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The 5-Step Guide for Choosing a DSLR

What’s the best camera for you?  I cannot always tell you that right away.

There is no “best camera for everybody.”  Some cameras are definitely better than others, and in a sense you get what you pay for, but different cameras excel at different things.

For example, what is required to take pictures of sports might be very different from what you might want in shooting a sunset.  For the sports pictures, a really fast shooting rate and good low-light performance might be paramount, while for the sunset picture your highest priorities might be the highest resolution possible and the best dynamic range (more about all that stuff later).  So first we have to figure out what you are going to use the camera for.  And there is always the matter of your budget as well.

The good news is that in counseling people on their camera purchases I have come up with a 5-step program to help people find the best camera for them.  Going through these steps will at least narrow your choice down considerably, and may even lead you to the exact right camera.

Step 1:  Decide on your price range.

First, we need to decide how much you want to spend on your new camera.  Odds are that you have a general idea of what you will (and won’t) spend on a camera.  For the most part, the more you spend, the better camera you will get.  So you need to decide on a ballpark figure up front.

Let’s do that now.  Pick whichever of the following options you think will come closest to the amount you plan to spend (and don’t forget to save money for lenses!):

Tier 1 – $750
Tier 2 – $1,200
Tier 3 – $2,000
Tier 4 – $3,500

This may seem counter-intuitive.  Maybe you want to know all about the cameras and then decide on a budget.  For example, you might think to yourself that if Tier 3 cameras are twice as good as Tier 2 cameras, then you might reach for Tier 3, or perhaps hold off on purchasing until you can afford it.  But the cameras really don’t work that way.  So just assume that going up one pricing Tier means about a 10% increase in overall quality/features/etc.

This one small step has already made your decision much, much simpler.  By deciding on your price point, you whittled down your choices from a whole bunch to 4 at the most.

Next, we will get on to comparing the cameras within your pricing tier, but if you want a sneak peak at which cameras are within each tier, just click here.

Step 2 – Determine which camera specifications matter most to you.

Next, we need to decide which camera in your pricing tier range is best for you.  In this step, we will establish our criteria for doing so, and we will apply them in the next step.

The first thing we need to do is think about our primary intended uses of the camera.  Will you be out shooting mountain landscapes or in the backyard shooting the kids?  Are you more likely to find yourself on a safari shooting wildlife, or attempting to capture an extreme close-up of an insect?  Different types of photography require different specifications.

To help you think about that, here are some categories to choose from:

-Landscapes and seascapes
-Urban exploration and architecture
-Wildlife photography
-Street photography
-Family shots
-Sports photography
-Macro photography

Take a look back at the list and pick your top category or categories.  Do you have your top categories?  Good.

Now take a look at the this chart.   I put this together to give you an idea of the relative importance of different camera characteristics to different types of photography.  It should tell you what criteria are likely to me most important to you in choosing a camera depending on your intended use.

Now we are going to put this all together in the next step.

Step 3:  Pick your camera based on specifications.

What we are going to do now is match up the features that matter most to you with the best set of camera specifications.

By looking at the features chart in the last step, we have already determined the features that matter most to you.  Now, let’s apply those features to the camera specifications of the cameras in your pricing tier.

Recall that we already divided the universe of DSLRs into pricing tiers.  What I have done now is list the cameras in each pricing tier, and then given you the specifications for those cameras.  In the last section, you established which of those specifications was most important to you, so you should be able to hone in on the camera features/specifications that will matter most to you.  Use these links to go to the pricing tier you chose earlier and you will see what I mean:

This will list each of the cameras in your pricing tier, and list all the pertinent specifications for each.  You may want to print off the page for your pricing tier.  If you do, go ahead and circle the rows with specs that are the most important to your photography.  Now just compare the specs for the 3 – 4 most important features for you.

This should paint a picture of which camera is most suited to you.

Step 4:  Verify your choice.

Of course, specifications and price don’t tell the whole story.  And in some cases the specifications are remarkably similar anyway.  But we should have the choice whittled down to a solid few at this point.  What we will do next is check out the reviews of the cameras.

You may be initially inclined to put stock in the customer reviews left at Amazon and B&H.  For most other products in the world, these reviews are great, and I rarely buy anything without consulting them.  However, these reviews don’t really help much with cameras.  Most comments are little more than “it takes great pictures” and are left by people who don’t understand cameras.  By all means, flip through them, but just don’t expect them to add a lot.

The good news is that you will find a ton of in-depth reviews of all of these cameras.  You will doubtlessly find many on your own.  But some of the best reviews are done at The Digital Picture, which offers in-depth reviews of all Canon and Nikon cameras and lenses.  Also check out Digital Photography Review, which has many great reviews of cameras.   Believe me, these people are serious geeks and have put more time and effort into testing each of these cameras than I would dream about doing.  These are the absolute best places to check, and you will get all the information you want (and probably a lot more).

By this point, a clear winner should stand out.

If you still cannot decide, or your would just feel better if you actually had your hands on a camera before buying it, try renting your top choice.  You can do this through your local camera store or online.  Check out LensRentals.com or BorrowLenses.com.   The prices are reasonable and the process is painless.

Step 5:  Purchase your new camera.

All that is left now is to pull the trigger and buy your new camera.  As mentioned elsewhere, I recommend you buy at Amazon, particularly if you have an Amazon Prime membership, or at B&H Photo.  Both places have comparable prices and are probably the most well-respected places to buy camera equipment anywhere.

What Next?

You may be inclined to get your new camera and start blasting away.  But I would recommend you take a little time to learn how to use it.

The first step in that process is to actually sit down and read your camera manual.  It will walk you though all the controls.  In fact, the number one tip most professional photographers give beginners is “RTFM” or “Read the Manual.”

The manual and the array of camera controls can be confusing though.  If you want some help cutting through all that and focusing on just the most important controls, check out our Exposure series starting with this post.

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