Help me spend somebody else's money on a new camera!
April 22, 2009 5:49 PM   Subscribe

Shopping for somebody else and looking for a digital SLR camera that can handle a handful of specific requirements. I know nothing about these things.

I work for somebody who is in the market for a new digital SLR camera. I've been tasked with the job, being the go-to person who knows more about tech than the other employee, but I confess to knowing little about digital cameras. I am hoping the hivemind might point me in the right direction.

What I am after is a very user-friendly camera, a digital SLR if at all possible, that does really well with indoor light. The camera's most important function will be to take picture of things in museums, including presentations of text. The text will need to be legible on the image (This can involve the descriptions of displays, as well as text that is itself the display--treaties and whatnot that are, presumably, legible enough to read when one is not using the camera.) There is a possibility that some of these images will be reproduced in a (non-glossy) book in the future but for the most part it is for capturing material for a research project, for future reference.

The price range for this is between $300-$600 CDN.

posted by synecdoche to Technology (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
for 300-600 you may be out of luck for what you are looking for.

What you want to look into is either a Nikon d40 or a Canon Rebel (both are entry level dSlr's). You'll also need to study up on how to set your aperture and f stops to get what you want. But here is the sink, it's not the camera body that is going to get those indoor lit shots, it's the glass (your lens). For good indoor shots you would want a 50mm 1.4 lens and I don't know about the nikon side but the canon version is 300+ by itself.

Your body is going to run you upwards of 900 but you could do some scouring and maybe find it cheaper ( like a used model). For further research I recommend:

Fred Miranda Reviews

if you want more information, mefimail me and I'll be happy to tell you more. But honestly if you go the dSLR way, you're looking over a 1000 easily for new equipment (but old used equipment would slide you in under 700 -- I'm factoring in a decent lens to get the job done)
posted by Hands of Manos at 6:01 PM on April 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

first off digital SLR and user-friendly don't normally go hand in hand if the person you're buying for hasn't owned an SLR before.

The indoor light requirement will tend to be more based on the lens than on the camera body. Nikon and Canon are they two biggest SLR manufacturers. Any Nikkor or EF lens is going to be rather nice, relatively.

Based on the it-needs-to-photograph-text-in-museums requirement, though, I'd say you really don't want an SLR. changing lighting conditions in a museum as well as changing focal distances based on what/where the treaties and whatnot are is going to be a terribly annoying with an SLR.

Though I know this isn't what you asked for, I'd go for a Canon Powershot SD850 IS. It's not an SLR, but it takes beautiful pictures of documents and handles strange lighting conditions like in museums very well. It's even at the low end of your price range.

If you must have an SLR-ish camera, try the pro-sumer Canon Powershot G10. Yes, it's a bit pricy, but it's got the auto setting so when your friend/coworker gets tired of blurry first/last words on labels, he can just flip to auto and admire how hard the canon design guys worked on their software and glass to ensure that your investment focuses on the right stuff. It's got a lot of SLR-ish features that will let you take more dynamic and awe-inspiring photos than the SD850 IS, if that's what you're going for.

To find a worthy SLR in your price range with a lens is going to be very difficult unless you're willing to buy a used one. Check out some of the early Canon Digital Rebels. They revolutionized the low-priced consumer SLR market when they came out. I have no experience with the early Rebels, but my Rebel Xti is beautiful and takes astonishing photos of anything you set in front of it as long as you've got the right lens.
posted by cmchap at 6:10 PM on April 22, 2009

At that price, a Canon Digital Rebel XS and a 50mm f/1.8 lens.
posted by zsazsa at 6:13 PM on April 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

The price is low but kind of doable second-hand. Don't be frightened of the second-hand market as people churn their gear all the time and you can easily get stuff in as-new condition due to all the people who want the latest+greatest and never really use it.

