dSLR: How To Choose

Today I’m addressing the many questions I have receieved about why I bought the camera I did, and how to go about choosing a dSLR. If you would like to learn how dSLRs work, you can read it in very technical terms on the Wikpedia page. If you want a really easy to understand (dummy guide, if you will) explanation, go here.

I think the first question is, What kind (level, not brand) of dSLR should I buy when I am ready to buy one?

Before you buy a dSLR, there is something you should know. It’s a very serious lesson that every single professional photographer (I’m talking the real pros, the ones who make $250,000 on one wedding, and the little pros who are just starting out) will tell you. It was the first thing Bambi Cantrell said it to me in Vegas when I met her:

Buying an expensive camera will not make you a better photographer.

Yes, I have better pictures now that I have a nicer camera. But I’m using the skills I had already developed with a point-and-shoot. I guess the meta-message behind this message is, don’t go out and buy a Canon 1d Mark III for $8,000 (yes, they really cost $8,000!) and then wonder why your pictures don’t look as great as that one guy you saw shooting for Vogue. Start with what you can handle, and then work your way up from there.

I think this page breaks up the different kinds of lower-end dSLRs and explains them very well. The pricing is all from late last year, so you should be able to make an informed decision. My personal advice to you? Unless you know what the terms Aperture, ISO, and Shutter Speed mean, and how to manipulate and use all three together, you don’t need much more than a pro-sumer level camera, and even a consumer level camera should be a good starting place for you to learn.

I’m inserting a picture here because I have a hard time writing long posts without pictures. Usually the pictures I choose apply directly to the post, but I don’t want to put up a bunch of pictures of cameras, because I think that sounds boring. Instead I will show you a picture I took in Rome, with my Canon G9. See? You don’t need expensive equipment in the beginning, just the ability to take your camera off of “auto”.


I’ve had several of you ask why I chose the camera I did. I’ll break those replies up into two parts:

1. Why did I choose a Canon brand camera?

2. Why did I choose the Canon 50D?

Why did I choose Canon?

In the world of digital photography, there are two brands that most photographers choose between, Canon or Nikon. With my friend Kelli, mom, and  sister all shooting Canon, this was a no-brainer for me. My mom has already offered to sell me a $1,300 lens for $500!

If you are trying to make the choice yourself, but don’t have any outside influences like I do I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Canon and Nikon are both multi-billion dollar corporations that make stellar products, and that’s why they are both in business today. If one or the other was exceedingly better, the underdog would have gone out of business years ago.

Everything I have read online about the debate suggests that it all comes down to personal prefernce. My personal preference was what others around me were shooting with, and the good things they told me about their cameras. I also learned to shoot on manual using my Canon G9 and I liked the way it worked, so I figured the Canon 50D would function similarly. I have also spent time shooting with my sisters Canon 40D and know that I liked the way it worked.

I believe the easiest way to make the choice would be to find a friend or family member who has a Canon or Nikon dSLR and try it out to see if you like how it works. If that isn’t possible, do some internet research, remember that everyone has a bias for some reason, and just make a decision and start shooting. Both brands can take unbelievable photos with a skilled photographer behind the lens.

Why did I choose the 50D?

Once I had made my choice about what brand I wanted to use, it was time to decide which camera body to go with. There are three tiers of Canon cameras I considered:

Tier 1:  The Rebels (XSi, XTi, and XS)

Tier 2: The 40D and 50D

Tier 3: The 5d Mark II

Tier 1 was out immediately for me, as I knew they would not be powerful enough for me to do what I wanted. As mentioned previously, I learned what I know now using the Canon G9, a point-andshoot body that Canon considers to be “High End, Advanced”. It has a manual mode (allowing me to manipulate ISO, shutter speed, and aperture as I would be able to on a dSLR), 12 megapixels, and the ability to shoow RAW. At the time I purchased the G9, it cost mesomewhere close to $500. The Canon Rebel XSi (with 12 megapixels, same as the G9) retails for $699 on Costco.com, and I decided that a $200 difference likely meant that I would outgrow the XSi rather quickly and find myself pining for a better camera.

Tier 3 was also immediately out. The 5d Mark II is absolutely fabulous (and does high resolution video!), but remember the words of Bambi Cantrell. Buying a $2,500 camera wasn’t going to make me as good as some of the pros. I have to give myself time to learn and grow by shooting to get to that point. (Plus, my wedding photographer uses the 40D and I think her photos prove that you don’t need the most expensive equipment possible to take amazing photos!)

That left me with Tier 2, attempting to choose between the 40D and the 50D. Before I go into that, let’s look at another pretty picture.

This is definitely one of my best shots ever, but I won’t deny that it was enhanced heavily in Photoshop. I made the sky bluer and the rock darker to add a little dramatic effect. Kelli Nicole was trying to channel The Little Mermaid, but we forgot exactly how Ariel was positioned on the rock, so it didn’t quite work out the way we wanted.


