Help me find a good older model DSLR
December 26, 2013 3:01 PM   Subscribe

Hi all. I'm thinking of upgrading my camera from a bridge/superzoom to a proper DSLR. My budget is pretty small and it's likely to see some pretty rough use, so I probably don't want to get anything new. I think I have a pretty good idea of my requirements, but navigating the world of obsolete DSLRs is a bit complicated for me so I would appreciate your recommendations.

OK, so for the last year or so I've been using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200 for nature/vacation photos, specimen photography (I am a herpetologist and take pictures of my frogs) and general picture-taking duties. Mostly I love it – it's capable, versatile, not too big, and didn't cost a fortune. However, I've been coming up against the limits of its performance (mostly determined by its tiny sensor) more and more and I've recently decided that I would probably be better served by picking up a DSLR that's one or two generations out of date, plus a couple of basic lenses.

I'm familiar with the major camera review sites, but they tend to be pretty fixated on the latest-and-greatest models, so it's a little hard to figure out which camera is going to be my best bet given my budget and willingness to buy obsolete and/or used. That, hopefully, is where y'all can help me.

What I'm looking for is something relatively inexpensive that will give me the low-light performance and low-noise photography that the larger sensors on DSLRs provide. Ideally it should be on the smaller/lighter end of the DSLR spectrum as it's going to get humped around a lot inside of a backpack (though performance is more important than size/weight) and it would be nice if it were environmentally sealed since it's going to spend a lot of time in pretty rough places. It also should be able to take continuous 1080p video and have live preview so that I can frame my shots through the LCD rather than the viewfinder if I wish to do so. Anything 12MP and up is fine for my purposes.

I'm hoping for a camera that can be had in good used condition for $450 or less including a basic macro and zoom lens, also in good used condition, but I'm willing to expand that budget if it's unreasonably restrictive. I imagine that I probably want a Canon or Nikon as they seem to have the best lens selection and generally the best build quality and photo quality overall, but I don't have a preference for either of those two brands. I am also open to buying a current-model camera if it fits my budget and is better in some important respect than the previous models.

I think that that pretty much sums up what I'm looking for; this would be a pretty easy question for me to answer were it not for the fact that I'm primarily interested in obsolete cameras. If I've inadvertently left out anything important, please let me know as I will be watching this question and will be happy to provide further information upon request. Thanks very much, as always, for your excellent advice.
posted by Scientist to Technology (13 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I have a Nikon D90 that I like a lot, and it fits most of your requirements. There's one available used on B&H now for $339 (for just the body). It is 12.3 megapixels and has good (for when it was released) low-light performance (that's one of the areas that's improved hugely in recent years). The video it takes is only 720p, though, so it falls short of your requirements in that area. Add a half-decent prime lens or an 18-55 kit-lens-level zoom (not both) and you're just about up to your $450 budget. That would be my recommendation, but there may be another camera that fits what you want better.
posted by matcha action at 3:24 PM on December 26, 2013

I had a Canon Rebel XTi for years and loved it. You could probably pick one up used on ebay for a couple hundred dollars on ebay. The kit lens isn't bad either.
posted by kdern at 3:37 PM on December 26, 2013

I suggest the Canon T1i or T2i (heck any of the Rebel T(x)i's will work). The family of camera bodies accepts all Canon camera lenses, and will suit your requirements for low light, resolution and versatility.

I would recommend that you look beyond the camera body and focus instead on the lenses. As matcha action mentioned above, the Nikon family is very good as well. You will hopefully buy a lens only once, whereas bodies will continue to evolve (and how!) over time with additional features that you may (or may not) want.

You can't go wrong with Canon or Nikon. Both camera families offer a very wide range of lenses, from the good-amateur to the professional. I recommend spending more money on the lenses than on the bodies. I made some mistakes when I bought my first DSLR, I purchased lenses that were recommended to me that I did not use much (the 50mm f/1.4 and the 70-200 f/4) In due time I purchased the lenses that I use and love, and went through two other bodies before settling on the ones that I now have (the Canon 5D Mark II full sensor, and the Ti1 which is a crop sensor).

You will have little trouble finding a body that suits your budgetary requirements if you look for the 'older' body in a series (such as the T1i or T2i in the Rebel family). You will also find that lenses hold their value year after year. The lenses that I bought in error were resold a year later with scant loss to the purchase price. The body that I had bought (the Rebel XT at the time) was so devalued that instead of selling it at less than 30% of the price that I paid for it, I decided to keep it and getting a mod for an infrared sensor instead.

I hope you find the body that you need. Go with a firm that offers a wide range of lenses, that will suit the photography adventures that you will embark on.
posted by seawallrunner at 3:42 PM on December 26, 2013

Canon's image sensor hasn't changed much from the T2i to the T5i. That series is small and relatively light for a DSLR and is likely to hit the sweet spot of price performance. Canon sells a refurbished T3i with lens and one year warranty for $479. That price isn't great, but Canon has a loyalty program where you can return any broken Canon camera for 20% (or almost $100 off). You can easily find broken cameras for little or no money.

