, in my opinion.

Sunset at the top of Mauna Kea, 13,796 feet above sea-level. The highest peak above the ocean floor in the world. Definitely DSLR territory.

Nikon vs. Canon vs. everyone else

Most serious photographers will tell you there are only two real choices in the DSLR market: Nikon and Canon. Although companies like Olympus and Sony also make DSLRs, Nikon and Canon have such strong legacies in SLR photography that they’ve earned an unshakable amount of trust among professional photographers. Being an amateur, I am not one to question the conventional wisdom of professionals, so as far as I’m concerned, either Nikon or Canon should be your choice (for now, at least). The Nikon/Canon religious wars are less like the Mac/PC wars and more like BMW/Mercedes wars. With Macs and PCs, your Mac people think that PCs are horrendous piles of garbage and your PC people think Macs are overpriced, niche devices. BMW and Mercedes, on the other hand, really only differ in style… much like Nikons and Canons. They are equally priced, equally equipped, and even take cues off each other in the feature department.

For a good overview of the differences between Canons and Nikons, check out this article. My favorite quote:

“Canons are the best cameras available designed by engineers, and Nikons are the best cameras one can buy designed by photographers.”

That probably explains why I like this Nikon so much.

It’s the lens, stupid

Bodies come and go, but lenses are forever. So goes the saying. It may surprise you to know that some photographers are using the exact same lenses they were using 40 years ago. Even a brand new $5000 Nikon D3 can use a lens from the 1960s, if the photographer so chooses. These days, camera bodies and image sensors are evolving a lot faster than lenses, so to a large extent, it makes sense to invest more heavily in your lens(es) than in your cameras. Any photographer will tell you that they’d rather shoot with a cheap body and a great lens than the opposite.

There are essentially three things to consider when looking at lenses: speed, versatility, and stabilization.

Speed

Speed refers to how much light a lens lets in. If you’re like me, you hate flash photography and what it does to faces and objects, so you prefer to use natural light at all times. The only lenses that will let you achieve this are very fast lenses, usually with f-stops of 1.8 or lower. You can take a lens like this to a party at night and shoot beautiful naturally-lit shots even in the dimmest of corners (where you will probably be hanging out, since no one wants to stand with the dork carrying an SLR).

As a beginning photographer, your best option here is something John Gruber and Jim Ray (and millions of others) call “the best deal in photography”: the 1.8f 50mm prime lens. It’s small, light, fast, and just a little over $100. It is probably the only lens you will ever use after the sun goes down, and it also has an incredible narrow depth of field which is great keeping subjects in focus and backgrounds soft.

Tintin’s dog Snowy. This figurine is only a couple of inches long, and while his face is in focus, even his front paws are not. Narrow depth of field is a huge selling point of the 50mm prime lens.

Versatility

Although the 50mm prime has great light versatility, its fixed focal length won’t let you do any zooming, and thus, you may find yourself too far away at times to capture your ideal shot. Stalkers are well aware of this conundrum. In order to adequately frame subjects which are far away, you’ll need to pick yourself up a quality zoom lens. Even among zoom lenses, there is a wide range of versatility. There are 12-24mm (very wide angle), 70-300mm (very magnified), everything in-between, and even some further down and further out.

The first aftermarket lens I bought for my D80 was a Sigma 70-300mm, thinking it would come in handy for general use. More zooming would equal less walking and greater detail, or so I thought. In reality, it was a lens I found very little use for. Its inability to take “normal” wide angle shots, combined with the fact that at 300mm it takes a tripod to keep it from shaking, made it almost useless to me. I ended up trading it straight across for a Nikon 1.4f 50mm prime lens on Craigslist, which is much more useful to me (see above section on “speed”).

The most versatile lens in the world — and the one I eventually purchased — appears to be the Nikon 18-200mm VR lens. I bought this lens on recommendation from the great Ken Rockwell, and I couldn’t be happier with it. It does wide-angle shots at 18mm. It does telephoto shots at 200mm. Its focal length essentially covers you in 99% of the situations you’ll ever find yourself in. And it has VR, which I’ll discuss in the next subsection.

A lot of people have called the Nikon 18-200mm VR the most useful lens ever designed, and it’s not hard to see why. While professional photographers are used to carrying around a bag full of lenses, prosumers and weekenders would rather never have to change a lens. With the 18-200mm VR, you just pop the thing on and then forget about it. It’s a bit steep at $700, but worth it, in my opinion.

This picture was also taken atop Mauna Kea but under only the light of the moon. This is a 30 second exposure at ISO 1600.

