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5 Tips in Choosing the Best DSLR camera for Beginners

I’m a beginner buying a DSLR camera for the first time, which is the best?

This has to be one of THE most common question we see in photography forums and I do receive at least one email/message a month about the same topic since this blog started. Most of the time, the questions come from first-time DSLR camera buyers upgrading from their fixed-lens, pocket digital cameras.

I also noticed that my responses have been pretty similar ever since. Having no pre-conceived loyalty to any brand pretty much allows me to give a less “marketing bias” opinion (I’m still entitled to my own pre-conceptions, however). The tips will probably not bode well with folks who have spent quite some time with DSLR cameras as well as loyal brand users and niche photographers but should suit well with beginners, so let’s get started!

5 tips in choosing your first DSLR camera for beginners.

  1. Define your budget
  2. Identify your requirements
  3. Check availability of lenses and accessories
  4. Find out what your close friends and family are using
  5. Buy and forget

Sony vs. Canon vs. Nikon vs. Pentax vs. Olympus

Define Your Budget

First step is ask your wallet (or financial manager, aka spouse LOL) how much you can afford. For almost everyone, a basic DSLR camera kit offering by major manufacturers will be more than sufficient. A modern camera body with all the factory accessories and a practical zoom lens is really more than sufficient for most shooting conditions.

Define your budget limit and you can scrape off all other models you can’t afford.

For example, If you only have less than US$900 to spend total, for example, and you want a Canon DSLR camera, your budget will restrict you to a EOS Rebel T3i (aka 600D) or lower models only. You can pretty much ignore the more expensive models and move on. Why bother looking at a Canon EOS 5D Mark II if it’s out of your budget, right?

Some might advice to budget for extra lenses, flashes (yes, I recommend people to budget for a flash, I covered my rationale in my Get A Flash First article in the past), and better accessories. While these are solid, well-intended advice, you should still focus your original budget to get the camera and lens first as they’re the key pieces to get your photographic journey started.

Buy the best gear you can reasonably afford NOW, not what you can afford after 12 months, zero % financing on your credit card.

Heck, if you’re on the other end of the spectrum with practically unlimited budget, get the most expensive camera that fits your needs – or wants (see next point). Then again, if budget is irrelevant, you probably won’t be searching for buying tips anymore.

Here are some beginner’s DSLR suggestions based on features

Entry Level (note that the Sony A55 is not technically a DSLR, but is similar in features)

Nikon D5100 16.2MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-S DX VR Nikkor Zoom Lens Buy From Amazon

Canon EOS Rebel T3i 18 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera and DIGIC 4 Imaging with EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens Buy From Amazon

Sony a55 DSLR Camera with 18-55mm zoom lens Buy From Amazon

Identify Your Requirements

Granted that you won’t know the specific genre of photography you’ll eventually dwell into, you should still have some baseline requirements for your camera purchase such as, but not limited to:

  • Size and Weight (Portability) – If you’re the type who doesn’t mind carrying a bag of some sort most of the time, then DSLR’s increased size (compared to a pocket camera) shouldn’t be that big of a deal. On the other hand, if you feel that small cameras are not ergonomically suited to your large hands, then don’t get a small camera, for example. I always find it strange when people buy small cameras only to ‘enlarge’ it afterwards with grips, hoods, etc. to make it look more ‘high-end pro’.
  • Frequency of Use – How often will you take the camera with you? Somewhat related to the previous point, if you find it annoying to carry a big camera, then don’t get a DSLR (try the new mirror-less interchangeable cameras like the ones Panasonic G-Series, Olympus Digital PEN, Sony NEX, Pentax Q, and Samsung NXoffers). If you’re planning to bring the camera to your travels all the time, then a smaller, lighter camera makes more sense.
  • Most Common Subject(s) – While you probably haven’t narrowed down a genre to concentrate (and excel) on, you probably already have a reason why you want to move up to a DSLR camera, right?  Planning to use that new camera to photograph your kids? Shooting for your online shopping site? Your beloved pet, perhaps? All DSLRs are capable of shooting these generic subject groups, but defining your most common subject will help you decide on physical size and feature requirements.

