Don’t Spend Thousands on Your First DSLR Camera

So you’re finally ready to make the leap from using your phone or point and shoot camera to using a “REAL” camera – you want a DSLR! You’ve been interested in photography for a while, taking pictures and learning but feel limited in the quality or control these smaller devices provide.  Like most of us you start researching online, you read blogs and reviews, you check out cameras at local stores, you ask people you know “What’s the best camera?”. After all this research you find yourself salivating over that top of the line $3,500 body and $2,000 lens – IT’S THE BEST - you shout to yourself, you HAVE to have it.

We’re here to help save your wallet, but more importantly, help you understand why the most expensive camera may not always be the best when starting out.

It’s important to understand what differentiates an expensive camera body or lens from their cheaper counterparts. This will usually help you compromise and spend less. Most of these details come down to build quality, materials used, advanced features, or expandability such as the accessories you can attach. Lacking these features on a lower end camera is not something that will prevent you from getting educated on the basic workings of a DSLR.

It’s easy to get caught up in all the bells and whistles while researching new and expensive gear, but it’s even easier to forget most of these things may not be necessary when you’re starting out with your first DSLR. You probably don’t need the image stabilized lens, or the camera that shoots 10+ frames per second, features that are typically exclusive to higher end camera bodies or lenses. The good news is, even the cheapest of DSLR cameras have the same core functionality as the most expensive ones on the market. Functions like aperture control, shutter speed, and ISO value are all relatively the same across all models.

We’ll dive a little deeper into the details and tell you where we started out and how we progressed to better quality gear over the years and explain why this process didn’t hold back our learning and creativity.

Like most people out there I wanted the most expensive camera because, why not? Unfortunately, ‘why not?’ doesn’t justify cost when you’re on a budget, so I settled for a Canon Rebel XT with an EF-S 18-55mm kit lens as my first DSLR – a decision I am still happy with to this day. For those that don’t know this was an 8MP camera and one of the first DSLR cameras under $1,000 back around 2005. Physically and visually different from the more expensive counter parts of the time such as the 20D or the full-frame 1D and later 5D. It was smaller, made of more plastic, and lighter. The lens was also a cheaper plastic composite with lower quality glass than more expensive lenses. What’s important is that the Rebel XT still took great photos! I wasn’t going to be going out shooting for National Geographic the first year I owned a DSLR. Just like it’s larger cousins, the Rebel gave me complete control over shutter speed, aperture, ISO, white balance, among many other standard DSLR features.

I repeat the features above because they are at the core of any camera’s functions. Whether it’s an expensive DSLR, a budget DSLR, or even your iPhone – they all use these core elements to take pictures. A DSLR gives you complete control over all these elements to allow your creativity to run wild. You can change the aperture to change your depth of field, your shutter speed to capture your subject with (or without) blur, and ISO to help compensate for low light or add grain. These were the ‘features’ I was focused on the most in my first few years of owing my Rebel XT.

Rather than worry about extra accessories or post processing or any other elements, I was focused on how to use the camera basics to focus and expose an image properly. Once I had a basic, and we’re talking very basic understanding of the features I could start to add creative elements to my photography. Playing with framing, colors, subject matter, action shots, still shots, or nature. Most of this was conducted in my own yard or at a local park. After a while I started to really like some of the pictures I was taking. I wasn’t keeping them to myself any longer, but sharing them with friends and family. This went on for a few years and I never felt bad about not having more expensive or fancy equipment.

The years progressed and as the megapixels, speed, and quality of new cameras grew I knew the time was coming to buy a new camera. After about four years it was time for a new camera. I was so happy with my decision to buy on a budget with the Rebel XT that I decided to purchase another lower end DSLR, the Canon T1i which included a higher quality kit lens than the XT had. I also purchased a Canon EF-S 17-85 f/4-5.6 USM lens with this camera.  This was a significant upgrade, with a 15MP sensor, HD video, and faster processor on the camera and with image stabilization on the lens. I was able to translate the basic skills I learned from the XT to the T1i and combine those with some of the new features to drive my creative process. A few more years passed and it was time to invest in a more expensive lens.

Regardless of what DSLR camera body you have, a nice lens will always produce better images. I decided to take the plunge and buy some expensive used lenses at a discount from a friend who was upgrading. I was comfortable with this investment not just because of the discount, but I felt my skills were finally worthy of using the nicer equipment. I had a firm grasp on the basic features of the camera and lenses I had used over the years. These new lenses allowed for sharper images at a f/2.8 aperture and the 70-200mm f/2.8 IS USM lens included image stabilization that allowed me to get closer to my subjects from further away while cutting down on image blur.

Eventually the time came and I upgraded to a full frame 20MP DSLR with Wi-Fi and GPS and all sorts of nice features that I was comfortable with using because of my previous experience and practice. While I tend to buy the higher quality option with most products, since from my experience the cheaper option always seems to break or fail, I do not always hold this standard to my camera gear. Camera gear is constantly changing and new models with new features are always being released. Had I purchased the brand new 5D when it was first released instead of buying that first Rebel XT I know I would not have used it to its full potential, and would have spent more money in the long run since the upgrading is always inevitable.

My message here is you should buy for where your skill set is, or slightly above it to leave room for growth. This will save you money in the long run and help prevent you from getting overwhelmed by advanced features. I've seen some of the best photography taken from cheap equipment, proving that it's more important to understand and know how to use your gear than have the top of the line product just because it's the most expensive. 

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