First-time DSLR buyer looking for advice
December 10, 2009 6:46 AM   Subscribe

What camera and lens combinations would you suggest for a DSLR for macro/indoor photography (without flash) for a newbie? Price range around 1200 USD.

I'm looking to buy a good DSLR camera (not exactly pro but not too cheap either) but I'm fairly confused as to what to choose. Mostly because i don't know exactly what values i should look for and also lens incompatibilities (really don't wanna be stuck with a model where i can't get any proper lenses) - A fairly easy to use and light camera would be preferred, but i am willing to study the user manual or other instructions for as long as it takes.

I am planning to do macro-photography with it, so i guess i need something with live-view, so i can check the focus before taking the photo. I can't find anything about macro-specific cameras as such, so i guess it's just about finding a good lens?
Also i plan to do much indoor photography without using a flash, so i will need a good light-strong lens of a sort, however these are quite expensive so a wrong buy would be costly.

And what about the new 4/3 cameras? I like their size and design, but would they be any good for my purposes?

So in short, what camera and lens combinations would you suggest for a DSLR for macro/indoor photo for a newbie? Price range around 1200 USD.
posted by kampken to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Any good DSLR will do, really. I shoot with Canon gear, which I like very much; others shoot Nikon and have equally good experiences. I would stick to these two makers so that you will have the best choice of lenses.

For the body, I like the T1i--it's a pretty recent introduction, and I think you would get some good years out of it. For the lens, the Canon 100mm f2.8 is a great choice--and depending on where you are, you may be able to pick it up for cheap used on Craigslist.

Macro photography is generally done on a tripod, so you don't need a fast lens, just a longer exposure.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:14 AM on December 10, 2009

Hmmm - I think in your shoes, with your price range I would go for a Canon Rebel XSi. There is also a newer model, the Rebel T1i, but I've heard significant reports of the T1i creating softer images than its predecessor. If you want to specialize in macro shooting, image sharpness is very important.

For a lens, I think I would go for the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM Lens. It's not L glass (Canon's best quality), but it's a great lens that produces sharp, beautiful results. I would also suggest purchasing your camera body with one of the cheap kit lenses. Even though your primary focus is macro, it's very handy to have a more versatile lens that will let you shoot wider angle images.

I think you would come out just a shade over $1200 with those items.

I'm sure Nikon makes a similar product, but as a Canon shooter - I know the Canon product line a lot better. I think both camera brands are excellent, and would choose them over Pentax, Sony or Olympus.

As far as the new 4/3 cameras - I would avoid them if you're a macro shooter. The higher crop factor is going to give you less control over your depth of field. Also, I'm pretty sure that 4/3 sensors don't perform as well in low-light. The difference between an APS and the new 4/3 format might be marginal, but if you're shooting macros in low light, I would think every little bit of noise reduction counts.
posted by MorningPerson at 7:20 AM on December 10, 2009

For your indoor low-light lens, you can pick up either a Canon or Nikon 50mm 1.8 for less than $100. On a cropped sensor (what you'll likely be getting) it's a bit more telephoto than you might want, but it's a fine setup for portrait photography. The 1.8 aperture will grab plenty of light for you. The 1.4 versions are better, of course, but tend to cost three to four times as much.
posted by echo target at 7:37 AM on December 10, 2009

It didn't sound like the OP was interested in portraiture, echo--and those 50mm have somewhere along the line of 1.5' minimum focus distance and a pretty low magnification factor. The 100mm, though, is pretty well-liked as a portrait lens, in addition to it's primary role as a macro lens (though on a crop sensor, he's going to have to back up a looong way).
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:47 AM on December 10, 2009

To clarify "pretty low magnification factor" = not good for macro work at all. Should have previewed.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:48 AM on December 10, 2009

the camera body is unimportant. you could get a used canon 50D off ebay (or even an older model like a 40D or a 20D) and it would work just fine. live view is not present on every model but it's really not that important as you think.

what does matter is the glass you put onto it. I can only speak for canon and here I would recommend you go with the excellent canon 100mm macro (ca. $640).
posted by krautland at 7:58 AM on December 10, 2009

Get the cheapest body with depth-of-field preview and a dedicated macro lens.
posted by galaksit at 7:59 AM on December 10, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions, ppl :) Looking up the cameras and lenses you suggested now..

Just to clarify what kind of photography i will be doing.
Macro: Indoor and outdoor with good light, im thinking lightbox, external flash and ringflash.
Indoor all-around: Pictures of decor, people, pets, whatever. No flash is a must..only natural light sources.
posted by kampken at 8:02 AM on December 10, 2009

That 100mm lens will be like 165 on the T1I (or any cropped sensor camera). Pretty long for normal macro stuff I think.
posted by sully75 at 8:12 AM on December 10, 2009

Thirding the 100mm f/2.8 macro lens option with a less expensive APS-C body like the T1i or XSi. Canon just released the 100mm f/2.8L IS lens, which seems to have driven down used prices on the older non-L version. Both offer 1:1 magnification for macro use. I would avoid the 60mm f/2.8 macro lens since it only works on EF-S bodies.

