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Factors to Consider when Choosing a Digital SLR Camera

by Bob Atkins, October 2008 (updated May 2010)

photography by Bob Atkins and Hannah Thiem


The newcomer to the world of Digital SLR cameras is presented with a bewildering array of options. It’s hard to keep track of exactly who is currently making DSLRs and how many models each have, but as of summer 2008 there were at least 9 manufacturers (Canon, Fuji, Leica, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, Pentax, Samsung and Sony) and between them there were something like 34 different models.

How do you choose which one to buy, and in what ways are they different? With so many different cameras available and new models being announced every few months it’s not really possible to make specific recommendations on which one is "best". The term "best" will depend on many factors unique to the user. However, I will attempt to outline the various factors that you might want to take into account when deciding which one to purchase.

Lens Compatibility

If you already own any SLR lenses, that may influence your decision on which brand of DLSR to buy. In the case of Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony (Minolta), their DSLRs are fully compatible with lenses used on their autofocus film based SLRs. The Olympus 4/3 system is new and earlier Olympus lenses require an adapter to mount on Olympus Four-Thirds DSLRs. Most Nikon manual focus lenses will mount on most Nikon DSLRs and most Pentax bayonet mount lenses will mount on Pentax DSLRs, so for those systems there is good compatibility with older lenses. Mounting old FD lenses on Canon DLSRs or old Minolta MD lenses on Minolta DLSRs requires the use of an optical adapter, which lowers image quality, so that route is not really recommended. You can also mount many older manual focus lenses on Canon DLSRs with mechanical adapters, including Nikon, Pentax screw mount, Leica R, Contax and Olympus OM lenses.

If you are considering using 3rd party lenses such as those made by Sigma, Tamron and Tokina, make sure that the lenses you are interested in are available for the camera you are considering. Just about all such 3rd party lenses are available in mounts for Nikon and Canon DLSRs, but not all are available in Sony and Pentax mounts and few are available in the Olympus Four-Thirds mount. So, for example, if you really like the Tamron SP AF200-500/5-6.3 Di lens, you should be aware of the fact that it’s not currently available in a Pentax (or Olympus) lens mount, but it is available for Canon, Nikon and Sony DSLRs.

System Expandability

The question of system expandability and support comes up if you intend to get really serious about photography and need (and can afford) exotic lenses or very high performance camera bodies. In that case you’re certainly better off looking at Canon and Nikon cameras. For example, both have 400mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4 and 600mm f/4 lenses (with stabilization), while Sony, Pentax and Olympus do not. If you intended to eventually pursue photography as a profession, both Nikon and Canon have active professional user groups, which are supported by the manufacturers, while Pentax, Sony and Olympus have a much smaller professional support network. Right now Canon, Nikon, and Sony offer a line of full frame DSLRs. In the future it’s possible that Pentax will also do so, but Olympus is committed to the Four-Thirds format. When buying a DLSR, you may need to consider what you’ll want in the future as well as what you want today. Of course, if you’re an enthusiastic amateur who will never buy an $5000 full frame DSLR or an $8000 600/4 lens, then you don’t have to worry about system expandability.

For more information on the individual systems, including camera bodies, lenses, flashes and accessories for the different digital camera brands, take a look at the following articles on Photo.net:

Price

Price is obviously a major factor in any camera purchase decision. Currently prices range from a low of around $400: Nikon D40, 18-55mm kit (review), Canon Digital Rebel XT (review), to a high of almost $8000: Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III (review). One thing to bear in mind is that most photographers end up spending a lot more on lenses than they do on a camera body (and indeed that’s the way it should be). It would be silly to purchase a $2000 DSLR and then only use a $150 "kit" zoom lens with it. You should balance your budget between the camera and lenses.


Original text ©2008 Bob Atkins. Photos ©2008 Bob Atkins or Hannah Thiem

Article revised May 2010.

Readers' Comments


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Bob Delaney , October 21, 2008; 03:39 P.M.

Excellent article! Thanks for being so thorough and covering all the bases without trying to judge specific camera models... just a fantastic overview of all the factors that come into play.

Kevin Halliburton , October 21, 2008; 05:43 P.M.

One additional point I wish you would have touched on under flash is the importance of the flash synch speed. The limitations of the 1/180 synch speed on my current model is one of the top 5 reasons I'm abandoning it, and my lens collection (ouch), for a camera that synchs at 1/250. It didn't seem like a very important spec until I started hitting the wall in bright light a couple of stops short of what I needed to get the background dialed in with my flash.

Tom Blakely , October 21, 2008; 07:36 P.M.

Kevin, before you trade in all of your equipment, consider: the difference between 1/180 and 1/250 is less than half a stop. That won't gain you much, and it won't help at all if you need a couple of stops less light.

