BUYING YOUR FIRST DSLR
Making the jump from a compact or bridge camera to a DSLR can be a bit overwhelming. With so many brands and models to choose from, it becomes confusing very quickly. That's not even mentioning the huge variety of lenses available. So what do you opt for?
The main players in the DSLR arena are Nikon, Canon, Sony, Pentax, Olympus and Sigma, so there are quite a few to decide between. All produce entry level and more advanced cameras. There are subtle differences as well as obvious similarities between the various makes. For example Sony's offerings have a fixed, translucent mirror, whereas the rest have the traditional mirror that moves out of the way of the sensor in order to take a photo.
One thing that has long bugged the hell out of me is the advice that I frequently read on forums. "Try a few cameras in-store and whatever one feels best in your hand - that's the one to get". To me, this is the most ill-conceived method of choosing a camera and literally is the last thing you should consider when buying!
Granted, if the camera is just intended for family snapshots or photographing the kids or grandchildren playing in the garden or local park, then pretty much any DSLR is going to meet the requirements. However, if to be used in a more genre specific manner, like landscapes, sports, wildlife, architecture, etc., you need to work out what attributes you need from a camera, for the type of photography that you currently shoot or intend to.
Things you may need to consider include:
Full frame or crop sensor
ISO/Low light capabilities (shooting indoors or at night)
Auto focus system
Frames Per Second (FPS)
Lets look at a couple of examples eluded to above that have very different requirements from a camera.
You're a fan of motor sports and want a camera that is going to be a solid performer for your hobby. As cars and bikes move very fast, a camera body that has a good auto focus system and has a relatively high FPS is called for. A decent resolution would help too, to enable us the ability to crop in without losing detail in the image.
If you're on a limited budget the Nikon D5200 would suffice with 5 FPS 39 AF points (9 being cross-type) and 24 MP sensor. At £500 is a great bit of kit for the money. If you're slightly more flush with cash, there's the new D7100 which does the same as the D5200 but has more sensor points, an additional 1 FPS and again is 24MP and has better weather sealing, so if its starts raining, you're still good to shoot.
It also goes to 1/8000 sec shutter speed whereas the D5200 tops out at 1/4000 sec. It has the ability to autofocus with the older and still excellent AF-D lenses and matrix meter with non CPU ones as well. The D5200 can't do this.
You presently have a bridge camera and have been doing family portraits with it but want to move on to a DSLR. You love portraiture and wedding photography and would like to become a wedding photographer. Now before I go any further and get inundated with emails from people, I will preface this with the caveat that the camera does not make the photographer. Do not think just because you have a DSLR camera and some expensive glass that you're a professional photographer. You wouldn't consider yourself an F1 racing driver if you were given the opportunity to drive a race car around Silverstone. If you tried to do what the professional drivers do, you'd crash and burn. The same is true of wedding photography.
I do not recommend you go out advertising yourself as such and start shooting weddings for people on the cheap and handing over garbage photographs if you have no experience. It will ruin their day and you could potentially end up with a lawsuit on your hands, as has happened to other people - even some professionals. So be sensible and responsible.
Okay, so with that said, what do you require from a camera in order to facilitate shooting weddings? Unlike motor sports, we're not really interested in high FPS, since brides don't come running down the aisle at 200mph - well not unless they are jilting their fiancee at the altar!
What we are more concerned with is the location we'll be shooting in. Since the overwhelming majority take place inside churches/temples or registry offices, which generally have poor quality light provided by fluorescent bulbs, we need a camera that can raise the ISO up without image quality deteriorating to the point where the photographs are unusable.
Right off the bat, this puts your squarely in the full frame sensor category. While a wedding photographer may pack something like a D300s or a D7100 as a backup camera or second shooter (both of which are APS-C), they invariably shoot with a full frame body as their main camera. The reason being is the superior low light capabilities.
When looking at the ISO performance scores in DXOmark, crop sensor cameras reach around 1000-1100. Certainly not bad, considering they were half that just a few years ago. Full frame cameras on the other hand, score around the 3000 mark, so there is a big difference. The upper limit on my D90 is about 1600 before the noise gets too much for my liking. On the D800 I can quite comfortably shoot at 6400 to 12'800 before the same happens. That's 2 to 3 stops more light to play with to get a blur free shutter speed.
