Buying Your First Digital SLR Camera

Buying your first DSLR is an important decision that you'll have to live with for years.(Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

Buying your first DSLR is an important decision that you'll have to live with for years.(Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

So you’ve gotten to the point that this photography thing is really starting to occupy all of your waking moments-you’ve been bitten by the bug, and you want a better camera! What should you buy? Which camera, which system, which way to go? What’s the right choice when there are so many to choose from? What follows are my general recommendations, based upon over 30 years’ experience as a professional photographer…..

I’m going to assume that you’re stepping up from some type of point-n-shoot and are interested in a digital single-lens-reflex camera, hence a DSLR machine. If you’re shopping for an antique/retro film camera, you’re probably reading the wrong blog post!

This advice will be not so much technical-not the detailed specs on any individual camera-but overall things to keep in mind when you’re trying to make a buying decision. Spending about a thousand bucks on a camera is an important decision and one you’ll be stuck with for a while, so you want to make sure you’re considering the right things when you go shopping.

Where to Start

To put it simply: buy Canon or Nikon. Dollar for dollar, day after day, year after year, these are the two camera manufacturers who have consistently led the technological charge and delivered high quality, innovative yet very sturdy, dependable products for the advanced amateur and professional photographer. There are other excellent cameras on the market, and you can buy into another system if you choose. But I will tell you unequivocally that Canon and Nikon are the two safest bets you can make. Remember, buying a camera is the beginning of a long-term commitment. You’ll most likely end up buying additional lenses, strobes, and other accessories for this camera, all by the same manufacturer. Eventually you’ll need another, better camera as well. You’ll want your lenses to fit on the new body, when you buy it. And on and on….so choose carefully, and plan on staying committed to the choice you make. It’s like a marriage. Easy to get into, but hard to get out of!

Which is better? Well, that depends on whom you ask! I started my career as a Canon shooter. Their lenses were as good as Nikon’s, and just a bit cheaper for the struggling young photographer to buy. Later, I switched to Nikon when the company-issued equipment I was given was Nikon. More recently, my company made a dramatic switch over to the Canon system after Hurricane Katrina. Both are excellent systems. Keep in mind that with camera systems, what you’re really buying these days are computers with lenses attached to the front of them. I think the lenses are the singular most important aspect of any system, since it’s the lenses that must resolve light into an image. That said, I really, really like the Canon autofocus, which is truly superior. (Watch an NFL football game, and check out the photographers bunched together on the sidelines. There’s a reason you’ll see nothing but those big white Canon lenses.) Nikon’s portable strobes are more accurate though, I think.

Keep in mind that with camera systems, what you’re really buying these days are computers with lenses attached to the front of them.

So you choose which system. But what about models?  I’m going to recommend a couple of cameras for you to consider from each of these two brands. We’ll look at them from roughly equal price points, although you’ll find the features don’t match up exactly.

The Canon T1i and Nikon D5000 are both fine entry-level DSLR's. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

The Canon T1i and Nikon D5000 are both fine entry-level DSLR's. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

Nikon D5000 vs. Canon T1i

Check out the Nikon D5000 and the Canon T1i. Both cost under $800 with a cheap zoom lens as part of the kit. They both shoot some basic video as well as stills and take the full complement of interchangeable lenses. Check out Wilson Rothman’s review at Gizmodo.  He ends up siding with the Canon camera, which has a better LCD screen and more AF functionality, although still limited, when shooting video.  But either of these cameras would make a fine entry-level DSLR for the serious beginner.

For a bit more money, the Canon 50D and Nikon D90 offer a lot more image quality then their cheaper brethren. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

For a bit more money, the Canon 50D and Nikon D90 offer a lot more image quality then their cheaper brethren. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

Stepping Up:  Nikon D90 vs. Canon 50D

These two are a bit more money ( $1199.95 for the D90 kit at B&H,  $1131.95 for the 50D kit) but this is an area in which you really do ‘get what you pay for.’  There have been plenty of reviews on these two offerings such as Digital Rev’s review or Digital Review’s look which point out strengths and weaknesses of both: big LCD screens, larger ISO ranges, size and weight of both(the Canon is noticeable bigger and heavier). Key differences are the Canon shoots at up to 6.3 frames per second compared to the Nikon’s less-impressive 4.5 fps. The Canon shoots a bigger photo at 15.3 megapixels compared to the Nikon’s 12.3 megapixel image. BUT the Nikon can shoot basic video clips, something the Canon will not do. So you must decide if this is an important feature for you.