The 100mm on a crops body will be equivalent to a 160mm FOV on a 35mm body, which you might find frustratingly narrow for your "indoor all-around" category. Adding the aforementioned 50mm f/1.8 for $100 is a good way to widen your field of view and fast enough to not require flash, although it is still a fairly tight portrait lens on the crop body. The Canon 24mm f/2.8 is much wider, although not nearly as fast and better suited for outdoor use.
posted by autopilot at 8:14 AM on December 10, 2009

live view is not present on every model but it's really not that important as you think.

For macro work I have found the LiveView on my 5D Mark II and 7D to be incredibly useful. SInce none of the camera bodies have split prism focus screens these days, I've found that the 10x LiveView mode to give me a much better result than trying to squint at the the ground glass screen. As another plus, you can display the image on a remote screen to allow operation of the camera away from the subjects of the macro photos.
posted by autopilot at 8:17 AM on December 10, 2009

I'm shooting similar things, and my gear is:

Canon XSi w/ kit lens
EF-S 60mm f/2.8 USM Macro (I don't see a reason to avoid the EF-S lenses)
EF 50mm f/1.8 II
580EX II SpeedLite

I have a lightbox as well for my Macro shooting, and I have no complaints at all about my gear. I am looking at adding a better walking-around lens in the near future though, the kit lens is slow and soft, but it's a good starter.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 9:26 AM on December 10, 2009

Only Sony, Pentax and Olympus give you stabilized (wide &) fast primes, useful for indoor no-flash photography.

Together they only have ~15% market share which makes these brands harder to find on the shelves or in askme answers. Most people are happy with their DSLR choice so you will rarely read about limitations of their specific model.

If you do not mind buying lenses online, go to this side-by-side comparison and enter

Format: Interchangeable lens camera
Release Status: Not discontinued (current or upcoming)
Image stabilization: Yes -> filter out the lens-based stabilization options yourself
Orientation sensor: Yes
Storage types: SD
Live View: Yes -> as mentioned, very useful for macro-work
Weight (inc. batteries): 750 g (1.7 lb) or less -> to filter out the more expensive options

A fast 50mm is not only useful for indoor use but can also be reversed and used in combination with a tele lens for macro work. Even a $25 manual focus 50mm f/1.8 manual focus lens from ebay could do.
posted by Akeem at 9:53 AM on December 10, 2009

The main reason to avoid the EF-S lenses is if you ever plan to upgrade to a 5D or 1D series camera; the secondary reason is that they are rumored to have a lower build quality since they are targeting the lower end of the market.

The argument for the 100mm macro versus the 60mm is that, even though they have the same magnification, the longer lens gives more distance from the subject to the camera. Depending on the subject, this can be quite advantageous.
posted by autopilot at 9:53 AM on December 10, 2009

1200 isn't a lot- I'd suggest looking for a refurb body if you are going dslr. They work perfect and are usually a lot cheaper. Stick to a 1.6 crop ratio sensor. for your work you probably want a 35mm macro lens as that works out to about 50 mm on a dslr. The other option is that you buy a spacer tube for another lens. That will screw up the autofocus, but will allow just about any lens to focus very close up and it sounds like you want manual control anyway.

If you're looking at a 4/3 and you specifically want that form factor camera go for it, but I'd get the bigger sensor of a dslr if I am doing some sort of pre-set up photography. 4/3 bodies are for portability and ease of movement.

You might want to consider a prosumer point and shoot with a super macro feature as well.
posted by Large Marge at 10:26 AM on December 10, 2009

Response by poster: The Sony/Pentax/Olympus sounds cool but i can't really afford to make any wrong purchases and experiment. Gonna play it safe and stick to either Canon or Nikon.

EF 50mm f/1.8 II seems very interesting. I see that it's made almost entirely of plastic..has anyone had any problems with this fact?

I will probably go for a 100mm macro lense, size doesn't matter much since it will sit on a tripod anyway, looking at some cute insects :)

The consensus seems to be that the body is not so important..lenses is everything. So i will try to find the cheapest thing with live-view. Any other important camera-functions i should keep an eye on?
posted by kampken at 10:31 AM on December 10, 2009

Akeem mentioned reversing for the 50mm lenses. Another fun macro technique is to buy a cheap set of bellows ($30-$50 on eBay) and use normal lenses. You can get far beyond the 1:1 of the regular macro lenses and start to get the insane 5X of the MP-E 65mm with bellows.

