Buying a Digital SLR

by Charlie Miller

So I have a confession to make: I’ve never owned a digital SLR. I’ve been teaching Aperture for more than a year and a half now, talking with photographers, answering questions, and troubleshooting software and workflow issues. I’ve fashioned myself to be quite an expert on all things Aperture. And I do know a lot about this great piece of software. But all along I’ve felt like something of an impostor, shooting with an old Canon point-and-shoot.*

Now, truth be told, my background isn’t that far removed from digital photography. I’ve been a graphic designer and user of Adobe Creative Suite for years. My expertise in Photoshop was initially what got me involved in using Aperture when it was first released. I worked for Apple at the time, and this was a rare opportunity to immerse myself in a new piece of software before the general public got their hands on it. So I spent several days learning the software, using it, and beginning to understand the streamlined workflow that it offered photographers.

That was October of 2005. And here we are 18 months later. I have a deep knowledge of Aperture but still consider myself a terribly amateur photographer. So now, just in time for the warm weather in New York City, I’m going to take the plunge: I’m buying a digital SLR.

But what to buy? I always knew the Mac vs. PC debate was fierce and the Aperture vs. Lightroom discussion is heating up. But these pale in comparison to the “Canon vs. Nikon vs. everyone else” debates.


Jack Markham
2007-05-04 12:28:21
How can you in good conscience teach Aperature if you've never even used raw capture? This certainly does not inspire confidence in the quality of O'Reilly training.
2007-05-04 12:39:52
I'm an Olympus user. I've had an E-500 for about a year, and I love it. Ergonomics, price, forward-thinking design. As an Apple champion, I feel it fitting to enjoy the distantly-popular but arguably-superior brand. :)
2007-05-04 13:03:43
I prefer the D80 simply because the Rebel feels like it's falling out of my hand. And I like the work Nikon has done with their UI. But both cameras can take great pictures, and both companies offer great glass.
2007-05-04 13:08:14
Why limit yourself to the Big Two. Have you ever considered Pentax? I myself was thinking about the XTi or D80, and I ultimately chose the Pentax K10D. My decision process here
2007-05-04 13:15:30
Well make sure you choose one of the 50 odd supported by Aperture. Otherwise you'll find yourself transferring to Lightroom and its support for 160 odd cameras....


2007-05-04 13:29:11
My first DSLR is a Canon 5D. At the time, brand did not matter, but the size of the frame did. I wanted a full frame.
Since that does not matter to you, consider the prime lens you want. Canon makes a 50mm lens for $80 US. It is a very sharp lens. On a Rebel it will be a 74 (or so). You will have top material to start for cheap.
I also heard that "street photographers" like Nikon better, because it gives photos more of "photographic" look, while portrait photographers go to Canon because it does skin tones better.
My first assignment was to go to a horse race track and photograph people there. It's amazing! People are used to seeing cameras there, so there isn't much trouble taking pictures of them, winning or loosing.

2007-05-04 13:32:13
The Sigma Foevon sensor is rad, the Fuji S5 brilliant. As Gio said, look around. I love my Nikon but in the end I don't think it matters a damn, they are all good cameras and will do as intended. What matters is the person behind the lens.
Joe Samuels
2007-05-04 14:06:45
I've been a serious amateur for 50 years. Before digital, I used a Rolleiflex, a series of Canon SLRs, including the "new F-1", then two Leica M6. Went digital with a Canon XT, then traded to a 30D and now also a 5D. And I was one of Aperture's original customers. An early-adopter.

My advice is to go through the following steps:

Firstly, if you are keen to use the adjustment capabilities of Aperture, you ought to try shooting RAW. It is amazing the range of tones you can achieve with RAW, given all the information you get in the original file. If you restrict yourself to JPEG, you will likely lose a lot of images to blown highlights or deep shadows that can't be saved. In RAW, usually the apparently-blown highlight can be reduced to reveal great clouds, good detail, etc.; and similarly, shadow areas can be opened up to reveal wonderful detail. So look at cameras that will give you a RAW file on which you can work in Aperture.

