How to Choose a DSLR!(and compact digital cameras, too!)
visitors see all the film articles on this site and may conclude that I'm
just some stubborn dinosaur of a film photographer who won't give
digital a chance. (Maybe they think I drive a horse and carriage too. I would, but horses eat so much hay, and I already have to feed my film camera :-D )
I use and enjoy digital
quite a bit. I went through the whole "switch to digital" thing
for several years and then went back mostly to film. Film is great, I use it, and there are a
lot of reasons why it's still relevant in 2013, 2014, and onward. Digital, of
course, has its own set of positive qualities. Because it's such
an important theme, I'll
risk repeating it too often: use both, and enjoy them!
Even though I mostly went back to film, some work still demands the
instant results of digital. I also like to have quick pictures
from some of my film shoots while I'm waiting for slides to come
back. Because I'm so particular about tones and colors, I've also
become pretty well-versed in the fine points of digital photography...
and digital cameras.
Now, let's talk about DSLR's and compact digital cameras for a
bit. What features are good? What's the best camera
when you're just starting out? Do you need a lot of
megapixels? We'll look at these topics and more.
1. A Bit of Background
2. Megapixels Are Overrated
3. Brand Loyalties?
4. Features You Don't Really Need
5. Before We Talk About DSLR's
6. Compact Digicam Buying Guide
7. What's So Good About a DSLR?
8. My Favorite DSLR Picks
9. Parting Thoughts
A Bit of Background
a truly bewildering array of digital cameras available today, from
iPhones to Micro Four-Thirds to full-frame DSLR's. It would
take a long time just to outline every type here, so I'm not going to
do that. (Against all odds, bridge cameras are still around and deserve their own
article, which you can read here.)
For now we're
going to talk about the two most common types of digital camera: the compact (a.k.a. "point and shoot") and the DSLR.
Which DSLR or compact you should buy depends on what you're going to do
with it, and of course what your budget is. I don't
like to pretend to know what camera will work best for you, but for the
sake of this article... I'm going to pretend to know what camera will
work best for you!! Obviously, the ultimate decision is up to
you. I'll just provide some pointers and you can decide.
I promise I will try to refrain from saying "just get a film camera" in
this article. Here's a quick look at some sensible
recommendations for a digital camera, and why.
Megapixels Are Overrated
The average person doesn't "need" 24 megapixels per se,
even though that 24-MP camera might be worth getting because of other
improvements (or if you do this much). There are still a lot of people shooting
6-megapixel Nikon D40's. Six to ten megapixels will provide great
images if you know what you're doing. If someone lacks basic
photography skills, it won't matter what kind of camera they're toting
Digital cameras have improved a lot over the years. Anything made
after 2006 or so is probably not too bad, and anything made since about
2008 should have enough resolution and quality to keep you for a
while. Two examples that come to my mind are the 6-MP Nikon
D40 (2006) and the 10-MP Canon EOS 1000D (2008).
Speaking of older cameras, take a look at these photos (click for full-size):
Or how about this photo...
Looks pretty good, right? I mean, there's no massively-pixelated
features or anything. Sure, there's a little noise in the second
photo's sky (and the fullsize versions show some limitations), but keep reading.
Digicams introduced before 2006 are old. Ones before 2005 are practically ancient.
Would you believe this camera is from 2003??
It's a Finepix S7000, boasting 6.3 MP. I can think of 12-megapixel cameras from 2010 that don't even yield images this
OK, the Finepix has some noise even at ISO 200, but... 2003!!! It even shoots in CCD-RAW format if you want!
seen a lot of people pick up a camera, use it for six months, and then
declare that the equipment is holding them back.
Many of the greats in photography used the same one or two cameras for
ten, twenty, even thirty years or more. Don't get stuck on the Megapixel
Treadmill. Unless you want to do office-building-sized
enlargements, you don't *need* more megapixels. Beyond 10
MP, you're better off spending the money on better lenses.
