Which DSLR for a Beginner?

This post is a couple years old. For an updated version that talks about more current cameras, please head over to this article on Social Photo Talk.

One question that I’ve been asked a few times recently is that of which DSLR camera is best for a beginner who wants to get serious about their photography? There isn’t one single right answer, but here are a few things to consider.


Go with Canon or Nikon. They’re the two big players in this market, offer a wide variety of lenses and accessories, and they both make a quality product. There are other options, such as Sony, Olympus, and Pentax, but Canon and Nikon will make purchasing equipment and seeking out resources much simpler. Which should you choose between Canon and Nikon? Either will produce great images. One major factor is that if a bunch of your friends have one brand, by choosing that brand you’ll be able to share lenses and trade equipment.


Photography with a DSLR is going to cost money. You don’t have to break the bank to get started. An important consideration is that when it comes to image quality, the lenses (casually referred to as “glass”) are as important, if not more important, than the camera body. Keep this in mind when budgeting for equipment. Don’t go buy a $2,000 body and then put on a $200 lens. My recommendation is to get one of relatively inexpensive “lower end” DSLRs to learn with, and get some decent lenses with the plan that the lenses will outlast the camera when (and if) you eventually upgrade to a fancier body in the future.

Features and Numbers

Don’t fall into the megapixel marketing trap. The reality is that you can print perfectly clear 8×10 photos from a 5 megapixel camera. More megapixels will do larger sizes, but even an 8 megapixel camera can do poster prints. All of the DSLRs from Canon and Nikon will allow you to easily adjust the shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and exposure compensation. One thing that isn’t often talked about is the physical feel of the cameras. I’d encourage prospective buyers to head down to a local camera shop (I’m a big fan of Pro Photo Supply in Portland) and get their hands on a few different cameras to see how things feel.

So… which one?

If you want to go with Canon, I’d look at the Canon Digital Rebel XTi which offers a good mix of features at a reasonable price (around $500 for the body). If you decide to go the Nikon route, I’d recommend the D40x which has comparable specs and will run around $600 including a 18-55mm starter lens.

Either one will take great photos, and despite what some equipment brand-zealots might tell you, the quality of photographs will depend far more on the technical and artistic talent of the photographer than the particular model of camera being used.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Great article.. definitely takes some of the mystery out of the equation. Now do you know any shops that would buy or offer a credit for some older camera equipment? I inherited an old 35mm Minolta with three different lenses — would love to be able to offset my entry cost if there’s any value in it.

  2. Pro Photo Supply (linked in the post) does sell some used equipment… I don’t know if they buy it outright, or sell it on commission but it would be worth giving them a call.

  3. Thanks so much for reading my mind. I’d been starting down this path, and this was a great help.

    One question that remains is in regards to autofocus. My vision is horrible, so I prefer to use autofocus when I can. Any body or lens guidance in that regard?

  4. Regarding autofocus, the systems in Canon’s and Nikon’s current bodies are pretty comparable, and are very good.

    With regards to lenses, again they’re both pretty comparable. The variability factor is going to be with how quickly the system is able to get a good focus. With Canon, most of their mid-range and high-end lenses have their USM (Ultrasonic Motor – hit the link for their description) focus system which is desirable. I would imagine that Nikon has a similiar situation although I’m not as familiar with their lens lineup.

  5. In my experience with Canon cameras the USM lenses don’t make any difference in the “quality” of the autofocus but they do make a marked difference in the speed and noise of autofocus – they are MUCH faster and quieter than non USM lenses. A larger aperture lens will make a difference when focusing in lower light conditions – a bright sunny day is easy, in a bar at night is considerably harder – the f1.4 lens will always win (in nearly every way, not just focusing) over the f5.6 kit lens.

    With the Canon line of cameras the newer and/or higher-end version have better autofocusing than older/lower-end cameras. All of them will “focus” but “better” ones will focus faster, have to hunt around less, be able to find focus in lower light conditions, are able to pick a moving subject out of the background, etc. If autofocus is important then it’d be good to get a newer body rather than an older body.

    The original Digital Rebel is still an excellent camera (IMO) but the XT/XTi have better autofocusing. The 40D has better focusing than the 30D/20D. The 5D has better focusing than the 30D/20D and maybe the 40D in low-light conditions. The latest of the 1D series have even better focusing, the best available from Canon.

    Then again, if you’re not pressed for time, get a pinhole camera and never worry about focusing again.

  6. I’m a big fan of my Rebel XT (even if the stupid newer one is like half the price I paid for mine a couple years ago…). It’s been relatively easy for me to use as a Guy Who Wants to Take Better Pictures But Will Never Be a Pro, but I still have a lot to learn.

    Re: what Aaron says about spending the money on the lenses vs the body. Fo shizzle. A former coworker of mine used to say that it didn’t matter if you had million dollar clubs if you have a ten cent swing. I think the same logic applies to the body. Buy a Rebel XTi (or Nikon equiv) for < $500 and spend the rest on lenses that you’ll be able to keep using later if you do find the need for a bigger/stronger/faster body.

    And I can’t agree with Aaron more about the people at Pro Photo Supply. I’ve been in there a couple of times now and found the staff both extremely knowledgeable and friendly. I went in there asking newb questions, got straight answers without any kind of attitude, and walked out spending LESS than I planned to when they talked me out of some gear I didn’t really need. Maybe the camera world is different, but in IT, they would have eaten someone like me alive.

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