- Difference Between DSLR and SLR
- 3 Things to Consider
- Nikon or Canon DSLR – What’s the difference?
- Nikon vs Canon Lens
- Selecting a DSLR Lens
- DSLR Camera Lens
- Some DSLR recommendations
- DSLR camera with 18-55mm lens under $500
- DSLR camera with 18-55mm lens under $800
- Beginners DSLR package
- In conclusion
You’ve seen those amazing images on your Instagram feed, or maybe you feel like you’ve squeezed every last drop of potential out of your old cell phone? I know the feeling! It’s time to take your photography to the next level, and that means investing in a DSLR.
But where to start? Which way to go? Is it even worth it?
The field of photography is saturated in jargon, tech speak and a multitude of different opinions on the best way to start. We’re here to make that decision a whole lot easier for you with our guide!
Difference Between DSLR and SLR
Speak to a photographer about what makes a great image and I can guarantee that they will start by saying ‘light’ and ‘composition’. Say may even tell you not to worry about the gear at all.
And you know what, they’re absolutely right. To a point.
So long as you make the most of the conditions and understand its technical capabilities, even a 10 year old clunker can take a decent shot!
But…and it’s a big but! There are some conditions in which an old camera simply can’t perform, no matter how hard you try or how good you are, and there are some types of photography that demand the extra functionality and capability that come with a DSLR.
So what is it exactly that your investment in a DSLR is going to provide?
It all boils down to three things; engagement, image quality, and capability.
A digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera uses a mirror inside its body to bounce the light that enters the lens up to your eye through the viewfinder. This means that unlike a cell phone where you are constantly focused on a tiny LCD screen full of reflections and glare, with a DSLR you are intimately connected through your lens to the image you are wanting to capture. There are no distractions, you’re fully engaged with your subject matter.
This may sound a little bit strange, but with a DSLR even if you took the worst photo in the world it’s still going to be the best quality ‘worst photo in the world’!!
Inside any camera, large or small, is a light sensor. It’s like the eyes of the camera, drinking in the light and translating it into something that is (hopefully) representative of what it’s being pointed at.
When you realize that the sensor inside even the most basic DSLR is more than 10x the size of that inside your new cell phone (by area), it should come as no surprise that you’re capturing more light, more detail, and the result will be a far higher quality photo.
The construction of any portable device comes with a challenge; balancing size with functionality. Or perhaps ‘tradeoff’ is a better word, because the smaller you go the more hardware you need to strip away.
A DSLR is never going to be as small as a cell phone or a ‘point and shoot’, but what you do get with its larger size is a bigger ‘brain’ and more controls.
Most people are quite happy to keep things simple. Aim, shoot, admire.
Photographers are different. They want and need more creative control over the images that they shoot. Rather than let the camera make the decisions for them, with a DSLR in their hands they have the power to select the shutter speed, aperture setting, ISO and all the other little things that can elevate an image from ‘ok’ to ‘WOW!!’.
Freezing an IndyCar at full speed. Capturing details and emotions on a neon-lit street. Producing that amazing ‘blurred’ background to a portrait of your family. These are the opportunities that a DSLR will make possible to you!
These aren’t buried in software either, instead being made possible through switches, dials and buttons, all within a finger’s reach.
The other benefit that a DSLR provides is the ability to use one of the many thousands of lenses available to photographers. Landscapes, portraiture, sports, wildlife…to get the very best shots generally requires a different lens for each genre. This is a subject worthy of a conversation all on its own, but suffice to say that by going down the DSLR route you are opening yourself to a world of possibility that simply isn’t possible if you stuck with a basic cell phone or ‘point and shoot’ with its single, fixed lens.
3 Things to Consider
As much as the pixel-peepers among us may like to disagree, modern DSLRs are all very similar in their design and in the options that they give the photographer. Sure, some may have a few extra megapixels resolution, others might offer a few extra frames per second, but for a particular price point there generally isn’t all that much that sets two cameras apart.
When it comes to selecting a DSLR camera there are four things that really matter; how it feels, the sensor size, the sensor resolution, and its low-light performance.
How does it feel?
The way a camera feel in your hands is something that often gets glossed over with facts, figures and technical data.
Just think about it for a minute. You will literally spend hours with that DSLR in your hand, over your shoulder or in your bag. The conditions in which your holding it could be blue-sky days, but they could also be wet, windy or dusty. You want to be as sure as possible that the DSLR you buy is like an extension of your own body.
The best way to make this happen is to spend as much time as possible testing out cameras as you possibly can.
While you’re doing this, a few questions you should be asking yourself are:
What type of photography am I likely to focus on? The answer to this question will then help you answer every other question that follows.
Is it the right size and weight? If you’re going to be a digital nomad then you probably don’t want to be lugging a two pound boat anchor around the world!
Does it fit your hand? We’re all built differently. Some have large hands, others small. Some have high dexterity, others not so much.
Practice holding the camera to your eye and taking a shot. Does it feel well balanced? Do the ergonomics of the hand grip feel ‘natural’?
