Help me get set up with a dSLR.
August 26, 2005 2:44 PM   Subscribe

Help me get set up with a dSLR.

I've taken pictures with a good "prosumer" camera for about 2 years now and want to graduate to a dSLR. A big part of my urge to go dSLR stems from DaShiv's beautiful photos and especially his use of depth of field in portraits. I also want to do low-light stuff like interiors and also dusk-in-the-city type stuff. So, I figure I need:

* a camera body -- probably an N70/70s/50 or a D20 or Rebel XL; and

* two lenses -- probably some all-around short zoom and then a really fast lense.

I'd really appreciate any suggestions, especially on the lense front. The camera reviews are easy enough to find and understand, but finding the best lenses at the right price seems a lot harder. Also, Nikon seems to have a much smaller selection of modern auto-focus lenses than Cannon, but maybe I am not looking in the right places.

I'd like to keep the whole package at about $2,000, but I could bump up to closer to $3,000 if it was worth it. I think I would lean toward putting money in the lenses rather than burning up money on the body (i.e., between the D20 and the Rebel), becuase I don't need a lot of the super high-end features like incredible frame-per-second rates.

posted by Mid to Media & Arts (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Certainly spend the money on the lenses, not the body. I don't know the Canon line, but something around the D70s price is what I would look at ($1000 for the body). That's what I got. Previously I had a Nikon F5 SLR and 5 prime lenses.

Nikon was my only option, but if you don't have any lenses your free to chose from among Canon or Nikon. I wouldn't stray outside those two (there are good cameras from the others like Minolta, Pentax, et. al, but their line ups are much smaller).

On the lens front I'd probably spend the money an a wide zoom (12-24), and maybe a 50 f/1.8 or 50 f/1.4 and a 105mm Micro/Macro. That's probably in the neighborhood of $2500 to $3000. I'd skip the kit lenses. But the possibilities are really endless.
posted by teece at 3:31 PM on August 26, 2005

I think for the body you are thinking D70/70s/50 or 20D or Rebel XT. Not those other numbers which are not numbers of any camera I am aware of.

I'd go with the Rebel XT personally. I have a 20D.

For a general outdoor lens: Sigma 18-200mm f3.5-6.3, about $400. For a general indoor lens: Tamron 28-75mm f2.8, about $400.

For your fast lens, go with a prime: Canon 50mm f1.8, about $100, or better, Canon 50mm f1.4, about $300 (if your budget will stretch that far, the 1.4 is definitely worth it). Another good fast prime lens is the Canon 85mm f1.8, about $325.

If you want to do any macro photography, check out the Canon 50mm f2.5 macro, about $250, which is decently fast (though not as fast as the f1.4, obviously) and can focus decently quickly; it'd make a decent substitute for the other 50mm lenses if you want to do any close-up stuff at all.
posted by kindall at 3:34 PM on August 26, 2005

and can focus decently quickly

For this read "focus decently close. It's a 2:1 lens, not true macro but you can get close enough with it for most things.
posted by kindall at 3:38 PM on August 26, 2005

Very recently, I bought a 350D (the Canon XT), said no to the kit lens, and instead bought the 50mm f/1.4 and the 70-200mm f/4.

Add to this a couple of B+W brand UV filters, and a polarizing filter, a remote control for the shutter and a spare battery, and that's your $2K US. My next lens will be the Canon 17-40 f/4 and then I'll be done for a bit.

I did a **lot** of research before purchasing the camera body. My choice boiled down to D70 by Nikon or XT by Canon, then choosing the most appropriate lenses. I chose the Canon because it was lighter, smaller - and the colours are more pleasing to my eye. Last, and least - the Nikon's sensor is only 6MPx whereas the Canon's is 8.

Good places to consult are,,, and Or you could do a search on Flickr by Canon or Nikon tags, and see which types of photos appeal to you more.
posted by seawallrunner at 3:38 PM on August 26, 2005

and can focus decently quickly

For this read "focus decently close." It's a 2:1 lens, not true macro but you can get close enough with it for most things.
posted by kindall at 3:51 PM on August 26, 2005

Get the 50mm 1.4 or 1.8 lens for your canon/nikon (both companies make a cheap 1.8 and more expensive 1.4 lens). That is the killer depth of field interior lens, and they're only $75 for the 1.8 and $300 for the 1.4.

Da5hiv shoots with a 85mm 1.2 high end prime which is about $1500 I think.
posted by mathowie at 5:46 PM on August 26, 2005

Yeah, the Canon 85mm f1.2L USM is $1500. It's nice but, IMHO, not $1000+ nicer than the one-stop-slower 85mm f1.8.
posted by kindall at 6:05 PM on August 26, 2005

One major drawback of the D50 (as opposed to the D70) is its lack of a depth-of-field preview. given your expressed interest in use of DOF in portraits, that might be a deal-breaker for the D50.

