Which Digital SLR Should I Choose?

Roger Longenbach and Craig Bendele

Are you just beginning in digital photography?  Or, are you ready to take the next step?

If you’re just starting out, but are willing to give the digital SLR a try, there are quite a few choices at the inexpensive end now, costing the same as the high-end point and shoot digital cameras.  If you feel that you’ve used enough of the digital point and shoots and are ready for the higher quality a larger sensor can provide, there are options available for you as well.

When deciding to go with a digital SLR, there can be many confusing choices you have to make.  The first (and most important) is which brand do I choose?  The main companies that make digital SLR’s are Nikon, Canon, Sony, Olympus, Panasonic, and Pentax.

(Ed. note:  Another consideration to make is price.  B&H Photo, official supplier of The Magic in Pixels, has a broad range of digital SLR bodies and kits that range from $359.95 to $30,995.95.  Click here to view the entire line of Digital SLR cameras).


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Olympus and Panasonic use the 4/3 sensor, which is larger than most point and shoots, but is smaller than the other brands.  They are also, however, the pioneers in the new technology of non-mirror SLR style cameras, which are basically large point and shoot cameras with interchangeable lenses now.  Their cameras have a 2x crop factor.  We’ll get into the crop factor in more detail a little later on.

The remainder of the major manufacturers use an APS-C or larger sensor.  APS-C refers to the size of the film that was used with the doomed Advanced Photo System or APS format.  Smaller than 35mm, the APS format suffered from similar problems that the current small sensor point and shoots do, such as more noise.

Pentax is an older player in the camera world, but hasn’t gotten much of a foothold in the marketplace.  All of their cameras have a 1.5x crop factor.

Sony is the youngest of the the bunch, having started making digital SLRs in the last few years as they purchased Konica-Minolta’s camera division.  Sony has basically three classes of cameras on the market: entry level, advanced, and full-frame/professional.  Since they are the youngest player, they have a lot of catchup to do with the last two (and largest) players on the court:  Nikon and Canon.  Sony has a smaller lens lineup available in the Sony line, however, their cameras are fully compatible with the autofocus Minolta lenses which you can purchase used.


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Nikon and Canon :
Nikon has divided their digital SLRs into four classes, Canon into three.
*Entry Level (Nikon has the D40, and the D60.  Canon has the Digital Rebel series (currently the Rebel T1i)
*Mid Level (Nikon has the new D5000 and D90.  Canon has the 50D.)
*Advanced Level (D300)
*Full Frame/Professional (D3, D3x, D700.  Canon has the 5D Mark II and the 1D Mark III and 1Ds Mark III)

With the exception of the full frame/professional line, all of the cameras listed above are APS-C (Nikon calls this DX) and have a crop factor.  But, what exactly is a crop factor?

Crop factor describes what happens when you put a lens designed for 35mm onto a camera with a sensor smaller than a 35mm negative.  Because the camera only uses the center section of the lens, it’s like you are “cropping” what the lens sees.  So on a Nikon DX camera, a 75-300mm lens will look like a 112 to 450mm lens to the sensor and in the viewfinder.  Because of this, older film lenses like a 28-80mm lens are not as “wide angle” as they used to be in the days of film, because it would crop to be 42-120mm lens.  So Nikon and Canon have developed special lenses for the smaller film format.  Nikon identifies all of their smaller frame lenses with DX, and Canon calls theirs EF-S.

For the rest of the article, we’ll be recommending Nikon because that’s what Craig and Roger use.  Tim Devine uses Canon but acknowledges that you need to select which works best for you.  However, since the real investment in digital SLRs involves lenses, you should visit a local store and try out the various cameras and see which one you like the best.  Check for fitting in your hand, ergonomics, and if possible, the image quality from the camera by bringing your own memory card and trying them in the store.  (ed note:  also consider the menu system and button layout to see how the operation will work for you).

My main suggestion is that the three levels of DX format will give you the exact same image quality in the real world 90% of the time!!

So, how do you decide?

