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.
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.
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?
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.
Hi, 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
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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: