Buying a Digital SLR Camera

Kate Miller-Wilson
Female customer holding digital camera

If you're in the market for a new digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera, it's easy to feel overwhelmed by all the jargon and options. DSLRs range from entry-level models ideal for capturing family moments to full-featured professional cameras that will create jaw-dropping images. The right camera for you is out there; the secret is matching one of the options to your needs and budget.

Buying the Right DSLR for You

Like any major purchase, buying an interchangeable-lens camera takes a bit of thought. Before you head out to the camera store, ask yourself a few questions.

What Is Your Budget?

Price is a huge factor to consider when shopping for a new camera. While DSLRs have become more affordable in the last decade, they still cost more than the average point-and-shoot model. You can expect to spend from about $500 for an entry-level kit to several thousand dollars on a professional camera body. Before heading to the camera store or drooling over the options at your favorite online retailer, set a budget for yourself and stick to it.

Don't forget that the actual DSLR camera is only part of the expense. When purchasing a new camera, you must take into account the added expenses of gear and accessories:

Camera Lenses
  • Lenses
  • Filters
  • Cleaning supplies
  • Extra batteries
  • Memory cards
  • Remotes
  • Software
  • Tripod
  • Camera bag
  • Lighting equipment

What Do You Already Own?

Because accessories are such a major factor in the expense of a DSLR, it's important to take stock of what you already have. Camera systems are proprietary, meaning you can't easily use Nikon-mount lenses on a Canon camera body and vice versa. If you already have a good collection of lenses, you may be more or less married to that camera brand. You can always sell the gear you have and start over, but that's a big change for many people.

How Will You Use It?

How you use the camera may be one of the biggest factors in deciding on a model to buy. Is this your first DSLR? Are you planning to use it to take great family shots? Or will you be selling your shots or creating art? Also, consider the type of photography you shoot the most: action, portrait, landscape, still life, macro, nature, or another genre. Ideally, you want the right camera for the right job.

  • If you're planning to limit your use to family shots and maybe sports games, look for an affordable model with good low light performance, fast autofocus, and the ability to stop action by capturing several frames per second.
  • If you're looking for a professional camera to create art or take shots for clients, nothing trumps image quality. Look for something with a great sensor and awesome all-around performance.
  • If you're getting ready to take some awesome wildlife shots, look for something with a crop sensor to give you extra reach and super fast shooting speeds.

DSLR Features to Consider

Once you identify your priorities for you new camera, you can give some thought to the various features you might want. Every feature is great, but some are more important than others for specific uses.

Sensor Size and Resolution

The sensor is the part of your camera that records the information in the photo, basically the digital equivalent of the film. However, all sensors are not created equal. They have varying resolutions, measured in megapixels. The higher the megapixel count, the more detail and information the camera records. Generally, this translates to higher image quality.

Sensors also come in different sizes. There are basically two main classes of sensor size:

  • Digital camera sensor
    Full frame - This sensor records the entire photo, just like a 35mm film camera would. They generally perform very well in low light and, depending on the resolution, they can capture more detail. Cameras with a full frame sensor tend to be more expensive.
  • Crop sensor - A crop sensor is a common feature in entry level cameras, but it's also present in some mid-range models. This is a smaller sensor that takes just the center (or a center crop) of the image you'd see with a 35mm film camera. This means that you get kind of a zoomed-in effect, which can be handy for wildlife photography but a pain if you're using a longer lens in tight quarters. Crop sensor cameras tend to be cheaper than full frame models, and, with some exceptions, they also tend to have poorer low light performance.

Shooting Speed

Shooting speed is measured in frames per second. When you have the DSLR set to continuous shooting, it will snap a series of photos as long as you hold down the shutter button. How quickly it snaps these photos can be a big deal for some types of photography. Most entry-level models can capture four or five frames per second, which is perfectly sufficient for running kids or soccer games. However, if you're a serious wildlife or action photographer, you might want something with an even faster capture rate.

Autofocus Speed and Performance

How quickly and accurately the camera attains focus can be a big deal for some types of photography. If you are planning to take still life shots with manual focus, this doesn't matter very much. However, if you're hoping to track running kids or flying birds, you need a focus system you can rely on. Choose a model with a well-respected focus system if this is important for you.

