What entry level DSLR + prime lens to get?
May 21, 2008 7:57 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to get an entry level DSLR with *only* a basic prime lens for under $600. Is this doable?

My wife and I own a crummy Pentax P&S, and we would like something better. She has shown a pretty good eye for photography, so I'd like to get her something to help her develop her skills. Most of our shots are of people, in low light conditions and with moving subjects.

I've been thoroughly convinced that getting a fixed focal length lens is the way to go when moving into DSLR, and just avoiding the kit lens if at all possible. So my question is what DSLRs should we look at getting, and are there any nice combo deals that have just the body + 50mm prime lens we should look at? Is this possible to get while staying under roughly $600?
posted by rsanheim to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (33 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I love my Panasonic Lumix FZ20. I got it for $299 on amazon.com a few years ago. I'm sure that there are newer Panasonics to consider, but I wanted to throw the name out there so it doesn't get lost among all the Nikon and Olympus and Canon recommendations.
posted by willmize at 8:02 AM on May 21, 2008

Did you not like the Pentax brand? Cause the Pentax istDL 6.1MP might fit the bill....
posted by Grither at 8:05 AM on May 21, 2008

Regarding willmize's suggestion: The FZ20's good, but it's not an SLR.

You don't actually want a 50mm - you probably want a 28 or 35mm or so lens on most DSLRs, in order to be a normal lens. (Non-expensive SLRs have a 1.6x crop factor, unless it's 4/3rds, in which case it's a 2x factor.) A 50mm would be a modest-length telephoto. My own standard kit I carry around is a Canon Rebel XTi ($530 right now, or so) and a 35mm f/2 lens that cost me $230.

For keeping things under $600 and having a normal prime on a DSLR, you may be SOL. The Olympus 420 has a kit with the 25mm pancake (eg, a normal), and it's a pretty good very-small package, but it's $700 for that deal.
posted by Tomorrowful at 8:08 AM on May 21, 2008

I see the motivation for a prime lens based on your question. As Tomorrowful says, you probably want a 28 or 35 for a "normal" perspective. A 50 on a DSLR equates to about 80mm on a 35mm camera, so it's a short telephoto. However, I love my 50mm, because it is a short telephoto. It's perfect for spontaneous low light portraits. But you can't really do group shots, and a lot of times, you'll be backing up into a wall if you want to get 2 or 3 people in a shot. So my suggestion would be to get both (get one today, get the other as you can afford it).

It's very doable to keep it under $600. Watch sites like techbargains.com and slickdeals.net, good prices come up every few weeks. You could get a Nikon D40 or a Rebel XTi for that price, I'm almost certain.

Even if you just wander over to Amazon right now, you can get the Nikon D40 (with a kit lens, which you could sell if you want) for $479. Nikon's 50mm f1.8 (awesome lens) goes for about $100.
posted by knave at 8:15 AM on May 21, 2008

Best answer: $600 is pretty easy now.

Canon XT body-only: $377.73
Canon XTI body-only : $529.65
Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens: $84.99
posted by smackfu at 8:17 AM on May 21, 2008

I'll second the Canon Rebel XTi. With the standard kit you get a 18-55mm lens, which is great for entry-level experimentation and learning.

It's selling for $650 new on Amazon, though you could probably do better.
posted by justincone at 8:19 AM on May 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

I just realized I should caveat my comment. The D40 doesn't have an autofocus motor in it, so if you want autofocus, you need to get lenses that have a focusing motor in them (Nikon calls these lenses AF-S). If you put the 50mm f1.8 on a D40 body, you will always have to focus by hand, because it's not an AF-S lens.

I'm not a Canon guy, but for the budget photographer, the Rebel XTi might be better bang for the buck. Someone else will weigh in, I'm sure.
posted by knave at 8:20 AM on May 21, 2008

Tomorrowful has it right.

