Help me wade through this DSLR nonsense?
July 13, 2011 1:01 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking to up my camera game. Help me wade through all of the nonsense and figure out what I want.

I am looking to get a DSLR. I currently have a Sony superzoom camera that I love. I have take a lot of great pictures with it, but I am looking for more control and even better pictures.

I have been using the manual modes on the Sony, but have lately become frustrated with the narrow band of adjustment.

I take mostly landscape, nature and action photos. Many shots are from a distance.

What I do know is I am looking for something with a decent selection of lenses. I've ruled our the micro 4/3rds system.

What I'm looking for is something around 1k with a lens or 2. Great image quality, easy to use, with an abundance of features. I don't really care about video.

I'm not a pro and I am brand agnostic. I have been leaning towards a Sony DSLR mainly because I like the auto compiling HDR and on screen composition tips. But I'm concerned about the lens selection. I'd like to get an 18-200mm lens...the Sony lens is too expensive and the compatible lenses dont get great reviews.

What I need to know really is should I get bogged down with ISO sensitivity, sensors, min/max aperture sizes. I assume they will all take great pictures with proper training and will be better than my point and shoot.

Ohh and of course I'm going to try them out before I purchase.

posted by burlsube to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (17 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Frankly, all the DSLRs in your price range are good, although I think only the Sony and the Pentax offer HDR on the camera itself. I don't know much about the Sony line, but I do know that the Pentax K-r is a great, affordable camera with a more than good enough lens selection.

All modern DSLRs with APS-C or larger sensors have pretty damn amazing ISO performance and such. Don't get too hung up on the technical details in this department.

Also, min/max aperture size is going to be a property of the lens, not the camera itself.

You should go to a store and see which camera feels best in your hands. The DSLR market is pretty vicious - there's no room for truly junky cameras at any price level. Also, I'd de-prioritize getting a camera with built-in HDR, because all you really need on the camera's end for that is the ability to bracket exposures. AFAIK, all the major brands offer this feature. On the other hand, you want what you want.

All that said, however, the Pentax K-r is a great entry-level camera, and it'll do everything you need a camera to do.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:17 PM on July 13, 2011

This is a Coke/Pepsi, Mac/PC kind of conversation--but for my money, I'd just stick with Nikon and Canon. I agree with Sticherbeast, though, that you pretty much can't go wrong with most DSLRs these days--the quality is fantastic across the line (though you get what you pay for, as in all things). You get much more flexibility in the lens selection with Nikon and Canon than you do with Sony or Pentax--and by sticking with the market leaders, you benefit from the resale market, too. I have a number of used lenses in my roster, most of which were bought off of Craigslist, and they're great savings.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 1:29 PM on July 13, 2011

You could probably flip a coin between Canon and Nikon and go with either and be thrilled. Min/Max aperture size is a function of lens rather than camera, and at the consumery end of things, the differences between lens selections are really not meaningful. I shoot Canon; I'm happy. My friend Eve shoots Nikon, and she's happy. I picked Canon because my Dad does, and this way I can borrow his gear; she picked Nikon because she had a film Nikon from college with a decent lens she could reuse. Try a couple out at a store, flip a coin, and buy one - other than differing interfaces, which are a big deal if you like one and dislike another, the differences between low-end cameras and lenses quickly boil down to crap you'll only ever notice reading spec sheets or staring at individual pixels for hours, as opposed to getting out there with a lens and some memory cards and taking some damn photos.
posted by Tomorrowful at 1:34 PM on July 13, 2011

Agreeing with Stitcherbeast as well that it's hard to go wrong. Nikon and Canon are, of course, the market leaders.

I'll make a specific recommendation, though:

Nikon D5100 (comes with an excellent 18-55mm vibration reduction lens). I have the D5000, which the 5100 has replaced, and am thrilled with it.

Add the Nikon 55-200mm vibration reduction zoom lens, and you'll be right at your budget.

Later on, save up a few more pennies and get the $200 Nikon 35mm1.8 prime lens for excellent low-light / low depth of field shots.
posted by The Deej at 1:38 PM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd get a Canon Rebel T2i.

It's a great camera, with photo quality that is literally identical to much, much more expensive cameras (ie. the 7D or T3i). Also, you've got Canon's massive selection of lenses to choose from (something you won't get from Sony or Pentax).

Why not the recently-released T3i? The T3i has the same exact "guts" as the T2i with a few ergonomic improvements, and currently sells for quite a bit more than the T2i. It's a good opportunity to snag a bargain, and spend the difference on lenses.

When you say that you shoot mostly landscapes, do you mean to say that you don't zoom much? Because, if so, the 18-55mm IS kit lens that comes with the camera is actually quite good at wide angles. It's nicely paired with Canon's 55-250mm IS lens for those times when you want to zoom.