In a museum, it is very very dark - just because you can see doesn't mean there is enough light to take a photo. You need either a flash or a tripod to get enough light into the camera, one or both of which is unlikely to be permitted unless the user is an employee. I would recommend the tripod since UV from flashes can damage older documents. However, a flash would give you a lot more lighting flexibility and convenience, so certainly consider it in the future. A tripod is much much cheaper though - you can get a decent (but not some new carbon-fibre thing with a fancy head) one for $50-100 whereas a flash will run you $200-500.

You also need a macro lens if you're doing pictures of small things in museums with writing on them. I would recommend a Tamron 90/2.8, which can be had second-hand for about USD200 in any of the major camera-maker's mounts (though the individual mounts are incompatible, you can find this lens for any of them and it is fantastic value for money).

50/1.4 lenses are nice but will not solve your lack-of-light problems in a museum, and the drawback of using f/1.4 is unusably shallow depth of field for nearly any purpose. Tripod and longer exposures at a more-sane aperture (like f/8) and minimal ISO will result in much much better quality results.

As for which camera brand to use, it doesn't really matter. You could pick Nikon, Sony or Canon and they will all work fine. You could pick Pentax or Olympus too but I'd worry about them going out of business. Sony has the advantage of stabilisation in the body, so your cheap-arse (yet optically as good as they come) Tamron macro will be stabilised, which is not something you'll get from Nikon/Canon. Stabilisation won't help on the tripod, but it will help with hand-held shots where there's a bit more light.

Whichever brand you choose, buy an entry-level body from about a generation ago. It will probably be about 10 megapixels. I would recommend a second-hand Sony A100, typically sells for about $200-300. If you buy a Nikon, make sure it isn't one of those without an in-body focus motor like the D40 as that's unusable with 95% of lenses out there, including all the fantastic (not cheap, of course) old Nikon macros. In Canon-land, a 400D or similar is probably the go, and for Nikon, I think an old D80 or maybe D60 (can't recall if they have a focus motor) would do.

Total spend: $300 (second hand entry-level body), $200 (Tamron macro), $50 (tripod) = USD550ish.

And there is no such thing as a truly user-friendly DSLR - you do need to know the basics of photography (aperture, shutter speed, ISO). You can put it on auto-mode and it will take an OK-exposed picture, but if you're going to do that then there's no point in buying a DSLR instead of a "bridge camera" like a Canon G9/G10. The point of the DSLR is to get control, so you need to spend the time learning to make use of that control or you will be horribly disappointed in the results from even a top-of-the-line DSLR.
posted by polyglot at 6:21 PM on April 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

PS: feel free to mefi-mail me. And also see dyxum for a very friendly DSLR forum (it's just like metafilter but without the snark) and lens database (the third-party lenses like Tamron and Sigma listed in that database are also available for Nikon+Canon), though it is Sony/Minolta-specific. The "somebody else" needs to start reading some DSLR-photography tutorials now and lurking on good photography forums for tips and soaking in the discussions.
posted by polyglot at 6:31 PM on April 22, 2009

I would look into the Canon Rebel XT or the XTi. They are both older models, so you can probably get one in the high end of the range that your are looking for through ebay.

They are both entry level-ish and fairly user friendly, and are some of the cheapest digital SLRs that you can find on the market...but they still might go above your price range.
posted by firei at 6:37 PM on April 22, 2009

A Nikon D40 with lens is obtainable for just above $410 US, which fits in your range. Very easy interface, good image quality, and very reliable... just a little old.

Since you are doing text reproductions, a higher megapixel count than what the D40 offers you might be desirable.

An interesting next step up might be to go with a Sony, Olympus, or Pentax DSLR: they have in-camera image stabilization which will help handheld low light performance a tad. The Sony Alpha 200 is available for about $500 US with lens--just above your budget, I believe. (Canon and Nikon have stablization available in-lens only. However, there are kits for CA/NK available that include an IS/VR lens--respectively.)

