Guide to Buying Your First DSLR

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Your First DSLR

For whatever the reason, you’re ready to buy your first DSLR. It could be that your point-and-shoot isn’t cutting it anymore in regards to features, speed, or image quality, or it could be that you’d like to turn photography into more than a rarely-touched hobby.

Romain Ballez

By Romain Ballez

DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) cameras are what the vast majority of professional photographers use to get the job done. Unlike point-and-shoot camera models, which record light (and therefore an image) onto an electronic sensor directly, a DSLR uses a mirror to bounce the light from a scene through an internal system and into a viewfinder or an electronic sensor, in the case of an open shutter.

These cameras also allow for interchangeable lenses, giving you a wide array of options in regards to focal lengths and quality. There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to DSLR systems, but at the end of the day, these cameras offer the features and quality required by advanced hobbyists and professionals.

Guide to Buying Your First DSLR

What You’re Looking For

There’s no denying it, this is a big purchase for you. No, you’re not looking for a top-of-the-line, full-featured beast this go round; you need the best possible piece of equipment for a reasonable price. You need bang for your buck – here is your guide to buying the right DSLR.

Whether photography is a passionate hobby or a hopeful profession of the future, you are in a learning phase, and need a camera that will compliment that objective well. While current-generation point-and-shoots can be great products, DSLR’s do have a few advantages.

Larger Sensors

As a rule, DSLRs have a larger photo-sensitive digital sensor, which usually translates to better image quality. Please note that this has nothing to do with megapixels or resolution, neither of which are, by themselves, indicators of image quality.

Interchangeable Lenses

While there are some point-and-shoot systems beginning to offer interchangeable lenses, by and large, DSLR’s have the market dominated in this area. Not only do the big camera companies have their own lenses, third-party companies such as Sigma and Tamron offer great selections as well. There is a lens out there for virtually every application you can imagine.

János Csongor Kerekes

By János Csongor Kerekes

A Viewfinder

Instead of the usual LCD screen present in point-and-shoot cameras, DSLR’s collect light from the lens, direct it to the mirror, and through the viewfinder, giving you an almost exact representation of what is being captured on the sensor.

Advanced Features and Controls

Namely, manual controls. While point-and-shoots usually feature the ability to modify settings, DSLR’s are built from the ground up with manual control in mind. ISO ranges are higher with reflex cameras, and larger sensors combined with precise aperture controls allow for controlled depth of field in your photos.

Speed

DSLR’s are known for their faster shutter and system speeds, and in the world of photography, speed is usually a good thing.

There are countless brands of equipment, but as far as DSLR’s go, there are the big three – Canon, Nikon, and Sony.

Recently, Pentax has been gaining ground again, and there are more expensive offerings available from companies like Leica and Hasselblad. For our purposes, we’ll stick to the big three, as they are all known for offering outstanding entry-level cameras within their product lines, and can be relatively inexpensive.

Elias Ruiz Monserrat

By Elias Ruiz Monserrat

What to look for when buying that all-important first SLR camera?

Image Quality

Image quality is usually the most important requirement of a new camera for photographers, and it’s also one of the most subjective. The quality of the photos a camera produces is dependent on several factors, including sensor size, lens quality, and the optics of the camera itself.

Feature Set

While almost all DSLR’s have a common set of features (such as the ability to shoot manually), some brands and models have automated some features, while others have not, or do not have those features at all. Different cameras have varying usable ISO ranges, autofocus points, and resolution (in megapixels).

Design

Although usually not the first thing you think of with an entry-level camera, buying a model with a solid design is still important. Some less expensive cameras have all plastic housing, whereas others may use more heavy-duty materials such as metal; others still may be weatherproof to a certain degree.

Even at the price points we’re discussing, it’s a good idea to research that aspect of the prospective camera as well, and buy as solid a model as possible.

Jung-nam Nam

By Jung-nam Nam

Cost

We’re talking entry-level, for the scope of this article, so cost will be a factor. Obviously, the more money you’re able to spend, the more advanced system you can get. Keep in mind however, that often with entry-level models, differences between the cameras can come down to feature sets, with image quality staying more or less the same.

Remember that the quality of the lens you’ll be attaching to the camera is more of a determining factor in the quality of the photo.

Where to Buy

Luckily, you have several options in this area. Gone are the days where you could only buy a camera at your local Wolf Camera (and unfortunately, gone are the Wolf Camera stores, as well). Now there are virtually limitless retail outlets and sellers online, carrying every system and component a photographer could need. You can order your camera from your living room and have it delivered to your house a few short days later, without ever leaving home.

Amazon, B&H Photo, and Adorama are all large, respectable retailers you can shop with, and are among the most popular today.

