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So you want to buy a DSLR: camera recommendations for beginners | helpful hints series

Four times this year, I've been asked by my amazing clients questions about camera-buying like this one, from Mike:

"We're thinking about buying a good beginner's camera, possibly a DSLR. Do you have any recommendations?"

Yes, yes I sure do! So you're thinking about buying your first DSLR camera. Congratulations! Yes, if you know what you're doing, you can take a great picture with a terrible camera. But while you don't need the gear that Kian and I have, having a decent camera and a basic working knowledge of what you've got makes it a LOT easier.

So let's talk about what you need to know purchasing a DSLR.

First thing's first: your camera is WAY less important than your lens(es). Here's a metaphor for you... Like a dinner plate (your camera body): nice china is way better than a paper plate for enjoying a gourmet meal. But you know what you remember at the end of the meal? The cooking (the lens).

Camera bodies

The camera body you choose will define what lens(es) you can use to take pictures.  The big camera brands (Canon, Nikon, Sony) are all proprietary: Canon lenses won't hook up to Nikon cameras, and so on. So to begin, pick a brand -- unless you want to totally reboot your equipment down the road with major $$ consequences, you're going to be sticking with that brand.  I recommend going with one of the big two: Canon or Nikon.  Different photographers will tell you different things or swear by one brand or the other, but the reality is, both are good. Great, even.  I'm a Canon girl... the first DSLR I was given was a Canon, and all of Kian's equipment is Canon, so I know the most about Canon, and I have to say, I love it. From here on out, I'll be talking Canon gear.

Canon's entry-level camera bodies are the "Rebel" series, with camera names T2i, T3i, T4i, and T5i. The T2i is the oldest, and the T5i is their current offering. They're all really terrific, and not just for beginners, but really for all hobbyists, and even beyond. To give you an idea, I shot my whole first YEAR of weddings on a used T2i.  Unless you have seriously deep pockets, there's no reason your first camera body shouldn't be a Rebel-series.

Specifically, I recommend going with the Rebel T4i (which is, with one tiny insignificant exception, the exact same camera as the newest T5i... and cheaper).  The Rebel T3i and T2i, while not in production anymore, are also both great choices.  

And now, for a quick educational aside: Canon's Rebel series bodies are what are called "crop sensor" cameras, in contrast to "full frame" cameras. Crop sensor cameras are terrific if you're just starting out because they're cheaper, and all lenses work on them.  If you're doing very specific stuff, full frame cameras can be better (they let more light into the camera), but especially if this is your first DSLR, don't worry about it. Here's a terrific technical explanation on full frame vs. crop sensors if you want more details on the nitty gritty.

Camera Lenses

So that's it for a camera body, now what about lenses? 

Many DSLR cameras come with a "kit" lens (they come together as a kit, hence the name)... typically an entry-level 18-55mm lens. That's a fine (and very inexpensive) lens to start out with, but if you find yourselves quickly getting frustrated with its limitations, I would recommend checking out one of the lenses below, based on what you're shooting the most.

Taken with a "nifty 50" -- a Canon 50mm f1.8. (1/200 shutter speed, ISO 800, Canon T2i)

Pictures of your kid, your dog, your significant other: A 50mm f1.8 lens doesn't have zoom to it, but is FANTASTIC for photographing people. This lens is called the "nifty 50", and for good reason. If I could own only one lens, it would be this one. It's an INCREDIBLE lens for a relatively inexpensive price, and it can do so much -- it can get you that creamy, blurry background you're probably admiring in professional photos, it's sturdy, and it's versatile. In a pinch on vacation, it take a pretty decent landscape shot, too.

Kian shot this landscape at 35mm with a lens similar to the Sigma below. (1/350 shutter, f2.8, ISO 160, Canon 70D)

Kian shot this landscape at 35mm with a lens similar to the Sigma below. (1/350 shutter, f2.8, ISO 160, Canon 70D)

Pictures of sunsets, groups of people, and landscapes: If you're going to be taking wider pictures, and only in a pinch really care about individual portraits or close-ups, I'd suggest a wider lens, like this 18-35mm f1.8 from Sigma. What, Sigma?! Not Canon? A few lens manufacturers -- Sigma, Tokima, and Tamron -- make lenses for both Canon and Nikon bodies. So if you're buying from these manufacturers, be sure to look out for whether your lens is "Canon mount" or "Nikon mount". When in doubt, ask customer service -- you do NOT want to guess, and have your lens arrive in the mail only to find it won't fit on your camera!

This photo from Tour de Fat 2013 was taken with my "all around zoom" lens, the 18-135mm. (1/400 shutter, f5.6, ISO 100, Canon T2i)

This photo from Tour de Fat 2013 was taken with my "all around zoom" lens, the 18-135mm. (1/400 shutter, f5.6, ISO 100, Canon T2i)

Pictures of ALL OF THE THINGS: So, you know that expression, "jack of all trades, master of none"? Well, that's pretty true for lenses. Pro photographers carry lots of different lenses because if you want a lens to do something REALLY well, there's going to be lots of other things it can't do at all.  That said, if you're only going to own one lens, and you really want it to be pretty good at doing many things, I'd suggest an all-around zoom like the 18-135mm f3.5-5.6 or the nicer (and zoomier, and more expensive) 55-250mm f4-5.6. The downsides here are that you won't get as creamy, blurry backgrounds (that comes from f-values below 2.8ish), but it's a good up-close lens, gets decently wide, and isn't too expensive.

But what about technical specs?!

But what about pixels, or image processors, or maximum video resolution, or...?!? So glad you asked! Anything you buy in this range should more than exceed your needs as a hobbyist photographer. Honestly, even as a pro, I don't care about a lot of the technical specs you see on gear-driven websites. If you feel the need to go out and learn, spend your time learning about the triad of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, or the basics of good composition. Those will do far more for you. Once you've been shooting with your DSLR for a year and aren't shooting on full auto anymore, if you still care about those tech specs, then is the time to start Googling. 

Where to buy your gear

I would recommend that one great option is to purchase something grade 8+ from the (incredibly reputable) used gear section of B&H Photo. (Especially if it's entry-level gear, and especially if you're new, used gear from a reputable dealer is a great value without any real downsides.) Adorama is also a very reputable retailer.

Things I've learned about accessories: buy these, and little else

When you buy your camera, as soon as you can, buy a few extra things: an extra battery (and make sure it's name-brand to match your camera... I could write a whole separate post about the follies of buying off-brand batteries), a cheap UV filter to protect your lens (make sure it's the right size -- take a look here to figure out what size you need), and after you've been shooting for a bit, treat yourself to a new strap that doesn't hang around your neck -- whether that's a slide-y crossbody strap, a hand strap, or something else. :)

Happy shooting!

(Note: none of these links are referral links, and some of them are old, so feel free to just Google if they don't work when you come across this post.)

More to read in the helpful hints series

helpful hintsAimee Custis