Now that DSLRs (digital single lens reflex) cameras are so affordable, more and more people are interested in high-quality photography. Although mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras have gained quite a bit of popularity, nothing beats the speed, control, versatility, and quality of a good DSLR.
There are a lot of cameras to choose from out there. Many people just getting into photography often ask me where to start. Here are my recommendations.
Although there are many competitive brands on the DSLR market (Pentax, Olympus, Sony), the segment is dominated by two brands: Nikon and Canon. Both make excellent cameras and have impeccable reputations.
I prefer Nikon because I find their cameras and lenses to be slightly less expensive and the controls to be more intuitive. I also like the build and feel of their cameras in my hands. And there is a surfeit of lenses, flashes, and other accessories out there, especially on the used market. You’ll always be able to find Nikon gear, no matter where you go.
Speaking of which, I highly suggest beginners to consider secondhand equipment. DSLR technology has been very good for several years now, so good that cameras even two or three generations back are more than capable of providing great photos. When I first started shooting professionally, I was using the Nikon’s earliest entry-level DSLR, the D40, using the kit lens, and editing using a version of Photoshop that came out when my fiancee was still in 6th grade. I took this picture with it:
Maybe the D40 is too old for today’s market, but its successors, such as the D3100 or D3200, are great cameras to hunt for on Craigslist, Ebay, or from friends who might be upgrading. Don’t get caught up in how many megapixels a camera has, it doesn’t matter. Image files have been huge for years now, and megapixels are far less important than sensor and lens quality when it comes to taking good pictures.
If you must have new equipment, Nikon’s current entry-level DSLR, the D3300, is fantastic. You can get it refurbished from Adorama, which will save you a few bucks (sometimes they have additional sales too). I always buy my cameras refurbished. They are factory certified and almost always come with entirely new parts other than the camera body itself.
The D3300 gives you all the control of a DSLR in a small and lightweight package. It also takes HD video in 1080p. It’s great for all-around photography, especially if you’ll be traveling.
One thing to note is that the D3300 (and its predecessors) do not have internal autofocus motors. This means that you will need to use lenses with their own motors, designated as AF-S lenses, in order to use the autofocus function. Thankfully, the kit lens, as well as quite a few of the other entry-level lenses, are all labeled as AF-S. Combined with this camera, these lenses will serve 95% of photographers perfectly well.
For more advanced control (and more dough), I would recommend the D90 family of cameras. The D90 is also a little older, but still performs remarkably well, and is still my most-used camera. I recently took this photo with it:
I used to have a professional grade D300, but I found myself putting it aside more and more in favor of the D90, which was lighter and easier on the hands but took photos that were just as good. Eventually I sold my D300 and bought a new model from the D90 family for the same money I sold the old D300 for.
The D90 family of cameras all have an internal motor, so you can use them with Nikon autofocus lenses, which grant you access to an insane selection to choose from — primes, zooms, fisheyes, etc. More on those another time.
These cameras are also larger, so they have real estate for more buttons, which give you quicker access to all the controls when you need to change settings on the fly instead of toggling through menus on a screen. Of course, this comes at the price of being heavier and more cumbersome to carry around (in addition to being significantly more expensive).
Again, if you must have something new, the most recent addition to this family is the D7100, which you can also get refurbished at Adorama. It’s probably more camera than you will ever need unless you are Annie Leibovitz or something. If that’s the case, you should be getting a full-frame D810 or a D4S and there’s no need for you to be reading this.
In the end, photo quality comes down to a photographer’s eye for composition and the amount of practice he or she decides to invest in it, and which camera you use depends more on personal preference than anything else. You don’t need anything fancy. Park Chan-wook shot a movie on a crappy iPhone 4. As long as you have the passion and the persistence to keep at it, you can make great images out of anything.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments.
EDIT: Beach Camera is having a Black Friday deal on the D3300. I wrote about it here.