How to Decide What Camera to Buy

I get asked the question all the time, “What camera should I buy?” Because I’ve had a professional grade camera body for quite a while now (Canon 5D), I don’t know a lot about the beginner models, so I’ve often deflected or given a very short answer. It’s just not a quick answer kind of deal. Well today, I’m going to help you figure out with a little Q&A, How to Decide What Camera to Buy.

How to Decide What Camera to Buy

Let me give a personal disclosure that I have not held nor fiddled with all of these camera bodies. I am not PRO at the differences between different cameras/platforms, this is strictly MY OPINIONS as I’ve seen from friends and limited research.

If you’ve read my post, Inside my Camera Bag, you’ll know that I shoot on the Canon platform and have for 10 years. However, I see Nikon as equally fabulous, with the two brands leading the photography industry. Out of all of the professional photographers I know, I’ve found they either shoot Canon or Nikon.

What about Olympus? Sony? Pentax? They are likely great slr cameras as well, there just doesn’t seem to be the variety of lenses and support for those bodies. If you plan to expand your photography repertoire in the future, look into Canon or Nikon. If not, one of those brands will be fine.  I’ve taught beginner workshops based off of my book, Say NO to Auto, and had people with all types of cameras attend. If the lenses can change, you can shoot in full manual no matter your model, so rest easy if you have one of those brands.

Lenses don’t work across platforms. I can’t put a Nikon lens on my Canon camera, so if you find you are lens shopping with an Olympus or Sony, there will be more limitations. There are generic brands such as Tamron, but you have to buy Tamron for Nikon or Tamron for Canon. I have a Tamron lens, but I’ve found the glass and crispness just isn’t there. But I was happy with it for a LONG time.

I shot with a Minolta film camera in high school and college, and when it came time to purchase my first digital camera, I felt overwhelmed with the options (even 10 years ago)! I was frustrated with the variety, and just wanted SOMEONE to pick one for me! I’m going to help you narrow down the options a little bit today.

Here are a few questions that will be helpful when you are searching for the right camera for you, something that will take you beyond basic snapshots—tiptoeing into beautiful photography.

What does SLR mean?

Single Lens Reflex. It’s a type of camera. It has interchangeable lenses. It’s fast!  Some people will show me, or send me links of their cameras thinking they have an slr that they can shoot in full manual mode, but in fact, the lenses don’t change, so it is only partial manual. Generally the ISO and aperture can be changed, but not the shutter. The shutter comes in the SLR part.

Nikon or Canon?

Just pick one! Maybe your Auntie Josephine has a Canon so you go with that brand. Or you see Ashton Kutcher shoots with Nikon, so that must be the best. Or you’ve heard that Kristen Duke has had a Canon for 10 years, so it must be pretty FAB, go for it! Honestly, I almost switched to Nikon once because I liked the sound of the shutter–it’s different! Get a feel for both in your hands and just pick one.

Buy Just the Body or with Kit Lens?

Oh boy, this is a tough one for me. I’ll give you my input, then do what you want–it’s what you’ll end up doing anyway. I can relate to my medical husband when people come to him with an ailment, ask him what to do, he gives sound advice, but then they do what they want anyway which is against his advice.

If I could go back in time and tell the beginner “me” I would suggest purchasing JUST THE CAMERA BODY, and not get sucked into what a great deal the “kit” is.  However, I know everyone is looking for a deal, and when you are buying an slr for the first time, you’ll will likely be peachy keen happy with the kit lens because you don’t know any different. You can still shoot on full manual, and will be pleased with your results. Eventually you’ll want to upgrade your lenses, and will kick the kit lens to the curb though.  So, if you just want a quick deal, buy the body with the kit lens. You’ll either jump into photography looking for great images shooting on manual and realize it isn’t that great, or you’ll be thrilled with the results from the kit lens because it’s better than your phone. Either way, it’s no big deal. BUT, if you know from the get-go that you are determined to hone your photography art from the start, buy the body, and two lenses, which will be a bit more of an investment.

Which lenses?