In most cases, autofocus speed is a factor of both the camera and the lens. Many modern lenses have their own focus motors and simply work with the camera to acquire focus. However, if you want to use older lenses without focus motors, you'll need to make sure the camera you purchase has its own focus motor.

Additionally, cameras come with different numbers of focus points. These are points in the frame where you can choose put the focus of the image. They range from around 11 in an entry level model to over 50 in a high-end system.

Low Light Performance

Camera with professional lens

From shooting birthday parties to concerts, there are lots of time when you want your camera to handle low light situations. Part of low light shooting involves using a "fast" lens with a wide aperture to let in as much light as possible, but the other part is your camera's performance at high ISO. ISO is a holdover from film; it used to refer to film speed or sensitivity. With digital cameras, it's a little harder to understand, but it basically describes how much information your sensor can capture with the available light. To deal with a dark situation without using flash, you would increase the ISO setting on your camera.

High ISO allows you to shoot in darker settings, but it comes at a cost. The higher the ISO, the more noise or grain you are introducing into the image. This can result in a loss of detail. Some cameras have exceptional performance at high ISO, usually anything about 3200 or 6400, and those are the models you want if you're going to be doing a lot of shooting in the dark.

Video Capability

Will you be using your DSLR for video as well as still photography? Most models are capable of both, but they have varying reputations in terms of their performance and ease of use with video. If you're considering a camera that will produce great video files, make sure you choose one that is recognized in this area.

Entry-Level Cameras

If you're buying your first interchangeable-lens camera, look for a model with good image quality and basic, important features. Coming from a smartphone or point-and-shoot, you will be amazed at the photos these cameras can produce. They are all you need for great family shots - think birthday parties, soccer games, and holidays.

If you're just starting down the DSLR road, you don't have a lot of gear to tie you to a specific system. Instead, you can make your decision based on the price and features you'd like. Canon and Nikon are the big players here in terms of sales and deciding between them can be intimidating. Photographers will passionately argue about the superiority of each, but the truth is that both brands make excellent cameras and lenses. Also, Pentax is still a popular choice for photojournalists or anyone looking for a very rugged camera. No matter which brand you choose, you can't go wrong.

You'll find that many of the entry-level cameras come with a "kit" lens. This is a basic zoom, usually 18mm to 55mm, that will get you started.

Nikon D3400

This camera has the following features:

  • 24-megapixel crop sensor
  • Shooting speed of five frames per second
  • Comes with a kit lens
  • MSRP of about $500

This compact, easy-to-navigate Nikon D3400 is a great introduction to more serious photography if you're coming from a point-and-shoot or smartphone. Rated one of the Best DSLR Cameras of 2017 for Beginners by CNET, there's a lot to love here. The image quality is very good, and the low-light performance and focusing and shooting speed make it a good choice for capturing family moments beautifully. You can connect the camera to your smartphone to share high quality images quickly or take your selfie game to the next level. You can also use this camera for video. Possible drawbacks here include autofocus points that are tiny and hard to see, and the absence of an on-board focus motor that would allow you to use older Nikon lenses.

The Nikon D3400 comes in red and black. You can choose between a single 18-55mm lens kit for $500 or a two-lens bundle that also includes a longer, 55-200mm zoom for about $600. Both are available at Adorama.

Canon EOS Rebel T6i

Features of this camera include:

  • 24-megapixel crop sensor
  • Shooting speed of five frames per second
  • Comes with a kit lens
  • MSRP of about $900

Another great option for an entry-level model is the Canon EOS Rebel T6i. According to TechRadar, it's one of the Best Entry-Level DSLRs for 2017 because of its excellent controls and articulating touchscreen, as well as its spectacular image quality. You can use the model to take video or stills, connect to your smartphone for easy image sharing and awesome selfies, and shoot up to five frames per second to stop action at sports games and other quick events. Low light performance is good, although TechRadar claims the detail resolution of this camera doesn't quite hold up to similarly-priced Nikon alternatives. Selecting autofocus points is also slow.

The Canon EOS Rebel T6i comes in black only. B&H Photo offers the model with a 15-55mm kit lens for about $750 or with an additional 55-250mm zoom for about $1,100.

Mid-Level DSLRs

If you're moving up from your first DSLR or you know you'll need more than an entry-level model can offer, you may want to consider a mid-level DSLR. These cameras blend professional features with an affordable price tag. They tend to offer improved image quality and low light performance, and they can have high resolution crop sensors or full frame sensors. They typically include an on-board focus motor to handle focus on older lenses, allowing you to use affordable and interesting vintage glass with your new camera.

