Picking your first DSLR body is never an easy task to accomplish. Heck, buying any camera is a tough thing to do and DSLRs are complicated pieces of technology. The decision-making process is weighed in by several factors. One has to consider not just the megapixel count of the sensor but several other parameters as well including build quality, auto-focusing technology, handling among several others. I have discussed several of these parameters that will definitely help you in picking your first DSLR body.
This guide is meant for use by first time DSLR buyers only. If you already own a DSLR, are looking to upgrade, or are an advanced photographer you may benefit from some of our advanced DSLR (and mirrorless) camera reviews to find out if those are suitable for your requirement.
Main Parameters to Look Out for When Choosing Your First DSLR
- Ergonomics and Feel
- Build Quality
- Image Quality
- Continuous Shooting Speed
- Image Stabilization
First DSLR Preferences
People often seem to have clear cut favorites when it comes to their first DSLR. Sometimes this is just based on other users’ opinions or stylistic trends. However, some people are more informed and can give clear reasons why they’re interested in the camera they want.
Often reasons include better live view auto-focusing, or in-camera image stabilization or better video shooting features. But do they know about the full package that they are getting? Or what they are missing out on? What if they find out after a couple of months that their clear-cut favorite misses out on several important features that they needed? It would be too late to return their purchase.
It is always better to weigh in most of the parameters that you think are going to help you make the sort of images that you want to make. I understand it is not always easy to tell upfront what you are going to shoot. Not as a beginner. As a beginner, you want to be able to shoot almost everything! That said most modern DSLRs are great cameras to capture all sorts of images.
Unless you are a professional, an entry-level camera with a good resolution can produce incredible pictures. It will give you all the creative freedom you need.
Notwithstanding, every budding and experienced photographer has a preference. We have prepared this buying guide keeping in mind the varied requirements that enthusiast photographers tend to have.
Your first DSLR doesn’t need to be a pixel monster. You could get away with using a DSLR that captures 16MP minimum, as long as you don’t intend to print big.
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You can get this sort of resolution on a smartphone these days. So you might be wondering why you should even bother with a DSLR. The truth is, there is a difference and a DSLR will get you better images.
Allow me to explain.
DSLR’s (and other large cameras) have a bigger sensor than what you would find on your smartphone. This, in turn, means that individual pixel size, on the sensor, is larger.
Why does having larger pixels matter?
Larger pixels will collect more light, producing cleaner images with less noise (noise is a sort of grainy presence in low-light images). So DSLRs also perform better in low-light when compared to a smartphone.
Another thing to note is that you need to have a fine balance between resolution and low light performance.
The thing is, your style of photography will determine how much resolution is enough for you. If you will only ever print in a small size and the most you will do is share your photos online, then you don’t need a very high-resolution camera. However, if you are a landscape photographer, or shoot fashion photography or automobile then a high resolution is of paramount importance. For you, cameras like the Nikon D850 or the Canon 5D Mark IV are the best choice.
But the downside to higher resolution is noise. The more the number of pixels crammed on to a small sensor, the more the amount of noise that creeps into your images. If you are a low light photographer, then you need a camera with a large pixel size and not merely a large number of pixels. Something like the Nikon DF or an equivalent.
Ergonomics and Feel
I have always believed that buying a camera is almost the same as buying a car. The DSLR has to feel right in your hands. The positioning of the buttons and dials, the view through the viewfinder, everything has a bearing.
For many photographers, the layout of a Canon high-end/professional DSLR is the best in the business. They love the multi-selector quick control dial at the back of the camera, the positioning of the main control dial at the top of the camera and they also love the fact that most professional Canon DSLRs (and even the lower range ones) come with dual-pixel CMOS auto-focusing technology.
There is probably an equal number of photographers who prefer things the Nikon way. Then there is a dedicated Fuji fan following and a Panasonic fan following and so on.
The best and the safest way to go about picking your camera is to actually visit a store that sells cameras. Test out the cameras. See how they feel in your hands, try the buttons and dials. Act like you’re actually shooting photos. Basically, check how easy it is or how difficult it is to work with the controls.
While you may prefer to just buy a camera and try it at home. Returning products can be a hassle and you waste a lot of time in the process.
Build quality is an important aspect that may impact your new DSLR buying decision. Though it might not seem that important as a beginner, your camera’s build can take you a long way.
If you travel quite often with your camera, shoot outdoors and expect to shoot in dusty environments, build quality is something that you should look into when deciding on your camera.
Now there are two aspects to build quality. One is the capability of the camera body to withstand the odd knocks and bumps when in use, the other is the ability to withstand harsh weather conditions.
When it comes to the overall build quality, the ability to withstand knocks and bumps comes from the underlying material used to make the shell of the camera. The idea is to use a strong yet lightweight material that can help produce a strong enough shell that can withstand minor impacts.
The second aspect to build quality is weather sealing. Weather sealing is designed to prevent moisture and dust from seeping inside the camera. The most vulnerable areas would be the lens mount, the viewfinder, and any other exposed areas. These are the areas that are usually sealed to prevent moisture and dust from leaking.
A majority of the entry-level cameras do not have weather sealing built-in. Cameras such as the Nikon D5300 or the D3300 or the Canon EOS Rebel T7i do not have weather sealing built-in. It’s the professional-grade or the semi-professional grade cameras that come with weather sealing built-in. That said a number of Pentax camera systems do have weather sealing built-in. Even the cheaper entry-level units like the KP are weather sealed.
