Choosing a DSLR

After thinking about where to start, I decided it needed to be with choosing which DSLR to buy.  There are a number of choices all with different functionality and price tag of course.  In order to go through how I chose, it seems like it might be important to tell you a little bit more about my background because that has the most influence behind my choice.  Like a lot of decisions in life, there isn’t one right answer here.  Also like a lot of things in life, making a bad choice can be hard to overcome – unless you have more time and money than I do.

8/28/12 Update: Before reading this post you may want to check out a good starter article about DSLRs over at dpreview here.

The first thing you need to know about me is that I am not a photographer.  My profession is computer programming.  From an 8 year old boy, when my wonderful Dad sacrificed a lot and bought a PC, I fell in love with computers and have been programming them for a little over 20 years now.  For 18 of those years I have done it professionally.  Through most of that time, in order to really be good at programming, I spent not only the time at the office learning and working on writing code, but most of my available personal time as well.  It has been almost a singular focus in my life for nearly as long as I can remember.

I say almost singular focus because even though writing software for computers has been a passion, the thing that really brings joy and purpose to my life is my family.  I have an amazing wife who is far more than I deserve and definitely my better half.  We have three wonderful children for whom I would do anything.  I love them all dearly, and they are my focus.  In fact, they are the reason photography has begun to enter my life, nudging away computer programming to take a more central place in my personal life.

I know, you are wondering how any of this has anything to do with choosing a camera.  I’ll get to it, I promise, and I think it will make sense.  It really started back when we were about to have our first child.  As we were approaching this point in our lives we were continually hearing from experienced family and friends about how quickly life passes and how those young ones are moved out with their own families before you know it.  I knew that a life changing event was about to take place, and I wanted to be able to capture as many moments of it as possible.  I didn’t know anything about photography or videography, but I knew that was how to capture those things in a way that nearly everyone loves.  So, I convinced my wife that we should break the bank and buy a camcorder.

This is where the information about my being a computer programmer comes into play.  The Internet was just getting rolling when this was happening, so there was some information available but not like it is today.  I was actually writing web applications professionally, so it was natural for me to turn there and figure out what camcorder we should get.  There were a lot of choices in camcorders, but nearly all were still analog, meaning that they recorded to VHS tapes or some other medium like that, and then you had to do a lot of other work to get them onto a computer.  Obviously getting the movies onto the computer was essential to me, and having to get other equipment in order to make that work wasn’t going to fly.  It was going to take too much time and more money.  So, when I found a Canon camcorder that was “digital,” I was sold.  It was more expensive than the other choices, but cheaper than getting another kind of camcorder and the equipment needed to get the movies onto the computer.  It also said it could take digital pictures, so I thought I was getting a device that would do both!  I thought I couldn’t lose.

After convincing my wife we should spend a little extra for our camcorder by arguing that it really was for our unborn child, the Canon Elura was on the way to us.  I was so excited.  I was, and still am, a consumer electronics junkie.  That excitement lasted for a while, but I quickly learned that it wasn’t all that I was hoping for.  In order to get the movie onto the computer I had to “capture” it by playing it from the camera and record it through a Firewire cable.  Still better transfer method than any other option at the time, but not what I was hoping for.  Worse, the way to get a “picture” was having the camera stop taking live frames and repeat the same frame for a couple of seconds.  That way you could grab the frame that you want from the video more easily.  So not only was it hard to get stills from the camcorder, an individual frame in video is not remotely the quality of even a point-and-shoot camera.

Both the wife and I quickly learned that we needed a way to take stills.  Taking videos was fun, but took way too long to do (even though it was “digital”) and next to impossible to really share with family (remember there was no Facebook or YouTube).  So, I went online again to find a point-and-shoot.  We didn’t have a lot of requirements, still didn’t know anything about the specs for cameras.  All I had was a budget, and I had to make sure I was going to get the best bang for the buck.  So, there were plenty of film based point-and-shoots available, most were more money than we wanted to spend.  This was especially true if you considered the cost of film and development.  I looked into digital cameras, and it seemed that the best option for us at the time was an HP entry level model.

The very day we got the HP camera we took our now 1 year old son across the street to the park, and shot away.  We filled up our 256MB CF card in a few minutes, but were sure we had captured some great photos because they looked so good on the little LCD screen.  This was going to be amazing!  Got home, and getting the pictures onto the computer was a snap too.  Everything was really looking good until we saw what the pictures actually looked like.  Most were a disaster.  Issues with them being too dark (now I know that means under exposed), or having parts of the image so bright you couldn’t make it out (either overexposed or having blown out highlights).  But we did get some that were decent, and I am still so glad we bought the camera because I do have some photos that mean a lot to me of my boy.

