A Guide to Getting Your First DSLR

*Short blurb about how these are mostly our opinions based off of our combined experience about cameras and photography, and if you feel differently please feel free to do what pleases you. Also, Tyler and I are primarily natural light shooters, so we’ll be talking a lot about low-light. We won’t be covering video capabilities in this blog post, and this won't be a photography lesson. Also, apologies that this is a bit Nikon heavy since we're Nikon shooters, but the principles of this post should still stand for Canon as well.*

Tyler and I often get asked the ever popular question, “I plan to buy my first DSLR, what camera should I get?” We’ve decided to write up a blog post together about which DSLR and lens you should get if you are getting your very first DSLR. First off, congratulations! You obviously are seeking to create higher quality images, or you’ve discovered that that $150 point and shoot isn’t doing a very good job in low light. By the way, I want to first say that anything other than going outside in the daytime is already considered “low light.” All different types of cameras perform decently well outside in the sun. Once you go indoors, however, that’s where you may start having some issues. 

I want to make this post informative without going into great lengths about topics of photography that you could probably google for yourself, so I’m not going to ask you why you want to get a DSLR, do you understand shutter speed and aperture and ISO, where you want to go with your photography, if you’re buying used or refurbished, or anything like that. You’re going to buy a DSLR, and you need some recommendations. 

In reality, any DSLR is a great first DSLR. The improved optics, faster shutter response, longer battery life, available optical viewfinder, and larger sensor are all good reasons for upgrading.

Nikon D5100 - ($420 body only, $549 with 18-55mm)
Essentially a good sensor in a small body. According to Tyler, this is the best camera for its price

Canon T3i - ($599 body only, $599 with 18-55mm) On par with the D5100, most people would not be able to differentiate between photos shot with either camera. It does have the added benefit of a dedicated ISO button, but utilizes less autofocus points and in my opinion worse noise performance. A comparison of the two cameras can be seen here on DxOMark.
Thoughts on other entry level cameras:

D3000 Body: (~$360-$400) As a stand alone body, don’t bother. Its a discontinued item that sells for almost the same price as it does within the holiday Best Buy package ($450).
As a bundle, however, this package is great value for those who are the most budget conscious and are looking for the camera to do most of the work. It’s got lots of presets (sports, indoors, landscapes, etc...) and even a GUIDE mode that will walk you through everything. You can find this D3000 bundle for a limited time that includes the body, a 18-55mm lens, a 55-200mm lens, a nikon bag, a 8gig Class 10 SD card, and two tutorial DVDs. Due to the fact that this model is discontinued, it will be unavailable soon, and once the packages sell out, I would look towards the D3100, D3200, D5100, and soon to be announced D5200. (The Canon equivalent for the D3000 is the Rebel T3)

D3100: (~$479 with 18-55mm)  A better performing camera than the D3000, it is currently the most basic DSLR in Nikon’s lineup. For a few dollars more the D5100 is a better buy when its on sale. I don’t really recommend going with the D3100 if you don’t need to. (Canon’s equivalent being the T2i ~$599-$699)

D3200: ($599 with 18-55mm) Currently, the D3200 is Nikon’s newest entry-level DSLR. It’s a better performing camera than the D3100, but is much more expensive and has more megapixels, which doesn’t really matter. I recommend the D5100 over the D3200 due to its better low light performance and cheaper price. (This currently doesn’t have a real Canon equivalent, but lets just say it's the T4i ~$799 body only, $749 with 18-55mm).
For the user who expects to control the outcome of his or her photo and expects the most out of the camera, being able to change settings quickly and efficiently is very important. For others who are looking for the camera to do most of the work with the ISO set to auto, it might not be a problem. It’s all down to personal preference and how you personally grow as a photographer.

