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It’s probably the question I get asked the most…

“I’m in the market for a new pro-quality, digital, SLR camera and I wonder if you can tell me what type and model and megapixels you use personally….”

These tips could save you some valuable time and money.

Tip 1. Identify how much you can afford to spend.

Since I’m not rich and since camera equipment can get really expensive really fast, this tops my list of considerations. It doesn’t make any sense to go bankrupt just to buy a new tool or toy.

Look at your personal budget and make sure you can afford a new camera and all of the additional goodies you are going to need to get with it. Take into account lenses, filters, cleaning supplies, extra batteries, memory cards, remote, software, tripod, backpack, light meter, and lighting equipment you plan on getting. If it all doesn’t pan out, maybe it’s best to wait or to get something cheaper like an awesome Holga toy camera to hold you off for a while. I love my Holga, and I got it after my DSLR. Or, try your hand at pinhole photography—there’s a whole world of inexpensive possibilities out there.

Most importantly, get out there and take pictures with whatever you have or can get your hands on. The tools you have or can cheaply get probably aren’t limiting your ability to cultivate the oh-so-important artistic skills of photography and composition. Start seeing now and the technology will catch up to you. If you want proof or inspiration, take a look at Susan Burnstine’s outafocus or Michael Daniel’s 640×480.net. They are producing some incredible work using very low-fi equipment.

Tip 2. Decide what you want out of your camera.

If you already have a decent camera sitting around, take a long, hard look at what you really want to get out of the latest and greatest model.

I’ve had my Canon 10D for a number of years now and it still does just about everything that I want it to do, even though it has been replaced by the 20D and the 30D. I would really like to have a Canon 5D because it performs better at higher ISO settings and has a delicious full-frame sensor. But, when I critically look at what I have and what I would be getting by spending a few thousand dollars on a newer model, the difference just doesn’t add up for me. It would have a much better impact on image quality if I bought some really nice lenses, or maybe a lighting setup.

Tip 3. Think about how you will use your camera.

A camera is a tool. The right tool in the right hands for the right job can produce breathtaking images. But that’s just it—you need the right camera for the right job.

If you need to do a lot of inconspicuous street shooting, then you’ll want to find yourself something smaller like a Leica M8 or a Sigma DP1. If you tend to be rough with your equipment, stay away from cameras with cheaper, plastic bodies like Canon’s Rebel line. If you are going to be doing a lot of shooting in low-light conditions, focus on cameras that perform better at higher ISO settings, like the Canon 5D.

The bottom line is that the camera you buy needs to fit how you are going to use it. If it doesn’t, it’s an expensive paper weight—it will sit on the shelf and collect dust. You’ll wonder why you didn’t just buy a cheaper and more convenient point and shoot.

Tip 4. Establish how you want to use your photos.

Are your photos going to be for a personal photo album, an online gallery, or gigantic fine art prints?

This question weaves directly into the long-time discussion on megapixels. Do you want to display your photos publicly or just look at them for fun? If you want to display them publicly, do you want to ever print them or just put them on the web? If you are printing your photos, will you ever want them printed at large sizes?

Basically, if you don’t ever want to print anything at 20″ x 30″, then you probably don’t really have to worry too much about megapixels these days. If you are only going to use your pictures on the web, megapixels pretty much don’t matter at all. And, if you never plan on publicly showing your photos, who cares about megapixels?

For me, the 10D has 6.3 megapixels, which is about as low as I would want to go. I can print a 20″ x 30″ at pretty good quality, but if you look closely it could be a little better. Fortunately, most of the stuff I print is smaller than that so that’s not that big of a deal—although it would be nice to have a little more flexibility. All of Canon’s DSLRs right now have 8 megapixels or more, which is plenty for mostly anybody.

If you want to make something really big but don’t necessarily have the megapixels, try Rasterbating.

Tip 5. Find out what others use and how well it works for them.

Learn from those who have gone before you.

Find other photographers whose work you admire and then find out what equipment they are using. This will give you some real-world examples of how the equipment performs and the results it delivers.

If you read a lot of photoblogs, many have a page just to list the equipment they use—here’s my equipment list. Take advantage of this.

Tap into the power of the Internet. Do your research. There are some very excellent photography review websites that I rely on when considering new purchases—Digital Photography Review, fredmiranda.com, and Luminous Landscape have all been very helpful for me. Try checking out reviews on Amazon.com or searching and posting in the photo.net forums. At minimum, check out Flickr’s Camera Finder.

Make sure to ask very specific questions and to provide as much relevant information as possible. Simply asking “what camera should I get?” isn’t going to illicit a very valuable response if the person you are asking doesn’t know how much you want to spend, what you want out of a camera, how you are going to use a camera, and how you want to use your photos. Figure these things out and people will be much more helpful.

Bonus Tip. Maximize your investment.

Look at what you already have and look at what you will get.

After you know what you need and expect to get out of a camera, take stock of the lenses and accessories you already own as well as the additional things you plan to get. Then, try to find an camera that fits in with all of that equipment.

For instance, if you already have a lot of really nice Canon lenses, there’s a good chance that you’ll get the most bang for your buck out of buying a new Canon body. If you don’t have any lenses yet, it might be best to start with a cheaper or older body and put the extra money into buying some really decent lenses. Plus this gives you the freedom to consider the qualities and differences of various lens systems and pick the one that will best suit your needs.

All in all, you’ll be happiest with your purchase if you can spend some time really thinking about what you need and how you plan on using it—otherwise you are just buying an expensive toy.

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10 Comments

 
  1. Nice summary! The only addition I would make, is: first start thinking about item #3, then #2 and then #1 :-)

  2. They stole your idea!

  3. Some really good tips here. They will definitely help those looking to buy a DSLR. Shame I didn’t come across this before purchasing mine!

  4.  
  5. @Aidan: Thanks, I’m glad you like my tips.

    Out of curiosity, what did you end up getting? What are your regrets? Were there any unexpected bonuses?

  6. I ended up getting the Canon 400D (XTi Rebel), 18-55kit lens and a Sigma 70-300 APO DG Macro lens.

    I don’t really have any regrets truth be told, however, I am looking to (once that I can afford it) purchase a new lens for sports photography as my current telephoto zoom just isn’t quick enough. I could really do with purchasing a telephoto zoom with the same sort of zoom but with an f2.8 aperture. The light is awful in these autumn/winter months here in the UK.

    I took a look at your equipment, and you have some nice stuff there!

  7. Whoops I forgot to mention about the unexpected bonuses… But sadly there weren’t any, if there was then I haven’t discovered them just yet!

  8. I am looking to (once that I can afford it) purchase a new lens for sports photography as my current telephoto zoom just isn’t quick enough

    I don’t know if it has enough zoom for your taste, but I adore my Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM. It’s a bit big, heavy, and expensive, but it is very versatile and produces some beautiful images.

  9. hello.I want to buy a dslr camera for the first time but iam unsure off which model and make to go for.I have been looking at the panasonic lumix g1.I was wondering if this is a good camera to start out with or if there is another camera like it for less.Any help would be grateful thank you andrew

  10. I’am not looking for a brand new DSLR, what matters most for me is that the quality of pictures I’am taking. I can’t wait to have my 1st job to buy my 1st DSLR.. :0

  11. 6. Throw out the kit lens
    Please,these are so bad a nice lens right away will help you in the long run
    Sony is running a deal where you can buy a A55 body w/out a kit lens and get a 55-200MM for the same price with a 100$ discount where the kit lens will cease to exist

 

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