How I Chose My First DSLR Camera

by Stone Ward Staff

I have this strange obsession with cameras: I love them and think I need one of everything. But I am not a photographer. I just love taking pictures and have become the “historian” for family and friend events: everyone knows I will take a ton of pictures to document all our experiences. I also have a love for and fascination with all things technology, and cameras are technology-packed.

Though I take a lot of photos (and own many cameras), I am embarrassingly ignorant about things like aperture, shutter speed, and all the other “professional” settings on cameras. Several months ago, I decided to take the leap to a digital single-lens reflex camera (also called a digital SLR or DSLR) to improve the quality of images, to get more flexibility in how the images are shot and to generally learn more about photography.

Not knowing where to start given the number of DSLR cameras available and the great range in price, I started by asking photographers that I knew what camera they would recommend for a beginner. Before I get to what I ended up purchasing, here are the recommendations my colleagues and friends made:

From Chris Kindrick:

  • I’m biased toward Fuji right now. So I’m going to go with the Fuji X-T1 (with battery and card, about $1,300) This Fuji X-system is the first serious system designed from the ground-up as digital camera system with no ties whatsoever to film. Here is a review.
  • Fuji has promised seven lenses for this camera. They also can update the firmware in the camera, thus constantly improving the camera. I’ll probably get the next model in a couple of years.
  • Is it for a beginner? Ummmm…I don’t know. If you’re getting this for a tech savvy person, I think they will enjoy learning this camera.
  • The Fuji XT-1 is what a Japanese camera should be: tiny, tight, precise, fast, quiet, easy-to-use and extremely well made out of all metal.
  • The XT-1 works fast and easy, as a camera should. You don’t need a manual to figure it out; it’s all right in front of you. Everything just works as you’d expect it to.
  • The Fuji X-T1 is a real camera, made of metal, not plastic, for real photographers.
  • The X-T1 has shutter and aperture dials. Nikon and Canon don’t any more.
  • The X-T1 has a real exposure compensation dial. LEICA and Nikon don’t any more.
  • The X-T1 has a real ISO dial. LEICA, Canon and Nikon don’t any more.
  • The X-T1 has real exposure mode switches. Nikon and Canon don’t any more.
  • 16 megapixels and a super fast processor in a small compact camera. Good stuff.

From Lindsey Ingram:

    I’m jonesing for. I watched a demo from a professional photographer and he said in many cases, it’s replaced his full rig just because of its compact size and excellent image quality. It’s in line with Chris’s camera and recommendation.

From BJ Matthews:

  • I’m pretty partial to Nikon. I’d recommend the Nikon D7100 or the Nikon D3300. You can find reviews for the D7100 here and the D3300 here.
  • I recommend checking any camera you’re thinking about purchasing through Ken Rockwell. His reviews are hands-down the best you’ll find.
  • The 7100 is probably my favorite in terms of non-professional DSLRs because it’s really as close as you can get to the professional models without shelling out $2500+. 24 MP. Compatible with every Nikon AF lens made since 1986 (which is huge). It’s a great buy.
  • But if you’re wanting something with fewer controls & the same kind of performance, the 3300 is a great buy, too, and much cheaper than the 7100.

Cody Scott:

  • I have heard a lot of good things about the Olympus Lindsey recommended, as well. Priced at $1300 for the body, is not bad.
  • I have the Sony A7s which is a bit more expensive, but probably the same difficulty to use, and the thing about it is that is extremely low light sensitive. This has made a huge difference for me when shooting without any lighting: it has an ISO that goes to 400k, which is crazy high. What this does is allows me to shoot in situations when before, I would have said, “I need more light” or “most of this will be underexposed.” Seriously, I can shoot video in moonlight with it. It’s crazy.
  • It really depends on what you are wanting to do with the camera. Fuji has a nice creamy look, so does Panasonic’s GH4. The Sony is a bit sharper. There are some auto-focusing differences as well.
  • Don’t rule out Canon, the 60D and 70D are good still cameras at lower prices ranges than the 7d and 5d. The 5d is awesome and definitely the go-to camera for some situations. I like it for studio shooting.
  • Nikon has a cool look to its photos as well. I feel like it is the most recognizable look, and a very nice one at that. I took a Nikon D80 to Europe and got some of the best pictures I’ve ever taken with it. That camera is only about $300 for the body.
  • This information gave me really great foundational information to begin my shopping process. Based on these recommendations and my experience with my current go-to “hybrid” point-and-shoot camera (Sony NEX-3 from 2011, with three interchangeable lenses), I made a list of things I most wanted from a new camera:

    • Feel and look more substantial than a point-and-shoot. This may seem like a silly requirement since there are compact DSLR cameras that are just as good as the bigger cameras. But I wanted to feel a difference in the camera.
    • Cost less than $1500. I am never great at sticking to a budget, but spending more than that for a beginner seemed like overkill.
    • Be a “generalist” rather than a “specialist.” I wanted a camera that was good in all situations rather than a camera that was really good in only certain situations.
    • Have a built-in flash, with the flexibility to add/use better flashes eventually. Though I may eventually upgrade to a better flash, I wanted to start with one that had a built-in flash since I am still learning about lighting.
    • Produce quality video and have option for external microphone connection.
    • Include a wifi connection with my iPhone to transfer images immediately so I could share quality images in real time.

     

    So, what camera did I end up purchasing? The Nikon D5300.   It met all of my requirements, had many of the features recommended by my friends and felt like it was more camera than I had now without being too much more to be overwhelming. After five months of use, I can positively say that I am happy with the purchase! I am still learning how to use and have two books that I reference when I am practicing and learning.