Picking an affordable entry-level DSLR camera
April 27, 2010 6:52 AM   Subscribe

I've been using Canon PowerShot models for years. My current one is the G10. I think with my experience in amateur photography, I can finally move on to something more advanced. Do you have any suggestions for an entry-level DSLR camera?

I have three Canon cameras of which two have been recommended by users on MetaFilter: a PowerShot SD960 IS, a PowerShot G10, and a
Vixia HFS100 for video. They have been very good so far, especially the G10 when it comes to taking great pictures.

Although I am not a professional photographer, I've been taking pictures for years and I think I'm ready to take the next step. (You can check my recent photos on my Flickr account linked in my MeFi profile to judge by yourself.) I know manually operating a DSLR camera is much more involved than the consumer-grade models I've been using, but that's a challenge I want to take.

I'm looking for something within the range of $300 to $500. Or rather, between 30,000 and 50,000 Japanese yen, as I live near Tokyo at the moment, where both brand-new and second-hand cameras seem to grow on trees. The Nikon D80 and D90 look interesting. Video is not important. (I'd love to shoot video with the 5D Mark II, but obviously, I can't afford it.)

One choice I have to make is whether to stick with Canon or to move to Nikon. I don't think I am interested in Sony. I have heard from some professional photographers using DSLR cameras that they love Canon bodies while they prefer Nikon lenses. They also believe that lenses are most important, which made them use Nikon cameras instead of Canon to avoid the need to purchase adapters.

Another word of advice I got is to buy second hand. Like I mentioned earlier, there is no lack of second-hand cameras in Japan. I think I'll buy a used camera to save some money, but if you believe I should do otherwise, please let me know.

I have also skimmed another thread on MeFi about purchasing a DSLR camera for beginners published last year, but there was almost no discussion about price.

Any suggestions on model of bodies and lenses someone who is just starting with DSLR cameras should buy?

Thank you in advance for your comments!
posted by remi to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (20 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
You're looking at Canons and Nikons, but I must say that I simply adore my Pentax K200D. I felt like I got all of the up-to-the-minute features, bells, and whistles, but didn't pay a premium for the name of buying one of the Big Two. I had also been using Canon p&s cameras up until then, and didn't have any problems switching to the controls of the Pentax.
posted by scarykarrey at 6:59 AM on April 27, 2010

Thanks, scarykarrey! I forgot about Pentax. I'm always opened to suggestions.
posted by remi at 7:17 AM on April 27, 2010

You can probably find a Canon 450D second hand in that price range. It's a good entry level DSLR. If you can spring for the new 550D, you'll find it shoots very nice video as well as being a great stills camera.
posted by Magnakai at 7:19 AM on April 27, 2010

What kind of photographs do you like to take?
posted by mmascolino at 7:20 AM on April 27, 2010

If you're happy with Canon, how about the new T2i? More expensive, but it's been getting great reviews and will shoot video that looks just as good as the 5D Mark II. Seems like you have enough experience to dive right in, and if you do have an interest in video it might be a thought.

Some videos shot with a T2i:
Salton Sea Beach
posted by casaubon at 7:20 AM on April 27, 2010

I love, love, love my Olympus E510, the lastest version of the series being Olympus E520. Only thing about them if you're buying used lenses they're a lot harder to find as it's not as popular as the Cannons and Nikons. But I love the quality and the user interface is great. I've had a chance to play around with a Cannon Digital Rebel, and did not find it as intuitive.

This guy has awesome write ups on the whole E-System
posted by pyro979 at 7:27 AM on April 27, 2010

To answer the question asked by mmascolino, I usually take pictures of sceneries and doing macro shots. I've also started taking more pictures of people recently, something that needs more practice.
posted by remi at 7:29 AM on April 27, 2010

You can't go wrong with either Nikon or Canon. What do your friends, if you have photographer friends, shoot? It is always nice to swap lenses or be able to ask questions. Go pick a couple of them up and see what feels comfortable in your hands.