Bruno Vieira , October 21, 2008; 09:59 P.M.

Indeed, excellent article!! And very neutral too!! (this is hard to find nowadays!) One thing though... When talking about APS-H format you wrote 1Ds MarkIII but that's not correct, I believe you miss-typed 1D MarkIII (without the "s")... Congrats and thank you for the article!!!

[Oops! You are correct, I meant the 1D MkIII. I've made the correction - Bob]

Anil Singhal , October 22, 2008; 05:36 A.M.

Thanks for a wondeful article. My friends at the Hyderabad Photography CLub, India where elated having access to it . If you would like a link to the discussion you may want to see this : discussion

Marini Matteo , November 19, 2008; 03:12 P.M.

Excellent article to recommend to everyone looking to enter the DSLR space.

Stephen van Egmond , November 19, 2008; 03:42 P.M.

I would add three notes: durability, weather sealing, and more about backwards compatibility.

Durability - some cameras are entirely plastic bodies - aside from the mount - and others are a metal frame coated in plastic. Consider how rough you are on your stuff, and what kind of situations your camera will be used in.

Weather sealing - some camera, and camera+lens combinations are "weather sealed", meaning you can take them out in the rain or into a dusty environment, and not destroy them.

In regards to backwards compatibility, the picture presented in the article is a bit muddied. Some lenses will safely attach to a camera, but the resulting unit may be useless or frustrating. I follow Pentax a lot and Nikon a little, so I can only comment on those systems.

Pentax allows you to mount any lens as far back as M42 screw mount (though only M42 requires a $20 adapter), and will give you focus confirmation (beeping or a viewfinder light when it thinks you have focus) and metering. To meter, the camera quickly switches the lens to your preferred aperture, meters the scene, and reopens the lens. It takes about a third of a second.

Pentax has announced (and not yet shipped) lenses that are SDM-only, i.e. do not provide a drive screw for focus. They will not work on the *istDS/DL cameras (and earlier film models, clearly), and is probably their biggest backwards compatibility break of late.

At least one current Nikon DSLR (D40) will work with SDM-only lenses, i.e. does not provide a focusing motor in the camera to drive the focus screw. Though AF lenses will mount, focus remains manual and metering is your problem. Aside from that odd exception, my Nikonian friends enjoy splendid backwards compatibility.

Richard O'Donnell , January 04, 2009; 08:58 P.M.

A great in depth and informative article !

Lee Berg , January 10, 2009; 09:03 A.M.

Pretty biased toward Nikon and Canon. I say that only because in a number of the sections, the analysis is only on these two manufacturers.

Phil Bowen , February 15, 2009; 04:48 A.M.

You would be hard pressed to write an article such as this and not mention the two top selling manufacturers of digital cameras today as examples, I didn't see any example bias of Nikon or Cannon in this article, and I am using an Olympus E system, for this reason, (and others), I consider the above comment regarding bias to be unfair, this article is well balanced, informative, and covers all major aspects of camera purchase allowing you to make an informed decision when you do decide to purchase a camera, further it demonstrates clearly that the authors know what they are talking about, my only bug with this article is that I didn't read it when I first started photography last year, so this is definitely something that I would reccomend that a newbie reads before contemplating entering a camera shop/store, well done!

Edward Camuffo , March 24, 2009; 04:27 A.M.

Great article. I recently read a comment on "Amazon" that a Minolta AF 18-70mm DT lens caused significant "vignetting" at the extreme wide angle end of the lens when used with a Sony DSLR-A100 body. The Minolta DT lens was designed for use with a sensor that is almost exactly the same size as the Sony sensor, so I am not convinced that what I read is accurate. Sony also claims that this Minolta lens is compatable with all of its Sony DSLR Alpha bodies. Is there any information or recent comments on this subject?

trefor hopkins , April 07, 2009; 11:14 A.M.

re minolta lens vignetting on sony body;

if both systems share the same sensor size and the lens system is truly compatible then the most likely causes of vignetting at the extreme wide end are unsuitable lens hoods and unsuitable filters (or too many stacked). Many polarising filters are too deep at the extreme wide end of a lens and for some ultrawides almost any filter will be too deep so as to force vignetting. Note that a 'suitable' lenshood for an 18-xx mm is almost certainly a 'flower' type and it may be possible to attach it 90 degrees out so it becomes 'unsuitable'

Neither Minolta nor Sony are in the top flight (any more, in Minolta's case) but I don't see them releasing a lens that badly designed these days, maybe 20 years ago. I call operator error.

