A no-nonsense guide on how to choose and buy the right DSLR camera for you
BY DOMINIQUE JAMES
The very first thing that someone who wants to go into photography more seriously will want to know is which camera to buy. In the old days of film photography, all you have to do is to look at the ads, figure out the specs, check if it match your budget, and, ask a few friends about their feedback. That is still largely true today, but the process have grown to be bit more involved and a bit more complicated. What makes it quite a challenge to choose and buy the right camera is that there are so many brands and models to choose from. There was a time when you have to choose only among 5 cameras of different brands and models, but now, you have to look at more than two dozens.
I certainly understand the apprehension and excitement of someone who’s about to buy his first serious and somewhat expensive camera. I’ve been there once, and I’ve been through the same apprehension and excitement. I was lucky that I had the guidance of a mentor that made the process quite relatively fast, easy, and painless, but not everyone can be that lucky, specially now that there are many brands and models to choose from, and there are many opposing voices, opinions and ratings about these cameras.
In this digital day and age, new and unheard of digital camera brands are being introduced. The established camera manufacturers on the other hand, seem to be coming up and introducing new models every other week. Worldwide, there are hundreds of photography magazines conducting their own reviews, and providing independent, and often, opposing user experiences, feedback, and ratings. On the web, there are thousands of photography websites that provide even more opposing user experiences, feedback, and ratings. And when you try to seek out informed opinions from the online forums, you still get answers that does not provide you a clear decision-making path.
You discover soon enough that, amassing information, and processing them, is no longer as easy and as simple as it used to be. If you’ve been through a research phase, you’d sooner than later learn that you are, most likely, on your own, when it comes to buying a camera.
Yes, indeed, it can get really complicated.
To help you out, if you are a first-time buyer, and if you are anxious and excited, the way we’ve all been, take heart because here are some guidelines to keep in mind, when buying your first camera. These are things that most marketers, and even photographers, will not tell you, but these are tremendously practical tips on how you can get the right camera for you.
Buy the brand
The first thing you should think about is deciding which brand of camera you want. Brand is important, and buying the “right” brand is important, not because you’d be most likely get judged by others with your choice of camera brand (although it can, and it does, happen), but because when buying a camera, you are buying into the brand system. And what that actually means is that once you buy a camera, you are only actually buying the camera’s body (and maybe a “kit” lens that went with the package), and later on (which is actually sooner than later), you will discover that you need to buy even other more stuff that bears the same brand name for such items as lenses and accessories. You should therefore think of buying a camera based on brand as if you are “marrying” the brand. You are in the process of beginning, and developing, a brand relationship. Shifting brand later on may not only be a painful experience, but an expensive proposition, as well. So, decide, right from the start, which brand you want to be “married to”. Your choice today, like a choice of life partner, will surely have a very long-term consequence.
You will soon find out, when doing your research, that there are undeniably, and obviously, two dominant camera brands today, Nikon and Canon. There’s some sort of a “war” going on today with these two brands. And their respective followers are always locked in one form or the other of mortal Nikon vs. Canon combat. Check out the magazines, and the websites, and you will see that these brands are the ones that get mentioned often. If you decide to buy a Nikon or a Canon brand, you are, in general, making the right brand decision. You are joining millions of others before you who made the same “right” decision, and it is almost fair to say that you’ll never go wrong when you choose which one of the two brands. You can even just leave the choice to chance by tossing a coin, and you’d still come out with a winning choice, one way or the other, whichever that may be.
But this is not to say that these are the only excellent camera brands that are out there. These maybe the two dominant brands, but they do not hold the exclusivity to some of the most interesting product innovation and product development. As a matter of fact, a lot of the key innovations are being introduced first by the other camera brands, meaning, brands other than Nikon and Canon. And you will learn that even these dominant brands play catch up to the other brands. So, you will discover that some really cool features that are available in the cameras of other brands, are not available in the latest line up of both Nikon and Canon. You’d be surprised at the amazing innovations that have been and are still being first introduced by camera brands such as Fuji, Pentax, Sigma, Sony, and others.
If you are still not sure which brand you want, ask around. Get in touch with those who already own cameras, and ask them about their experiences with their choice of brand–why they chose it, why not a different brand, if they will chose another brand when they buy again, what they like most about the brand and what they don’t like. By asking these questions, you’ll get insights into the choices they made, and which can, eventually and hopefully, help you in making your own right brand choice.
