f-stop my heart
June 22, 2008 9:52 AM   Subscribe

DSLR recommendations anyone?

So I'm finally thinking about going the DSLR route and I'd like advice on how to get the pictures I'd like to shoot at the most reasonable price (body + lens). The stipulations are as follows:

1) I'm mainly interested in low light portraits and food shots. Think lighting levels at your average fancy restaurant at dinner time. Some shots may ultimately end up on something amounting to a food blog.

2) I'm a relative beginner.

3) Shots will likely be handheld.

4) I'd really like to pull it off without the use of a flash, and wonder if that's even reasonable.

5) I don't necessarily need lots of bells and whistles on the body, and would easily give such things up for a fast lens that can sop up lots of light and yields a nice bokeh. That said, am I correct in believing that a budget body/processor is going to limit the use of higher ISOs? Any comments on the ISO/f-stop issue would be welcome.

6) Starting with just 1 lens and the body, I'd love to do this at under or around $1000.

Again, I'm a relative noob so any input is much appreciated. And yes, I've read all the dashiv posts on photography.
posted by drpynchon to Technology (21 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Not to be that snarky asshole, but have you browsed through the DSLR tag?
posted by nitsuj at 9:58 AM on June 22, 2008

Wow. I JUST went through this experience and finally bought one 12 hours ago.

Here's what I did. Rather than spending the absolute most...I looked at cameras that were lower-end versions of the perfect one...and bought that. Why? Well, its easier to get 90-95% of the price you paid for a used honda civic than it is to get 66% of the price you pay for a lamborghini countach.

I bought a USED Nikon D40 with lens and all accessories on ebay for about $350 (after discounts). I then, did that livesearch trick. Live search "cheap wii". Get that 20% off coupon, and apply it to the total price. I got a used D40 for $350 with shipping.

IF that camera works out for you...awesome. You will be able to resell it again for a really good price (since you bought it for so low anyways), and you will feel way confident (not to mention knowledgeable) about your future purchase.

So yeah...good luck into your adventures with a DSLR. Also, I suggest reading the entire manual and buying one of those blue crane dvds for your camera.

Good luck!
posted by hal_c_on at 10:00 AM on June 22, 2008

For food shots, you'll probably want to either use a tripod, or use some extra lighting (probably a flash).

Otherwise, all the cameras on the market in your price range will probably meet your needs okay.
posted by aubilenon at 10:18 AM on June 22, 2008

The 50mm 1.4 will probably be good for food shots and low light and it's usually under $250. Both Nikon and Canon have a version of the "nifty fifty".
posted by matildaben at 10:34 AM on June 22, 2008

Tripods are key. Really, really key. Even spending hundreds of dollars on the latest fastest lenses won't get you what you can get out of a cheapo tripod for food shots. You can probably get away with a Gorillapod, which is much less obtrusive than a full sized 'pod.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 10:34 AM on June 22, 2008

Your food photos will definitely look better with (appropriately used) flash, the same goes for portraits. I agree with matildaben that the 50 1.4 is probably the best lens for you. I would get that along with something like a used Canon XTi or even a used 30d (both of which + the lens will be under $1k, with probably enough left over for a good flash). The high ISOs on these cameras are usually terrible, but it often depends on the lighting conditions. Above ISO 800 is generally unusable on my XTi.
posted by miscbuff at 10:44 AM on June 22, 2008

I love my Nikon D40. It's "only" 6 megapixels, which does not cause me any problems, but there are times when more megapixels would be handy, such as when cropping a significant amount of the photo. I use the 55-200mm vibration reduction lens for a lot of my shots, and the standard kit lens (18-55) for others.

I love the auto ISO feature, which bumps up the ISO only when necessary to not dip below a shutter speed that I have pre-selected. This is a great feature when shooting handheld without flash. There is a D40x and a D60 now available, with higher pixel counts. You'll have to compare features, of course.

Grain/noise at high ISOs is excellent with just about any DSLR due to the large sensor. You can easily go up to 800 with very little noise, and I regularly shoot at 1600 when the situation calls for it. (Better to have some noise than a blurry, unusable photo.) The vibration reduction lens, in combination with the auto ISO feature and low-noise high ISOs, makes it possible to take handheld photos that were difficult or impossible with film or a point-and-shoot camera.

