Through the Gadling Lens: buying your first SLR camera

So. It’s the beginning of the summer, and maybe you have a fabulous trip planned. And maybe up until now, every time you’ve traveled, you’ve taken your trusty point-and-shoot camera. It’s served you well: you’ve figured out all the presets, you’ve captured some amazing shots, and you know your machine inside and out. But now, you’re ready for a challenge — you want to have a bit more control over your images. You want to learn how to truly manipulate light, how to manage depth of field. You want to see what happens with different lenses, and what they can do to your resulting images. You want to really begin study the art of photography.

You’re ready to purchase your first single-lens reflex camera, but frankly, you don’t know where to begin.

Never fear, my friends — with a little luck, the following tips will get you on your way.
1. What brand should I buy?

I use Nikon cameras, and have since I started photography 15 years ago. It’s for this reason that many people are always shocked when my immediate answer to the question “what brand should I buy?” is usually, “it depends.” Don’t get me wrong — I love Nikon cameras, and will likely never shoot with anything else. But the truth is that most professional photographers I know, when it comes to SLR cameras, shoot with either Nikon or Canon. There are a couple of reasons for this:

a) both brands have been around for a long time, and
b) each brand has a wide variety of lenses and other accessories that have also been around for a long time.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t other brands out there that make great cameras, so by all means, explore all options. But here’s the thing: when you buy your first SLR, you will probably be purchasing at least two items — a camera body, and at least one camera lens. And over time, if you really get into the photography thing, you may likely upgrade your camera body over the years; however, you’ll probably end up using any lens you buy for, literally, decades. For this reason, it’s always a good idea to buy a brand that you know has a strong reputation for backward compatibility with its lenses and other accessories. In addition, consider the following:

- Are you inheriting any lenses or other equipment? — Good lenses can be very expensive, and if you happen to be inheriting a bunch of old manual lenses from Great Uncle Hank, who used to be an avid shutterbug, it might be worth strongly considering buying your new SLR body in the same brand as the lenses. Yes, manual lenses can be a lot more work than the new, auto-focus lenses of nowadays, but there’s really something to the phrase “they don’t make them like they used to” — one of my favourite lenses to shoot with is a 25-year-old manual lens. Trust me: never dismiss a good hand-me-down lens out-of-hand.

- Digital Photography Review — The website dpreview.com is an invaluable resource for reviews on just about every different type of digital SLR camera out there. The site includes discussion forums and galleries showing the different types of images each camera produces, and reviews are from all very neutral and objective sources. If you’re at the beginning of your search for a camera, after you’ve asked around at what your friends and family are using and how they like their cameras, as well as doing a little research on the internet, I would definitely test your hypotheses at this website. Be sure to do all of this before going to Number 3, below.

2. What kind of lens?

As we’ve discussed before, different lenses have their different uses — some are great for portraits, others for landscapes. Much of the decision on which lens you should buy can rest on the type of photography that you think you’d like to do.

However, if you’re not entirely sure which type of photography you’re going to be interested in, allow me to pitch a 50mm fixed focal length. This is called a “normal” lens — which basically means that what you see is what you get: there’s no zooming, and the resulting image is exactly what you would see if you weren’t looking through the camera. The reason I love these lenses are as follows:

1. It’s a great way to learn how to compose a shot, and learn about the lens without the possible crutch of a zoom lens;

2. The lens will offer less distortion than a wide-angle lens might, but still allow you to get pretty decent landscape shots. And while distortion can be fun (consider the results of a great fish-eye lens), when you’re just learning the camera, a normal lens is a great way to start.

Now, if you do go with a 50mm lens, try to buy one with the smallest aperture number associated with it. If you remember, your aperture will help you control the depth of field in the shot (or, in other words, control how blurry your background is going to be). Fixed focal length lenses can often come with very low aperture numbers, allowing you to really play with your depth of field. My very first lens was a fully manual 50mm lens at f1.4, and even though I’m required to manually focus the lens, it remains my favourite lens to shoot with today.

To show the kinds of depth of field I’m able to get with this lens, here are a couple of examples:

Notice in the image above, there’s just a very tiny portion of the photograph that is in sharp focus, the portion with the smallest of the four stones — both the foreground and the background fade to a soft blur, adding depth to the photograph. Similarly, in this portrait of my daughter’s good friend, below …

… only the water droplets on her face and the very front of her face is in focus — even her hairline blurs away into the background. And the best part is that this lens is also capable of fairly decent landscapes shots as well.

A note about fixed focal length vs. zoom — eventually, the temptation to purchase a zoom lens will be too much to bear, and I certainly admit to owning several zoom lenses myself. One thing to keep in mind when you do purchase one is that you are often required to sacrifice that low aperture number when you buy a zoom (or else shell out some serious cash). This isn’t often a bad thing, but something just to keep in the back of your mind while you browse.

3. Where should I buy it?

Once you’ve done the research and figured out which camera and lens you want to buy, you can either buy it online or at a camera store — but before you do (and if you take none of my other advice, please take this bit):

Before you buy, actually visit a specialty camera store (one that only deals in cameras, not an electronics store), ask to see both your first and second choice cameras, and play with them a bit.

I cannot stress this enough. You’re about to lay down some serious cash for a camera, so you need to be absolutely sure you’re going to like the camera you buy. Also, chances are, once the cameras are in your hands, it will become almost magically clear which camera you should buy — either your first or second choice.

I’ve had some friends get frustrate
d with me for not telling them outright whether they should buy a Nikon or a Canon, when I tell them, “Just go to the store and play with them, you’ll know.” The thing is, when they do follow this advice, the decision always becomes immediately apparent — they prefer how one camera meters over the other, they like the placement of the dials or buttons on one camera better, whatever. One camera just ends up feeling “more right” than the other. Besides, the employees of a really good camera store tend to be very knowledgeable about the cameras they carry, and can teach you tricks with each machine.

Once you’ve made your camera store visit and you know exactly what you want, then and only then should you consider buying online. But as with any major purchase, if you’re buying online, be sure that you use a reputable online merchant (of course, you generally can’t go wrong with Amazon or B&H Photo).

4. What am I forgetting?

My last piece of advice is to remember that you can always buy second-hand. We photographers are a fickle bunch, often upgrading to the next latest-and-greatest machine, and leaving a perfectly good one behind. My first camera body and lens were both 10 years old at the time of purchase, and while I don’t use the camera body anymore (since I shoot digitally, rather than film), I still use the lenses I purchased, 15 years later — they work beautifully. Buying second hand can be a great way to get a camera with more bells and whistles than you might otherwise be able to afford.

HOWEVER.

If you go the second-hand route, I must insist that you purchase the camera from your favourite specialty camera store, and forgo the internet altogether. Specialty camera stores can ensure that the camera is functioning properly before it goes out the door, and they’re far more likely to give you at least a limited warranty on your purchase. Which, you know, is always a good thing.

As always, I’d love to hear your ideas on purchasing a digital SLR in the comments below. And of course, if you have any questions, you can always contact me directly at karenDOTwalrondATweblogsincDOTcom – and I’m happy to address them in upcoming Through the Gadling Lens posts.

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.
Through the Gadling Lens can be found every Thursday right here, at 11 a.m. To read more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.