Of course, time will be the true test, but even an hour in a camera store can make a world of difference and make that selection so much easier.
The sensor size
We’ve already talked about how DSLRs automatically give you a big sensor to capture as much detail as possible.
There’s more to it than that though. In the DSLR world there are two types of sensor; ‘cropped’ and ‘full frame’.
While the cropped sensor is more than 10x the size of that in your cell phone, a full frame sensor is larger again, at more than 25x the size!
As you can imagine, the quality is higher; but so are the price, size, weight and the investment you will need to make in lenses that are compatible with a full frame camera body.
For most beginners, a cropped sensor DSLR is absolutely fine, and will serve you well for many years, if not forever. In fact, technology gains in cropped sensor DSLRs are such that the gap in quality between cropped and full frame is far narrower than ever before.
The sensor resolution
Megapixels. That’s what really matters in a camera right? The more the better?
While the resolution of the sensor does matter, it isn’t as important as the advertising teams would lead you to believe!
These days you’ll find that most cameras at a similar price point will have a fairly similar megapixel count, with full frame sensors generally having more pixels than cropped sensors due to their greater size.
The great thing about having a lot of pixels in your sensor is that you increase your ability to capture detail in an image. As PC monitors get larger, and you start to explore the options available for printing your images on paper at large sizes, this ability to extract greater detail becomes valuable.
So, what’s the catch?
When it comes to sensor resolution there is a trade off for increasing the number of pixels.
In simple terms, by increasing the number of pixels on your sensor you are actually decreasing the amount of light that each individual pixel can receive for processing. What we then find is that in a situation where the quality of the light is poor to begin with, such as a dimly lit room, the final image quality can actually look worse than if you used a camera with a LOWER resolution sensor!
While you shouldn’t ignore the resolution of the sensor, you need to be very careful that you don’t get caught up in the numbers game.
A technical term you may have heard of is ‘ISO’. ISO is a legacy of the pre-digital era when every roll of film was assigned an ISO speed. Essentially, the higher the ISO number the more sensitive the film was to light. This meant that you could use an ISO1600 film in a dark environment eg. street photography at night, and still get sharp images because the film could make the most of the very little light available and allow you to use a high shutter speed to reduce motion blur.
While a DSLR doesn’t use film, the engineers have created an equivalent. Basically, the higher the ISO on a DSLR the higher the ‘boost’ that is given to the light that hits the sensor.
However, just like in the film days when they complained of high ISO causing graininess in their images, digital photographers will see what we call ‘noise’. Noise is obvious and it’s horrible, appearing as an ugly discoloration in the dark areas of your photos.
When you’re comparing camera brands and models, make sure you check the ISO sensitivity range on each. Generally, the larger the ISO sensitivity range the better its ability to manage noise.
Sony has proven itself to be a leader in the field of noise reduction. While you won’t be disappointed in the offerings from Nikon or Canon, if low-light photography is critically important to you then it may be worthwhile doing some extra research into the Sony range. Unfortunately, the Sony range does come at a cost. The Sony A6300 is the cheapest way into the best of the Sony range, but you’ll still be looking at a very expensive camera (with a 16-50mm lens) and it isn’t even a DSLR (it’s a mirrorless).
Other DSLR considerations
Every photographer is different and has different priorities. In addition to the four points we’ve discussed in detail, when selecting your DSLR it’s worth keeping in mind these other features and thinking about whether they matter to you or not:
- Menu design – When you’re testing a camera, remember to check the menu system and LCD screen. Is it intuitive? Are functions easily accessible and not buried too deep?
- Autofocus points – The higher the number of autofocus points the more likely your shots will be as sharp as possible, particularly when shooting moving subjects.
- LCD design – Do you need the flexibility of a tilt-able LCD screen?
- Burst rate – This is really important if you’re going to be shooting people or machines at high speed.
Nikon or Canon DSLR – What’s the difference?
As the digital age has progressed, there have been two clear favorites within the photography community; Nikon and Canon.
Which one to choose? Are there significant benefits to selecting one over the other?
In making this selection, it may be a surprise to hear that the biggest impact isn’t related to the camera body at all, it’s actually in the lenses.
By choosing one brand, you are essentially locking yourself in to that brand’s entire ecosystem of lenses.
It sounds like a crazy question to be putting to a beginner photographer, right?!
Nikon vs Canon Lens
Honestly, don’t worry about it too much because you’ll find that both Nikon and Canon lens families are very good. Perhaps the one factor worth noting is that the Nikon entry level kit lenses are of a slightly higher quality than the Canon equivalent, but you’ll also pay a little bit more for that quality.
The other difference you will notice is that, as with the lenses the Nikon DSLR camera bodies are slightly more expensive than Canon. Canon offer far more package deals and discounts than Nikon, so if cost is a real constraint to you then this may be the most logical path to take.