Do keep in mind that the amount of light required for macro photos is extreme. To have any reasonable working depth of field, typically you will be shooting at f/16 or narrower. Ring flashes and special macro flashes like the MT-24EX are necessary.
posted by autopilot at 10:35 AM on December 10, 2009

I'd avoid the 50mm f1.8 (the so-called "plastic fantastic"). I've had friends see their copies literally fall to pieces in their hands from regular use. The tradeoff is that it can be had for less than $100. But, speaking as someone who has a number of rather expensive lenses, the 50mm f1.4 is, dollar for dollar, the single best value lens I own. I've taken many of my best shots with that lens, and it cost me $250 used.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:05 AM on December 10, 2009

If you really want to do macro (with magnification approaching 1:1), don't waste your time with non macro lenses. If that isn't important to you though, that opens up a lot more options.

Read this website ""
(specific to Canon equipment, but the terminology is portable to Nikon)

The plastic 50mm f/1.8 is a great value, but does not have a good macro-comparable max magnification. Other camera features pertinent to macro will be comparable with any new body. Don't worry about a new camera being "less soft," you get to adjust for that kind of image softness when you process your images on the computer.

Any body will do, but live view would help. I have the 100mm f/2.8 macro, which is fantastic. EF-s lenses are not garbage, but some are better than others (see the reviews on the above site) . The 60mm EFs macro is a decent lens too. Reversing other lenses will work OK, but will not produce the same image quality as a proper macro lens; that doesn't mean it is a worthless technique, but you should know that going in. Just look for sample pictures to compare. You can never have too much magnification for macro work, but if you are going to try to use the same lens for macro and landscapes, you have to balance your priorities. You can always sell your gear later if you want to change lenses. Don't worry about buying EF-s lenses and "not being able to use them on a 1-series body," cause if you ever spend the $$$ on a pro-body (emphasis on the $$$, compared to your current options) you will just sell your current gear).

I have a lot of Canon gear, shoot a bunch of macros, and would be happy to answer specific questions if you don't get all the answers you need here (some of everything is opinion, but processing so many opinions at once is daunting). Feel free to mefi-mail me .
posted by kenbennedy at 1:38 PM on December 10, 2009

For macro work I have found the LiveView on my 5D Mark II and 7D to be incredibly useful. SInce none of the camera bodies have split prism focus screens these days

I have both those cameras and can't quite follow you. live view, while nice and fun to play with, does not focus as easily for me as viewfinder focussing does, mainly because I can't see where the focussing points are and sometimes thus do not get a lock right away. I would imagine this to be frustrating with the 100mm macro lens I linked to above and since OP didn't indicate he was going to do tilt-shift photography, where I really like the live view option, I don't think he should opt for a more expensive body when what really matters is the glass. finally there's the AF servo option but that would drain his battery rather quickly if he kept focussing constantly via live view. OP could also purchase the canon viewfinder B for less than $50, which attaches to the eyepiece and provides up to double magnification.

(the so-called "plastic fantastic"). I've had friends see their copies literally fall to pieces in their hands from regular use. The tradeoff is that it can be had for less than $100.
the nifty fifty is supposed to be a throw-away lens. it's fantastic but don't expect it to last.

the aforementioned 50mm f/1.8 for $100 is a good way to widen your field of view
yes and I am all for OP purchasing this lens. but let's all be clear: 50mm is not wide, it's standard. especially indoors.
posted by krautland at 4:58 PM on December 10, 2009

Response by poster: Alright, i've decided to go with a Nikon D5000 instead of the Canon 450/500's, mostly because of the physical handling and the fold-out screen. Otherwise they seemed very similar to each other.
I've chosen the Nikon 50MM F/1.8D AF lense for indoor pictures, since it's cheap and seems to work very well. It's a bit like Canon's plastic fantastic.

As for the macro lense, i will wait a bit since they seem very expensive and i have to make sure i am into macro shooting, before i purchase such a lense.

Thanks to everyone for their feedback, it was very helpful :)
posted by kampken at 4:58 AM on December 21, 2009

You chose the Nikon? You are dead to me!

posted by WinnipegDragon at 5:08 PM on December 23, 2009

Response by poster: Actually i decided to pull away from the Nikon D5000 in the last second.

The reason for this what that i tried it out for real..not just holding it..but actually trying to take a manual photo and adjusting shutter/ISO/whitebalance/exposure etc..and the D5000 seemed overly complicated to adjust. The menu is built up more like on a digi-cam with too many selections instead of having dedicated buttons and grid-view for fast access. This is was one of the major reasons i wanted to upgrade to an bugged me a lot on my current digi-cam, so i knew right away that this would not work for me.

So i've decided to go with the Canon 450D instead, it has the fast button access and grid-view menu i need. I chose it over the 500D since most reviews state that there is very little difference in image quality, i don't need video recording and for the 190$ i save, i can spend it on the plastic fantastic 50mm f/1.8 lense :)

I hope this was useful for some first-buyers out there like me :)
posted by kampken at 1:19 PM on January 20, 2010

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