This post contains affiliate links noted by an asterisk* If you purchase something through a link on my blog, I receive a commission at no additional cost to you. Using affiliates pays for the costs of operating this blog (and the rest goes to our student loan debt). You can read my full disclosures policy here.
As part of my mom photographer series, I wanted to post the camera equipment I’m using these days, along with a few recommendations.
When I first saved up and bought a DSLR 3 years ago, I researched for hours. Too many hours. An embarrassing numbers of hours. Because the decision on what to buy felt so expensive and permanent, I wanted to make the right one.
There is so much information available on this topic, and I’m certainly not an expert. (Except – so.many.hours.of.research.) But, I can tell you what I have and why I love it and make a few recommendations for some of the best beginner DSLR cameras and lenses.
If you are the research-for-hours type of person like I am, (Lord help us), check out these sites. They’re my 2 favorites for product reviews, descriptions, comparisons, etc… are: Digital Photography School & Ken Rockwell. The first one has a TON of great tutorials and tips too.
I have the Canon Rebel t3i (600D).
It’s discontinued because there have been 4 newer versions since this one was made. This is considered an entry level DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex). Aka: beginner level fancy camera. Most people doing photography for a living are using a better camera than this. BUT, their cameras cost upwards of $1000. And, there are many pro cameras upwards of $5,000! If you’re just getting started in photography, or want a good camera for kids’ events, family pictures, etc, these entry level DSLRs are friendly on the budget and can do a LOT! I assume entry level DSLR is what would fit most of you lovely blog readers. So, that’s what I’m going to stick to for now.
Speaking of budget friendly, the Rebel T5 (1200D) is only $400 on amazon right now. That is ridiculously cheap for a good camera. The next step up from there, the T5i (700D) is considered quite a bit better for a few reasons. It has buttons and a touch screen, better video capabilities, and a pop out LCD screen which makes shooting at weird angles easier. The even newer model is the T6i (750D), which has built-in wireless capabilities.
[Side note: In general, the rule of thumb with canon’s entry level DSLRs is the “i” is better than the non-“i” models. For example, the t4 and 5 were out when I bought mine, but I bought the t3i because it had some better options for around the same price. All of Canon’s cameras have a USA number (the ones with the T) and a non-US number (the ones with the D.) Super confusing, if you ask me. I don’t understand the D numbering system. I only mention it that so that when you’re looking online and see an article reviewing a Canon EOS 700D, you know it’s the same as the T5i.]
Canon’s other, relatively new line of entry level DSLR’s are the SL-series. A friend of mine has the SL1 (100D) and loves it. I’ve played around with it briefly, and it’s similar to the Rebel series, with some slight changes. The SL1…
- Has a touch screen instead of buttons (I think this would be weird, but I’m guessing you get used to it!)
- Has a higher pixel resolution on the viewer screen (I’m jealous of this)
- Has more effective, higher ISO (meaning easier to shoot in very low lighting and get good pictures)
- Is a little more expensive
- Is lighter and smaller
Here’s a great, more detailed comparison if you’re considering both cameras. The SL1 wasn’t available when I was camera shopping, and if it was, I’m not sure which one I’d have picked. Most sites say they’re basically equal but the SL1 is slightly better.
Anyway, the Rebel t4/4i, t5/5i, t6/6i, or the SL1 are all good starter entry level DSLR cameras. If you can afford it, I would recommend the 5i or the SL1. If you are super strapped for cash, get a cheaper one. I bought mine “certified refurbished!” You can often find a certified refurb deal through Amazon, Canon Direct, or Ebay.
I have friends who use Nikon, Sony, and Pentax. Those are all great too. Nikon has a couple very highly rated entry level DSLRs that friends of mine have and love. The D5300 ($550 refurb with lens)*, the D3200 ($210 refurb body only, no lens)*, & the D3300 ($400 for refurb kit with a bunch of extras)*.
Canon is just what I am familiar with and use, and I really like my camera! If you’re going to shell out a few hundred bucks for a camera, I suggest going to a camera store to test a couple brands. Or order two of the brands on amazon, and play around with them a little and see which one you like better. You might naturally like the way one fits in your hands better, or feel like one makes more sense to you.
I bought my camera with the kit lens, meaning the lens that just comes with the camera. The kit lens for most entry level DSLRs is the 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6. This is a fine starter lens, but it’s pretty limited. It will be hard to take great pictures in low lighting without a flash. The flash on entry level DSLRs has a harsh light, so you’ll be able to tell in the pictures that there was a flash. Faces will be shiny.
Don’t get me wrong – this is a fine entry level lens. 18-55mm is a good range of zoom for most every-day settings you’d be taking pictures in. You can get close up or zoom out for a room full of people. And it’s good for kids sports, outdoor events, or using with a flash. But it can only do so much. With the kit lens, it’s hard (not impossible) to get that blurry background I talked about the other day, or get great no-flash pictures in low lighting.
If you want to really learn how to shoot in manual mode, and expand your photography skills, you should invest in a lens besides the kit lens. Most people say the lens matters more. If you have $1,000 to spend, don’t get a $1,000 camera with the kit lens. Get a $500 camera and a better lens. Plus, if you fall in love with photography and ever want to upgrade your camera body, most lenses work across most cameras in their brand. (i.e. Canon lenses will work for future canon upgrades, same with Nikon.)
