What to Get as a First DSLR

A Funny Thing Happened…

A funny thing happened yesterday.  I read a comment on one of my posts which asked me for advice on which camera they should get as a beginner.  Then, yesterday evening,  I was out walking at one of the local parks with my family and a lady asked the same question.

You see, much to my better half’s dismay, I will happily talk to everyone.  I mean everyone!  This lady was on a park bench with a set of binoculars and a point-and-shoot camera.  She was watching a great egret down in the marshes and trying to take some shots of the bird.  This is the same egret that I shot a couple of weeks back.  She asked what kind of camera I own ( I told her) and then asked what should she get as her first DSLR.

I really had to think about this.  What I would want as compared to someone else could be very different.  I also, admittedly, have a bias towards Nikon.  Not because it’s ‘better’.  Not because Canon, Sony, Pentax, or any other brand may be inferior (They’re certainly not, by the way).   It’s simply because a Nikon is what I own and use.

So, I thought back to when I first started using a DSLR.  What challenges did I have?  What did I like?  Would I have done anything differently?  Based on how I answered these questions, I have come up with my guide for getting a camera to start out in the world of DSLR photography.

Disclaimer

I am not an expert in photography.  I’m not a professional photographer either.  I am an amateur.  A hobbyist.  I do it for fun.  I do it to make the best images I can.  I may even know just enough to be dangerous.

That said, I do have my opinions based on my limited experience of about 10 years with a DSLR and I am learning all the time.

It Has to be Fun

The whole idea for photography is that it needs to be enjoyable.  If you aren’t having fun with it, then what’s the point?  Don’t burden yourself with an overly-complicated technical marvel that will only lead to frustration.  You need to learn the basics of how to make a photograph and a camera with more basic controls will help you get there without having to worry about things too much.

You will undoubtedly start using the Auto mode at the start.  That’s ok.  In fact, it’s encouraged so that you can see what the camera can actually do for you.  Don’t worry about the photo-snobs who say “I only use manual mode” or “I prefer absolute control”.   These people are either masochists who revel in pain or they have been photographing for so long that they can get the image nailed perfectly every time.  I don’t fall into either of these.

There is No Cheap DSLR

First things, first…  A DSLR is not cheap.  It’s an investment and needs to be considered as such.  Anyone looking for a ‘cheap DSLR’ will not find one. You can, however, find a relatively inexpensive one that could fit your budget.  This is assuming you have any kind of realistic budget for a camera.  Expect to dish out at least $400 – $500 for your new DSLR kit.

Go Entry Level

Now that we have that taken care of, we have my next statement:  Go entry level.

I say this to each and every person out there who is getting their first DSLR as a hobby, for fun, or to take pictures of the family.  Without exception.  Without reservation.  Always start with an entry level DSLR.  I don’t care the model X says that it can operate your garage door remotely or that it can walk your dog for you with a full battery charge.

I’m taking a bit of a risk here: Sales people and dog walkers everywhere may now try to hunt me down for impacting their earnings that they work so hard for. Too bad!  We all work hard to earn what we have.  Besides, a good salesman will sell what is right for their customer.

While there are a whole lot of options out there for DSLR cameras, there’s no need to get all gung-ho and get the latest and greatest with all the bells and whistles.  If you are starting out, you just don’t need them.  In fact, all of the extra buttons and features will only confuse you.  The more advanced cameras will also cost (a lot) more.

Now think about it.  You’re just learning.  And the learning curve gets steeper as more features and control buttons and dials are introduced.  Don’t overwhelm yourself with all of this right away.  There will be more than enough to master with an entry level camera.

At this time, I would recommend the Nikon D3400 for a beginner.  You can read a review by Ken Rockwell for more information about this camera.

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Get the Kit Lens

A DSLR has the advantage of being an interchangeable lens system.   This means that you are able to use different lenses on the camera depending on, at it’s most basic level, the focal length you want. Focal length can be loosely translated to zoom.  Again, let’s keep it simple.  The most economical and simplest solution is to get the 18-55mm kit lens that is often bundled with the camera.  Today’s 18-55mm kit lens also includes VR (Vibration Reduction) which helps to get a clearer shot when shooting hand-held.  The 18-55mm is great for starting out since it covers wide-angle to medium telephoto.  This gives a good range of ‘zoom’ for making photographs.  You can even focus pretty darn close if you want to try out ‘macro’-ish (close-up) photography.

There are, of course, other lens options but we want to keep it simple and affordable.

D3400 with 18-55mm Kit Lens

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Don’t go to Walmart

If you are looking to get your camera and be happy with your purchase, DO NOT go to Walmart or to any other big box department store.  The staff at department stores don’t have any knowledge of the product other than where it sits on the shelf. If you ask them a pointed question about the camera, all you will get is a look akin to a ‘deer caught in your headlights’.  It’s not their fault.  They don’t need to know the products.  They are there simply to ring the sale through.

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I don’t mean to sound like I’m picking on Walmart.  I just don’t think that significant purchases should be done through them.

Go to a camera shop.  I get most of my camera gear at Henry’s here in Canada.  In fact, that’s where I ‘borrowed’ these product images from.  In the US, I hear that Adorama and B&H Photo are good options.

At a camera shop, the sales folks are all knowledgeable about their products.  they simply know their stuff.  Some of them are also professional or semi-professional photographers.  They can give you advice on what you may need for the camera (memory cards, filters, cleaning cloths, etc)

If you are concerned about the potential price difference, any good camera shop will price match.  This brings me to another related point:  get the camera on sale.  They go on sale all the time.  Just keep an eye out.  Especially around the beginning of the school year and at Christmas.

Unpacking – Read the Manual

OK.  Now you have your new DSLR and are anxious to get going.  The first thing you will be itching to do is start playing around and taking pictures.  Hang on!

You still need to charge the battery.   Plug the charger(with the battery, of course) into the wall.

Now, while the battery is charging, start reading the manual.  Don’t just skim over it.  Actually read it.  This is a great opportunity to give a good inspection of your new toy.  Get a basic understanding of the external controls on the camera.  Have the camera body with you so that you can find the controls as they are referred to.

Read the instructions for setup and care of the camera as well.  These are important.

Now Get Out There!

Now that everything is all set up and charged, start taking pictures.  Take as many as you can.  Take snapshots of your kids, your cat, the patio set, the ugly tree that you have been meaning to cut down in the back yard.  Anything and everything.  While you are doing this you are learning and hopefully having fun.  All of this because your first DSLR is a joy to use.