That being said, I am partial to Canon. If you really looked around you would be able to find a 40D + a 50mm f1.8 in that range, or maybe slightly over. It might take a bit to find one around that price, but that would be plenty of camera.
posted by Silvertree at 7:31 AM on April 27, 2010

I don't have a camera recommendation because I'm not up to date on the latest models, but I got a secondhand Canon from a friend who was upgrading, and have been pretty happy with it. Eventually you'll probably want to buy new, but if you're just dipping your toes into the waters of DSLR, a used body with a new lens or two is a good bet.
posted by harriet vane at 7:35 AM on April 27, 2010

You might be able to find a second-hand Canon Rebel T1i in that price range. If you can, I'd definitely recommend it that particular model.
posted by Mwongozi at 7:53 AM on April 27, 2010

I know it is out of your price range, but the new Rebel is amazing, it is basically the same specs as Canon's top of the line 7D

Here is a comparison:

Canon Rebel vs. 7D

posted by silsurf at 9:19 AM on April 27, 2010

Seconding Silvertree. I just bought a used 40d for $350, and you can find the 50mm/1.8 for about $100 brand new...they seem to go for about $70 used, but they're pretty tough to find used because nobody wants to get rid of them :). You can also grab the 17-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS (the kit lens for Canon entry-level cams) used for about $85.

I *love* my 40d. I upgraded from a Rebel XS/1000D. There was nothing particularly wrong with it, but I just hit the limits of what it could do. FWIW, I sold the XS for about $200. I've made all of my used equipment purchases from the Buy & Sell board at www.fredmiranda.com. You need to have an account before you can see the board, but it's free to create. If you want to create a new thread, you need to have a subscription which will cost (I believe) $15/3-months or $45/year. But you can buy stuff w/out the paid subscription.

Also FWIW, you can't go wrong with either canon or nikon - it's almost a coke/pepsi thing. Some people have preferences, but I started down the canon road because 3 of my friends had canon dslrs, and I wanted to be able to borrow their stuff =)

Finally, note that this hobby gets expensive FAST. There's always that one more lens, or flash, or tripod, or accessory. Buying used helps, as does buying "off-brand". I just picked up a Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 lens used for $325. It's not quite as good as the Canon L-series equivalent, but it's also about 1/3 of the price. That helps quite a bit with the decision making.

Feel free to mefi mail or respond to this thread if you have any questions - I'm about 2 years into my DSLR experience so I still have some newbie in me =)
posted by um_maverick at 9:34 AM on April 27, 2010

I'm a beginner, I got a DSLR as a gift for christmas and couldn't tell you much about it beyond that I've learned the value of Ken Rockwell's site for recommendations.
posted by TimeDoctor at 9:38 AM on April 27, 2010

It's funny, when it comes down to Canon vs. Nikon, I am now definitely on the side of Canon. We have an ageing Powershot that does WAY better photos than my schmancy newer Nikon D70 in low light situations. I'll give you an example: I somehow managed to score a press pass to shoot the Bauhaus reunion show here in 2005. Compare photos -- I like the Canon G2's stuff better than most of the Nikons! And that Canon is super old now! My friends with DSLR Canons adore them and wouldn't get a Nikon for the world...

(That said, my first digital was an Olympus and that thing was killer in all kinds of lighting situations).
posted by bitter-girl.com at 9:54 AM on April 27, 2010

The PowerShots are good, and you should already be familiar with the menu interface, so an upgrade to another Canon is fairly painless, just more options.

I loved my Digital Rebel XT (upgrade from a PowerShot A75), and which you should be able to get cheap used. The XTi, I didn't like so much. Regardless, as has been mentioned everywhere many times, the lenses are key. You don't have to spend tons. The Canon kit lens, Canon 50mm, couple of others depending on what you like to do, a zoom 200mm for walkabout, or zoom 300mm for wildlife, from Sigma or Tamron keeps cost down.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 9:55 AM on April 27, 2010

I finally (after several years) convinced my wife that we needed to upgrade to a DSLR last year. After looking at Canon, Sony, and Nikon primarily we settled on the Nikon D90. I went in intending to buy a Canon since that's what all my friends with SLRs had, and I figured I'd be able to borrow lenses, flashes, etc. Also, of my previous 3 digital cameras 2 had been Canons and my favorite was a PowerShot G3.

