DSLR decisions

A reader writes:

I am looking to buy a digital SLR camera. I am stuck between the Nikon D5000, Canon EOS Rebel T1i [also known as the EOS 500D]and the Canon EOS Rebel Xsi [a.k.a. the EOS 450D; the DPReview 500D review compares the 500D and the 450D].

I am leaning towards the XSi, however I would like to know if there is more value spending the extra bucks and getting one of the other ones. I am a beginner when it comes to photography and will use it mostly for taking pictures when travelling and family functions etc. Appreciate the guidance.


I don't really know enough about the Nikon to firmly rule it in or out. Don't worry, though; I'm sure commenters will soon explain to you exactly why your only possible sane option is Nikon, and also how a Nikon will definitely steal your family's souls and impel their dead-eyed husks to kill and devour you at the earliest opportunity.

I can, however, tell you that the major investment for any DSLR owner isn't the camera body, it's the lenses.


(Well, actually it's perfectly possible to buy a DSLR body and a couple of lenses that cost less than the body, and then just call it a day. This almost always indicates that you should have bought a smaller, lighter, cheaper point-and-shoot camera instead.)

I presume you don't have any Nikon or Canon lenses at the moment. If you've got a friend who's got a collection of lenses for either Nikon or Canon and who's willing to loan any of them to you, though, then you should get the same make of camera they have.

(This extends to less common DSLR brands, like Pentax, Olympus and Minolta {though probably not Sigma}. Sony bought up Minolta's camera arm, so now they're "Sony Alphas" instead of Minolta Alphas, but the lens mount remains the same.)

Note also that some Nikon F-mount lenses only autofocus if you put them on a camera body with a built-in motor, that mechanically couples to the lens. The D5000, like various other cheaper Nikon DSLRs, does not have that motor, and so will only autofocus if you get lenses that have their own motor. Motorless lenses will work on a D5000, but you have to focus manually.

Manual focus can be a bit of a pain with consumer DSLRs, because they never come with the split-image ground-glass focusing screen that you need. It's certainly not impossible to do manual focus, though, especially since the camera should still be able to go beep at you when it reckons you've got the focus right. (You can also usually upgrade the focusing screen - it's not even all that terrifying a DIY job.)

Further points:

1: The Nikon and the Canon T1i (which is known as the EOS 500D, outside the USA) can capture HD video. The cheaper Canon cannot. The new wave of video-shooting DSLRs - all of which, I think, you can set to lower resolutions if you don't need HD - are a big step forward in consumer videography. They give a professional interchangeable-lens camera to amateurs. If you don't care about video, though, or prefer a pocket-sized video camera, this becomes irrelevant.

2: Resolution doesn't matter. As far as actual image quality goes, even for long-exposure night shots and high-ISO work, there's little real difference between the recent Canons - and, I'm pretty sure, the Nikon too - and models from several years ago.

Three Sisters long exposure

This was a 30-second exposure, at 2:37 in the morning, by the light of the full moon, taken with my EOS-20D in 2005.

Long exposure

Another 20D shot, this time more than 40 minutes!

Long exposure

A five-minute exposure from my EOS-D60, circa 2002.

Really high-sensitivity image quality and noise reduction is, to be fair, slowly improving. And the highest sensitivity figure you can set is rising, too. But the difference is not very large, because of the marketing-driven megapixel mania that keeps packing more and more pixels into the sensors, even if most lenses and most photographic subjects don't have the optical quality and/or image detail to make this matter, rather than improving the pixels that're already there.

If you find someone selling a seven-year-old D60, in good condition, for $100, buy that instead of a new camera, and spend the savings on starting your lens collection.

(The second-hand market for DSLRs isn't actually very exciting. This is because DSLRs hold their value much better than most electronic devices, and even if an old DSLR is mechanically perfect it may have lots of crud on the sensor. And the price of brand new DSLRs keeps sliding down, even as more genuinely useful features like video, partially self-cleaning sensors and sensor-shift all-lenses image stabilisation trickle in around the marketing nonsense. Second-hand lenses often aren't that cheap, either, but this is compensated for by the fact that they're very often in perfect working order.)

3: Don't get only one lens, even to start with.

If you get a basic body-plus-one-lens package for any of these cameras then you'll get a perfectly serviceable little zoom lens. Photo enthusiasts love to complain about quite minor image-quality flaws, but the kit zoom lens really is just fine for most purposes.

You should also definitely get a cheap 50mm f/1.8 prime, though, for reasons I explain here.

In brief: Cheap "fast" large-aperture lens equals great portraits, with the face in focus and the background blurred.

The cheap Canon f/1.8 50mm is this one. The Nikon equivalent is this one - NOTE, however, that it's one of those motorless lenses that you'll have to focus by hand on low-end Nikon DSLRs. For candid portrait shooting this isn't actually a major limitation, since you need to jockey around anyway when using autofocus to avoid focusing on the tip of the nose rather than the face, but it's still worth noting that, as far as I know, there's no cheap f/1.8 prime for Nikon that has its own autofocus motor.

(By linking to Adorama, above, I'm making no particular recommendation of them. They're a perfectly good online photo store, as is B&H, with prices about as cheap as any dealer who isn't a scam artist - but I'm linking to them because I like their short URLs and site search. Note that I'm also linking to the USA-retail versions of these lenses; big photo stores also often sell cheaper used, "refurbished" and grey-market lenses.)

4: If you're going to shoot sport or birds or anything else that needs a telephoto lens, then you should either buy a two-lens camera kit, which usually adds a passable something-to-200mm lens to the standard little zoom lens, or buy a something-to-300mm zoom lens separately. The absolute cheapest options in this category - some under $US100 - have lousy image quality, but you don't have to pay a lot more to get a quite acceptable Canon, Nikon or Sigma. (Third-party lenses - Sigma, Tamron etc - can usually be had in both Canon and Nikon versions, and often some other mounts besides.)

Canon 75-300mm, $US160
Nikon 70-300mm, $US155
Sigma 70-300mm for Canon, $US159
Sigma 70-300mm for Nikon, $US159

The basic something-to-200mm lenses, like the little kit zooms, also show up very cheap on eBay all the time as people upgrade their camera-and-lens kits. You'll be able to save a little money if you buy the basic lenses that way, but it's probably not going to be worth the hassle.