Image stabilization

Both Nikon and Canon have image stabilization built into some of their best lenses now. I haven’t tested Canon’s out but it’s widely believed to be on par with Nikon’s VR (vibration reduction) technology. In a nutshell, VR is exactly what you probably think it is: a mechanism inside the lens detects camera shake and moves lens parts around in order to neutralize it. Does it work? It absolutely does. Is it noticeable? It absolutely is. I took some test shots around dusk, in low light, both with VR on and off and the difference is dramatic. The shots with VR off are blurry and unusable. Everybody’s hands have a different amount of shake to them, but most people report the ability to shoot about 4 stops faster when using VR. That is to say, if you can normally shoot handheld at 1/100, you should now be able to shoot at 1/15 (in much darker conditions).

As of today, Canon doesn’t appear to have an answer to the 18-200mm VR lens, but perhaps the closest thing they have is the Canon EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM, but it’s about $2300. It goes up to 300mm which is nice, but the Nikon goes down to 18mm, which is more useful in my mind.

This photo was taken at 1/8 exposure and *no* VR. Blurry.

This photo was taken at 1/8 exposure *with* VR. Sharp!

Storage

The D80 uses an SD slot for storage, which I like, but some people prefer Compact Flash instead. Other models offer the use of either storage technology, sometimes in tandem. Pick whichever format suits you best, but with the cost of both Compact Flash and SD cards halving every several months, this may not be a huge factor in your purchasing decision. As of today, an 8 gig SD card can be had for $33.99 while an 8 gig CF card is about $39 so price per gig is roughly equivalent.

The megapixel myth

Image data is only as good as the source that captured it. In a DSLR camera, that includes both the lens and the image sensor. We’ve already covered the importance of the lens, but what about the sensor? Is a 6 megapixel sensor going to produce better photos than a 10 megapixel sensor? Currently, in most cases the answer is no. For most consumer/prosumer level DSLRs, the compact size of the sensor is such that megapixel levels above 6 do not increase the quality of the resulting image whatsoever. Edit (thanks Patrick): The answer is, “not always”. The size and sensitivity of the sensor is more important than the raw number of megapixels it produces so beware of judging cameras, even DSLRs, on their megapixel counts.

If you’re really interested in fully maximizing resolution and clarity, your only real choices are the new Nikon or Canon “full-frame” DSLRs. These cameras are all between $2000 and $8000 for the body only and have sensors which are much larger than any prosumer/consumer cameras. If you’re in the market for one, you’re probably way overqualified for this article.

High-resolution fire.

Interface and usability

Both Nikon and Canon have spent years refining their user interfaces, and users of each tend to prefer their own brand. My experience with Nikon was that I spent about 45 minutes reading the manual front-to-back (a rarity for me), then spent a couple of hours pushing buttons and turning dials, and I quickly felt pretty comfortable with the D80. Moving from the one-dial-one-button world of a Casio ultracompact to a 100-control DSLR still takes some adjusting, but as with most Apple products, the dials and buttons on the D80 seem to be designed very thoughtfully and generally serve their purpose while staying out of your way.

Filters

Most the time, the only filter you’ll ever need is a circular polarizer. Polarizers bend light as they enter the lens to either reduce or enhance reflections in the scene. They are particularly useful for reducing reflections off of water, snow, and buildings, and for creating more dramatic looking skies. Polarizers range from about 10 bucks to several hundred bucks, but most of the reading I’ve done suggests that a $40 polarizer is imperceptibly equivalent to the much more expensive ones. I use a Hoya that I bought for about $40 at Tall’s Camera.

What’s missing

In my mind, there are only three things missing from most cameras today, all of which I think will become standard equipment within a couple of years: GPS, wifi, and native HDR handling. GPS seems like a no-brainer and frankly I’m surprised it’s not more widespread already, considering how small GPS chips have gotten and the fact that a lot of phones have this capability already. Once all of my photos are automatically geotagged, it will become more interesting to collect and view them, and thus, I will take more of them. Wifi support is important to me because I’m often too lazy to transfer my photos to my hard drive or upload them online. Thankfully, a few months ago, the EyeFi was released, so that’s probably good enough, but it would be even nicer if it was built into the camera itself. HDR, or “high dynamic range” photography, is a method of photography whereby multiple shots at different exposures are composited together to produce dramatic, often surreal imagery. Some examples are here, in the Flickr HDR pool. It seems to me that a camera should theoretically be able to open the shutter once and take multiple shots from that, each during different points in the exposure, thus producing the layers necessary for the compositing.

Final analysis

So before you go out and buy a DSLR, here are some recommendations:

  1. Make sure you want one and have reasonable expectations for its usage
  2. Keep your ultracompact for everyday use, or buy a new Casio EX-V8
  3. When looking at DSLRs, trust what the pros use: Nikons and Canons
  4. Invest more in lenses than in bodies, disregarding any “resolution advantages” that aren’t also accompanied by larger sensors
  5. Purchase both a zoom lens for versatility and a fast prime lens for low light and narrow depth of field

If I was starting from scratch, here’s what I’d buy (List updated, from reader input):

  • Nikon D80/D40x camera: $760/$545 (Go with the D40x if you’re price conscious, but know that it will not autofocus with some older lenses or even some inexpensive ones like the must-have 50mm 1.8f prime below)
  • Nikon 50mm 1.8f lens: $105
  • Nikon 18-200mm VR lens: $700
  • Hoya Circular Polarizer: $30
  • Total cost: About $1595 (D80) or $1380 (D40x)

If you’re just getting started with DSLRs, hopefully you’ve found this useful.