I generally use dpreview for my camera reviews and opinions, but I also enjoy ken rockwell's insights into d-SLRs.
posted by misterbrandt at 7:17 PM on August 26, 2005

I just feel like pointing out that with the crop factor of most DSLRs, a 50mm does what most 35mm photogs used an 85mm for. I have, and love, an 85mm f/1.8, but it's fairly redundant with a 50 f/1.4 on my D70s.

Also, if you need to save some cash, get the 50 f/1.8. It's generally a sharper lens, and much cheaper than the 50 f/1.4. In both makes, both lenses are great and tack-sharp, but the extra third stop is very expensive and not all that big a deal, and it actually comes at the expense of a very small loss in sharpness. Of course, I have the 50 f/1.4. I'm a gear freak, I guess.
posted by teece at 7:44 PM on August 26, 2005

I'd do the Canon D20 with the 17-40mm L series lens. The D20 takes awesome pictures with really low noise even at ISO 1600 and the L series lenses are the bomb and give you really sharp pictures. This'll cost you about 3g's.
posted by trbrts at 8:12 PM on August 26, 2005

Don't buy new. Photogs are dumping their D70's and 20D's like hotcakes all over the place. Try eBay,, etc., etc., etc.

Buying an SLR is like a marriage: once you start getting gear, you're pretty much stuck with the partnership. Choose wisely. Nikon lenses are superior in the wide angles, Canon's autofocus is (IMHO) superior in the D-series bodies.

I'm a Nikon guy making the (painful) switch over to Canon. I prefer Nikon's button layouts, even prefer Nikon's lenses, but in the end, full-frame sensors are of supreme importance to me, and should be to you, too. Nikon moves like a dinosaur when it comes to lens development, so when they introduced the DX line, they basically told everyone, "crop-factor is here to stay... live with it." Well sorry, Nikon, I don't want to live with it.

You know why? Here's why: ever try to do macro photography with a cropped sensor? "What's the difference?" you ask. About 30% smaller viewfinder, that's what. Manually focusing the D70 is painful. If you like low-light or macro photography, you're going to have to learn to focus manually, and that means no Nikon.

Fast lenses will only get you so far in really low light, though. You're going to have to bump your ISO, which means you want the cleanest possible sensor configuration possible... again, props to Canon. Their 1600 ISO shots on the 1Dm2 are simply gorgeous. Nikons go downhill rapidly after 800. That's a whole extra stop of glass you have to buy with Nikon that you get for free with the Canon. That's a shitload of money.

Canon's bread and butter has been big glass used in sports photography. There's a reason you see a sea of white lenses at the sidelines of most sporting events... pros who shoot fast need Canon's AF. Their D-bodies have more focus points than you can shake a stick at, which is great for predictive focus.

Like I said, though, fast lenses will only get you so far. If you want to shoot low-light, you're going to need some image stabilization. Here I think both manufacturers are pretty much in a dead-heat. I've used Nikon's VR system extensively, and it really is the cat's meow. But Canon's been doing IS for years and years now, and have a huge selection to choose from.

Sorry for the rambling nature of this post. Hopefully there might be a couple of useful tidbits for you to make a decision.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:26 PM on August 26, 2005 [1 favorite]

Oh, and as for lens selection:

Don't bother spending the money on the 1.4/1.2 glass. It's just not as important as, say, image stabilization or clean, high ISO. Do you have any idea how short your depth of field is at 1.4? Seat-of-the-pants DOF calculator in my head tells me about half a foot at ten feet. That means if your subject sneezes, or sees a friend across the bar, or moves at all, they're OOF. Learn how to use your camera before investing thousands of dollars into fancy glass. I mean, shit, for the price of a 85 1.4, you could get a 85 1.8, a SB-800 flash, a kick-butt diffuser and a flash bracket that will solve all your lighting problems, and still have money left over.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:32 PM on August 26, 2005

The reason canon's high-ISO looks better is that it performs noise reduction, whereas Nikon makes you do it yourself. Since you then get to control it, that makes Nikon's approach better IMHO.

My lenses are 18-70mm kit lens, 50mm 1.8 with extension tube (for macro work) and a second-hand 80-200mm 2.8 telephoto (about $150US).

