Top
Bottom
Top

Scott's Column
Digital SLR Camera Buying Tips

January 1, 2010
By Scott Lewis

This month I am going to use my own investigation into my next camera to provide you with tips on selecting a Digital SLR camera. There will be some general tips that you really should come away with, as well as some specifics that may or may not be important to you. But use them to determine the points of interest that you need to take with you when shopping for a camera. If you are in the market for a dSLR you should read this page. It's 5 minutes of your time that will be the best investment you ever made.

Note: I have since written an article on lens selection. Be sure to read that so you know where best to put your money in lenses for your Digital SLR.

DSLR Camera Buying Tips

This was supposed to be about my own process to pick a Digital SLR camera. However, I thought it would make a useful guide for anyone in the market for a dSLR. I am going to go through this as I choose my own camera, but you should be able to get plenty out of it and use it to help you select your own camera.

Let's get one thing out of the way right now. You can't buy a bad camera. That's right, set your budget and head down to Best Buy (or better, a real camera store) and buy the Digital SLR camera that fits your budget. Please buy a better lens than the lenses that comes in the kits. The two most important things in a camera are the sensor and the lens. If you are getting a dSLR you are already getting a vastly better sensor than any point and shoot camera, so spend the extra money for a better lens. You can't possibly regret it.

That's it! Your done! You don't have to read any further... but do read if you want to make sure your getting the right camera for you.

Now that we have established that every dSLR camera from the entry level Nikon D3000 & Canon XS... all the way up to the Nikon D90 and Canon 50D (all below $1,000 for the camera body) are very, very good cameras we can get on with how to decide which of these cameras you should get.

As you may surmise from last month's camera story I am a huge fan of Canon equipment. However, I have always respected Nikon. In fact, for a long time I believed that the best of the best were Nikons. Reserved for professionals and something for the enthusiast to aspire to.

The Cameras

I don't know if Nikon's best is better than Canon's best now. What I do know is that cameras have evolved over the years and both companies force each other to keep pushing the other. If you are in the market for a Digital SLR I can highly recommend Canon or Nikon. Go to a camera store, not Best Buy, and put the cameras in your hands. This is the best thing you can do if you don't have a prejudice toward or against either company. Yes, there are others that make good cameras. But I don't know about Sony, Olympus, Panasonic & Sigma to make an informed buying decision for one of their SLR cameras. It is a given that you will have a much larger selection of lenses with Canon & Nikon then the other brands.

I did a quick check on Nikon's and Canon's web sites to make sure I was looking at all the available cameras under $1,000. I used BHPhoto to determine all my pricing. For Canon we have the XS, XSi, T1i & 50D. Nikon is not so cut and dry. Their web site shows the D40, D60, D3000, D5000 & D90. However, I believe that the D3000 is replacing the D40 and the D5000 is replacing the D60. So that leaves Nikon with the D3000, D5000 & D90. We're ready.

Features

When looking at dSLR cameras you should determine what features you need versus what features you want. For instance, I am planning on shooting in RAW all the time.

RAW is a format the camera saves the picture in. JPEG (JPG), the other format for saving pictures, is a lossy compression format, meaning it looses some information as it compresses the image and saves it to the camera's memory. RAW is not compressed and retains all the detail and information the camera was able to capture at the time the shutter was opened.

If you use Photoshop or Lightroom you have huge control over processing the RAW image before you convert it to JPG. The only downside in my opinion is that you have to convert all your RAW images to JPG (or some other format) before you can print or e-mail them. However, I want this level of control after the picture is taken. So for me I have to move beyond the entry level dSLR cameras.

One of the features I want is 720p video recording. Some day I may want to do a podcast. I will use the video recording feature of whatever camera I get to record for the podcast, and 720p is just right for that. Here are all my requirements:

  • RAW Capture
  • Aperture Priority
  • Shutter Priority
  • Manual Control
  • Macro Capability (this is mostly in the lens)
  • Exposure Compensation
  • Exposure Bracketing
  • Minimum Shutter Speed 1/2000 sec. (prefer 1/4000 or faster)
  • 100-1600 ISO Capability
  • Bulb Capability (hold shutter open as long want)
  • Cable Release (accessory that works with bulb capability)
  • Available Battery Grip **
  • Wireless Remote ** (mount the camera and shoot pictures remotely)
  • Time Lapse Capability **
  • Control By Computer ** (for time lapse and other experiments)
  • 720p Video Capture **
  • Camera Body Under $1,000

The items with ** are wants, not needs. But I want them pretty badly.