UPDATE: It’s now a few years later, and I’ve written an updated guide to Micro 4/3rds cameras — which I believe to be a better alternative to most DSLRS.
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164 Responses:

  1. […] camera buying guide – CNET Reviews Find The Best Digital SLR Camera for You in 4 Easy Steps Mike Davidson – A Rookie Guide to Digital SLR Cameras Advice on purchasing a digital SLR camera How To Buy Your First Digital SLR Camera : Becky Worley : […]

  2. cheryl says:

    I real your article and still don’t know what I’m doing having a SLR camera. I recently bought a Nikon d3000 and have been playing with it in AUTO mode because I have no idea what all the other settings are for. I hope to soon take just an adult photo class at the High School, until then I just keep reading on the Internet and your article is really informing. I intend to use it mostly to catch pictures of the great wildlife we have in our area. Which lens do you think I should invest in first? I only have the 18-55mm that came with the camera. I really would like to keep my purchase in a reasonable amount for just starting.

  3. My camera died and I need to replace it – I am an artist that needs to photograph pieces that are one off pieces of art that are made of glass. I do not always have the funds to pay for a photographer. So I am looking for a recommendation on product shot photos as well my husband is a builder so he takes shots of foundations etc. But quality for him is important but not as much as my product photos. I really do not want to spend a fornute but do not want a crapy camera. Any suggestions?

  4. medyum says:

    I agree with you completely. However, These “advanced point and shoot” cameras look like an SLR to the uninititated eye, and I was trying to make the difference clear to a beginner.
    Thanks for the correction, it will make things even more clear.

    Medyum Niyazi

  5. Rob says:

    A lot of sound advice here. I’ve been a Canon man for many years it’s refreshing to see that the smaller manufacturers such as Olympus, Pentax, questionably Sony are churning out very competitive and innovative cameras. Were I not commited to gear as far as lenses are concerned I would certainly have difficult decisions to make. Still, I would say you rarely go wrong with Canon but be prepared that your technology will be outdated within a few months.

  6. Bill Morrison says:

    You seem to have missed the camera withe best sensor and highest iso range. Pentax K-5 is weather resistant and the anti shake is in the body so you do not have to repurchase it with each new lens. It also does High Dynamic Range within the camera and full 1080P hd movies. Which of the Canons and Nikons do all of those things?

  7. Mike D. says:

    Bill: I didn’t miss it at all. It came out a few months ago. This post was written a few years ago.

  8. medyum says:

    I real your article and still don’t know what I’m doing having a SLR camera. I recently bought a Nikon d3000 and have been playing with it in AUTO mode because I have no idea what all the other settings are for. I hope to soon take just an adult photo class at the High School, until then I just keep reading on the Internet and your article is really informing. I intend to use it mostly to catch pictures of the great wildlife we have in our area. Which lens do you think I should invest in first? I only have the 18-55mm that came with the camera. I really would like to keep my purchase in a reasonable amount for just starting.

    Medyum O?uz

  9. Dirk Nienaber says:

    Nikon D7000 Video Mode,

    Has been compressed a lot but still reasonable resolution,

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4mzj6o-qoKc

  10. […] Camera for Christmas? Learn How to Use it HereDSLR Photography GuideUsing your DSLR in Manual ModeRookie’s Guide to DSLRAnd if you’re local to St. Louis,this class is a MUST.Check out my other photography posts […]

  11. […] Hardware A Rookie Guide to Digital SLR Cameras A Guide to Understanding Digital Cameras – Part I (slightly technical) A Guide to […]

  12. Diona says:

    This article was so helpful…Have you written (or thought of writing) an updated version? As you mentioned, the technology is updated so quickly, I would like to get your take on 2011. (I will admit being burned…I am still fuming that I got my dad a Kindle Keyboard last year and the Kindle Touch would have been soooo much better for him, and for less money!)

  13. Mike D. says:

    Diona: Actually yes, I just wrote a follow-up recently. It’s here.

  14. delhiwalla says:

    Thank you for providing an insight into the world of DLSR’s. I will be buying a DSLR in a few weeks and found your article extremely helpful. I have also enrolled for an entry level photography class to develop my skills.
    I have narrowed my search to either Nikon D7000 with 18-50mm or a Cannon T3i with a similar lens. I have decided to wait to on the better lens until I learn and feel comfortable with all the features.
    Given the choice between the two, which one would you prefer.
    Thanks in advance.

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