Overall good article, well balanced. While there are lots of manufacturers in the hobby/amateur end of the market (which is still quite expensive), the very top end pro SLR kit in this format is still Canon and Nikon. Most of the other companies of note are mentioned somewhere, but comparisons are inevitable. The R&D bar is relatively higher in digital land and even allowing for very high prices at the big end you still need to sell a lot of sensors, so some companies are just leaving the smaller formats pretty much alone. The article stays nicely marque-agnostic and stays clear of "everyone should buy a < .. > because I did and you're not as good if you didn't".

re flash syncs >1/180sec: I believe some Nikons will offer electronic sync across the full shutter range, right up to 1/8000 or whatever, so long as you have a compatible speedlight (SB800, possibly inc SB600 too). They do this by jut opening the shutter up and using an 'electronic shutter' (sampling the sensor, i think) and being clever with flash timing. Maybe other manufacturers do, too. I know not all Nikon bodies will do this.

The responder is 100% correct. If you are a couple of stops shy of your desired sync at 1/180 then ditching it all for 1/250 is just stupid as you'll still be short for your target. I guess you want to be looking at more like 1/500-1/1000 sec syncs and faster.

Lex Molenaar , April 17, 2009; 03:12 A.M.

Thanks for the torough article!

I like to add one paragraph, though, 'Color Profile'. For me, an essential difference between a digital camera and a film camera is that with digital cameras 'the film is included' for the rest of the camera life. With film, one could select the color profile to your personal liking and the occasion by simply selecting another film brand and type. But with digital camera's you are set with the default color profile used for recording images, which differ largely between DSLR brands. Of course most camera's offer the possibility to adjust and modify the color saturation and shift the primary colors (but mostly not on the Auto setting that others use when I hand them my camera). Therefor my choice for an SLR has been based on the ease of use and on the extend of adjustability of the color profile.

Finally, the sensor quality and sensitivity is a one-time investment that will benefit all photo's. (This does not mean that megapixels count! Remind Albert Einstein: 'Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts". Color and noise are difficult to count.)

(Personally, I switched from my Minolta system with Kodacolor film to Nikon on SD+ color profile setting. With Sony I could have kept my lenses, but their default color is too red for my liking and adjustability is poorer. Also, noise levels at higher ISO are too high in jpg output. So in January I ended up with the Nikon D90, although the Canon 40D was a strong rival. Half a year ago it would have been the D40 (not D40x or D60) and now I would have waited for the D5000 since the reduced weight is great for mountaineering.)

James Naka , May 13, 2009; 05:20 A.M.

Wow, such a lengthy article for choosing the right digital slr DSLR camera . Been a great help to me.

James Bond , May 21, 2009; 03:39 A.M.

I must disagree with "Phil Bowen" and "Bruno Vieira".

This article IS very biased toward Canon and Nikon (and I happen to use Canon). Maybe Bob is on their payroll.

There is a difference between mentioning the two top SLR manufacturers (why wouldn't you?), and focusing almost exclusively on them - if you can't appreciate this difference, oh well. So I consider Phil's criticism of "Lee Berg" somewhat unfair, because going over the article again, it's hard not to notice this bias. Though I wouldn't call the article well-balanced, it is very informative and covers the important topics.

Just a word of advice to newbies - don't just take anyone's word for it (even from 'experts'). Do your own research, look at reviews from users and fellow consumers (and be wary of pundits and fanboys, although useful info can sometimes be gleaned from their rants), look at the specs on manufacturer websites, etc. You will be better informed. Ultimately, you must decide what is best.

Alin Daju , August 20, 2009; 09:39 A.M.

To James Bond,

Well show me another brand that: - manufactures so many lens as Canon and Nikon do, - has third party accessories built for them - have better customer service, - has so many users.

Canon and Nikon are the most popular for 1 reason: THEY ARE THE BEST

Steve S. , August 27, 2009; 03:36 P.M.

You noted that Sony offers a full-frame body (the a900), but you still listed the 22MP Canon as the highest-MP.

While the difference between the Canon and the Sony isn't much (22MP Canon, vs 25MP Sony (24.6, to be more precise)), still it makes your facts "wrong" on this point, and adds to the impression that you're "favoring" the CaNikon camps...

In addition, I'd add a section on color-space & accuracy, and one on dynamic range. The a900, in particular, offers a stunning DR at lower ISO's, and very-good color; for the fashion/portrait photographer, it's an amazing value, particularly paired with top of the line ("G" or "Z") glass. I know some pro's who have added Sony to their Canon or Nikon lineups, specifically to get the a900 + 24-70Zeiss, and regard it as their "go-to" combo for most portrait/fashion work.

Gregory C , October 05, 2009; 04:44 P.M.