Ok, so if you are going to take my advice and just buy the camera body, you’ll need a lens or two. The greatest advice any photographer ever gave me when I finally decided to take the leap and Say NO to Auto, was to suggest the 50mm 1.8 lens. That’s what I bought to replace my kit lens, and used it exclusively for TWO years for portraits for clients as well as my family at home. I mention that lens in my book, and several posts, because it’s an amazing little lens at just over $100. Inexpensive as far as photography equipment goes. (Nikons, make sure you get the one that has an auto focus switch on the lens, they sell a cheaper version without auto focus and I DO NOT shoot on manual FOCUS). I will say, the 50mm lens has it’s limitations though. It doesn’t zoom in and out–you are the zoom–and we just aren’t used to that. It’s a fixed lens, and in your home when you can’t back up because there is a wall there, that can be frustrating. But it also taught me that I prefer a cropped in picture anyway. So you can just get the 50mm lens with your camera body and be fairly satisfied. However, the only time I really wished I had more “wiggle room” in shooting was when I shot landscape or buildings. Because it’s so zoomed in, I couldn’t see the “big picture.” As well, and especially noticed it while traveling. For quite a while, I used the Tamron 28-75 lens, which I call my “all purpose” lens. It zooms in and out, and was what I often brought when traveling. But now, I just bring my fixed 35mm lens. I have a few options, but this has been great. The 35mm isn’t as versatile as the 28-75 but it’s clearer.  I’ve got a lens comparison with examples in my Get Focused Intermediate book, but this is to just help you get started.

What about megapixels?

Then we hear about megapixels and frames per second and LCD screen sizes, and so many other specs that one seems to be better than the other, but how do you really know???  Let me tell you something about megapixels, in case you don’t already know….any SLR will have adequate megapixel size for most needs. Unless you are printing larger than a 16×20 (I don’t know people who do that unless they are pro’s), 12-18 megapixels is just great. It’s all about the image quality with LARGE prints, so if you aren’t in it to print billboard quality, you are just fine with the basic megapixel. It doesn’t mean that you will have “better” pictures than a camera body with fewer megapixels.

Would you like video with your camera?

This wasn’t an option for me with the beginner cameras years ago, but I think it’s SO great that it is, now. I have said recently, if it were me buying beginner, I’d get the most basic SLR that has video.

What is a full frame?

In more beginner level camera bodies, there is whats called a cropped frame. They work great, you won’t even realize what you are missing until you try a full frame. It’s a big deal for photographers, but full frame is not a need or deal breaker when buying a first camera, in my opinion. If you’ve had a cropped frame, and want to upgrade, you’ll notice a bit of a difference, but honestly, I didn’t notice much. My lenses that I already had just behaved differently from my cropped frame to my full frame.

Does ISO matter on the camera I buy?

In my opinion, when a photographer upgrades from one camera body to the next, a majority of the reason why is because of ISO capabilities. They want to capture the ambient light without using a flash, and can do so by cranking up their ISO to 2000 or more.  If you aren’t sure yet what ISO is all about, check out my book, and  you’ll come away understanding the exposure triangle better with ISO, aperture, and shutter speed and how they work together to give you the best picture. In a nutshell, beginner camera bodies aren’t equipped as well to handle darker lit situations, and even cranking up your ISO to 1000 or higher doesn’t help as much because the beginner camera body can’t handle a higher ISO as well as a more pro camera body.  You will come away with grainy images, less crisp. If you are taking picture outside when the sun is out (in the shade–my favorite photography conditions) then you will be just fine with a lower ISO. And if you are inside and it’s dark, pop on an external flash and bounce the light, or a lightscoop to bounce the on camera flash. If it’s dark or night, I generally use a flash and bounce the light.

Video?

A lot of the newer made camera bodies have video included, too, so if you can–get that!! It at least helps narrow down the search!

Spend $500 or $5000?

This seems to be the toughest question of all. So many options, so many specs, how does one know? Of course everyone thinks that if you spend more, you’ll be getting a “better” camera, right? Maybe somewhere in-between is a good idea. Most of us upgrade from a pocket camera (or camera phone) because we want the ability to take FASTER pictures, without the delay. To capture the kids in motion, dancing, etc. The clarity on an SLR camera (even on AUTO) is much better than those little cameras (though phone cameras have come  LONG way). So we start the research, knowing only this.

If you are a beginner, go for the basic model, you will be very happy! They seem to start at around $500 (older model), or going up to $800 (most current model). This would be a Canon Rebel T3i or a Nikon D5100. Model numbers will vary depending on how new they are. Your local shops like Best Buy will generally have the newest model, and you can at least look at and hold them. I buy online from Amazon, or I’m not afraid of Ebay or Craigslist for used, either because I like to save money and buy an older model. The differences are SO slim, but there is often $100 difference in price.  If you buy used, you just gotta find out how long they’ve had the camera, and how many clicks it’s had taken. I would not buy a camera that a pro photographer is selling–it’s been overused!  My first digital slr camera was the first Canon Rebel, and it was great for a few years.