Well, we learned a little more about the camera.  There were a few options and we learned quickly that if you changed the options based on what you were taking pictures of then you got better pictures.  If you were taking portraits, you put it in the “portrait” mode.  If you were trying to get some kind of a landscape shot, you put it in “landscape” mode.  That was about as sophisticated as it got, and it was working reasonably well for some non-photographers.  As the years went buy we would occasionally look at Christmas time at getting a little newer camera, knowing that things were continually getting better.  We ditched the HP camera for a Canon point-and-shoot just a couple of years after getting it.  HP had really not done much with their camera line, and there were lots of ads for Canon cameras well within our price range.  Not knowing much about what would really be important about picking a camera we bought an entry level Canon, and it made that HP look like garbage.  We were able to get much better pictures outside, even if we didn’t think enough about switching it to the right mode.

Things went along like this for a number of years, upgrading our Canon point-and-shoot every couple of years.  We stayed with Canon simply because it was the line we accidentally got into, and because my dad got a Nikon at one point that produced nothing but pictures with red eyes.  It wasn’t based on anything that was actually real about cameras.  This was working out well for our family, except that none of the pictures taken in low-light or fast action conditions were turning out.  Everything was blurry and pixelated (know I know it is called noise).

Still not really knowing anything about cameras, but thinking there had to be a way to make the camera we had to a better job, I finally dug into learning a little about them online.  By this time there was a lot of information available.  I quickly learned about how to make the camera we had perform better by controlling shutter speed or aperture directly.  This helped again, but it didn’t take long to realize that even with semi-manual modes like shutter or aperture priority modes on our Canon point-and-shoot that the camera simply wasn’t up to the task of capturing our very active kids.

For a few years I had seen people at the soccer/basketball/football games our kids were at with “fancy” cameras, but I thought those were for photographers.  I also thought that they were both too expensive and too hard to use for it to make sense getting one ourselves.  After a few extended family members bought one of the entry level Canon DSLRs, and finally learning a tiny bit about the things that are important to get good pictures, I became convinced we needed a DSLR instead of our point-and-shoot.

Hopefully you can identify a little with this rather long background on how I chose my DSLR, and now I can spell out what made my decision.  The first thing you have to decide really is what manufacturer you are going to choose.  Like I mentioned earlier, there is not a “right” answer here.  If the camera is a DSLR, it won’t matter which manufacturer you choose, you can get better pictures than a point-and-shoot.  A DSLR is simply more capable.  Notice I said “CAN” get better pictures.  If you don’t know how to use it, you might not get significantly better pictures.  In fact, point-and-shoot cameras may actually do a better job because they are designed for people who don’t know anything about shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and exposure compensation.  It does all of this for you, and they keep getting better at automatically guessing what all of those settings should be.  While a DSLR has some of that available too (I relied on fully automatic modes for a while), they are designed for people who know more about how to manually change the settings to get better pictures.

In the past eight months it has become clear to me that there are primarily two camps on manufacturer, and it is a holy war.  The two sides are Canon and Nikon.  There are other players like Sony, but those two are the ones discussed in books and tutorials I have seen.  For me this wasn’t hard to choose because of the point-and-shoot cameras I had experience with.  I had owned 4 different point-and-shoot cameras from Canon and was familiar with the way the menus and controls on the camera worked.  So, this wasn’t a very hard choice for me.  I knew before I even looked into things that I was going to buy a Canon DSLR, I just needed to decide which one.  It may be entirely different for you.  As you are considering which manufacturer you will choose, I recommend thinking about these two things:

  1. Do you have experience with a certain manufacturer?
  2. Think of your family and friends who may be able to help you learn to use your camera, what manufacturer do they use?

There are, of course, other factors that could be included, but as a starting point if you are coming to it like I was with next to no actual knowledge of how to take good pictures, these are the two things I think you should primarily consider.  I thought about adding cost to the list, but I don’t have enough experience yet to really speak to that.  I have heard that in the long run Nikon may be a cheaper line because of how image stabilization technology is built into the body instead of the lenses.  Not only am I not sure if this is true, but even if it is it would only make a difference after you have bought a number of DSLR cameras and has no real impact on this first one.  If thinking about these two things doesn’t help you decide, then here are some alternate things that may help:

  1. Consider that my brief and limited experience with online resources geared to beginning photographers has nearly all dealt with Canon
  2. Go to a camera store, tell them your budget, and try ALL of them out in your price range.
  3. Pick the one that happens to be on the best discount that day

I separated the two lists because I don’t think the second three points should be your primary consideration.  I should also say here that I personally haven’t ever – not once so far – gone to a camera store as I just suggested.  That’s right, I am writing a blog about DSLRs and giving my own advice about how to choose one without ever having talked to a sales person at a camera store.  Though I do feel confident about the advice because I have seen it suggested in many of the resources I have used to get me going, just not until I had already purchased my camera.