And one last thing about choosing which brand, check what most of your friends, or the people you know in general, are using. If many of your friends and associates are predisposed to using a particular brand (never mind if they are using different models), it is fair to say that you will be better off joining the bandwagon. While we want to believe we should be independent-minded when it comes to our thinking and our choices, there are advantages to being a part of the pack. It often is a practical, if not a good idea, to stick to the kind of brand that your peers have already selected for themselves. This can translate into a strong network of support in terms of know-how and knowledge, as well as, sharing or trading of lenses, accessories and equipment.
Choose which model
So, you’ve decided on a brand. You’ve given it a lot of thought, and you’ve convinced yourself that your choice of brand is the best, and that you won’t get humiliated when seen carrying and using that camera brand. In fact, it is the kind of brand that will elicit “oohs” and “ahhs” from those who see you with it, instead getting a “what-camera-is-that” kind of reaction. That’s cool. Now, it’s time to decide which camera model you want. Take a look at their complete line up of current product offerings, from the top-of-the-line models down to the entry-level models. In most cases, at least in the case of Nikon or Canon, there are, at any one time, about 6 to 10 current DSLR models. Take a look at each and everyone one of them.
If you are new to photography, and when reading a list of camera specifications is a bit like reading the menu of an exotic fine-dining French restaurant, you might first want to brush up a bit on what these camera specs mean. There are a number of resources online that will tell you what these are and what they are for, and why you need them. Take the trouble to learn all these things because, when you buy a DSLR, you’re going to be needing and using these information anyway when you take pictures with it. You can’t forever languish in the P mode while everyone else is doing creative photography with the use of M, A, and S modes. If you don’t know what these are, and if you have friend who is into photography, do not hesitate to ask. Now is the right time to ask what the camera specs mean.
So, okey, you actually know what the specs mean, and are totally digging it. That’s great! You should now ask yourself what will you use the camera for. What are the subjects you are going to photograph? How often will you use the camera? Which places you will bring your camera? What you use the camera for, how you use it, and why you are using it will dictate the camera model you should be get. This is actually a little tricky because, of course, we want the latest and the greatest because we’re thinking we can do this or that in the future. Now, hold on a second, because, your choice of the model you will buy now should be based on what you need now, not what you will need or want to do sometime in near future, particularly in the next year or so. Not only will newer models be introduced and available by then, and new technologies may have already superceeded the existing ones, but you should focus only on what you need to do now because, because for sure, you’d want a different camera, maybe the camera model that has yet to be created and released, to do what you want to do sometime in the near future. You realize and accept the fact as early as now that the first DSLR you will buy today is not going to be the last DSLR you are going to buy.
Most people seem to think that choosing a higher or a more expensive model is always a better choice. That is not necessarily true. Because you know what you want to do with your camera, and what kind of pictures you want to take, you can decide with confidence which model you want to buy based on the criteria of your needs, and not only because one camera seems capable of doing more or doing better. A higher-level camera or a better-model camera may not at all serve your purpose or make a difference in the kind of photography you want to do now. As a matter of fact, the burden of additional features may prove to be useless and even a burden. So, making the right choice is not necessarily going with a higher model or the model that is packed with more features. It is making a decision which features are essential to you, and which you can live without.
Another thing to consider when choosing among models is the inherent camera characteristic or trait it possess. You may think a camera is just all technology but you’d be surprised to know that each model can produce a distinct output that photographers have come to regard favorably, and even admire deeply. One camera model can do certain things which another camera model cannot. The way to learn of these “quirks” is to scour the photography forums. Spend some time reading the user experiences and feedback of photographers who are already using the camera models you are seriously considering of owning. Read what they are saying, and also “listen” for things that they are not saying. If their experiences and feedback are the kind that you’d like to experience for yourself, and if what they are saying resonates to the very core of your being, then, you know that you are making the right, if not the perfect, choice.
The thing is, can you afford it? Do you have the heart and the strength and the gumption to spend that much money on something that you very well know you might not or even won’t be able to make money out of? You should even be asking yourself if you are, in fact, in the near future, ready to spend more money on it? Remember, the first buy is not necessarily the last buy. While most of the latest entry-level camera models as well as the last-season models are now generally affordable, these DSLRs are not necessarily cheap. For most people, buying a DSLR is a small investment that constitutes a somewhat major expense. Because of this, you want to make the most out of the money you are going to spend by making sure you are buying the right camera.
