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The Ultimate Guide for Buying Your First Digital SLR

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Let's assume that you've been shooting with your "point and shoot" for a while now, and you've taken some pretty nice snapshots. But maybe you are starting to feel a little limited by what the camera is capable of doing. You've read up on photography, and there are things you want to work on. You feel it is time to step up!

This guide will help you to understand some of the basic features of Digital SLR cameras (DSLRs), and hopefully help you find one that fits both your needs and budget.

digital slr buyers guide

What is an SLR? (DSLR)

Before we get started, it's important to note that no camera will make you a better photographer. No matter how fancy or expensive! That said, your camera may limit your progress and creativity if it doesn't do what you need it to.

SLR stands for Single Lens Reflex. Basically this tells you that when you look through the viewfinder, through a series of prisms and mirrors, you will see exactly what the lens of your camera sees. You are looking through the lens. As opposed to some of the viewfinders (if your point and shoot even has one) which just give a representation of what your lens sees. "D" just designates "Digital" as opposed to a Film SLR.

Now you may ask; "Why do I want to look through a viewfinder? My point and shoot has a LCD on the back which essentially does the same thing." Ever try to look at that LCD on a bright sunny day with the sun behind you? Or shoot down at the beach with all the sand reflecting onto the LCD? Pretty impossible isn't it. By using the viewfinder on a DSLR you isolate your eye from the sun and get to see exactly what your image will be with no distraction. The first advantage of a DLSR.

DSLRs also allow you to change lenses as opposed to the lens on a point and shoot camera which, while capable of being zoomed, cannot be changed for different specialized lenses. There's the second major advantage!

DSLRs also have a larger digital sensor than point and shoots. With that comes better quality, and lower noise. So even if you find a point and shoot with the same 10 megapixels as a DSLR, the quality will not compare. The third advantage.


Hold It in Your Hand

While you may end up buying your DSLR online from an online retailer, you may want to consider going to a store and actually handling the camera to see how it fits your hand size and how accessing the controls match up to you.

DSLRs range in physical size from quite compact to fairly large. If you are someone with small hands, some of the larger ones may actually be uncomfortable for you to use or vice versa if you have large hands. So try them out first - either at a big box store or even preferably at your local camera store. But do me a favor, if you go to your local camera store, which can be a wealth of knowledge in helping you decide on the right camera for you, buy it there too. Don't take their advice for free and buy elsewhere or that place may soon not exist.

If you do buy online, just remember the old adage: if it sounds too good to be true, it is too good to be true. Meaning if you find a place whose price is far below what everyone else is selling it for, be very wary and check them out before you hand over the credit card.

Many are not selling new in a box, some without warranty, some without all the accessories that come standard and they will try to sell them back to you separately. Some, you just plain will never see a box arrive at your door. So think twice before you buy what seems to be an incredible deal. If in doubt, you can check out an online businesses rating at such places as resellerratings.com and see what others have to say about their experience.


Brands

85% of all DSLRs sold are sold by two main brands; Canon and Nikon. There are also fine offerings from other manufactures such as Pentax, Olympus and Sony. All are excellent manufacturers that have been around for years dating back to film cameras (Sony's was previously under the Minolta/Konica Brands). No one manufacturer is better than another and they all have their strength and weaknesses. You just need to find one that has the strengths in the areas most important to you.

There are often huge flame wars between Nikonians (Nikon shooters) and Canonadians? (Canon shooters) about which brand is superior, which I always refuse to get into. I happen to shoot with Canon but my images would look no different if I shot with a Nikon. I have never heard someone standing at a gallery show, saying "Wow - That is such a great Nikon shot", or "There is some real Canon magic in that image". When it gets to that point (large print on a wall) no one would know. It is all about features, controls, and specifications that fit your needs, not brand popularity.

So let's look at some of the technology and features of a DSLR and I will talk a little about what brands may have an edge in certain areas. But the superiority of one brand over another is very close, and who is ahead may just depends on the new model release of that year.


Megapixels

Nowadays, the question of megapixels (MP) is almost moot. Almost all basic DSLRs out right now have at least 10 megapixel digital sensors. Megapixels are merely the total pixels or points of light that a digital sensor has to make an image. Having more does not make for a better image, it only allows for that image to be blown up to a larger size. But 10MP is sufficient for almost any size print you are likely to make these days.