Once you get into 10+ megapixel DSLR's, a cheap lens will "hold you
back" more than a cheap camera, but even the lens takes a distant
back-seat to the importance of your skill as a photographer.
Sony, Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic... etc... etc. Any of the major
brands can produce nice cameras, but it's silly to think they will
always produce models you like (or dislike) under every
circumstance. On the other hand, I can't think of any major brands I'd
Equipment should be evaluated on its own
merits. If I like any brand in general, that's only because it's
given me good results. There is a little bit of brand loyalty
there, but if they released a total lemon, I'd do my best to give an
One thing to remember here is that digital
cameras are extremely complex pieces of technology. In theory it
doesn't take much to make a digital camera go haywire or even quit in
the middle of a shoot. It's really a wonder they work as well as
they do. What I'm saying here is that you can get an occasional
bad unit from any company, but don't let that sour your view.
Features You Don't Really Need
There are some features you shouldn't waste your time on. Digital zoom
is one of them. It achieves "zoom" by in-camera
cropping. In effect, you're using a smaller portion of an
already-dinky sensor. That means "digital zoom" is going to
degrade the image quality. With the advent of inexpensive
Canon superzooms like the SX120, 130, 150 and 160, there's no reason to
bother with digital zoom. These cameras do have the feature
(supposed to "augment" the optical zoom), but I just turn it off.
There are a lot of other features that might be nice to have, but they're not really necessary.
GPS: The only
thing it might be good for is if you get lost in the wilderness where
you also happen to have your cell phone, and that phone just happens to
have reception. Other than that, it's just another feature to
complicate things and cost money.
Instead of putting GPS in a camera, these companies should fix the highlight range problem (see "Camera vs. Log").
Special modes such as "portrait", "indoor", "landscape", etc.:
These are meant for beginners. If you already know how to control
the camera manually, you should do that instead. Don't
become too accustomed to letting a camera try to do everything for
you. The camera companies have been trying to dumb-down
photography for a hundred years, and in the digital age they've
succeeded more than ever. I'm not saying all special modes are
useless, but when they start to crowd out the manual controls, that's
when I skip it and go for a different camera. (And touchscreens?
I still use cameras from the Seventies, and you want me to learn touchscreens??)
I can't predict every feature you don't need, but there's at least one
thing any advanced photographer does need... and that's fully manual
mode, preferably also with manual focus. Pay attention to these,
because they're major reasons why a camera phone can never fully
replace a real camera (except in the minds of amateurs and tech
Compact Digital Cameras
Or: "Why This Is Going To Turn Into The Canon SX120 Fan Club"
I've heard this question a lot: "Why buy a DSLR when my
point-and-shoot already does everything I want?" Or: "Should I bother with a DSLR?" The short answer
is that if you can't see a difference and don't find yourself running
up against the limitations of the point and shoot, then you probably
don't need a DSLR right now. Heck, I know some character who even photographed a wedding with an old 4-megapixel point & shoot.
We'll see shortly why the DSLR is "better" for many applications, but in the meantime:
Meet My Favorite Compact Digicam Ever!
actually take many of
my digital photos with a 10-megapixel Canon SX120 IS. That's
primarily because I use film for shots that are really important to me.
Notwithstanding the fact that it has a tiny CCD sensor that noises up
easily, the SX120 actually has some "pro" features. When I sat
down to write this article I had no intention of making it
into a Canon SX fan page, but these little
gadgets do almost everything I need in the digital realm (although you
might want to take a look at my article on bridge cameras).
Here were the major reasons for choosing it:
- Small, portable
- 10x Optical zoom (competitors offer 4x if you're lucky)
- Takes AA batteries instead of proprietary lithium (very handy!!)
- Image Stabilization (the "IS" in "120 IS").
- External dials allow manual control of aperture, shutter speed, and exposure compensation.
- Manual focus capability!
- The SX120 in particular can accept a JJC filter adapter that takes
standard 52mm filters. The SX130 (etc.) can't do this as far as I
The Canon SX120 and its newer brethren are great little cameras.