That last item is very important. You need to set a budget and stick to it. If you can only afford $500 you have 4 choices. 1) Canon Rebel XS, 2) Nikon D3000, 3) another brand I can't recommend here, or 4) save more money. Don't start looking for a camera that does RAW and HD video if you only have $500. Either save up until you have $700-$1,000, or skip those features.

I was quickly able to narrow the list to the Canon EOS Rebel T1i, the Nikon D90, and the Nikon D5000. I eliminated the Nikon D3000 and Canon XS & XSi because they all seem too entry level for me, as well as not supporting 720p. I also eliminated the Canon 50D for lack of video capture. It is above the Canon T1i, but the T1i has the same sensor while including video capture. You should be able to quickly narrow your choices based on your needs and budget, as I have done here.

The D5000 is the most tempting because it is the least expensive of the three. It uses the same sensor as its upscale brother the D90, and has a really cool flip out and swivel screen. However. that screen is only a 230K resolution screen compared to its big brother, the D90, and Canon T1i which each have 920K screens. I also wonder how often I would use the flip out feature.

The D5000 has the single best & worst feature. Its best feature is a single command wheel that is exactly where my thumb rests when I hold the camera. Its worst feature is the fact that there is no battery grip available for it. This is one of my "wants," but it does handicapped D5000 at this point.

The Canon T1i is priced between the two Nikons, the D5000 & D90, making it difficult to decide which to compare it to. (Note: recent price changes getting close to press time have put the Canon T1i closer to the Nikon D5000).

Finally, the Nikon D90 has an LCD screen on the top of the camera that displays a lot of information. Two of my old Canon film cameras had this feature and I like it a lot. Granted, you can set the rear screens of the other cameras to display this information, but I really like the LCD.

Camera Feel

I went to Best Buy and held these cameras in my hands. The problem (as is usually the case with Best Buy) is that one store had the Canon powered up to play with and the Nikons without power (dead batteries). While at another Best Buy the D90 was powered up and the Canon & D5000 were not. Make sure you can handle each camera side-by-side while they are working. In other words... go to a camera store.

Best Buy also mounts their cameras to a handle with a cable on it. This makes it difficult to properly judge the weight and feel of the camera. So you have another reason to go to a camera store.

From my various trips to Best Buy I can tell you this. The Nikon D90 is the bulkiest, but feels very sturdy for it. The D90 feels like a professional camera compared the its little brother and the Canon. I found the D5000 to be the smallest in my hands, and it is slightly uncomfortable in its size. The Canon is a little larger than the small Nikon, but not perfect. The D90 actually fit my hand perfectly. But the weight is something to consider, especially if you have a sizable zoom lens on it while hanging it around your neck all day long.

The scroll wheel, or command wheel. This is the mainstay of cameras with manual controls. You will use the command wheel to adjust shutter speed or aperture while shooting. The Nikon D90 has two command wheels on the right side of the camera. One for your thumb and one for your index finger. This seemed awkward to me.

I did not like the D90 using the index finger scroll wheel to adjust aperture, so I downloaded the D90 user's manual to check on this. Sure enough, it shows using the main command wheel (where your thumb rests) for adjusting shutter, while using the sub-command wheel (by your index finger) for aperture. This makes sense when in full manual mode, since you will need to adjust both. However, the Canon & Nikon D5000 use one wheel for these functions, depending on the shooting mode you are in. In aperture priority mode the command wheel adjusts aperture, in shutter priority it adjusts the shutter speed. This is as God meant it to be.

The biggest flaw with the D90's two command wheels is that the main command wheel adjusts ISO when in aperture priority mode. I can easily see myself adjusting ISO accidentally when trying to adjust aperture. If fact I did this a couple of times in the stores.

I am also concerned with the Nikon D90 & the Canon T1i that it will be difficult to use in aperture priority mode since you can't hold the shutter half way down at the same time as you adjust aperture. I like the idea of holding the shutter button half way down then clicking off shots back to back with different apertures. The Nikon D5000 will excel at this, while the two more advanced cameras will not.

At this point I have to give the advantage to Nikon's D5000 for easy of use. However, less expensive cameras have to be easier to use because of the target audience. Most buyers won't use all the features, even though it has fewer features than more advanced cameras. I mean really, how many D5000 owners use full manual mode compared to how many put it in "P" and just point & shoot? They are taking advantage of the superior design and optics that a dSLR provides, without learning all the bells & whistles. And if that's your plan then look no further than the D5000.