You can also get quite affordable image-stabilised lenses these days. Both Canon and Nikon make stabilised versions of the above cheap zooms, though this pushes the price up over $US500 without improving the actual basic optical specifications at all. The stabilisers help considerably with camera-shake, but do nothing to prevent pictures of things that are themselves moving from being blurry.

You can get the stabilised version of the basic Canon 18-55mm lens in a quite cheap body-and-lens kit, as well. Here's a refurb version of that kit, at a price that's hard to dislike.

5: Get a tripod. A cheap and nasty eBay/DealExtreme Special will do fine. Even if you hardly ever use it, it'll be $20 (or less than $15...) well spent when you finally do need it to shoot longer exposures in low light, maintain consistent framing of a sequence of shots, et cetera.

(You might also like to get a remote shutter release cable for your camera of choice, to avoid bumping it when you press the shutter button for a tripod shot. The brand-name versions can be a bit expensive, but since a remote release cable is just a switch on a wire, you can buy cheap copies with confidence.)

6: Get an add-on flash, with a swivel-and-tilt head. (Not one like this, that only shoots forward.)

Direct lighting from the little pop-up flash on your camera, or any other flash pointing forward, will get you a picture when nothing else will, but is an almost perfect guarantee that the picture will be an unsightly "happy snap".

F/1.8 cat portrait.

Flash bounced off the ceiling, plus a 50mm f/1.8 wide open, are your secret weapons to take fantastic portraits indoors.

Ideally you'd want a quality flash from the camera manufacturer, that works with the wireless triggering systems that most (possibly all) current DSLRs have, and can thus be used together with any other compatible flashes you buy. But those can be a bit pricey.

Off-brand flashes that work with the Canon and/or Nikon systems exist, but are apparently often a little dodgy, and aren't all that cheap, anyway.

The next step down, which will probably suit you just fine, is a flash with no wireless-compatibility stuff, but which still supports Through-The-Lens (TTL) exposure metering. Sigma have some nice options; again, there are also more expensive products from the camera manufacturers themselves.

If you're really on a shoestring budget, you can just buy a cheap old-fashioned "thyristor" auto-flash that works with your camera.

Your camera probably won't like flashes with a high trigger voltage, but there are many flashes that do not have this problem. The one-stop Internet info depot for cheap-and/or-manual flash users is Strobist.

(The magic name of Strobist also makes it pretty easy to see if that "SpringFlower Joyshine 2001" on eBay for $15 is worth buying. Just searching for [flash name] "trigger voltage" will also usually suffice.)

OK, readers; what've I forgotten? Let's see if we can throw so much advice at Jorge that he gives up on the whole idea of taking pictures!

57 Responses to “DSLR decisions”

  1. Erik T Says:

    I've always been surprised by the apparent lack of stars in your Three Sisters photo.

  2. videopia Says:

    The Canon T1i does NOT shoot HD video. The Canon T2i (aka, the 550d in Blighty) does shoot 1080p and is a revolutionary camera for $800. Expect more traffic to your excellent blog as a result of the release of that camera in the good ole USofA on March 18th...

  3. Anne Says:

    Well, there was one phrase in his email that caught my attention:

    I am a beginner when it comes to photography and will use it mostly for taking pictures when travelling and family functions etc.

    This sounds to me like maybe he doesn't want a digital SLR at all. A decent little point-and-shoot lets you take some quite nice pictures, is cheap, and maybe most importantly for this sort of thing, you can easily carry it everywhere. A nice digital SLR with a good selection of lenses, a decent tripod, and a good flash will not help you take a better picture if you left the backpack they fill at home.

    What's more, I think the limitations of a point-and-shoot, particularly one that has semi-manual modes, are a good way to learn to understand the limits of a lens and camera. Having a camera that can take tough shots is nice and all, but it's no use to you unless you can see what shots you can and can't take; in my opinion, taking good pictures is mostly about being able to see what will make a beautiful picture. No question a digital SLR widens the field, but you still need to recognize what will work and what won't. Why not learn on a cheap point-and-shoot? If you decide you want a digital SLR later on, the point-and-shoot will still come in handy for all those days you don't want to carry the full backpack of gear.

    (Of course, now that they even put cameras in cell phones, maybe I should just assume that anyone asking about a DSLR already has plenty of point-and-shoot experience.)

  4. james.k Says:

    I've noticed the same phrase as Anne: based on that I'd also recommend a higher-end P&S, maybe one of the Canon G11 or whatever that series is up to now.

    If your correspondent really wants a DSLR, then maybe something like one of the newer Pentax models, they are much smaller than either the Nikon or Canon offerings, much less obtrusive when taking happy snaps as a tourist. They're cheaper for the same (or better) features too. Pentax hasn't changed their lens mount in ~40 years too, which means you can pick up very high quality older lenses quite cheaply.

  5. radd Says:


    The 500D/T1i does indeed shoot HD video - 720p @ 30fps (HD) or 1080p @ 20fps (Full HD resolution, not quite there with the framerate, but not too bad if there are no fast pans).

    The 550D/T2i will do 1080p @ 30fps, as will the 7D and the 5DMkII

  6. jaws_au Says:

    I'm in a bit of a similar situation. I currently have a Canon S2is, which I adore, and has taken over 15,000 photos. Some of which are now on Super A3 prints on my wall - even with only 5mp!

    Anyway, whilst I've always thought I wanted a dSLR, I realised that I'd never have taken half the photos I have with one, because of the size factor. BUT - I'm also really keen to get something with a better sensor, more dynamic range, less noise, etc.

    I'm wondering if it's time to enter the Micro Four-Thirds market (or similar) - I've been using the EVF on the S2 for years now, so I don't think the lack of prism viewfinder would bother me. Or should I wait until there are more options (and more lenses for that matter)??

  7. reverb Says:

    The f/1.8 prime with autofocus motor you want in Nikon-land is the most cheap and excellent 35mm. Yes, it's not 50mm but I have one of those too (non-AF on my low-end Nikon D40) and find 35mm more useful in closer quarters inside, but that's just me.

    I blogged more about entry-level Nikon kit over here, covering pretty much what Dan does, but of course with far less links!

    You'll note that I state no preference for either Nikon or Canon other than the fact I have a mate who shoots Nikon kit professionally.