Secondly, from this bunch of cameras, pick the one that feels best in the hand and has the other features you want. It is critical that you have a camera that feels like an extension of your arm. And everyone has a different size hand and different way of gripping the camera---this business of the feel of a camera in the hand is very personal. For me, the Canon XT with the battery pack attached was a great start (I have a big hand and the XT without the pack was too small to fit my hand properly). But then I found that I needed spot-metering, and I wanted the bigger preview on the back, so I went to the 30D, which is a superb camera. I bought the 5D to have a second body and to try full-frame, and the 5D too is a superb camera.

Thirdly, get the lenses that suit the kind of work you want to do. This is very personal and each photographer will have different needs. Both Canon and Nikon have a superb line-up of lenses, so you won't have trouble finding the lens (or lenses) that will do what you want to do. My suggestion is that you should always go for very good glass. If you want a 50mm lens, get one that is an excellent performer. For example, in the Canon range, the 50mm 1.8 is a very inexpensive lens and does a pretty good job, but the 50mm 1.4 is more expensive and does a very, very good job. Don't forget that, with lenses, like with the camera, the feel of the whole unit is very important. Some of the superb lenses are not only very expensive, but also very heavy, and you have to decide whether you will get a lot of use out of a very heavy lens. Many photographers will leave a very heavy lens in the office or in the car, rather than carry it around all day. Other manufacturers produce good lenses too, but none comes near the range of lenses offered by Canon and Nikon. If you won't need a wide range of lenses, then don't restrict your looking to Canon and Nikon.

Finally, be sure that what you choose suits your hand, your eye (I need a big viewfinder, so the 30D and 5D are great for me), and your photographic purposes. If you find equipment that will be a pleasure to carry, hold, and use all day, then that's the equipment for you.

Rene Hache
2007-05-04 15:35:31
While I'm a Nikon user, I don't recommended Nikon over Canon. Just depends what each individual user prefers. However, comparing the Canon Rebel to the the D80 almost isn't fair. The 30D is more inline with the D80 if you ask me.
2007-05-04 15:56:15
Pentax k10
If you want to build a system, the backward compatibility with older lenses and value for the price will blow away the 2 (our advertising budgets blows away all the competitions) leading brands....(canikons).
2007-05-04 16:02:34
hello charlie
yep... mac vs pc... canon vs nikon... aperture vs lightroom... it's endless.
i have a canon 400d (after having owned a nikon d70s) with a 20mm f2.8 USM lens. i do a lot of landscape photography. but DO get the kit lens, its good to have in your bag and it is a good lens for what it costs! i also got the battery grip. i agree with your friend, canon feels better in your hand.
my next lenses will be the 85mm f1.8 USM and the 50mm f1.4 USM for my more urban photo projects. i'm not really into zooms as you can see.
i hesitated a long time between the 400d and the 30d. i finally went for the 400d (newer) as there were rumors that a 40d was coming. i will be "upgrading" when it ships.
2007-05-04 17:10:35
Mamiya RB 67, and Pentax we all I shot until 1997 when I bought my first Nikon. I have shot Nikon Digital systems exclusively since 2002. My recommendation is get a 50mm 1.8 and a body. This lens can be had in either system for about $100. I'm not so sure I wouldn't rent both and shoot each to see how intuitive each system is for you. Currently I love my Nikons. I have learned a postproduction system that allows me to create the images I am known for. I'm sure with time I could switch if I needed to. But for now why try to reinvent the wheel. If I were buying today, a thorough test drive would be the order of the day.
Jan Steinman
2007-05-04 17:16:02
Don't buy a DSLR, buy a lens system!

I went with Olympus due to their superb 4/3rds lens system, specifically, the wides. "Digital" and "wide angle" haven't been acquainted for very long, unless you went with a super-expensive (and heavy) full-frame body. The Zuike 7-14 zoom was the only lens of its kind at the time -- maybe still! The Zuiko 11-22 zoom is also quite nice. And Olympus has a line of super-fast f2 lenses that are unmatched. Leica and Sigma are also making 4/3rds lenses, and Panasonic makes 4/3rds bodies. And adaptors are available for the wonderful OM-Zuiko glass, designed for the Olympus 35mm bodies.