I've even used one to "scan" 4x5 transparencies!
(Yep I have this same photo on Flickr.)
Like most point & shoots,
the Canon SX120-160 have no viewfinder and no flash
hotshoe. The lack of a real viewfinder is kind of
annoying, especially in bright sunlight, but again that's nothing new for pocket cameras.
Here are some model-specific downsides of the series:
- If you don't use M or Av mode and keep it at low ISO, you might get frustrated.
- Shutter lag (common to point & shoots, but rather severe on this camera)
- Severe noise above ISO 400
performance at high ISO is a problem, but let's don't forget image
stabilization. You can get at least, what, two stops out of
that? Actually, it's even better than that. Let's take a
The following picture was shot at f/3.2, shutter speed of one second, ISO 100, no tripod.
Mouse over to see what Image Stabilization (IS) can do. Be sure to have Java Script enabled:
Even blurry, the Canon colors look pretty good.
you figure that the slowest hand-held speed we "should" be able to use
here is about 1/30th of a second, we're looking at five stops
improvement on that. Let's be conservative and say three
stops. So, if you're doing a shot that would normally require ISO
1600 to achieve hand-held, you could easily do the same shot at ISO
200. You still have to hold the camera as still as you can, obviously.
rule of thumb for focal length vs. minimum shutter speed is "one over
the focal length". In other words, a 100mm lens would be usable
hand-held at 1/100th of a second with no tripod. Always err on
the side of faster speeds (e.g., for a 300mm lens, go to 1/500th of a
Now, The Canon SX120 has a focal length range
of 36 to 360mm, so without image stabilization, you'd be needing about
1/500th of a second when zoomed all the way in. If we figure on a
minimum of three stops image stabilization, we can use 1/60th
instead. If you hold the camera really still, you should be able
to use 1/30th with no problem.
Canon ELPH 320 with its CMOS sensor does much better at high ISO than
the SX120-SX160 IS
series. The ELPH 320 also has the "IS" feature, too. The
ultra-slim digital cameras like the ELPH don't allow you to dial in the
aperture or shutter speed. I can't stand that. (The
SX120/130/150/160 literally has a dial). On the ELPH you can
adjust the EV, which is helpful, but that's about it. And
the camera is tiny!!
Review sites are continually talking about
the "great dynamic range" of such-and-such digital camera, but the fact is
that digital cameras, even as we go into 2013, have unacceptable highlight clipping.
When you don't have full-manual control over the exposure, odds
increase that the pictures will look like they came from... a point
& shoot camera.
Natively, compact digicams such as the Canon SX series
have about the same dynamic range as a typical DSLR; no better,
no worse. (See Camera vs. Log for examples). The reason why DSLR owners can squeeze more apparent
dynamic range out of a scene is that they can shoot in RAW mode, which
allows more tweaking without ugly artifacts such as tone-banding.
However, if your original shot blew out the highlights to 255, you
ain't gettin' 'em back even if you did shoot RAW.
Another reason is that DSLR's have features like "highlight tone
priority" (Canon) or "active D-lighting" (Nikon) that can in fact
squeeze a bit more highlight range out of a scene; to get that
benefit, though, you have to have the feature enabled.
Even though we've been talking about one particular series of cameras (Canon SX) ,
the basic principles apply when selecting any other one. My same
cranky criteria can be applied. And so, let's dive right into my
Compact Camera Buyer's Guide:
Even cranky film photographers can get a lot of use out of a compact
digital camera. Some have likened it to a "portable sketchbook"
for deciding what scenes and compositions are worth having on
Best All-Around / Under-$200: If high-ISO performance is not required, I'd go for the Canon SX130 IS, the SX150 IS or SX160 IS. By the way, I really like the looks of the red SX150 IS (currently $129 at Amazon).
can't think of a better digicam in the under-$200 price
bracket. Once again, understand that these are really best at low
ISO (80 or 100) in Manual or Aperture-Priority mode. Don't buy
one of these thinking it's a low-light wonder. It is, after all,
under 200 bucks and made to fit in your pocket (sort of ).