The Contenders

Canon EOS Rebel T5i

The Canon Rebel series has a long-standing tradition on solid, quality cameras at a reasonable price. While I won’t start a brand war here, it’s well-known that most photographers end up settling on either Canon, or Nikon.

The Rebel series has come a long way from the days of the XS, and the latest generation of Rebel cameras are much closer to Canon’s midrange line than before, with better sensors, more features, and hardier construction.

t5i_586x186

Canon Rebel T5i

The T5i is an 18MP (megapixel) camera, with an ISO range of 100 – 12800 (expandable to 25600). It also features a 3 inch Vari-angle Touchscreen LCD, 9 AF (autofocus) cross points, 5 fps (frames per second) continuous shooting speed, and shutter speeds up to 1/4000 second.

As with most entry level systems, if you opt for the full kit, you’ll get the standard 18-55mm IS (image stabilization) zoom lens. While very good for learning novices, you’ll want to upgrade to a cheap prime such as the excellent Canon EF-S 50mm f/1.8 or something similar, as the cheaper build and documented chromatic aberration issues with the kit lens could leave you wanting a bit more. Note that this applies to all kit lenses on the entry-level cameras we’re discussing here.

Nowadays, as systems get more advanced, HD video recording is becoming more of a requirement, and the T5i delivers this as well. As of this writing, the T5i kit is selling for $649.99.

Nikon D3300

D3300

Image courtesy Nikon

Nikon upped their game with the D3300, equipping the camera with a generous 24 megapixels of resolution in a solid, compact, carbon fiber enhanced body. This model gives you, the budding photographer, an ISO range up to 12,800 (expandable up to 25,600), 11 autofocus points, and 5 frames per second of continuous shooting, along with a 3″ LCD screen that matches the Canon model.

Just as with the Canon T3i, the D3300 supports shutter speeds up to 1/4000th of a second and allows for 1080p HD video recording.  Retailing around the $500 mark, the body and lens bundle includes the Nikkor 18-55mm 5.6 VR II lens, a relative equivalent to Canon’s 18-55mm kit lens.

Sony A58

Usually considered the third wheel of the big three, Sony is known more for their other forays into the electronics world than their digital cameras, but don’t let this fool you; they know how to make a good DSLR, and the SLT-A58 is a wonderful example of that.

sony-a58

Image courtesy Sony

Dipping even lower in price and the lowest of all three at $450, the A58 gives you quite a bit for that price point. This 20.1 megapixel camera offers a respectable ISO range up to 16,000, and is expandable up to 25,600. Leading the pack, this model offers 15 autofocus points, but forces you to give up a little bit with the smallish 2.7″ LCD screen.

Battery life has been improved fairly drastically on the A58 in comparison to previous entries in the series, and for such a budget-friendly camera, it features a surprisingly big and bright viewfinder.

Conclusion

So which one is right for you? Any of these – or none of these. The answer lies in what you’re looking for, and what concessions you’re willing to make for the budget you have. All of these are excellent cameras, and were chosen because of what they offer for the price, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other cameras that would serve the purpose just as well or even better.

The prices we’ve discussed all include a kit lens to get you started, but be aware, these are usually the lowest-end optics available, and you’ll want to upgrade as soon as possible to another piece of glass. Also, in most cases you have the option of buying the camera body only, and picking out your lenses separately, which reduces your upfront cost of the DSLR itself. There are literally hundreds of lenses to choose from; just ensure they will fit your camera’s mount before purchasing.

At the end of the day, you want a camera that will facilitate the learning process you’re going through, so choose a camera that assists in that purpose, without breaking the bank.

Bought Your First DSLR? Here’s How to Learn How to Use it!

Check out our Ultimate Guide to Learning How to Use Your First DSLR.

Also check out our Photography Tips for Beginners page for lots of great photography tutorials suitable for first time DSLR buyers.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Tim Gilbreath is a natural light photographer, writer, designer and musician with a love for nature and the outdoors. He's also a retro/pop culture aficionado, and although he was born and raised in Houston, Texas, he has called the Florida west coast his home for the last 12 years.

  • Eric

    “While there are some point-and-shoot systems beginning to offer interchangeable lenses”

    So you regard mirrorless cameras as point and shoot? What century was this written in? Most mirrorless ILC cameras are an equal alternative to DSLRs. They should be given the same amount of attention in any article for beginners who want to move on to a camera with more control.

