Buying your first DSLR is a huge step; if you get it right you will be reaping the benefits for years to come – but if you get it wrong the cost might be significant.
Here’s our guide to getting it right.
Related: choosing the best digital camera for your needs
Canon vs. Nikon
Both are equally respected: I’m a Canon man, but the professional photographer I work with most frequently owns Nikon equipment. The truth is that it really comes down to marketing and brand loyalty and I wouldn’t lose any sleep over this as both will take fantastic images.
Yes, there are other camera manufacturers out there but Sony is the only one that could tempt me away from Canon or Nikon. You will be investing a lot of money on lenses over the years and good glass from either manufacturer will hold its value better than anything from their rivals.
The first thing to decide is whether to go full-frame or cropped. These terms refer to the size of the sensor: a full-frame is 35mm wide, much the same as the old SLR film was. A cropped sensor is a smaller sensor that will, in theory at least, produce inferior images.
The reality is that the quality is all but identical and a cropped body will give you extra ‘reach’, turning a 100mm lens into a 160mm lens in the case of my Canon 7D MKII. Portrait and landscape photographers generally choose full-frame, while wildlife and sports photographers enjoy the extra reach that a cropped camera gives them.
Pixels, and why they don’t matter
Canon will now sell you a 50-megapixel camera body, which is extremely useful if you want to make 2-metre wide prints of your photographs but a complete pain otherwise.
Large images means large files, and the 50-megapixel cameras produce very large file sizes that take up a lot of memory space. They also take up a lot of processing power on your computer, which is a very real problem that can reduce your photo editing to a slow crawl.
Trust me when I say that anything over 25-ish megapixels is too large for anyone other than hard-core professional photographers and most will get by just fine with around 12-15.
Related: what to look for when buying a digital camera
The top-of-the-range Canon 5DS has a 61-point AF (auto-focus) system - but you’ll probably only ever use one of those...
Just like pixel numbers, the increasing number of AF points on a camera body is a marketing gimmick. Most of the professionals I know use one AF point to focus, then lock that focus using a technique called ‘back-button focusing’ and then recompose their shot.
Don’t get hung up on the number of AF points a camera body has. Life is just too short.
If you want to use your camera in all weathers then you’ll need to think about weatherproofing. While you can buy waterproof covers for your new DSLR they are an uncomfortable, awkward and unreliable compromise and if you are really keen on using your camera in wet or dusty conditions you will be better off spending a bit more on a fully weather-sealed camera and lens combination.
Sadly, this will cost you more than one that isn’t sealed to the same degree but if it lets you get on and use the camera as you want to without having to worry about the rain and snow then it’s worth every penny – and if your budget is tight you could always consider buying secondhand.
Body vs. lens
Camera bodies age quickly; if yours lasts you five years before you want to upgrade it then you are doing well. They are also cheap (well, relatively: nothing is cheap once you step into the world of DSLR cameras…). This means you should view them as a semi-disposable, depreciating asset. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that good quality lenses hold their value rather well. A lens also makes a bigger difference to the final image quality than the body does. This means that you should spend the big money on lenses (or ‘glass’, as we pros call them!) rather than the camera.
Speaking of lenses, you’ll generally get a lens thrown in with a camera body. This is referred to as the ‘kit’ lens and while some are very good, many are distinctly mediocre and you should budget to buy one small prime lens to supplement it.
The one cheap lens everyone should own
Prime lenses are cheap and easy to make. They also create better images than zoom lenses, so every DSLR photographer should own at least one.
My recommendation for your first prime lens would be a 50mm f1.4. It’ll only cost a couple of hundred pounds but the image quality will blow you away. The only drawback is once you’ve seen how creamy smooth those images are you’ll never want to go back to a cheap kit lens again.
Where to buy
I want to tell you to go to your local independent camera shop. I want to tell you that you should build a relationship with them, explain what you want and tell how much your budget is and then to listen to their advice. I want to tell you to handle the cameras and find the one that best suits your hands and pocket. And if I did tell you this, it would be very, very good advice.
However, the world has changed and the internet offers a huge range of retailers that offer free next-day delivery, no-hassle refunds, and better prices than any high street shop. Of course you can’t actually handle the camera before you buy, but once you’ve decided what you want then online shopping makes an awful lot of sense.
Buying your first DSLR
To get the best quality for your money it's a good idea to get a cheap to medium-priced Canon or Nikon DSLR body with a kit lens. Spend the money you’ve saved by not buying a more expensive model on a 50mm lens and a tripod plus a bag to keep it all in. Then invest in better glass as your hobby grows; secondhand lenses are worth taking a risk on if you buy carefully.
Have you just bought your first DSLR? If so, we’d love to hear how you got on.
Visit our photography section for more on buying and using cameras.