"What DSLR should I buy?"

"You shouldn't."

That is my answer when I'm asked the above question. 

 

Don't buy a DSLR

Seriously.

Stop. Cease. Desist. Turn and run. Get an iPhone, and be happy with their slightly-better-than-smartphone-camera quality cameras.

A Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) is not the camera you're looking for. It is a large, camera-shaped hole into which you shovel money. There are never enough lenses. There is always that next body. And, when you own that next body, there is always the idea of having a second body. 

I have been asked this question a lot, and since it's gotten to the point where I, mostly, send out the same form email, over and over again, I thought I should work it into a blog post.

I am most hesitant to recommend DSLRs to people who tell me that they want "a good camera that takes nice pictures."

A DSLR is not a magic bullet for taking cool photos. It is capable of doing some cool things, photographically, but, unless you have experience with one, all you are doing when you buy one is injecting additional complications into the photographic process. Buying a DSLR will not make you a better photographer and will not deliver stunning pictures straight out of the box. To be a better photographer, you need to take photos...LOTS of photos. To deliver stunning photos with a DSLR, you need to first learn how to use it. That will take time and practice.

in buying a DSLR, you are also injecting additional weight and bulk into your photo workflow. A DSLR is very heavy and clunky to carry around compared to compact, point-and-shoot cameras. The best camera you could possibly have is the one that you actually have with you when you need to take a photo (I will be saying more on this topic in another post very soon). If you've left your DSLR at home because it's too big/heavy to bring with you, it is the worst camera you could own.

If you want DSLR control of exposure, etc, in a compact, brilliant package, I have heard A LOT of good things about the Fuji x100s, and I've heard those good things from professional photographers. That being said, though the x100s may carry like a point-and-shoot, it is not priced like one. The camera costs around $1000, and it is NOT an interchangeable lens camera. It has one, non-zoom lens that is a 35mm f2. That is all the lens you really need, but people seem to have this fixation on the perceived convenience of zoom. I'll try to dispel the myth that zoom is better in a late post but, for now, trust me when I say that, unless you're photographing rare birds from a hide, your feet can do as good a job at zooming as any lens can. 

 

But, I still want to buy a DSLR!

If you've accepted the cost, weight, and size facts about a DSLR, and you're willing to accept the reality that buying a DSLR alone will not make you a better photographer, and may, in fact, lead to more initial frustration, read on for my DSLR recommendations:

In terms of starters, I would recommend either Canon or Nikon. You will see all kinds of noise on the net about Pentax or Olympus or Sony being better for this or that, but Nikon and Canon have been in the game for AGES, and they are not going anywhere. Their primary businesses are in making ruddy great lenses for machines called steppers that are used for manufacturing ever-smaller microchips. So, basically, Nikon and Canon are going to remain in the camera/lens game for a while yet.

Once you've decided to choose between Nikon and Canon, next you need to pick one of the two.

I use Nikon, but a camera is a camera, is a camera, is a camera. Anyone who tells you that Canon is better than Nikon, or Nikon is better than Canon is blowing smoke up your backside. They are both equally as good at being cameras.

Canon's lens mount is, technically, more advanced because they decided to update it in the 80s and invalidate every lens that came before; Nikon's is more rudimentary, but that is because you can still use every Nikon F-mount lens since the beginning of TIME on the most current Nikon cameras. If you're a starting photographer, the difference in how advanced one company's lens mount is will NEVER affect you. I hear that Canon might have advantages when photographing sport at a professional level, but I also hear from a friend who works at Canon that he wouldn't go anywhere near an entry-level Canon because their beginner lenses are just plastic, plastic, and more plastic (which is quite the condemnation since he can borrow Canons from work for free).

Personally, when I look at entry-level Canon lenses and bodies, they seem plasticky and cheap. Nikons generally tend to weigh a little more (perhaps because they have less plastic in them). However, like I said, they are both cameras, and you can learn to love either.

 

I am Nikon

I'm a Nikon man, as was my father before me, so I'm going to go forward with my Nikon recommendations. These recommendations come from my own start with photography as I started with a camera very similar to the one I'll detail below, with the exact same lenses that I will be mentioning.

The entry-level Nikon right now is the Nikon D3200. The D3300 was just released, but if you go with that, newer entry level camera, you're paying more for what is, essentially, the same thing. If you can still find a new D3100 kicking around, it is probably equally good, and WAY cheaper. They are all just different model years of the same thing.

My key recommendation is to get a kit that includes two lenses: the 18-55mm VR and 55-200mm VR. I feel that this kit comes up pretty regularly, and if you can't find it locally, look to Amazon or the like. If you can't find the kit, it is pretty easy and cheap to buy the 55-200 separately as the D3200 camera body should come with the 18-55mm lens.

Do not buy your camera at Blacks. If Blacks or something similar tries to sell you a D3x00 with an 18-105mm lens, or some other rubbish, don't do it. In general, when you walk into a camera store and ask to buy an entry-level camera, most dealers are like sharks smelling blood in the water. They assume you don't know anything about photo gear, and they will talk to you up into buying all manner of crap that you don't, actually, need.

Like a 18-200mm lens, for example. This is one lens that covers the same area as the two starter lenses I recommended previously. However, it's excessive and crap. Camera stores will try to sell you on the fact that you want one lens that covers all the way from 18mm to 200mm zoom. They will tell you it is more convenient than carrying around two lenses. I don't think this is the case. You won't always need a zoom lens, and if you're always carrying one around, all of that zoom coverage just makes your camera bigger and heavier. When you think you might need a zoom, you can pack your second lens. If you don't, you can just roll with your one 18-55mm lens. In fact, I'm pretty sure that those two lenses are so light that they may weigh the same, if not less than, the 18-200mm.

