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How to choose the best DSLR camera for a beginner

What you need to know before you invest in a DSLR

Deia began her Crutchfield career in 2010, as a sales advisor in the Spanish/International department. Crutchfield's hands-on sales training quickly converted her interest in photography into a full-fledged hobby. After five years in sales advising customers on choosing the best A/V and camera gear for their needs, she is happy to share her knowledge and enthusiasm for top-notch gear as an A/V writer.

More from Deia Z.

Deia shooting photos with her amazing Nikon camera and dirty lens

Photography is addictive. Phone cameras are like little gateways to a serious photography habit. My first smartphone camera sparked an interest in photography that quickly evolved into a real passion.

I loved my phone camera, but it wasn't long before I started getting frustrated by its many limitations. It became clear that if I wanted to learn how to take better photos, I was going to need a better camera.

Since I wanted to photograph my world the way I saw it, I stepped up to a DSLR. Are you ready to do the same?

Is a DSLR camera right for you?

Are you willing to purchase and use additional lenses?

A key advantage to owning a DSLR camera is the ability to change lenses. Most DSLR kits include just one lens. A “kit lens” can give you better images than you’re used to, but most don’t zoom very far. A typical point-and-shoot camera has more zoom.

Some DSLR cameras can be purchased in two-lens kits and even three-lens kits. These are meant to cover the widest range of subjects. If you’re OK with changing lenses, these kits are a great value.

Do you want a camera that does all the work for you?

A DSLR can give you beautiful photos in Auto mode. But some high-quality point-and-shoot cameras are capable of delivering the same image quality as a DSLR. If you think you’d prefer the fully-automatic, no-lens-swapping-necessary experience, look at point-and-shoots.

What size suits you best?

I love the creative freedom I get from my DSLR. I don’t mind that it’s larger than other cameras I've had. It feels sturdy in my hands, and it's not too big to take along on all my excursions.

Consider a mirrorless camera if you love the idea of manual controls and using different lenses but you prefer a more compact camera.

What will you get from a DSLR camera?

As much control as you want

In Manual mode, a DSLR gives you full control over the photos you take. With a basic understanding of exposure settings, you can give your photos the exact look and feel you want.

Start out in Auto mode. Your photos will be pretty darn impressive right out of the gate. When you're ready to take your photography to the next level, try using manual settings.

Top view of camera

A DSLR camera puts important controls at your fingertips so you can change settings easily on the fly.

With my first DSLR, I shot in Auto mode exclusively for about three months. One lovely starlit evening, I was looking around at the scenery and wishing I could photograph what I was seeing. It suddenly dawned on me that I had all the tools I needed. So I quickly read up on night shooting techniques, consulted my camera’s manual, and set up my first long exposure. It was instantly rewarding.

Night scene

One of my very first night sky photos. It was easy to get this down once I learned which settings to use.

I was hooked on manual photography from there. I didn’t always have great luck, but I learned from every mistake. The best thing about digital photography is it doesn’t cost you anything to make mistakes. You get instant feedback so you know right away if your settings are working or not.

Exposure diagram

When you understand how aperture, shutter speed, and ISO work together, you’ll be able to produce better photos.

Bigger sensor = better image quality

When it comes to image quality, the size of a camera’s sensor is more important than its megapixel count. A larger image sensor means more detailed images with better contrast and a wider range of lights and darks. Entry- and mid-level DSLRs have what is known as an APS-C sensor, while pro-level DSLRs often have full-frame sensors.

Sensor sizes

DSLR cameras have huge image sensors compared to your average point-and-shoot or phone camera. This is a big reason behind the superior quality of images produced with a DSLR.

A full-frame image sensor gives you an image area equivalent to a frame of 35mm film. These sensors have superior light-gathering ability and produce sharp, clean-looking images that make great extra-large prints and can be cropped without much loss of quality.

An APS-C sized sensor is about three-quarters the size of a full-frame sensor. It can capture sharp, detailed images for high-quality prints.

Pro Tip: Using an APS-C senor camera can be a huge advantage if you shoot sports or wildlife. Why? These smaller-sized sensors have a “crop factor” of about 1.5X. The telephoto power of any lens you attach is about 50 percent greater than it would be on a full-frame sensor camera. This means you can cut down on size, weight, and cost when choosing a telephoto lens.