Grab a couple packs of the newer Sanyo Eneloop AA rechargeables.
These things rock. They have a much longer charge
retention than typical NiMH batteries. Don't forget to pick up a
good AA charger. The best AA battery charger I have used thus far
is the LaCrosse BC series (you can get the BC-700 through this link or the BC-1000 through this link.) The BC-700 is about 40 bucks. I researched this a lot, bought one, and love it.
High ISO / Low-Priced:
Those little Canon ELPH cameras are tiny and lack full-manual mode, but
the 320 has pretty good high ISO capability. If you insist on
getting a dinky camera with a touch-screen and no real "manual" mode,
then at least get the ELPH 320. Don't get the ELPH 110, which is
no good at high ISO. That's probably why everybody is discounting the 110
so much. You can pick up an ELPH 320 for about $250 (update: $135) through this link,
but don't say I didn't warn you about the lack of fully-manual
mode. (You also know I'm not a big fan of
touchscreens.) If high ISO performance is really important,
it's worth it to save the money and get a DSLR.
High ISO / Mid-Priced: If it had to be an ultra-compact camera, I'd get the Fuji XF-1 (currently $399 at Amazon). Aside from that, if I could know for sure it wouldn't have the "white orb" defect, I'd much rather get a Fuji X10 or X20.
The Olympus E-PL1 with the 14-42mm Zuiko lens
on sale right now at Amazon, but note that it doesn't come
standard with a viewfinder. Micro 4/3 cameras are kind of
fascinating, though, and that Olympus is pretty good at
high ISO. That's partly because the sensor is bigger than in
the typical compact. The Micro 4/3 system also has nice,
"Real Camera"-Style Compact:
If I want a compact digicam that handles like a "real" camera, and I
could be sure to get one with a new sensor that doesn't "orb", I'd get
a Fuji X10 / X20. Fuji X10 serial numbers that begin with 22
(and up) are supposed to have fixed the "orb" problem, although nobody
seems willing to guarantee that. As I may have mentioned before,
uses a proprietary RAW format (RAF). Its version of RAF may or
may not open in the free program "rawtherapee". Whatever
you do, call the seller to make sure you're getting an X10 in the good
serial number range. If not, skip it. (Just to make
sure you're aware, the X10 / X20 have smaller sensors compared to the
I want to mention that some people won't even bother with small-sensor
cameras anymore. I'm not one of them, because really it's a
question of "what are you going to do with the camera, anyway?"
For daylight shooting of landscapes, a small-sensor camera can do most
of what I'd want it to do (which is primarily to use it as a
"sketchbook" for film shots...). Low-light conditions are where
a bigger sensor becomes more important. That said, I'd rather
spend $400-$600 for an inexpensive DSLR than $1,200 for an X100S.
If I want the rangefinder aesthetic,
I'd buy the X20 and use a $400
DSLR for my low-light or bokeh shots... and I'd still be in it for less than
that $1,200 Fuji X-100S. That's just my own choice, and I'm not
saying the other way is invalid.
"Real Camera"-Style Compact ($1,000+):
If it were in the budget and I really wanted a rangefinder-style digital,
I'd probably get a Fuji X100.
Thing is, though, I prefer
real (film) rangefinders like the Yashica Electro 35 or the Konica C35
(or better yet, ones with full-manual mode). In my opinion, the
price of an X-10 / X-20 is already pushing the limits for a
compact digital anyway. Dollar for dollar, a DSLR makes more
sense anyway. But if it had to be a rangefinder-style camera, and
I wanted the best performance... yeah, I'd get the X100 / X100S.
What's So Good About a DSLR?
We already saw that compact digicams can do a lot. Why would you even want a DSLR, then?
