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Created: Monday, 07 July 2014

What DSLR camera should I buy?

I get this question about once every few months, so I thought I would answer it on my website once and for all. My friend Evan asked me recently which DSLR camera to buy to the most professional results. I'm a good person to ask for a few reasons.  I make my living in photography, and have been for 17 years.  I have been closely monitoring the development of the DSLR Camera market for the past 17 years.  I have also been following the development of the ARM processors these cameras use for their image processing.  

Nikon D800

Costco Box Lunch Special

Six years ago there was a two lens, flash and camera body combo for sale at Costco and Sams Club for under $1000 from Nikon and Canon. Today there is as well, and ten years from now there will be as well. The tech specs on these bodies and lenses are very good. The lenses are very sharp, and they have some neat features like image stabilization for low shutter speeds which reduces out of focus images. I sometimes refer to this setup as the "Costco Box Lunch Special."   It represents a huge bang for your buck when you think of the amount of equipment you get for under $1000.  The camera and accessories are light and travel well.  It's an excellent first camera system for a consumer.  Both systems not only do photography but video as well.   You can make some outstanding movies with these cameras.   The downside is the body and lenses are fragile and will break easily if your not careful.   They are slow to focus and do have problems in low lighting.   They are by no means professional systems.  

"P" for professional

Lenses don't change much over time.   They do get updated from time to time with some new features but optically they often remain the same for many decades.  There are new bodies every few years with a name, a new look and feel and  and upgrades in the amount of pixels the camera captures.  The thing to get the most excited about with a new camera is the image processor. What you want is what everybody wants, to turn on a camera, shoot a picture and get a stunning perfect result without much effort.  . What it all comes down to is a simple little $20 processor in the camera that does all the computing  behind the scenes. The little processors are ARM processors for Canon and Nikon is switching over to them as well. These are similar processor found inside of your smartphone and tablet. Within the next couple of years we'll see an over supply of these processors in the market which means that many new cool features will come out.Boxer owned by Chef Bobby

The automatic and "P" for program (or professional as we jokingly refer to it in the industry) are modes where you let the camera take it's best guess at settings. Over the years they have gotten better at guessing.  The improvements in processing power that the recent smartphone market trend will help to future cameras to make educated guesses.   Though it will never be 100% perfection the batting average will go up over time.

Also within the next few years you'll see these cameras come with Android built into the camera. You'll be able to use apps to control the camera and send images quickly through bluetooth on your phone. Another thing that will be great is built in facial recognition. If you've ever tried to photograph a sport with these cameras only to find that as you shoot the photo you get the camera focusing on the wrong person in the last second you know the frustration. You'll be able to train your camera to focus on people's faces and follow them around the scene.

Nikon, Canon, or other, what are the differences?

I would stick with either Nikon or Canon though there are other good brands like Panasonic, Pentax and Sony. Nikon and Canon offer the widest selection of lenses in the market which unfortunately the other simply don't offer. There are people who are passionate about their alternate bodies.  If you for example have been shooting Pentax for years (perhaps back to the film days) and own a lot of Pentax lenses but not a Pentax DSLR  then it makes no sense to buy anything other than Pentax.  My advice is for those who don't own any DSLR equipment.


Canon LogoCanon offers the widest line of new lenses for sale in the market. Canon is also a consumer electronics company so they are always one step ahead with the electronics in their camera versus Nikon. But Nikon is usually very close behind. The one area where Canon excels is in video. People are filming movies with their cameras. Fox TV's show  'House' had an episode filmed with a Canon DSLR camera. Canon is actually so far ahead of the industry that they have an office in Hollywood to deal with the motion pictures studios.  When they film stunts such as cars crashing they are using Canon DSLRs inside of cars.  They pull out  the memory card from what was once a camera.

Canon is a very good choice for a DSLR camera. It may be one of the most popular choices for DSLR cameras.  Canon is famous for their "L" series (for Luxury) in their high end professional line.  But they have a lot of non-L Series lenses that are also great. Can anybody really tell what camera shot picture, a Nikon over a Canon?  A few with highly trained eye, but for the mass majority of the public the answer is no.  They are very similar.    


Nikon LogoNikon is an optical company. Aside from cameras they make Microscopes and specialized multi million dollar cameras used in manufacturing in the computer industry. The history of Nikon is interesting. You've probably heard of the camera "Hasselblad." They have lenses developed in the late 1800s by Karl Zeiss. Some of these lens designs such as Planar and Sonnar are still the peak of perfection in today's world. When Nikon was established nearly 100 years ago this was the standard it was trying to achieve. They wanted to be the Japanese version of Contax and Hasselblad.  From a pure optics point of view Nikon still makes some of the best lenses in the world. Their bodies are usually compelling with many similar feature's you'll find with Canon.