You might try used.
Canon Digital Rebel (the Original)
24mm 2.8 lens (um, along with a cheap ass camera)

The 24mm lens is not an amazing one, but it's pretty good. I use it with my 5d after figuring out its weaknesses. Mostly just don't shoot wide open with it.

Pentax is making some really good cameras, but getting a prime lens and body for under $600, I'm not sure that's going to happen.

You don't want a 50mm. Read up on sensor size. It makes lenses act like longer lenses. You want something in the 24-30mm range.
posted by sully75 at 8:22 AM on May 21, 2008

(Sorry, accidentally submitted prematurely.) I was going to ask why, specifically, you don't want the kit lens? What advantage is a fixed focal length lens giving you?
posted by justincone at 8:22 AM on May 21, 2008

Just to reiterate-you don't want a 50mm lens. At least not as your only lens. It's the equivalent of a 75mm lens on a full frame camera. Nice for portraits but for your only lens, not cool.
posted by sully75 at 8:23 AM on May 21, 2008

The Nikon D40 kit is a great deal these days, however the 50mm f/1.8 does NOT autofocus on the D40 or D40x. D50, 70, 80, 200 will do it.

Canon and Nikon are roughly equivalent in the price range you describe, try going to a nice camera shop and handle and shoot with each of them, or rent an outfit to see how you like it.
posted by iamabot at 8:24 AM on May 21, 2008

Most of our shots are of people, in low light conditions and with moving subjects.

Justincone, I think they want a prime because it's the cheapest way to get a 'fast' lens. I'd say try out as much crap as you can, surely one of your friends has a DSLR with a lens that will show you what a 50mm and a 28mm or 35mm lens would look like in everyday use.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 8:25 AM on May 21, 2008

I'm going to add more love for the Canon XTI.

I have no technical knowledge or artistic ability when it comes to photography, so I got mine very much to learn with, and so far it hasn't disapointed me. I went with the Canon XTI after seeing it was the most used camera on Flickr, and several photography degree students including my Sister all praised it as an entry level DSLR.
posted by paulfreeman at 8:26 AM on May 21, 2008

Response by poster: Sorry all, I meant the 28/35 mm lens - not 50mm. I understand that 50mm translates roughly to 28/35 in digital.
posted by rsanheim at 8:29 AM on May 21, 2008

I'd look for a used Rebel (XT) and a used 28mm f1/8.
posted by chunking express at 8:48 AM on May 21, 2008

Pentax has the widest selection of primes of DSLR manufacturers. Unlike Canon & Nikon, all recent Pentax bodies add image stabilization to all lenses, including prime lenses. This will certainly help in low light conditions.

I would buy the kit lens as you would only save ~$30 by leaving it out and it would complement a 50mm prime used for portraits nicely. There are many cheap K-mount primes available second-hand.

Unlike Pentax' crummy P&Ss, their DSLR are very competitive.
You should be able to buy a K10D, K100D or K200D together with a prime for $600.
posted by Akeem at 9:07 AM on May 21, 2008

If all you want is a prime lenses, why get a camera that you can change lenses on? A couple companies make smaller cameras with all the power of a DSLR with a fixed, prime lens. The GR Digital II and the Sigma DP1 both have prime lenses, and the DP1's sensor is exactly the same as the on in Sigma's DSLR.

These cameras are smaller and you'll be able to take them with you and miss fewer shots. The Canon G9 is also a great camera, with most of the settings of a DSLR but it's got a zoom lens (rather then prime).

Tim Bray gave a talk about these 'portable DSLR-like' cameras (i.e. cameras with the portability of a point 'n' shoot, but the quality and configurability of a DSLR) but I can't find it online.
posted by delmoi at 9:15 AM on May 21, 2008

I really enjoy my Pentax gear but unfortunately, without the rebates, it's not possible to get a new (K100D) body + 50mm prime setup for under $600 right now.