The final decision on the SLR came down to the Canon 50D or the Nikon, and personally I found the control layout on the Nikon much more comfortable and intuitive than the Canon. The other factor that tipped me over to the Nikon was the lens availability. I ended up with an 18-200mm vibration reduction lens for general purpose and a 35mm f/1.8 for low-light. Canon didn't have anything comparable on the lenses with the features/cost I was looking for. Also, keep in mind that Nikon has used the same lens mount forever, so if you have access to lots of good used Nikon lenses, you should be able to use any of them on your Nikon body.

Also, I know you mentioned that video is not important, but I have been very impressed with the video mode on the D90 so far. I use it sparingly, but it comes in handy when we want to record something and don't have our video camera with us.
posted by sbrollins at 10:53 AM on April 27, 2010

We have an ageing Powershot that does WAY better photos than my schmancy newer Nikon D70 in low light situations

I'd like to point out that the D70 is ancient and superannuated in DSLR years, having long been discontinued. D90 is the current version, and it's getting due for an upgrade. Any Powershot or Coolpix is going to produce inferior photographs in the hands of users of equal competency. Anyone who is getting worse results with a huge DSLR sensor and superior DSLR lenses is either:

a. an inept user, or

b. has a defective DSLR.

I wrote about choosing a camera here.
posted by pjern at 11:12 AM on April 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

I have never used any digital imaging device made by Canon that I didn't like. Printers, scanners, photocopiers, cameras: Never had a problem with them. I have used one Nikon microscope and hated it (No way to adjust light intensity? On a microscope? Seriously?) As far as cameras go, I have had a series of Canon point-and-shoots and love my XTi. My neighbor (freelancer) also shoots Canon and as such we've had a chance to trade components here and there.

At least one pro photographer I have met stated pretty bluntly that Canon comes up with the ideas and everyone else follows. While I assume there is some brand loyalty coming into play there, I have to think there might be some truth to this as well.

On the other hand, Nikkor lenses are good. Are they better than Canon? Who knows. They're pretty darn equivalent, really. Try them both out and see what you like better. If you have a place nearby that will rent cameras and equipment by the day or by the hour, get one of each and compare them side by side.
posted by caution live frogs at 11:16 AM on April 27, 2010

Definitely, if money is a limiting factor and your future in this hobby is questionable, starting off used fits the bill. As always for starting out and in this situation, I suggest going cheap on the body, and gung ho on the lenses. What you're buying into is a lens line. You'll notice that used lens in good condition usually are not significantly cheaper than brand new, but camera bodies can and will be. Take care of a good lens and it will hold its value, even after you come to realize that this hobby isn't for you or it is and you want to upgrade. At least when you sell that body and pick up the next one, you won't lose as much.

If you're really serious and particular about the things you shoot, I'd suggest looking for the lenses that will fit the bill. If you're shooting macro, like, real macro, then you'd probably want to invest in a macro lens. Speaking from Nikon's perspective, the 105mm F/2.8 is an amazing macro lens. All my dental school friends use this lens along with a ring flash for their intra-oral photography.

It also costs around $1000 USD new, so that's definitely out of the budget. But Sigma and Tamron lenses may have cheaper alternatives.

It's difficult to focus on price, because over the past 9 months the trade deficit has beat the value of the USD, and things like Japanese-made lenses have gone up significantly. Most of the lenses I bought brand new will sell for more used now.

I'm partial to Nikon and I love my D90, but I really like the lenses made available to us as well (except the lack of a lens equivalent to Canon's 85 F/1.2). Like sbrollins, I have the 18-200mm as my outdoor/walk-about lens, 35mm F/1.8 and 50mm F/1.4 for indoor/lowlight and 11-16mm F/2.8 Tokina for going wide.
posted by liquoredonlife at 2:05 PM on April 27, 2010

As a diehard Nikon user, I think I might consider an Olympus or a Sony if I were starting from the beginning, primarily for the in-body stabilization they offer. Not having to pay more for VR/IS is pretty awesome.
posted by speedgraphic at 4:23 PM on April 30, 2010

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