How to Choose Your First DSLR

Whitney kissing baby John on the cheek.

Camera sales have really dropped lately, particularly low-end consumer point-and-shoots with the development of smart phones and their ever improving built-in cameras.  Yet still DSLR sales have been doing fairly well, particularly increasing amongst the younger family demographic.  It’s surprising, but at the same time not really.  It’s the start of a new chapter in many people’s lives, so naturally they want to document it.  Plus you’ve got cousin Becky (who was never the brightest bulb in the package) who just picked up a DSLR last summer an her photos look light years beyond yours.  If she can do it how hard can it be?  Where oh where to start though? 

Right here.  Let me walk you through it.

1. First Things First: Pick your budget

Trust me, photography can become quite expensive.  It may seem odd to say choose your price point before I say choose your brand, but ride with me here there’s method to my madness.  Once you have decided your budget you still have plenty of options between brands, but once you've chosen a brand they generally only create one camera per price point.  Determine how much you’re willing to spend, and determine what options you’ll need to accompany it.

For instance, if you decide you have $1,000 to spend on a camera then you can’t buy a $1,000 camera. You’ll need a camera bag to store it in, a memory card or two, maybe a spare battery, maybe a car charger, maybe... maybe... maybe... You get the point.  When deciding your budget you need to first figure out what you want to do with the camera, and what you’ll need to accomplish it.  Are you into landscapes?  Then maybe you’ll need a tripod.  Are you into bugs?  Maybe you’ll need a macro lens.  Decide what you want to shoot and then research what equipment you’ll need. Once you know what you need then whittle away at how much each will cost until it all fits snugly within your budget.

2. Decide What You Need

Now that you've chosen your budget you've narrowed the field considerably.  Take a little time, do a bit more research and decide which features you can and can't live without.  Now's the time to figure out if you absolutely need a touch screen, or a camera that handles low-light better than average, etc.  If you want bigger prints you may want to look into the resolution of the files that come out of the camera.  If you're planning on using the camera for video you should see if it offers the options you need.  Most importantly though CHECK THE ONLINE REVIEWS!  If you're looking for another great resource for camera reviews click HERE.  You're about to invest hundreds or thousands of dollars, read a bit about what other people with a similar photography background thought about it.  You don't want to commit to a camera based on features just to find out that the menus are impossible to navigate and be confused about how to find the features you need.  Or if you're like me, you prefer something with two scrolling wheels and a series of customizable buttons so everything's at your fingertips and you almost never need to navigate a menu, maybe something with a sleek red triangle by the shutter... (I'm not endorsed by anyone, I just love my Nikon cameras).

3. Pick Your Team (Choose a brand)

Choosing a brand can be quite difficult, it really can become a lifetime commitment and It can be incredibly expensive to shift down the road if you’ve invested into one or the other.  Though there are many other incredible brands, and most of them offer the same features, most people enter the field with one of the two powerhouses: Canon or Nikon.

I chose Nikon (see HERE), but I was a Canon shooter before and they’re fantastic too.  How should you choose?  Research it.  Ask friends and family what they have and ask to test it out.  If someone you’re close with has a vast selection of lenses that you could experiment with or borrow then perhaps it makes sense to choose that brand.  Also, again, be sure to check the online reviews.

Be sure of a few things before you pick teams though, namely the quality and life expectancy of their lenses and products, the reviews of their customer service and support, and the ergonomics/feel of the camera.  I can't stress this enough, pick one up in your hands.  Feel how its weight rests, and if it seems awkward or if it seems to just "click."

4.  Wait

Once you think you've found the PERFECT camera, don't buy it.  Wait for a few days.  Look at alternatives.  Ask someone you trust if you're making the right decision.  Call their customer service and ask a few questions, see if they are professional, courteous, patient, and address your concerns.  Talk to a sales rep, then talk to a professional, but be sure it's someone who isn't in a position to sell you a camera.  If after a few days you're still convinced, and you're sure it's not a knee-jerk purchase.  If you're in the Ottawa area I'd be glad to recommend a few spots and specific customer service reps, feel free to drop a message (andrew@bendthesun.com).

5. Grab the Best Deal There Is

Unfortunately sometimes that may mean waiting some more.  Holding out for the deals may seem like a brutal exercise, but trust me it can be worth it.  Amazon, Best Buy, Henry's, Vistek, B&H Photo, they all offer phenomenal Black Friday and Boxing Day deals.  Most of them offer used gear too, and it's been inspected and tested by professionals. 

Think outside the box: look at maternity sites!  They don't require you to send in an ultrasound to prove you're pregnant, and they often rock some serious package deals on entry-level DSLR's.  Sure you may not save hundreds on the bodies or lenses, but they're notorious for throwing in hundreds of dollars in accessories for pennies.

Don't be afraid to buy refurbished!  If you're buying from bigger box stores they generally offer the option to purchase an extended warranty for $50-$100 that covers the camera for an extra few years, I always opt for it even in my non-work cameras.  I can't speak for all the manufacturers, but Nikon really puts its name on the refurbished gear and I've never been disappointed.  You can save hundreds of dollars on the model you want, or even move up to the next tier of quality or features for the same price you were already willing to pay!  Many of these cameras had nothing wrong with them, the former owner just made an excuse for the fact they purchased something beyond their budget, I've seen it first hand.

EXAMPLE

I've always found examples helpful.  Two of the most popular entry-level DSLR's on the market right now, are the Canon T6i and the Nikon D5500.  They're both fantastic entry-level cameras, and even offer features that some of my own pro cameras don't offer like touch screens and wifi.  (Let's not get started on how overdue touch screens have been on the pro series cameras...)  Anyways, we can easily run a comparison between the two using the site I referenced earlier and we come up with THIS.  Through that link we can see that each side has its own features that you need to weigh the pros and cons to, but ultimately they're generally found within about a $150 difference in price, so they're in the same league at around $720-870 (on today's date) according to Bestbuy.ca.  However if we look at one refurbished on the Henry's website we can get the same kit for $250 cheaper than Bestbuy is selling it.  Vistek's deals section lists a Canon Rebel T6S with a kit for only $814 and it includes free shipping.  My point is, there is a whole world beyond the brand new which is still safe and can save enough to even consider buying another lens on the side!

Now that I have a DSLR, what do I do?

Read this.

Done that?

Now read this one.

IN CONCLUSION

It's hard sometimes, especially at the beginning, to foresee where photography will take you in your life and how serious of an obsession it will become.  Though you may in the end decide that photography is the bee’s knees, and you want to pursue it professionally, the reality of it is that it’s getting harder and harder to be a full-time professional photographer.  The likelihood is (much to my dismay) that the vast majority of you will probably only be hobbyists.  Here's the thing though, as a professional myself I can say without a doubt that I wasted too much of my life trying to be a professional.  I've experienced more growth and become a far more developed photographer as a result of my toying with styles that excite me than as a result of the hundreds of hours I've spent studying theory.  The key is just to get started.  Buy something and shoot.  Most of the images I achieve in my career could be accomplished with much less high-end equipment, so don't let your price range or your experience hold you back from trying!

What would a photography blog be without photos?  Here are a few shots I took this past weekend with my family where I experimented with a technique called lens chimping created by one of my favourite photographers Sam Hurd (The same guy who inspired me to experiment with techniques like prisming and the ring of fire - CHECK HIM OUT!!!).  Now get out and shoot something!

 
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-Wes.