Think about it. Next year, a new body with new features will get everyone's attention, and people will trade up every few years, and the DSLR bodies you're considering today will be available for a song. But the lens you buy will last a LONG time.

Charlie Miller
2007-05-04 17:26:17
Wow, thanks to everyone for the great suggestions. One thing I should have made clear: even though I've been shooting with my Canon PowerShot S60, it does capture in RAW and Aperture does support its RAW format.

Thanks, Victor, for the suggestion of shooting at an event where people are used to seeing cameras. I'll give it a go!

Nicole Taina Martinez
2007-05-04 17:44:08
First, I want to respond to Mr Jack Markham. As a certified Aperture trainer and a photographer who shoots RAW, I can say, there is much more to Aperture than RAW capture. The program is just as beneficial to photographers who shoot Jpeg. Just because one does not shoot RAW personally doesn't mean they don't understand RAW capture. On a personal note, I have had the pleasure of working with Mr Charlie Miller and all I can say is O'Reilly is lucky to have him as part of their team. His knowledge goes deep and wide and his training abilities are stellar. I will now step down off my soapbox.

Charlie, as you may or may not remember I shoot Canon. Now I have always been a Canon girl from way back. However years ago when I switched from a fully manual system to an automatic one, I was open to changing over. The deciding factor turned out to be about the lenses. Canon's motor is on their lens, whereas Nikon's motor was on the lens mount. Motor goes on the Canon, you are out a lens, motor goes on the Nikon, you are out a camera body. Now I recently heard that Nikon has changed their design, however I don't know for certain. Something to look in to. Definitely stick with fixed focal length lenses vs zoom. It will make you a better photographer.

Remember, in the end, the camera is just a tool that you are using, It's all about the idea and your eye. Good luck!


Doug McLachlan
2007-05-04 20:06:57
I think it's a really good idea to try the cameras you are considering. At the very least find a good camera store and spend some time playing with each model you are are considering. Pay attention to the feel, the controls, the menu system. Better yet rent each one for a weekend and put it through it's paces. Pay attention to which camera seems to "get out of your way" the most! I'd stick with Nikon or Canon because they are much easier to rent lenses for than lesser known brands.
Brandon Bohling
2007-05-04 20:13:49
First, I'll admit I am biased towards Canon...I originally invested in a Canon D30 with pro lenses: 70-200 f/2.8, 28-70 f/2.8, and a Sigma 20mm. After several body upgrades (10D, 20D, and now 5D), I have kept the same Canon lenses, but have also acquired a 17-40L f/4. So like audiophiles like there speakers I think photographers should invest in their bodies change all the time. If you have no lenses to start with I will have to admit that the best-bang-for-the-buck DSLR is the Nikon D200...hands down...even though I don't own anything Nikon.

Having said that, if you stick with Canon or Nikon you're good to go...just spend as much as possible on your lenses, you'll never regret it!


2007-05-04 21:39:06
Nicole is in error re: Nikon. All of Nikon's AF-S lenses have a motor in the lens. But the camera bodies also have motors (except for the D40), so if you wish you can use the (sometimes very much) older Nikon autofocus lenses that have been manufactured over past decades.

Whether you end up going Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Pentax, or what have you - I think you'll end up happy. When I bought my Nikon D70 three years ago, the choice was clear - it was a slam-dunk over the Canon 300D. Nowadays the choice is less clear. Nikon has gained major market share in the consumer dSLR market over the past few years, jumping up something like 10 or 15% total marketshare, because the perception is they offer better quality consumer lenses - but you really should try to get hands-on time with any of the dSLRs you are considering. Having a camera feel comfortable in your hands is important.

2007-05-05 00:14:32
Most advice has already been said, so I'll keep it brief.