Wildlife photography

Shooting with a telephoto lens on an APS-C sensor camera meant I didn't have to get any closer to this subject to get the shot I was after.

A huge selection of lenses

In many ways, your choice of lenses makes a bigger difference to the quality of your photos than the camera body itself. An investment in good glass is an investment in beautiful photos.

Depth of field

Ever wonder how photographers get those dreamy blurred backgrounds in their images? Lens selection plays a big role.

Better-known DSLR manufacturers like Canon and Nikon have an impressive array of lenses to pick from. Choose well and you’ll have lenses you can use for life, even as you replace your camera body through the years.

Outstanding low-light images

DSLRs are great for shooting detailed images during the twilight hours or indoors without flash. That’s thanks in part to the fact that their larger image sensors can take in more light. Today’s advanced image processors enable higher ISO sensitivity settings for sharper, clearer photos in dimly lit settings.

Low light picture

A DSLR camera lets you take beautiful, noise-free photos in dim lighting.

Sharp, blur-free photos

Image stabilization counteracts the effects of camera shake. This is especially useful at long telephoto lengths where the slightest movement of the camera can cause noticeable blurring. It also helps in dimly lit settings where you have to use slower shutter speeds.

Image stabilization can be built into a lens, or it can be built into the camera itself.

Many lenses made by Canon and Nikon feature built-in image stabilization. Look for the abbreviation “IS” on a Canon lens, or “VR” (Vibration Reduction) on a Nikon lens. These two manufacturers don’t build image stabilization into their camera bodies.

Sony makes some DSLRs with built-in image stabilization, so you can have stabilization with any lens.

High-speed action captures

DSLRs perform very well in continuous shooting, or burst mode. Hold the shutter button down, and the camera will take a series of still shots until you lift your finger.

Plan to do a lot of sports photography? Look for a DSLR that offers a high continuous shooting frame rate. Some go as high as 16 frames per second.

Cameras with advanced autofocus tracking capabilities and a high number of autofocus points are best for getting clear shots of moving subjects.

Autofocus points

A multi-point autofocus system helps you quickly focus on your subject, no matter where it is in your frame.

Advanced video features

Serious videographers love using a DSLR because they can use different lenses and take advantage of the DSLR’s manual controls. Nearly all current DSLRs can record video in Full HD (1080p). Some can do 4K video recording.

Moviemakers also look for these features:

  • External microphone input
  • Headphone output
  • High recording bitrate
  • Video frame rate options – especially 24 fps for a film-like image and 120 fps (at 1080p) for slow motion.
  • Uncompressed HDMI output for sending your feed to an external digital recorder or preview monitor

Wireless convenience and control

Take a picture with your phone and you can share it immediately. Want to up your social media game by sharing better images? DSLRs with built-in Wi-Fi or Bluetooth let you transfer pictures (and sometimes videos) directly from the camera to a compatible mobile device.

Remote control apps let you see what the camera sees on your phone or tablet screen. You can operate the camera from a distance and include yourself in your photos.

A world of creative possibilities

A DSLR gives you endless options for creative expression and experimentation. You might have a set purpose in mind for your camera, but trying out different techniques can help deepen your general understanding of photography. And it’s just plain fun. A few of the things you can try include:

Macro photography

Macro shot

Macro photography lets you explore tiny details in new, exciting ways. You don't have to invest in a fancy lens to try it out either — you can use inexpensive filters, or even mount an existing lens backwards with an adapter. I shot this image using the latter method.

Long exposure

Long exposure

Living near a highway gives me lots of inspiration to capture light trails from passing vehicles.

Light painting

Light painting

Light painting is fun and relatively easy. To create this photo, I set up a long exposure outsdoors at night and used a small blue flashlight to draw an image in the dark (it's supposed to be a dolphin).

Time-lapse photos and video

Fireflies!!!

If your DSLR has an interval timer setting, you can set it up to take a series of photos that can be combined into a single image or video. This image of fireflies and star trails is comprised of 500 individual frames.