If you have a beginner body and you want to upgrade, or you want to start at the intermediate level because you know you want to do more with your camera right from the beginning, you can look at the semi pro camera bodies such as the Canon 70D or the Nikon d80 which starts at around $1000 for the body only. I would say that if you have aspirations to start a photography business, to shoot with a mid level camera body such as these. It has a higher ISO capability.  I shot with a 20D for several years, it was a more durable build, and had more of an ISO stretch than my Rebel, and even though you can do great things with a beginner camera, if you have any sort of business, the appearance of a “nicer” camera holds some water. You don’t want to have your clients telling you they have the same camera. Then again, if you rock the beginner camera, it can be kinda fun to show of how good you are!

I’ve been shooting with a more advanced camera for about 5 years now. I upgraded from my 20D to a Canon 5D which I used til it started to die. Just last month I got the Canon 5D Mark II (the Mark III is the latest and greatest, but I’m thrifty and get the old model once the new one comes out). I paid around $2000 for the body only (on ebay after a bid war, new, they are hard to find). The newest Mark III is $3k for the body only.  Now that’s a LOT of money, and unless you are making money with photography via a business, I see no reason why you need to start with this–especially if it is your first camera. The Nikon equivalent is the D800.

If you are a pro, and want to get into major sports photography or become a National Geographic photographer, you my look into the Canon EOS 1DX or the Nikon D4s, but they sell for over $5000. They have the ability to shoot in burst mode, many many images in rapid succession. So you may want to start with another camera unless you won the lottery;)

Just Pick One!

It’s an investment to buy a camera, and a big deal, and I think people over think what to buy because there are so many options. Totally understandable–I was the same way! I hope this post helps you understand what is best for you, please don’t hesitate to ask questions in the comment if something doesn’t make sense!!

I linked to a few photography related posts within this post, but I’ve got lots more photo tips HERE.

Here is a glance at what is inside my camera bag from Amazon (affiliate links).

Kristen Duke

Kristen Duke

Thank you for stopping by my little spot on the web! If you enjoyed this post, you can subscribe to my future posts via RSS, Facebook, and if you are looking to improve your photography, see my beginner books HERE.
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Comments

  1. What a great read! Thanks for the tips!

  2. Whoa! This is such an awesome resource – so many questions answered! Thanks for taking the time to go through so many options!
    Nat & Holly recently posted..Dress Up with Hello Kitty & KuKeeMy Profile

  3. Jennifer S. says:

    This is SO what I needed right now!!!

  4. THANK YOU! I appreciate that you included every level of photographer. I feel like every post I have read is all about beginning photographers and I definitely needed help on an intermediate level. So again, THANK YOU.

  5. Great tips!
    Maria recently posted..Brown Butter Brussels Sprouts Pasta with HazelnutsMy Profile

  6. I liked reading all of your tips. I don’t have a dSLR yet, but I am hoping to get one someday and really learn how to use it. For now, as a Canon girl, I am a fan of my G10 (they have newer models now). It gives me more controls than my old tiny point and shoot. But as you say, I think that any camera is fine, so long as you get in those pictures!

  7. Thanks for all the info! I wish I had this to read last spring when I bought my Nikon D5100. I LOVE it, but I fear I will outgrow it sooner than I anticipated. I’m dabbling with the idea of my own photography business, since people are constantly asking me to do photo shoots for them. ( :
    Nikki recently posted..Practicing A New TechniqueMy Profile

  8. Awesome post and thanks so much for the lens recommendation! I have a kit lense and a 50mm that I love, but I want something that offers a bit more flexibility than the fixed only option. I’ve started a new wish list and this lens tops the list!

  9. I’m a beginner, but I love photography and I would love to start my own business eventually. I’m just learning all of the wonderful things about my camera and frankly, I’ve owned it for like 2 years lol. I work full time and have two kids so I don’t have a lot of free time to read manuals, this would of been wonderful to read 2 years ago!!! But thankfully I think I made a pretty awesome choice anyhow. Do you have any thoughts about my model of camera? I chose Sony because I have always owned Sony products and have always been blown away by their great technology, also they bought out Minolta and Minolta lenses are well known for being awesome! Here’s a link to my model of camera, thanks! http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2370772,00.asp

    • Kristen Duke says:

      I’m pretty sure Sony has a 50mm lens also, I’d look into that. I’ve got books and a workshop if you need some quick help learning your camera better!