Is there a reason a DSLR is your preference? While I'd normally encourage anyone to get a DSLR, given your budget and stated needs it doesn't seem a necessity. There may be more to what you'll be using it for though.

Tangential recommendation:
What I think will be infinitely useful to this project is some type of tripod (preferably with horizontal arm) or reproduction stand. By taking vibration out of the picture, low light won't be much of an issue for any decent cam.
posted by pokermonk at 7:04 PM on April 22, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. The DSLR is the preference simply because, well, neither of us know from cameras, and we just assumed that SLR would be better for this purpose. I'm wide open to non-SLR recommendations as well.
posted by synecdoche at 7:26 PM on April 22, 2009

A DSLR is by far the best choice for this purpose... it just takes a little learning is all.
posted by polyglot at 7:39 PM on April 22, 2009

Here's a link to one of my Picasa albums that contains almost 300 images of display info text and objects taken at LACMA. All photos were taken with a handheld Nikon D80 and no flash. Auto focus was turned off because it uses a light in focusing that some people mistake for a flash. I'm sure that a Nikon D40 or any one of several Canon cameras available in your price range would do as well.

There are a couple of basic and simple techniques for taking photos in low light used for these images.

Email me if you have questions.
posted by X4ster at 8:12 PM on April 22, 2009

No all-in-one camera is likely to beat the low-light performance of a DSLR unless it is some sort of exotic breed. I don't buy the complexity argument people are making against them. Any DSLR is going to have a full auto mode, its not hard to make sure you've switched it on. If full auto isn't good enough on a DSLR, then it isn't going to be any better on a compact camera, at least with a DSLR you have a full range of options.

A used Rebel XT would probably fill the bill nicely for you. You might want to look at getting the cheap 50mm lens. It's faster than any zoom you'd be able to afford, and sharper too. The only downside is that it may not work for you in close quarters, but the camera will probably come with a cheap zoom that's isn't too terrible
posted by Good Brain at 8:56 PM on April 22, 2009

since the consensus is to get an older model Digital Rebel, if you happen to have an old cannon camera lying around, try the Canon Loyalty Program to get a Rebel XT very cheaply!

call to find out the best deals based on the camera you have, or buy one off ebay that's a little bruised (read cheap and broken) and turn THAT in for the loyalty program. it sounds a little ethically shady, but it'll put the XT in your budget nicely.
posted by cmchap at 10:03 PM on April 22, 2009

Mostly what others have said:

1. choice of DSLR is not really important (but a DLSR will be better than a compact camera - the larger sensor will really improve your results in low light)
2. lens is important - you want a fast lens (f/1.8 or better)
3. if using a tripod or flash is an option, then this problem becomes much easier
4. if not, set the aperture wide open, and the ISO to a high number (but the resulting photos might not look great in a glossy book). Practise good hand-held shooting technique (and maybe use a monopod, if you can get away with it).
posted by primer_dimer at 2:21 AM on April 23, 2009

If you're going for hand-held shots, the Nikon D40, D60 and D5000 are all no good. You're going to want a lens with a wide aperture (like a 50mm 1.8), and the cheaper Nikons don't autofocus with those ones. I'd have a search around for an affordable Canon Rebel something, and a 50mm f/1.8.

If it's realistic to always be shooting from a tripod, then get whatever SLR, a good quality macro lens (check the reviews at, and make sure that it autofocuses if you decide on a Nikon), a good quality tripod and a shutter release cable.
posted by Magnakai at 5:32 AM on April 23, 2009

If this is something on behalf of the museum or an instance that you can use a tripod, that would be the ideal situation. Shooting text on pieces will probably require a small aperture (larger f-stop number, f22 for example) to get the most depth of field possible so all the text is legible. A tripod will be required to do this unless you're outside with a ton of light.

That said, pretty much any DSLRs suggested above would be fine and a 50mm is good for situations where you can't use a tripod, but be aware it won't be very wide-angle.
posted by starman at 7:01 AM on April 23, 2009

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