Please help me pick a DSLR
November 4, 2012 5:52 AM   Subscribe

Please help me pick a Canon or Nikon DSLR for close-up photography of small objects. I'd like to spend around $500 - $700 total. I need a body plus 1-2 lenses.

I know there are lots of Ask questions about DSLRs, and lots of information on different websites - I've spent several hours looking at Ask questions and searching via google. I'm having trouble wading through the volume of information out there, and I would like specific recommendations of a camera and 1-2 lenses.

I would like to get a Canon or Nikon, because I plan to have this camera for a long time and it sounds like they have the most extensive lens selections, which I may want in the future. I have a leaning towards a Canon, because I love my current Canon point & shoot.

I need one lens that is good for close-up photography, and I am also considering a more all-purpose lens (perhaps the nifty fifty?).

Here are three examples of the type of shots I take most frequently (these are for my blog). One, Two, Three. All of these photographs were taken with my Canon SX230 HS.

My priorities are that the camera is very color accurate and produces excellent close up photography (not really true macro photography, though, as I understand it). It would be great if it did well in lower light, but I usually have good natural light. I want it to be fully manually adjustable, and would prefer dials vs. going into a menu.

I do not need video capability. I rarely take videos, and I'm fine with the quality of videos from my point & shoot.

I can answer any other questions as they come up. Cheaper is better, but I want a camera that will last a long time and that I can eventually upgrade by getting better lenses.

I am willing to buy new, used, in person, online, etc.

Again, I'm looking for a recommendation of a specific camera model, there are SO many options out there that I'm very overwhelmed.
posted by insectosaurus to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (16 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
If you want accurate colour you must use a calibrated workflow, including photographing reference charts eg Gretag Macbeth, and doing screen calibration eg with Huey, and using colour managed editing software like Pshop or Lightroom etc.

Colour can be very good without calibration, but it is never right without it.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:57 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Honestly, both of these camera companies make great gear. Not inexpensive, although you can sometimes find deals on used stuff.

The best thing to do would probably be to rent or borrow a Nikon setup and take it out one weekend. Shoot a million photos. Put it through its paces. Then do the same next weekend with a Canon setup. See which feels right to you. See which you like better as a whole.

Try to take some of the same shots from a technical standpoint (e.g., take an indoor photograph, shot at night, in the same place, with all of the same lights on, shot at the same aperture, exposure time, and ISO, with both setups.) This will give you a sense of how each performs under conditions as similar as you can make them.
posted by gauche at 6:07 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's hard to answer your question, since your budget will only cover the cost of the most basic level DSLR's, and this day and age, you can get results that are just as good in a nice point and shoot camera. The designs on the non-DSLR's have changed a lot over the last few years, and there are a lot of options which have a larger sensor and built in lens, which give you a DSLR like look in a smaller package.

The Canon rebel T3 is $500, add on the nifty 50 for another $100, a memory card and tax, and you're already at $700.

If you're open to buying used, you can get a little more bang for your buck, and you may be able to find something like a t2i.

Unfortunately, when it comes to lenses, if you're looking at anything other than the 50mm 1.8 or the kit lens, you're looking to spend several hundred dollars at least, and that's for the cheaper lenses. In your budget there really isn't room for that.

The good news is that the image quality from the cheap 50mm is really good. There are some negatives with it, the main one for me being the auto focus isn't fantastic, but for the type of photo's you are doing, that won't be an issue, since you can manually adjust it yourself without having to worry about the subject moving.