A few reasons:
1.) Point and shoots have small sensors and wide-angle
lenses. That means very high depth of field, which is great for
landscapes. However, pro photographers often require "bokeh",
which refers to the out-of-focus area of a photo. Although landscapes look good with everything in focus, bokeh is what
helps separate a "real" portrait from a snapshot. Portraits don't
look right when everything is sharp from one meter to infinity (like an
Ansel Adams landscape).
You can sometimes get a slight amount of background blur by zooming in
with a point-and-shoot (or using macro mode), but it can't compete with
a real SLR or DSLR camera. That's because, here again, the
DSLR has a bigger sensor and therefore a shallower depth of field. My
4x5 camera uses an even bigger area (the "sensor" being a big ol' sheet
of film), and thus the depth of field is even shallower yet. With
4x5 you can get "bokeh" at f/11....
2.) Another huge reason to get a DSLR is low shutter lag.
When you take pictures with a point-and-shoot, the camera takes a while
to get ready for the next shot. You can miss critical moments by
relying on a point-and-shoot. DSLR's are made to give a fast
follow-up shot, and another, and another.
DSLR's offer better performance at high ISO. Point-and-shoot
cameras have dinky little sensors with the
pixels crowded together. This decreases light-gathering power and
increases noise. The same
number of megapixels on a larger sensor will translate to much lower
noise. Point and shoots tend to have really awful chroma noise in
low light conditions (although the ELPH 300 is quite good). Keep in
mind that there are two main choices in DSLR sensors: APS-C and
35mm. (These refer to the size and have nothing else to do with
film.) To avoid confusion, some people refer to these as "DX" and
"FX" sensors, which is how Nikon designates them. The DX sensor
is smaller, but the cameras are more
affordable. FX sensors give the better image quality and allow
for cropped images without much quality loss, but FX cameras are
considerably more expensive. Unless you're making gigantic
enlargements, the smaller DX sensor is passable for most anything you'd
want to do. The only people who would notice a difference are the
guys who peer through brass magnifying glasses and talk about line
pairs. Most of your photographic audience won't scrutinize the
pictures like that. (I'd like to think I can "usually" tell the
difference between APS-C and full-frame shots, but it's not a very big
difference in small prints or screen JPGs.)
4.) Yet another reason to get a DSLR is interchangeable
lenses. As you progress, you will start to see the value of this
more and more.
Quick digression: some people buy Nikon DSLR's so they can use older Nikkor lenses from the film days,
but you're really better off using the modern aspherics. (Same thing with Canon, etc.) That
18-55 kit lens will cover most situations, and if you need more
powerful zoom, then get the 55-200 also. In the higher price
range, Nikon and Canon both make a bunch of great DSLR lenses. Save the film
lenses for film cameras. I've used the old 50mm 1.8 series E on a
D7000, and I've found the metering is quirky. Besides, on a DX
sensor that 50mm lens acts like a 75 or 80mm lens, making it
not-so-great for landscapes or photojournalistic wedding photography. And
forget the 85mm Nikkor prime, which will act more like a 130mm lens
when fitted to a DX camera. That's OK for portraits, but not the
kind you would take at events where you have only a moment's notice and
not much space to back up! Once again, that 18-55 kit lens will
cover most of your everday shooting.
5.) DSLR's allow for the use of external flash, which is an
absolute must for professional work. With any DSLR, you can get
set up with a wireless flash trigger
that makes it even handier. Of course, with your point &
shoot you could always use an external light-triggered flash unit, but
everyone else's flash will trigger it, too. That equals missed
shots. A few of the better compacts can take external
flash, but (A.) this is uncommon, and (B.) these cameras cost as much as an entry-level DSLR.
6.) DSLR's offer an optical TTL viewfinder. TTL means
"through-the-lens". Whatever view you see, that's the view that
will be photographed at that very instant. Point-and-shoots have
a slight delay in showing the image on the LCD screen. Even
bridge cameras have "EVF's", which electronically transmit the
image to your viewfinder. This delay hinders the smooth, natural
flow of seeing and taking
pictures (although bridge cameras have gotten a lot better. Read about them here.) Having a real TTL viewfinder is just as important as
low shutter lag.