It’s easy to get caught up in all of the minutia when comparing camera systems. But I recommend going to a good local camera store and trying cameras in your hands—how do they feel to you? Without trying to understand all of the navigational features of the cameras, compose through them, use the review on their LCD screen, see if the controls are intuitive and make sense to you. Bring a couple of memory cards with you and shoot some photos with each camera to take home and evaluate. (Both Nikon cameras shoot SD cards, the Canon T1i shoots SD and the 50D shoots Compact Flash cards.)  Ask to put some other, higher-end lenses on the camera bodies you’re considering. Shoot a high-speed burst of photos with both cameras and listen to the speed of the motor drives. Does one camera balance better with a big telephoto or big, expensive wide angle on it than the other?

If you see sports or wildlife photography in your future, you should invest in the Canon system of cameras and lenese. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

If you see sports or wildlife photography in your future, you should invest in the Canon system of cameras and lenses. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

Which one do you LIKE better?

Finally, think to the future. Both Nikon and Canon make superb professional lenses. You may develop a preference for one system over the other, and that’s fine. I would caution you however, that if you think your shooting will eventually involve lots of high-speed action-sports photography, or wildlife photography, for instance-then you need to go with the Canon equipment. Their autofocus has been ahead of Nikon’s for over 10 years and is still superior on the top-of-the-line cameras. If that’s not a factor, then either system will be fine, just choose one and plan on sticking with it.

selfport1aHi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for  email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Consider getting cheap but quality camera lenses for first time purchases. (Sponsor Link)

Related Links

Canon T1i at B&H with cheap 18-55mm zoom lens is $719.95:

Nikon d5000 with 18-55mm zoom lens at B&H is $799.95:

Canon 50D at B&H is $1131.95 with the 28mm-135mm lens:

Nikon D90 with 18-105mm lens at B&H is $1199.95:

Review of D90 vs 50D at SLR Geek:

Digital Review’s take on this matchup:

Posted in: Equipment

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

24 Comments on "Buying Your First Digital SLR Camera"

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  1. David Joachim says:

    Nice post. I bought the D40 on impulse at Best Buy 3 years ago (a 1gig card cost $50). I upgraded to a D90 recently. I’m sure most people stick with a brand based on a chance purchase like mine. Whenever I see detailed internet comparisons, I’m amazed at how hard it is for me to discern the subtle differences between brands. I suppose that’s because I shot TV daily and not stills over the years.
    My well healed mortgage banker brother has spent a lot of his considerable disposable income on Canons over the years. (He too decided to dance with the one what brung him.) He loves the Canon’s action autofocus when he shoots what he loves more than his family: auto racing. And the digital world now lets him shoot at a higher ratio than ever before. Even with his lack of innate photographic skill, he is able, like the blind pig, to find an acorn when he fires away.
    Keep the interesting articles coming.

  2. Thanks David! Yeah, it’s true, once you start down the Canon or Nikon road, it gets really expensive to make a switch….you and your brother are great examples of what this article tries to explain.

  3. Now this article is really one of the best Ive read on this exellent topic. I agree with your views and am looking forward to your new posts. I’m grabbing your rss feed to stay informed of any updates.

  4. Thanks Randee! I appreciate the kind words. You’ll find the site is a mix of technical how-to, tips and inspiration (hopefully) for all photo enthusiasts, whether beginners or advanced pros.

  5. Great post! I have long been bitten by the photography bug. Until now I have been using a simple point and shoot digital camera, with variable results. Very occasionally I manage to take pictures I’m really pleased with but it’s rather hit and miss. I also have a charming Nikon EM – which is older than I am! I love using this but I like the convenience of digital photography. So I am looking to buy a digital SLR in the sales. I have been really happy with the Nikon and was thinking about getting another one. I tend to take pictures of static things – buildings, landscapes etc (and also food!) for my blog! I am now stuck between the D5000 and the D90. I like the look and size/weight of the D5000 but am unsure about the lack of the in-body focus monitor. Do you think that this is a major issue? Thanks!

  6. The D5000 is a simpler camera for a novice to operate, but image quality will be similar to the D90. You need to decide how much money you want to spend. If you think this is a developing passion, you might want to go ahead and spring for the D90!

