This is a detailed guide on how to choose and buy a DSLR camera. Some of my friends that visit my blog regularly ask me questions about photo gear. The questions range from “what should I get to create good-looking pictures?” all the way to “should I buy Canon or Nikon?” Since I went through the pain of researching on what to buy for myself long time ago and have been constantly keeping track of the developments in this industry, I decided to write this small “FAQ” or “how-to” on buying DSLR cameras.

 I have never owned anything more than a “point and shoot” camera and want to buy a professional camera to create professional-looking pictures. What do you recommend?

This is probably the most frequently asked question I have gotten so far. First of all, there is a common misconception that one can only create professional-looking pictures with a professional camera. This is absolutely not true. Some of the best photographs out there are shot with point and shoot cameras. People even manage to take awesome pictures using their phone cameras! So, does a camera truly matter? It does and it doesn’t. For most people out there that are just getting into photography, it doesn’t. For professionals who make a living selling pictures, it does big time. See “A Camera is Just a Tool” in my Nikon vs Canon vs Sony article, where I go into more details about this.

Digital photography, first and foremost, is about light. Beautiful light creates beautiful photographs. Once you learn how to manage light, you can start taking stunning photographs and your gear won’t matter that much. Knowing your camera functionality and technique are second. Most people that shoot with point and shoot cameras don’t even know their own cameras! They just put it in “Auto” mode and don’t bother to figure out important camera settings and modes. True, “Auto” modes are great, but if you look back at all your photos, did your camera produce great photographs every time you took a picture? I’m sure it didn’t! There are three common reasons, which apply even to professional cameras:

  • Bad light
  • Bad technique
  • No creativity

If you take all of your photographs and sort good ones versus bad ones, I’m sure the majority of the bad ones will be the ones taken indoors (birthdays, parties, etc) and the majority of the good photographs will be the ones taken in bright sunny days. Wonder why? Again, it is because of light. In low light conditions, a point and shoot camera increases the sensitivity of its sensor (ISO), resulting in a lot of noise (remember those grainy pictures that you wish were a little bit cleaner?), while in bright conditions with good light, a point and shoot automatically decreases camera sensitivity, stops down the lens (aperture) decreasing noise and resulting in beautiful and sharp photographs (good tips on using a point and shoot).

But point and shoot cameras have limitations. Even if you master the light and know your point and shoot inside out, the camera will not be able to do some of the things a DSLR can. So, here is a list of advantages DSLR cameras have over point and shoots:

Ability to change lenses and depth of field. A point and shoot has an integrated general purpose lens, while you can get a wide range of lenses for a DSLR. If you are wondering why you would need different lenses, take a look at this shot:

You would not be able to get this shot with a point and shoot (unless you had digiscoping gear) because the coyote would not let you get that close. Even if it did, it would feel threatened and run away or perhaps even attack you. I used a long telephoto lens to produce this picture and you cannot mount a lens like that on a point and shoot. Ability to mount different lenses is quite powerful, since you can capture anything from landscapes with wide lenses to little birds with long telephoto lenses. Another big advantage is something called “depth of field“. See how the background is blurred on the above photo, while the coyote is sharp and in focus? A DSLR allows you to change the depth of field and you can control the background bluron your photographs (also known as “Bokeh“), from smooth to harsh.
  1. Overall better image quality. A DSLR has a bigger sensor than a point and shoot, resulting in less noise, faster speeds and better image quality.
  2. Shutter and focus speeds. DSLRs can acquire focus very quickly and take multiple shots per second. Have you ever tried to photograph a flying bird with a point and shoot? Moving subjects are extremely hard to photograph with point and shoot cameras because they lack good focus/shutter speeds.
    1. You see what you shoot. A DSLR is constructed with reflex mirrors, which means that you look through the lens, instead of a see-through hole in the camera. This is especially useful in long telephoto lenses, because you can adjust focus on your subject as if you are looking through binoculars.
    2. Lots of ways to control the camera. Although some of the new point and shoots have a good number of manual controls, DSLRs have the most ability to control the camera. You can customize everything from ISO to focus points and even create your own custom layouts (in more advanced DSLRs).

    If you want to see a more detailed comparison between point and shoot and DSLR cameras, please see Lola’s point and shoot vs DSLR camera article.

    Anyway, let’s not waste time on point and shoots – after all, you are reading this because you want a DSLR! So, what would I recommend? The answer, unfortunately, is not going to be short.

    There are many types of DSLR cameras available today, from DSLR-like and entry level DSLRs, all the way to professional-level DSLRs that have the most features and versatility. They are generally classified in three categories/classes: a) amateur, b) semi-professional and c) professional. Different brands have different classifications, but the latter three are generally the same across all brands.

    Let’s talk about these categories really quick. As the name implies, the “amateur” target market is for entry-level DSLRs that offer least versatility and features to cut down the cost. This category is the most affordable and is an excellent choice for amateurs because less features mean quicker learning. Expect to pay between $500-$800 for a good camera kit (a camera kit is comprised of a camera with one or more lenses). Examples of amateur cameras:T3i, Nikon D3200/D5300, Sony Alpha A3000.

    The next category “semi-professional” is between the amateur and professional categories. It is more versatile than the amateur, has better construction and possibly weather sealing and sometimes inherits features from the professional cameras. Obviously heavier than the amateur cameras and is generally more compatible with older lenses. Expect to pay between $1000-$1800 for a camera body only. Examples of semi-professional cameras: Canon EOS 60D,Nikon D7100/D300s, Sony Alpha A77.

    The last category “professional“, again, as the name implies, is for professional photographers. You get the most features, most versatility and speed, best construction, best sensor technology, best focus system, weather sealing and many other bells and whistles not found in amateur or semi-professional categories. These cameras are money-hungry, between $3000-$10000 for a body only. Examples of professional cameras: Canon EOS 5D Mark III/EOS 1D X,Nikon D800/D4, Sony Alpha A99.

    Some people break down the categories into more segments, but it gets too confusing so I won’t go there.

    Anyway, let’s move on to planning your purchase. A lot of websites on the Internet recommend setting a budget before buying a camera, then based on how much you want to spend, they provide the best available options as of today. Personally, I think it is a waste of time and money. You have no idea what price to pay and different people have different budgets, so, how can you even set a budget? If you are rich and your budget is unlimited, does it mean that you should be purchasing a professional camera just because you can afford it? Absolutely not! Coming from a point and shoot environment, a professional camera will be too complex for you and I can almost guarantee that you will not be able to use it properly. So, why waste money and your precious time? It is very entertaining to see people trying to get rid of their Nikon D3s because the camera is “too much” for them and they can’t use it.

    Don’t worry about budgets or features! If you have never owned a DSLR, buy an entry-level amateur camera and forget about everything else you have read and heard so far. If you have never done serious photography before, trust me, you will go through a big learning curve, even with an amateur DSLR. You will eventually learn how to use the three kings – aperture, shutter speed and ISO to compose beautiful pictures. Once you shoot enough pictures and learn all of the features of the camera and want to move up in a category/class, you can then either sell your camera and buy a semi-professional or professional DSLR, or keep your original amateur DSLR as a backup body. By the way, compared to point and shoot cameras, DSLRs are very good in keeping value, as long as the camera functions and there is no visible damage. Talking about good value, I sold my first DSLR for about $100 less than what I bought it for, after using it for more than a year! If you take a good care of your gear, you will be surprised to see what people are willing to pay for it.