Okay, enough Little Mermaid talk, let’s get back to the cameras.

After reading hudreds of reviews about the 40D and the 50D, I was starting to forget what the real differences were. Everyone who has the 40D loves it, and everyone who has the 50D loves it. Then I found this review, which helped make things a little clearer for me. The things that stood out ot me the most about the 40D were higher ISO (means I can take pictures in lower light with better results than the 40D), significant improvements to the LCD screen (and I use the LCD screen a LOT, especially as a beginner), and 15 megapixels (versus the 10 megapixels of the 40D).

Then it was time to look at price. Currently the 40D body sells for $889 on B&h. The 50D body sells for $1193 on the same site. I had to decide if the improvements Canon had made were worth $300 for me.

You might laugh when I tell you that Costco.com essentially made my decision for me. I couldn’t seem to make a decision whether the extra money was worth the new features. I had read somewhere that Costco had a year-long warranty on cameras, which unfortunately isn’t true any longer. Now the policy is only 90 days, but that was still 90 days of no questions asked return policy that no other retailer would give me. Plus, the exact same camera body and lens on Costco.com was $100 less than what I found on B&H, and I knew I wanted at least one inexpensive kit lens to start. So I purchased the 50D from Costco.com. (Which we now realize may have been a mistake because of the amount in taxes that they charged, so I really just bought the camera from them for the 90 day policy.)

If you are considering making the same decision, and money is a huge factor, go with the 40D. No one who has it complains about it wishing they had the 50D instead (as far as I have read). My sister shoots with it and loves it. Kelli Nicole shoots with it and loves it. I shoot with my 50D and love it. Can you see how so much of this comes down to personal preference?

Keep in mind that no one ever seems to say “I want to upgrade my 40D to a 50D.” They say “I want to upgrade my 40D to a 5d Mark II.” It’s quite possible that you could save yourself $300 now, shoot with the 40D until you outgrow it, and upgrade to something like a 5D Mark II later on.

I think it’s time for one last picture. Taken on our honeymoon, fulfilling one of my lifelong dreams (to write my initials with a boy in this sand I grew up driving past).

Jenna B

I hope those of you who are interested in starting out or upgrading your cameras have learned something from this post. Writing about what camera to choose is diffcult because every situation is unique when skill level, budget, goals, and many other important factors are considered. Whatever you do decide I hope you are as happy with your results as I am with mine!

Are there any other photography related posts you are interested in me touching on? I’m planning on writing one on why I love Lightroom, a before and after post on what investing in actions can do for your photos, my favorite lens (I own 2 so I don’t have much to teach you, but I almost exclusively use 1), how to register a photography business (I have yet to do this, but I’ll tell you all about it when I do!), and a few simple tips for taking better photos. I’m not an expert, but I enjoy sharing things with you “along the way”. Please give me more ideas about what you would like to read on That Wife in the future in terms of photography related posts!

22 thoughts on “dSLR: How To Choose

  1. Thanks for this post. I have the Rebel XT and I love it. I bought it about a year ago, and I’m still learning to use it. Since I’m in college more expensive options just weren’t viable for me. Plus, I wasn’t planning on starting a business like you are.

    But as you said, when I do upgrade (very likely in the next 5 years) I wouldn’t consider staying in the Rebel category. I would definitely consider a 40D or 50D. There’s no point shelling out more cash for a camera in the same category. I do love that all my lenses will still be able to be used if I do buy another dSLR. Although I only have a kit lens & a low end telephoto right now, I plan on buying at least a few more in the future :D

  2. I will say though, I find it so funny when I cart my camera around to everyday gatherings, people are less likely to want to be photographed and I find it so funny! I used to take my little Kodak camera everywhere and people would go about their business, but now, if I pull out my camera, they are more hesitant to just keep doing what they are doing. They seem more self-conscious.

    Have you noticed this?

    Jenna Reply:

    I still feel kind of self conscious about bringing this out around people. Hopefully that wears of soon so I can get some practice in!

  3. Thanks for the post Jenna! I actually just ordered my 50D online today after thinking and praying about it for awhile.

    I agree that a nice camera won’t automatically make you a great photographer!

    I learned on my Rebel XT, which my sweet husband suprised me with for my birthday 2 years ago. It was great to learn on, and I’m glad I learned on a simpler camera, but now I am so excited to get the 50D in.

    I also wanted to tell you how impressed I am with all of the photos you’ve posted so far! They’re wonderful. I am rooting for you and your new business! :)

  4. Thanks so much for this info. One of my “101 in 1001″ goals is to buy a dSLR. I, too, am a Canon fan (simply because I’ve had them and liked them) but wouldn’t have known where to begin comparing the different tiers. I appreciate you spelling it out in plain English!