    My strategy with cheap-ish (ie. less than body cost) lenses is these are all DX (ie. won't cover full-frame sensors) lenses. Since lenses will last forever, I can't see the point of spending over $300 on a DX lens that will be of no use once we inevitably (Moore's Law-style) have point-and-shoot-sized cameras with FX full-frame sensors in them.

    DX will be a 5-10 year blip on the timeline of camera history. All lenses made before the first DSLRs covered full-frame. If I'm going to spend up on a fancy lens it had better cover full-frame so I can use it forever! (Or, maybe micro 4/3s or similar will make all these huge camera systems redundant).

  8. reverb Says:

    @jaws_au - I've not held any micro 4/3s cameras, but my Nikon D40 with the 35mm f/1.8 is amazingly small and light compared with what most people think of DSLRs as being. The low-light ability of this combo is significantly better than any micro 4/3s kit available or on the radar.

  9. reverb Says:

    Dan, re: point 6, I have the Nikon SB-400 and it most definitely can be pointed up at the roof for bounce effects - see more here.

    [Fixed. Thanks! -Dan]

  10. phrantic Says:

    I have the Nikon SB-400 as well - AMAZING little flash for indoor work. Outdoors it's gutless, but swivel it up to hit the ceiling and it's pretty much as good as the SB-600.

    I'd have to agree with jamesk though. Sounds like your correspondent wants a really-high-end point and shoot, not a DSLR. As much as I love Nikon gear, Canon's P&S shooters are amazing for the money.

    If he DOES go DSLR though, just buy a.) whatever your friends can loan you lenses for, or b.) whatever the best value for money is (factoring in desired lenses and accessories as well).

    Honestly, unless you intend to get serious-ish about it, it won't matter. Shots from my D60, in web-resolution or 6x4 prints, look identical to similar shots taken with my mate's D90, or another friend's Canon DSLRs. Good pictures are in the photographer, not the camera. Fancy gear just opens up your artistic range a little.

  11. hitmouse Says:

    The Canon G series is quite good for P&S but I would go for an older G9 if you can, because it's the first of the series to include RAW and higher def video. The G10/11 don't have high def video.

    Recently I've gone for a micro-4/3 system camera, the Panasonic GF-1 which I'm pretty impressed with. The only problem in Oz is that Panasonic aren't selling any of the lenses individually which makes a mockery of having a system camera.

    I'm also having to weigh up buying an Olympus zoom lens w/o image stabilisation vs a more expensive Panasonic lens that does have it. Olympus puts their image stabilisation in the body, not the lens.

  12. lord xeon Says:

    i agree with the other, it seems like you really want a point and shoot, or an advanced one at the least.
    I think it would be much more economical for the purposes

    But, I recommend Nikon
    I've used them my whole life, and so has my dad, so all his lenses, work on my newer digital body (in full manual mode, but thats how i learned to take pictures anyway).

    As a personal issue, I hate autofocus. I had a few bad experiences way back in the day, and a few ruined shots, and opportunities because of it, and I've taught myself to live on manual, again, that's a personal preference, most people swear by it. If anything though, don't put the lack of autofocus as a key point because if you're too troubled to focus the lens, what are you doing with an SLR to begin with?

    What you plan on taking pictures of will determine the types of lenses you get.

    From the looks of it, I would honestly recommend the kit Nikon D60. If video is a feature you want, then up it to the D5000, but don't be fooled, video is completely different then photography, and requires different skills, and techniques.

  13. Cods Says:

    If what Jorge is looking for actually is a DSLR, then a fast prime lens is a great way to get interested in photography. I reckon the best thing we did when we bought our Canon 40D body was grab a Sigma f/1.4 30mm to go with it.

    Why the 30mm? When multiplied by the standard 1.6x crop factor of the 40D's sensor, it's pretty close to 50mm 'standard' or 'normal' lens. Why the f/1.4? Sharp, short exposure photos of fast moving kids, indoors, with only natural light = goodness for a parent. Well, given that the only way to make the kids stay still would mean that the photo was of a child velcro'd to a sofa... the lens was a good buy.

    That said, a nice point and shoot might be just the trick for what Jorge wants to use it for. I prefer the Panasonic DMC-LX3. RAW, 24mm lens and f/2.0 with enough manualish controls to be useful - there's not much in the way of zoom, but it's great indoors and pretty fast. I like it better than the couple of G-series Canons that we've had, but YMMV.

    I don't think I helped at all...

    [The Sigma 30mm on an APS-sized-sensor camera is definitely a better lens for general photography, blah blah street blah candid photoethnography blah blah Leica blah. But it's more than $US400, while the Canon 50mm can be had for $US100. And for portraits - including candid portraits where you're just following a person around while clicking away - I reckon the 80mm-effective field of view of the much cheaper lens is better. -Dan]

  14. Dan Todd Says:

    I also agree with Anne.

    For travel and family photos, a big camera with multiple lens gets annoying and you'll miss shots because of the hassle of getting set up. I now take more photos with my iPhone than any of my SLR or dSLR cameras - its easy and I always have it with me.

    If you do insist on getting a new camera, seriously consider the micro four thirds cameras if interchangable lenses and HD video are really that important. The unreleased (?) Panasonic DMC-G2 looks interesting to me. HD video, good lenses and small size appeal to me.

    I also suggest looking at one of the newer P&S models with a really fast lens, image stabilisation and/or high sensitivity and low noise sensors.

    If you insist in heading done the SLR route, then I would seriously suggest going film. It is less gratifying to have to wait for your photos, but I think the low initial investment will give you some first class photos, some excellent lenses (esp. if you buy Nikon as their film lenses mostly work on dSLRs too.) and some more cash for more lenses.

    Also, get an external flash sooner than you think you need it. I now have several flash units and these have been much more important in improving my photography than any camera. Buy a flash before a big zoom - you can always walk closer to a subject, you can't always make them hold perfectly still for 10 seconds while you shoot them in low light.

    Finally, please remember that photography is about two things. 1. Being the right place at the right time and more importantly 2. understanding light.

  15. iworm Says:

    I'm a keen snapper. Nikon all the way. BUT: if I hadn't fallen in to Nikon would it matter? No.

    Canon or Nikon? Toss a coin. Both are great. :-)

    To reiterate some of the advice given: buy glass. Get a dinky kit zoom. Very useful. Get a nice, wide prime. 50mm 1.8, or something along those lines. Play with both. Assume that after 2 years you will lust after a new, fancier body. Also assume that, after you buy aforementioned new fancier body, you'll go through a phase of disappointment when you realise that it has bugger all to do with taking good pictures!

