The DSLR has now become as cheap and affordable as the SLRs of the 1980s. In fact, a quick search on Amazon reveals SLRs starting from as little as $400. For the more affluent, one could spend upwards of $4000 on SLR. With such a range of cameras to choose from, it would seem the newcomer might easily become confused. How can you ensure you buy the right camera for your money and that you won't end up regretting your purchase in the coming months?
Core Features vs the Bells and Whistles
Think about the programs that come with a washing machine; there are lots and lots. Now be honest, how many of these programs have you actually used? In many ways, the DSLR market is like this. Many camera manufacturers out there will convince you that you need live view or anti-dust filters. Whilst these features are great to have, you will end up paying for them. Some of these features can escalate the price by $500 or more. So what? Not a problem if you aren't on a budget but for most of us, that is money that could be spent elsewhere.
Ask any film user and they will tell you about the good old days of film. A typical camera then came with the ability to shoot in four modes: P, S, A and M. Each of these modes allowed you to control the camera in different ways, and as you become more experienced, you would look to use each of these modes depending on what it is you wanted to do. Someone looking to use one of these film cameras would start in P mode where the camera set the aperture (the size of the opening) and shutter speed for you. Once you had learned how the two were related, you would very gingerly begin to use A and S modes (aperture & shutter modes). Here you set the aperture and the camera would set the shutter speed, or you could control the shutter speed and the camera would control the aperture. Eventually, once you had mastered the idea that light hitting the film is dependent on those two factors, you would confidently use full manual mode (M).
The point is that photography has not changed — although the medium may well have done. Ultimately, how you control the light, albeit light hitting a digital sensor rather than film, remains the same. To be successful with your DSLR, you must get to grips with the way in which the aperture and shutter speed are linked. The easiest and quickest way to do this is to go back to mastering P,S,A and M modes.
The good news is that all DSLRs on the market today feature these modes. The bad news is that many DSLRs will also include modes that are left over from Point-and-Shoot cameras. Landscape mode or a portrait mode for example are completely redundant. Landscape mode simply tells the camera to use a smaller aperture, F11 or more, and thus ensure you maintain good focus from the front to the back of your image. Portrait mode tells the camera to shoot with a larger aperture, F4 perhaps, in order to throw the background out of focus. Are they really important? No. Could you achieve the same results using aperture mode? Absolutely.
Ask yourself whether you really need certain features. Will you need them in the next 18 months to three years? If the answer is yes, be prepared to stump up the money.
Low Light Photography
Some cameras are better than others in given situations. Will you be shooting in low light? If so, you want a camera that has a sensor built for low light. For example, the Nikon D700 has a superb sensor in low light and allow the camera to record images at ridiculously high ISOs. (In the days of film, ISO 1600 film was considered high; the Nikon will shoot acceptable images at ISO 6400) A Sigma SD14 camera by contrast is not very good in low light situations and this can lead to noise in your images. This is not good. If you envisage shooting a lot of low light images, look for the ISO range on the camera. The higher this range, the more able the camera is to shoot in low light.
How Many Megapixels?
Most cameras today come with 10+ megapixel sensors. For most applications this is plenty. Too many megapixels can degrade the image if they are bunched together too tightly. Simply looking at the number of megapixels a camera has doesn't give you the complete story, though. Point-and-Shoot cameras (P&S) have very small sensors and so the more megapixels crammed into these sensors, the more heat and thus noise each pixel generates. This means the image becomes noisy. The Nikon D700 comes with a full frame sensor and 12 megapixels. This means it handles noise far better than a similar camera with a smaller sensor.
It's All About the Glass
Most professionals will tell you that the camera is not the most important tool. Don't get me wrong, a good camera is a vital piece of kit but I see a lot of people wandering around with $4000 cameras using lenses that are effectively coke bottles. To be honest, I would much prefer to have a cheaper camera and get the best lenses money can buy. The glass can limit you as a photographer. Spend more money on glass and suddenly you can shoot in much lower light at much faster shutter speeds. If you're looking for good glass at a reasonable rate, check out Sigma's EX range of lenses.
The bottom line for me is that even the most basic of DSLRs today allow the photographer to shoot great images. Couple this with three outstanding lenses and you're good to go.