IMHO, Canon is better at professional bodies and glass, and Nikon at the mid range. So if you see yourself eventually moving up to a top of the range body like a 1DsMkII then go Canon, but if you see yourself sticking to the mid-high range, go Nikon. The D80 is (IMHO) undoubtedly a better camera than the XTi/400d, and has substantially better ergonomics. And if you decide to upgrade, the D200 is better than the 30D (although both are due to be replaced this year). But if you eventually see yourself moving to very high end bodies and glass, you might want to live with the lesser mid range bodies for now and buy into the Canon system.

Look at the lens selections from each manufacturer (and also consider the third party manufacturers) and imagine which lenses you could conceivably end up owning. Which range do you prefer? Look at the EXIF meta data for you point-and-shoot and see what focal ranges you shoot at most often. Do you often shoot at ~50mm (equiv) or are you more often at the extremes of your zoom range?

Finally, the kit lens for with the D80 is actually a good lens, plenty worth owning for the money. Don't ignore it. My 18-70 f3.5-4.5 out-resolves my sensor at mid focal lengths and f8-f11, and is has excellent color and contrast too.

Disclaimer: I'm a Nikon user. Beat-up D50 + about $4k of glass and accessories.

2007-05-05 00:43:18
For cameras, honestly, I think only the photographer can decide. In some ways I like Nikon better for mid-range cameras, but I went to the store all prepared to get a D80... and when I tried holding the D70, and then tried holding the Rebel XTi, I found that the D70 felt huge and clunky in my hand, while the XTi fit like it was made for me. This made me rethink things; I borrowed a friend's D40, and another friend's Rebel XT, and tried shooting with both of them. I found that with the XT, I could shoot for hours, while the D40 made my hand ache after about 30 minutes.

Needless to say, regardless of all my research and careful comparison and so on, I ended up going XTi rather than D70. I can change my expectations; I cannot change my hands.

Now, I do have somewhat smallish hands; I know plenty of people who find the XTi way too small to hold or manage comfortably. But this illustrates that one size does not necessarily fit all!

So I think a lot of it comes down to trying cameras out and seeing which feels better for your purpose... not just how it feels in your hand, or with the viewfinder at your eye, but the overall experience of using it. I have a lot of respect for Nikon equipment, but I found /for me/, Canon ended up working better after a field test.

2007-05-05 08:20:16
for a pro shooter like myself who uses a D2x with wifi adapter (read big and heavy) the D40 is a delight to tote around and play with. I went with the D40 for my home snap shot camera cuz with the inro of the D40X it's price has dropped, 6mp is fine for most things, and the BIG screen is great. Fun little camera.
Michael Rothfeld
2007-05-05 08:48:33
I too have had the explicit pleasure of working with Charlie (and Nicole) and just as Nicole did below, can attest to Charlie's high level of skill, patience and ability to teach and enlighten. Even without having owned a dSLR, Charlie has a level of mastery in Aperture reserved for few and the level of accuracy and insight he can offer on this blog should not be doubted.

Although I agree with Nicole when it comes to Charlie, we differ on which camera camp we belong to. Where she has always been a Canon Girl, I have always been a Nikon Guy.
I should say that for my professional work, I mainly use a medium format digital system (the day Aperture supported Leaf files was glorious!), and my personal, hands-on experience with Nikon and Canon dSLRs is mainly limited to their mid-range, prosumer models.

My reason for going with Nikon, ignoring the fact that I already owned a few Nikkor lenses from my 35mm NIkon days as I could have sold them, is as follows:

Sensor - There are certainly reasons to disagree with me on this (and even I disagree with me on this from time to time) but because Nikon's physically smaller sensors record light that passes through the sweet-spot of the glass and don't get hit with light passing through the edge of the glass, which is more prone to fall off and aberrations, I prefer them to Canon's full frame sensors (even Canon has gone to a smaller sensor size in their new EOS-1D Mark III). Their are definitely valid arguments for full frame like no conversion factor and the possibility of the same number of pixels spread over a lager area making each pixel physically larger, but I don't mind the conversion factor and find pixel size makes more difference to image quality on medium format backs than it does in 35mm equivalent dSLRs.