If you can get a t2i with the kit lens and the 50mm for $700 I think you'd be in a good place to get going.
posted by markblasco at 6:29 AM on November 4, 2012

I can't help you directly (my DSLR is a Pentax), but I do have a recommendation for dealing with
there are SO many options out there that I'm very overwhelmed.
I've found that, at least within the "Canikon" duopoly, Wikipedia is very useful for getting my head round the structure of their DSLR product ranges. Specifically, look at

Comparison of Nikon DSLR cameras

Comparison of Canon EOS digital cameras

Each of these pages contains

1. A big table of camera model vs. all kinds of specifications (megapixels, weight, ISO range etc.), which can be dynamically re-sorted by any parameter you choose, and

2. (more useful in my opinion) a timeline at the bottom of the page which plots time range (introduced / retired) vs. category (flagship professional to entry-level). This gives a very good overview of which models supercede each other and how the current line-up relates to any second-hand models you might find.
posted by pont at 6:32 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Re: lenses, Wirecutter just did a couple of pieces on the first lenses to buy for your Nikon or Canon setup; you might find some recommendations appropriate for your needs there:

The First Canon Lenses You Should Buy
The First Nikon Lenses You Should Buy

You might consider a used camera, especially since you don't need video capability. There are lots of cameras out there from a few years back that still take great pictures, and buying used would leave a few more dollars in your pocket to spend on a good lens.
posted by sriracha at 6:37 AM on November 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: I am definitely open to buying used, and I can increase my budget up to around $1000 if needed.

Thanks for the answers thus far!
posted by insectosaurus at 6:39 AM on November 4, 2012

The Nikon D3200 is amazing value for this kind of work... A stunning super high resolution sensor in a cheap but well formed body. This little article might give you some reasons why

Lens wise I'd look at getting a 2nd hand manual focus lens... The Tamron 90mm macro is an excellent lens that can be picked up cheaply. Most DSLR's off excellent quality nowadays especially at base iso so I'd put as much as of your cash as possible into lenses as you can...
posted by Mr Ed at 7:02 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Pick any of the DSLRs within your budget range sold by either manufacturer. They're all perfectly adequate for beginners. What you should do is go to a store and actually handle the camera you plan to buy: Any of the DSLRs made by Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony are pretty much more than adequate for a beginner's needs. What you need to do is make sure you're getting adequate support equipment: tripods, lenses, etc. I second the recommendation for the Tamron 90mm macro; I have one and I've taken some fantastic macro images with it.

Point is, try what you want, but any camera by those brands will treat you just fine.
posted by Strudel at 7:07 AM on November 4, 2012

Again, I'm looking for a recommendation of a specific camera model, there are SO many options out there that I'm very overwhelmed.

I'll just cut to the chase. For under $600 get the excellent Nikon D5100 with 18-55 kit lens included.

That will do everything you will need to do for many years to come.
posted by The Deej at 7:44 AM on November 4, 2012

For what it's worth, turning a cheap 'kit lens' into a macro lens (what you'll need to get really close up) is surprisingly easy:

Used, the Nikon 105mm f/2.8 hasn't disappointed, although it can have some trouble auto-focusing. Make sure to test it before you buy, no matter what condition the seller says it's in.

Camera-wise, the Nikon D70 is a couple generations old, but has a faster flash sync than virtually anything else on the market that can be bought today. This is important for controlling light, although not absolutely essential for every type of photography.
posted by chrisinseoul at 7:48 AM on November 4, 2012


Okay, so this sounds like YOUR FIRST DSLR.

In my experience, we've come so far with the technology that there are basically two things intrinsic to the camera that will determine how good your photos are.

1. How big your camera sensor is.

The size of the camera sensor affects how good it is in low light conditions.

You can only afford an APS-C so that's easy. Fear not! This is still waaaay bigger than anything you've used so far. It will be many years before you outgrow this sensor size. It's worth keeping in mind the cropping factor that smaller sensors impose on lenses - your 30mm lens will behave like a 50mm, etc. Also, some lenses designed for smaller sensors won't work on cameras with bigger sensors.

2. How good your lens is.

The range of available lenses is what should drive your manufacturer choice. The wirecutter links above are great places to start.

BAD NEWS: Lenses are incredibly expensive.

GOOD NEWS: Obsessing too much over lenses is for kit nerds*. If you pick a camera with a kit lens in the 24-70mm range, it too will be a long while before you outgrow it.