  10. This is a great read and very helpful. I’m a blogger and all my pictures up till now have been taken with my cell phone. They look okay, but they could be so much better. So I’m ready to upgrade to a big girl camera. What lens would you recommend for taking pictures of things like recipes and crafts? Also are your books and videos geared more toward Canon since that’s what you have? Or is it easy to follow even if you own a different brand? They are all on my Christmas list so hopefully Santa will bring them to me as well.

    • Kristen Duke says:

      I think a 50mm lens will do great with smaller tabletop items, if you are photographing a room, you might want more space, so look into a 35mm lens. My books and video are geared towards learning the photography principles, not one particular camera.

  11. Hollis Miller says:

    hi Kristen! thanks so much for this post…. i’m not looking to do photography as a business, but I really do like to take great pics of my kiddos and when I want a family shot, have a friend take our pic with ease. :) I have a rebal xs, which i’m sure is a pretty basic model, and I have the lens that it came with but last Christmas I got the 50 mm 1.8 and I love that! I love the blurred background and the really focused foreground, but I think I need to work a little more because they could be a lot crisper. I have read your first book and I think I bought the second one, just gotta find it in my downloads somewhere. but i’m looking to upgrade my camera body, and can’t put a lot of money into it. so just for the basic needs I’m using it for would the t3i be a much better upgrade or not a whole lot different than what I have? what would you suggest? thanks so much and I love following your blog! :)

    • Kristen Duke says:

      Hi Hollis! I don’t know a lot about the differences between those camera bodies, but look at the ISO capabilities. I’d maybe try and wait a bit and save more for something like a 7D or even a 60D for that ISO upgrade.

  12. Awesome post! I have a question. I am getting a beginner dslr camera and am trying to decide between the Canon T3 and T3i. You mentioned that the Canon T3i is a great beginner camera. Is it worth the extra money just to go for the T3i?

    Thanks again for great information!

    • Kristen Duke says:

      I think the T3i is just the newer model, but I’m not up on every model. Ask at your local camera store…I would think the T3 would be just great. Look at the ISO differences.

  13. Jacqueline says:

    Thanks, Kristen; I appreciate the simplicity of this post. My dilemma right now, though is: what is the best type of camera to buy for “journalistic” photography? These kind of recommendations are usually meant for taking posed pictures in natural light.
    Trouble is, I very rarely shoot anything posed. Most of the pictures I take are of my first/second graders as they are doing what we do at school all day. (The parents always appreciate getting a little glimpse into their kids’ school days!)
    Right now, for example, we’re doing an Animal Hospital theme, and it’s really fun to get pictures of the kids “working” in the animal hospital we created right outside our classroom. I have very little control of lighting, and on dreary days, I only have low light to work with. It does help to strategically place white furniture and/or posterboard, so I’m making improvements in my photography!
    But I still haven’t figured out the best kind of camera to go with: dslr or bridge. I bought a Sony bridge on a 30-day trial basis. It’s definitely a step up from my (very good) point and shoot. The camera store was okay with my trying out different cameras, so I’m going to return this one and see if the Panasonic version does any better with low light and moving kiddos. I’ve read up fairly extensively on bridge cameras and entry level dslrs, and I’m thinking I like the ease and flexibility of a bridge. Plus, from what I read, if I want to get spectacular shots in a low light situation with moving targets, I’d probably need expensive lenses to make it work. And I don’t want to spend that much money on something that’s just a casual hobby. So I’m thinking I should go for “decent” quality with a bridge and just learn to get the best i can out of that level camera, at least for now.
    Sorry for the long epistle. While I’d love to hear any thoughts you might have on the matter, I don’t really expect you to have the time to reply. But thanks for letting me vent my dilemma anyway!

    • Kristen Duke says:

      Hi Jacqueline! I don’t know much about bridge cameras, but for low light, you want a high ISO. 1000 or more! Hope that helps some…

  14. SO many choices! Its a hard one, and once you pick a brand you kinda marry into it and are stuck with that brand! So make sure you LOVE what you pick! Cannon girl here!
    Jennifer Polson recently posted..Round Rock Child Photographer- Jack 1 year old sessionMy Profile

  15. great info, Kristen! I’ve been wanting to upgrade my Nikon D3000, but had no clue where to go! This is awesome!! :)

  16. Woo! Just had to read through this twice it has so much great information :) Thanks Kristen!
    Trish – Mom On Timeout recently posted..My Nana’s Famous Green BeansMy Profile

  17. You’ve got some great suggestions, but your intermediate Nikon body is woefully out of date. The D80 came out in 2006, which is prehistoric in dSLR years. A better recommendation would be the D7000 (around $800 new). It has much better low light performance, better white balance, better auto focus and it is much easier to handle and use, especially for a beginner.

