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5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Buying A DSLR

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Buying a DSLR camera today can be a very stressful situation. There are more choices that there ever have been and every salesperson and photographer has a different opinion as to the best option for any given person. I've compiled a list of the top 5 things I wish I had known when I bought my first DSLR.1. Megapixels Don’t Matter

The big camera companies are constantly trying to one up each other on the resolution of their cameras. Does the megapixel count really add that much more to image quality today?

When I bought my first DSLR 10 years ago I had to choose between several options. Since I couldn’t very well give my future clients the kind of blurry pictures my flip phone’s 0.3-megapixel camera produced, I figured that the way to go was with the highest resolution camera could afford. I dipped into my lens budget and bought a more expensive body. In 2006, that meant moving from a tolerable 6MP to a whopping 8MP.

Back then, it was the right move. Shooting RAW at full resolution gave me nice crisp prints at 8X10 and very useable 11X14’s. I’ve since upgraded my equipment a few times. Moving from 8 to 12MP gave me the option to print posters. At 18 MP, I could print 24x36 inch shots. My latest body gives me a memory card filling 20 megapixels. The funny thing though is that my clients rarely want to print anything bigger than an 11x14.

A couple of years ago I made some beautiful posters for a charity auction. I decided to go all out and give them framed 18X24s. Everyone who walked past them commented on how beautiful they were. They also commented on how nice it would be if they could actually fit on their walls. In the end, all but one of them went to opening bidder; me. People just didn’t want to make the space on their walls for huge prints they weren’t planning on buying in the first place.

I’m glad that I can print very large images if I want to, but for the sizes people actually want, my 20MP camera doesn’t do a much better job than my 10-year-old 8MP body. Don’t get me wrong, the newer cameras on the market are better in more ways than just resolution. Newer cameras let you shoot clearer images in lower light. They let you shoot way more shots per second than older cameras did. None of these improvements are in anyway tied to the resolution though.

If megapixels don’t matter, then why are people still buying insanely high resolution cameras? For many, it’s having the ability to crop and still get a crisp image. The more information you have overall, the tighter you can get with a crop and still produce a useable shot. This is especially true if you want to fill the frame with a subject that is either small or beyond your lenses’ focal length.  I’ve had to do this a few times when shooting concerts and having that extra resolution has allowed for much better composition after I cropped. Given the choice though, I would much rather have had a longer lens with me and not have had to crop at all.

For others it’s the bragging rights. I’ve seen a lot of photographers boast about the insane resolution their cameras give them. The fact that they can take a close up of a flower, zoom in and see individual hairs on fly perched on it justifies the extra thousand dollars they spent on the body. While this is certainly impressive, I’ve seen equally good results shot with a second hand lens which cost much less than $1000.00.

In the end, I see resolution the same way I see horsepower. Sure, it’d be great to have 1000hp in my car for the few times I want to take it to the racetrack but is it really worth the money when I’ll almost never make use of it? If you're buying a DSLR today, especially if it's a new model, you're probably going to be getting all of the megapixels you need. Don't waste money pushing for higher resolution on your first camera.

2. Invest in Lenses First

What’s more important, having a high end camera body or a high quality lens kit? I used to believe that the camera mattered most. It took me far to long to lean that I was wrong.

When I first started getting serious about photography, I borrowed my dad’s old 35mm SLR. When he bought it back in 1985, he spent twice the cost of the body on a 50mm f1.4 lens as an upgrade over the stock f1.8. To me, this didn’t make sense. I had a rudimentary understanding of exposure at the time, and I couldn’t see any reason why you’d ever want to shoot that wide open given how little of the image would be in focus. He didn’t argue at the time, but I could tell that he thought he had made a wise investment.

When I was getting ready to buy a "professional camera", he again suggested that I should think about lenses. I told him that lens quality must have improved in the 20 years between him buying a film camera and me buying a DSLR and that I’d be better suited by buying a really great camera body and adding lenses over time.

