Sunday, May 24, 2009

Guidelines for Purchasing Your First Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) Camera

For the first-time DSLR camera buyer, the choices and options can be overwhelming. Here's a list of questions and considerations for making that big decision. A good camera store will ask the same questions to help determine which cameras are the best fit for their customers. Unfortunately, when shopping on the Internet or at mass merchandisers, little or no expert advice is available. So, answer the questions in this list, and take the list with you when you shop for that first DSLR.

Preface -------------------------------------

1. It is not the camera that makes the photographer. Any modern DSLR can take a good picture. It's the photographic knowledge, insights, time, patience and practice of each photographer that ultimately defines their personal style and the artistic merits of their photography.

2. All major DSLR camera manufacturers produce cameras that take excellent pictures. Whether it be Nikon, Canon, Sony, Pentax, Olympus, etc., each manufacturer is driven by customer demand and the ever-present pressure of competition. Consequently, you can be assured that each camera manufacturer offers a camera model presenting similar quality, capabilities and features within your budget range.

3. Be financially realistic. Making the decision to "move up" to DSLR photography carries considerable financial implications. This is true of almost any hobby or interest that we pursue in greater depth or take to the "next level". Photography can be expensive and, for newcomers, is rarely limited to just the purchase of a camera. I also caution first-time buyers that cheap usually signifies low quality. Over and above the initial cost of the DSLR camera body/kit lens, batteries, battery charger and memory card(s), typically the entry fee into DSLR photography will also include the following purchases during the first few months of ownership:

  • A tripod. (An adequately sturdy tripod will generally fall in the $80 to $200 range.)
  • Extra lenses. Most newcomers will buy a DSLR together with a lens (called a kit lens), but it's also common for DSLR owners to purchase a second or third lens to increase their photographic options (set aside $200 to $500 for each of these extra lenses).
  • UV filter(s) to protect the front glass (element) surface of each lens (a good quality UV filter will cost $30 to $50).
  • A camera bag -- for both convenience and protection reasons (expect to spend $50 and up for this important accessory).
  • (Optional) computer software to post process your images. Some digital imaging software can be found as freeware on the Internet. These programs are often a "good place to start." If you buy a commercial program like Photoshop Elements or Photoshop CS4, expect to spend $75 to $700.

There are hundreds of accessories you could and might purchase, but the list above identifies the items most often purchased at or near the time a DSLR is purchased.

The Checklist --------------------------------------

1. Determine whether photography will be a serious pursuit or possibly a passing fad in your life. If your interest falls into the "fad" category, save money and buy an inexpensive or even used camera. If you decide later that photography has become a serious passion, you can always move up to a more sophisticated DSLR camera.

2. Determine a budget for the new camera. This will automatically narrow your search and define a group of cameras to evaluate. As discussed above, be realistic and make sure the budget takes into account any accessories you will include with the initial camera purchase (such as camera bag, tripod, filters, extra lens, etc.).

3. Determine the type of photography that most interests you. This knowledge will help determine the features that you "MUST" have in your new camera as well as the accessory equipment you should consider purchasing (such as lenses, tripods, etc.). For example, the requirements of landscape photography are much different to those of portrait photography or macro photography. Know where you want to start your photographic experience.

4. NEVER buy a camera without first TRYING IT OUT! Don't be in a hurry. Go to your local camera shop and "handle" all the cameras in your established budget. Which one "feels" best and easiest FOR YOU to use? Remember, you have to live with this camera. It should "feel" comfortable in your hands and to your eye. There is a size and weight difference between what is comfortable for men and women. (Husbands and wives: Keep this in mind if you are considering buying your spouse a camera. In fact, a DSLR camera purchase is so personal that I suggest gifting the money, thus allowing the new photographer the freedom to select his or her own camera.) In addition, establishing a relationship with a good, reputable local camera shop and their staff will prove beneficial for as long as you are into photography.

5. Read the "Camera Review" section on photo forums and in photo magazines. This will provide you with some (usually expert) opinions regarding the technical merits of each camera you are considering.

6. Check out the Internet forums, go to local camera club meetings and ask friends who have the same photographic subject interest as you to see what equipment they are using. This research will probably spotlight two or three cameras in your price range.

7. Prioritize a list of camera features that you want on your new camera. Do you need aperture priority, external flash capability, depth of field preview, high rate of shots per second, water resistance, diopter adjustment to match your eyesight, etc.? Take this list with you when you go to the camera shop. If these terms are unfamiliar to you, seriously consider spending more time studying the fundamentals of photography. Internet sites like Hub's Camera are FREE and designed to give beginners this grounding in the basics of photography.

8. Don't get caught up in the megapixel race. This is especially true if you will seldom make pictures larger than 8"x10". Any camera from 6 megapixels and up can produce an exceptional 8"x10" enlargement. In reality, there is no noticeable quality difference between, say, a 10 megapixel camera and a 12 megapixel camera. It's certainly not necessary to purchase the camera with the most megapixels to create stunning pictures -- especially if the majority of your picture-making requirements fall within the typical picture size range of 4"x6" to 8"x10", or if your intent is only to share your photography online.

9. When you've narrowed down your choices to two or three, go to the manufacturers' websites and download the electronic version of each camera manual. Read through the manuals to ensure that all the features you require are present and that you understand how the camera is operated.

10. Remember: Once you purchase a camera, you are -- to a large degree -- "locked" into that particular manufacturer's camera line up. You can always buy up to more sophisticated or new models from that manufacturer. But, because each manufacturer has its own proprietary lens mount, you cannot use your lenses on another manufacturer's camera system. You will have to replace the camera and ALL of your lenses to make a manufacturer switch -- an expensive proposition.

11. Know your camera seller. Buy from a reputable dealer whom you trust, and who has a history of good customer support AFTER the sale. If you are fortunate to have a good camera shop in your area, support their business -- especially in the current economy. They will return the favor by becoming your trusted partner in photography. Nothing is more frustrating or demoralizing to a camera shop employee (and owner) than to spend hours answering customer questions and freely providing their expertise, only to have the customer go to a mass merchandiser or an Internet camera discounter to make the final purchase.

12. Once you've purchased a camera, save yourself months of pain and frustration. READ the manual. I am constantly amazed by the number of questions asked on forums that could be easily and quickly answered by reading the camera's manual. Take the time. Read the manual. Join a camera club. Sign up for a photography course at a local university or community college. Participate in a forum where you can share your pictures and receive constructive criticism. Do something that places you in a "hands on" learning environment. You'll not only learn the "ins and outs" of your camera, but you will meet others in your area who are either experts you can trust or fellow photographers at your same skill level. Misery and learning loves company.

You are about to enter one of the most enjoyable and artistically rewarding avocations on the planet. Maintain your sanity and your pocketbook. Make informed and educated equipment decisions.