To figure out how big is pretty easy. In the specifications for your camera you will see a Pixel x Pixel for a large image specification. It will look something like this from a Canon XSi - 12MP - 4272 x 2848. Take those pixel dimensions and divide by 300 which would give you 14.24 X 9.49.

That is the maximum print size in inches for a Museum Quality Fine Art Print for that camera. Is that the maximum print size for that camera? No, not at all, in fact you could print up to a 42" x 28" print from that camera with very good quality which is large enough for just about anybody's wall.

So you can see if you just are going to print 4" X 6" or 8" x 10"s every camera out there is sufficient for your needs. In fact if you only email or post pics to your Facebook account, those images are under 1 MP so there is no need to worry at all. Since you are here to learn and get better at your photography, we would hope that you would like to print some nice 11 x 14's to display on your wall!

In some cases, too many megapixels may actually be a hindrance. If you don't have a high end computer with a fast processor and plenty of memory, you may not even be able to process an image from that 21.2MP behemoth you are ogling at at the photo shop. Plus, too many MPs may actually negatively affect high ISO performance on a lesser camera. So while MPs are important, it is not the specification that should make or break your decision on a basic DSLR.


High ISO performance

ISO is the sensitivity to light of your digital camera. The higher the capability, and the better performance of that capability, the better you can shoot in low light situations. If you always shoot outdoors on nice sunny days, or indoors with flash, this may not be a specification that you need to worry about.

But if you want to shoot action, sports, with existing light indoors, weddings where no flash is allowed, or night street scenes, high ISO performance will be very important to you.

Most basic DSLRs have ISO capabilities of 100 to 1600, with 100 being for plenty of light and 1600 being for low light. As you move up in each manufacturer's product line you will see increases in the top ISO available; 3200, 6400 and even an incredible 12,800 in a consumer DSLR! Now just because a camera has that capability does not mean that it has the performance at that ISO.

Most cameras are only capable of producing an image with acceptable noise at a mark below the maximum number. Most that are capable of ISO 1600 really can only go to ISO 400 without getting excessive noise (the bad side effect of high ISO) and even the ones that top out at 12,800 may actually only be usable to 3200. This is still a great feat. If this is a specification that is important to you, you may want to check out some of the camera review sites to see which cameras do better in this regard.


Large and High-Resolution LCD

A 3" or larger LCD on the back of your camera is a welcome addition. For reviewing your shots or zooming in to check focus, the larger and higher resolution will make it easier for you with less squinting. It will also help for the display of all the camera's menus in larger fonts making it easier to read and adjust settings. They also help if your camera has a "Live View" feature which I will discuss next.

digital slr buyers guide

Live View

Some models of cameras have "Live View" and, if you have been using a digital point and shoot, you are quite used to using one. It allows you to use the LCD on the back of your camera to compose your shoot and to zoom and check focus. I am not a big fan of it (since LCD's are still hard to see in bright sunlight) but many people love this feature.


Frames Per Second (FPS)

Frames Per Second is how many images your camera is capable of taking in a row with the shutter button held down and in "multi" mode. If you just take a snap here or there, or take a few minutes to compose a great landscape, this will not be at all important to you. But if you shoot sports or wildlife, this will be high on your list to look for to capture fast moving action. 2- 3 FPS would be Normal, 8 FPS would be very fast.


Movie Mode

A number of new DSLRs offer video shooting at High Definition (or near High Definition) quality. Whether that is important to you is a personal decision, but it's becoming a standard feature on many of the most popular entry level DSLRs.


Sensor Size

There are a few different size digital sensors from APS-C, which most consumer DSLRs are, up to what is known as full size sensors. Since this is a guide to your first DSLR I won't go into too much detail on them. There are some advantages to full size sensors, but they are really found in professional or semi-pro cameras in the high end of the price range beyond the scope of this guide.


Sensor Cleaning

One of the side effects of being able to change lenses is that with the lens off, the chance of dust or dirt getting on your digital sensor is greatly increased. They appear as fuzzy spots in your images and can be quite annoying. Luckily most cameras now come with self cleaning or dust reduction systems for the sensor to minimize dust, or the need to take the camera into the shop for a cleaning.


Lenses

There is no more important accessory to a DSLR than the lens, or choice of lenses. If you are on a very tight budget you may want to stick with the "kit" lens that comes with your camera. If, however, you have any money left in your budget, you may want to upgrade that kit lens for the next lens up in quality.