    The fancy kit is fun, and can make some pictures *easier*, yes. But unless you are a professional sports snapper or such, don't get hooked on the gravy train of "If I could JUST afford that new lens/body/flash/etc. my pictures would be AWESOME!"

    As mentioned, I'm a very keen photographer. Also an old one, who learned on film. I have phases. Some years my photos are, forgive me, superb. Sometimes they are kinda, "Meh... OKish". Right now, when I've never had such expensive, highly specced kit, I'm having a "Meh" period. 2 years ago, with an old-even-then Nikon D70 (6 megadoodahs) + 50mm prime I took some extraordinary pictures.

    So go buy something, anything, that someone mentioned above, and then learn to take pictures. That's the hard part. Very hard. And has nothing to do with whether you choose Nikon or Canon.

    Good luck!

  16. jesselives Says:

    I would start with the S90, and consider an SLR when my skill improves.

    Otherwise, the XSi is an incredible deal. I wouldn't worry about the video functions unless you get a beefy tripod and a full cinema setup (matte box, follow focus, etc.). It is pretty worthless purely hand-held, so to shoot passable video you need at least an additional $500-$1000.

  17. TwoHedWlf Says:

    Put my vote on the point and shoot side. A $300 P&S and a clue will reliably take better pictures than $5000 of DSLR+Lenses and no idea what you're doing. And most point and shoots do a fair-good job from macro to 10X zoom without having to carry several lenses.

    All my favorite photos I've taken are macros of bugs.:)


    I'm sure I could have gotten far better with a DSLR, macro lense, ring flash etc, but that would have cost me 10 times the price.

  18. TwoHedWlf Says:

    This is not meant to imply that I, in fact, have a clue. Because I don't.:P

  19. Shivoa Says:

    Agreed with many of the above, for something portable and to learn on I'd specify a sensor and RAW mode before the range of lenses to spend a lot of cash on (which you have no room to carry about with you on travels and can't just be pocketed for family does).

    In the better than basic P&S, things like the S90 and LX3 give you lots of light for indoor shots with their fast lenses, have a larger sensor than most (although still rather small compared to a proper dSLR), and will get the user used to developing RAWs that maintain all the sensor data rather than letting the camera wash away the detail by converting to 24bit jpegs.

    Stepping up to 'have entry dSLR cash, but want to travel' are the new straight through cameras using things like the micro 4/3rds format. A GF1 with the kit 20mm (40mm equiv) f/1.7 prime (or the EP1 with the same lens) is almost as compact as you point and shoot but gives you almost a full sized sensor, and some future options for some extra lenses if you like it (of course, all the other lenses make it unpocketable). No prism means no optical viewfinder but that is really the only major concession you give to entry dSLRs in order to get a very small camera.

  20. Adam Says:

    The T1i does indeed shoot HD video, at 720P. it also does 1080p @ 20fps, which doesn't quite count.

    However, the video settings are only fully automatic on the T1i - shutter speed, aperture, etc. You have to move up to the new T2i if you want control over the video. Being fully automatic, it can look good if the camera picks the right settings - but if it doesnt then theres not much you can do.

  21. AdamW Says:

    I don't think Dan's quite right with "Well, actually it’s perfectly possible to buy a DSLR body and a couple of lenses that cost less than the body, and then just call it a day. This almost always indicates that you should have bought a smaller, lighter, cheaper point-and-shoot camera instead." I can say this from a bit of experience, as I generally take anything Dan says as gospel, and his comments along these lines were part of the reason I eventually chose to buy an S90 rather than a DSLR.

    Here's the thing, though - even though the S90 is about the best quality point-and-shoot you can buy, along with the G11, it doesn't really get very close to even a *cheap* DSLR for image quality. My father has a three year old entry-level Nikon (I forget the exact model) DSLR, with just the kit lens, and the image quality from that is very noticeably better than my S90. Particularly at high (or, really, medium) ISO - the S90 picks up very noticeable noise from ISO 400 upwards, the Nikon can get to 800 or 1600 just fine. Which, obviously, makes a very big difference for low-light or fast-moving subject situations.

    It's not rocket science, it's just sensor size; those big chunky DSLRs have big chunky sensors which give you better image quality. A pretty big no-brainer.

    It can still make sense to get a point-and-shoot, given that the best camera is the one you have with you, but having seen both sides of the fence, I don't think I agree any more with Dan's 'the only reason to buy a DSLR is to muck about with lenses' philosophy. Even if you're only going to shoot with the kit lens, a DSLR *is* going to give you better image quality, as long as you understand how to use it and are willing to drag it around with you. I'm definitely considering getting one to go with my S90, now.

  22. rndmnmbr Says:

    I just wish you could get older DSLRs for a cheap price. Also, a right and proper FD mount - to - EF mount adapter that wasn't a shoddy piece of shit and worked on every lens (I have a quite nice set of FD mount primes).

    In the course of my job (photojournalism) I take a lot of indoor photos with terrible lighting conditions and no flash allowed. However, my boss has seen fit to only buy P&S, usually off the clearance rack. And while CHDK did wonders for my cheap SX110 IS, I still have to spend an excessive amount of time with a noise reduction Photoshop plugin (pirated, because she won't pay for that either) to get reasonable photos, and god help me if it's a night shot.

    I've got parts of a kit - nasty horrible EF 35-80 kit lens, moderately terrible Tamron EF mount 28-200 f/3.5-5.6 telephoto, Speedlite 550ex - but it breaks my tiny budget to consider a decent body with that EF-S 18-55 and 50mm F/1.8. And I can't find a decent deal on used equipment.

    (this goes without mentioning that I specced out a $10k+ kit when trying to price a nice can-photograph-anything-anywhere-anytime-and-still-carry-in-a-small-bag kit. It's those nighttime sports photos, y'see, and superfast telephoto zooms are hilariously expensive)

  23. Jonadab Says:

    > (Well, actually it’s perfectly possible to buy a DSLR
    > body and a couple of lenses that cost less than the body,
    > and then just call it a day. This almost always indicates
    > that you should have bought a smaller, lighter, cheaper
    > point-and-shoot camera instead.)