There are many other little differences between the brands, which we’ve summarized below. If these are important to you then we recommend you investigate further.
|Kit under $500||Kit under $800|
|Nikon D3400||Canon T6||Nikon D5600||Canon T6i|
|Sensor area||23.5 x 15.6 mm||22.3 x 14.9 mm||23.5 x 15.6 mm||22.3 x 14.9 mm|
|ISO sensitivity||100 – 25,600||100 – 12,800||100 – 25,600||100 – 25,600|
|LCD screen type and size||3” fixed||3” fixed||3.2” articulated||3” articulated|
|Video resolution||1920 x 1080||1920 x 1080||1920 x 1080||1920 x 1080|
|Kit lens quality||Excellent||Very good||Excellent||Very Good|
|Battery life||1200 shots||500 shots||820||440|
Selecting a DSLR Lens
The chicken or the egg…that’s exactly what it’s like expecting a beginner to the world of DSLR photography to know what lenses they should be buying!
You need to make a decision, and yet the only way to make the perfect decision is through experience. Yet the only path to experience is to have bought your lenses…aaarghh!!!
One piece of advice I remember very clearly was when a pro with a LOT of experience said to me, “If you’ve got the option of buying either an average lens with a fantastic camera body, or a fantastic lens with an average camera body, buy the fantastic lens every time.”
And you know what? He’s right. The camera body is important, but the lens is where you can take your photography to the next level.
This doesn’t mean that you need to be spending thousands of dollars on your first lens. Far from it. What it does mean is that you probably shouldn’t over commit with your wallet too early as your style of photography, and your knowledge of the lenses that will support that style, is likely to evolve over time.
The great news is that both Nikon and Canon over some fantastic kit lenses that won’t break the bank. They are the perfect way to dip your toe in the water and discover where your own photographic strengths lie.
Kit lenses are generally small, lightweight, have good optical qualities and present fantastic value to the beginner photographer. Most of them are also zoom lenses, meaning they will give you a range of focal lengths with which to develop your unique style of photography.
DSLR Camera Lens
The sweet spot, and most popular kit lens is the 18-55mm. At 18mm you have plenty of wide-angle coverage for those sweeping landscape shots, while at 55mm you can take some nice portraits or get a little bit closer to your subject matter.
If you feel that you’d like some extra zoom capability (eg. wildlife photography), then you may also be interested in kit lenses such as the 70-300mm (Nikon) or the 75-300mm (Canon). These will get you nice and close to the action, with most offering image stabilization as well.
Here’s another idea. Rather than buy two lenses, it’s also worth considering an option such as the 18-200mm lens, offered by both Canon and Nikon. Fitting one of these to your camera will mean you can go from landscape to full zoom without needing to change lenses at all! As you would expect it does cost a little bit more, but with that comes great flexibility.
Just so you know, there are two things that you’re going to miss out on by going the kit lens route; speed and image quality. Pro lenses will almost always have more glass resulting in better optics, while the larger apertures will mean you can shoot in darker conditions before needing to push the ISO and they will also give you much nicer ‘bokeh’ (that creamy blurred background that you see in the pro photos).
To be honest though, I didn’t find myself missing these ‘pro’ features for at least the first few years of my own photographic journey, as the kit lenses are so good these days.
Some DSLR recommendations
With all this advice in mind, here are some combinations that we think offer a great balance between value, features and price.
DSLR camera with 18-55mm lens under $500
At this price point you’re trying to extract as much value as possible for your dollar, and with that in mind we highly recommend the Nikon D3400 with 18-55mm kit lens.
It may cost you a little more than the Canon T6 (1300D) but the extra quality you’ll get from the Nikon kit lens is well worth the incremental cost.
Camera body: Nikon D3400
Mid-range zoom lens: Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR AF-P
You can also see our Best DLSR Camera Under $500 Guide for more camera options.
DSLR camera with 18-55mm lens under $800
We’d really like to throw a Canon recommendation at you, but unless video production really matters or you’re trying to keep the price as low as possible, at this point in time it’s the Nikon D5600 that beats the Canon T6i.
The Nikon D5600 is a gem of a camera and beats the Canon T6i in almost all specifications.
Camera body: Nikon D5600
Mid-range zoom lens: Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR AF-P
Beginners DSLR package
While the D5600 offers additional focus points and a tilt-able touchscreen LCD, for the extra you’ll pay for these features we don’t feel that the benefits elevate it sufficiently above the D3400 in terms of value.
With your savings you can then invest in both the 18-55mm lens AND a long-range 70-300mm zoom lens. Win, win!
Camera body: Nikon D3400
Mid-range zoom lens: Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR AF-P
Long-range zoom lens: Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3G VR AF-P
See our Best DSLR Camera under $200 Guide for camera ideas.
Just like the world of photography, purchasing your first DSLR can be equal parts exciting, fascinating and downright frustrating!
However, through this guide we’ve provided a simple, yet solid overview of the things that should matter most in your decision-making process. Not only that, we’ve also given you a firm foundation for future success as a photographer.
Do your research, feel free to ask us any questions, and then make that purchase with the confidence that you’ve done everything you can to make the most informed decision possible!
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