Aspiring Artist: How To Buy Your First DSLR Camera

The world of photography is rather daunting — as an observer, it may seem that the elaborate combination of technical knowledge and expensive, high-end systems would warrant a high cost of entry — but that couldn’t be further from the truth. While a camera system that’s as simple as a point-and-shoot Pentax can introduce you to photography’s greatest highs, the leading manufacturers in capture have catered (rather extensively) to the entry-level shooter, providing numerous platforms that are both affordable as well as capable.

Originally, camera systems were an expensive hobby that was afforded only to the wealthy, utilizing bulky, impractical technology that, by today’s standards, was brutish and inefficient. Luckily, as photographic endeavors caught traction and became more accessible to the common individual, companies saw an attractive business opportunity in the masses of would-be creators — a market that would eventually find itself at the forefront of modern society. Innovative manufacturers began to devise new ways to pack additive technology into a smaller package, creating alternative platforms to those that once seemed out-of-reach for the common shooter. While the popularity of photography has undoubtedly skyrocketed over the past two to three decades, there’s a single, age-old question that continuously emanates from the mouths of amateur artists: what is the best camera for a beginning photographer?

All of these questions are rudimentary to a seasoned photographer — but for new blood, they’re all variables that “add up” to the heightened cost of entry.It might be difficult to discern what you need to hone your skills and achieve the photographic style that you’d like, and the oversaturated DSLR market is bound to make it even more daunting. What’s the difference between Nikon and Canon? How does a camera’s sensor size play into the overall algorithm (and believe us, it is an algorithm)? What is an ISO-rating and why should I care? What sort of lenses and ecosystems should I focus on and why? All of these questions are rudimentary to a seasoned photographer — but for new blood, they’re all variables that “add up” to the heightened cost of entry. Below, we’ll clarify all of these things and more — so first, let’s clear up what a DSLR actually is.

What Is A DSLR?

A Modern Transition

To lay a foundation for the up-and-coming photographer, we need to understand what the term DSLR actually means. You may have heard the acronym thrown around rather flippantly, depending on what kind of photography circle you’re spending your time with — but one thing’s for certain — Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras are still the most widely accepted platforms in the industry. What does Digital Single Lens Reflex really mean? Here’s a quick rundown.

A DSLR is an elaborative take on the original single lens reflex camera system, utilizing a technologically-defined digital imaging sensor instead of the one commonly used for film. Light enters the camera via an optical element (or lens) placed in front of the sensor, which is then transmitted/reflected toward the viewfinder of the camera via an alternating mirror. In effect, this allows the image that’s being transmitted through the lens of the camera to be represented identically to that of the sensor, whereas, with a traditional non-reflex single lens setup, the camera utilizes a separate lens for its viewfinder and doesn’t represent what the lens is actually seeing.

Like their single lens reflex counterparts, DSLRs offer a variety of interchangeable lens options, allowing the photographer to dip into their camera bag to grab a lens setup based on shooting style and situation. Each DSLR company utilizes its own proprietary lens mount system — for instance, Canon utilizes an EF mounting system, while Nikon is partial to an F mounting system. This means that lenses developed to fit a specific platform will become exclusive to their manufacturer — but we’ll touch on that at a later date. Let’s talk about what to look for when you’re deciding on the best entry-level DSLR based on your own personal preference.

What To Look For

Top Qualities


A Million Different Squares

To understand the importance of megapixels, we’ll break down what a pixel actually is. In photographic terms, a pixel is synonymous with a “picture element,” which is comprised of microscopic squares that, in our current day and age, number in the millions. Each of these squares records a certain value for light, hue, and shadow, eventually forming a full-size image that’s replicant of the scene that the photographer is hoping to capture. Each megapixel (or MP) of the camera represents 1,000,000 pixels — so it comes as no surprise that the higher the megapixel count, the higher the camera’s imaging potential.

Megapixels are not the do-all, be-all of a digital camera.However, this is where things become a little more obscure. Megapixels are not the do-all, be-all of a digital camera — the integrity of other components such as the sensor, lens, and ISO capability can lead to drastically different results. Take a cell phone’s camera system, for example — although the latest smart devices boast a megapixel count that can put most entry-level DSLRs to shame, the photo will pale in comparison to a professionally-oriented setup. The truth is, a DSLR can house a larger, technologically advanced image sensor, while a cellular device cannot.