Unexpected side effects of a photography habit

It’s been four years since I bought my first DSLR. It has been life-changing in a number of ways I wouldn’t have anticipated.

By joining online photography communities, I have made friends from all over the world. Their feedback and honest critiques have really helped improve my work.

I’ve made a few new friends just by taking my camera out on nature walks, too. It feels good to share information and ideas with others. I never aspired to be a pro photographer, but I have scored a few paid gigs by now, including a few family portrait sessions and even a wedding!

Wedding cakes taste yummy!

So which DSLR is best for you?

Never used an interchangeable lens camera before? Start with an entry-level DSLR, like the Nikon D3400 or D5600, or Canon EOS Rebel SL2 or EOS Rebel T7i. These are user-friendly option that you’re not likely to outgrow for at least a few years.

Flip screen

Many DSLRs have rotating touchscreens for quick, intuitive composition.

Entry-level DSLRs have intuitive menus and easy automatic shooting modes. When you’re ready to get more creative, you have plenty of manual settings.

Even if there’s room in your budget for a fancier DSLR, it’s best to pick the least complicated option. You won’t get frustrated as you’re learning. Buying a less expensive camera also leaves room in your budget for lenses, a good camera bag, extra batteries, and other accessories.

Of course, there are some exceptions. If you’re a videographer, it may be better to step up to a mid-level or professional model with more advanced video features.

What do you really get when you step up?

“Semi-pro” DSLRs

Mid-level DSLRs, like the Nikon D7500, or the Canon EOS 80D are a bit larger and heavier than entry-level DSLRs, and they have more controls.

You can expect a camera that responds faster and focuses more accurately. You’ll get better video and more options for extended shooting (things like dual memory card slots and optional battery packs).

Pro-level DSLRs

Pro-level DSLRs offer top-notch performance and extensive controls for those who know how to use them. These cameras are the largest and heaviest of all. Their full-frame sensors produce extra-sharp, high-quality images. Many pro-level DSLRs offer 4K video recording too.

Getting to know your DSLR

Even when you use it in full Auto mode, shooting with a DSLR can take some getting used to. It might not always be easy at first, but hopefully it’s a fun journey. With practice, you’ll get better and better. It’s so rewarding to see your growth over time.

Here are a few tips to help you get started:

Use the viewfinder

DSLRs are slower to focus when you use the LCD screen instead of the viewfinder to frame your shots. Hold the camera up to your eye for most compositions. In addition to faster autofocus performance, you’ll get more battery life. It also gives you a steadier hold on the camera, which leads to sharper images.

The camera can’t read your mind

Auto mode has its limits. Say you want a crisp shot of a hummingbird in flight. The camera has no way of knowing your intentions, so it’s likely you’ll end up with a streaky blur of color. Learn to take control of your settings.

Make use of learning resources

Fortunately, there’s a lot of great information out there for beginners. You can learn all the basics of photography without even taking a class. Here are a few excellent resources to help you learn:

Sign up to receive emails and news from these sites. You’ll get awesome photography tips regularly delivered to your inbox. These are great when you need a bit of inspiration to try something new.

Practice, practice, practice

When I first got started, I read a lot of photography articles and tried every technique I could. I challenged myself to a photo-a-day project, and I grew a lot in one year.

You could try a photo-a-day challenge too, or even a weekly challenge. You may not capture something earth-shattering each time. But sticking to a schedule will help you progress. I guarantee you’ll see a noticeable difference in your results after just a few months of steady practice.

In addition to the resources listed above, online photography groups can be extremely helpful when you need some inspiration, advice, or an honest critique.

Questions?

I spent a long time researching and shopping DSLRs before I settled on a single model. And I still ended up being surprised in a few ways. Feel free to contact us via phone, email, or chat. We’re happy to answer any camera question you might have.

Last updated 8/30/2017
  • Carlos from Luquillo

    Posted on 9/14/2017

    Good article, but you left out Pentax cameras, better bang for the buck, more features for the price and more, weather sealed cameras built solid. Compare a KS-2 or a K70 for "entry" level, or a K-1 for pro level photography. According to Tony Northrup, Pentax has the best APSC lens lineup today. Crutchfield should consider Pentax.

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