A photographer comes to a party. Everyone is mingling around and chatting happily. The host remarks he saw the photographer’s recent photo exhibition. “Your work is fantastic!” -he says – “you must have a really good camera” he adds. The photographer says nothing. The food finally arrives. “Your food tastes so delicious” exclaims the photographer “you must have really good pans!”
In other words, an expensive camera will not make you a better photographer, so relax. It’s just a tool. True, if you’re serious about your photography you want to work with decent tools, but just don’t stress yourself too much about getting the latest model, with the highest specs and read on to find out what to look for when buying your first DSLR.
Your first DSLR
If you are buying your first DSLR and have not had much experience shooting with one in the past, there is really no reason to go above the entry level DSLR camera. Sure, you could spend £3000 rather than £300 but will you be able to see the difference in your photos? Almost certainly not. The 3K model will be substantially heavier and you’ll never take it anywhere with you and the kids because you will be paranoid it’ll break. Even if you choose to make photography your career, your first camera will last you a good few years whilst you are building up your skills and portfolio. Plus, ask any photographer – they will upgrade their lenses (and spend a small fortune doing so) before upgrading their camera bodies. Everytime.
DSLR or a full-spec bridge camera?
Do you actually need a DSLR? What about those intelligent bridge cameras that have entered the market in the recent years? Well, it rather depends on what you want to do with it. Let’s start from the top.
DSLR stand for Digital Single Lens Reflex which translated into human means the light enters the camera and is reflected through a series of mirrors and prisms so you can see the image in the viewfinder exactly in the way it enters through the lens.
Why choose one?
DSLRs are generally faster than compacts. The Autofocus is quicker, there is very little shutter delay and their continuous shooting capabilities are better compared to all but the most advanced bridges.
DSLRs tend to perform better in low light conditions and shooting on high ISO setting will produce better quality results than on the same setting with a bridge camera (less grainy photos).
They offer you greater flexibility when it comes to upgrading lenses and adding on other accessories – even with interchangeable lenses available for some bridge cameras, the choice is usually much more limited.
They are not the smallest or lightest and can be cumbersome to simply always have with you. Adding on extra lenses will swallow a large proportion of your savings and there will be always more gear on you”dear Santa” list.
Bridge cameras use electronics instead of the old mirror lens system. Some advanced models will rival DSLRs in terms of general specs and manual controls.
Why choose one?
Many (though not all) will be much smaller and lighter than DSLR. Lots of photographers will own a bridge camera as an additional camera – for those times when they don’t want to lug a lot of equipment around but still want more controls than your regular point and shoot offers.
They offer you manual or semi-automatic controls, which put you in control, similarly to what you would do in a DSLR. Depending on make and model they may only offer limited aperture ranges.
Not all models will give you a chance to change your lenses and / or add a detacheable flash. On the plus side, some will have fixed super-zoom lenses, which can perform surprisingly well compared to traditional lenses ( usually much longer and heavier)
There are arguably some great bridge cameras out there but the price you pay for them rivals or frequently even surpasses an entry level DSLR. Some cheaper bridge models will look like DSLRs, weigh as much but fail to deliver on the key metrics.
Camera specs – what to look out for
Megapixels – more is not always better
Remember the good old days when all the camera manufacturers had to do was to cram more mega pixels in and their new cameras were just flying off the shelves. Well, Megapixels have not all been created equal. Some end up being more squashed together than others (some compact cameras have this problem) and in the end produce less satisfying results than cameras with fewer mexapixels – this is partly due to the size of the sensor that’s fitted into a camera. For your first DSLR camera you really needn’t worry about it – 10 -15 Megapixels is absolutely sufficient.
Light Sensitivity – ISO range
ISO is a measure of the camera’s light sensitivity and you do want to pay attention to this one. Chances are, you will be taking a large proportion of your photos indoors and having a camera that offers better light sensitivity will save you from using the flash unnecessarily. You want a range of at least 100 – 1600 ( 3200 is better). Do note that some cameras will produce more ‘grainy’ images at the top scale of the ISO than others so you may be wise to track some online tests that show the differences between your chosen models. Incredibly, you may even find models that will give you an ISO measure of 12,500 – but that is honestly the camera manufacturers just showing off and you are unlikely to get good quality shots at that level.
Camera speed – frames per second
MOst DSLR cameras have “continuous shooting” modes where you can just hold the button and it will take a sequence of photos in a row. How many photos or ‘frames’ the camera is able to take per second is a measure of its speed. They will range from 2-3 frames per second (fps) to 8 fps for consumer cameras. Again, unless you are planning on a career of sports photography, you really don’t need to go to the top end of this measure.
Did you know most modern DSLRs will give you the option to switch between single and multiple autofocus points [visible as small brackets or dots in the viewfinder]. More autofocus points provides you with greater choice of areas to focus on and improves the camera’s ability to track moving subjects. In the models we have selected for you they range from 9 – 19 points.
LCD screen with or without Live View
Can you imagine that in the film era were took photos, then had pay for and wait to have them develop before we actually saw what we were shooting? Nowadays you want to have a good quality and good size LCD screen at the back of you camera to instantly review the photos you are taking. Some models will have a ‘live view’ option which allows you to review the image on screen before shooting rather than looking through the visor. Some models will even offer a tilt screen so you can review your images comfortably without doing acrobatics when shooting at an awkward angle.
A relatively new feature on the camera market which will help you reduce the “camera shake” when shooting at slow shutter speed. A lot of new lenses will also come with this feature. Certainly a nice to have.
Do you plan to shoot video with your DSLR Most of the new entry level models will offer this feature and in most cases the quality will be acceptable.
Your first DSLR will no doubt come with what we call a ‘kit’ lens – with a typical focal length range of 18-55mm. This one is fine for you to start with – you WILL want to upgrade your lenses at a later date, but this is a good enough starting point to help you learn and have a clearer idea of what you want to upgrade to. Our guide to lenses is coming soon!
Ready to make your purchase? What brand?
When it comes to pro photography only 2 brands really count – Nikon and Canon. Yes, there are very good cameras from Pentax or Sony but what you need to know is that when you buy into a camera, you also buy into a whole ecosystem that is this brand-specific and not interchangeable between brands. So if you buy a Nikon camera you will buy Nikon-fit lenses, Nikon filters, Nikon Flash etc. And there is simply more choice of these elements within these two brands.
But which one?
At the entry-level end of the market both camera brands are actually so comparable when it comes to results and whether you go for one over the other will simply be a matter of personal preference for esthetics, menu and controls set-up or just a ‘feel’. So sorry about that, but we can’t really point to a winner in the Canon – Nikon competition.
What we did, was to trawl the great Amazon and pick our selection for you with commentary on each camera’s strenght and weaknesses (at the best prices we could find). And if you choose to buy through our store-front , we do get a twopence of commission form the Amazon sellers but it will not affect the price you pay for it (win-win)