    Yeah. Based on his description of what he plans to do with the camera, I surmise that Jorge may very likely be in this category. Tell him to get a "SLR-like" camera, one of those jobs that lets you fiddle with the aperture and ISO and so forth if you want and has a reasonably good optical zoom (enough to let you get decent close-up shots from the other side of a large room), focus lock, and the ability to shoot halfway-decent video if you want.

    The FinePix S1500, for instance, is a good choice in this category. It's not a DSLR, doesn't have a mount point for expensive lenses, and doesn't have a true manual focus ability. But for a beginning photographer, it's fine (ever so much better than the piece-of-junk cameras in the sub-$100 range). I'm sure there are other options in this range as well.

    Get the whole kit (camera, camera bag, tripod, cleaning kit, extra storage capacity, rechargeable batteries and charger), and you're still spending a tiny fraction of the cost of an actual DSLR. Such a tiny fraction, that you can later write it off as a "learner's camera" if you find that you really do want a DSLR. Heck, if the "SLR-like" point-and-shoot model helps you know enough more about your needs to make a slightly more informed decision about an SLR later, it's worth it just for that.

  24. Daniel Rutter Says:

    I think the reason why you can't just clearly say, in situations like this, that a point-and-shoot is a better buy than a DSLR, is that compact cameras are still lousy for indoor/night-time no-flash photography.

    They shouldn't be, by now, but the idiotic megapixel war has kept noise levels so high that there's little high-ISO image-quality difference between a compact camera from five, or in some cases even 10, years ago and one made last week. If you've got a compact camera and you want to take indoor pictures even in the daytime, you still have the choice of awful on-camera flash, or horrible blur, or horrible noise, or often horrible blur and horrible noise. ("Horrible noise" is sometimes replaced by "bizarre watercolour-painting noise-reduction effects".) It's not really even worth trying.

    This may finally be changing, but it hasn't yet. Even with a f/3.5-at-best kit zoom, an entry-level DSLR wound up to ISO 1600 will often take better indoor no-flash photos than compact cameras that cost MORE than it. Stick a fast prime on it and there's no comparison at all. (The EOS-500D remains pretty usable even at ISO 3200, and goes all the way to ISO 12800!)

  25. Fallingwater Says:

    I concur: buying a DSLR is a good idea even if one is only interested in good quality pictures and doesn't particularly care about playing around with lenses. Hell, you could get a DSLR and a Sigma 18-250 and never again change lenses for the life of the camera, and you'd get much better pictures than any prosumer, let alone compact point-and-shoot.

    Personally, I disregarded the advice I got from Canon users ("CANON IS TEH BEST EVERYTHING ELSE SUCKS!!!!11!") and went for Pentax, specifically a K20D, and I'm convinced I made the right choice. Full-body tropicalization and on-sensor stabilizer, all for a price of a basic Canon with neither of those features? Yes, please!
    The sensor stabilizer is not as effective as a lens one, but since my photographic budget is very low, I can now hit eBay, buy a $40 50mm lens and have it stabilized without paying the large extra of an in-lens system.

    But I got lucky. I found a €300-worth Pentax SMC-FA 50mm F1.4 lens, a SMC-FA 28-105 f4-5.6 (approximate value €100) and an analog Pentax body of no relevance whatsoever, all sold in a package for €70 by a confused fellow who wanted to "take the big step and go digital" and so needed to "sell this film equipment that surely nobody would want". A short battle ensued, with the little devil sitting on my shoulder curb-stomping the little angel sitting on the other one. I got the lenses and have practically stopped using the kit lens since.

    Take note that the newer K-x beats my K20D at low-light photography as it has a new sensor by another manufacturer (Sony, I think). I didn't like the single wheel control, lack of tropicalization and AA batteries, though, so I went for the K20D regardless. Oh, and the K-x does movies while the K20D doesn't, but I don't care about that.

  26. Fallingwater Says:

    Forgot to mention: using the internal flash (which I'm still forced to do since I lack the budget for a proper swiveling-head one) the results are certainly less pleasant than using proper lighting and/or fast lenses, but they are far better than any integrated digicam has ever managed to do with its own internal flash - even my old Sony CDMavica CD200, which handily beats every other camera I've ever used but the DSLR at indoor flash shots.

  27. ratkins Says:

    A note on Canon vs Nikon: either are fine, but you need to feel one of each to find the right one for you.

    When I bought my first film SLR ten years ago, I found the Canon felt awkward in my hand whereas the Nikon just *fit*, with all my fingers sitting on the controls. I'm sure it's the other way around for other people, but you've got to try both for yourself.

  28. Red October Says:

    I agree with Dan regarding P&S cameras. The consumer models sold today are no way to learn anything about taking photographs besides which end of the camera you point at shit. The models that will let you learn things cost as much as a basic "kit" DSLR (if not more!) and will of course have the same upward mobility problems that a DSLR will not. I can spend $100 or $10,000 on a lens or acccessory for my little Nikon D40 and make it better. Had I bought $500 worth of point-and-shoot, I might be able to buy a nice flashgun if it had a shoe. Since all modern DLSRs have an "Idiot" (excuse me, "Auto") setting, I see no reason to shortchange yourself the ability to step up the ladder later on.

    If Jorge decides he really likes photography he can pour money into his DSLR until he reaches the limits of his entry-level body, in which case he can upgrade it, and all the lenses and goodies he bought for it will work with the newer one (excepting things like battery grips), and the old one becomes a backup. If he doesn't like photography much, he's still got a nice camera that will do everything he asks it to and can be made to work in the situations where the dude with the point & shoot will be going "WTF!" while the thing beeps at him for no apparent reason.

  29. corinoco Says:

    Quick question (hopefully quick answer)...

    I have an old Nikon F-401X body (with a broken rear door, long story*)and the original bundled 25-75mm AF Nikkor lens. I also have a good collection of filters for said lens.

    Given that I won't be repairing the rear door (last time I checked the cost was hilarious, or just buy a 2nd-hand body for less...) I might like to get a DSLR.

    Is it worth keeping this old lens as a starter and stay with Nikon, or ebay it and start afresh?

    * - I was on a flight from Hamilton Island to Sydney, and the pilot landed using the "braille" method - fly down until plane hits something. Mayhem ensues - all the overhead lockers pop as the fuselage flexed, spilling my beloved F401 in it's padded case onto the floor. Apparently no damage, but it broke the clasp on the rear door - a microscopic piece of metal that engages with a microswitch that allows the camera to operate. I filed an insurance claim with Ansett, who are of course only too eager to pay for my damages... except that they went broke 3 days later (Possibly because they had just rendered a 737 pretty much unflyable, along with everything else). The camera was always too expensive to repair, and now I probably could MacGuyver it, but it's a film camera, so why bother?