One thing I really dislike about these entry level cameras is their ergonomics. When starting to shoot more seriously or trying to control the camera more by using manual settings, how quickly you can access and change the most important functions such as shutter speed, aperture, and ISO is crucial. I like Nikon’s higher-end DSLRs such as D7000 or D600 because I can change shutter speed and aperture by turning two dials at the same time. I think these entry-level DSLRs can actually hinder the motivation to learn about manual settings because the ergonomics are not really integrated into the camera in a way that promotes it. 

When it comes to entry level DSLR ergonomics, Tyler finds the Canon’s to be slightly superior with their pre-dedicated ISO buttons. With Nikon, the cameras must have their custom function buttons programmed to control ISO.

If you have money to spend for your very first DSLR, I’d suggest getting the  Nikon D7000! (~$896 body only, $1199 with 18-105mm) It’s better built, has a longer battery life, a more advanced autofocus system, an in-body focus motor for AF-D Lenses, is better weather sealed, dual SD card slots, a better viewfinder, is geared more towards the serious hobbyist, and has two command dials, woohoo! Its Canon equivalent is the Canon 60D (~$799 body only, $1099 with 18-135mm)
But if your money is divided between getting a good camera body or a good lens, go for the good lens! Lenses almost never lose their value. Camera bodies get updated and replaced constantly. 

Another question we often get is “What lens should I get?”
Lenses are where it’s at. Tyler and I shoot with prime lenses (fixed focal lengths) because we love their quality, their lightweightness, and how darn fast they are with their large apertures. We always recommend first time DSLR buyers to skip the kit lens and go for a fast prime, such as the 50mm f/1.8G or the 35mm f/1.8G. When I first started photography, I loved the look of shallow depth of field and bokeh, so getting the 50mm f/1.8 was perfect. Some may feel that the 50mm is too tight of a frame (always having to step farther back to get everything in the frame), and some think it’s perfect. If you feel that the 50mm look is too tight, you can opt for the 35mm, which gives a wider frame. The 35mm on a crop frame camera (any entry level camera) is closest to what our eyes normally see. These prime lenses are great for shooting people and portraits. 

A quick comparison of focal lengths shot from the same distance. 50mm on left, 35mm on right. What do you prefer?

Tyler and I absolutely despise the kit lens that comes with most entry level cameras, the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6. It’s slow, terrible in low light, and feels cheaply built. It may be versatile in terms of focal length, but having the aperture change on you every time you zoom a little bit gets annoying, especially if you are using manual settings, and it’s pretty much only useful outside in bright sun. If you have the money for it, I’d recommend looking for a zoom that has a fixed 2.8 aperture, or at least a zoom lens that’s faster than the kit lens. It lets in so much more light even at its longest length, letting you shoot in lower light and giving that nice out of focus background. Zooms are good for all-around shooting, such as going on vacation. 

We recommend as a first DSLR kit:
- (For Nikon!) A Nikon D5100 + 50mm f/1.8G for the person who likes to shoot portraits, flowers, and "blurry backgrounds." 35mmf/1.8G (~$200) for the person who wants a wider angle.
- (For Canon!) A Canon T3i or T4i + 50mm 1.8 for the same reasons stated above. Or buy it with a 35mm f/2.0 (~$300) for a more normal field of view.
- A Nikon D3000 bundle for the person who's looking to buy the cheapest package for the holiday, as a family camera to take on vacations. Bright, sunny vacations.
You can take all the above I just talked about and come up with the combination that works best for you!

Below is some more commentary and information by Tyler!

How many megapixels is that?” The question you SHOULD be asking is “How large is the sensor?”
I am often asked how many megapixels is my camera, and I more often than not respond 12. I am occasionally scoffed at, some by people with 8mp camera phones, and others with 24mp entry level DSLRS. What they tend to overlook is the importance of the camera’s sensor size. A cellphone’s camera sensor is very small, giving it a vast depth of field (how much is in focus at once) and poor low light/noise performance. As for the entry level DSLR user, the difference between a crop frame APS-C sensor (22.3/23.2mm) and a Full Frame (36mm) is also significant. The Full Frame providing a larger frame of view allowing the photographer to shoot closer to subjects and thereby obtain a shallower depth of field than an APS-C could ever achieve. Full Frames also have the added benefit of performing better in lower light producing cleaner images at the same ISO.

