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How to Choose the Best DSLR Camera for a Beginner

If you’re ready to up your photo game, (from, say, your smartphone) the most logical next step is a beginner-level DSLR camera. DSLR stands for digital single-lens reflex camera (sometimes called a digital SLR) and is a digital camera that combines the optics and the mechanisms of a single-lens reflex camera with a digital imaging sensor, as opposed to photographic film.

Why Buy a DSLR Camera?

Compared to budget point-and-shoot cameras, DSLRs have much larger imaging sensors than budget point-and-shoots and smartphones, more manual controls, and offers the versatility of interchangeable lenses for different subjects. DSLRs do cost more, but you’ll notice the value in your purchase right away. Plus, you simply look more professional with a DSLR in your hand.

The other option, which is a legitimate one, is a mirrorless camera. These models look similar to DSLR cameras and have a good amount of the same features. The term ‘mirrorless’ derives from how the camera works compared to a DSLR, which you first need to understand.

With a DSLR a mirror inside the camera body reflects light coming in through the lens up to a prism, and into the viewfinder for you to preview your shot and then press the shutter button to take an image, during which (and very quickly) the mirror flips up, a shutter opens and the light falls onto the image sensor, which captures the final image. (And yes that’s a mouthful but don’t worry, it’s not that important you understand how DSLRs work to operate one.)

On the other hand, with a mirrorless camera, light passes through the lens and right onto the image sensor, which captures a preview of the image and displays on the rear screen for you to see. Some mirrorless models also offer a second screen inside an electronic viewfinder that you can put your eye up to.

Basically you can think of mirrorless cameras as the more digital beginner pro-level camera and DSLRs as the more manual models. Compared to mirrorless cameras, DSLRs give you a greater lens selection and an optical viewfinder that works better in low light, but they are more complex and bulkier. Compared to DSLR cameras, mirrorless cameras are usually lighter, more compact, faster and better for video; but have access to fewer lenses and accessories. Both are more advanced options than point-and-shoots, but DSLRs are generally considered more legit and they give you more options to advance your knowledge and skillset.

Why Start With a Beginner DSLR Model?

Most beginner DSLRs are conveniently budget DSLRs and they can even help you learn be a better photographer. Once you’ve nailed down your skills better and are ready to upgrade to a mid range DSLR you’ll have a better understanding of what camera features work best for your particular type of photography and can play around with different options but to start out it’s really best to just buckle down and get a beginner-level model.

Some people choose to take a professional photography courses (either online or in person at places such as community colleges) but nowadays the classes aren’t really that necessary. We live in a world where electronics are such a basic part of our lives, most of us can figure out how to work new ones, such as DSLRs.

As a bonus, beginner DSLRs walk you through the process of shooting in various modes by providing helpful hints and guides that embedded in their control menus. If that still sounds confusing they nearly all come with printed instruction manuals, additional instructions online, and if in doubt, YouTube should answer any basic-level question you have.

Features to Look for In Your First DSLR

Since photography is usually a self-taught hobby, the camera industry has made beginner cameras that really do meet novice needs even if you’ve never even held one before. The best beginner DSLRs have excellent image quality, including low noise and a wide dynamic range, are easy enough learn on, but still offers manual controls that you can graduate into as you improve your skills.

Beginner models are manufactured to be as affordable as possible (and really are compared to high-end cameras) and, luckily, are one of the best, least quickly to depreciate electronics available making them a good investment. And while ‘beginner’ models are certainly a type of DSLR, you still have some options when picking one up:

  • Sensor Size
    Inside of every DSLR is an image sensor. It’s what records the image you’re seeing through your viewfinder and sends it to your memory card. The bigger the sensor, the more information it can capture, and the clearer your pictures will be.