Okay, so now what? and have removed all of the uncertainty involved by creating really simple comparison charts for most cameras and bits of equipment.

However, you don't learn a lot of useful things from staring excessively at a chart. (And, frankly, the site is a bit obsessed with new gear. For any given gear you find, you should google it for reviews. Some lenses turn out to just not be worth it; sometimes it's worth getting the previous year's model.)

So, here's an example Canon build (only because I'm unfamiliar with Nikon):

A will serve you perfectly well and you can use the money savings to pick up - which everyone should own because it is cheap and great (or splurge for a (but look up reviews!, I just picked that one from the list))

This is based on research I made last year, so you might get a better deal.


*re: OBSESSING IS FOR NERDS, this is because there are two essential rules to photography:

1. The best camera is the one you have on you [which is less relevant as you want to do product/close up photography but]

2. 90% of a photo is lighting.

Your current camera, frankly, seems pretty okay!

You will see far greater improvements by investing in lighting rather than gear. Lighting is hard. Lighting is also not cheap. I can't help you there because I haven't had the time or money to figure this one out yet.


FINALLY, you absolutely must take seanmpuckett's advice. Use colour charts, and you have to edit your photos. Add Lightroom 4 to your shopping list.
posted by pmv at 9:45 AM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Are you sold on Nikon and/or Canon? I ended up getting a Sony dslr and it has been great. The lens selection isnt as comprehensive as those two, but they offer a wide spectrum. Plus the in camera stabilization keeps the lens price down...
posted by burlsube at 10:25 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd recommend either the Canon 600D or the Nikon D3200 - there's very little difference between them. They both have good quality sensors, and both have Live View, which can be very handy for tripod work. Canon have a 50mm macro lens and Nikon have a 40mm macro lens, both for under $300. I think that either pairing would suit you just fine.

What I would highly recommend is buying a decent tripod. It makes close-up photography so much easier and more pleasurable, and allows you to really carefully define and compose your shots. It's also often very exhausting refocusing with macro photography, as your depth of focus can be very slim. Keeping the movement of the camera steady takes one headache-inducing part of the equation away.

In terms of colour management: if your shots are for print, I absolutely would immediately go out and buy an quality monitor and printer profiling solution. However, if you're shooting for the web, you're going to be at the mercy of other people's monitors. While it's worth making sure your images are as good and accurate as possible, other people are going to have their colours shifted substantially, and there's nothing you can do about it. Just make sure you shoot RAW files and spend a minute or so correcting the white balance in Photoshop Camera Raw or Lightroom. Buy a grey card and look up on Youtube how to use it. I recommend looking into a monitor calibrator like the X-Rite i1Display Pro eventually, but don't let not having it keep you from doing anything at the moment.
posted by Magnakai at 12:22 PM on November 4, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks all. I do color correct my photos, but I use Picasa - I just downloaded a trial of Lightroom which I am guessing will be a huge improvement! And I bought a color chart / card.

I do want a DSLR - for one thing, the max aperture on my camera is 3.1, and I frequently find it too small. I will be looking in to all the suggestions listed!
posted by insectosaurus at 7:18 PM on November 4, 2012

Have you considered extension tubes? You can get a decent set for a lot less than the price of a new lens, and they give you a huge amount of flexibility for close-up/macro work.

Example pictures here

Kenko make good ones that are very reasonably priced.
posted by Combat Wombat at 4:56 AM on November 5, 2012

I also got a Sony DSLT ... the Electronic ViewFinder is a love it or hate it kinda thing, and its well worth trying to see if you love it or hate it. I love it personally.

2oh1 posted a comment on a question of mine here that convinced me to give it a try, and I've loved it since.
posted by Admira at 1:09 AM on November 7, 2012

« Older New selvedge jeans dye rubbing off?   |   Any good election viewing at any bars/restaurants... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.