Posted by: musiclovesfashion | December 12, 2008

So you want to buy a dSLR?


A few friends and family have been asking about camera buying and entry-level dSLRs (digitial Single Lens Reflex), so I thought I would blog a bit of advice about it.

This advice is not coming from a pro or even a seasoned amateur – I’ve only had my dSLR about a year – but I hope it’s of some use if you’re considering dipping your toe into the photo taking pool (I highly recommend it!).

Click below to continue reading.

Firstly, you’ll need good explanation of what makes a dSLR (digital Single Lens Reflex) camera different from your average point and shoot. “Point and shoot” cameras are the ones most people have and they do what they say on the tin. They do have other features, but most of us use them on Auto, allowing the camera to decide what’s going on in the photo and how best to take it. With a dSLR, you have full control over how the camera takes a picture – how much light and for how long, among many other things – which is why they’re so wonderful.

If you do buy a dSLR, terms like shutter speed, aperture and ISO will all become hugely relevant. You might want to click here.

Now to get down to the rest:

Buying an SLR
About a year and a half ago, when I was looking into buying a dSLR, my friend and photographer Dan gave me this advice and it really stuck with me:

“It’s the photographer and not the camera that will make good photos. Don’t expect your images to be great once you get a dSLR. It’s going to take work on your part to learn how to use it. It’s much more difficult than a normal point and shoot.”

This has actually grown more on me now – yes, the camera has an Auto setting, but to really get the most out of it, be prepared to learn how it works and stick it on manual (however, speaking of Auto, the ever great Natalie Norton has a brill post on why you shouldn’t write off Auto shooting, especially at the start of your photo adventures).

But just like the camera won’t magically turn you into an awesome photographer, remember that you don’t need an SLR to take great photos – sure, it makes things a million times easier, but a good eye is a good eye, no matter what the camera. Check out my friend Dee‘s awesome early shots for an example of this.

SLR hunting can be tough. There are A LOT of entry-level cameras out there, as it’s a growing market but I opted for a Canon for a few reasons:

  • Canon lenses, especially primes, are cheaper than Nikon ones (more on lenses below) and hence better for an amateur.
  • Canon has great ISO, which means high sensitivity to light – great if you’re looking to take shots in dark situations, ie, gigs.
  • Nearly all the dSLRs I had gotten to manhandle and try out where Canons, so I was more familiar with them

I went for the Canon 400d (or Digitial Rebel XTi in the States, where mine came from) . A newer model was released a few months ago, the 450D (Digitial Rebel XSi). Canon describes this series of cameras as “taking technologies proven in the professional arena and putting them within reach of a wider market of amateur photographers.” So basically, they’re somewhere in between a regular consumer camera and a full-on pro beast.

When it comes to chosing brands (Canon VS Nikon being the most popular dilemma) my opinion is all completely subjective of course, so hunt around, call into camera shops and try some out. SLRs basically bring things back to basics, so there won’t be much difference between brands. I do know that some cameras have image stabilisation (which counteracts camera shake) built-in, while others put this feature in their fancy lenses (Canon).

Another piece of advice Dan gave for when camera hunting: “DON’T LISTEN TO ANY SALESMAN BULLSHIT ABOUT MORE MEGAPIXELS.”
It really is a load of waffle – unless you’re looking to blow your pics up to massive billboard size, anything around the 5 or 6 megapixels mark is completely fine. Defo don’t go buying a ten megapixel camera just because it’s a ten megapixel camera. Most entry level SLRS come equipped with around ten megapixels anyway, so this is probably not a big issue.

Don’t blow all your money going for the most suped up SLR there is, because what really matters – and what really sets SLRs apart from point-and-shoots – is your glass, the lenses.

Lens lusting.

Lens lust

While a starter kit – camera, lens, maybe a few filters and a bag – is definitely enough to get you started, I recommend researching lenses and budgeting for buying one a few months down the line. Don’t pick them up straight away – give yourself a few months to get to grips with the camera settings and work out what kind of photography you like.

For example, if you’re a portrait person and like those lovely, bokehlicious shots where the background is all blurred, like I did, then a prime (fixed focal length) lens with a wide aperture might be your man – the cheap 50mm 1.8 is great value for money. However, that really won’t cut it if you love shooting landscapes (you’ll need a nice wide-angle, a bit like the 18-55mm kit lens that comes with the Canon starter SLRs) or if you’re dying to do super close-ups (you’ll need a macro) or if you want to try sports photography (you’ll need a telephoto). Here’s a rough idea of what different lenses get you.