I have some samples of high ISO photos here. They are all 800 or 1600 ISO shots, some with flash, some without, but all handheld. (Click the "more info" link for each photo to view the EXIF data.)

You should have no problem finding an excellent DSLR for your budget. You'll just have to decide what unique features are most important to you. Good luck.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 10:45 AM on June 22, 2008

I would say that any DSLR will work for you so i would say you should go to a few stores and pick up as many as you can and find out, first what physical size you really want to be taking to restaurants with you and what feels good.
posted by humanawho at 10:50 AM on June 22, 2008

Pentax currently has a $100 rebate for the k20d and the k200d. I just bought a k200d (like, 2 days ago) and, FWIW, it has a special shooting mode for food.

Note that the typical 50mm lens will be effectively longer because most of the lower-end DSLRs have APS-sized sensors. The typical multiplier is about 1.6x, so that 50mm lens will be about 80mm which may be a bit long for hand-held food shots. Definitely get a fast lens though. Pentax has a 2.8 40mm lens which might meet your requirements, though in the end it's alot of money. Pentax lenses can be had used cheaply apparently as, unlike Nikon or Canon, they put most of the fancy stuff in the body (i.e. shake reduction) making the new Pentax bodies compatible with a lot of older lenses.

Buying an older camera, like a D40, is also a good bet if you want to keep the cost down. Not sure if the older Pentax digital bodies are widely available.
posted by GuyZero at 10:54 AM on June 22, 2008

You are buying the whole system not just one camera. Over the years, you can easily invest many times the cost of the body in lenses, flashes etc. There has been some shaking out going on in the industry, and it likely isn't over yet. I would stick to the big two, Nikon and Canon. For your low light work stick with prime lenses and avoid zooms and go for the lowest f-stop you can afford. You might also look at some lenses with image stabilization.
posted by caddis at 11:25 AM on June 22, 2008

My photographic interests are similar to yours: Handheld shots in low-light indoor situations.

I bought a Canon 20D body back in January. They're not made anymore but I had no trouble finding one new at the time, although it probably makes more sense to buy one used in good condition.

The 20D is a bit old and doesn't include fancy touches like a huge LCD or on-LCD preview like some newer DSLRs do, but it has a great sensor that works well and produces little noise at high ISOs. I'm very happy with most of the ISO800 and ISO1600 shots it produces, and many of the noisier images can be mitigated in post-processing with software like Neat Image. The 20D can take pictures at ISO3200 but that is best avoided unless absolutely necessary.

Since most of my low-light photos are of non-moving subjects (the interiors of abandoned buildings), I chose an image-stabilized zoom for my first lens, the 17-85mm IS f4-5.6. I am extremely happy with the performance of this lens. Although its maximum aperture is a bit slow, the image stabilizer works so well that I'm routinely able to take non-blurry 1/13s exposures in one try in the wider half of the lens' range. If I take two or three exposures of a given shot, I find that one of the three will almost always be good even down to 1/5s (at 17mm).

I just went through my library and threw a few sample images onto the web, taken with the following settings:

ISO 800, 1/8s, f/4.5
ISO 1600, 1/8s, f/4.0
ISO 400, 1/10s, f/4.0
ISO 800, 1/8s, f/5.6
ISO 800, 1/5s, f/4.0

As well as a shot taken at ISO 3200, both before and after processing to reduce the visible noise in the image. Other than the ISO 3200 image, none of these have been edited other than adjusting exposure/white balance/etc while converting from raw. These images can be found at:


I think the 17-85 IS would serve you well for your food shots but it can be difficult to get people to stay still for 1/5 or 1/10 of a second, so you may need to consider a faster (prime) lens for those.

Keep in mind that any DSLR you are likely to buy will have a 1.6x effective crop factor due to the size of their sensors, so a "50mm lens" will have an effective focal length of 80mm. Such a lens should work well for a true portrait, but you will probably need something wider if you plan to include more than one or two people in the shot. Canon makes a EF-mount 28mm f/1.8 and Sigma makes a Canon-compatible (EF-S only) 30mm f/1.4, each of which sell for about $400 new. These lenses have an effective focal length of around 50mm on a 1.6x crop body, and should work well for a slightly larger group.
posted by Juffo-Wup at 11:50 AM on June 22, 2008

To correct myself: When I say "on-LCD preview", I mean it doesn't show the picture on the LCD before you take it -- you have to look through the viewfinder to compose a shot. You can, of course, review pictures on the LCD once you've taken them.
posted by Juffo-Wup at 12:23 PM on June 22, 2008

If you want to do handheld restaurant food blogger photography on a lower end dSLR, I recommend a smaller body and wide (30mm or more), fast prime. Why wide? As mentioned by GuyZero and Juffo-Wup, 50mm will be too telephoto to be effective for food blogging. It will be difficult to capture the entire plate of food that is 6" in front of you using only a 50mm on a cropped sensor body. If you want to be unobtrusive, you need a wider lens.