Also, buy the 50mm/1.8 Prime lens if you can. It's a cheap and handy lens that's sharp as a tack. Also works well in extremely low light, thanks to the huge 1.8 aperture. A 35mm 1.8 prime is also a good addition to your collection (although I must admit that Nikon's got a better/cheaper equivalent).

Generally speaking, zoom lenses with a massively wide zoom range are not very good. "18-200mm" sets off all sorts of alarm bells in my head. There's a chance it might be OK, but odds are that you'd be better off with two or three lenses to cover that range.

Neither of these are precision optical instruments, but should get you on your way quite nicely. They'll both be a million miles better than a point&shoot. Eventually you'll want to replace the 18-55mm, but many folks find it to be "good enough." I still can't bring myself to replace mine, because it really does offer a tremendous bang for the buck. There's sadly not much of a "happy medium" for "standard zoom" lenses.

On the other hand, there are lots of great telephoto lenses out there, and there's almost certainly an option to suit your budget. I've got the 70-200/4L lens, which is a beast and a beauty. If you find yourself shooting lots of telephoto (and not needing IS), it's the cheapest "ridiculously good" lens that you can buy. Might be a good thing to someday aspire towards. Lenses generally hold their value very well, so you can often "trade up" without taking too much of a hit. I was apprehensive about spending so much on a lens until I downloaded my first set of shots taken with it -- the optical quality is amazing.

When buying a lens, get the biggest maximum aperture size you can (this nomenclature is somewhat confusing -- a small f-number corresponds to a large aperture. f/1.8 is much larger, and lets in far more light than f/5.6). When you see a lens advertised as "18-55mm f/3.5-5.6," it means that the aperture opens up to f/3.5 at 18mm, but can only go as far as f/5.6 at 55mm (with everything else being somewhere in between). The minimum aperture (ie. the highest f-number that a lens can do) isn't all that important.

ISO sensitivity is a big deal. A good camera will let you crank up the ISO (to take shots in low light) without adding too much noise to the image. It doesn't matter if your camera can go to ISO 12,000 if the image ends up looking like a broken TV set. It's all about how noisy the images are at high ISOs. Fortunately, most current entry-level DSLRs excel in this department, even at ISO 1600. Micro 4/3 cameras tend to do less well here, but are still a far cry better than they were when the 4/3 system was introduced.

Let me know if any of that was confusing :-P

I'm sure that somebody will be along shortly to give you Nikon's side of the story.
posted by schmod at 1:41 PM on July 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

Canon and Nikon both make great SLRs and great lenses. Sony is sort of a new player and there's going to be a less robust used marketplace for Sony gear.

The best algorithm for picking among the major SLR manufacturers is: Find your friend with the largest collection of lenses (or SLR + disposable income) from which you can borrow, and buy the same brand they have. This is nearly infallible.
posted by 0xFCAF at 1:42 PM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, and if you are serious about landscapes, budget for a polarizing filter.

If you're really serious about landscapes, also start saving up for a Graduated Neutral Density filter. (It's how we did HDR in the old days)

And a copy of Adobe Lightroom.
posted by schmod at 1:47 PM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Agree with the Nikon/Canon crowd. Been shooting Canon for a few years and love it, but know quite a few dedicated Nikon shooters.

I'm sure you are aware, but I'll say it anyway - good lenses are very expensive. You mentioned that "Great Images" is one of your requirements. Really great images come (mostly) from the glass. A decent camera with a terrific lens will take better shots than a hi-end camera with a mediocre lens.

There are hundreds of review sites, but for quick info and comparisons, I like DP.

One other thought - check out LensRentals. Even if you don't rent (they rent both lenses and cameras), they have some very good insight into some of the lenses.
posted by johnn at 1:52 PM on July 13, 2011

Frankly, if your shots are all taken in mostly daylight (or bright light), any Nikon or Canon will do you these days (some of them shoot more frames per second than others, tho, so if that's a concern for action shots, you might pay attention to that).

The difficulties for any camera brand imho start with
1. low light
2. action shots in low light

If you don't shoot either of those things, you have about a bajillion choices. Ok not that many. But a lot.

I have been researching getting a new SLR for a long time. Snapsort is pretty good for comparison-ing. Currently I have a Canon 40d.

What I have discovered in my research so far is:

Canon - I like the dial/menus layout and big wheel on the back way better than Nikon's buttons-seemingly-everywhere layout.

Nikon - maybe I'm wrong, but from personal testing of borrowed units, I swear that even the Nikon d300's autofocus is way better than the Canon 5d Mk II (which is maybe 2x the price?). Nikon I think has a smaller 'new' lens selection, but I believe you can use really ancient Nikon lenses if you want because Nikon keeps compatibility going for a loooong time.