In fact, lenses are so important, if you were thinking about two different priced cameras, I would go for the lesser camera body and instead upgrade the lens. They are just that important to image quality, sharpness and ability to auto focus quickly.

digital slr buyers guide

There are almost limitless choices from the camera manufacturers - and also from third party lens makers - such as Sigma, Tamron and Tokina. Most of the time you get great lenses from the manufacturer of the camera. You can save some money going with a third party lens. The only slight problem you may have is some compatibility issues with AF (Auto-focus) systems on the camera because third party manufacturer are not privy to the engineering data from the camera manufacturer.

But don't let this dissuade you from looking into third party lenses and checking out a few reviews. Although most of my lenses are by my camera manufacturer, one of my favorite lenses is made by a third party manufacturer.

You will want to start out with a wide angle to normal zoom lens. Most of the kit lenses are in the 18-55mm range. This will allow you to shoot landscapes at the wide end (18mm) and then shoot some nice portraits at the normal end (55mm). If you shoot a lot of sports or wildlife, you may want to instead look at a lens that is more of a telephoto zoom, in the 70-200mm Range. This will also allow you to shoot some portrait close-ups (head and shoulders at 70mm) as well as zoom into subjects in the distance.

The best value is to buy "zoom" lenses which allow you to zoom in or out with a single lens. But there are also fixed, or "prime", lenses. You cannot zoom with these (gotta use your feet) but they do offer better image quality in similar prices to zooms. A great value in most manufacturers' lines are the 50mm 1.8 lenses. They can be had at a low price ($100 USD) and can offer far better sharpness than a comparable size zoom lens.

Quite a few lenses now come with "image stabilization or "vibration reduction". Some manufacturers even have it built into the camera, rather than the lenses. This can help you shoot in low light and not use a tripod, solving those blurry image problems. Just be aware that IS or VR systems do not help to stop action.

So whether you chose a wide angle, a telephoto, a macro, or any of the other, an almost infinite choice in lenses is the true advantage of a DSLR.


Flashes

Almost all basic DSLRs come with a built in pop-up flash and they are adequate for snapshots indoors or possibly to fill in a bit outdoors. The problem is that they tend to look "flashy", are underpowered, and often, despite "red eye reduction" systems, hamper your image quality by red eye.

digital slr buyers guide

A solution is to get an accessory flash that mounts to the top of your camera. They are more powerful so you can shoot at a greater distance to your subject. They also have the ability to bounce the flash off walls and ceilings so that the images look less flashy. And since the flash mounts higher on top of the camera, it moves the flash out of the plane of the lens and reduces the chances of red eye.

Sometimes, you can even use these flashes off camera - and this is where Nikon for the moment rules with their "Commander" mode. Although with the release of the Canon 7D, Canon seems to want to narrow that ground with a new off-camera flash system that I am sure will trickle down into their more budget models.


Basic DSLRs To Start With

Here is a quick selection of the different budget cameras available at the moment. I say to start with, because once you get hooked it will never be your last DSLR!


Canon

Canon base models start with the Digital Rebel XS (1000D outside the US). A capable 10MP camera with Live View, Sensor Cleaning and 3 FPS. You can move up to the Rebel XSI (450D) and move up to 12.2 MP and another 1/2 a FPS at 3.5 FPS. Moving up to the Canon Rebel T1i gains you 15.1 MP. High ISO 12,400 capabilities, and HD Movie.


Nikon

Nikon's Base starts with the D3000, a 10.2 MP, 3" LCD with a self cleaning sensor. Move up to the D5000 and you get 12.3MP, HD video and a more Robust 51 Point Auto-Focus system. And a cool swivel LCD - great for those "camera held over the crowd" shots.


Olympus

The E-520 is a 10MP offering with Live View with face detection. Olympus cameras offer built in image stabilization so you get camera shake control with any lens you use. Move up to the E-620 and get 12.2MP and a swivel LCD.


Pentax

The K2000 is Pentax's starting point, with a 10.2MP Sensor, a 2.7" LCD, ISO3200 capabilities and built-in shake reduction. The K-x improves to 12.3 MP and 4.7 FPS with an interesting true HDR (high dynamic Range) feature to help capture those tough bright to dark images. It also throws in HD Video recording to sweeten the pot further.


Sony

Alpha A-230 starts Sony's line of DSLR, with 10.2MP, Dual Dust Reduction and ISO 3200 capabilities. The A-330 gives the above with added built-in image stabilization. Move up to the Alpha A-380 and get 14.2 MP plus Live View.

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