  • Ron Olivier

    I’ll soon be in the market to upgrade…I currently have a Fujifilm ‘bridge’ camera that was a gift. I’ve been researching Mirrorless CSC’s (Sony A6000 and others in that $400-$700 range), but now I’m wondering if a DSLR would be the way to go. Would either category (DSLR or Mirrorless) give me more ‘bang for the buck’ and deliver a camera that I could grow into without having to upgrade in a year or two (other than additional lenses)??

  • Eric,
    This article is about DSLR cameras for first-time buyers of those types of systems. Since mirrorless systems are a bit different, they are outside the scope of this article.

    If you look around you’ll see dPS has several good articles on mirrorless.

    Thanks for reading.

  • Hey Ron thanks for reading!

    Mirrorless systems will use either a screen or electronic viewfinder; if you’re looking for an actual optical viewfinder, DSLR’s are what you’ll need.

    Mirrorless cameras can match DSLR’s regarding autofocus and image quality, however.

  • Eric

    Hi Tim, thanks for your answer. I agree dPS covers mirrorless elsewhere and this article is about DSLR so it doesn’t have to waste too many words on mirrorless. But for beginners stumbling upon this article it would be good to at least point out that there are alternatives, and perhaps some links to articles that explain the pros and cons of the types of cameras available. Without any attention at all to alternatives, beginners might think a DSLR is the only viable option. They won’t search dPS for ‘mirrorless’ if they don’t know such thing exists.

    In my opinion mirrorless is often an easier transition for beginners, and still offers all the room to grow to pro level. One thing that helps a lot is that for example in manual mode you still have ‘exposure preview’, so you are less likely to miss an opportunity due to incorrect exposure settings. For manual focus, focus peaking is very helpful. And most of these cameras have more compact and lightweight bodies and lenses, so it’s easier to carry with you on travels.

    Many mirrorless cameras are still a bit weak for sports photography though, so it depends on the requirements, whether it’s a DSLR, a mirrorless ILC, or a big sensor compact camera that will work best for you.

  • Ron Olivier

    Thanks Tim. EVF’s or optical VF’s are fine. My camera now has ONLY an LCD screen, and it’s very difficult to use in bright sunlight.

  • Prashant Narayane

    What is your suggestion over canon sx 50 hs as first camera i wish to buy.

  • I agree Eric, thanks for refining that point 🙂

  • Daniel M

    Look at Pentax!!

  • Elle G

    Yes, you can buy a camera without ever stepping in a store, but only a hands-on demo will tell you which has the best “feel” in your hands, how easy it is for you to manually focus, etc. TRY before you buy.

  • Jeni

    So how does the D3200 compare to the D3300?? I’m looking at both.

  • Shirley Lockwood

    I just bought the t5i with the 18-135 lens. I also purchased the 75-300 zoom with image stab. I am now trying to figure out what filter i want. I absolutely love it so far.

  • Hi Jeni! You can see a comparison to the two here:

    http://snapsort.com/compare/Nikon-D3200-vs-Nikon-D3300

    Right off the bat, the D3300 has better ISO performance and can shoot HD video at 60fps versus the 30fps on the D3200.

  • Shirley Lockwood

    What are good filters to have for the canon t5i. I like to take alot of out doors type shots. Also sports . Any suggestions would be great. Also looking for a better flash that can keep up with the lenses I have.

  • Shirley, dPS has a great article about the different types of filters here:

    https://digital-photography-school.com/introduction-to-filters-for-dslrs/

    A polarizing filter is a great start for shooting outside, as it reduces glare and pops skies a bit.

  • Hi, the SX 50 is known for it’s zoom lens, but at the end of the day you still have a camera in the $350 to $400 range that can’t change lenses, and at that price point, you can start looking at mirrorless systems or DSLR’s.
    Also, the SX 50 isn’t going to be as great for low-light situations.

    However, if you’re just looking for simplicity and the long zoom appeals to you, it might do just fine 🙂

  • Shirley Lockwood

    Thank you, I will look into the filters and figure out what works for me.

  • Björn

    The Sony A58 Is not a classical DSLR but features its semi-reflecting mirror only for focusing. The viewfinder itself is OLED.

  • Björn

    I own a Nikon D5100 since about 18 month. About 6 months ago I bought in addition to this a Panasonic GM1. Now I shoot about 80% of my pictures with the GM1.
    The old saying that the best camera is the one you have always with you holds true … 😉

  • Shirley Lockwood

    I have the sx50 50 and it’s a good camera. I have used it for all occasions from the beach, indoors. And this past Halloween I took pics at night at a haunt. It worked great. I did just purchase a dslr and a big case so I carry both with me.

  • Robin

    Why do you place the Sony A58 next to the Canon and Nikon then, as it isn’t a DSLR but a mirrorless camera?

