Help Key: Why, When, and Where should you buy a DSLR?

With the launch of multiple DSLRs including today’s Nikon D3X, camera manufacturers are ready and waiting for you to buy their wares. But should you?

DSLRs are perceived by beginners as the pick-up trucks of the camera world. Why buy something with high wheels and a tailgate when you are perfectly happy with a comfortable minivan or sedan. But DSLRs aren’t quite they heavy duty machines we make them out to be. Point-and-shoots, while small and comfortable, are severely limited in terms of shooting ability. Manufacturers stuff all sorts of image improving features into these things including red-eye reduction, night mode, and even child mode for fast-moving rugrats. But these are crutches designed to reduce the effect of slow image sensors and wonky lenses that have to fold in on themselves to stay compact.

Can your point and shoot do that?
That said, if you or someone you’re shopping for has found a camera to love, stick with it. If it takes good shots in the environments you’re traditionally shooting in – bars, living rooms, motel rooms on the outside of town – then you’re golden. Don’t buy a DSLR.

First, the cons. DSLRs are expensive and they’re big. For vacation shots, I’d carry a Kodak point and shoot any day if I knew I wouldn’t be dealing with odd lighting and weird shooting situations. In fact, I’d recommend bringing a point and shoot on vacations unless you’re a photo buff. Nothing says “I’m not a fun person” like carrying around a prosumer camera on the beach.

So Why, When, and Where should you get a DSLR? If you are having a new baby and want to get some spectacular shots of the wee one, get a DSLR. If you’re working out of a home office and sell things online, get a lightbox and a DSLR. If you have any interest in printing photographs you’ve taken in a larger format, get a DSLR. If you have more than a passing interest in photography, get a DSLR. Most other reasons – a zoom lens, faster shutter time, more megapixels – don’t really stack up. There are plenty of point and shoot and prosumer cameras out there with plenty of zoom and, as I mentioned before, these point and shoots compensate for slow shutter speeds with plenty of tricks.

So what if you fall into any of the other categories? What should you buy? I’ve consistently recommended the Canon Rebel in its latest incarnation as the entry-level DSLR of choice. The kit uses Canon’s popular EF lens mount, it takes great photos in almost any light, and it’s just complex enough to whet your appetite for trying more and more interesting techniques. This latest model costs $799 (or less) with the standard Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens, a solid beginner lens. If you want to stop there, feel free. Getting other lenses is purely optional because this lens is more than adequate in most cases (although Canon’s famously cheap 50mm f/1.8 would be a good $70 investment). I’ve used other DSLRs in this space but I’ve had nothing but good experiences with Canon thus far and most of my friends shoot Canon. They make a strong, good camera with plenty of room to grow.

This brings us to the biggest DSLR myth: that you need a fishing vest to hold all the garbage you have to buy. You don’t. DSLRs come with perfectly capable lenses and once you figure a few things out you can buy a UV protector, maybe a nice flash, and a nice prime lens for portraits. But this is a long way down the road for most of us and not an absolutely necessity by any means.

See how much fun he’s having?

Where should you buy it? Best Buy or a trusted photography shop like B&H Photo. If you find a “deal” online, be wary. These deals usually involve just the body and sometimes the sellers will add in batteries, chargers, and straps as “extras,” jacking the price back up or beyond the the MSRP. Check Google’s listings to make sure a seller is legit.

So there you have it. If this looks like an advertorial for Canon, it isn’t. The Pentax K2000 and Nikon D80 are also excellent choices. I’m essentially giving you the same advice I’d give anyone else asking which DSLR to buy. Perhaps some of our shutterbug readers can comment on other entry levels in comments?