All things considered (and with sensor sizes set to an equal threshold), megapixels are important for two reasons: cropping and print sizing. A camera that utilizes a higher resolution and megapixel count can handle cropping and resizing at a much higher level, which is why professional photographers who shoot for magazines, billboards, and large-scale print prefer high-megapixel cameras. Typically, modern cameras will utilize a megapixel threshold no lower than 12 and no higher than 36 (although, there are outliers). Interestingly, the importance of high-megapixel platforms has been hotly debated within the photography community, stating that excessive values beyond the 16-20 range have no real advantage over their smaller counterparts. For beginner’s sake, it’s important to remember that any megapixel count above the aforementioned value is just icing on the cake. Now that we understand what megapixels are, let’s talk about why the sensor is one of the most important aspects of a camera.


Collecting Your Lens' Information

To clear up the quarrel behind megapixel count vs. sensor size in an efficient manner, we’ll break it down with one easy-to-remember guideline: the bigger the sensor, the more information there will be for the camera to reproduce an image. The sensor of a DSLR acts as a figurative petri dish for light-sensitive spots called photosites, allowing the collection of integral data that can be used by the camera to develop an image.

A large sensor offers more space for photosites to accumulate, while a smaller sensor does not.It’s elementary to understand the relationship between a larger image sensor and its corresponding megapixels — a large sensor offers more space for photosites to accumulate, while a smaller sensor does not. Keep this in mind when you’re shopping for a DSLR that contains a high megapixel count — if the camera lacks an adequate sensor to utilize them, it might be time to move on to a better platform. As a rule of thumb, there are three primary sensor sizes that are used in most entry/consumer-level cameras: a Micro Four Thirds 4/3 sensor, which utilizes a 17.30 x 13.00mm plane, a APS-C (or cropped) sensor that utilizes a 23.60 x 15.60mm plane, and a Full Frame sensor, which utilizes a 36.00 x 24.00mm plane. Although it might seem that the Full Frame sensor stands head and shoulders above the other offerings, keep in mind that these cameras are often regarded as prosumer/professional photography devices — meaning that they’ll cost substantially more than their crop-sensor counterparts.

When buying your first DSLR, it’s important to remember that an ASP-C sensor crop factor is roughly 1.5-1.6x that of a full frame camera, meaning that a 50mm full frame lens will equate to an 80mm when used with an ASP-C platform.

ISO Performance

Sensitivity To Light

Although the International Organization for Standardization is merely the body that defines sensitivity ratings for camera sensors, the ISO of a camera is often referred to as “light sensitivity.” The camera’s ISO rating (and performance) is recognized as one of the three pillars of photography, with the other two materializing in the form of shutter speed and aperture values. The exposure of an image is controlled through these three pillars, and oftentimes, photographers must rely on a camera’s ISO capabilities to create artificial illumination, especially in dark or underexposed areas.

Depending on the quality of your device’s light sensitivity, this could mean the difference between operating at a much higher threshold (>32,000+ ISO) vs. image deterioration at much lower levels (<16,000 ISO). There’s no escaping this facet of photography and it’s an unfortunate fact that the cheaper your system, the less dynamic it will be when it comes to ISO performance. Larger sensor sizes, heightened sensitivity to light, and noise control are all factors that you must contemplate when looking for an optimal camera system — but that doesn’t mean that you can’t find a perfect middle ground when looking for your new camera.

Lens Capability

A Healthy Ecosystem

Last but not least, we’ll talk about lens capability. The world of photography is full of myths, and as such, the importance of a well-engineered lens is often overlooked in favor of higher megapixels and bolstered sensor sizes. While these two variables are undeniably important to the performance of an entry-level camera, one of the best investments you can make is in that of a healthy lens ecosystem. Camera bodies are continuously updated to feature greater technology, becoming more adept with each passing day, but a well-made lens is eternal. Although lens manufacturers today might offer modern improvements over vintage manual focus lenses (in the realm of razor-sharp autofocus capabilities, better chromatic control, and updated architecture) there are still a large number of notable devices that can provide exceptional image quality when compared to low-end offerings.

A good lens can make a mediocre camera look professional, but a bad lens can make a professional camera look amateur.Good glass is an investment — providing photographers with an adaptable “instrument” that can paint the world in a number of different ways. To understand the best aspects of a lens, we’ll start with the basics. As photographers grow and thrive within the community, they gain a better understanding of what to look for when it comes to focal lengths, aperture values, and quality control via each different lens developer. We briefly touched on the different mount ecosystems within our “What Is A DSLR?” section, but now it’s time to dive a little deeper into the rabbit hole.