    Full frame sensors are the same size as 35mm film (36mm-by-24mm) and deliver you maximum clarity and image quality, which makes them so expensive. Most entry-level cameras have crop sensors, such as ‘micro four thirds’ or ‘APS-C sensors’, which are smaller sized and thus more affordable but do vary by brand. Both micro four thirds and APS-C sensors provide a good balance between price and image quality but it’s worth it to double check the beginner DSLR you’re eyeing has at least some type of crop sensor

  • Megapixels
    As you familiarize yourself with professional photography equipment and culture you’ll realize that megapixel number is grossly overhyped by basic consumer industries. They’re actually far less important than you think and if you have anything above seven megapixels, your prints will be sharp up to 14-by-11 inches, which is larger than most people print anyways.

    The message here is don’t let megapixels determine the camera you buy. If you’re buying any DSLR you’ll have more than enough anyways.

  • Modes and Editing Features
    Yes, DSLRs are highly manual but many models, especially beginner ones come with different modes. Not to be confused with (Instagram and other) filters, modes automatically switch the camera into the best settings for the conditions and objects or people you are shooting.

    Common modes include action, night, food, etc. and most have an auto mode as well. Different brands and models have different modes, some of which may appeal to your tastes over others so it’s worth it to explore. (Pro Tip: To advance your skills use the modes as tools to learn from but teach yourself to shoot in aperture or shutter, or, even better, manual mode.)

  • Lenses
    Lenses are one of the most expensive aspects of cameras and you’ll likely collect more as you advance but to start with you just need a lense that works for the beginner kit you pick. The majority of beginner DSLR cameras are packaged with what’s called a “kit lens,” which is an 18–55mm zoom lens that doesn’t have the quality or features of more expensive lenses but will do the trick.

    When you’re just starting off it would really just be counterproductive to invest in expensive lenses until you learn more about them and the craft (and if any sales person tells you otherwise, you’d be best to go find another representative to talk to – right away)

  • Brand
    Not to sound like a broken record but once again, different brands have different, what one might call, ‘quirks’ to them. When you’re just starting off you’re somewhat like a blank canvas and you can more easily adapt to different brand settings and functions. Fortunately, nearly all DSLR cameras are high quality, simply by nature of their design so, unlike with other electronics, you can’t really pick a ‘wrong’ one.

    Just so you’re not caught off guard, it’s worth noting that in the photography world there are various manufacturers but most professionals generally have a preference of Canon or Nikon cameras. (It’s a similar liking or what one may call obsession with Mac and PCs users.) Not everyone loves them, but it’s more than likely you’ll eventually advance to either a Canon or Nikon so from one point of view it makes sense to get started with a beginner version of one of the two brands. On the flip side, knowledge is (still) power and the more you learn about how different cameras work, the more you can advance your skillset so starting off with another well-respected camera brand, such as a Pentax, could work in your favor. It comes down to how you learn and personal preferences really, but if price is a major concern just remember that non-Canon and Nikon brands tend to offer better deals year round.

How to Purchase a Beginner DSLR Camera

When it comes time to buy focus on the camera over the accessories. The camera is what will teach you the most and really set you up for your journey down the professional or enthusiasts path. Prices will vary greatly but expect to spend roughly around $500 (and that’s on the low end).

Next move onto accessories. Camera accessories are fun and useful but they can get all too easily get costly. You don’t need any accessories, and they can often just become distractions but if you really want one start with an accessory (or spoil yourself with two) you really want and then begin to define your style before you spend any more. The most useful beginner accessories are undoubtedly memory cards but there are some other fun ones out there such as tripods.

You can sometimes find special beginner bundles that give you a few more options and save you money compared to buying all parts separately. The two best kits for beginners are a multi-lens kit and an all-in-one kit.

The multi-lens beginner kit will usually be package deal where you can get a nicer (than the standard kit lens) 18–55mm lens, as well as a 50mm prime lens, and sometimes even an extra telephoto lens. These are rarer and will sell out so if you see one it’s generally a good idea to grab it while you can.

The all-in-one kit is another package deals that’ll give you the camera body, kit lens, and a number of accessories like a bag, memory card, strap, or maybe even an extra lens for less than the price of buying all of the pieces of the kit at retail. These bundles are more common but you can find good discounts on them over retail holidays.

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