  5. Thank you so much for the post – I’ve been hoping you’ll do one! I was waffling between the 50D and the Nikon D90 (flirting a little bit with the D300, but that’s slightly out of my price/skill range) and have decided to go with the D90 because it just felt easier to manipulate with my small hands. I have a soul-less full-time job now, but am planning on starting a photography blog and shooting friends for free and eventually seeing where that goes.

    I’d love to hear about the lenses you use and lightroom. Have you thought about getting the Totally Rad actions, or does lightroom replace that?

    Jenna Reply:

    I have both the Totally Rad action AND Lightroom. I’ll try to write a post about them both soon.

  6. Thanks for this! I recently invested in a DSLR as well, and I’m hoping to make something good come of it, though of course I know far less than you do! Like you I couldn’t find any reason to make me prefer Nikon over Canon or vice versa, so I eventually got a Nikon on the advice of one photographer. I’m sure they’re as good as each other. All I need now is some better lenses!

    I’m keen to hear about lightroom, as I use photoshop (badly) ad what actions you use.

  7. My uncle is a pro photog and always recommends Canon. Including for Point and Shoots. In his experience they far out-research Nikon. Good choice.

  8. i’ve seen pro shooters with a rebel xsi – they tend to put more expensive lenses on the end of them for quality. that’s another good thing about canon – you can use different lenses, while with nikon – from what i know, you *always* have to use nikon brand lenses.

    i have a rebel xsi and it’s definitely do-able for a first year pro. it’s easy to learn, recently upgraded, and affordable.

    i love canon all around, though

  9. Great job explaining everything Jenna!

    I think Canon’s Rebel series is great for anyone who wants to delve into the world of dSLRs at an amateur level. I’ve even know a few people who have started their photography businesses using Rebels. If you are on a budget, but want more from your camera, they’re an excellent choice (and the money you save can be put towards lenses).

  10. Thanks for the great post, Jenna! I am dying for a Cannon Rebel (I have a low end Kodak p&s now) and really appreciate you going through everything for us!

  11. Again, thank you for your posts about cameras and photography!! Mr. Glitter’s dream camera is actually the Canon 50D. We are saving for it as I write this. Thanks for all the info!! Your pictures are beautiful!

  12. What a helpful post! I shoot with a canon 5D, but bit my teeth on a pro-sumer level camera first. You have to walk before you can run, as they say!

  13. I’d love easy, everyday shooting tips for dSLR. I have a Rebel & like you said, just because it’s a nicer camera does NOT mean it will take better pictures. Because it doesn’t. & it makes me sooo angry that I don’t know what I’m doing.

    Oh, & my mom and I leave for Paris in 10 days, so if you could do it before then, that would be great! :) Haha…

  14. I think you did a great job explaining this. I get SO many questions on my camera I am going to send them to this post, it is very helpful.

    I will appreciate your post on lenses as well since I think that’s a HUGE factor that people don’t think about (nobody ever asks me what lens I use, they only ask me what camera I use)

    My 5D Mark II is on it’s way… I can’t wait to get it!!

  15. Thank you so much for this post, it has been really enlightening.

    Photography is my “dream” career (i.e. the one everyone tells me isn’t an option because I’ll be poor, when to be frank I work in marketing and I’m poor anyway!) and have been trying to work out what to buy to cut my teeth on.

    At the moment I have pretty free access to a Canon EOS400D (my mother’s spare camera) and plan to do a few community college photography courses (we have some fantastic ones here in Sydney, Australia) to learn more about aperture etc on it. However I was concerned about whether the 50D I am planning to buy later this year would be “enough” to eventually start doing charged shoots with.

    I know that a 5D is not financially an option for me until late next year at least, but your post has made me confident that I can start building my portfolio and possibly do my first charged shoots on the 50D.

    One thing I will say is that I really agree that photography is as much about the person’s creativity as the camera – i.e. I have taken some pretty gorgeous photographs on my 10mpx Canon point and shoot that have been as lovely as ones taken with the Canon EOS400D and with my boyfriend’s uncle’s full frame camera. /Captain Obvious

    Jenna Reply:

    I agree. Fancy camera does NOT professional photographer make.

    I plan on upgrading to the 5D in 2 years or so. My amazing wedding photog has had her 40D for years and years now, and that helps me be patient. I’m going to focus on building up my lens arsenal before I move on to worrying about a more powerful body.

    Hannah Reply:

    Yes – more and more I am realising lenses are going to be the big investment pieces in the next eighteen months once I have the 50D. That being said, as I am honing my technique the results I am getting even on the 400D (I think that’s a Rebel in the US) are improving a lot. It is pretty depressing when you go on forums where the high level Pros talk you down for not having a $15k full frame camera. What is funny is so often the most obnoxious and nasty gear heads are the ones with the decidedly average shots.
    Thanks again for all your great photographic advice, I have found it really useful!

  16. Well, I was so excited reading about the body and lens, I had not looked at anything else yet on your blog…so went to see what you had to say about which one…I knew I wanted a Canon, so will now read up on the 40D and 50D…Thanks so much…already love your blog!

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