Choosing Your First dSLR

By Daniela Bowker @ Small Aperture

That's it; you've decided. You've been taking pictures for a while now, but you're beginning to feel limited by your compact camera as it wants to take too much control over picture-taking or it isn't giving you the flexibility you crave. You've some spare cash: it's time to take the plunge into the wonderful world of the interchangeable lens cameras.  

Where on earth do you start? Between the different manufacturers, the host of megapixels, the question of sensor size, autofocusing speeds, sensitivity, and frames-per-second, it can be overwhelming.

Well, there are two points to remember, first and foremost. First, that you are always, every time, more important than the camera. A terrible photographer shooting with a top-of-the-range-controls-the-international-space-station-in-its-spare-time camera will still be a terrible photographer taking terrible pictures. They'll just be taking them with an expensive piece of kit. You are the most critical factor in your photos and you are the criterion that requires the most investment: in time, in books, in reading, and in practice. 

Second: no manufacturer is going to sell you a bad dSLR. Wherever you put your money, you're going to be buying a decent camera. It's just that some have more functions and features than others and some perform better than others. Your decision will be dependent on how much you have to spend and how you envisage taking photos.

What then, should you be considering?

1. How much do you have to spend?

Just like any major expenditure, you need to set yourself budget when you're buying a camera. When you've worked out how much you have to spend on a camera, look at that sum again and think about dividing it between expenditure on a camera and expenditure on a lens or two. For sure you're likely to buy a camera with a kit lens, but the appeal of the dSLR is its lens flexibility: one camera, many lenses, thousands of different photographs. The lenses are what make using dSLRs great. It's all very well having an all-singing-all-dancing top-of-the-range camera, but if you don't have the lenses to make the most of it, what's the point? 

There's no harm in buying a less flashy body but spending more on glass; it's the glass that will be with you for years (more on that in moment) and will help you to capture the images that you want to take.

2. Megapixels really don't matter.

The megapixel, or the measure of an imaging chip's resolution, has become the standard unit of camera prowess in sales-speak since the digital revolution: 'Well, Madam, this camera has a 16 megapixel sensor, which is of course superior to this 14 megapixel version.' Yes, there are indeed more pixels covering the sensor of the first camera, but that doesn't necessarily make it a better camera. When you're buying a camera there is an entire gamut of factors to consider and megapixels have slipped way down that list. 

A pixel is a dot; either a dot of light on a screen or a light-sensitive dot in a sensor. The more pixels you have, the more light your sensor can record, and therefore more detail. This increased detail capture allows you to enlarge your prints whilst retaining sharpness or crop in closer without losing sharpness, which does indeed support the theory that more megapixels means a superior image.  

However, when you get over about eight megapixels, the difference becomes something of an irrelevance: you're just not going to enlarge a print to the size that will warrant such a density of pixels. Seeing as there are no dSLRs for sale on the first-hand market with a megapixel count below 12, you don't need to worry about your camera's megapixel count. 

3. You're in this for the long haul.

We've already established that, really and truly, it's the lenses that are the important factor when it comes to buying a camera. They're important for allowing you to capture the images you want to capture, and whilst your camera might need replacing periodically, lenses don't tend to degrade and the chances are that you'll have them for a very long time. Your investment then, will be in your glass.  

Lenses are manufacturer-specific, meaning that you can only use a lens manufactured for a particular brand of camera (either by the manufacturer itself or by a third-party company) on that make of camera. As a consequence, when you buy your first camera you need to think ahead: you're buying into a system, so which system has the best selection of glass that appeals to you, and which manufacturers are likely to still be in the dSLR market in four, eight, or 20 years' time, allowing you to continue to use your lenses. Cameras will come and go but lenses won't.

4. What are your friends and family using? 

If you've family and friends who are dSLR users, what do they use? How do they find it? If you decide to buy into the same system as them, you very quickly increase your kit options, if you're happy to share and borrow. It's cheeky, but it makes sense if trust each other and care for your kit. I use the same system as two of my closest friends; between us, we've loaned each other lenses, lighting kit, batteries, and even a camera body at one particularly disastrous moment. 

5. What sort of photography do you intend to do? 

No manufacturer is going to sell you a 'bad' dSLR, but some cameras perform some functions better than others. For example, some cameras have absolutely stunning low-light performance, whereas others struggle a bit. If you're planning on doing lots of concert or performance photography, or photography where you might be reliant on changeable natural light, you'll need to think about sensitivity. What are noise levels like at high ISOs? What is the maximum ISO? How accurate is the autofocus in dim conditions?

