Choosing a first DSLR

Prosumer photography is bigger than ever, and somewhat of a phenomenon in my home country of South Africa – probably because of the wide variety of beautiful things on display. I am often asked for advice in choosing a first SLR camera – it can be very confusing and something that perplexed me when I first took the plunge some years ago. So herewith the simplest advice I can think of, based on my own experience.

I’m also steering away from things like post-processing software and speed-lighting because those are best addressed in isolation. I won’t elaborate on terms like aperture or shutter speed either as those are easily referenced elsewhere and should be in your vocabulary before purchasing an SLR anyway.

Spend on glass, save on cameras

A lot of first-time buyers make the mistake of fixating on camera bodies. They want to know whether to choose Nikon or Canon, generally, or whether it is worth getting one of the less-conventional SLRs from Sony or Pentax, for example. That’s the wrong question. Instead, you should be considering what your first lens will be. Spend more on your first lenses than you do on your first camera.

Digital photography has taken giant leaps forward in recent years and cameras are constantly updated, replaced and improved. The cheapest “entry level” SLRs from Canon and Nikon today are as good as the best professional bodies of five years ago, even if they aren’t full frame.

The body you choose is important, but not as important as your lens collection. Lenses will determine what you can shoot and how. A good lens on a cheap body is much, much better than a crap lens on a good body.

Your choice of lenses is also what will lock you into a camera system – be it from Canon, Nikon or another manufacturer. Start with a really good, versatile zoom lens like the Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II or equivalent Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS. After that you might want to buy a good, prime lens for shooting portraits or a nice telephotofor wildlife – whatever floats your boat.

You will likely upgrade your camera body every so often as new models are released, but glass will be with you for much longer, unless you have so much money that buying expensive lenses whenever you feel like switching systems isn’t an issue.

Avoid kits

I will probably get some flack for this recommendation – but I believe that beginner photographers should avoid the temptation to buy cheap camera kits that include lenses and camera bodies. The reason I say this is because all the kits I have seen include inferior lenses – see my first point, above.

My first SLR camera was bought as a kit and I regretted it almost immediately. I had a great camera body and a mediocre lens. This is the wrong balance for a beginner. What you want, as I’ve said, is a good lens, even if it’s mounted on a cheaper body.

Ignore the zealots

Some people will tell you to buy Nikon, only because that is what they have chosen, or Canon because they have some weird attachment to the brand. Ignore them.

The best camera for you might be a Sony or a Pentax. Or, if you’re loaded, you might consider a Leica. I recommend playing around with friends’ cameras or picking up and handling cameras in a store to get a feel for them.

I love the accurate colour-reproduction of Canon cameras and lenses, but prefer the build quality and feel of Nikon. These are personal preferences and you will have to find yours.

I’ve also recently been messing around with Sony’s new single-lens translucent (SLT)cameras. These are great for beginners because they allow you to view the effects of shutter and aperture settings in real time on the camera’s display or in its digital viewfinder. I also like the built-in GPS on some Sony models that automatically geotag photographs – something that generally costs extra for Nikon and Canon bodies. The Sony Alpha 65 is particularly good thanks to the high quality of its digital viewfinder.

So the right camera system for you might not be a Nikon or a Canon – and that’s OK.

Ask the big question

Do you really need an SLR? You might find a compact camera that covers your needs and presents less frustration than a full-on SLR. Learning to master a single-lens reflex camera will take time and practice whereas you could get a really good compact that will allow you to just point and shoot. Oh sure, you can put your SLR into Auto and just start shooting, but then you aren’t really capitalising on your investment even if you are benefitting from better lenses.

Compact cameras have come a long way. The Canon S100, for example,  is ridiculously good and features a remarkably powerful image processor. Or you might consider the Nikon P7000 or Canon G12 that many professionals use as travel cameras.

Buying a good compact will save you money and might allow you to achieve what you want from your camera without breaking the bank or causing headaches.

Follow the experts

There are so many great photographers that make their knowledge available on social networks and elsewhere. Follow these people and use them for inspiration. Below are some of the photographers, both pro and hobbyist, that I follow:

  • *Chase Jarvis – * Chase is an edgy photographer that experiments with lights, mobile phones and other things to create new effects. Check out his website and follow him on Twitter.
  • Light Stalking– A fantastic community of photographers that freely share their tips, tricks and work. I strongly recommend following Light Stalking on Twitter.
  • *The Strobist – *Lighting is one of the most overlooked elements of photography, especially by beginners. The Strobist is all about lighting, and specifically using speed-lights – or flashes. This site is indispensable and should inspire photographers to pick up some lighting equipment.
  • *Dustin Diaz – *I met Dustin in 2009 and spent some time with him in the bush in South Africa where I was blown away by his photography. Based in San Francisco, Dustin is a wealth of knowledge on speed-lights and shares his setups with the world. Be sure to check out his Flickr stream where you’ll find links to his book for Kindle, iOS and other platforms.
  • *Darren Smith – *Darren is a friend of mine from Johannesburg and one of my favourite photographers. He takes photos for the best reason – because he loves it. And he’s bloody good.
  • *Craig Rodney – *Another friend of mine, Craig takes photos for the sheer joy of it – and he is massively talented. Be sure to follow him on Instagram and see what he can do with an iPhone when not shooting on his 5D.

You never stop learning in photography and I consider myself to be a beginner. The important thing is to take time and learn. Equipment is not as important as knowledge. And the best camera is the one that’s with you 😉

Got any other suggestions? Want to argue any of my points? Please share your thoughts in the comments section…

I'm a writer and broadcaster who also designs apps and strategies for disruptive startups in the financial world. Find out more on my about page.