  30. corinoco Says:

    The consumer models sold today are no way to learn anything about taking photographs besides which end of the camera you point at shit.


    If you do happen to have a cheap little P&S, and it is a Canon model that can use the magic CHDK firmware, then you suddenly have a capable little camera. Sure it will never replace a DSLR with full-manual modes, but you can learn about cameras with it.

    While DSLRs are certainly good, if you are walking around building sites (like I do) then P&S is the way to go. My 3-year old Ixus has survived horrid tropical rain and being dropped a few times and it still soldiers on. My boss dropped his Sony DSLR on site and it was a throw-away. Too expensive to bother repairing. Shame it had his best lens on it, too.

    My wife has one of the newer Ixus (960 I think) and it takes superb photos, and does have quite decent manual settings if you take the time to read the docs. Yes, those photos were taken with a little P&S, and also used no flash. You can manually set a wide aperture to shoot in low-light if you RTFM...

    And yes, I was in the front row for a Cliff Richard concert. And sang along. GET DOWN!

  31. Fallingwater Says:

    Corinoco: It's worth staying with a brand if you have lots of that brand's lenses, or if you only have a small number but they are really expensive. A kit lens is hardly worth sticking with a brand, especially since you get a new kit lens in most DSLR bundles anyway.

  32. rocketfire Says:

    I'd say the entry point list for a DSLR is the camera, a couple of lens, spare battery, bigger storage, a bag, maybe a tripod, definitely a good flash *AND* a point and shoot.

    If Jorge is happy to spend those dollars and carry that much equipment around, then perhaps a DSLR is the right choice, but there's no reason not make the P&S the first purchase.

    Canon EOS lenses went painlessly through the transition from film to digital. Makes me think it's well thought out design.

  33. DShpak Says:

    The consumer models sold today are no way to learn anything about taking photographs besides which end of the camera you point at shit.

    ...and with that, you can learn composition, framing, and the way that lighting affects your photos. Which is the most important part of taking good photos. Exposure control, manual focus, and RAW capability are all useless if you haven't learned which pictures to take.

    To address Jorge's question, though: The Rebel XSi is a perfectly capable camera. Go down to a camera store and ask to handle the different cameras you're considering, and if you like the way the XSi feels in your hands, go ahead and buy it.

    I'm going to disagree with a lot of other people, Dan included, and say: Once you have the camera, stop shopping. Get whatever camera you settle on, with its kit lens, and use it for a few months. Learn how it works, and what you like and don't like. Only experience with your shooting style will tell you what else you need.

    Most serious amateurs will, eventually, get most or all of the things mentioned above: a small collection of lenses, a good tripod, an external flash, etc. But if you buy all that up-front, you can end up spending a lot of money on things you never use...and it also gets in the way of taking pictures. If all you have is the camera and one lens, you can focus on learning the camera, and learning photography. You'll learn what you need as you go, and experience will help you make better purchasing decisions.

    All that said: If you go with a Canon camera, I will still suggest getting the Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens (if you go Nikon, I assume some equivalent exists). It's an exception to my "buy it when you need it" rule for two reasons: it's dirt cheap (as lenses and camera accessories go), and it's the sort of thing that you may not realize you need until you actually use it. If you have no experience with fast high-quality prime lenses, it can be a revelation to use.

    Finally: If you go with a Canon camera, ask about the gadget bag (I'm assuming you're shopping at a half-decent camera store). Canon's gadget bags tend to be an inexpensive way to get some accessories like a spare battery or the vertical grip. The bags themselves are, frankly, terrible, but they're often worth the price just for the accessories that come with them.

  34. Alex Whiteside Says:

    It depends what you need, really. If you're buying a camera as a serious or semi-serious tool and you want as much flexibility as possible, then a poor SLR's probably going to be more handy than a good compact. If you're a novice photographer then you're probably going to be more comfortable with a good compact though, and consequently use it more. I don't know about these days but my first 5MP second-hand piece of mystery-brand crap five years ago had full manual and priority modes and taught me a good deal about when to crank the aperture and when to give up and use a tripod and so on, and it took that thing all over the place, which I wouldn't have with an SLR. I even snapped some reasonable lunar eclipse pics on it using nothing but elbow stabilisation.

    Obviously spending more than low-end SLR money on a compact camera is a complete waste, especially if you want to take "serious" pictures with it.

  35. AdamW Says:

    "Obviously spending more than low-end SLR money on a compact camera is a complete waste, especially if you want to take "serious" pictures with it."

    Seems a bit of a pointless comment, as you *can't* spend more than low-end SLR money on a compact camera. Well, unless it's covered in diamonds. The most expensive compact camera you can really buy is the Canon G11, which costs only barely more than an end-of-life discount Digital Rebel from three years ago.

    Well, okay, there's oddballs like the Sigma DP2, but even that's only $800 or so. And there really are reasons for buying such a camera; there's some places you're just not going to take a DSLR.

    There's also things like the Leica digital rangefinders, but they're really not 'compact cameras' like point-and-shoots, it's a whole different area of photography.

  36. Piloter Says:

    Long-time lurker, first-time commenter and all that. One thing that seems to have been overlooked thus far is the simple expedient of getting a cheap-o UV protector for every lens you wind up with. For less than $10, they fit over the 'real' glass and save you from having to worry about dirt, scratches, dust, etc etc. They do nothing to the image but as a safeguard, that and a $5 little clingy screen protector thing will casually rainproof and scratchproof the expensive bits.

  37. Itsacon Says:

    Ok, wasn't going to enter this cess-pit (but if I'm going to, might as well go in completely: Go to a store, try out which of the models in your price class lies the best in your hand and has the controls you can best figure out without the manual. Go with that, it'll take great pictures), but I wanted to comment on the UV filter thing:

    I want a show of hands: Who here, who was not shooting in a sandstorm or near a dirt track has ever had a scratched lens?

    I've done a lot of shooting, in lots of different places, and those modern front element coatings are actually a lot harder than all but the most expensive UV filters. And even a few small `cleaning marks' won't do much to your pictures, unless it's a macro, you're shooting at 1:1 and you stop all the way down.