7.) Many technology improvements hit the market first in the
DSLR's, then filter into the pocket cameras later. Furthermore,
unlike pocket cameras that have a lot of useless fluff, DSLR cameras
tend to have more nuts-and-bolts technical features that are actually
useful to pros... and you can access them with real buttons that don't
require a magnifying glass to see. There are fewer things more
annoying to a pro than a gadget that tries to auto-guess everything and
won't let you override it manually.
There are certainly other reasons to get a DSLR, too, but those are some key ones.
The D5100 is one of the most popular choices right now.
Some users have reported shutter malfunctions (the "black image" problem).
This requires sending the camera back to Nikon for repairs.
The majority seem to be OK, though. My own experience with this camera has been very pleasant.
You can get one with 18-55mm lens here
(The price has changed a couple times; as of 11/29/13 it's currently about $697. UPDATE: 12/16/13 it's $429 here
and at that price I'd grab one ASAP.)
allow shooting in RAW mode. This can let you recover some highlights, but
only if they weren't maxed out to 255. Another feature of DSLR's
made today is that they have special processing algorithms such as
Active D-Lighting (Nikon) and Highlight Tone Priority (Canon).
Actually, all four big DSLR makers (Sony, Pentax, Canon, Nikon) have
these kinds of algorithms now. They're good, but not perfect.
year I see the same
claims: some new DSLR has "the best dyamic range ever" and is
"better than film". People have been saying this since like
2001. So far, it's bogus. None of these cameras is "better"
than film, just different. Only recently (2011 into 2012)
have they come out with cameras that have 5 stops of highlight range,
thanks to in-camera processing algorithms. Meanwhile, color
negative film still gives 7+ stops of highlight range with
gentle roll-off. And it has nicer tonality. I won't
belabor that point here, because right now we're talking about
DSLR's. Somewhere back there I promised not to tell you to "just
get a film camera"....
big thing this year is the Nikon D800. Sure it's a great camera--
excellent, in fact-- but guess what: the highlight response is
about the same as the much lower-cost Nikon D5100.
really getting when you buy a D800 is the bigger viewfinder, the bigger
sensor with higher resolution, and some more "pro" features such as
shooting. Worth it? Sure, if you need those things in
your work. If you need a big viewfinder but not the expense
of the D800, consider the D7000. Great camera. Right now
I'd go for the 24-105mm rig... extremely versatile lens, unless you're doing a lot of wildlife photography.
Sony and Pentax
has come out with a fixed-mirror design that isn't technically a DSLR
anymore (it's a DSLT). These require an electronic
viewfinder (EVF). The older EVF cameras had "viewfinder
lag". Sony has worked very hard to surmount this problem, and in
their newer Alpha series cameras, it looks like they have fixed
Sony DSLR's (or DSLT's)
have great color rendition. I like the way the Sony Alphas
render blue skies. The only reason more pros don't get into them
is because most pros are already heavily into Nikon, Canon, or
sometimes both. Another brand or "system" means more time and
expense. Even just re-learning all the quirks of a particular
system can be daunting. Pro photographers tend to demand a wider
array of lenses, and Canon and Nikon have the widest selection.
(Pentax also has a pretty good selection). Sony DSLR's, no matter
how great they are, don't yet have that kind of selection. Maybe
that doesn't matter, though. Sony does have the mainstay kinds of
lenses that you'd probably want (such as 50 and 85mm 1.4
primes...) Remember that Henri Cartier-Bresson used a 50mm lens
for practically his whole life.
Sony Alpha series would be a good choice if you don't feel invested in
a system already and don't foresee any need to have a big collection of
lenses. Consider the low-cost A37 or, in the next higher price bracket, the A57.