Additionally, the focusing length of the 50mm f/1.4 or 50mm f/1.8 is such that in order to take a photograph of your food from your table at a restaurant, you'll need to either get up from your chair, or push your dish far away form you. Given a lower end Canon Digital Rebel (XT, XTi or XSi), then get either a Sigma 30mm f/1.4 or Canon 28mm f/1.8 or similar (as Juffo-Wop says). The lens will run you about $300.

Definitely get the fastest and widest lens you can get -- restaurants that are nice always have dim lighting. Even at ISO 1600, you may struggle. I hate being the food blogger that has to take 5 slow shutter shots, keeping as still as possible, hoping that one comes out (this is a pretty different use case than Juffo-Wop's taking photographs of building interiors, IMO). I just want to take 2-3 shots quickly, and put the camera away.

At my favorite restaurant in NYC, that is pretty decent lighting for a restaurant, I usually shoot at 1600 ISO, f/1.8, and 1/30 to 1/50 shutter speed, on an XTi, using a 28mm f/1.8. Any slower a shutter speed, and I find that my shots are blurry if you I look at them at 50% size or closer.

I would not recommend the Nikon D40 for a beginner photographer because the AF does not work with all Nikon lenses. It's bad enough learning to use a digital SLR without having to focus manually.
posted by kathryn at 2:43 PM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

The 50mm is great, but as others point out, on a DSLR it's no longer a normal lens. Instead, I recommend the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 — it's cheap, really fast and reasonably sharp. It's a bit bigger and heavier than the 50mm, and about as solidly built.
posted by gentle at 2:50 PM on June 22, 2008

I would recommend an older Canon. I have the 350D and it's still working great.

The reason why I'd recommend against a Nikon for you is that price seems to be an issue. Nikon recently changed where the focus motor is, so if you buy a D40 or newer then any lens older than that will not have auto focus capabilities. And the newer lenses are more expensive.

That being said, the best way to pick a camera is to go out and play with them. Have fun.
posted by theichibun at 3:49 PM on June 22, 2008

If you want to do low light photography, don't get a D40. Get one with a built in autofocus drive motor. Wide fast lenses are expensive unless you buy used. Used, wide, fast, and inexpensive usually means no AF-S (Nikon's term for a lens with an internal focus motor).

I'd go for a D80 if you must buy new. Not because of the 10MP, but because it has the drive motor in the body and has better high-ISO performance than a D50 or D70s, which are getting long in the tooth anyway. Of course, with Noise Ninja or Neat Image in your post processing workflow, high ISO isn't an issue on the older bodies, but it does add an extra step.

Of course, if you don't mind manual focus, get a D40 or D60. ;)
posted by wierdo at 4:02 PM on June 22, 2008

I highly recommend the Nikon D40. My wife got me mine for xmas last year, and it was my first DSLR.

Like the others have said, it's a great price and has great image quality. I second the Auto-ISO praises, it's something that Canon doesn't have on their sub-$1,000 bodies (at least from what I understand.)

The lack of in-body AF motor wasn't a big deal for me. In fact, the very first lens that I bought was a 50mm f/1.4 from around 1973. That lens cost me a whole $70. Awesome bargain, and at that old, it doesn't matter where the AF motor is, that thing ain't gonna autofocus or meter.

Also, if you're shooting food, autofocus isn't exactly all that important. And if you get a really old non-metering lens like I did, you'll really get a chance to learn how all that exposure stuff really works. Not just on paper, but actually get a feel for it viscerally. Definitely not an experience to be underestimated, since even when you buy a modern lens with all the bells and whistles, you'll at least understand what all those fancy numbers truly mean. Or at least that's how the experience was for me, your mileage may of course vary.
posted by agress at 4:17 PM on June 22, 2008

For low light photography of any sort, it's not the camera that matters, it's the lens. If you at all want a remotely decent image, you need to shoot in RAW, and even then, you need one of the f2.8 lenses of you're basically hosed.