Oh, once you've got the 50mm 1.8, you'll be wanting a tripod to suck up those beautiful night-time colours over a longer period. I like Manfrotto (Bogen in US?) because you can choose separate head and legs to suit.
posted by cogat at 8:40 PM on August 26, 2005

Thanks for the suggestions so far. I'm really embarassed that I mixed up the camera letter/number configs in the question, but you knew what I meant.
posted by Mid at 8:49 PM on August 26, 2005

Noise is not a problem for me. Yeah, a 1600 ISO D70s shot is noisy out of the camera, but I de-noise the RAW and then de-noise with PS CS2 if I need too, and the images are great and noise free.
posted by teece at 9:08 PM on August 26, 2005

All reasonable mainstream suggestions above, and nothing wrong with that. Here's some alternative thoughts:

* A large, bright, viewfinder is a pleasure and helps you concentrate on how you want to compose a picture. It's especially helpful if you want to get a good look at exactly what's going on with depth of field. After all, that's one of the essential features of an SLR. The cheaper DSLRs from Nikon and Canon (anything under $3000 or so, body only) are universally blessed with some of the worst viewfinders ever inflicted upon an innocent SLR-consuming public. Dim, small, low magnification. Pentax and Minolta are way better, but most folks don't realize this because the 'lesser' brands don't have anything like the marketing budgets of the big two. None of them offer a viewfinder comparable to a used, 20-year-old, $100 SLR from any brand. Have a look through a Pentax ist DS, if you're curious. Don't ever look through an old Nikon F3 unless you want to be blown away by how good an SLR viewfinder can be.

* Lots of people seem to want to compare the selection of lenses from each brand, as if completing an impressive collection is more important than taking pictures. Unless you have a very specialist need, any of the DSLR makers (and a couple of good aftermarket brands) have sufficient variety of lenses of good quality in all types - the rest is window dressing.

* Except fixed, fast, moderate wide-angles (the staple of many great photographers for decades), for which they all suck. Wide-angle zooms really aren't as useful as some might try to persuade, but fixed-length wide-angles aren't new, sexy and exciting to people in marketing departments. They are much smaller, lighter and quicker to use, less prone to flare, cheaper to make to a good quality and easier to design with a larger max aperture, however.

* It's interesting that f/2.8 and f/4 lenses are being advertised as "pro", fast, low-light lenses. They used to be the ones the amateurs could afford. The pro sports and and journalist photographers used the f/2 wides and the f/2.8 teles. Light hasn't got any brighter in the last generation. If you want to control depth of field - especially with the smaller sensors of DSLRs - now more than ever, the fastest lenses you can afford is the way to go. If that means getting the 2x or 3x zoom instead of the 4x (to get that f/2.8) it's a good choice.

* There are plenty of online review sites and forums full of very opinionated and tribal brand fans. There are plenty of folks shooting endless pictures of test charts and brick walls in order to demonstrate the supposed advantages of one lens over the other. Test reviews will analyse images from DSLRs at 400% (that's about an 4'-5' wide print) to try and distinguish which has the slightest edge in in some ambiguously defined and poorly explained notion of "image quality". The current reality, however, is that no DSLRs, are bad. They're all very good at making high quality images in any technical sense, and with the right operator will take wonderful pictures.

* Want really sharp pictures from anything but the nastiest DSLR lenses? Get a tripod.

* What the people who spend more time testing and comparing than making interesting pictures rarely talk about, however, is something even more important - the human interface to the machine. "Ergonomics", "handling", call it what you will. That's because it's something much more subjective and difficult to compare and define. Most DSLRs are little more than adequate interfaces to their functionality. The only way to determine the right one for you is to go to the shops and spend a good while trying them all. There are some surprising differences.

* How big a print are you ever going to want to make? Anything but the very cheapest and nastiest slow zoom lenses from the likes of Vivitar, Sigma, Phoenix will make very acceptable prints up to 10x8 from a DSLR. If the best possible resolution is your bag, then a scan from medium format film will beat them all easily.

* Manual focusing is easy. If you'd like to experiment with a large, cheap and interesting back-catalogue of good and affordable lenses, Pentax is the only realistic choice - all the others have either modified, crippled or completely changed their mounts, such that their old lenses are a pain to use or simply don't fit.

* Pentax-A 50mm f/2. Manual focus. Fully compatible with their DSLRs. One of the sharpest 50s out there (and everyone's is very sharp) and beautiful out-of-focus rendering as well. $60, new in box.

* Alternatively, consider buying one good lens that you think might suit you for starters (a 28mm, for a slight wide-angle on a DSLR, perhaps), and try getting as much from that as you can. By the time you decide you want more, you'll probably have a much clearer idea of what you want and have had time to save for the faster versions, as well.
posted by normy at 9:51 PM on August 26, 2005

all the others have either modified, crippled or completely changed their mounts, such that their old lenses are a pain to use or simply don't fit.