Now that you have decided on manufacturer, you have to make what I think is an even harder decision.  I think it is harder because it really won’t matter which manufacturer you pick early on.  You haven’t made a huge investment in multiple cameras and lenses, so if after using it for a while you decide you really should have picked a different manufacturer, you switch and it isn’t a huge deal in the long run.  I think it is much harder to decide which of the many DSLR models within that manufacturer you are going to buy.

As is the case with a lot of electronics, not only do you get what you pay for, but my experience has been that there is very little separation between models.  Should you buy used or new?  You can play this game where you could spend just a tiny bit more to get some feature, and without knowing a lot about what you might actually use or care about, it is really tough to decide.  For some it may be quite easy, you may have very fixed budget.  But even with that scenario I think it isn’t going to turn out as straight forward as you may be thinking – especially if you go to a camera store and involve the sales staff.  After all, their job is to make you spend as much money as possible with the store.  So, like a good sales person is trained to do, they are going to try hard to sell you on something in a camera that is just higher than the price range you are looking at, and to make it even more difficult they will probably tell you about some once a year special that is going on where you are going to get a lot more camera than you normally could.

Anyway, in my own situation this was pretty hard.  I did have a limited budget for my purchase, but I also knew that I wouldn’t get a chance to get something different for at least a couple of years so I needed to make a good choice here.  I also knew next to nothing about cameras, so understanding just how important the feature difference between Canon camera models was to my decision was difficult to understand.  There was no lack of specification information about the models.  There are so many sites that review all of the units in so thorough a fashion I couldn’t make sense of most of them.  They are clearly written with experienced photographers in mind.

Finally, we get to the meat of this post, eh?  OK, so it came for me down to two models.  I was looking at the Canon EOS Rebel T3i or the Canon EOS 60D.  There are certainly newer models available even now as I write this post a short eight months later, but at the time that was what my decision had narrowed to.  The two models are very similar.  I believe they have the exact same sensor inside, which means the part of the camera actually capturing the light is identical.  So why was there roughly a $200 price difference between the two, and was it worth it?  The Internet helped me out a lot here again.  Canon’s site has the ability to compare camera specs side by side so that you can see the difference, but again it was stuff that I didn’t truly understand.  In fact, doing this comparison on the Canon site made it look to me like the 60D model had a slightly better ability to capture more pixels than the T3i, and as I just said since they have the same sensor I don’t think that is true.

Here is the thing that made me decide.  Burst rate.  I didn’t know what that was when I started shopping for a DSLR, but it was referred to a lot as I was reading articles comparing the two models I was looking at.  In fact, this is one place where the Canon site itself made it clear.  The T3i can take 3.7 fps (frames per second) and the 60D takes about double that at 5.3.  If you remember, at the beginning of this novel, I mentioned one of the things that made me start looking into a DSLR is wanting to catch my kids in action shots.  My point-and-shoot camera couldn’t freeze them in action like I wanted.  So, not fully understanding frames per second and how that would impact the pictures I wanted to get, it seemed reasonable to me that the 60D should be able to do that better than the T3i.  I decided that one feature difference was important enough to me that I was willing to pay the extra $200 for the 60D.

I should mention here that I could have continued to play this comparison game and looked at the difference between the 60D and the 7D (the next model up at the time from the 60D).  After all, the 7D can go 8 fps, which means it should be even better.  But at the time it was a bigger jump with a cost difference more in the $700 range from the 60D, and $900 more than the T3i.  I could get two T3i models for the cost of a single 7D.  This is what I mean when I talk about the comparison game.  The fact is that there were 4 cameras that had the exact same sensor in them from Canon when I was looking at buying (T2i, T3i, 60D, 7D) and each one had more features and speed than the previous.  I am sure that there are other differences that I still don’t know enough about to help anyone make a good choice between models, but I think for me it has been worth spending the extra $200 to get the faster burst rate of the 60D.  Of course I probably would have been pretty happy with the T3i too.

Alright, I am going to end this novel of a post here.  I hope that if someone survives reading through it all that it might be helpful to them as they make the leap from point-and-shoot to DSLR.  Let me give you one last thought.  A DSLR may seem really expensive, but if you aren’t getting the pictures you want out of your point-and-shoot, and you are willing to learn at least a little bit about shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, I think it is well worth the investment.  I can tell you that if I can pick it up and start having fun taking pictures, you can too, and I hope to write more blog entries that help you do just that.  So save up the money, get an entry level DSLR, and join me in learning how to use it so that you can capture those memories.

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