The Nikon 17-55mm f2.8 is pricey at about $1,200, but worth every penny. You can try and work around that since you're on a lower budget [there's a Tamron and Sigma alternative that's cheaper, but the glass isn't nearly as good], but eventually, you'll end up with that lens, especially if you go Nikon with the d40.
posted by CharlieChu at 6:42 PM on June 22, 2008

Also, if you're shooting food, autofocus isn't exactly all that important.

I find that autofocus is very important if you are trying to be discreet at an upscale restaurant, and at, say, f/1.4, your DOF is very small. It can be difficult to make sure exactly what you want is in focus in low light (this piece of lettuce versus that piece of lettuce) as the cheaper bodies tend to have very small viewfinders. Plus, you don't have your dining companions grumbling because you're preventing them from chowing down as you fiddle with the focusing ring.

If you at all want a remotely decent image, you need to shoot in RAW, and even then, you need one of the f2.8 lenses of you're basically hosed.

This is why myself and others have been recommending wide, fast prime lenses (f/1.4 or f/1.8), that retail at $300-400 new.
posted by kathryn at 8:53 PM on June 22, 2008

kathryn, I've had the exact opposite experience. I guess it comes down to how ashamed you feel about having a camera in a restaurant. And the older manual lenses have FAR bettter focusing rings than anything modern lenses have to offer, they are far more intuitive to focus.

I think ultimately it's a very personal thing, some people just don't feel comfortable bringing a camera to some place like a restaurant, and they may place their companions' enjoyment of the meal above getting the shot. In which case, I would question the decision to bring a camera to a restaurant in the first place, no matter the type. A dSLR is not going to be discreet no matter how quickly you take the shot.
posted by agress at 9:35 PM on June 22, 2008

I shoot concerts, usually, which are low to really low light, handheld, and involve moving performers, so I do have some experience with the sort of thing you're looking for. Here are some examples of my work: 1 2 3 4 5

as for your enumerated points:
1) This is doable, although a high-end point/shoot may be easier to work with.
2) awesome! there's a lot of fun ahead of you.
3 and 4) three ways to do that: crank up the ISO (tradeoff: increased noise), open up the aperture (less depth of field), use an image-stabilised lens (increased cost).
5) if you're willing to shoot primes, you can get bells, whistles, and speedy lenses. Canon's Rebel line is limited to ISO1600, but the 20/30/40D all go to 3200. While you're picking a body, don't underestimate the feel and heft of it; if you don't like holding it then using it becomes a chore.
6) I'm used to the Canon line, and thus I will recommend based on your needs compared to its offerings - I think you'd be well served by a used 20D or 30D ($550-700), or possibly a Rebel XTi (~$600 new) along with both the 35mm f/2 ($230ish) and the 50mm f/1.8 ($80ish). That gives you a solid normal length lens in the 35mm, and a good portrait lens in the 50mm. There's only a 1/3rd stop difference between the two, so they're both very good in low light, and also both very small and light. The only flaw I can see is that the autofocus is a bit buzzy sounding, but to get around that would require moving up to the 50 f/1.4($290ish) or the 35 f/1.4($1150), so given your budget I think that the above works out nicely.

some stuff to do with other people's responses:
- It's not just the Nikon D40; the D40x and the D60 don't have inbody focus motors, and so a healthy portion of Nikon's older lenses (including their 50mm prime) won't focus on the body.
- flashes do make a lot of things easier, but in a fine dining setting they're likely to be unwelcome, and learning flash photography is easier when you're not also learning flashless photography
- the rule of thumb for avoiding camera shake is to keep shutter speed below 1/[focal length (adjusted)] so on a 50mm lens on a 1.6x crop body, it turns into 1/80th of a second. On the 35mm, it becomes 1/56 (or 1/60, really).
- the differences between the 50/1.8 and the 50/1.4 are: build quality, two thirds of a stop of light, full-time manual focus, quieter autofocus, approximately equal optical quality, and about $200.

happy shooting!
posted by heeeraldo at 11:59 PM on June 22, 2008

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