There are SO many choices for lenses. I’m just going to boil down my basic recommendations and leave it at that. If you have more detailed questions, let me know and I can try to answer them. Or you can research on one of those sites I listed above.
My main suggestion is to get a lens with a lower number next to the f. Lower f numbers cost more $$$$.
The cheapest way to get a lower f number is to buy a prime or fixed lens, AKA: a non-zoom lens. Prime lenses have a learning curve, especially if you’re used to using a zoom. They’re not for everyone. But you can get a good one pretty inexpensively (compared to the cost of a good zoom lens). I LOVE LOVE LOVE my prime lenses. I’m so glad I got one for learning how to take better pictures.
[In case you’re confused… there are 2 basic types of lenses – zoom and non zoom. A lens that DOES NOT zoom is called fixed or prime. It only has one number next to the mm. For example, 50mm f/1.8. A zoom lens will have 2 numbers next to the mm. Like, 75-300mm/f 4-5.6 At one point, I wondered why anyone would want a non-zoom lens. Then I realized, they take amazing pictures and are way less expensive than a really good zoom lens.]
One more thing about lenses. You can get the lens in the brand of the camera you have (Canon lens, Nikon lens, Pentax lens, etc…) or you can get an “off brand” lens made to mount on your camera. The 2 big non-camera brand lens companies are Tamron and Sigma. For the entry level type of photography we’re talking about, most Sigma and Tamron lenses would be fine. They’re often quite a bit cheaper. I’ve so far purchased all Canon brand refurbished lenses, so I can’t speak from personal experience on the off brand lenses. If you’re going to get a Tamron or Sigma lens (or any lens for that matter), I would read a couple reviews and make sure that specific lens by that specific company isn’t a fluke.
SO, here are the lenses I have and/ or recommend if you want to get a lens in addition to the kit lens. Which you should.
Aka: Nifty 50 or Thrifty 50. It’s currently $125 on Amazon* but often dips below $100, especially if you can find it refurbished at the Canon online store. It is considered the best cheap lens out there. Most of the time, you get what you pay for in lenses. More money = better lens. This is the anomaly. If you learn to use it well, it produces great pictures for only $125. That’s why people say this is the best beginner prime lens.
I mentioned lower f numbers cost more money. the 50mm lens is a great example.
Canon’s 50/f 1.8 is $125.
The next better one is the 50/f 1.4, which retails around $350.
The 50/f 1.2 = $1,350.
This is my favorite. I bought a canon one certified refurbished, so it was a little cheaper. Most websites say that if you’re only going to get one lens, get the 50/1.8. In my experience, I use this 35mm way more. If you had a little extra money and wanted a prime lens, this is the one I’d recommend. If all you had was $50-$100, then get the 50/1.8. It’s better than the kit lens, and it’s good one for testing the waters with a prime lens in general. Check ebay and craigslist too. Lenses don’t really “go bad” unless someone has damaged them. It’s common to find a photographer who’s upgrading and selling some of their equipment for a good price! 🙂
It’s currently $549 on Amazon*.
If you really want a great zoom lens (better than the kit lens), here are a couple good options:
Canon 17-55mm/f 2.8 IS* ~$779 or Sigma 17-50mm/f 2.8 OS* ~$469 I’ve read great review of both brands for this lens. At only a few hundred dollars difference, I’d probably get the Canon if it were in my budget. This is the next lens on my list. This range of zoom is almost the same as the kit lens, which is basically good for any normal, every day activity.
Bigger Zoom Range
Telephoto means really far zoom. Think close up action shots of a football game from the stands, or photographing wide landscapes, or a bird on a tree really far away. You won’t be able to take any pictures in your living room with a telephoto lens. If adventure photography is your thing though, this might be your lens category (in addition to a kit or more every day lens like the 35mm prime or the 17-55 zoom). A couple good ones are:
70-300mm/f 4-5.6 IS* (old one is $379, new one is $679; high end pro “L” one is $1,279)
55-200mm/f 4-5.6 IS* (old one is $189, new one is $240)
Canon designates their better model lenses with an L. Their non-L lenses are considered more for consumers. You’ll see a difference in price between the two when you’re shopping. Sigma’s new-ish higher end lenses include ART in the title. Also, Sigma lenses with EX in the title are considered better than others. Nikon doesn’t designate as far as I know. (Someone correct me if I’m wrong in the comments.) Photographers agree that it’s more of a grey area than those designations. For example, I read somewhere that the Canon 17-55/2.8 is so good, it’s the last lens any non-pro-wedding or sports photographer will need to own. That’s probably over dramatic, but the point is, it doesn’t have the L designation, but it’s still really good.
If you have the money and this is a long-term hobby, invest in better lenses. Generally, you get what you pay for. And great lenses are really expensive.
If you’re strapped for cash and just want to take pictures of your kiddos at home and maybe pick up a little bit about photography here and there, save up for 1 good lens and call it a day 🙂
Where to Buy
I’ve mentioned Amazon, eBay, and the Canon store (or other brand’s stores). As always be careful who you buy from on eBay. Two other highly reputable online camera product retailers are B&H and Adorama.
Phew there it is. A complete amateur mom photographer (AMP) guide to buying an entry level DSLR and a few starter lens recommendations. That was lengthy. If you made it to the end, congratulations. You’re a finisher!