If you're open to used gear, I'm getting ready to sell my K100D body. Email in profile if you're interested. You could easily do $600 with a used K100D and a new 50mm or shorter focal length lens.
posted by junesix at 9:17 AM on May 21, 2008

Canon Rebel is an amazing entry level for what you're looking for.
posted by PetiePal at 9:45 AM on May 21, 2008

The Rebel XTi really is impressive. And you may see its prices come down because of the newly available XSi.

Photos of mine taken with the XTi and a 28-135mm IS/USM
posted by disillusioned at 9:49 AM on May 21, 2008

The Sigma 20mm and 30mm f1.8 lenses are great for a value prime, especially if you do some legwork to find one used. I use the former for my primary lens and for the money I couldn't be happier.
posted by kcm at 9:54 AM on May 21, 2008

Not to echo everyone, but the Canon xti and the 50mm 1.8 are an unbeatable combo. Avoid the "kit" canon zoom lens - it is crap. Don't worry about image stabilization, crop factors, and all the jargony bits. Just go take pictures.
posted by gyusan at 9:56 AM on May 21, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the great info everyone.

Is it worth the $150+ jump to go from the XT to the XTi?
posted by rsanheim at 10:06 AM on May 21, 2008

Best answer: We've got the Rebel XT and the spendy Canon 50mm/1.4. Exclusively indoor, natural light baby portraits or portraits of person+baby, so the telephotoesque framing is actually a plus. I'm very happy with the results (bokeh!).

Moving people, in low light conditions - you can bump up the ISO, and the super bargain 1.8 is pretty fast. You'll be stuck with portrait like focal lengths on crop bodies though, which doesn't sound too bad for what you want to shoot, assuming you can get enough distance between you and your subject. This combo won't work very well at all from across a dinner table, for example, but will work very well for halfway across the room party candids.

Don't be too down on the kit lens. It's very capable given its cost and will take much better photos than most of us are capable. As much as I love my 50mm/1.4, it just wouldn't be that useful as a walking around lens. If value is on your mind, you won't do better than the kit.

If I were you, I'd get an XT, kit, and 50mm 1.8. That's plenty to keep you busy. Given the choice between a crop body and only the kit or only a prime - I'd pick the kit, cause while it won't compete well with the prime at the given focal length, the prime leaves you high and dry when you want to take another kind of shot.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 10:11 AM on May 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

echoing the poster above, take a look at the k100/200/10/20d from pentax.

i absolutely love the k100d. the sensor is really great, particularly for low-light shots (iso 3200 is usable and 1600 looks great). the price is really cheap too.

i say forgo the kit lens and grab the tamron 18-200 lens and the pentax 50mm f/1.4 prime.

that prime lens is AMAZING. i rarely need to use the flash when shooting with it.

i recommend b&h photo or amazon for your purchase, as well.
posted by kneelconqueso at 10:13 AM on May 21, 2008

delmoi, the GRII and DP1 really don't compare to a DSLR: slower write times, poor high-ISO performance (even with the DP1), etc. They are nice cameras, but they aren't an SLR replacement. They're like the digital equivalent of the Yashica T4: fancy point and shoots.
posted by chunking express at 10:23 AM on May 21, 2008

The Canon kit lens is actually pretty damn good. I sat through an entire lecture at college on lense comparison (can I say boooooooooring), and it very susprisigly came out on top even when up against much pricier lenses...
posted by neblina_matinal at 10:38 AM on May 21, 2008

neblina_matinal: Yeah, it's a pretty good lens, and overly-disparaged. But it's still far from fast, and that was one of the OP's criteria.
posted by Tomorrowful at 11:20 AM on May 21, 2008

The difference between the xt and xti will roughly translate pretty much only to being able to print larger photos. The xti has a bigger screen and a few other small, minor differences. IMO, if you want to print photo quality shots bigger than 8x10 or so, get the xti, otherwise save the money for the glass. And also, the 50mm 1.8 II is a great, inexpensive lens, but may be something to keep in mind for future purchases.

