Photography 101: Buying Your First DSLR Camera

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Like many experienced photographers I am often asked by folks wanting to move up from their SmartPhone or Point & Shoot camera: What camera should I buy? On the face of it this sounds like a reasonable question. In today’s photography world there is a plethora of choices and no one choice is the perfect or absolutely right choice—as in most things, it depends.

I think one of the first questions I would ask is: Do you simply want to take pictures or do you want to be a photographer? In my opinion there is a difference. If you want to take spontaneous record shots of family, friends, pets, events and vacations I would suggest you consider staying with your easy to use SmartPhone or Point & Shoot camera (there is nothing wrong with that approach). However, if you want to learn the art and craft of photography the choice becomes a little more problematic.

Perito Moreno Glacier (Patagonia) – Photographed with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II Full-frame (FX) Camera

I’ve been snapping shutters for over 63 years—from the simplest box cameras (film) as a kid to the most sophisticated professional level DSLRs (Digital Single Lens Reflex) and almost everything else in-between. If you seriously want to pursue photography as an art form and a craft I would suggest buying a DSLR (with interchangeable lenses) or possibly one of the new mirrorless cameras. The two leaders offering these cameras are Nikon and Canon, but Sony is coming on strong. In my film days I shot primarily with Nikon, Leica and Rolleiflex but switched to Canon when I entered the digital age. You can’t really go wrong with any of the big three—it’s a matter of personal preference.

In the DSLR world your first decision (after brand selection) will be to decide between a full-frame (FX) sensor or a crop (DX) sensor (there are pros & cons to both). To make the right decision (for you) it’s helpful to consider your budget, the type of photography you enjoy and want to pursue, the degree of flexibility you want and your image output (will you be sharing your photography on social media only or will you be making prints). Another thing to think about is: What skill level do you want to attain? Are you satisfied to stay a recreational shooter (hobbyist) or do you aspire (dream) of becoming a serious amateur or even a professional. Only you can answer those questions.

Tierra del Fuego (Patagonia) – Photographed with a Canon PowerShot G15 Crop-Sensor (DX) Pocket Camera

As a professional I have a need for both a FX and DX camera: the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV is my choice for a full-frame DSLR which I use for almost everything non-wildlife related; my choice for a crop-sensor (DX) DSLR is the Canon EOS 7D Mark II (which I use primarily for wildlife because of its 1.6x field of view advantage). I’ve included a great YouTube video about the differences between sensors. The video is a little dated (2012) but the information is still solid and useful. Some of the cameras mentioned have since been updated and there are now more choices than ever and at even better (lower) prices.

Note: My cameras (specifically the Canon 5D Mark IV and 7D Mark II) are pro-level platforms and are therefore very expensive. There are some great entry-level consumer cameras available today like the Canon Rebel T6 and Nikon D3400—complete kits (camera + 2 lenses + accessories) start at $450 to $500. Check out Adorama, B&H Photo and Amazon for current prices and discounts. I do not get paid for these reviews and recommendations. SFD

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4 responses to “Photography 101: Buying Your First DSLR Camera

  1. I would go further than “you can’t go wrong with any of the big three” – there are no ‘bad’ interchangable lens cameras out there and offereings from Pentax, Fujifilm, Olympus and Panasonic (or any others) would also be fine. I agree that it is down to personal prefeernce and would reccomend that people try handling a range of cameras, putting them up to the eye to see if they have any preference before buying.

    • I totally agree with your statement in general, but I haven’t personally used any of those other camera systems (or know photographers who have). I think the one advantage of Canon and Nikon (and increasingly Sony) is the ability to grow within the brand. Most of us know that image quality and photography expense mostly comes from lens acquisition, and though we may change out camera body platforms every 5 years our lenses can last a lifetime with care. Canon and Nikon have such depth in their eco-systems that you can realistically evolve from newbie to professional without ever leaving the brand. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts and comments, I appreciate it. Steve

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