Which First DSLR Camera Should You Purchase?

canon camera

canon camera

Over the last 5 years, I have repeatedly received the same question: which beginner DSLR camera they should purchase?  The answer is: it depends.

First step: 4 questions you need to answer.

  • What would you like to photograph? Babies/pets, sports (fast moving subjects), or nature/landscape

  • Do you want to photograph mostly indoors or outdoors?

  • Do you need video?

  • What’s your budget?

In fact, answers to the above questions will not only determine which camera you should purchase, but also which lens.

Second step: 5 criteria to consider for your first lens

  • Stick to one manufacturer. Canon and Nikon are two major manufacturers of cameras and lenses, and both are great. Investing in other brands might limit your future opportunities for lens collection, therefore I’d suggest start with any of these two brands.

  • For indoor/evening and fast moving object, you need fast lens - usually the smaller f-stop, the faster the lens is. Once there was a survey on professional portrait photographers, if they could only invest in one lens and they are on budget, which one would they choose. Most answered 50mm/ f1.4, which costs between $400-500. It could be a good beginner investment no matter you are looking to photograph indoors or outdoors. It would be great for dim light situation, sharp portrait (eg. eyes in focus, the rest of the face out of focus). The shortcoming is apparently its lack of zoom function. If you are photographing something that’s constantly moving, you can’t adjust your composition easily.

  • For outdoor sports, wild animals if you travel, it's best to equip yourself with a telescope lens. The price could range pretty wide - in general, the smaller the f-stop number, the faster the lens and thus sharper images, the more expensive they are. Also a rule of thumb is that a lens with a really wide zoom range is typically not very sharp but much more economical (eg. a Nikon 70-200mm/f2.8 is much faster/sharper/more expensive than a Nikon 70-300/f4.5-5.6).

  • If you are interested in landscape (eg. mountains, lakes etc.), you might want to consider wide angle lens (eg. Canon 17-40mm f/4L or 16-35mm/f2.8L - price almost doubled for the latter; again the f-stop typically determine the price)

  • The alternative options at a lower price are non-OEM lenese. Major brands include Tokina, Sigma, Tamron etc. Those manufactured by Samyang under the brand names of Samyang, Bower, Rokinon Sigma and Tamron lenses offer a great value for about 1/3 the price of the comparable Canon and Nikon lenses. Test these lenses thoroughly after purchase, as quality control is notoriously inconsistent. I have tried some non OEM lenses and found significant quality shortage compared to Canon and Nikon lenses. However as a beginner photographer who’s not familiar with dSLR experiences yet, they might not be a bad investment if your budget is tight. For example, I owned a Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 before investing in a Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 lens. There is significant difference and experience, but without developing some wide angle landscape photography experience, I wouldn’t have fully capitalized on the quality that the Canon wide angel lens brings.

OK you might think that I haven’t really answered your question and given any suggestions.  The fact is:

  • A photographer makes a great image, the camera is just a tool. An experienced photographer can take great pictures with any film camera made in the last century or digital camera made in the last decade. It’s the skills that matter the most.

  • Lens makes more difference than a camera. If you do care about how to allocate your budget, invest in a proper lens. Whether you go with a Canon Rebel T3i or Canon 60D would make little difference.

  • Mega pixel should not be your most important decision factor. Most camera these days have 10+ mega pixels so unless you want to do commercial large print, you won't see that much difference between a 12 mp vs. 21 mp camera

  • I would suggest against buying the kit lens, although sometimes the price looks very attractive. You might regret pretty fast after getting some low quality pieces in the kit, and soon find out your total investment is much higher if you need to replace the lens included in the junk kit with a quality one.

  • At the beginning you might not want to venture into too many lenses. You can also rent a lens from local camera stores and see how you like it. For example, in San Francisco, Adolph Gasser (Howard/2nd) and Calumet (Bryant/18th) are great professional camera stores. There are a number of websites that allowed you to borrow lenses as well (eg. borrowlenses.com, lensrentals.com). I have not used any of these websites so wouldn't comment.

  • Amazon.com is where I purchase most of my lenses. B&H, Adorama, Samy's Camera are all large, reliable photography stores (both online and offline).

Overall, let’s say you choose to get a Canon T3i 18MP (costing $500), and your first 50mm, f/1.4, you are looking into a $900 total investment.  That might be a bit more expensive than a Canon T5i 18MP with 18-55mm kit lens (costing $680 on Amazon).  The first one might still be a better investment in my opinion in terms of quality images, but the latter might give you a better SLR experience just to learn what photography is all about.  You eventually will replace the 18-55mm kit lenses once your skills improve.

Third step: research on dpreview.com

If you have a few cameras or lenses in mind but can’t decide which is your final choice, go to dpreview.com.  Go to buying guide --> camera side by side or lens side by side.  If you really want to learn the nuts and bolts about camera equipment and important terms, here’s an article for beginners.

Don’t spend all the time reading the criteria less important to you as a beginner, because you might never be able to absorb all the information unless you have a camera in hand and start learning in real experience.

I hope the above is somewhat useful to you.


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