Your first DSLR camera might be the hardest to buy because of your inexperience and because of an overwhelming selection. In this article, I present a step-by-step guide to help you select a DSLR that fits your needs, without referring to any specific camera model or brand. The guide will help you decide which camera works best for you according to your interests and level of ambition.
Nowadays, the relative affordability of DSLR cameras allows nearly anyone to have access to photography equipment of very high quality. As a result, this type of cameras have become very popular, while point-and-shoot cameras have suffered from a tough smartphone competition. A DSLR camera is a must if you are interested in learning about photography and want to improve your skills. However, it is sufficient to pay a visit to your local camera store to realize that the choice of DSLRs available on the market is very large and therefore some guidance is often needed.
Step #1 – Do you really need a DSLR camera?
This might not be an obvious question but this is something that you should consider seriously. Are you committed to make the efforts and compromises to utilize the benefits that DSLR cameras can offer? A DSLR camera, with its kit lens, used in automatic mode will probably not give you much better results than a reasonably good point-and-shoot camera, let alone the fact that it will be much bulkier and heavier to carry!
At this point you need to be honest with yourself and decide whether or not you are committed to take the necessary steps to learn at least basic photography principles. If the answer is yes, then keep on reading…
Step #2 – Use the full potential of your current camera and start learning
Why not start today to learn more about manual settings and creative composition with your current camera? You may have a decent point-and-shoot or even a smartphone camera that allows basic settings to be changed manually. Look for simple tutorials online and read your manual carefully, if available. You can do some simple exercises for instance by manually modifying the shutter speed when capturing a moving object, lowering the aperture while carefully focusing on an object, etc… try by yourself and observe the resulting impact on your photos. At this point you will start understanding the creative power offered by manually modifying the camera settings and you will probably know if DSLR photography is something for you. DSLR cameras not only offer much more flexibility and convenience to manually adjust the camera’s basic settings, they also allow a much larger range of variations (in particular with respect to aperture and ISO).
Step # 3 – Engage yourself and set your expectations
Now that you have performed your first steps as an amateur photographer and confirmed your desire to invest in a DSLR camera, the next step is to think about what you want to achieve with your photography. Do you intend to take pictures of your family and children? Do you plan to travel? Is it for your blog? Are you interested in shooting landscape? Portrait? How committed are you? How much time do you think you will spend on learning and practicing photography? Answering these questions should provide you with some clues about the type of investment you should be making. DSLRs come in various sizes and prices. Even though you should never overspend on your first DSLR (see step # 7), a serious engagement and high expectations mean that you could aim for a DSLR in the intermediate-level, rather than the entry-level, range. You might outgrow your camera sooner than you think!
Step # 4 – Go online
Go on photo sharing sites such as Flickr or 500px and check the information available for the type of pictures that you are interested in. This information (metadata) very often includes the model of the camera and lens used by the photographer. Then check the camera’s specifications, prices and reviews (for instance on amazon.com) to become more familiar with what is available on the market. Soon you should have a pretty good idea of which equipment other photographers use and what is available for your budget.
Step # 5 – Go to your local photo retailer
It is now time to head to your local photo retailer and try the different cameras that you have identified in Step # 4. You have done your homework and can focus solely on the type of cameras you are interested in. Notice how the camera feels in your hand, play with the menus, make a few test shots, etc. This will probably further narrow your choice to only a few cameras. Going to a local store also gives you the opportunity to ask questions, however knowledgeable salespersons are hard to find and you may often be better off doing your research online.
Step # 6 – Ask your family and friends
Ask your family and friends to tell you about their experience with their own DSLR, what type of gear they own, etc. The advantage is that you can probably borrow their equipment to try it out for yourself. You might be able to test several cameras and various lenses. Do not forget however that lenses are mostly not compatible across brands. That means that you can only borrow lenses from the same manufacturer as your camera body (adapters are available but you will lose some functionalities).
Step # 7 – Do not break the bank
Your first DSLR should allow you to grow as a photographer but does not need to be very expensive. In fact, an entry to intermediate-level camera with its kit lens will generally be sufficient and keep you entertained for a few years. You can even choose an older model to save more. There is no need to get the latest camera features or highest possible resolution, which are often overrated. Your photography gear can be later selectively upgraded and diversified as you learn and whenever you feel that you are facing some limitations. What you upgrade first will also depend on the style of photography that you develop, it might be a wide angle lens and a tripod for landscape photography or a 50 mm fast lens and a reflector for portrait photography.
Step # 8 – Make a decision and start shooting!
Now that you have spent days or weeks identifying the DSLR that best fit your needs and aspirations, make your final decision and go buy it! If you have enjoyed this selection process, there is no doubt that you have a passion for photography and you will not regret your investment. Take your brand new DSLR everywhere you go and start shooting!
Keep in mind however that this is just the beginning of your journey and that there will be a few hurdles along the way. Most DSLRs can take amazing pictures, but you are in charge of making it happen by using the right amount of technical skills and creativity. I wish you the best of luck in this journey and invite you to provide your experience and/or your own recommendations in the comment box below.