It's no surprise that Sony should have good digital color; to a lot of
us old geezers from the picture tube era, there was nothing like
Sony televisions. If I weren't already satisfied with Canon & Nikon I might consider a Sony.
has some nice offerings, but as I said before, a lot of pros are
already into the Canon or Nikon systems. One thing I like about
Pentax is the use of Pentax K-mount lenses. There are a lot of
those around. Some photographers will tell you that Pentax has
the best image quality of any DSLR, and some of the Pentax features are
actually a lot better than what you get with Nikon. Just as an
example, Pentax K5 bodies have built-in shake reduction, whereas with
Canon and Nikon you need to buy a lens that includes anti-vibration
features. All other things held equal, I would consider getting a
K5 on that basis alone. The image quality is
superb. The K-5 II also has probably the best low-light
By the way: the
Nikon D5100, like the D7000, actually has a sensor made by Sony. The color processing is just different.
Why Pay More?
I wouldn't mind having a 5d Mark III or a D800, I see no point in
investing huge amounts of money in digital. A few years from now
the technology will be better. That's why I like the entry-level
DSLR's so much. In 2013, the image quality is
so good on these that anything more seems a waste of money unless (A.)
your work demands the extra features, or (B.) you make gigantic
enlargements. Some people do both. Obviously they would benefit from that 5d MkIII or D800.
that sensors are all pretty good (yes, there's still room for
actually much better off investing in good lenses. That's the
hard part. Who likes spending $400-$1,200 on something
take pictures on its own? Then again, even lens upgrades are
debatable, given that today's kit lenses have such good optical
quality. There again, if you're a pro and need it for your
work, the better lenses make sense. There are indeed some
differences that go beyond just the price.
My Favorite DSLR Picks
As we've seen, there are some worthwhile reasons to choose a DSLR
over a pocket camera. As I've mentioned before, you're better off
concentrating on good lenses and operator skill than on expensive
the camera mags, which will usually tell you to buy the very latest
gear, I prefer to help you get the best value. Emphasizing lower
cost (and in no
particular order), here are some sensible choices for 2013, even as we head into 2014.
Sony: though it has an electronic viewfinder and is thus not a "true" DSLR, I would
give the Alpha A37 a look; it's part of Sony's
new fixed-mirror DSLR lineup (technically they're DSLT's). The
A37 is available through this link. Just remember that Sony doesn't have nearly the lens selection of Canon or Nikon.
If you like Nikon and want low-cost, it's hard to go too far wrong with a D3100 (buy here, or for about $100 less, get a Nikon refurb here) or better yet, a D5100 (you can get one through this link).
A few people are reporting stuck shutters on the D5100. If the
percentage of one-star comments on Amazon are any indicator, the D5100
could have as high as a 10% failure rate.
I like the Canon Rebel T3 / 1100D or the Rebel T3i / 600D
(see "Best Color", below). The T3 / 1100D is their lowest-priced DSLR.
Pentax doesn't have a sub-$600 DSLR in the arena for 2012/'13.
Best $1,000-to-$1,200 DSLR:
I like the Nikon D7000 a lot, but I'd actually get a Pentax K-5 II or a
Canon 60D. Even though the 650D has the newer Digic5 processor,
the 60D has better overall features (including longer battery life...).
you need autofocus in low-light, the Pentax K-5 II is better than
anything out there. (The original K-5 was like it in every other
way, except the autofocus was crummy).
Canon 60D with 18-135 IS is available here. For $100 more you can get it with the 18-200.
Pentax K-5 II with 18-55 is here. (Moving into the $1,300+ bracket, the K-5 II with 18-135 is here, and it's a weather-resistant lens, too.)
Best Resolution for the Money: If for some reason you need 24 megapixels, get the D3200 (available here) or the D5200. Just so you know, high ISO performance on the D3200 / D5200 is
not as good as on the D3100 / D5100, due to the higher number of pixels crammed
onto the sensor. If you need even more resolution (but much more expensive!), get the Nikon D800 (with 24-85 lens here).