    The filter however, will most likely degrade your pictures. It'll add two glass/air surfaces, and thus add measurable to the amount of flare. Especially since the filter often sits much further forward than the front element, making your lens hood less effective (if not useless for many wideangles).

    Now, there are situations where using a filter is useful. Polarizers are one (and a host of others if you're shooting film), the aforementioned sandstorm and dirttrack are others. If you're shooting in the rain, B+W MRC coating is much easier to wipe off than most other coatings, and some weather sealed lenses require a front filter to complete the sealing, but on the whole, the `UV-filter protection thing' is an old habit from the time when coatings were much softer (which is why my 65 year old Leica 50mm does have a protective yellow filter on it), and is currently propagated by camera salesmen who see a way to get you to spend another 50 bucks on a lens.

    Use a lens hood, and put the lens cap on if you don't use the lens. Those two will be protection enough.

    Rant over.

  38. Aard Says:

    @Itsacon I'm using a large assortment of lenses, some of them older than 30 years (Pentax K). Problems I had were fungus in one case, dust inside of zoom lenses, and old grease. At least the last two are easy to solve. Only one lens has a tiny scratch which does not matter.

    I'm using exactly one lens mostly with an UV filter attached. That's a Pentax 645 lens, where the filter thread was unhappy to stand between 1.5KG of glass and metal and solid ground. The sole reason of using the UV filter there is having a thread for other filters (mainly IR) which can be used without too much force.

    @reverb I agree on that DX part. I own exactly one of those lenses, the kit lens which came with the Pentax K10d. Reason for buying: I wanted to play with auto focus. I currently own exactly 3 AF-lenses: the mentioned K10d kit lens, the 645 kit lens, and some older Pentax kit lens I got for free with other stuff. All other lenses are MF, but are reasonably priced, and often offer better quality then the AF ones (with the exception of the 645 system, most lenses for that system are high quality, but unfortunately high priced, too)

  39. Cezille Says:

    i've always wanted to buy DSLR but I have no idea which is the best brand and model to choose. I've got so many advices saying the best brand is Nikon. But what I really like is Sony. I will try to compare these two good brands so that I'll be able to choose which of them will I purchase.

  40. TwoHedWlf Says:

    I can't think of anything as far as "learning" a point and shoot can't do that a DSLR can. All but the cheapest offer manual focus, full manual aperature and shutter. No raw unfortunately though on any point and shoot. Which really is more a case of crippleware than a limitation of the hardware.

  41. Aard Says:

    @TwoHedWlf Canons with CHDK can save raw

  42. Kiwinick Says:

    Regaurding old manual focus Nikon lenses, they're a pain to use on the digital bodies (except the expensive ones like the D3/300/700) as metering and auto-aperture won't work. Older AF lenses won't do auto focus on the cheaper bodies, the D80/90 is the cheapest that will.
    I've heard that the Pentax, Sony and Olympus bodies will at least offer metering with old manual focus lenses, and you can get adaptors to fit almost any other brand lens on their bodies.

  43. corinoco Says:

    Fallingwater - thanks for the comment about lens types. And it's a nice house too, by the way.

    As for filters - yes I can put my hand up for not being in a duststorm and scratching a lens. I've been on, or near building sites.

    Two words that strike fear into anyone who likes their transparent surfaces unscratched: CONCRETE DUST

    Concrete dust is small, sharp and sticky. It gets everywhere. It is extremely hydroscopic, and will adhere to glass and crystalise - ie, you wont get it off. You might be able to carefully airbrush it off, but never, NEVER use any form of physical brush or cloth, and you will scratch the lens coating and most likely the glass itself. You will also ruin your brush/cloth as it will now be impregnated with concrete dust.

  44. rocketfire Says:

    There's one very good argument for going Canon..... Dan uses Canon so it must be good.

  45. AdamW Says:

    twohedwlf: "No raw unfortunately though on any point and shoot."

    High-end Canon P&S do raw, even without chdk (which another commenter correctly points out can enable raw on almost any Canon camera, even the real cheapies). My S90 does raw fine, so do earlier S series, and most of the G series cameras.

    On things true SLRs can do that P&S can't, though, I think the 'manual focus' on point-and-shoots is generally a sort of fly-by-wire system, you're not really directly physically controlling the lens. It feels rather different from a true SLR lens. Plus it's almost impossible to use it meaningfully when you don't have a through-the-lens viewfinder, the LCD screen on a point-and-shoot is too tiny and low-res to usefully check that you've got the focus right. S90 has 'manual focus' but I've never really used it, it's just too haphazard (even though Canon gives you a magnified view of the center of the frame to try and help). You wind up always using the autofocus, and using autofocus tricks if you don't want to use the 'obvious' focus for a scene.

  46. Itsacon Says:

    corinoco: concrete dust as a whole is one of the best arguments against exchangable lens camera's in the the first place. If you don't like that stuff on your lens, imagine what it'll do to your sensor... ;-)

  47. cms108 Says:

    Just a couple of points:

    Firstly, the Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 is so cheap because it is generally considered to be one of Canon's worst lenses and the 70-300mm one of their best non-L consumer lenses. To suggest that the only real difference between the 75-300mm and the ~$500 70-300mm is the Image Stabiliser and that the optics are basically the same isn't entirely accurate. The 70-300mm uses UD elements and has a circular 8 bladed aperture, for example.

    Um, I don't think I did that. Canon really do, or at least did, make a stabilised version of the 75-300mm, just like the stabilised version of the 18-55mm kit zoom lens. Here's a review of the stabilised version, on the same site you link to below for the review of the un-stabilised one :-). I don't know whether they still make the stabilised 75-300mm, though; it's 15 years old now, so they probably don't. -Dan]

    Their respective reviews are here:

    A much better entry level telephoto lens than the 75-300mm for the crop sensor Canon bodies is the EF-S 55-250mm IS. It's designed to be a counterpart to the standard 18-55mm IS supplied with most kits at the moment and can often be found bundeled with it in the 2 lens kits.

    I would suggest that these 2 lenses combined with the Canon EF 50mm f1.8 mentioned elsewhere would be the best starting point.