  7. syndiann mitchell says:


    This is my first camera i am going to purchase, i choose to buy a Nikon D90 SLR Camera.
    I would like for you to help me by giving me information on which kit i should buy.
    I need to know what i have to buy in the kit as a first timer, which are the two best lense for e:g.
    Could you please send me some options on the best kit to buy.

    awiting your reply
    thank you

  8. Nate Burnett says:

    I know it’s like entering a Mac/PC debate, but I’ve worked my way through Nikon models up to the D3, and I’ve never been disappointed by the brand.

  9. 5 years ago, the seals on the top models were no good. Found this out in Katrina. They may have fixed this issue by now.

  10. Sarah says:

    My husband has a Nikon D60. He’s not a professional photographer, but he has been interested in photography since we went to Rome and he saw all those amazing sculptures and buildings. Since then, he’s been hooked on photographing architectural structures and presenting them in his own unique ways. I’m amazed at his creativity. 🙂 His Nikon D60 serves him well. Thus, I highly recommend it for photography enthusiasts who want to explore their skills and who need a nifty, easy-to-operate gadget that they can bring along everywhere.

  11. Jannie says:

    I really prefer Canon over Nikon, it’s just because I used Canon many times than the Nikon

  12. Rachel says:

    Hi there, Andrew! Your blog is such a big help for photographers, photography enthusiasts and even for people who just want to read some really substantial stuff. Keep writing, Andrew!

  13. Catherine says:

    Hi Andrew,

    I’m an ex-film SLR owner (Olympus OM-10) and I’ve been working my way through a variety of digital cameras over the last few years, hampered by my husband (not a photographer) who keeps telling me that I really don’t want a DSLR.

    I’m particularly interested in concert photography, some examples of which can be seen here taken on Saturday night with a Canon Powershot IS200

    Life would be so much easier though with something that went past 800 ISO… my principal requirements are for something that’s not too cripplingly expensive (in the UK) and good in low light.

    Advice gratefully received,


  14. Advances in CCD sensor technology have drastically improved the low-light shooting capability of all modern DSLRs. I don’t know anything about the current Olympus models or whether you have old lenses you’re hoping to repurpose; if not, you might look at an ‘entry-level’ Nikon or Canon (this article lays out two possibilities). Good luck!

  15. Caroline says:


    I’m in the search for my first DSLR. I’m a bit overwhelmed by so many options. In my search I ran into the Sony SLT. Now I’m in between the Sony SLT a33 and Canon Rebel T1i. I would really appreciate any advices.


    Caroline P

  16. Sorry Caroline, I haven’t used the Sony camera, so no opinion there.

  17. Marta says:

    The Nikon EM was my first camera also. I really appreciate this post. I live in a small town just on the outskirts of Montréal which is really bucolic and as the colors turn in fall I really feel the need to capture it on film. Up to now I have been borrowing a friends Canon. It’s a great camera and on the basis of your article I think I’ll make it my next purchase.

  18. Thanks for your thoughts, Marta. You’ll enjoy having your own DSLR, so I encourage you to take the plunge!

  19. Pat and Dennis says:

    Hi Andrew,

    My wife and I are looking for a new DSLR camera. We are moving up for a point and shoot camera that takes good pictures but does not allow for fast shutter response or quality zoom. We have narrowed our selection down to a Canon EOS 60D or Nikon D7000. We are now at the point of making our decision based on feel and ease of use as the features we need are almost identical for both cameras. We now are looking at lenses. The majority of our photos are during our vacations. The photos we are trying to improve by going to a DSLR are the action wildlife photos, distant scenery photos and the landscape photos we are forced to take from moving vehicles. We are thinking that we could buy the camera body and a single lens that would provide us with range we need. We are considering a 15-200mm lens because we do not want to be changing lenses all the time. This is based on very little technical information on our part and we really need help understanding lens quality and functionality to determine if this is a wise choice. Can you suggest articles for us to research?

  20. There are always tradeoffs with zooms that try to do as much as 15mm to 200mm. I don’t know the specific lens you’re looking at but it’s probably one with a variable aperture (to get a fixed, quality aperture over this range is very, very expensive in terms of lens design). But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. If you’re coming from a point and shoot, ANY of these choices will seem radically improved over what you’ve been able to do in the past. If you’ve read my article comparing the D7000 to the 60D, you already know that I think both of these are very nice cameras. Overall, I find the Canon lenses a slightly better value.

  21. pam says:

    what is the best Canon SLR camera to choose from?

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