DSLR on a budget: Buy an older high-end or a newer low-end camera?
December 16, 2013 6:47 AM   Subscribe

This blog post has inspired me take better photos of people without spending a fortune. For a given budget (let's say camera body less than $600) should I buy a current low-end DSLR (e.g. the Canon Rebel T5i) or watch eBay for a used higher-end DSLR from a few years ago (e.g. the Nikon D7000)?

Features I'd like:
- Great image quality (once I learn to get the best from it, of course)
- Decent low-light performance (most shots would be in medium lighting or better, dimmest would be restaurant lighting)
- Physically smaller (nice but not a dealbreaker)
- Usable design (I'll handle and test drive the camera before buying)

Things I don't care about:
- Touch screen
- WiFi
- Being embarrassingly old

Has camera technology advanced enough that today's low-end is better than 2011's mid/high-end? Are there any models in particular (either new or old) that I should be on the lookout for? Are there any considerations I've overlooked?

For what it's worth I already own a Sony RX100 point-and-shoot that I love for almost everything, but beyond its widest setting the lens gets very slow very quickly and I've struggled to take good impromtu portraits with the sort of shallow depth of field I'm after.
posted by teem to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (17 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
One clear advantage of the high-end cameras is build quality - a lot more metal vs plastic parts, and in some cases (the Pentax line, for example), much better moisture resistance (I wouldn't dunk my K-7 but I will shoot in the rain).

One difference that is arguably an advantage is that really high-end cameras use full-35mm-frame sensors. The larger sensor should mean better low-light behavior. OTOH be aware that you won't be able to use the cheap lenses shipping with low end DSLRs - these are designed to cover a much smaller area without distortion. OTOOH the lenses you can use will tend to be pro quality lenses.
posted by mr vino at 7:06 AM on December 16, 2013

I sent you a memail.

I have a Canon T3i that I am very happy with and I would recommend that line to anyone who is not a Nikon enthusiast (to a Nikon enthusiast, I would recommend they get a Nikon, since they might already have some lenses).
posted by AllieTessKipp at 7:16 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am using the cheap lens shipped with my DSLR and also a cheap telephoto and cheap macro lens. ;) I'm happy with all of them.

I am not a professional photographer, obviously. :)
posted by AllieTessKipp at 7:18 AM on December 16, 2013

The technology in cameras for the last few years is very very good so for your price you will really be limited by the lens. I'd spend less on the body and more on getting some good glass. If you don't care about video a used canon 5d mark 1 is a great pro level camera small ish and pretty cheap now.
posted by JIMSMITH2000 at 7:20 AM on December 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

I have been pretty impressed with the price and image quality out of the new Nikon D3200. I've been buying them for our new hires at work and they seem pretty nice, especially at the price point they inhabit.
posted by sanka at 7:26 AM on December 16, 2013

With the qualities you're looking for and the price range you're considering, have you considered a mirrorless body?

Here's what the Wirecutter has to say about the Sony camera I own. It's very small, very portable, image quality pretty well comparable to a DSLR, and you can swap lenses.

Walmart is evil, but you can get it online for under $400 after tax.

Higher end mirrorless cameras have even better specs, but that same compact design. The prices are in the same range as low end bodies for DSLRs. Just an idea to throw in!
posted by Old Man McKay at 7:27 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here's snapsort's take on the two cameras you mentioned. For me, I would always take the older high-end camera but if size is important to you, that could change things.
posted by starman at 7:29 AM on December 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

As another option, some of the "bridge" cameras (fixed lens with a large zoom range, body that looks like somebody shrunk a DSLR, full manual control) are quite good these days. I have a Panasonic FZ200 and I like it a lot. It's nearly as capable as a DSLR in most situations, is very versatile (it has a pretty great lens on it) and I can just grab it and go rather than fussing with lenses and such. I take more photos than I did back when I had a DSLR, and it's taught me a great deal. Just throwing that out there.
posted by Scientist at 7:42 AM on December 16, 2013

- What you generally get from more expensive tiers of camera are faster speeds (in autofocus and burst shooting), sturdier bodies, and more ergonomic manual control.

- When it comes to low-light performance, newer generations are generally better than older generations. I'm having trouble accessing it from the computer I'm on, but check out dxomark.com's camera sensor comparison to get a number behind the low-light performance of each camera you are looking at. Also, realize that you will reach the limits of any camera's low-light capabilities quickly and wish that you had just a bit better performance. (This is an area where lens investment can expand the potential of a camera's sensor.)