This is all subjective. You have to decide this for yourself. Again, this is why you want to see all the cameras you are considering at a real camera store. They should be able to demonstrate the cameras for you, and let you handle them properly so you can decide which feels right to you. Remember, we started off saying... you can't buy a bad camera, but you can buy the wrong camera. Spend some quality time with two or three different models before dropping down your cash.

Price

What about price? This is almost a non-issue. I built a spreadsheet with 4 Nikon and 4 Canon dSLR cameras all under $1,000 for the body alone. I also priced a number of lenses from the simple 18-55mm "kit" lens to zoom lenses that cost more than the camera itself. I also created three "packages" of cameras and lenses. Page one of the spreadsheet has the cameras and lenses listed. I tried to match them up as best I could. Page two has my three packages for each brand and shows the difference in price between them.

When I started this article the Canon T1i was right in the middle of the Nikon D5000 and D90. But when I updated the spreadsheet after writing this the Canon T1i is almost dead even with the D5000.

All prices in the spreadsheet where accurate on BHPhoto on 12/19/2009. (BTW... if you are going to order your camera online I would go with PHPhoto.)

You can download the spreadsheet here.

You will notice that each package is within 7% of its competition. That's less than the sales tax here in Texas. This also means that price should not factor in your choice between brands. Find the camera that has the features you need for a price you can afford. Try it out. If you like it in your hands... get it. If you don't then keep looking.

What about going over $1,000. The next step up for Canon is the 7D at $1699.95 and Nikon's next step up is the D300s at $1499.95. What do you get for an addition 700 bucks? Well, features mostly. The sensor size in the 7D and D300s are the same size as their less expensive cameras, called ASP-C size. This is still smaller than a full frame sensor. A full frame sensor is the same size as a 35 mm piece of film (36 x 24mm). To get a full frame sensor requires you to step up to the Nikon D700 or the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, both of which are in the  in the $2,700 price range.

What features do you get in the $1,500-$1,700 price range. Mainly speed. The 7D and D300s both shoot HD video and have much faster speeds when shooting in burst mode. However, these cameras are entry level professional cameras in my opinion. Although I am a speed junkie, I would have a very hard time justifying that much money for a hobby. If I were getting paid for my pictures (a dream, but one I don't expect to come true) I would go for the big boys and get either the Nikon D700 or the Canon EOS 5D Mark II.

Crop Factor

Since we just went over what a full frame digital SLR camera is, I think you need to know one techie piece of information about these "small sensor" cameras. The Canon cameras have a sensor size of 22.2 x 14.8mm, while Nikon's small sensor is 23.6 x 15.8mm. The difference between these sizes and a full frame sensor is the crop factor. That's 1.5 for Nikon and 1.6 for Canon.

Why is the crop factor important? Because it determines how your lens works on your camera. A typical portrait lens on a 35mm film camera (and a full frame digital camera) has a focal length of 50mm. This gives a close approximation to what the eye sees. However, if you put a 50mm lens on a small sensor camera you must use the crop factor to determine an equivalent focal length. On Canon's cameras in this article a 50mm lens will act like a 80mm mild telephoto lens. On Nikon's a 50mm lens works acts like a 80mm lens on a full frame camera.

You have to do this math on every lens you buy for one of these cameras if you want to know the true focal length you are getting. Ideally a 30-35mm lens would make a good portrait lens for these cameras. A 30 mm lens on a Canon would have a focal length of 48mm, and on the Nikons it would be 45. Very close to the classic 50mm lens that used to be standard with film cameras.

Which Camera?

So, what camera am I going to get?

The Canon T1i & Nikon D5000 are easy to use. I was easily able to adjust aperture, shutter, ISO and exposure on them. This was not as easy with the D90. Then again, only the D90 has an LCD on top of the camera. The D90 is heavier, but feels sturdier, and I did like the overall fell of it.

The D90's two command wheels is my biggest concern for this camera. Will it be too much trouble to use that I end up not using it. I really have to decide if I can live with this, because I am leaning toward the Nikon D90. It has all the features I need (as do all the cameras mentioned in this article that support RAW) and it has all the features I want. You will have to wait until I get myself to a real camera store with money in hand... and then I will tell you which one I bought.

If anyone owns either of these cameras and has some experience with more than 1, I want to hear from you. Tell me why one is preferable over the other.

What About Megapixels?