  • Björn

    “Since mirrorless systems are a bit different, they are outside the scope of this article.” — as he wrote already below … 😉

    But anyway, the Sonys are really nice cameras.

  • burtv

    Hello,
    What is your opinion of the D7100 when compared to the D3300. I am looking at the D7100 and am currently using the D5100. I have used the D5100 as a amateur, think I have approximately 1,000 images taken with it in about 4 years. Though I don’t use in a lot I do find it has some/ a few short comings.
    Thanks for your time and opinions!

  • wjb

    “a DSLR uses a mirror to bounce the light from a scene through an internal system and into a viewfinder or an electronic sensor, in the case of an open shutter.”
    That’s not the case. The mirror is only used to reflect the image to the viewfinder. When taking a photo, the mirror first flips up out of the way and then the shutter opens exposing the sensor (or, in the old days the film) directly to the light/image via the lens. If you go to Live View mode on a DSLR, the mirror locks up out of the way, your viewfinder is blank and the image is projected directly onto the sensor and electronically converted to be viewed on the rear screen. The mirror is only used to reflect the image to the viewfinder.

  • Laura Horton

    I’m trying to select my first DSLR. I’ve been using a Canon S5IS as my digital but my primary camera is still my Canon 1N. It’s becoming too difficult to stay with film though.

    I got the 1N because I did most of my shooting at horse shows, where very often competition is at night, indoors, fast and unpredictable. Across an arena and no flash allowed. Capturing the right moment of the jump required quick continuous bursts.

    I also enjoy just stopping on the side of the road to photograph something that catches my eye. One problem with the 1N is the weight, esp with a tele on it.

    I can’t decide if one of the entry DSLR will give me good show pics while I figure out digital (Canon T5i or Nikon D3300), or should I look for Nikon D5300 or Canon 70D refurb?
    Was about to buy the D3300 but was told it won’t be fast enough for the horses.
    I looked at a refurb Canon 7D. Was told it was too much for starter.
    Help me please.

    I have 3 decent IS lenses, tho I don’t know if they work on new digital bodies.

  • Orlando

    I just got a Canon 60D. What lenses do you recommend to get the most out of my new acquisition?. I’ve reading about the 50mm and I think is a good option, any other ideas?.

  • uday

    Hi, i bought sony L3000 (alpha) how does this works can any one

  • Ashley

    The A58 is not a mirror less camera

  • Ron Olivier

    Just to update, I DID end up going with a DSLR – The Pentax K-50. It all comes down to that one question in your summary…’Which one is right for you” It was affordable enough that I was able to get a bundle with a second kit zoom lens (50-200mm). And while it doesn’t have the articulating LCD screen, it IS weather-resistant, which is a nice feature to have here in New England, where our motto is ‘If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute.”
    So far I’ve only had it for a week, but there is so much to learn that I can see I’ll be busy for quite a while. Thanks again for a great article, Tim.

  • Hi there.. I know I want a canon but I am not sure whether to get the 700D or the Rebel T5i as recommended here.. Or is this article quite old and therefore the T5i is no longer valid?

  • Dylan Bentley

    It’s actually the same camera, it’s called the T5i in North America and the 700D everywhere else

  • Hi Yvonne! The T5i is definitely still a valid camera, and as @dylan_bentley:disqus stated, it’s the same camera, just a different naming convention when sold internationally.

  • Hi Orlando, sorry about the lethargic response; I have that camera as well, and right now, the lenses I’m using primarily are the 50mm 1.8, and the 24mm STM pancake, both excellent and low-cost 🙂 They cover the two ranges I’m most interested in, and being primes, are sharp and fast. If I had to add another lens, it would be a zoom such as a 70-200mm, to cover long-range stuff.

  • Hi uday, I can’t speak intelligently about Sony gear in general or the L3000 in particular, but my initial conclusions after doing some research is that it’s solid and has received good reviews.

  • Good purchase @disqus_vVyWqfb3Tr:disqus! My daughter has that camera as well, she loves it.

  • Sounds like you got a great deal Ron! I hope the Pentax system works out for you, those have always intrigued me, I’d like to get my hands on one and take it for a test drive. Thanks for reading!

  • Absolutely Bjorn! I’ve heard great things about the Panasonic mirrorless systems.
    I’m about to invest in the Fujifilm X system myself, I know I’ll shoot even more, with the reduced bulk and slimmer profile.

  • Devon Matteis

    I am leaning towards the Canon EOS Rebel SL1 If I were to just get the body what is a great lens to include that is somewhat more upgraded then the kit provides?

  • Carson

    Hey, would the Lumix DMC-GM1 be a good beginner camera? I saw it on an article about beginner cameras and like the size and features. Thanks for the help! 🙂

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