50mm Prime:

A great portrait lens – this shot was taken at f2, hence the very soft background:


18-55mm Wide Angle:

Great for sweeping wide landscape shots, like the one below. It’s 18mm also allows you to get physically close to the subject and still focus; this can lead to disorted-looking people shots, but looks quite cool with things like flowers.

Go the whole world in our hands

70-300mm Zoom / Telephoto:

Zoom lenses are really handy for taking people shots without being intrusive – all my Africa Day pics were taken with the Sigma 70-300mm. With some, the subjects could still see and smile at me, but being that little bit further away makes people more comfortable, I find. It’s also lovely for long-range shots – to more you zoom, the softer the background, as below.

Africa Day at Dublin Castle


I have no Macro lens (yet! I’m lusting after the 100mm 2.8), so this is as close as I get: the macro function on my Sigma 70-300mm. This was taken fully zoomed in at 300mm at 5.6, the widest this lens will open:

Shooting the breeze...


One of the best books I read (again, thanks to Dan) and re-read was Brian Peterson’s Understanding Exposure. Just getting my head around the theory helped immensely (the practise will take another while!).
I also enjoyed PhotoPlus, a mag that’s solely targeted at Canon users. It had some handy Photoshop tips and introduced me to things like curves to add punch to a pic and proper use of layers. I’ve since moved on to Photo Pro Magazine, which features lots of interviews and tips from pros, as well as shoot tutorials and equipment reviews.

The Temple Bar Gallery of Photography stock some beautiful phoptography books, if you’re looking for inspiration and they have some great sales. Also worth picking up is The Photo Book, available as a giant hardback or a pocket-sized paperback.

Practice, practice, practise

The only way to really get to know your camera is to play with it. Devour the manual, buy a few photobooks, but, as obvious as it sounds, make sure to set aside time to just take pictures, snap shots that you like and not get too bogged down in the theory. Get used to carrying it around with you and just shooting whatever your eye finds interesting.

Flickr is great. It’s a photo sharing/networking site; except unlike Facebook and Bebo, instead of chatting to mates and updating your status, you load up your pics. There are thousands and thousands of inspiring photos to browse through and often, the EXIF data is there too – meaning you can find out what settings and focal lenghts people used, which I definitely found very helpful at the start as it gave me an idea of what lenses did what. There are loads of different groups, so if there is a particular type of photography (everything from bokeh groups to ‘I Ate This‘ food photography) you like, you can check out different ways of doing it; there are discussion threads where people swap lense reviews and share advice (another hugely helpful resource) and of course, there are Flickr friends so you can follow a fellow photog’s progress. Another great and growing photo sharing site is, although I haven’t properly tried it out yet.

The web is jam packed with incredibly educational photo sites – Digital Photography School has tons of great articles from pros and Strobist, all about DIY lighting – are two brilliant ones for beginners, as they show us how to recreate superfancy studio effects using things like Pringles boxes, baking paper and some cheap desk lights (I’ve tried it, it’s great). There are also Photoshop tutorials sites, video demos and fun-for-everyone idea sites like Photojojo. Photobloggers like Gingerpixel and Natalie Norton have also posted brilliant easy-to-follow tutorials giving tips, advice, and showing their techniques.

Once you starts snapping, you will undoubtedly have to decide whether to Photoshop your shots or not. I know some awesome photographers who don’t Photoshop their shots at all, and some who create beautiful, Photoshop heavy images. I personally enjoy the Photoshop side of things, kind of like, I suppose, a lot dark room techies liked the tinting and film dyeing process. Generally, I use photoshop to enhance my pics, rather than change them. That is, I like natural people shots so, barring the odd stray pimple, I’d never spend time airbushing every single wrinkle or trying to get rid of double chins. I use it mainly to add punch to my pics, to boost colour, contrast, etc. I also fiddle around with different ways of making it look like some photos have been cross-processed, which obviously requires a lot more digital editing. For me, it’s all part of the fun, and, as much I admire photographers that just produce fab shots SOOC (Straight Out Of Camera- Aoife has some great ones), I don’t like the way some photographers begrudgingly admitting that their pic has been “tweaked”, as if it’s tantamount to cheating. For a fun photoshop Flickr group, try Photoshop Is Not A Dirty Word).

PS an amazing tool that allows amateurs to do so much with their shots. But hey, make your own mind up on it!