Notice I have not concerned myself with megapixels. Because it is largely a moot point. Any camera with over 10 megapixels has more pixels than you will most likely use. That's right, unless you are printing larger than 8x10 prints from your pictures you don't need a lot of megapixels. I have successfully printed up to 8x10 with 2 megapixels. In fact, megapixels should be the least important feature for a digital camera. You are most likely going to reduce your images to less than 1 megapixel for display on a computer screen (read: e-mail). Think about that. If you reduce your images to 1024x768 pixels for e-mail and web pages that is only 786 kilopixels, not even 1 megapixel.

The Canon T1i is a 15 MP camera, and the two Nikons are 12 MP. Is this an advantage for the Canon. Maybe!!! Each camera has the same APS-C sized sensor (about 2/3rds the size of a full frame sensor). At what point are you cramming more pixels into a given size sensor that it reduces its ability to capture quality pixels. In this review they explain some of the disadvantages that come with the higher pixel density, and they show that the D90 scores significantly better on the DxOMark sensor test, a test that measures the sensor image quality with RAW image capture.

Does this give the lead to the Nikon cameras? The D90 has the T1i beat on features and capabilities, which is reasonable for its extra cost. However, the T1i is easier to use. The megapixel density issue can be overcome by using better lenses with the Canon, and since I plan on that it may not matter.

The Strict $1,000 Budget

I have to stress that I would buy any dSLR camera in body only format and buy a better lens than comes in the kits. At these megapixels and the level of pixels you are squeezing onto a sensor you really want good optics. If your budget is tight put the money toward the lens, and skimp on the camera. That's right... go cheap with the camera. You can always upgrade the camera body (and most likely will if you get serious about your photography), but you will never outgrow good lenses. Read this article if you want to know why you should get quality lenses.

Canon for $1,000 - Canon XSi body = $499.94. If you don't need a zoom lens I highly recommend the 50mm f/1.4 EF lens for $374.95. That's a total of $874.89 without zoom. If you must have a zoom lens then go with the EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens for $449.95. That puts your Canon with zoom lens "kit" price at $949.89.

Nikon for $1,000 - Nikon D5000 body = $629.95. Without a zoom there is the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D lens for $319.95, giving you a total of $949.90. With zoom your choice should be the 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S lens for $359.95, zooming your way to a total of $989.90 for a proper kit.

Lenses

I am a firm believer in buying lenses from the same manufacturer as your camera. However, I would make one exception. When buying a small sensor camera you don't have an affordable choice for a standard portrait lens. As we mentioned above while discussing crop factor, you really want a lens with a 30-35 mm focal length to use on the small sensor cameras in the under $2K price range. Sigma makes an excellent 30mm f/1.4 lens for both the Canon and Nikon cameras that sells for about $440. I would seriously consider this lens in place of the 50mm lenses I just mentioned above if staying in the $1,000 price range.

In fact, the lenses I list in this section are not quite prime lenses. If you read this article on How to Build a Digital SLR System, you will see he recommends much more expensive lenses.

If you can afford it put as much of your budget toward lenses. I said it before, but it bares repeating... getting prime lenses is something you will never regret. You can always upgrade camera body, and most likely will if you get serious into photography.

Conclusion

Sorry... I don't have a conclusion for you. I am still weighing the features vs. price. I am also trying to decide how much money to spend on a lens... or two. I can tell you this... I am taking a vacation this summer and I will buy a dSLR before that trip. I will also want to spend some quality time with the camera before then, so I expect to make this purchase in the Spring. 

References

Here are some links that I found helpful in my research:

Digital Camera Resource:

These four reviews are from the same person, so you get a consistent opinion across the cameras.

Canon EOS Rebel T1i  
Canon EOD 50D  
Nikon D5000  
Nikon D90  

PCMag:

Here are all four cameras, again from a single source. You will notice that all four got 4 out of 5 stars, while the Canon T1i is the only one to get an Editor's Choice.

Canon EOS Rebel T1i  
Canon EOS 50D  
Nikon D5000  
Nikon D90  

Digital Review:

Again, from the same point of view you get multiple reviews.

Canon Rebel T1i compared to the Nikon D90  
Nikon D90 compared to the Canon EOS 50D  

Photocrati:

One more time...

Canon Rebel T1i  
Nikon D90  

Photocritic.org - Choosing Your First DSLR  
Photocritic.org - Prime Lenses, and Why You Need Them  

Photo.net - How to Build a Digital SLR System  

Conclusion

Normally I cover more than one topic a month. But I thought the camera topic was enough to bore you with, so I let it stand by itself. Please provide feedback, if you made it this far.

Next month I will cover issues with memory in my desktop computer and a problem I had with my domain name.

Bottom