The combination of 18-55 and 55-200 (they have a 55-300, but I feel like the additional range does not justify the added size to the lens; the 55-200 is CRIMINALLY small and very, very good) provides a lot of good coverage for different types of photography. The very slight annoyance of having to change between the one lens and the other will be worth the light weight of both lenses and their performance in their unique arenas.

These two lenses and an intro camera body will be all you need.

If you're prone to dropping, scratching, breaking things, you can buy a 52mm "UV" filter for each lens as an extra layer of glass between the world and the actual lens glass. It is a thin, circular "filter" that screws on the front of your lens. "Filter" is the official name for this piece of kit as they usually modify the light in some way to change your photo. A UV filter, however, does nothing. It is just glass, so get cheap ones. Don't get up-sold on UV filters as they don't do anything to improve your photos, no matter what Blacks or Henrys says or no matter how much you spend.

You screw these on to the front of your lenses and forget about them. I dropped a lens once, shattered this $10-15 piece of glass, and the lens was fine.

 

Additional purchases that might be helpful? 

A polarizer is a filter that you screw on to the front of the lens that can make beautiful things happen by eliminating the glare of the sun when photographing outside. You screw it on, then rotate it to "turn it on" (basically moving the glass around so that the angle of the polarizeness of it lines up to cancel the sun's rays). Henrys or Blacks will try to sell you a more expensive DIGITAL one that is "always on" (meaning you don't have to turn it to cancel out the sun's glare). You do not need it.

A plain polarizer should do fine, and this is more a nice-to-have than it is a mandatory purchase.

Also, A UV filter is not a polarizer.

Beyond that, I bought an extra battery when I got my camera because I wanted to have a spare. Your call. The batteries last a LOOONG time (will do a full day of shooting), but I'm obsessed with having a back-up. If you decide to buy a back-up battery, best to buy a brand name one from Nikon, and not some third party. If you have a Japan connection, like most of my friends do, find your battery on kakaku.com, ship it to your J-Friend, and get them to send/bring it to you as they sell for 50% less in Japan.

You'll need an SD card. I don't want to go into the specifics of the thing, but all SD cards are not created equal, and they've had a rating system imposed on them in recent years to indicate relative quality/performance. Some people buy any old SD card, but when you're using a DSLR, it pays to have a decent one. I'm not talking spending hundreds of dollars, either. I went on wirecutter's recommendation of the SanDisk Extreme 16 GB card, and I haven't looked back. I ordered mine from Futureshop, but if you're doing that, be careful not to make the mistake I did the first time in buying the "Ultra" rather than "Extreme" model :P

Oh, and in case I have to say it: yes, 16 GB is PLENTY of storage. If you're running out of space on a 16GB card, you need to stop keeping old photos on your card.

The next thing Blacks/Henrys/whoever will try to upsell you on is a camera bag. I'm of the belief that most camera bags look very obviously like camera bags, meaning they bear a giant sign that reads "MONEY TO BE MADE. ENQUIRE WITHIN." The worst is Lowenpro. Do not ever buy a Lowenpro bag. They are the most well known camera bag maker, and a Lowenpro logo on something is a sticker that reads "I AM CARRYING AN EXPENSIVE CAMERA."  

I carry my camera around in a plain shoulder/courier bag, so it's not obvious I'm carrying a camera. And my camera is both larger and heavier than the camera you're looking to buy.

With a camera the size of the D3200, and lenses as small and light as the two mentioned, you can, pretty much, chuck them in a large purse and be fine. These things are not as delicate as some would have you believe they are. You don't need a ridiculous backpack lined with foam and unicorn pelt. When I go snowboarding, I tie my camera up in a hat and chuck it in my (unpadded, uninsulated) backpack, and it's fine. Once again, my camera is more expensive than the one I'm recommending to you, so I'm not saying this lightly.

So, my advice is don't buy a camera bag unless you really really need an excuse to have another bag. If you buy one, find one that looks plain rather than space-aged. If you buy a space-aged one, please, for the love of god, take an exacto knife or a seam-ripper and take off all of the obvious camera-bag-company labels on it.

 

Need MOAR Glass

If you go with these recommendations, you will have all you need. A camera, two lenses, and an extra battery, with perhaps some protective glass to save the day if you're prone to dropping.  If you're still feeling flush/have a little more in your budget, you can customize additional lenses based on what you want to shoot.

The next lens I would highly recommend after these two starters, in a general-use sort of way, is the Nikon 35mm F1.8. It is a small, cheap (less than $300) prime lens, which means it can't zoom. That might seem crap now, but trust me: you can zoom with your feet, and what this lens does more than makes up for what it doesn't. The main draw of the lens is that its aperture goes down to f1.8. That allows you to get MORE light into the lens and take clearer photos with less light. It also allows you to make your subject be in clear focus in the foreground, while the background is nicely blurred (which we call Bokeh, which comes from Japan and is the inspiration for the name of my photography business). It lets you do stuff like this:

http://bokehto.com/portraits/ (the first few photos were taken with this actual lens)

I shoot a lot of events, scenery, architecture, so I LOVE having an ultrawide lens. The 18mm end of the 18-55mm is pretty wide, so it should do you. However, if you NEED wider, Nikon offers a 10-24mm lens, but it's really expensive for a beginner photographer (to the tune of more than you spent on your camera and both of your two lenses).

If you want to take photos of flowers, bugs, small stuff, you could get a macro lens (I have little interest in this, so I have no recommendations).

However, other than those specific applications and the 35mm recommendation I made above, the starter lenses that come with the camera should serve you well.

If you have any specific concerns or questions, feel free to leave them in the comments on this post.