Have fun
Ah yes, the cheesy cliché one. But this is really important. Sometimes, after days of diligent reading or chatting in Flickr groups or going through the Photography folder on my Google Reader, I would go out with my camera, my head full of other people’s advice and ideas, and come home annoyed and frustrated, without a single shot I liked. This was because I was completely ignoring my natural instinct, shushhing the voice that said “hey, there’s a good shot” and turning up the volume on the one that says things like “rule of thirds… don’t shoot in AV… underexposure by one stop for green..”
You have to forget that the rules are rules and instead look at them as handy tools to getting the shot you want. But sometimes, even the tool kit has to go out the window.

Hope this helps!

Feel free to comment queries or email me on n.marquezcourtney [at] gmail [dot] com. I’ll do my best to answer them, or at the very least direct you to a blog or site that can!



  1. Excellent post!!
    Wow.. .now I want to steal my GF’s camera and play! 🙂 🙂

  2. Brilliant post Nathalie, I’ve had a few people ask me about what SLR to get to start out with and I’ll definitely tell them to come and read this.

  3. Wow, Nathalie… fantastic post. Well written but not too heavy for newbs like me. Nice one! 🙂

  4. Yes that’s a very extensive and interesting post. Well I’ve known most of this by know.
    I bought my first DSLR about six weeks ago. And I actually went for the Olympus E-520. Mainly because of its compact size and the built in image stabilization and even though I knew that the Four Thirds system produces slightly noisier pictures due to it’s smaller sensor (compared to other DSLRs).
    Well I played around a bit with different settings and took some test shots but I must admit that I didn’t take that many photos yet, here are all the ones I uploaded to Flickr so far.
    By the way, having used my father’s old Cosina film SLR really helped me a lot, understanding how an SLR works and what the different settings mean. Here are also a few scanned photos from that camera.

  5. nicely put together post. I’m always after new links; photographers, flickr groups, tutorials, and reading other people’s opinions on areas like this.

  6. @elfinamsterdam Thanks! And it was stealing cameras from friends that got me hooked and led to me buying my own so beware…
    @Claire Thank you. I’ve had a few questions too but can only really recommend Canon as it’s all I know!
    @Ciara Cheers! We must organise another bloggy photowalk soon so you can meet everybody (although you’ve probably met most of them already!)
    @Thomas Thanks for sharing your info on the Olympus E-520! Those shots are beautifully crisp. Love the Flickr one!
    @Phil Thank you muchly 🙂 Have you got Google Reader? Let me know if you do and I’ll add you and start hitting ‘share’ on anything I think you might be interested in. Am always reading photo stuff!

  7. […] Digital SLR for Christmas? Nathalie has a great guide to making the plunge and getting the right […]

  8. Yup, I use google reader. That’d be cool, I’m not sure how to add people/not really looked into it. I will email you with details.

  9. @Nathalie: You’re welcome, thanks for your comments. And yes, you’re right, the pics do look good. What I mentioned about noise is just what I had previously read on the internet. However if you look at a comparison here there is not that much difference.
    By the way, is one of the best places on the internet for DSLR reviews and they definitely got the most detailled review-videos around.

  10. Nathalie, this is an absolutely fantastic post and has given me a brilliant jumping off point to learn more. I have just bought my first SLR, the entry level Canon 1000D. I’ve already got a lot of shots that I love, but I really don’t know how to use it at all yet.

    Thank you for the advice.

  11. […] has a great post giving advice on buying a […]

  12. Wow great review! Those are some amazing quality pics!

  13. Hey lady. Niall bought me a canon 450d slr for Christmas. He bought it in Amsterdam aiport so the instructions are in Dutch but between the english manual on the web and this post I’ll be able to start playing with it today! So thank you! I may be back to you for more advice but the post is a great staring point…thanks again!

  14. Hey Sam! Yep, if you need any more help defo let me know; I have a few great introductory books lying around here (including Undestanding Exposure) which you’re more than welcome to borrow too.

    @Technorino Thank you! It has been mainly thanks to the generosity of photobloggers across the net that any of those pics have been possible so I’m delighted to be able to offer something in return.

  15. […] View post: So you want to buy a dSLR? « Casa Casey Courtney […]

  16. Hey, you have a great blog here! I’m definitely going to bookmark you! Thank you for your

    info.And this is **Best DSLR** blog. It pretty

    much covers ###Best DSLR## related stuff.

  17. You rock Nathalie, thanks for so so much info. Looking like it’s gonna be the 500D for us with the sexual HD video. :O

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