Generally, these models are sold as a camera body only. You can sometimes purchase a kit that includes a zoom or prime lens or two, but the assumption is that you'll have lenses already or will be purchasing lenses for a specific purpose. Most models are available only in black.

Nikon D500

Features of this camera include:

  • 20-megapixel crop sensor
  • Shooting speed of 10 frames per second
  • Camera body only
  • MSRP of about $2,000

If you're interested in shooting wildlife or sports, the Nikon D500 is a good camera to consider. This crop-sensor model provides the reach you need to make the most of telephoto lenses and the continuous shooting speed to freeze action in a jaw-dropping manner. FStoppers calls this model the "ideal action and wildlife camera." The review also notes that with its astounding 153 autofocus points (only 55 selectable by the photographer) and fantastic image quality, this is a great model for wedding photography and an acceptable portrait photography option. For portrait photographers, or anyone else who likes a shallow depth of field, a full frame sensor might be a better option.

You can purchase the Nikon D500 from Amazon for about $2,000 for the body only or for about $2,600 with a 16-80 mm zoom lens.

Canon EOS 7D Mark II

Camera features include:

  • 20-megapixel crop sensor
  • Shooting speed of 10 frames per second
  • Camera body only
  • MSRP of about $1,800

Canon makes its own model that's ideal for action and wildlife, the EOS 7D Mark II. The specs on this model are similar to the Nikon D500, although the Canon was released first. The 65 autofocus points allow creative composition of your shot, and the shooting speed of 10 frames per second lets you capture the fastest action (provided your chosen shutter speed is fast enough). Photography Life praises the build quality of this model and its excellence for wildlife and action photography but notes the dynamic range (ability to capture the range of light to dark in a scene) is not impressive and that it isn't really designed to be a portrait or landscape camera. The review also notes the autofocus system is exceptional at tracking moving subjects.

You can buy the Canon EOS 7D Mark II at Best Buy for about $1,500 for the body only. Best Buy lets you create a custom bundle with a lens of your choice, which can offer a slight discount.

Professional DSLRs

There's actually a huge range of professional DSLRs, which are sold as the camera body only. You can expect to spend anything from about $1,800 to over $5,000, depending on the features you need. However, if you're looking for a general purpose professional camera with a full frame sensor, the models listed below stand out in reviews. They aren't the high-speed, crop sensor beasts wildlife photographers need, but they offer exceptional image quality for portraits, landscapes, still life images, and more.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III

Features include:

  • 22.3-megapixel full-frame sensor
  • Shooting speed of six frames per second
  • Camera body only
  • MSRP of about $2,800

The Canon EOS 5D Mark III is designed to meet most of your professional photography needs. In fact, CNET calls it the "best general purpose pro DSLR." It offers great image quality, sharpness, and autofocus performance with 61 focus points. Ideally suited for everything from weddings to sweeping landscape shots, this is the camera many Canon enthusiasts will enjoy shooting. It's also exceptional in low light and great for video.

The Canon EOS 5D Mark III is available from Ritz Camera for about $2,500 as a camera body only or as a bundle with a 24-105mm zoom lens for about $3,100.

Nikon D750

Features of the Nikon D750 include:

  • 24.3-megapixel full-frame sensor
  • Shooting speed of 6.5 frames per second
  • Camera body only
  • MSRP of about $1,900

The Nikon D750 is a stand-out option for Nikon shooters looking for a general purpose pro camera body. Great low light performance, excellent build quality and features, and outstanding image quality make this model a hit with photographers and reviewers alike. In 2014, Popular Photography called the Nikon D750 the camera of the year, and TechRadar listed it as one of the Top 10 Best Full-Frame DSLRs in 2017. It's excellent for portraits, weddings, landscapes, and more. This is also an exceptional camera for video.

B&H Photo offers the Nikon D750 for about $1,900 for the body only and about $2,400 with a 24-120mm zoom lens.

Be Happy with Your Camera

Whether you're looking for a professional camera to take stunning images for clients or an entry-level model to capture the moments that matter most, there are lots of great options to choose from. Take your time thinking about how you'll use your new camera before you choose, and you'll be sure to be happy with your purchase.

Buying a Digital SLR Camera