I would suggest going to a local camera shop and seeing if they will let you rent some gear for a day or two. That way you can rent both the xt and the xti, and maybe one or two different primes to see which ones you'd prefer. Some camera shops will deduct the price of the rental from the purchase price should you decide to buy one of the bodies and lenses that you rented. Even if you don't want to rent the gear first, go into the shops and ask to handle the cameras and lenses.

Also, keep in mind that bodies are always getting better and there's always a new model coming out that will be bigger! faster! better! than the one you buy. So you don't always need the top model body. But the lens will last through several generations of bodies.
posted by kirstk at 12:20 PM on May 21, 2008

I picked up a Rebel XT kit after Christmas for CAN$400. I've bought one prime lens, the 50mm 1.8 II, which is so high quality for the money that you're silly not to buy it. But as others have noted here, it's basically a zoom lens on this camera. I'll make do with these for now, but a 35mm or under prime will be my next purchase.

The XT is just a fantastic camera for the money. The sensor was way above average for its price point when released, and it has aged very well. The Xti/Xsi upgrades are more about fancy features than big image quality improvements.
posted by CaseyB at 1:57 PM on May 21, 2008

Another vote for getting a lightly used Pentax K100D or K200D. You can pick up well-built old manual focus Pentax primes on ebay for absurdly low prices these days. The in-camera shake reduction really is great in low light situations. Depending on how shaky you are to begin with you'll get a 1.5 to 2 stop improvement which can be a big help. Since it's built into the camera it'll work with any of those cheap primes you look at.
posted by sjl7678 at 2:18 PM on May 21, 2008

$600 is easily done as others have point out.

As far as the Canon vs Nikon talk goes, its like Pepsi and Coke, they are so similar it's just a matter of taste. For any entry level user, just your regular Joe Consumer, either camera you purchase will be great. Both are excellent for photography and you're not going to notice a difference.
posted by ozreiuosn at 3:51 PM on May 21, 2008

Best answer:
One good reason to go with Canon camera body is the plethora of online sites that rent Canon lenses. See: 8 Online Rental Stores Compared. (Nikon lenses are also available, but the number of choices and availability is far lower than with Canon lenses.) You can rent a really nice telephoto lens for 3-4 weeks for ~$100, including shipping.

I started with a Canon 300D (the original digital rebel) with the kit lens and then bought a 70-200 f2.8 L IS for sports photography. I left the 70-200 on the camera 95% of the time. Sometimes, when shooting people the 70mm (effectively 112mm with the 1.6 crop factor of the 300d body) was too cropped, but if I had room to get back it allowed me to zoom in close without being "in their faces". I was able to shoot action shots in VERY low light with this kit - often the shots were noisy, but I was able to capture shots that people with P&S cameras couldn't even hope to capture.

I now have a 1D Mark II (1.3 crop factor) with a 24-70 f2.8 L and 70-200 f2.8 L IS. I'm trying to use the 24-70 more, but still find myself shooting much more on the 70 end than the 28 end of this zoom lens. About the only time I end up on the 24mm end of this lens is to take a "group photo".

I think that you will find the nifty 50 (50mm f 1.8) to be an excellent lens for your needs, and with practice you will find the "telephoto" factor (making this lens work like an 80mm on a 1.6 crop factor body such as the XT and XTi) more of an asset than a detriment. 80mm is considered a portrait lens - so a perfect length for taking photos of people. :-)

Now to your body choice - the high ISO quality on the XT is actually better than the newer XTi. To shoot moving subjects in low light you will need to use high ISO (in order to have a fast enough shutter speed), and you will get better quality images from the XT. This saves you a few bucks you can apply towards buying or renting more glass. :-) You will also want to shoot in RAW (always!), and learn how to do noise reduction in software in the computer, rather than let the camera do it in-camera. You will get much better photos from processing the images yourself in photoshop, lightroom, breeze browser, etc. Learn how to process one image and then batch process the rest of the shots (taken in the same lighting conditions) with the same settings to speed-up the workflow.
posted by jcdill at 8:47 AM on May 22, 2008

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