- I generally recommend allocating the bigger part of your DSLR-buying budget on a lens/lenses. Think of your camera system as a pipeworks of light: You can have the best sensor on the planet, but if you're shooting through a cheap lens, you're going to get a picture that looks like it was shot through a cheap lens. (i.e. A kit lens is shit in low light regardless of what body you put it on.) That said, something with a wider aperture (f/ lower number) will allow you to shoot easier in lower light (as would something with vibration reduction, if not built into the camera body). Higher quality glass is going to have less distortion and can achieve better sharpness and more accurate color — which is also important in low-light photography. BEST PART about the lens investment though, is that in a year when new bodies can shoot even better in low light ... You'll be able to upgrade and keep your lens. That's the whole point of buying a DSLR.
posted by pokermonk at 7:53 AM on December 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

The differences between a 2 or 3 year old camera and a current model like the T5i are much smaller and less important (for the most part, for most people) than the differences between that 2 or 3 year old camera and the cameras that were 2 or 3 years old when it was released. At your price point it really comes down to which feels more comfortable in your hand and most intuitive to use. You should also consider what kind of lenses you'd like to use in the future, but this is less important with the Nikon D7000 as it isn't limited to lenses with internal focus motors like the lower-end Nikon models are. But still, while Canon and Nikon's lens lineup is for the most part very similar as far as focal lengths and prices go, there are a few exceptions.

In any case, the body is much less important than the lenses you mount on it.
posted by Venadium at 7:56 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

One note about that blog post: I would strongly recommend buying a 35mm prime lens first instead of a 50mm prime. On a cheap DSLR with an APS-C-sized sensor, 35mm will be a much more versatile focal length than 50mm. The good news is that there are about about as many quality, fast, low-priced 35mm primes as there are 50mm.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 8:03 AM on December 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'd recommend a newer low-end DSLR based on the fact that you have stated a preference for a smaller body and for something that is easier to use. Many newer models, particularly at the lower end, have excellent guide modes which teach you the basics of photography.

I went for a Nikon D3100 as my first upgrade from point and shoot around 3 years back and haven't regretted it for a second. That model has been replaced with the D3200 which is similarly excellent. I went for the Nikon purely because I preferred the controls and menu system when I tried the options out in the store. I'd definitely recommend doing the same; get to grips with both the Canon and Nikon models, see how they feel in your hand, navigate the menus, and choose which one feels best. Whichever you go for will be an excellent piece of kit.

Finally, I want to add my voice to those advising you that a good lens is the best way to get good low light performance. I bought a Nikon 50mm F1.8 as my first lens. It was affordable, great in low light, and forced me to think about the shots I was taking. If I had my time again I would have done what 1970s Antihero recommends and gone for a more versatile 35mm, but the message is that a fast-ish prime lens is going to be your best investment early on.
posted by jonnyploy at 8:15 AM on December 16, 2013

I own a D7000 and while I've moved up to higher end full frame cameras, I still use it as a very capable second body. Assuming the used one is in good shape, I'd have no reservations about recommending them to someone who wants a good DSLR in that price range. They're compatible with pretty much every Nikon lens out there and if you want to learn to shoot with manual control the dedicated aperture and speed wheels is great.
posted by Candleman at 8:18 AM on December 16, 2013

Generally speaking, you're betting off spending less on the body and making sure you're buying good quality lenses. A top of the line camera with a cheap low-quality lens is, in my opinion, a waste of money.

I'd go with the higher end older camera over a new Canon Rebel any day. The Rebel series is perfectly fine, but I found more difficult to user than the higher end cameras--the menus were harder to navigate, it was more difficult to shoot full manual, and I found the grip to be uncomfortably small for shooting for any extended period of time (this might not be a factor for you, however).

Higher-end cameras generally do not have an on-camera flash. Both the cameras you listed have on-camera flash, but it's something to keep in mind.

One of the cameras I use to shoot weddings is older than either of the cameras you listed (Canon 5D), but I have pro quality lenses.

Also, don't get caught up on megapixels.
posted by inertia at 10:26 AM on December 16, 2013

The reason I upgraded from a D40 to a D7100 (instead of the D7000):

- Anti-aliasing sensor.
- Megapixels don't matter - except when you're cropping.
- More AF points.

That's it.

The reason I upgraded from the D40 to the 7xxx series:

- Focus motor in the body of the 7xxx series makes it compatible with older AF lenses (as opposed to trying to use them manually, which is not completely pleasant with wildlife or other moving subjects).
- Those things I mentioned up there.

I think you would be quite happy with a D7000. I would probably hit up Adorama rather than eBay; you'll still get a great price but not have to worry about after-sale service. Their refurbished D7000s are selling for $639.
posted by Nyx at 11:14 AM on December 16, 2013

In case you didn't know, the smaller APS-C camera's, from Pentax in particular, out perform many full frame cameras. Example 1 / 2

Great low light performance, weather sealed magnesium allow body, stainless steel chassis, etc.

I would get a used K-5 or K-5ii from B+H or Adorama. Best performance and "bang for the buck".
posted by Leenie at 12:17 PM on December 16, 2013

Always get an older higher-end model, as opposed to a newer lower-end model!

I enthusiastically second the Pentax K-5 and its various younger brothers and sisters. Pentax makes the best value APS-C camera bodies.

They're just slightly smaller than most prosumer/enthusiast/whatever DSLRs, but only in a very well designed way. The weather-sealed build quality is through the roof - I can clean mine under a faucet, when it's paired with a WR lens. It natively mounts just about any K-mount lens ever made. The image quality (and low light performance) is basically as good as it gets in APS-C. It has built-in image stabilization. It does lens micro-adjustments. The user interface is IMHO as good as I've ever seen.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:36 PM on December 16, 2013

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