How to Choose the Best DSLR For You (or: Buying My First DSLR)

I'm pretty well known in my circles for being a bit of a research geek. OK, a huge research geek. When I decide I want to figure something out, I go full tilt until I get to the bottom of it. So, it isn’t surprising to me that I get asked to research stuff for my friends. Yesterday, a second person asked me about buying a DSLR and I thought it might be worthwhile to do a blog post instead of answering on facebook. This way, you can also take advantage of my research process!

(Since this post is fairly jargon heavy, I have added a lot of links, but please feel free to ask me if you have any additional questions!)

This is me and my sony a200 with the 50mm lens in the middle of shooting wide open with an aperature of 1.7. This was shot by Remy, who is four and a half. He uses my Canon P&S. That's his finger at the top. I'm committed to not editing his photos, since I want them to be expressions of his artistry and he will eventually learn how to edit himself.

First question: What is a DSLR?

A DSLR (digital single lens reflex) is a camera with interchangeable lenses that uses a mechanical mirror system to direct the light from the lens to the optical viewfinder. (Nowadays there are also EVF -- electronic viewfinder interchangeable lens cameras, I have looked at the Sony a55 a month ago at Best Buy and don’t like the EVF as much as the optical viewfinder.)

Second question: Why buy a DSLR?

This was personally my biggest question. What was so special about them that I couldn't do with my P&Ss? (I have two. A smaller one and a "bridge camera" that essentially mimicked a DSLR without having interchangeable lenses.) My bridge camera is a really nice camera. I mean, really nice. My husband did the research on that one, and it is a mightily impressive camera. But it only does so much in low light... and it is slower to actually shoot a picture than a SLR camera is.

I spent months really working my P&S cameras to the full extent. I learned how to shoot full manual. I learned what aperture was. (I had a really hard time with shutter speed, I'll be honest, but I did my best. I actually figured it out last fall in a beginning photography class. But I am still shooting Aperture Priority most of the time. I can, however, shoot full manual when I need to.)

One thing my P&S cameras can’t do easily is focus manually. Yes, sometimes I need to do that. Especially when I want a very shallow depth of field, like here: 

This was taken with my Sony a200 with the 90mm 2.8 lens. Oh the creamy bokeh!

I read a lot of online tutorials. (I am pretty sure I found The Pioneer Woman's blog because of googling for photography tips! LOL Her photography section is superb!)

All this research and my shooting led me to understand that I wanted bigger apertures. I love the look of bokeh (blur). I figured out how to achieve it with my P&S (using the macro focusing setting, which looks like tulip on the cameras I own -- check your owner manual). But a bigger aperture would give me a lot more possibility.

This was taken with my Canon P&S. I mean, it’s pretty, but the image quality is just not the same, which is partilally a composition issue, I know. Also, since I was most likely using the liveview here, it's shaky b/c I wasn't stabilizing the camera with my body. And I was holding an umbrella, because it was raining. LOL

Eventually, I passed some sort of inner barrier and realized that yes, if I had a DSLR, my photography really could go to another level.

Third question: Which DSLR should I buy?

I did a lot of amazon drooling (window shopping for geeks). I read every single review on every entry level DSRL I could find. And then some. (The worst was reading reviews for the cameras I couldn't afford. Sigh.) When it came down to it, aside from a few exceptions, there were no completely lousy entry level DSLRs. I was reading mostly to figure out what I wanted in a camera.

I also started testing out cameras at every electronics store I could get to.

Now, know this: Canon and Nikon dominate the DSLR market. I personally see / know a lot more Nikon shooters than people who shoot with Canon, but Digital Photography School, a blog/ community/ resource that I highly recommend, finds there are a lot more Canon shooters amongst their readers. This may be because the founder of DPS is a Canon shooter himself! LOL

(When you buy a camera body, you are buying into the lens system as well, since every company has it's own proprietary lens mounts. There are adapters, but most people are going to stay with their brand.)

This was also shot with my P&S. If I’d been using the macro mode (or shooting with a bigger aperature than my P&S has) the trees in the back would be seriously blurry and pretty.

Different lenses have different functions. A 50mm lens with a 1.8/ 1.7 aperture) is a common portrait lens and that's where I started (I bought my Minolta nifty fifty the same week I bought my camera body). Many photographers recommend this lens to start out with, and I am one of them. Another lens that I love now is my macro lens (I have a Tamron 90mm f:2.8). These are (at this time) my two main lenses. I also have the kit lens, which I occasionally use.

At this point, I'd also narrowed down my budget (which for me was a huge factor). I wanted a Nikon d90 but I just couldn't afford it.

 This was one of the first pictures I took with my new DSLR.

And then I I found "my" camera brand. Sony. It just felt right in my hands. I really didn't like the way Canon felt in my hands (although because I had a Canon P&S, the controls felt intuitively right to me). Nikon felt right in my hands, but the controls felt counter-intuitive to me (and then I found out why in my photography class. Now I sometimes shoot with my friend Maria's Nikon and I like it a lot. I may eventually switch brands, to be honest, because I really want a DSLR that has video capacity, and I would eventually like a full sensor camera body... and Nikon has that, but Sony does not).

After finding my brand, I just had to figure out which one to buy. That turned out to be easy: I just went cheap, so I could (eventually) put more money into lenses. I bought a used camera (floor model) off of amazon. Originally, I was supposed to get an a300, but they shipped an a200 instead (which does not have Live View) and after thinking it over for a day, I decided to keep the a200 (and got reimbursed for the small price difference).

Not having Live View turned out to be a great thing -- probably the number one thing that helped me the most in my transition to "real" photography. Having to look through the viewfinder? Made me work on my composition. Helped me discover what it was I wanted to shoot. Helped me really slow down and focus. I've been very happy with my a200. I hardly use the other cameras I own anymore (except for video and for extreme zoom photography).

I do not have a lens for my DSLR that would allow me to take this shot (an extreme close up of the polar bear at the Bronx zoo). It was shot with my “bridge camera,” which is a Panasonic. A DSLR is not the end all be all. I love this photograph and am planning on adding a print of it (slightly cropped) to my etsy shop soon. But, I do plan on getting a lens for my Sony that can give me shots like this. Because I prefer the speed of my DSLR.

Now, is the a200 a camera I'd recommend to everyone? No. I think that the most important thing is how a camera feels in your hand. (Go and try out different brands.) And also, if you have a bigger budget, use it! I like being a maverick, so I'm happy I don't have a "big name" camera (also, it is fun seeing other alpha shooters, and having something in common with the old school Minolta guys, too).

But I think there might be something to be said for buying into a bigger system. Although I didn't do it, there are more lenses available (overall) for Nikons and Canons. (Sony uses the same mount as the Minolta Maxxum cameras, which are great older lenses. And it has stabilization built into the body of the camera, instead of having two separate lines of lenses, those with vibration reduction, and those without. I think Canon and Nikon kinda suck for that, personally.)

They're really all (mostly) good cameras. Some do better in low light. Some do action a little better. Do the research into what you need. I found what worked best for me! (And then I grew into my camera, thankfully!)

In the end, I cannot decide for you whether or not you are ready to make the step into the world of SLR photography. In fact, a bridge camera  (or EVF interchangeable lens camera) might suit your needs better. It is all a question of what you are using your camera for. 

This is the photo I was probably taking when Remy took the photo of me at the beginning of this post. It is intentionally blurry. 

Hopefully, sharing my experience (and all these links) will help you make your own decision