I had no idea at the time how wrong I was. Sure I was able to get crisper images but that didn’t matter when they weren’t in focus. When I decided to add to my lens kit, I started looking for the cheapest way to get a longer focal length. I dismissed the 70-200 f2.8 option as too expensive and the f4 option as not giving me enough zoom for the money when I could buy a 75-300 third party lens for far less. Bit by bit, I bought myself a nice cheap lens collection and I was reasonably happy with the pictures I was getting. Sure I’d miss the focus on some but with bigger memory cards, I could take enough pictures to ensure that at least some would be in focus.

Everything changed when I bought my first high quality prime lens. Within 5 days of taking my first pictures, I went back and looked at the shots I’d previously been happy with. I couldn’t get over how much less sharp they were than what the prime gave me. It took me far too long to make the switch to higher quality glass but the impact on my final images has been huge.

In the end, I never even use the camera body I spent all of the extra money on 10 years ago but some of those lenses are still in my kit bag until I bite the bullet and replace them. I can honestly say that if I were starting out again today, I’d spend a little less on the camera body and invest in some good quality second hand lenses.

3. Forget the Fancy Features

Cameras these days are so loaded with features that photographers are lured into thinking that great cameras make great pictures. This is simply not true.

I recently bought a point and shoot for when I don’t want to lug a DSLR around with me. I couldn’t get over how many different features cameras pack into a tiny little frame these days. The salesperson was all too happy to rhyme off every different scene option that the internal processor could handle.

After being told that the camera would handle all of the exposure settings for me even if I was shooting a footrace on a moonlit beach, I asked how easy it would be to shoot in manual exposure settings. The poor salesperson clearly hadn’t been asked that before. As it turned out, manual exposure wasn’t even an option on most point and shoot cameras.

Given the target market for the point and shoot camera, that makes sense. People don’t want to have to take a course in photography to capture a handful of travel snapshots and selfies. They want the camera to all of the thinking for them.

Unfortunately, fancy feature laden cameras aren’t confined to the point and shoot realm. Far too many entry level DSLRs these days are overloaded with special shooting modes and too many budding photographers are tempted by them.

When I sold cameras, I used to get asked all the time which camera took the best pictures. Far too many people thought that buying a DSLR with more options would make them a better photographer or would in some way make getting better shots easier.

The simple truth is quite the opposite. In order to produce top quality images, your camera only needs to have 3 options, aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings. The ability to adjust white balance and focal length (zoom) are nice perks to have too but you can get around not having them through post processing and body movement respectively.

Learning to master those basic functions will do more for the quality of your images than any number of in-camera processing ever could.

5. There Is No “Top Brand”

The most common cameras professional photographers use are made by either Canon or Nikon. A lot of photographers are adamant that they chose the best camera brand when they bought their preferred option. A quick Google search of Canon vs Nikon will yield opinions from a lot of photographers with solid reasons to back up their choices.

At the end of the day though I tend to agree with Jared Polin when he says that it all comes down to a personal preference. I’ve owned both Canon and Nikon DSLRs and, even though I shoot Canon now, I’ve been very happy with images that both produce. I’ve also seen great shots produced by cameras from Sony and Olympus. I’ve even seen professional looking shots done with an iPhone.

The important take away here is that you should be buying a DSLR that you’re comfortable using. It should feel good in your hands and you should want to shoot with it. Besides, given the way that these companies compete, if one were really better than all of the others, would the others still be in business?

5. Having Great Equipment Won’t Make You A Great Photographer

Far too many people fall into the trap of saying that they could be so much better if they had better gear. I’ve had people look at my pictures and ask what camera I use. The fact that I’ve invested more into my camera equipment than I did into my car doesn’t make my pictures good. That comes from years of learning how to use the equipment I have.

It used to drive me crazy when clients would ask me for a camera that takes good pictures. It makes me even more angry to see people selling more expensive cameras by saying that they take better pictures.

I won’t deny that better quality lenses produce sharper images and that a full frame 5D Mk III with L series glass increases your chances of finding sharp focus on every shot that you take but that’s not what makes for awesome pictures. A $50,000.00 medium format Hasselblad can still take underexposed poorly composed shots if the photographer doesn’t know how to use it.

If you’re buying a DSLR today, buy the best you can afford and then spend time learning to work with it. If you make smart decisions when buying lenses then you can upgrade what you shoot with over time. Don’t let the feeling of not being able to afford a full frame DSLR stop you from learning to take great pictures with what you can afford.


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