Obviously if I ditch Canon, I'll have to get all new Nikon stuff. Also remember that's there's the APS-C sensor SLR's, and the full-frame, and the lenses are not often interchangeable between the two.
posted by bitterkitten at 2:16 PM on July 13, 2011

Know that a big part of moving your digital photography to the next level will be in post-production. As others have said, you can't really go that wrong with a dSLR purchase—though I'd recommend buying something used: I just found a Nikon D3100 kit available in my area for five-something in cash; this would keep me satisfied for years—so go with what feels right in your hand and in front of your eye, and spend a bit of time researching digital workflows and doing a pro/con thing between Adobe's Lightroom and Apple's Aperture. They both integrate raw file management, photo cataloguing, and editing/correction into single pieces of software. They're a bit mind-blowing.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 2:24 PM on July 13, 2011

If you go for a Nikon DSLR, take a serious look at the 18-200 mm zoom (27-300 mm equivalent for a 35mm SLR). Like most wide-range zooms it has distortion at both ends of the range, but nothing that can't be edited out on your computer. And the combination of the large sensor and long battery life of a DSLR with the wide-range zoom is hard to beat. I have the 18-70 mm and 55-200 mm zoom lenses, and I'm hard pressed to think of any reason not to replace them with the 18-200, other than that I'm a few thousand miles away from my kit at present. Prime lenses are another matter: the 35 mm f/2 and 105 macro lenses each serve specific purposes.
posted by brianogilvie at 2:33 PM on July 13, 2011

bitterkitten: "Nikon - maybe I'm wrong, but from personal testing of borrowed units, I swear that even the Nikon d300's autofocus is way better than the Canon 5d Mk II (which is maybe 2x the price?). Nikon I think has a smaller 'new' lens selection, but I believe you can use really ancient Nikon lenses if you want because Nikon keeps compatibility going for a loooong time.

This could have to do with the lens. Some non-USM Canon lenses really suck at AF. The 50mm/1.8 lens I recommended is great, but has the most godawful AF motor that I've ever seen. Damned near useless in the dark. Despite being several stops darker, my 70-200/4L does better in low-light conditions.

Doesn't Nikon also have that weird thing where some lenses have motors, while others don't?
posted by schmod at 2:38 PM on July 13, 2011

schmod - can't comment on the motors vs. not (I know that newer vs. older lenses, some have been USM and some not, but I couldn't tell you which ones exactly/brands, Nikon or Canon)

However, I have had the 40d for about 4 years now, and despite having sent my camera to Canon 2 or 3 times - once with all of my lenses - for calibration.. I was still wowed by that Nikon when I used it in terms of autofocus.

The 5d Mk II I tested had the 1.4 on it.
posted by bitterkitten at 2:43 PM on July 13, 2011

If you go for a Nikon DSLR, take a serious look at the 18-200 mm zoom..

The 18-200 lens is indeed stellar. It's all I use besides my 35mm prime. However, the price tag of that lens alone will take the entire $1000 budget.

But I agree, if you go Nikon, put that one on your wish-list.
posted by The Deej at 2:53 PM on July 13, 2011

Doesn't Nikon also have that weird thing where some lenses have motors, while others don't?

Yeah, older lenses won't focus (fine) or meter (lolwut) on the entry-level Nikon bodies. Long story short, this problem is an artifact of how Nikon got into autofocus in a piecemeal way - compare with how Canon suddenly switched to EOS in one fell swoop.

Compare this flaw with the tremendous lens flexibility of not only the Canon bodies (any EOS glass, plus many third-party adapters for other lens mounts), but also the Pentax bodies, which will meter just about any K mount glass. You can get great deals on old K mount glass...

That said, the Nikon "cripplecam" problem isn't that huge of a deal - I mean, how many lenses were you planning on buying, exactly?


Also, the Canon 5D2's autofocus system does, indeed, stink in comparison to the comparable Nikons, although it's hardly *that* bad. It's just unchanged since the 20D or 30D or whatever, and it has what, a single cross-type AF point? Thbbbt. Anyway, every other Canon model has terrific AF, I bet the 5D3 will have terrific AF.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:08 PM on July 13, 2011

Go with Nikon or Canon unless there's a compelling reason look at others. Both brands are supported far more than others in everything from the availability of tons of used and new lenses to online support communities.

I have on my lap at this moment a photo I shot with a Nikon D7000 at ISO 3200 in horrific lighting conditions. The D7000 is out of your price range, but the "within your price range" D5100 uses the same imaging chip.

This photo is a full page in a nicely printed magazine. This is the kind of thing you can do with current cameras with great high ISO capability along with good technique. As someone who has been a full time photographer since 1976, I can't emphasize enough the doors now open for great low light photography with today's DSLR cameras.
posted by imjustsaying at 5:45 AM on July 14, 2011

Nikon or Canon. If you have any friends who shoot and would be willing to lend you a lens on occasion, get whatever they got.

Sticherbeast: "I mean, how many lenses were you planning on buying, exactly?"

...planning? I didn't plan to buy any of them, they just show up magically when I lust after them.
posted by chairface at 1:11 PM on July 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

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