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Starting small with your DSLR yields big rewards later

Zak Billmeier grew up in southern Vermont and coastal Maine. After graduating from Mary Washington College with a Geography degree he still isn't sure quite what to do with, he eventually settled in the mountains of Central Virginia. He spends his free time chasing his daughter around, taking pictures, gardening and cooking. He joined Crutchfield's car A/V writing team in 2007 and is now a lead producer on our video team.

More from Zak Billmeier

A lot of people ask me what camera they should buy when they're considering a DSLR. Usually by that time they've got it narrowed down to a couple of choices, and are looking for that last piece of info to help them make their final decision. It's generally off-the-cuff, but I take that question seriously because cameras aren't cheap.

The truth is, any digital SLR camera you choose will give you better overall photo quality than a point-and-shoot. It's simply a matter of physics. A larger image sensor has larger pixels, which in turn gather more light than the tinier pixels on a point-and-shoot's sensor. The lenses are of better quality, too. Outdoors in bright sunlight, you may get similar results, but if you want to shoot pictures of a moving child, wildlife, or anything indoors, you need a DLSR. Nothing else will cut it the way you want it to.

Nikon D40
Don't be scared off because the Nikon D40 has "only"
6.1 megapixels. You can make pictures with it that will
blow away any 10- or 15- megapixel point-and-shoot.

But DSLRs come in all sorts of flavors. And depending on who you ask, you'll hear how brand X blows brand Y out of the water, or that brand Z's cameras "take better pictures." It's all only marginally true, if you ask me. First of all, DSLR owners, more than any other group I've encountered (except perhaps musicians), exhibit fierce brand loyalty, even to the point of putting down another's gear without having tried it. I've tried many different brands of DSLR, and I can tell you they all are capable of making good pictures.

And remember, cameras don't take pictures. You do. Does owning a better piano make you a better piano player? Are owners of expensive cars better drivers?

Sony Alpha A200
The Sony Alpha 200, like its more expensive brethren,
has image stabilization built into its body.

After years of shooting film, I got my first DSLR in 2003. It was the original 6.3-megapixel Digital Rebel. Having shot with 35mm SLR film cameras in the past, I had a basic understanding of what it could do, but I was no expert. But I liked the fact that digital photography was so forgiving - just experiment, review, delete, repeat. It was the beginning of the ultimate trial-and-error learning experience.

That camera was missing a lot of bells and whistles by today's standards (and remember, 5 years in digital photography is like 50 human years). Compared to even the most basic models available today, it was slow from shot to shot, and it wrote files slowly to its memory card. Its buffer filled up after only a few shots. But I took around 25,000 shots with that camera, and I still have it. It still works like new, I've never cleaned the sensor, and I've made 20x30 prints from pictures I took with it.

EOS 300D
My old Digital Rebel may be worn on the outside, but it still works like new.

I upgraded to a Canon 40D about a year ago, and I'm glad I did - the feature set and responsiveness of that camera is outstanding. But I only really appreciate it now because I spent all that time snapping away with an entry-level camera. The difference between an entry-level and a mid-level or pro camera isn't that the fancier models make better pictures - it's in how they're built, and how easy it is to fine-tune settings before a shot. The pictures will look the same, for the most part. For instance, did you know that the 40D and Rebel XTi use the same image sensor?

Rebel XTi kit
The Rebel XTi uses the same image sensor
as the more expensive (and heavier) 40D.

The reason I say all this is just to urge those that are getting into more serious photography to start small - go for an entry-level setup. The so-called "beginner" DSLRs are amazing. I'd recommend that you simply pick one up and handle it if you're considering buying one; how it feels in your hand is a very important factor. Your camera body will be obsolete within a couple of years anyway.

And if it turns out you're not as interested in SLR photography as you once were, then you're not out a huge investment. And despite its obsolescence, that camera will still work, just as my 2003 Canon 300D dinosaur does. Or maybe you'll come to appreciate some of the step-up features of fancier models by cutting your teeth on the entry-level camera, just as I did.

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