Interface (physical and digital/menu). - For digital point-and-shoots, I like Canon's interface a lot better. For consumer/prosumer dSLRs, I prefer the Nikon interface and the location of their controls. This may be because I was used to the control layout on film Nikons already when I switched to digital, but I also like Nikon's menu structure better.

Feel. - To me, the Nikon consumer/prosumer cameras have a heft to them that I prefer over the lighter (dare I say flimsier) feel of the Canons.

Bottom line is that as the megapixel race has slowed down, manufacturers have been able to spend more time innovating in other areas and both Nikon and Canon make some amazing cameras. In the end it really comes down to personal preference and as several people have already said, it's your ideas that matter most, then it's just picking the right tool to help you realize your vision whether it be a Holga, an H3 or anything in-between. Any of the cameras people have suggested here will make great tools.

What's most important is, once you've chosen one, to get out there (or in there) and shoot like crazy!

Richard Bonomo
2007-05-05 09:13:08
Pentax K10D, hands down. I've hand The Canon digital Rebel and the D70. Hated them both. They just don't feel right in my hands. The minute I picked up the K10D I knew I found my match. Kick in all the Pentax features,real backwards lens compatibility, in body anti-shake, etc, and you've got a real winner.
James Duncan Davidson
2007-05-05 19:54:40
Charlie, as many people have said, it really is a matter of what "clicks" with you when you hold it. I've had so many friends fret about making the right decision when really, the only decision to make is to get out there and shoot. I shoot Canon. My girlfriend shoots Nikon. Both systems have pros and cons, but there's no reason that you can't make great images with either.

That said, here area few of my own biased thoughts: Right now, Canon sensors do better in low light situtations. Nikon seems to have better focus and flash abilities in the lower- and mid- ranges. Canon makes super sweet long lenses. Nikon makes some really nice wide glass.

But, really, pick em up, see what feels good, and then go take some pictures!

Micheal: About Canon going to a smaller sensor size in the mk3, that's erroneous. The 1D series have always featured a 1.3x cropped sensor (aka APS-H) while the 1Ds has been the full frame top dog.

2007-05-05 21:00:50
Make a list of ten things you know you'll do each time you use your camera, for instance, change ISO, review pictures and look at the histogram, etc. Each of us has a different ten things that are important to us so I won't make a list as mine won't be yours.

Now, do those ten things with each of these cameras. Forget the legends of each brand, just get a feel for the UI of each camera and how it feels to do these everyday tasks with them.

Does one feel more intuitive or natural to you? If so, that's the one to get.

For me, a Canon PowerShot user looking to move up, the Digital Rebel (original model) felt right to me and the menu system was pretty similar to what I'd been using.

If I were you I'd also consider the 30D or if that's too much money, a lightly used 20D. The physical body and UI is a vast improvement over the XT and XTi. I use a Canon 5D now and it's by far the best camera I've ever owned in my life, which has included many Nikon film bodies.

Don't get stuck comparing specifications, get your hands on the cameras and your experience with tools like these will help you decide.

2007-05-06 00:20:35
I'll throw my $0.02 here, as a long-time reader of Inside Aperture. I personally use Canon. I'm a photographer for a student-run college newspaper (The Observer at Notre Dame), and at work we shoot Nikon, specifically with several D200 cameras and D2x'es for sports. After using both, I bought myself a Digital Rebel XT a month ago, and have been loving it. I got the kit lens, and it's not a bad piece of glass for the price. Whatever one you go for, try it out, and get a feel for the UI and how the camera works. I went with Canon because I feel that Canons produce cooler images and more color-accurate ones (versus the Nikons at the price range, like the D70s and D50). But, the higher end Nikons I'm a fan of. If you have the money to blow, the Nikon D200 is an amazing camera, and I've shot lots with it, including sports and weddings. Pair it with a 80-200mm f/2.8 telephoto and you've got yourself a heck of a system.
Lorenzo dell'Uva
2007-05-06 10:50:00
I'm a long time Nikon user (and i LOVE my d200) but got many friends using (and satisfied!) with Canon. The best thing to do is trying both (i would look at D80 and 30D). If you can spend some time (more than one day) with each camera. I prefer Nikon's camera form factor, but it could be just habit. I would avoid other brands mainly bacause used lenses (and compatible ones) aren't available widely. Cheers from Italy (and thank for your posts).
Steven R.
2007-05-06 12:55:17
I shoot with a Nikon D200. I was a Nikon guy from the beginning. I still clearly remember the excitement I felt when I first picked up the F4s. I had that feeling again when I picked up the D200 - with the extended grip, of course. I agree with the comments above suggesting you go with what feels good in your hand. I personally love my Nikon and will probably always shoot Nikon, but I must concede the Canons are better when viewed through a technical eye: faster frame rate; wider exposure range; less noise, etc. These differences are noticeable when viewed side-by-side, but honestly, they weren't enough to alter that 'special feeling' and effortless navigation of a camera which thinks like you.

