How to Choose an SLR

by | Dec 8, 2012 | Recommendations, Updates & Opportunities | 5 comments

Another friend of mine recently asked me what SLR I would recommend they get for seriously starting into photography. While there’s no easy answer to this question, it is easy to follow steps to know for yourself which camera is best for you, serious or not. Below, I have written out what I told my friend and, though it is in no way comprehensive (and very similar to what I have written about Compact Cameras in the past), I hope it will jumpstart your quest of finding the right SLR for you!

1. Determine Purpose

Do you just want to capture memories? Are you a beginner and want to learn how SLRs work? Do you  just want to jump in and see if photography is your thing? Or do you seriously love photography and aspire to be a professional one day? Are you already a professional? Knowing exactly why you want a camera is what will help you make decisions down the road.

2. Determine Budget

In general, the camera you want will cost more than you expect, so be prepared for that. However, since you are already putting forward a large amount of money, don’t forget to ask yourself why it would or would not be worth it to put forward a little more. Also, be reminded that photography equipment depreciates rapidly and a typical SLR will stop working within 5 years. So with this in mind, I generally recommend camera/lens start-up budgets in the following way:

  • Capturing memories: $50-$250
  • Beginner: $250-$1000
  • Serious amateur: $1000-$3000
  • Professional: $3000+

When I bought my first camera, I considered myself a Serious Amateur (because I had already learned on my Dad’s camera), and paid $1,200 for my first camera and lens.

3. Determine Brand

Do your research, but the two best-bang-for-your-buck brands are Canon and Nikon. Just remember that, because lenses are not interchangeable between these two brands, you are buying into an entire system that you’ll probably use for the rest of your life.

4. Conduct Research

Once you’ve chosen a brand, research what that brand’s line of cameras have to offer and determine what features are most important to you. Remember that for every advantage, there will probably be a price disadvantage. Some factors to keep in mind are:

  • Sensor size and type
  • Low light capability (ISO settings)
  • Video capability
  • Frames per second
  • Ease of accessing settings
  • Durability

Dig in deep, find out what cameras have to offer and what different terms mean. Because I’m a Canon user, I categorize the Canon SLR lineup in the following way:

  • Beginner: Rebel lineup. Takes excellent photos though not that durable and difficult to access settings quickly from my experience.
  • Serious amateur: D lineup (40D-7D). Very durable and user efficient, but without the features of the pros.
  • Professional: Mark lineup. Nearly indestructible, full-frame, incredible ISO, everything you would ever need or want.

Lenses are a different story. Begin with the cheaper ones (not cheapest) and work your way to the L-series as you earn money. They make a difference, but it’s not a big enough difference for starting photographers. But I will say this, ever since buying my first L-series a year and a half ago, I don’t think I’ll ever buy anything less.

5. Choose the Camera

By the time you get to this step, you’ll probably already know which one is best. It’s a gut feeling. However, I often find myself spending a lot of time just making sure that the one that LOOKS like what I want is REALLY the one I want.

6. Buy It

Buying new equipment is best, but it is more expensive so I recommend settling for Refurbished equipment. Here are my recommendations for where to actually make the purchase. Ebay works too, but just beware of used equipment. Often you just never know what it’s been through and a scratch on the body doesn’t often tell the whole story. But wherever you buy, wait for good deals. If I have a few weeks or months before I need a piece of equipment, I’ll wait to see if anything amazing pops up. Just remember that shipping doesn’t happen over night.

And one last thought: I want to upgrade my own camera, so if your research leads you to a D lineup Canon camera, than I can give you more details about the 40D that I am selling. Basically, It’s a used Canon 40D body with a practically unused 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 lens for $550. All accessories included. I bought the refurbished body and new lens for around $1100 three years ago. Practically every picture on this website was taken with that camera. Just shoot me an e-mail at [email protected]!

0096_Many Glacier-Montana-USA_Canon EOS 40D, 24 mm, 1-5 sec at f - 11, ISO 100

Photo taken in Glacier National Park with the Canon 40D.

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  1. David Y

    I think that’s pretty good advice.

    You didn’t mention one of the big factors that I think should come into play for many. “Do you have a good friend or relative you’d be likely to borrow lenses, flashes, or other accessories from?” If so, strongly consider buying into the same manufacturer’s product line that they use.

    Another factor is the type of shooting you’ll be doing. If you’re attracted to brightly lit outdoor scenes, you’ll find much less value in an expensive camera that does particularly well in low-light situations. OTOH, if you’re shooting fast moving indoor sports, the much more expensive pro-level camera and lens may make all the difference in whether or not you’re able to capture the moment.

    Lastly, before making much of an investment in lenses, make sure you know the limitations of what you’re buying into. It’s tragic when someone’s started investing in EF-S lenses, and then find they can no longer use them because they’ve upgraded to a camera body that supports only EF lens mounts.

    • James Staddon

      Excellent thoughts, David Y! I loved f/2.8 so much a few years ago that I told myself that I wouldn’t buy a lens that wouldn’t open up that far . . . Well, that was when I was doing a lot more indoor shooting than I do now. Now that I shoot mostly landscapes, I don’t own any f/2.8 lenses any more. 🙂

  2. David Y

    Lenses with apertures in the range of f/2.8 and faster do have some nice advantages for certain types of shooting. In particular, some camera models have additional sensors that provide extra high-precision AF capability — but only for lenses with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or faster. This matters most to sports shooters, though it seems to matter much less nowadays as autofocus systems have improved dramatically. Fast, wide-open lenses also produce better bokeh — the blurring of the background/foreground, and that artistic effect continues to be highly sought after.

    The main downsides I see for an f/2.8 lens are size, weight, and cost. Compared to them, smaller maximum aperture lenses (like f/4) will usually be physically smaller, lighter, and easier on the pocketbook. But none of those advantages matter if you need the speed that only a wider aperture can bring.

  3. David Y

    I currently shoot with the Canon system.

    The Nikon D40X TheFarmhand is asking about was a fine camera in its day, and as long as it’s not too beat up and worn out, it sounds like he’d be getting a good deal. Personally, I’d either fix the broken lens or throw it away. I don’t recommend keeping around broken parts. Other than wear and tear, the major other reason to consider a newer camera would be better low light performance, but it’ll cost significantly more, and may not matter. The D40X has plenty of resolution for most purposes, and was/is good enough for most photographers as a general purpose DSLR.


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