That being said, if you don’t have the budget/don’t want to invest in high-end camera gear there are other options that can provide decent coverage. These include body casings or covers.
Without a doubt, image quality is the primary parameter of consideration. The irony, however, is that image quality does not solely depend on the camera. It also depends on the lens.
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Actually, the lens takes the main share in determining the quality of the image. Even if you have the best camera in the business if the lens sitting at the front of the camera is low-quality, you’ll have issues.
Nevertheless, a high-resolution camera gives you more detail. And a greater amount of detail means you can zoom in and check elements in a composition.
That said resolution has its downsides too.
One of them being poor low light performance. As we discussed previously, pixel size can affect low light performance. If you have lots of small pixels on a small sensor, noise levels will increase.
There are other factors that affect image quality but this is the most important thing to consider.
When it comes to autofocusing, you’re going to want a camera that has a decent autofocus system. As a beginner, you’ll probably be relying on autofocus a lot.
Autofocusing is the function of locking focus on a subject using mainly two different technologies. One is phase-detection autofocusing and the other is contrast-detection autofocusing.
Both types of auto-focus will usually come together on a camera (if the camera offers Live View). Phase-detection autofocus is the faster of the two, whereas contrast-detection is slower and more accurate. However, if a camera offers on-sensor phase-detection autofocus, as Canon’s dual-pixel cameras do, you get both speed and accuracy.
It is worth noting that autofocus quality depends on both your camera and lens. Typically, you’ll find your camera’s autofocus technology works best with lenses produced by the same manufacturer. So a Canon body goes with a Canon lens, rather than a third-party lens.
Live View Autofocusing
If you shoot in Live View, you’ll typically find that your autofocus speeds are slower than standard autofocus systems.
Canon, for example, states that they have tuned this new auto-focusing technology to work with their modern STM lenses. STM lenses contain a focusing motor known as Stepper Motor. This motor is a bit slower and quieter than USM motors.
The advantage of this is that the ‘slowness’ produces a smoother auto-focusing experience which is perfect for video shooting. But do note that this is not ‘slow’ by any stretch of the imagination.
If you are interested in video making or shoot using Live View most of the time, you should be looking for a reliable, accurate, and reasonably fast Live View Autofocusing mechanism.
On the other hand, if you predominantly shoot stills and you need a snappy quick AF lock most of the time, then go for USM (Canon) or SWM (Nikon) technology. You don’t need STM lenses and you don’t need Live View Autofocusing. You need phase-detection autofocusing.
Continuous Shooting Speed
Continuous shooting speed is a requirement for a specific group of photographers. These are photographers who shoot sports, action, birds, and wildlife photography.
Continuous shooting speed denotes how many frames the camera is able to capture in a second. There are usually two numbers provided in the specs of a camera. One is the continuous shooting speed when focus and exposure are locked before the first frame is fired. The second is the speed that the camera can achieve with autofocus and autoexposure turned on.
Image stabilization is divided into two main technologies.
Lens-based image stabilization systems and body-based image stabilization systems.
Lens-based image stabilization is compatible only with lenses that have image stabilization technology. Typically denoted in the lens names. For Canon, this is IS, and for Nikon its VR.
Lens-based image stabilization moves tiny stabilization elements located inside the lens barrel. This ensures that the image is brought back on to the sensor/image plane and a sharp image is formed.
On the other hand, body-based image stabilization works by making all compatible lenses image-stabilized by default. In this type of image stabilization, the sensor inside the camera is physically moved. Micro movements allow the sensor to be aligned with the image coming through the lens. This, therefore, stabilizes the image.
There are advantages to both systems. Body-based image stabilization makes all lenses stabilized by default. As a result, lenses can be made lighter with less moving components and therefore manufacturers can focus on higher optical quality.
With lens-based image stabilization, you have the freedom to choose if you want the stabilization mechanism engaged or not.
Well, the choice may sound like a no-brainer, you would always want to have an image stabilized lens. Right? Well, the answer may not be that simple.
There are plenty of situations where you don’t need image stabilization. Landscape photography, for example, is done on a tripod. Image stabilization, no matter how good it is cannot replace the efficiency of a tripod, at least not yet. Plus, when you mount your camera on a tripod you will have to turn off image stabilization. Otherwise, it will constantly try to correct a non-existing movement.
Price is probably the one parameter that most first DSLR buyers would give the most importance to. Yet, it has been listed the last in this discussion. There is no specific reason for this except that we feel the technical features deserved first preference because technically your first DSLR should fit your expectations. Not merely meet your price expectation.
An entry-level DSLR like the Canon EOS Rebel T7i would set you back by 700 dollars. But the camera would be an excellent choice to start off your photography career. Similarly, if you are looking at Nikon as your preferred brand then the D5600 is a great camera to pick.
While there are other great choices, it is important to make sure they meet your ideal camera criteria.
Picking Your First DSLR Body: Conclusion
With all this information, it should be much easier to go out and pick your first DSLR. And once you’ve bought it, you can go out and shoot. If you’re looking for tips on how to start out, check out our best photography courses for beginners to give you a kickstart.
If you’ve bought your first camera, why not let us know in the comments which camera you chose? And if you have any questions about choosing your first camera, feel free to also leave them in the comments!