If all you want is better pictures than you are currently getting with your P&S, and you do not want to really learn photography, get Nikon’s entry level D40, D60, or D5000 .  They are very easy to use and require you to have no technical skills.  These cameras will give you access to many different lenses, and will allow you to dip into technical stuff when you are ready.  The new D5000 even has the same programmed modes as most current point and shoots!

If you already understand Aperture, Shutter speed, ISO, and how they work together, then the D90 would be perfect for you.  This has more dials and buttons on it than the D40 and D60 and will allow you to work easily using your own settings as much as you want to.  It also has scene modes easily available to use when you are not sure what to do, or when you don’t want to think about it.  Additionally it will work with practically every autofocus lens Nikon has made since the 1980s and all of the currently manufactured ones.  (Note: Canon’s current cameras are compatible with every EF lens ever made, but are not compatible with any of the old Canon manual focus ones, while Nikon still has compatibility with many manual focus lenses.  Canons EF-S lenses will ONLY work on the Digital Rebel and 20/30/40/50d series.  EF-S is not compatible with the 5d and 1d series.  Keep that in mind.)

If you already are a serious film or digital shooter and NEVER use the scene modes, then you need the D300 . This camera has no scene settings, so you need to understand everything to make the camera take the pictures you want. It will allow you to get the photo you want faster, if you understand the basics.


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What about full frame?  Do I want full frame?

Full-frame means that the digital sensor is the same size as a 35mm negative.  This also means that there is no crop factor.  Unfortunately, full-frame cameras are only currently produced by the three major manufacturers (Nikon – 3, Canon – 2 and Sony – 1), and all of them are priced between $2k and $8k.  As a result, the market is geared towards professionals and prosumers.  As a practical result, unless you print very large images (beyond 20×30), shoot 14mm or wider on a regular basis, or shoot in very low light, you probably won’t see a difference with between the APS-C format cameras and the full-frame cameras.  You probably can’t even tell the difference between many of the different APS-C cameras on the market today!  (Note: Because of the crop factor, the smaller sensors have specialized wide angle lenses, however, the widest on the market as of today is a crop equivalent of 15mm, which is 1mm less than the leading wide angle lens on the market today for full frame cameras, and this doesn’t include wider fisheye lenses!)

There is more to camera bodies than which ones take the best pictures. In fact, many of the cameras on the market today have the exact same sensors!  For example:  Nikon’s D5000 uses the same sensor as the D90 , which basically uses the same sensor as the D300.  The D700 uses the same sensor as the D3 .   Canon’s Rebel T1i uses the same sensor as the 50D.  Craig started with the D80 and thought he would never need to upgrade again. But, when he had the chance to get a D300 he jumped on it.  The D80’s lack of buttons and fast adjustments started to slow him down. Having now owning both, the D300 feels much like his old film camera.

He purchased the D80 based on the advice that it took better pictures than the D200. Unfortunately, what that advice missed on, was that he didn’t need the scene settings or auto settings. He feels that he would have been much happier with the D200.

The bottom line is that you need to take time and care to make the proper choice.  You need to decide what is right for you and only you.  Do your homework, read reviews, and go to the stores to handle the cameras themselves so you can be confident that you are making the right choice.  A well-chosen camera will automatically feel like a natural extension of you and your creativity so be sure to take your time and make the best choice for yourself.  You will be glad you did.

The following links will take you to B&H Photo, the official and trusted sponsor of The Magic in Pixels.

B&H is where the professionals purchase their equipment.   


Click here to view the entire line of Canon Digital SLR’s .

Click here to view the entire line of Nikon Digital SLR’s.

Click here to view the entire line of Olympus Digital SLR’s.

Click here to view the entire line of Pentax Digital SLR’s.

Click here to view the entire line of Panasonic Digital SLR’s.

Click here to view the entire line of Sony Digitial SLR’s.

Discuss this article in The Magic in Pixels Disney Photography Forum  

Ed. note: Roger and Craig are frequent contributors to The Magic in Pixels Disney Photography Forum .


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