Need help choosing a DSLR? Here's one experience

Started Mar 20, 2010 | Discussions thread
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ishu
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Need help choosing a DSLR? Here's one experience
Mar 20, 2010

I bought a DSLR a month ago, after many months of research. If you're looking for advice, I'm sharing my thought process, since there are many "need advice" posts--including several that I posted. This is my experience, and my final decision evolved over a long period of time before I bought. I learned much from reading others' decision process. I got some good advice from this forum. I took my time and chose very carefully, and I'm glad I did.

I hope at least one or two camera buyers will benefit from my decision. Everyone else can stop reading now.

Background

I've been shooting with "bridge cams" for years. My Canon SX10 takes nice pictures, has a great zoom range, and I've bought an external flash for range and battery life. However, I wanted more natural-looking indoor pictures of my family, particularly in daylight. That required less flash (tells everyone I'm shooting) and faster lenses.

I followed a lot of good advice I learned from these discussions:

  • I believe that any DSLR would have been a big step up, as is often said here.

  • I handled several cameras, shooting for several afternoons with friends/relatives cameras: Nikon D40, Nikon D80, Canon XT/350 (yes, I know they're all old, but the replacements are largely similar)

  • I reviewed my photos. I realized I often shoot longer and shorter than 50mm in succession, which would mean (a) lens switching between a short zoom (18-55) or a telephoto zoom (50-200), or (b) a superzoom.

  • Also, I tried the Nikon D5000, D3000, D90, Pentax K-x, Olympus e520, e620

I also determined that I wanted the following items:

  1. A camera that felt good in my hands.

  2. An affordable fast autofocus normal prime lens (fast = f/2.0 or better) to shoot camera-shy family indoors. I watched the exposures as I shot with my cameras and saw that I would need 1-2 stops faster, so the f/3.5 kit zooms wouldn't cut it, even with 1-2 stops better ISO. (Thanks ProtoPhoto & AnandaSim)

  3. A "consumer zoom" to approach the range of my P&S (32mm to 160mm equiv) based on review of my photos. (Thanks Awaldram, Stephen Busch, GPGeneralPhoto)

  4. An external flash, but the mid-level flash units are "comparable enough" across brands in my view and not a deciding factor.

  5. I decided to support my local camera enthusiast store. (Thanks to Guidenet and Howard Moftich)

I started with a budget around $1000.

Rejects:

  • Sony: Didn't seriously consider as handgrips were non-starters for me.

  • Canon Rebels: I didn't like how the XT felt and the upgrades (XSi, Ti1) are pretty much the same. Nice features, though.

  • Olympus: I really liked the controls, but no affordable fast primes (f/2.8 isn't close enough, esp. since high-ISO isn't a strong suit). Also, the AF-assist isn't good (flash strobes)

  • Pentax K-x: A semi-finalist. I wanted to like it (good handling, price, high ISO) but a consumer zoom (Sigma/Tamron 18-200 or Tamron 18-250) would be $300-400 after the kit, and there are no affordable fast AF primes. The low-light AF assist also is a flash strobe.

Short List: Nikons (D60 refurb cheap; D3000, D5000, D90)

  • The Nikon 18-105 was a compromise on the telephoto end, but cheaper than any of the longer zooms.

  • The 35mm AF-S f/1.8 is $250.

  • Nikons have dedicated AF-assist lamps.

  • My local enthusiast camera shop also sold "only" Canon and Nikon.

The winner: Nikon D90

I thought the D90 was too big/heavy. After an afternoon with my cousin's D80 and 18-200mm, I quickly realized that the D90 wouldn't really be so big after all. Also, I realized that I could afford more than $1000 I'd originally budgeted. (The Nikon 18-200, however, would have blown my budget, so I stayed with the 18-105.)

On the final visit, the D90 won as soon as I handled it next to the D3000 and D5000--in my local camera store. To me, the D90 wasn't appreciably heavier or more bulky than the D5000 and has more controls. And I did like the D90 balance against the heavier lenses.

On my original budget, I'd have gone with the D3000 and then upgraded later. The D5000 didn't offer enough features (even with the better sensor) and the handling was more like the D3000 than the D90 in my hands.

My experience with the camera

After about a month of shooting, I know I made the right choice. First, I've shot a lot with the 35mm f/1.8. Below are two pictures that I shot the first weekend, with and without flash. Even though the focus isn't great on the first picture, I like it better (my daughter was still hiding as she knew she was supposed to pose for the picture).

I have used the "extra" controls of the D90 and am very happy. For example, shooting with the 35mm at f/1.8, the shallow depth-of-field got me some bad focus with the multi-point setting, so I can switch quickly to center-point. Also, I can quickly change ISO, as I did at a party with variable lighting. And in the third picture below I quickly went with a large aperture to blur out the very busy background at my daughter's birthday party.

I've made lots of mistakes. I just noticed the vignetting in my 18-105 lens. My kids still hide from the camera. I'm having fun!

FYI, I paid an extra $200 to support the shop (including local sales tax), but it was worth it, in my view. The shop already supported me with a no-fuss exchange of the 35mm, and the 3-4 hours I spent in the store over 3 separate days helped me to make a better decision.

Your mileage may vary. Hope this helps.

Nikkor 35mm AF-S, f/1.8, 1/50, ISO 800, no flash

Nikkor 35mm AF-S, f/4.0, 1/60, ISO 800, pop-up flash

Nikkor 35mm AF-S, f/2.5, 1/60, ISO 400, no flash

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