All things considered
From the brand to the model, we’ve pretty much covered the major points to consider when buying a camera. There are, however, a few more things that you should know. We’ll cover these areas of concern under the general umbrella of “all things considered.”
You must know by now that new camera models are usually introduced in the span of less than one year. So, you have to face the fact that your expensive purchase will become obsolete very fast, and there will be a newer, better, and more expensive model that replaces it. Are you easily bothered by this fact–that what you are using right now, in the near future, will soon longer be “the greatest and the latest”? If you are not familiar with the company’s cycle of product introduction, you may even be inadvertently buying at the “end tail” of the product’s cycle because a new one is about to be introduced. Even before you are able to familiarize yourself with the camera’s controls, it is possible that it already is categorically, obsolete.
Digital cameras today are designed with the users’ hands and eyes in mind. The design of the camera is decided upon not just based on aesthetics but also on the principles of ergonomics. When buying a camera, do not rely on pictures of the unit alone. Go to a physical store to be able to touch the physical camera. Experience for yourself how the camera is like in your hands. Is it heavy? Does it feel properly balanced? Is it the right and comfortable size? Are the knobs easy to work on and are they in the right place? Is the viewfinder bright? Is the screen and read-out bright? Does the menu system makes sense to you? Choosing and buying a camera that ergonomically suits you will make you want to use it more, and in the end, you will most likely make the most out of it.
Do you know, or have you even thought about, your post-production workflow? In this digital time and age, photography is not just the act of “taking” the pictures. That’s just the start. Digital photography is what you will do with the pictures after you’ve taken them. In the most general and in the broadest of terms, post-production workflow means downloading the pictures to your computers, selecting your best shots, editing and enhancing your selections, and out-putting them by digital sharing (through email or website), photo printing (fine art or commercial), or sharing (multimedia or slideshow). You may want, as early as now, to learn how to do these things, so you’ll know exactly what to do with your pictures the moment you get your camera. There are many software available today that can help you handle your digital post-production. For those on Apple’s Mac platform, you can use iPhoto, Aperture, Lightroom, Photoshop CS3, Capture One, Capture NX, Light Zone, and others. If you are not yet familiar with these software, now is the time to do a bit of research and learn what each of these can do and how these software can help you. And, while you are doing some research, do take the time to figure out the many third-party stand-alone and plug-in tools that are quite useful, and even essential, in your workflow.
Go beyond the P mode. It is easy to spot those who do not know how to properly use and operate their cameras. And believe me, it’s quite embarassing. Do not let the others see that you do not know how to properly use and operate your camera. You will be looked upon not too kindly, the way people look down on charlatans. Once you get your camera, take the time and the trouble to master its many features. You’ll be glad you did because that’s one of the ways how you can generally improve the style and quality of your photography. It may not be the most exciting thing in the world, but, do read your camera’s manual and familiarize yourself with how each and every control works in conjunction with all the other controls. Being able to manually set the controls gives you awesome flexibility which most DSLR owners never use or take advantage of because they don’t know the workings of their cameras. Do yourself a favor, maximize your use of the camera, first by learning its features and how to operate it. There should come a time when, you’d be able to operate your camera without even thinking about it, much like when you are driving.
And finally, are you really ready to buy and own a DSLR, or, you just want it because others are going into photography and you want to go into it as well? The point is, many photographers go into photography for all the wrong reasons. And the first wrong reason is because everyone else they know is going into it. They are just following what others are doing without really thinking for themselves why they want to get into it. It could be that photography is just a passing fancy, and sooner or later, one’s interest can’t be sustained. There are also those who go into photography, invest in the gear, because they think its an easy way to go into business and start earning money from it. For these people, photography is nothing more than a business opportunity because they see that others are making good and are successfully engaged in the business of photography (and not to mention that they are having fun doing it). I am also surprised to learn that others go into photography because they think it’s easy. And then they get surprised when they learn too late that photography is hard work, even harder than some of the other choices of things to do or go into that they’ve had. In any case, there are all the wrong reasons for going into photography. This is why, photography is not for everyone. And it doesn’t start with what camera to choose and buy.
So, what is the right reason for going into photography? The only reason why a person should go into photography is because he has been “bitten by the bug” — so to speak. Photography is an art and craft, and it asks from its practitioners the totality–heart, mind, body and soul. In short, there is therefore only one valid reason for you to buy the right DSLR so you can go ahead and engage in the art and craft of photography: for the love of it.