October 25, 2011

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Jon's DSLR Buying Guide: Part 1 – The Camera

Today, digital cameras are ubiquitous — everyone who has a cellphone has a camera. Even with this proliferation of cameras, if you want a camera that is a step above the rest, you need an SLR or more correctly a DSLR. Fortunately for intrepid amateur photographers, DSLRs can be had on the cheap (Nikon D3100s start under $600), but what features do you need? What lenses should you get? What accessories? These are all questions I was recently asked and I thought I’d share.

I want to cover two important pieces of information before I go on. First, this will be a multi-part blog post. I’m splitting the camera, the lenses and the accessories into separate posts. Secondarily, I’m a Nikon guy and that is what I know best so all my examples will be for Nikon toys — but the information will be valid for ANY make. That being said, buy whatever make of camera that is right for you. Nikon and Canon are the two big manufacturers, but you can also get DSLRs from Pentax, Olympus, Sigma, and a host of others. Lastly, this is geared for the first time buyer with some assumptions that you’ve used a camera before. If you’ve never, ever, ever used a camera before… you might want to buy a point-and-shoot first and start learning there.

So, on to the camera. What to get? What can I live without? What specs are important? What is the must have feature? Where do I get more information?

Let me address the last question first: Where do I get more information? One of the best places to get information is, shockingly enough, Wikipedia. If you look up the Nikon D3100 or the Canon EOS 1100D (both entry level models) you’ll find a decent article with all the basic specs. The really cool thing is the infobox on the right and the DSLR Timeline on the bottom. This timeline will show you where each of the cameras you’re looking at “ranks” compared to the rest. They also tend to note important features/differences of the camera, such as the D3100’s lack of autofocus motor. The other great source of information on camera’s is Dpreview.com. They do full reviews on cameras and even post test images for your comparison. They’ll tell you the strengths and weaknesses of each and every camera.

So what specs are important? The reality is that while cameras have a LOT of features, functionality, gadgets, and gizmos… they all work in a fairly similar manner. Sure, you’ll get better picture quality with the more expensive DSLRs, but we’re talking about the entry level units here. So let’s take a quick look at some of the different specs:

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  • Megapixel — Contrary to what many think, Megapixel is not important. Unless you are shooting pictures to be printed on billboards… throw the megapixel out the window. I could get a GOOD 8×10 print off of a 6 megapixel and I could get a reasonable 20×30 poster from that same 6 MP image. Now all the DSLRs you’re going to find today are in excess of 10 megapixel (probably closer to the 12-16 megapixel range), so you’ll be able to print REALLY nice posters off of any image you capture.
  • ISO — You will want to keep an eye on the ISO sensitivity, specifically the high end. Most good cameras should do at least ISO 1600, but many go to 3200 or beyond. High ISO makes your pictures noisey (which is shunned in artistic photography), but if you really want to get a picture of Little Jimmy playing T-Ball at night (without flash), you need ISO.
  • Continuous Shooting Speed — Again, if you’re taking pictures of a fast event (sports, planes, races), you’ll want to be able to take a lot of pictures really fast. 3 FPS is more than enough for most events.
  • Video — One feature I want to throw out there that I think people should junk (for purposes of research) is video. Many DSLRs can capture high def video and many professional videos are now being made with DSLRs rather than standard video cameras (for example “Like a G6” by Far East Movement was shot on a Canon DSLR with a ring light). Just because the pros do it, doesn’t mean it is good for you. I’ve used the video mode on my Nikon D300s and it is nothing like using a camcorder. Using a DSLR for video works for artsy videos, not generic stuff (like Little Jimmy at T-Ball) plus these DSLRs have some significant limitations when it comes to shooting video (ex: 5-20 minute time limit).
  • Memory Card — Different cameras support different types of memory cards. Nikon/Canon use either SD-type (SDHC/SDXC) or CompactFlash. For all intensive purposes there is no differences between these two memory formats. The only reason you should care is if you have other devices (say a point and shoot) that also use SD/CF.
I’ve mentioned a few of the more important stats above, but none of them are definitive “This is what you need”… so what should you buy for a DSLR? Buy what feels right to you. Go into the store and handle a few of them, figure out what cameras feel “right”. The theory here is that you will be holding the camera a fair amount, so ergonomics are important. Once you’ve found a few cameras that feel good and are in your price range, go onto DPreview.com and read about them. Pick the one with the best review that you can afford.

[amazon] Nikon D3100 14.2MP Digital SLR Camera with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-S DX VR Nikkor Zoom Lens
Now a specific recommendations for Nikons: If you are really just getting up to a DLSR so you can have a few more features than your point and shoot (or maybe you are hoping it’ll take better pictures for you) and plan on sticking with the “Auto Mode” 100% of the time — buy a D3100 or D5100. If you’re hoping to get into photography and pursue it beyond the bare bones, get yourself a D7000. The difference between the 3100/5100 and the 7000 is that the two lower end models lack an internal Auto-Focus motor. While all Nikon lenses work on basically all Nikon cameras, the 3100/5100 need specific lenses with built-in Auto-Focus, or else be stuck in the manual focus world.