Its a common misconception that more megapixels equates to higher image quality. In some cases it can perform the exact opposite. For example, the D3200 has 24mp and starts to bring in a lot of noise with ISOs above 400, while the D5100 with 16mp doesn’t really start to fall apart until 800 or more. The acceptable amount of noise in a photograph is purely subjective, as when I first started out, I knew nothing about editing and shot with my camera on its highest ISO just to achieve a look closer to film grain. That was a poor decision. 
After reading that paragraph above, you may be asking...
What is ISO?”
ISO is how sensitive the sensor is told to be to the incoming light. A less sensitive or slower film speed of ISO 50 will require a lot of light to come into the camera and result in a clean photo. An ISO of 6400, being a higher ISO and more sensitive will require less light to come into the camera to achieve the same exposure, but will also result in a noisier photo.  
What is Noise?”
Noise can simply be seen as a detail loss and an introduction of color artifacts to the image, especially within its shadows. The worse the noise, the more detail that is lost.
Will more megapixels on same sized sensors mean more noise?”
Yes, somewhat”, if you want to oversimplify things. “Not really”, is a better answer. It depends more on the camera’s sensor and processor. But we won't get into that. 

Helpful Links & Resources:
Cambridge in Colour

Much in the way compact cameras are tiered, so are DSLRs, and it isn't all about having more megapixels than the lesser models. Common difference between models include, how many photos a camera can take per second, how many photos a camera can capture sequentially and how fast it can write them to its card, what the camera is made of, if its weather sealed or not, what type of autofocus it contains, what type of light metering system it has, what type of memory cards it uses and how many, the size and sensitivity of the sensor, what processor is inside, and what type of lenses they will accept and use effectively. 

In regards to the megapixels, yes - you can have 8 megapixels in your phone, and no - having more megapixels doesn’t determine image quality (IQ). One of my favorite DSLRs back in the day was only 4.1 megapixels and yet it took awesome photos that exceeded any of the 16mp compacts that are out today. I am often told that their phone can take photos comparable to any DSLR they’ve seen. Congratulations, you’ve already have the camera you’re looking for, and it is apparent to me that a DSLR isn’t for you. I have even been linked to a youtube video of a fashion shoot being shot with an iPhone, what people seemed to overlook was the thousands of dollars invested in lighting equipment used on that shoot. And yes - it is possible to buy DSLR lens adapters for iPhones, but no - that still doesn't put them on par with DSLRs. The three most important parts of a camera in my opinion when it comes to the image quality will be its sensor, its processor, and the lens. If one is lacking, its only holding the other two back.   

Most people who are looking into getting their first DSLR are not looking to spend a lot of money, because they “are not a professional or anything.” The way I see it, if you enjoy photography, why not purchase a camera that enables you to capture photos the way you want to? I often have people ask me about high-end televisions ($3k+), are they buying them because they are professional television watchers? No, they buy these TVs because they perform at a higher standard than normal televisions. But I digress. Yes a lot of people watch TV for hours a day and can thus justify such an expenditure, but I feel its much more fulfilling to utilize one's brain, get outside, and maybe work out their arm a little by lifting a 1.2 lbs DSLR (D5100). 

A photographer armed with knowledge and experience can produce fantastic images even out of the cheapest of DSLRs, will they be to their quality standard though? No. Why? Because if you purchase an entry level lens for $300, thats in reality the same price of some neutral density filters professionals use to cut down the amount of light that enters their lens. Yes, DSLRs are expensive, costing hundreds of dollars, but in comparison to an actual professional camera system, an entire entry level DSLRs kit can cost less than one professional lens. 

It all just comes down to what you are using it for and why you want it. 

Happy shooting!

Annie & Tyler