If you're more interested in sports or wildlife photography then you'll need to pay attention to autofocus speeds and continuous shooting capability: how many autofocusing points does it have, how many frames per second can it manage, and how long do you have to wait between shots?

The chances of you needing full weather-proofing unless you're a professional photojournalist are relatively slim; however, for some people it is important. It's worth knowing that whilst weather-sealing used to be the preserve of high-end models, it is creeping into mid-range cameras, too.

6. Crop-frame or full-frame? 

Entry-level and mid-range dSLRs tend to have APS-C sensors that are slightly smaller than 35mm 'full-frame' sensors, which you'll find in flagship cameras. Now, whilst the number of megapixels isn't such a big deal, the physical size of the sensor over which all those pixels are spread is more worthy of consideration. Being able to plaster 14 million pixels onto a larger surface area is easier, and therefore less error prone, than squeezing them onto something smaller. The bigger the sensor is physically, the more accurate it is likely to be.

There's also the issue of the 'crop factor' - a camera with a smaller sensor will have a magnifying impact on the focal length of your lenses compared with when you use them on a full-frame camera. The smaller sensor is only able to detect a portion of the entire field of view, making it appear as if you're closer to your subject. It doesn't actually change the focal length of your lenses, it just makes it look that way.

When you have a telephoto lens on your APS-C sensor camera this can be very useful, because a 200mm lens focal length suddenly becomes the equivalent of 300mm; but it can be a bit of a pain when you're using wide-angle lenses as they will lose some of the impact of their increased angle of view.

In many respects, this isn't a terrible problem but do be aware that some lenses are manufactured specifically for use on crop-framed cameras (and their focal length won't be subject to the magnifying effect). If you decide to upgrade to a full-frame camera in the future, not all of your lenses might be compatible. 

7. Bells and whistles; gadgets and gizmos

The array of extra functionality that comes on cameras now is mind-boggling. Some of it I regard as really quite useful, for example built-in external flash controls and GPS functionality. Some of it I can take or leave because it either doesn't interest me or it's something that I prefer to do in post-processing, for example adding digital filters or cropping. Then there are features such as multiple exposure capability that is a lot of fun and probably a great deal easier in-camera than in the editing suite. 

There might well be something here that really is important to you, in which you will want to look around for a camera that offers that particular feature. The chances are, however, that these are fun extras and won't be deal-breakers when it comes to making a selection.

8. Hold it in your hands 

I don't think that I can emphasise enough the importance of this last point. You are going to be spending a great deal of time in the company of your camera; if you're not happy with its size and weight, its ergonomics, or its interface, it will make for a very difficult relationship.

You want a camera that is comfortable to hold, that is not too heavy for you to carry about, that has its buttons laid out in a fashion that feels natural to use, and has an interface that you consider intuitive. 

I've shied away from bigger and heavier full-frame models for years; I'm physically very small and I find them uncomfortable to hold and far too heavy to carry around for an entire day. Thankfully my self-imposed full-frame boycott is drawing to a close as more manufacturers announce models that have full-frame sensors in smaller bodies. 

When I've road-tested cameras in the past, the placement of and easy access to key controls has been a priority for my consideration: if I can't access easily the dials and buttons that I use with the greatest frequency, I'm going to find the camera difficult to use. That's not going to lead to fun photography, more frustrated photography, which isn't my aim. 

I won't buy a camera without first holding it and fiddling with its controls, and neither should you. It has to feel right.

The critical factor when buying a camera, any camera, is can you envisage yourself using it, and enjoying it, over the course of years? If you think it is going to meet your needs and be your constant companion, then you've the right camera. 


Daniela Bowker is a writer and photographer nominally based in London. She started taking photos aged about five, and writing a little bit before that. Since then, she has taken a few hundred thousand pictures, edited the photography news site Small Aperture, ranted extensively about megapixels, written two books, helped with several more, and contributes regularly to the photography website Pixiq.

When she's not wading through press releases, drooling over new kit, or out and about taking photos, you can usually find her messing with her whizz-bang kitchen gadgetry or bouncing around at a gig. You can follow more of her camera-related shenanigans on Flickr (Daniela Bowker) and Twitter (@smallaperture).

She has a mild shoe obsession, is in search of the perfect camera bag, and has a bicycle called Elspeth.