For the first ten years Canon was in business Nikon made Canon's lenses. This was before WWII.  After the war Japan was rebuilding.   Nikon was the first to come out with a single lens reflex 35mm camera (the Nikon F) that had interchangeable lenses.  They also had a very clever system design where the Nikon F could have different viewfinders and focusing screens which made the camera very well suited for wide variety of needs.  This was the start of what you now consider a DSRL camera system.  The Nikon F was very popular around the world and gave Japan a sense of national pride after a dark period in it's history. Nearly all the famous Time/Life Magazine images you have come to love from the 1960s were taken with Nikon.   Nikon brought in a new era of Photojournalism in media. 


The other manufactures

You may want to keep your shopping options between Nikon and Canon. I say this knowing that someone will write in proclaiming the benefits of Sony or Pentax. None of the camera manufactures give me money for my endorsements so I have no skin in the game. With Nikon or Canon you have the most options available. For the average person, they are best off with either Nikon or Canon.

Quantum leap versus backwards comparability

One of the things I hold against Canon occurred a long time ago. Back  in the 1970s and 1980s Canon had  a popular line of 35mm cameras such as the Canon AE-1 Program. When auto focus cameras came out sometime in the mid 80's Nikon and Canon did very different things. Canon changed the way that the lenses mounted to the body of their cameras. All the manual focus lenses they sold up to this point suddenly wouldn't work on the new autofocus camera bodies. By taking this Quantum Leap they threw a lot of loyal Canon manual focus customers under the bus.   Nikon has never changed it's original F mount from the 1950s.    To this day you can still use 50 year old Nikon lenses on your Nikon body (though it won't auto focus or meter).   Nikon lenses are backwards compatible, Canons are not.  Did the gamble work out for Canon?  Yes it did, many loyal Nikon shooters switched to Canon over the last 30 years.  

 Back in the mid-1980's Nikon had a line of manual focus lenses known as AIs lenses that maybe are some of the best optics around. There was a time not too long ago when old manual focus Nikon lenses weren't worth much, nobody wanted them anymore. Then a strange thing happened. This new generation of videographers using Canon bodies started buying these old Nikon manual focus lenses. Using adapters they mounted the old Nikon lenses to their Canon bodies.   They loved the optical quality of these lenses. They were also very easy to focus with by hand. Today some of the old Nikon (Nikkor) lenses are in such demand that some of them are selling for used nearly as much as they sold for new 30 years ago! 


The bottom line


The kit cameras you find in the Warehouse Clubs or online are supposed to be entry level cameras. One lens is a wide angle to a normal zoom  lens which is fine for everyday shooting.  The other is a telephoto lens good for far away subject and nice portraits.  They are nice and light and easy to travel with and yet somewhat fragile. They won't focus fast enough for sports, and they'll take some out of focus images in dark places. Sometimes you'll be better results switching over to manual focus mode. But they will produce outstanding results when used in the right setting. From a pure bang-per-buck perspective they are both the same. I tell people who are trying to decide "Who do you know who will let you borrow their lenses?" If you have a buddy who has a lot of nice Canon lenses and they are okay with you borrowing them then go that direction. Same if they shoot Nikon.

Over time you can add new lenses to your collection depending on your needs. If you are going to shoot sports you can easily spend thousands of dollars on bodies and lenses to keep up with the action. For some people it's their hobby and they don't mind spending the money. There are places online where you can rent bodies and lenses which may be a good way to try out the higher end gear if you want to go right to this option first. You may spend a couple of hundred dollars for a weekend rental when it's all said and done but it's better than $5000 for gear that mostly sits in your closet.

There really is no right answer to what is best for you other than what you like. You need to go somewhere that you can put your hands on the cameras, check out the menu systems and try to make sense of it all. There are a lot of funny numbers that get displayed without much meaning. You can make sense of it by learning online at places such as Youtube. To take some nice pictures you don't need to know the numbers mean. The camera will do most of the thinking for you. Whatever you blow you can try to save afterwards on your computer in programs like Photoshop. But if you want to truly own the images you make you really should challenge yourself to learn more about photography. Nearly all DSLR cameras have a manual mode so that you make the decisions instead of your camera. You can also take some adult education courses in photography. My advice is don't go into huge debt at first. Buy your camera, learn as much as possible before deciding to move on to your next camera.

As we move into more megpixels we're starting to see that some lenses aren't holding up as well as others.  My buddy who makes 4K movies says that the cheap off brand lenses he used in 1080P  video just aren't cutting it anymore.  Over the years when you think about cameras the major flaw the bodies have is that they are partially a computer  Over time they become technically obsolete.  Good lenses can last you for many decades.   Thus as you grow in photography buy camera bodies but invest in camera lenses.