False. Nikon F-mounts haven't changed in almost 50 years. They've improved, certainly, and you can only use matrix metering if you upgrade your old lenses, but it can be done, it has been done, and that old quality glass they made will still work on your current camera.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:12 AM on August 27, 2005

Ack, I'm a bad influence!

normy's right on about Pentax/Minolta DSLR's having (relatively) great viewfinders -- the Nikon D70/D70s/D50 and Canon Rebel XT are simply wretched in that department. Having said that, it's not as big of a deal with autofocus as it would be with manual focus, but be prepared for a *very* rude awakening if you're used to a film SLR. I also wholeheartedly agree with him on another issue -- make sure to try out the cameras first to make sure that they "feel right" and go with your gut instincts on it. And your idea of one prime one zoom is tons more level-headed than mine when I started. :)

I try to buy B&H refurbs or used at on their Buy&Sell forum. Buying new (or eBay) is a last resort. There's an appalling number of well-heeled amateurs who keep their gear in pristine LNIB shape and sell for a significant discount over new on amateur/semipro sites like FredMiranda or Keep *everything* whether you buy new or used -- boxes, wrappers, etc. It makes selling them later a heck of a lot easier.

For bodies, definitely start with the lowest tier DSLR. Buy used, sell used, and you'll lose very little when you upgrade later (and you will, since DSLR's get replaced by new models quickly whether you start with a more expensive model or not). If possible, go to a store and try out the following bodies: Canon Digital Rebel XT (not the old Rebel IMO, the XT is a very sizable performance upgrade), Nikon D50, Pentax *ist DS/DL, Minolta 5D, and Olympus E-300. I wouldn't go with the 20D/D70/etc simply because it's a larger commitment than you'd want to begin with. In terms of long-term system health, I'd put my money on Canon, Nikon, Minolta (Sony signed with them recently), Pentax, and Olympus, in that order -- and not to fan any flames, this is based purely on currently lens selection and number of recent body/lens releases. Each system offers something unique though, so be sure to play with all the different entry level cameras for a taste of it. Particularly noteworthy are: Olympus including a unique "dust buster" with all their bodies, and Minolta with their unique built-in anti-shake. Your own experience with the camera/lenses in your hands is far more important than anything you read on the net -- with the camera body, there's no substitute for hands-on if you can manage it.

Lastly, the biggie is lenses, and I can only speak with experience about the Canon system. My personal "short list" for anyone starting out with the Canon system would be to choose one or two (or more) of whatever appeals to you from the following list:

* Canon 17-40/4L
* Tamron 28-75/2.8 XR
* Sigma 30/1.4 EX
* Canon 35/2
* Canon 50/1.4
* Canon 50/1.8
* Canon 85/1.8
* Canon 70-200/4L

(Yes, I'm very biased in favor of medium-length primes!)

Those are all very popular lenses with very high price/performance ratios that you simply can't go wrong on. (I've tried them all and have kept the 30/1.4 and 70-200/4 as the ones that worked best for me personally, but they're all great lenses to choose from IMO.) Buy used, sell used, and don't worry if it turns out that a particular lens isn't one that happens to suit your style/needs. For me personally, it took buying/selling over a dozen different lenses until I finally "settled into" my current selection, and what you ultimately decide to keep may surprise you once you have the camera/lenses in front of you and a few thousand shutter actuations under your shutter finger.

Money spent on good glass is money well spent, but I can't overemphasize how important it is to buy used to minimize any losses -- in fact, in a couple of cases I've managed to jump on some nice deals and wound up eventually reselling for more than I paid for. The key to starting out with DSLR's is to experiment, be honest with what you actually use/need vs what's just a shiny toy, and simply enjoy the process.

Good luck!
posted by DaShiv at 6:58 AM on August 27, 2005 [5 favorites]

Just to balance DaShiv's Canon lens lineup with a Nikon group:

The most important lens for a cropped Nikon:
Nikkor 17-55 DX AFS f/2.8

It will cost a couple hundred more than the body. If you don't want to spend that much go with the next-best alternative for hundreds cheaper:
Nikkor 18-70 DX AFS f/whatever

The next most important lens is your mid-range tele. While the 85mm is a great lens, there are going to be more times than not that you'll want more reach, which leads me to:
Nikkor 70-200 VR f/2.8 (or 80-200 f/2.8 if you want to save a couple hundred)

I also recommend:
Nikkor 12-24 DX AFS f/4
Nikkor 35 f/2
Nikkor 85 f/1.4 (or 1.8 for less than half the price)
Nikkor UV 105 f/4.5 (when you win the lottery)
Nikkor Micro 105 f/2.8
Nikkor 200 VR AFS f/2 (amazing, amazing lens)
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:34 AM on August 27, 2005 [3 favorites]

Oh yeah, the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 is probably the cheapest good piece of glass you'll ever find.

I'd also like to add a Canon lens to DaShiv's lineup (one I've been salivating over for years now):

Canon 24mm TS-E f/3.5L
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:48 AM on August 27, 2005

This is all fantastic advice -- I'm going to need to print this and study it. Thanks tons, everyone.
posted by Mid at 10:15 AM on August 27, 2005

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