As far as "limiting yourself to the big two", I don't agree with this sentiment. I delight in discovering more and more accessories and attachments which provide new excitement and creative options. After all, this is why we shoot, isn't it? I feel investing in a less popular brand will eventually be more of a limitation. Buying a lesser-known brand is usually indicative of budget restrictions. I hear these photographers constantly defend and excuse their systems when presented with other brands. This means you're spending more energy being negative and less energy making negatives!

I'm really interested to hear which brand you buy. Let us know!

2007-05-06 16:40:26
Disclaimer: I'm a Canon shooter (EOS 20D, 10-22mm, 17-85mm, 50mm f/1.4, 100-400mm.) Consider that when reading my comments.

Both Canon and Nikon have excellent glass available in their respective mounts. Unless you're likely to get the extreme telephoto lenses (400mm f/2.8, 500mm, 600mm), there's really very little between them. Nikon has the edge in their lighting system; Canon tends to nickle and dime you to death (lens hoods are extras, unless you buy the expensive L series glass, for example). Against that, Canon has full frame bodies (the 5D and 1Ds series), which allows for better quality wide angle work.

Best suggestion I can make is to go to the shop you intend to buy from, and hold both cameras in your hand. They're both competent cameras, and will serve you well. Whichever feels better to you will be the better buy.

Consider also what your friends have - having a lens library available can be very useful (I have access to the 70-200mm f/2.8 IS, for example, as well as the 24-70mm f/2.8; my friends have access to my glass as well if they need it.)

The other "lesser" brands have good options, but as has been pointed out, they may restrict you if you want to get into more specialised forms of photography. Canon and Nikon have a wide enough range that that's not likely to be an issue.

Andreas Yankopolus
2007-05-06 16:55:03
My photo interests primarily involve travel and outdoor photography, so a compact system was very important to me. I purchased an Olympus E-500 about a year ago because of Olympus's 14-54 f/2.8-3.5 lens and the system's 4:3 aspect ratio. For me, this lens is the perfect compromise between cheap, slow consumer zooms and big, expensive pro glass. I've since added the 50 f/2.0 macro, which is insanely sharp, and the 50-200 f/2.8-3.5. Again, both of these lenses perfectly split the difference between consumer and pro glass. All of this gear, along with an extension ring and a few filters, fit neatly in a Domke Reporter bag that I recently hauled all over Paris and southwest France. Image quality is quite good; I have a some dynamite 16x20s hanging in our condo.
Mark Castleman
2007-05-07 10:20:32
If you already have a film SLR you may want to stick with that brand. I have owned a Pentax since I got my first K1000 so I have a large collection of lenses. This doesn't apply for Canon since they went to totally new lens mount with the dSLR's but I can use any lens made for Pentax in the last 40 years.
2007-05-09 13:51:03
Go to a decent photo shop. Pick up and take a couple of shots with all the cameras in your price range. See which one(s) feel right in the hand. Which ones feel to you like they want you to take photos. That's your shortlist. Now make sure it's supported by Aperture. Buy it.

My preference is always going to be the D80 over the Rebel - totally different class (and size) of camera - the Rebel equates more to the D40. But, Canon vs Nikon? Who cares - they're all good cameras.