It has a full-frame sensor and won't be as noisy at high ISO.
It's still a lot cheaper than medium format digital.
Best Color: I prefer Canon color to Nikon, right
out-of-the-box. Maybe that's because Canon gives more life-like golden tones (tan, yellow, orange, etc.). If
the D3100 and 5100 weren't so nice in every other respect, I'd actually pick the Rebel T2i,
T3, or T3i. This article didn't concentrate on higher-end cameras, but if it's in your budget, the
Canon 5D MkII or MkIII are superb. I know how nice the Nikon D800 is, but I still want one of these more.
For the best color and best value, I like the Canon Rebel T3 (a.k.a. EOS 1100D), available through this link.
(I have an-depth review here.)
For slightly more money, the Rebel T3i
is even better; it has a self-cleaning sensor, higher
resolution, and flip-out LCD screen (though remember that above 10-12 MP,
extra resolution is kind of an "iffy" benefit... unless you're doing posters or macro capture of slides). The T3i can also
multiple remote flashes, which is a pretty significant pro
feature. The "pro on a budget" could do quite well with the T3i.
Best Dynamic Range:
As I've noted before, the D800 still doesn't beat film in terms of
highlight range, and in fact the D800 doesn't really have any more
the D5100. Both Nikons do have good highlight range with Active
D-Lighting on the highest setting; choose one camera or the
depending on your budget and what features you need. The D800 has
the large viewfinder, the full-size sensor ("FX"), and other pro
features which of course the entry-level D5100 isn't going to have.
The D800 is currently just under $2,800, body only, through this link.
The 800E is just like it, except the antialiasing filter is removed to
give a slightly sharper image. (Higher chance of unwanted moiré
patterns; extra res useful only in specialized lines of work.) I like
film and would rather
have a fully-loaded Pentax 67 II kit, but that D800 is sure nice.
Depending on lens bundle, the D800 can go anywhere from
$3,300 to $4,500. I know a portrait-only pro who uses the
f/4.5-5.6 almost exclusively (get the lens
here), but if I were in the market I'd get the D800 with 24-85 lens
because I shoot a lot of landscapes.
This time around I didn't concentrate on the higher-end DSLR's or the
X100, Leica, etc. I'm all about getting the most
performance from the available gear, and I know that many readers are
looking for entry-level and mid-range cameras. In another article
I might explore the higher-end cameras, but for now, there's no reason
you can't get out there and take great pictures with an inexpensive
DSLR or even a compact.
any of the big-name DSLR's are going to be very good: Canon,
Nikon, Sony, Pentax. One brand might edge out another
ever-so-slightly in some category, but in the end it really comes down
to "which brand has the features you want at the price you can
afford". Me, I like inexpensive Canon and Nikon DSLR's, but
that's only because long-time photographers tend to have these two
brands in mind, simply out of habit. (Maybe that's because of the
great Canon AE-1 and the Nikon F series...) Sony doesn't have
nearly the lens selection of Nikon, Canon, or even Pentax, but their
image quality and most other features are competitive.
Whatever you choose, remember that operator skill is a lot more important than camera brand
or even camera model. That's why I really like the little Canon
SX120/130/150/160 series of cameras, and why a non-DSLR can still be a
good choice. I love that red SX150, and to have a camera
with 12x optical zoom capability for $129 is almost unheard-of!
(If you want the most incredible optical zoom, be sure to read the Bridge Cameras article.)
importance of operator skill also explains why my two favorite DSLR
picks in 2013 are
the Canon Rebel T3 (for color rendition and value) and the Nikon D5100 (for value
and dynamic range). Even though these are entry-level (or near
it) and both are "last year's
models", they offer great performance for the money. I like
the Rebel T3 so much that it now has its own page on
(One more time: a few D5100's have a stuck shutter issue.
Nobody knows how many it affects, but it could be around 10%. I wouldn't be put off by it, though. )
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