    However, I'm not too sure about using the 50mm f1.8 wide open for portraits. The 50mm is a great lens, but it's not at its best wide open. At f1.8 it's not that sharp, but stopped down a bit it becomes a lot better. Also the DOF at f1.8 is so shallow it's possible to end up with the tip of somebodies nose in focus and their eyes blurred, or if they're not completely square to the camera, one eye in focus and the other not. You or your subject only has to move half an inch between you focussing and taking the picture and it's out of focus. This is all made worse by the fact that the autofocus on the 50mm f1.8 is its other weak point, making it very easy to miss the focus. But if it's dark and you can't use flash, then ISO 1600 and f1.8 can make the difference between getting a picture and just getting a blurred underexposed mess.


  48. Fallingwater Says:

    Since there seem to be quite a number of knowledgeable people here, I have two questions for you:
    1) what do you think of the Tamron 28-75 f2.8? I've been thinking of using one as my main lens; I currently use a 28-105 f4-6.3 that is not very bright at all, and having a lens that's f2.8 for the entirety of its extension intrigues me.
    2) what about the Sigma 18-250? It's not fixed-f, but it sounds about as universal a lens as you can have. Only thing stopping me is that people have been telling me long-extension lenses are to be avoided, lest they devour your pets and set fire to your home, or something. Strangely enough, the Sigma 18-250 seems to be rather better than the Tamron 18-200 that is commonly used as an example of what NOT to get, despite the longer extension.

  49. rndmnmbr Says:

    I'll add a question on the heap.

    I'm buying a replacement for my poor dead Canon 300D. The only two lenses I have at the moment are a Canon 35-80mm (kit lens off an old film Rebel) and a Tamron 28-200mm f/3.5-5.6 (frankly superior to the Canon 75-300mm in the same price range), so I'm going to be picking up a 50mm f/1.8 and the kit 18-55mm IS.

    Otherwise, I've got a nice 550EX flash and a pair of BP-511 batteries.

    I've got two choices for the body: a used 20D from ebay, or a new 1000D from a camera shop. The 20D is ~$300 USD, and I'll have to buy the 18-55mm separately, but both of my BP-511 batteries will fit it, so getting a battery grip later will be much easier. The 1000D will be ~$400 USD, is feature-poor, neither of my current batteries fit it, but it comes with the 18-55mm and a warranty. I prefer the way the 20D fits my hand over the 1000D.

    I guess I can boil it down to this: I like the 20D, but I'm questionable about it being used, no warranty, with ??? actuations. I'm meh on the 1000D, but it's new with a warranty. Most other considerations come out equal (and I used a 300D until it died, so I'm fine not having eleventy billion megapixels to play with.)

    So which one would you choose?

  50. Fallingwater Says:

    To me, the feeling with the gadget is paramount (see: rockboxed, compactflashed, 16GB iPod Mini. Very good player, but no feeling at all = went back to my old compactflashed Karma).
    In other words: get the one you like, even if you have less warranties. You won't be needing the warranty on the other one, anyway - not using an item usually makes it last really long. ;)

  51. TwoHedWlf Says:

    Bugger, no CHDK for me.:(

  52. Itsacon Says:

    @rndmnmbr: The 1000D is a lower-tier product than your 300D, so you might actually miss features (then again, you might not). The 20D is still a very good camera. Personally, I'd go for the 20D, or scrounge up a second hand 400D (last camera in the XX0D series to use CF cards like your 300D, and easily available for that $300).

  53. Marcus Says:

    One vote for the cheap body, expensive glass here. I have an ancient Canon 350D ($800 when new, now probably ~$200) and a 24mm f1.4 L lens (~$1800) that is my standard digital camera.

    Also, the durability of a camera is the most important factor for me. The 350D and the L lens have survived numerous storms, 2 drops off my shoulder onto concrete, getting hit with a stick during the wash from a helicopter takeoff (saved my face from an ugly scar!), and being thrown into my bag every day for 4 or 5 years now.

    And on another topic, people who believe the only serious camera is a DSLR have no idea about artistic photography. I have taken my favourite photos with an Olympus XA-2 (a tiny, zone-focus compact camera from the early '80s). Due to it's size and simple controls it is totally superior to my 350D in many situations.

  54. hitmouse Says:

    @Marcus. Very true. Last year I won a prize in a national photography contest for a series of photos taken on a Sony Cybershot and a Canon G7, where all other entries were on DSLRs.

  55. davomate Says:

    I learnt on film SLRs starting about 30 years ago and carried a bag of lenses around Europe because zooms were pretty limited then. My first DSLR was a Canon 300D. When it broke I replaced it with 450D. Aside from the move to digital the biggest improvement in indoor photos has come with an external bounce flash (430EX). No more deer-in-the-headlights photos of people with the shadows in their features washed out. Any cameras with built-in flashes are guilty of this.
    Now I have got picky about image quality and started to add more expensive lenses ... 15-85 f3.5-5.6 IS and 70-200 f4 IS. My bag is heavy once again but the sharpness on some of the photos really pop. Next will be a 60mm f2.8 macro which will allow me to explore macro photography and double as a faster indoor lens (the 50mm 1.4 and 1.8 are soft up to 2.8, so I would rather start sharp to the edges).
    My wife has carried around an IXUS in her handbag for several years and has taken some great candid photos. Low-light is a weakness as is the slow focus when shooting moving subjects such as children. However it is great to have a camera with you all the time, when you are not carrying a camera bag. And the quality is still far better than camera phones.

  56. davomate Says:

    Whoops, I meant phone cameras in general. I couple of the sony phones with sticky-out-lenses are similar to compact quality.

  57. rndmnmbr Says:

    It's funny looking back on my comments from the future.

    I did get the 20D, and the kit lens, and the 50mm f/1.8. And then a 70-300 f/4-5.6 IS USM. And then a 70-200mm f/4 L, and a Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8, and a 50mm f/1.4, and and 85 f/1.8, and a 28 f/2.8 and then a real photographer told me every photo I had ever taken looked like complete shit.

    Then I paid for a college class on composition, and another on basic B&W photography, and a couple of lynda.com video sets on Photoshop, and a couple of books on lighting, and I's all Zen now: I can make cell phones turn out decent photos. Perhaps one day I might aspire to "good" photos.

    So there's my advice from the future: if you're asking what camera and lenses you need to buy, find out what the minimum camera is for your remedial B&W photography and artistic composition classes, and buy that. You're wasting money if you put the camera before the skills to use it.

Leave a Reply