You can probably do better price-wise (without warranty) on eBay, but less than $400 is not a bad price for an SLR, lens and 1 year warranty.
posted by cnc at 4:52 PM on December 26, 2013

You should check out a Pentax, especially a K5 or its successor the K5II. Excellent low light, weather sealed (including the lens (some of them), nice and light in spite of the metal chassis. Now that the new flagship K3 is out, the K5/K5II prices are dropping and there are more about as people trade up.

Unless you are a pro/have money to burn/have VERY specific needs, the Pentax lens range, with the 3rd party suppliers, will more than likely be all you want. However, this is something that only you can determine. Note, there is a hell of a lot of legacy glass for Pentax - the basic K-mount has been around for 20 or 30 years, and any lens made for a K mount will work on today's cameras (I think the only feature that doesn't work on every K-mount is the power zoom function, although it does work on my K5)

Good hunting!!
posted by GeeEmm at 5:49 PM on December 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

I have a Nikon D90 that I like a lot -It's not weather sealed.

I suggest the Canon T1i or T2i - Neither of these are weather sealed.

Canon sells a refurbished T3i with lens - Also, you guessed it, not weather sealed. Lol.

Unfortunately, Scientist, you are coming up against a limitation for askme retail recommendations - people just recommend the thing that they have (and very few people have experimented with more than two brands of camera).

On the one hand, this is a testimony to how great DLSRs generally are. On the other, it's hard to get an objective opinion.

To answer your question, the cheapest weather-sealed cameras going recently are in the Pentax line. These use the exact same (Sony) photo sensors that are in Nikon's. And they generally (like the Nikon's) get a good rap for low light performance. I haven't owned a pentax for years, so can't personally comment. The K5 would come in under your budget.

Another word from a keen amateur photographer - don't obsess about Lens availability, and variety. Reality is, you can only have one lens on your camera at a time, and most kits never have more than 4 lenses. All the major brands have tonnes of lenses for every application you can think of, and that includes smaller players like Pentax, Sony etc. Don't get snobby about tamron and sigma lenses; they make some great lenses for every camera system.

The Olympus OMD is a small, weather-sealed camera that as a micro-four thirds is very portable and is also weather-sealed, but I think even a second hand one would be really pushing you budget-wise.
posted by smoke at 5:53 PM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Environmental sealing is a higher end feature in nikon & canon, and out of your price range unfortunately. Another vendor might be different, but you might want to relax your requirements a bit.
posted by TheAdamist at 6:35 PM on December 26, 2013

The size of the sensor has a huge effect on image quality. Not the pixel count, but the physical size of the sensor. I'd get an older camera with a full-frame sensor, like a Canon 5D Mark I (the current model is the Mark III). I use prime lenses not zooms, because I care about low light, love wide apertures for the ability to isolate planes with low depth of field, hate flash, and am capable of taking steps back and forward if required for framing. Good quality EF primes are readily available used. The ultra cheap 50mm 1.8 is actually a great lens, and I regret swapping it for the 50mm 1.4.
posted by w0mbat at 7:19 PM on December 26, 2013

2nding the Pentax for build quality vis-a-vis price - you certainly would get the same moisture seals & metal frame in a high-end Nikon or Canon, but not in the models that are price-competitive with the Pentaxes. Also, it's a minor point, but the Pentax anti-shake mechanism works by moving the image sensor, not by tweaking the lightpath at the lens. As a consequence, this feature works for legacy Pentax lenses.
posted by mr vino at 7:40 PM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm really liking the look of the Pentax K-5 II. More expensive than the K-5, but better autofocus would be worth it I think. It looks like my mental budget was a bit too small, which is a shame because it makes the whole endeavour less likely to happen, but at least I know what I want now. Now comes the much thornier question of lenses, but that's an AskMe for another week. If anybody has any ideas for how to get the best possible price on a good-condition K-5 II, I'd be very interested. Competing suggestions for other models are also welcome, of course.
posted by Scientist at 9:31 AM on December 27, 2013

I'm a pro who has used a lot of different cameras, and I'd go with something full frame like the Canon 5dmk1. The bigger sensor size will make more of a difference in quality than anything else. Slightly heavier than the plastic-y crop sensor cameras, but you can get the 40mm pancake lens or the 50mm 1.8, both of which are cheap and lightweight.
posted by bradbane at 11:17 AM on December 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Scientist, try the sale section of gear will generally be in good condition. I would avoid full frame, they are great cameras, but huge.
posted by smoke at 11:45 AM on December 27, 2013

I still love my Pentax k10, which is weather sealed and has solid glass for it. No video, and my only other beef is that real manual focus through the viewfinder is pretty much impossible, so when the autofocus gets fritzy, it's a bummer.

But given my experience with Pentaxes of this model (and a couple others I've shot on loan), I'd say that it's the best for reasonably-priced ruggedness.
posted by klangklangston at 3:39 PM on December 27, 2013

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