In addition, buy gear that you will use and need NOW. I read so many advice in forums telling people not to buy ‘For Digital’ lenses such as Canon EF-S lenses,  as they won’t work (or won’t work as well) when they switch to “full frame” cameras later on.

The fact of the matter is, the percentage of folks upgrading to an expensive full-frame camera is VERY LOW. Not to mention that even if you’ll eventually upgrade to a full-frame camera, it’s highly unlikely that it’ll be in the very immediate future. Lastly, your lenses do not depreciate as fast as other gears, you’ll stand to lose very little money when selling used lenses in good condition.

Check Availability of Lenses and Accessories

One of the main benefits of choosing a DSLR system would be the ability to swap lenses and add accessories as your skills and needs grows. There are hundreds of lenses, flash guns, accessories to choose but most of the time, these accessories are brand-specific. For example, a lens made for a Nikon will not fit a Sony DSLR or any other brand, the same with flash units as well.

While all manufacturers have their own lenses and accessories, the two main brands – Canon and Nikon, often offers more in-house products as well as greater third-party offerings than the other brands.

This does NOT mean that brands like Pentax, Sony, and Olympus are inferior, they’re not, and as I mentioned earlier, there are practically no inferior DSLRs in the market right now, but trying to find stores that carry competitive prices for add-on products for these brands are harder than those of Canon and Nikon.

The law of economics just won’t make it competitive or as profitable for 3rd-party manufacturers to make accessories for these brands until they really hit a critical mass in demand. Again, there’s nothing wrong with getting a non-Canon/Nikon brand, just be prepared to either pay more or spend more time finding the items (or both) than Canon/Nikon.

Find Out What Your Friends and Family Use

The advantage of knowing what your friends and family use (assuming they’ll lend it to you) would be the chance to borrow, or at least test/try the potential accessories that you don’t have yet or planning to buy.

Having hands-on experience on how an external flash gun helps you when shooting in low-light or seeing the how your portraits looks with a wide aperture lens will make it easier for you to decide whether or not you need (or want) new accessories for your existing kit.

If you don’t live in a place where you can rent camera gears like I do, it’s a very expensive endeavor to buy-then-find-out-if-I-like-it for these new gears. Having friends and family, as well as local camera clubs, to lend you a new piece of gear to try is invaluable and will save you a lot of money in the long run.

Buy and forget

My last advice is buy and forget. Once you bought your first DSLR camera, STOP COMPARING!

Stop comparing your camera with higher models.

Stop comparing your camera with newer models.

Stop comparing your camera with other people’s cameras (particularly if they’re larger or more expensive).

You bought your camera, USE IT, LEARN TO SHOOT, MAXIMIZE IT. While better gear often helps make taking GOOD PICTURES EASIER, you still need the foundation and skill to shoot good pictures to maximize it. The dollar difference between entry-level and mid-to-high end models often do not warrant the upgrade.

Remember these two comic strips:

What the Duck - A Big Box of Practice

What the Duck - If Only

There will ALWAYS be a better camera out there, there will always be someone with more gadgets, there will always be something new as replacement models come out every 12-18months anyway.

Stop trying to impress others (particularly those you don’t really know anyway) with hardware, do so with you photos instead. These are CAMERAS, not treasure finds.

Buying your first digital SLR camera should be pretty simple, make your own decision after finalizing your needs and budget then forget what the salesman, internet forums, or spec sheets tell you. At the end of the day, it’s your camera, your photos, your usage, no one knows what you need and want better than yourself.

Don’t be swayed by loyal users of a particular brand, particularly if they have never used any other brands extensively. Those who have used different brands extensively probably are advanced enough to know why THEY prefer a certain brand or model based on their usage – not yours.

I hope these 5 tips on buying your first digital SLR camera help beginners everywhere. Simplify, trust your wallet and instincts, then go out and just take TONS of photos. I’ll write another article about things you should features you should watch out for when buying a new DSLR.

If you do decide to buy your first digital SLR online (or any item, for that matter), I’d be very thankful if you purchase it through this Amazon link as I receive a small commission from your purchase and you benefit from getting the most competitive price from a renowned vendor. The commission helps fund this site and I thank you for the support.


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