Since we’re focusing on DSLRs, we’ll touch on the offerings set forth by Nikon and Canon, the two leading DSLR manufacturers in the industry. As stated before, Nikon utilizes an F mounting system, while Canon prefers its own EF mount. Canon’s EF USM lineup is the flagship offering of the brand, baring a trademark “red ring” around the circumference of the exterior housing, while Nikon’s flagship, the AF-S NIKKOR line, sports an iconic gold ring. These lenses are easily identifiable, full frame compatible, and offer the highest-quality glass element on the front of the cylinder.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Canon’s EF STM lineup and Nikon’s DX offerings, which are considered the entry-level lenses for each brand. While these lenses sacrifice low-light autofocus performance, silent autofocus motors, high-end glass, and dependable, durable builds, they’re perfect for the beginning photographer who’s looking to make their way into the realm of color capture. Essentially, a diverse photographer will want a well-rounded kit of adaptable lenses — everything from a wide-angle 24mm (or 35mm lens), a 50mm for midrange photography, and 85+mm for anything at a distance. Beginner’s lenses are a financially efficient way to dip your toes into the world of photography, but if you’re willing to invest the time (and the money), it’s always a better idea to do your research, study the photographers who you find inspirational, and learn about the ways they utilize their own kit. A good lens is always more valuable than a mediocre camera body — so here’s a wise old adage to live by: A good lens can make a mediocre camera look professional, but a bad lens can make a professional camera look amateur.

Now that we’ve cleared up some of the most important things to look for in an entry-level camera, let’s take a look at two of the flagship offerings from Nikon and Canon.

The Contenders

Nikon Vs. Canon

Nikon D3500

Nikon’s D3500 is currently the reigning champ of the manufacturer’s entry-level camera lineup, boasting a 24.2-megapixel DX CMOS sensor, an EXPEED 4 image processor, and a native ISO of 100-25,600. Perhaps the biggest differentiator when it comes to Nikon’s dominant offering is the fact that the D3500 has excluded an optical low-pass filter, which means that the image is “aliased” (or softened) to deal with moire (a wave-like phenomenon that happens when the repetitive details of an object exceed what a sensor’s resolution can handle). In turn, the sharpness of the image is tuned so that the sensor can better deal with the object’s repetitive nature. In practice, this softens the image, leaving users with a less-sharp photograph that is often times less desirable.

The exclusion of the low-pass filter in the D3500 ensures that the camera was built to handle the repetitive nature of certain textures, producing a sharper image than its competitors. To augment this, the D3500 utilizes a 23.5 x 15.6mm APS-C sensor, meaning that it retains its crop value of 1.5-1.6x, as well as a 3.0″ 921k-Dot LCD Monitor, 1080P video recording at up to 60 frames per second, and an 11-point autofocus system that ensures pinpoint accuracy.

Sensor: 24.2MP DX-Format CMOS Sensor
Processor: EXPEED 4 Image Processor
ISO: Native ISO 100-25600; 5 fps Shooting
Monitor Size: 3.0″ 921k-Dot LCD Monitor
Video Capability: Full HD 1080p Video Recording at 60 fps
Auto Focus System: Multi-CAM 1000 11-Point AF System
WiFi/Bluetooth: SnapBridge Bluetooth Connectivity

Purchase: $400

Canon EOS Rebel T7

Canon’s EOS Rebel is one of the most well-regarded camera ecosystems in the industry, and their updated T7 is currently the best offering among the entirety of their entry-level lineup. Sporting a 24.1-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor and a revered DIGIC 4+ image processor, the T7 boasts a 9-point autofocus system with center cross-type point technology, locking onto subjects with ease. However, its ISO rating of 100-6400 is substantially smaller than Nikon’s D3500, and with a 22.3 x 14.9mm sensor size, it also falls short of its competitor’s 23.5 x 15.6mm crop sensor. It can record Full HD 1080P video at 30 frames per second, and even features a 3.0″ 920k-Dot LCD Monitor, which isn’t quite enough to topple the D3500 off of its throne. The inclusion of a low pass filter and a price point higher than Nikon’s competitive offering leave Canon with little room to boast, but if brand allegiance is your thing, Canon’s catalog of affordable lens to stuff your camera backpack might be reason enough to stick with the company’s EF ecosystem.

Sensor: 24.1MP APS-C CMOS Sensor
Processor: DIGIC 4+ Image Processor
ISO: ISO 100-6400, Up to 3 fps Shooting
Monitor Size: 3.0″ 920k-Dot LCD Monitor
Video Capability: Full HD 1080p Video Recording at 30 fps
Auto Focus System: 9-Point AF w/ Center Cross-Type Point
WiFi/Bluetooth: Built-In Wi-Fi with NFC

Purchase: $450

15 Best Hiking Cameras

Now that you’ve got a feel for what separates a beginner’s camera from a high-end offering, take a look at our guide on the best hiking cameras to learn about the best platforms for outdoor adventure.