Making the jump to a digital single lens reflex camera (DSLR) will open up the world of photography in new and wonderful ways. A DSLR offers many advantages over a digital compact camera in terms of speed, flexibility, durability, programmable features and a variety of functions not available in smaller compact cameras.
Your purchase will be dictated by several factors not the least of which are price and features. The technology out there is so good, that any major manufacturer can give you an excellent camera and lens kit to get started. The differences between cameras are the software, ergonomics, flexibility and accessories.
Here are a few factors to consider when looking for a DSLR:
System –you are not buying JUST a camera body and lens, but a SYSTEM. All the major camera manufacturers have excellent cameras and lenses, but they are incompatible with other manufacturers systems. Make sure you invest in a system that has the flexibility to expand to your future vision. Third party suppliers can sometimes fill a gap in your system (particularly with lenses) but often they only support the biggest manufacturers.
Weight and Handling – DSLR’s are also much heavier than compact cameras, but the weight differences between makes and models can be remarkable. Find a camera that you can be comfortable carrying around your neck all day.
Optics – The best camera in the world is only as good as the glass you hang on its front end. I strongly advise SLR buyers to buy the best quality lenses that can afford. There can be a big difference between a high-end lens and a kit lens in terms of image quality. (See my Shutterfly Blog article on lenses)
Image Sensor – There is a lot of talk today about full frame vs. partial frame cameras. Full frame cameras permit the full use of the image sensor in the camera’s body; partial frame cameras use only a portion of the sensor. Both full and partial frame cameras take perfectly good photos, and it is arguable whether the quality is noticeably different for the amateur/advanced amateur. Remember though, LENSES optimized for partial frame cameras will severely vignette when mounted on a full frame body.
Megapixels – You don’t need 24 MP. There I said it. Some photographers argue that you don’t really need any more than 6-7 MP in order to create perfectly gorgeous, laser sharp prints that blow up to near billboard size. While more MAY be better…you don’t really need it.
ISO – Higher ISO capability allows you to shoot images in low light, usually with somewhat decreased image quality and increased ‘noise’. Some newer and more expensive models have made dramatic improvements in the quality of low light/high ISO photography.
Features – Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that you will likely use only a tiny portion of the ‘bells and whistles’ that come as part of your camera. It’s nice to have Mode M auto-bracketing (flash/speed/aperture)…but I can’t remember the last time I used it. Most DSLR’s come with a good basic set of features that are more than enough for the new user.
Price – DSLR’s are much more expensive than compact cameras. Nevertheless, you can still purchase a good quality body and lens kit for well under $1000. They sky, as you will find, is the limit on the upper end of what you can spend for say, a full frame professional DSLR. My advice? Set yourself a budget and STICK TO IT!
Purchasing – Local retailers tend to charge more, but they often provide valuable personal assistance that you can’t get from a big box store or from a mail order house. Mail order purchases can provide big savings, but can be riskier in terms of quality of purchase. There are several big reputable photo stores out of New York (and elsewhere) that specialize in mail order purchases and provide excellent service. Make sure you are purchasing reputable equipment from a reputable dealer. If a deal is too good to be true…well you know the rest. Make sure you know the stores return policies before you buy, and also make sure there is room in your budget for accessories as:
Batteries – Your camera SHOULD come with a battery. If you shoot a lot you might consider getting a back up.
Memory Cards – Some models come with one but most are small in size. You will absolutely need to get a second card. (And a third and a fourth…)
Camera Bag – Get a good bag and protect your camera.
Filter – Buy it. It’s cheaper to replace than a damaged lens and you can take them off if you are a purist. Invest in a UV filter for each one of your lens.
Extended Warranty – They are worth considering. You can get one for your camera body and lenses.
Exposure Modes – Like compacts, most DSLR’s come with a variety of exposure modes, including your standard Program, Auto and Semi modes. They also include shutter and aperture priority modes and full manual modes, which give you infinitely more control of your photography.
Shutter Speed – go up to as much as 1/8000sec…need I say more?
Continuous/Burst Mode – Allows the photographer to shoot a burst of images quickly by just holding down the shutter release. FPS (frames per second) is very important, particularly in shooting fast moving subjects like sports and wildlife (especially my favorite – hummingbirds). The faster my camera can focus and click the greater chance I have of getting a good photo of the bird. Same goes for sports shots.
LCD Size – If previewing your images in the field is important to you…and why wouldn’t it be? You’ll want a large bright LCD on the camera back. One that tilts is even better (But more fragile)!
Image stabilization – This technology has been in lenses for a while and only recently has been included in camera bodies themselves. Stabilization helps reduce vibration thereby allowing you to shoot at slower shutter speeds. A must have in many situations!
Pop up Flash – Most DSLR’s have this feature until you get to the higher end professional models. While better than no flash, pop ups are still prone to causing red eye and generally unflattering light. You will eventually want to invest in a high quality external flash.
Internal Sensor Cleaning – This is an essential feature if you switch lenses a lot. Near microscopic dust can collect on the image sensor during lens changes. You can’t see it by looking at the sensor can and it will obligingly include it in every image it captures.
Live View– This specialized mode is for viewing scenes through the LCD instead of the rangefinder. It can be quite useful when incorporated with a tilt screen LCD and is great for people who don’t want to be limited to viewfinder composition, and enjoy taking photos from the hip, high up, or from odd angles.
I was told by a photographer friend that a DSLR, like any other camera, is little more than a tool. Granted it is an expensive and enormously flexible tool, but to accomplish anything it needs to used by an artisan who understands its’ functions and limits. There is no guarantee that a better camera will produce any better photographs than a really expensive hammer will build a better house. The rules of exposure, focus and composition are no different, but now you have the flexibility to bend them to your vision.
Good luck on choosing your camera. Research, talk to people, narrow down a few and test drive them. I can’t wait to see your images! Don’t forget to create a Shutterfly photo book to show off your work and or make a Shutterfly Share site to share your images. You can check out my Share site here.