Equally with low light situations, you need an auto focus system which is capable of accurate focus. This means cross-type focus points and the more the merrier to be honest. Since the full frame cameras cost a lot of money, they generally come with more cross-type sensors than APS-C cameras anyway. There are a few exceptions (D7100 (APS-C) Vs D600 (full frame) for example).
Matching the low light capabilities we also want to have fast aperture glass to let in more light. This means that a kit lens probably won't cut it in many situations, as the maximum apertures are anywhere between f/3.5-5.6. Professional lenses can be 3 stops faster than this - which again is a lot of light.
For many people though, a full frame camera is way beyond their budget and is something to aspire to eventually getting. Nikon's "entry level" full frame D600 retails for £1375 (£1225 with the current £150 cashback offer). With the D800 at over £1900 and the flagship D4 over £4200! That's before you've even stuck a lens on the front of it!! That's some serious money and so you need to be serious about its application, well unless you have money to burn.
As you can see, two very different subjects and shoot situations. In the first emphasis is on the frames per second the camera can produce. This will give you a greater chance of nailing a decisive moment that is invisible to the naked eye. Some people regard this as "spray and pray" but with high speed photography, it's the most sensible option. You aren't going to take a single image and wait for the car to come back round again if you miss the shot are you?
The second scenario puts emphasis upon the light, or lack there of. Outside any camera is going to be more than capable of shooting a wedding. You're in optimal lighting conditions and not stretching the limits of the sensor. Inside where the light tends to be a lot lower, we are pushing the boundaries of what the camera is capable of. Full frame cameras give the photographer more latitude to shoot in low light where the ability to add artificial sources isn't permitted or a feasible option. This is why professionals shoot with full frame cameras, not a crop sensor.
So before you rush out, pick up a camera and think "Ooooh. This feels nice", STOP! Think about what you want the camera for. What features you need and also think long term. While you can change your bodies, lenses tend to lock you into a brand, especially once you have a few professional lenses. You don't want to have to sell them at a loss, only to lay out full price on their counterparts.
For example, lets say you went to the camera store armed with the instructions to "buy what feels best in your hand". You decided to go with a Pentax K5 II because it felt nice and you could also get it in a cool blue colour. Now I'm not bashing Pentax here. Far from it. They make great DSLRs. Superbly well made and a solid performers. They also have the added bonus of image stabilization in camera as opposed to the lenses, which means that any old lens will be image stabilized.
However, after buying the camera and acquiring a few expensive lenses over the subsequent year, you begin to notice the low light limitations of the camera being an APS-C sensor and its really starting to restrict your photography. You go looking on the Pentax website to see what options are available to you for the full frame models. To your horror, you then discover Pentax don't currently make one (although since I originally wrote this guide, Pentax have announced a full frame camera). Argh!! What do you do? Short of selling all your gear at a loss, there is nothing you can do - other than keep your fingers crossed Pentax release a full frame body.
Another example is purchasing lots of Nikon DX (crop) lenses, which aren't compatible with an FX (full frame) camera body. Well they are but only in crop mode - which kind of defeats the purpose. If you upgrade from a DX to an FX sensor body, you need FX glass. This means selling your DX lenses at a loss to finance their full frame brothers. Had you of spent out a bit more initially and bought that 70-300 VR instead of the 55-300 VR, you'd have future-proofed yourself.
Again, these examples highlight need for thorough research and buying the right tool for the job. If not, you run the risk of it impacting your work and end up having to sell equipment at a loss to fund what you ideally should have purchased to begin with.
I'm a Nikon shooter and I like Nikon cameras but don't let these examples sway you. What I recommend you do is thus:
Make a list of requirements that you need in a camera
Make a list of cameras that meet those requirements
Make a list of the features in those cameras
Eliminate those that are outside your budget
Check independent reviews on the performance of those cameras
With a list of the remaining cameras, go to the store and see which one your hand likes best.
Look for the best price on the camera you settle on.
If its your first camera, just get a kit lens and learn how to use the camera.
The more you research, the less likely you are to hit a snag or end up paying out more than you need to and above all, don't just go out an buy the first camera that feels good in your hand!