  18. Great post! When I bought my first (only) dSLR two years ago, I decided to go with Nikon. I don’t remember why now, but I’m happy with my choice. (I think it’s funny you thought about going with Nikon due to the sound of the shutter!) I have a D7000, a crop sensor camera with ISO capabilities of 100-6400 and High ISO of 12,800 and 25,600.

    I looked at Nikon’s website and they do not offer the D80 anymore; instead, they call it an archived camera. I believe the D90 is the newer version, and, looking at the specs on Nikon, it is a better camera than the D80. However, the D7000 has better ISO capabilities and two card slots

    D90 D7000 D80 D7100
    $597 (reg $899) $819.95 (reg. $1000) $975 $1096 (reg. $1199)
    ISO 200-3200 ISO 100-6400 ISO 100-1600 ISO 100-6400
    Lo-1 100 Hi-1 12,800 Hi-1 3200 Hi-1 12,800
    Hi-1 6400 Hi-2 25,600 Hi-2 25,600

    The D7100 is the newer version of the D7000, of course, The only differences I could tell are better resolution and more AF points, not much of a deal-breaker for me. If/when I upgrade, it’ll be to a full frame camera, and I’m not ready to research that just yet!

    I’m glad you mentioned about the Tamron. I had been eyeing it because I like how it offers the f/2.8 throughout the whole range, plus I’ve seen good reviews on it. I have the 18-105 kit lens and it does OK, but I really wish it had better aperture. I also have the 50 mm 1.8 which I love!

    My kit lens broke several weeks ago (my camera dropped and hit the floor (less than a foot!) knocking the lens off — glad it was the lens and not the camera!). It’s STILL in the repair shop (that’s a story in itself!). I used that opportunity to rent a Tamron 28-75 from LensRentals.com (whose Memphis location is only 15 minutes from where I live!) so that I could try it out and use it for a newborn photoshoot. It did ok, but, overall, I was disappointed.

    For my last photoshoot, I rented a Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S VR II DX, and I was MUCH happier with it. I’m not sure if it’s because the second lens was a Nikon lens or because it had the VR (like Canon’s IS) or what. Plus the two shoots were different from one another. With the Tamron, I was shooting mostly inside and with the Nikon, I was shooting all outside. Even though the aperture didn’t go down to 2.8 like I would’ve liked, I could tell it is a better lens than my kit lens.

    Sorry for the book! I really only wanted to tell you two things, but I got carried away!

    • That was supposed to look like a table for four different cameras.

      D90
      $597 (reg $899)
      ISO 200-3200
      Lo-1 100
      Hi-1 6400

      D7000
      $819.95 (reg. $1000)
      ISO 100-6400
      Hi-1 12,800
      Hi2 25,600

      D80
      $975
      ISO 100-1600
      Hi-1 3200

      D7100
      $1096 (reg. $1199)
      ISO 100-6400
      Hi-1 12,800
      Hi-2 25,600

  19. Arodi Colvin says:

    Hello Kristen,

    About what camera to buy… I have NO camera (well, we do have a $50 digital camera) and I am seriously thinking about starting a blog. The pictures will be mostly of my face (they need to show imperfections and wrinkles) but I’m also going to post some yoga poses.

    Should I just go to a professional photographer for the first couple of blogging years for my face pictures and yoga poses? or should I try to learn photography and buy a camera? It sounds like a lot of money and I don’t really like photos. I never take pictures. I am 41 years old and have never had a camera. The $50 one is my daughter’s.

    If you think I should buy a camera (you said Canon Rebel T3i or a Nikon D5100 for someone like me) , would one of your e-book help at all to get me started for close-ups of my face? which e-book?

    Thanks so much in advance… I found you through the BetterBlogging video….

    -Arodi

    • Kristen Duke says:

      I am so sorry I never saw this til now!! That’s a tough one…the business of blogging is tough enough, if you have a friend or pro you can trades services for, do that, or hire out at first. It can be done, learning how to use a camera, but everyone has different skill sets, it can take longer for some.

  20. Another great post!!
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  21. I can’t even begin to tell you how relieved I felt after reading this post, I was beginning to feel crazy but it’s good to know other beginners suffer first camera buying experience anxiety too. Thank you so much for explaining everything so well, my camera buying confidence has sky rocketed. :)

  22. I want a camera that catches pictures perfectly and is pretty fast & has pretty good zoom any suggestions for a beginners camera

  23. Thank you for explaining ISO in a way that makes sense to a first-time DSLR buyer! I always wondered what prompts the pros to upgrade their camera bodies.

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