Look at like this, 10 years from now your $2500.00+ digital camera will probably be inoporative due to a obsolete part. In other words, buy a fair camera, good glass, so when you replace the body, you will not have to buy new lenses also.

Qamar Mehdi , October 17, 2009; 06:06 A.M.

next to the excellent, very informative.

Peter Commeyne , October 22, 2009; 10:28 P.M.

I mirror the opinion that this article is very well written with little or no bias. Do not forget that Canon Nikon are the largest and best known brands. Add to that if you are working at a professional level and need high-end equipment you're probably going to choose one of these 2, not only for the bodies and lenses but also availability of accessories and other reasons. And frankly, if you're a professional (which I'm not) I don't think you'd need to read this article. For beginners and even advanced amateurs, there's really a lot of good advice in there, and I don't think I've ever read an article that had less bias towards any one brand. Well written and I can recommend this to anyone wanting to put together a D-SLR Set

Theresa Nietfeld , January 15, 2010; 06:26 P.M.

I see a lot of bias in this article such as the number of pixels in a full frame camera (25 MP in the Sony) and numerous other times when nothing was mentioned but Nikon or Canon. Its not that you shouldn't mention the CanNik cameras, it just they aren't the only or the best (when price is figured in). You do yourself and the reader a disservice in this as it becomes just a fanboi piece.

Robin Parmar , February 04, 2010; 12:34 P.M.

An excellent article that should help every beginner. Yes, it does mention Canon and Nikon a lot, but then again they have the most coverage everywhere in the media.

Thanks also to Stephen van Egmond for his spot-on comment. Indeed, for durability, weather sealing and backwards compatibility it is impossible to beat Pentax, especially at their low price point. They also run neck and neck with Olympus for smaller bodies without leaving the APS-C sensor. As a glass manufacturer they have excellent optics including some of the best all-metal lenses made. The main Pentax disadvantages lie in lower shots per second and extreme telephoto lens availability.

I think a beginner's article should be more forthcoming about the pluses and minuses of each system, since otherwise it seems as though the smaller manufacturers are getting short shrift.

Nice shots too Bob!

Max Pace , April 17, 2010; 05:23 P.M.

As a newbie, I see the usefulness of a strong viewpoint (even though this article is neutral in my eyes). I find it helps, not hinders my independent judgement because people with a strong viewpoint are usually very clear of their rationale. Helps me choose.

Your bias is appreciated (just be polite!)

Kirk Francis , September 08, 2010; 10:52 A.M.

Maybe I missed it but was geotagging covered?  

Having just purchased a Canon 7d, I was quite disappointed that Canon has not embraced this technology like other manufacturers.  I am pretty sure it is available for Nikon to directly write this data to the photo file.

I have read that this can be done on a Canon with a $600 plus WFT-E5A wireless/USB adapter for the 7d, a USB Bluetooth adapter, and a $200 plus GPS unit.  Seems a little too costly to go this route, I would be more willing to spend around $200 to geotag enable the Nikon versus the nearly $1000 to add this feature to the 7d.

Ray Riedel , December 20, 2010; 03:25 A.M.

I would also suggest looking at the brand's support of operating systems. 64-bit versions of Windows came out in 2005, but Canon seems to have never written drivers for XP64, or Vista 64. Not sure how well Nikon or other brands did on that score, but it's an expensive problem if you buy the camera and your operating system won't talk to it. (Especially if you're buying a used camera.)

Just read the box on a brand new Sony camera: XP and Vista were listed as supported, but the asterisk said not the 64-bit versions. Windows 7 was listed as supported -but not the "starter" version -whatever that is.

Koji Fujita , August 15, 2011; 03:44 P.M.

This is the one of best article I have read ever. Well covered and balanced view. Thank you.

Kenneth Dwain Harrelson , November 15, 2012; 08:12 P.M.

This comment comes a little late in the game, but now, it's more relevant than ever.  If you try to find a modern DSLR that just takes pictures, which would be want you would want a camera for in the first place, keep in mind that the "standard" now is that every one is going to also have the capability to film hd movies.  I can't imaging how much that brings up the price even though you might not be looking for or need this feature.  If a person needed a movie camera, I'm sure they're smart enough to buy one.  But, when they don't need one - now they have to buy one anyway.  What's going on here?  I'm thinking it won't be long until people won't know what a "camera" is.  "Camera?  Oh, you mean my frobulator.  It films movies, slices and dices vegetables, changes the oil in my car, washes the dog, pays my bills automatically online and I can talk to all my friends with it.  Takes pictures?  I think it does."

Sweid Sideris , May 08, 2013; 01:22 P.M.

Useful info with some remarkable tips, but, man, so biased! There is life beyond Canon and Nikon, believe me.


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