When friends and family pop the question…

“… I am planning to buy a Digital SLR, what should I buy?”  I’ve received variations of this question from friends and family recently.  It is a difficult question to answer because it’s actually the wrong question.

The reason is best explained in an example:
People who are new to photograhy might say “nice camera” to a photographer using a SLR, but photographers rarely comment on another photographers camera, they would instead comment “nice lens!”  This is in part a reflection on the fact that most high-end lenses cost more than the camera that is attached to it, but it is also reflected in the photos you can take.

To make a long story short, the cheapest Digital SLR on the market can take beautiful photos with a high quality lens, but the best camera will take relatively poor photos when coupled with a cheap lens under anything less than ideal conditions.

So, what should they ask?
The decision to Buy an SLR is a decision to buy-into the idea that the best lens for each situation is different.  A single lens of exceptional quality that captures a lot of light across a broad range of focal lengths (zoom) will have two problems: It will be exceedingly heavy and large, and it will be astronomically expensive. 

  • If you want a one-size-fits-all solution, you would be better served with the highest-end point-and-shoot camera with a built-in lens.  There are excellent options in this category such as the Canon G10 and Panasonic LX3 which both offer a failry standard zoom range and excellent image quality.  If you want more zoom (20x) and will accept slightly degraded inage quality, several products offer great value.  (Many even offer RAW capabilities, which I will describe more later.
  • If you do like the idea of interchangeable lenses, but the size of an SLR is overwhelming, it’s worth exploring the new Micro-4/3 system in camera such as the Panasonic Lumix GF1.
  • If you’ve cosidered your options, and still think an SLR is right for you, then the important question you should answer is “what do you want to take pictures of?”.

Picking the lens(es):
Before you pick a camera, determine what lenses you need.  I will only cover the most common categories for someone new to SLR Photography: Midrange Zooms, Midrange Primes, and Telephoto Zooms.

  • Fixed-length Prime: A Prime lens is a fancy way of saying it cannot zoom in and out.  Prime lenses almost always result in better picture quality when you factor in the cost of the lens. Further, an inexpensive fixed-length lens can often produce great results whereas a inexpensive zoom lense will produce poor results in anything less than perfect conditions. (100$ or much more.)
  • Mid-range Zoom: This is the most common lens people use since most SLR’s come with a “kit lens” in this range. They range from reasonably wide (~20mm) to reasonably zoomed in (~100mm). The lower-end lenses in this category are often not very sharp, and photos can have weird effects that are hard to describe. (lens flares, spots in the image, rainbows on sharp lines of contrast, etc…) The lower-prioced lenses also are “slower”, meaning they gather less light, so the lens must remain open longer to get enough light to capture the picture. The generally work alright outdoors but are difficut indoors when there is less light. The excellent lenses in this range are very expensive (500$ or a good deal more.)
  • Telephoto Zoom: A Telephoto lens is used to take pictures of things that are far away. (80mm or greater) While it is possible to achieve good photos with a less expensive lens in the mid-range, a inexpensive zoom will be extremely frustrating. I would not worry about getting a telephoto zoom initially unless wildlife photography is something you really want to do.  A reasonable telephoto zoom lens will start around 500$ and increase as you add Image Stabilization, (which is especially important for a zoom lens) a faster lens and sharper optics.
  • Wide-angle Zoom: A wide-angle lets allows you to capture a large scene in a single shot.  Due to the complexity in bending a broad scene into a single frame, these lenses tend to be expensive, and are only so sharp.  Further, a photograph taken with a wide-angle lens can have a distorted effect, since a scene that bends around you is being captured on a flat surface.  The best results are usually achieved in natural environments without people, as the distortion is less noticeable.

So, What do we use?

We have a fairly straightforward kit: 2 mid-range primes, a Telephoto Zoom and a Wide angle Zoom.
  • Mid-range Prime: Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II ~100$ – This lens is extremely inexpensive and sharp.  50mm is a mild zoom given the crop factor of sub-2000$ Digital SLR’s, so it is great for portraits of people or many scenes around town or out in nature.
  • Mid-range Prime: Sigma 30mm F1.4 EX DC HSM ~ 375$ – This is our favorite lens for everyday use.  30mm is just a hair wider than natural, so most scenes fit into the picture, both indoors and outside.  This ultra-fast F/1.4 lens makes it possible to take photos indoors without a flash, and you can drop it down to a modest F3 to get exceptionally sharp photos outside.
  • Telephoto Zoom: Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM ~ 550$ – This is the sharpest lens we have and the only lens we have in Canon’s famously sharp “L-series”.  I chose it based on the comparably low price, and the relatively low weight which makes it great for hiking.  At only F/4, this lens requires bright sunlight to get the shot. 
    • We would be better suited by the Image Stabilized version of the same lens. (f/4L IS, 1050$) It keeps the same low weight, but allows you to take sharp photos of a non-moving subject with about 1/4 the light.  The price difference is staggering.
    • We would also benefit from the Canon Extender EF 1.4x II (~ 275$) which increases the focal length of a zoom by 1.4x.  This would turn our 70-200 into 100-280mm which would give me extra zoom for capturing photos of Pika’s and other woodland creatures.
  • Wide-angle Zoom: Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM ~ 675$ – I have never been completely satisfied by the sharpness of this lens compared to our other lenses, but it is a critical part of our collection.  Many of the moutaintop vistas, tall trees and narrow valleys around our home just can’t be captured with our 30mm lens.  I also find that I can create an exceptionally broad panorama by taking just a few wide photos with this lens and stitching them together using Windows Live Photo Gallery.
  • Mid-range Zoom: We don’t actuall
    y have one.  An exceptionally high quality mid-range zoom such as behemoth Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM (~ 1200$) would offer a lot of flexibility in a single package, but it is very heavy and would only slightly exceed the quality we achieve with the Sigma 30mm lens.

You still didn’t tell me what to buy:
That’s right, because it will depend on what *you* want to do with your camera.  What I will say is that you are generally better off buying a lower-cost camera (even a used one) and pairing it with a great lens, compared with buying a camera with a kit lens. 

But I still need a camera!
This really is the easy part.  If you are going with a Canon, buy whatever you can get a good price on.  The latest two models are both great: Canon EOS Rebel XSi is a great still camera, and the slightly more expensive EOS Rebel T1i adds the ability to record videos.  Even the older-still XTi takes great photos, it’s what I use!  I would shy away from the first generation Digital Rebel, because it is a good deal less capable, especially in low-light situations.  That said, in good condition and the right price, it is a perfectly capable camera.

Happy photographing!

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