occasionally technical tuesday: how to buy an SLR camera

Welcome to Occasionally Technical Tuesday!

For this first OTT (yeah, you know me), I thought I'd answer the question that I most commonly receive in my email inbox.  The wording of the question varies, but it generally goes something like, "Karen, I'm thinking of moving from my point-and-shoot camera to an SLR, but I'm not sure what to get.  Can you help?" 

Now.  I realize that many of you may already have purchased your first single lens reflex camera, or SLR (which, in the off-chance you might not be familiar with the term, these are the kinds of cameras where you can switch the lenses out).  For those of you who have no interest in SLR's, I promise that for OTTs that follow, the topics we discuss will be applicable to most types of cameras; nonetheless, in the event there are some of you out there who are on the brink of deciding what kind of SLR to buy, I thought I'd share some of my thoughts.

1.  On brands.  I use Nikon cameras, and have since I started photography close to 2 decades ago.  It's unlikely I'll ever use anything else


the truth is that most professional photographers I know, when it comes to SLR cameras, shoot with Nikon OR Canon.  There are a couple of reasons for this:

a)  both brands have been around for a long time; and

b) each brand has a wide variety of lenses and other accessories that have also been around for a long time.

This isn't to say that there aren't other brands out there that make great cameras, so by all means, explore all options, and do your research.  But keep in mind:  when you buy your first SLR, you'll probably be purchasing at least 2 items -- a camera body, and at least one camera lens.  Over time, if you really get into the photography thing, you may likely upgrade your camera body over the years; however, you'll probably end up using any lens you buy for, literally, decades.  For this reason, it's always a good idea to buy a brand that you know has a strong reputation for backward compatibility with its lenses and other accessories.  So, consider the following: 

Are you inheriting any lenses or other equipment?  Good lenses can be very expensive, and if you're about to become the owner of a bunch of old manual lenses from Great Uncle Hank, who used to be an avid shutterbug, it might be worth considering buying your new SLR body in the same brand as the lenses.  In fact, one of my favourite lenses to shoot with is a 35-year-old manual lens.  And lenses are expensive.  Trust me, never dismiss a good hand-me-down lens out of hand. 

In any event, do some research.  Ask friends what kinds of cameras they use and how they like them.  Email photographers you see online, and ask for advice on specific products.  Go to review sites, like Digital Photography Review, for example, to see how the various brands stack up against each other.  As with any expensive purchase, arm yourself with knowledge before plopping down the cash.

2.  Once you've narrowed down your choices, actuallly go to a camera store and try them out.  I cannot stress this enough.  You're about to lay down some serious cash for a camera, so you need to be absolutely sure you're going to like the camera you buy.  Also, chances are, once the cameras are in your hands, it will become almost magically clear which camera you should buy -- you'll prefer how one camera meters over the other, or you'll like the placement of the dials or buttons on one camera better, whatever.  On camera will just end up feeling "more right" than the other.  Besides, the employees of a really good camera store (especially a specialty camera store, not an electronics store) tend to be very knowledgeable about the cameras they carry, and can teach you tricks on each machine.

Once you've made your camera store visit and you know exactly what you want, then and only then should  onsider buying online.  (Edited to add:  However, as Nicolien rightly points out in the comments below, if a camera store has worked overtime to earn your business, please give it to them.  I've used the same camera store here in Houston -- Houston Camera Exchange -- for over 15 years, and wouldn't consider buying anywhere else, they're that good.)  But as with any major purchase, if you're buying online, be sure that you use a reputable online merchant (of course, you generally can't go wrong with Amazon or B&H Photo).

3.  Don't be afraid of second-hand.  We photographers are a fickle bunch, often upgrading to the next latest-and-greatest machine, and leaving a perfectly good one behind.  My first camera body and lens were both 10 years old at the time of purchase, and while I don't use the camera body anymore (since I shoot digitally, rather than film), I still use the lenses I purchased almost 2 decades later -- they work beautifully.  Buying second-hand can be a great way to get a camera with more bells and whistles than you might otherwise be able to afford.

And that's pretty much it! Those of you who are seasoned SLR owners, feel free to add your own thoughts about camera-buying in the comments.  Also, feel free to ask any questions about this (or any other photography question) in the comments as well -- at the very least, I'll try to tackle them in a future OTT post. 

Which might be next week!  Or it might not. But it'll be soon.

And on that note, happy snapping, friends.


Occasionally Technical Tuesday is a new feature here on Chookooloonks, where we'll tackle topics like choosing a camera, how a camera works, how I choose lenses, how I use Photoshop, how I pack for a photo trip, that sort of thing.  You can see an index of all the subjects we've addressed here.  I'm no expert, but I'll share what I know...occasionally.


Images:  All three photographed on a little nature walk Marcus, Alex & I did this weekend, with my Nikon D300 and 50mm lens.  Top image:  aperture: 1.4, shutter speed 1/8000, ISO 200.  Second image:  aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/6400, ISO 200.  Third image:  aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/8000, ISO 200.


SongBabylon by David Gray.  This song feels like early winter evenings in London for me.