Thursday, November 14, 2013

How to Buy Your First DSLR

Most photography blogs assume a certain level of proficiency from their readers, but few (if any) cater to the camera neophyte. For most camera enthusiasts (nerds), a trip to the camera store is like going to the candy store; its all smiles and grins. However, for the uninitiated, buying a DSLR can be an intimidating experience if it's the first one and there's no prior experience with cameras of this sort. However, there are still some good reasons to buy a DSLR like a Nikon D3200 or a Canon SL1; speed of operation and lens selction being the biggest ones. As 2013 winds down, there will sure to be Black Friday and Christmas deals, making it one of the busiest times of the year for people to step up to a DSLR. To that end, here are a few tips and tricks to get through the buying process:

  1. Do your personal research first. There is a lot of information out there, but it helps to narrow down your choices. One of the most important pieces of information to put in place is if you have friends or family that use a certain brand. If your circle of friends shoots with Nikon, then you are better off sticking with a Nikon camera because of the help and experience that they can give you.
  2. Read online camera reviews, but don't read too deeply. All DSLR's today have a capability that will exceed what most beginners will be able to extract from them. Technical specs will matter less than reviews about ease of use and overall operation.
  3. Read Ken Rockwell with a grain of salt. It's annoying that this point has to be made, but his website has a high Google pagerank, which brings him a large number of readers.  Rockwell has a tongue-in-cheek-style of writing that doesn't translate well to furthering a beginner's knowledge. There are some things that he gets right... that going out and shooting is more important than obsessing over specs.... however, he has a certain black/white way of describing the world that isn't conducive to subtly or learning. Rockwell is goofy and polarizing... but his direct style appeals to people looking for straightforward answers. Again, I'm going to suggest that yes/no, rocks/sucks judgments aren't the best way to learn a craft.
  4. If you want to the camera to be a family treasure, go to the store with your significant other. Photography is a male-dominated hobby, but the chances of the camera being used by the man and the woman of the family increases when the woman is a part of the buying decision.
  5. Ask your salesperson what they personally shoot with. Everybody has a bias, but they come about because of different reasons in camera sale. The thing that camera stores won't tell you is that it is hard to keep track of all of the equipment out there on the market. Often, the customer will know more about a particular model than the salesperson simply by virtue of having spent more time reading about it on the web. To that end, salespeople are creatures of habit, they would prefer to sell you something that they are familiar with rather than have to answer questions about something that they know nothing about.
  6. The second source of sales bias is past experience. Camera stores hate the sting of having to deal with bad repair service, because it puts them in a helpless position when the service center is late with a repair that the customer is harassing the store for. Try to ask questions about where manufacture repairs are sent to, how long it takes to do warranty work, etc. If you notice that a salesperson is avoiding a certain brand, it might be an indication that they've had trouble with service repairs in the recent past.
  7. The third source of bias is financial. Like all sales, camera sales are commission-driven, though nowhere near the level that you see in the appliance or automotive sectors. If you notice that a salesperson is big a certain brand, then there might be a financial reason why that is. A good salesperson should listen to your needs. If you come into the store looking for one particular brand, be wary of anybody who tries to steer you towards another. There's no reason for that in today's market, all of the camera companies make excellent products. A good sales attendant will give you two or three options in the category that you are looking for, but they should not try to convince you that you must go for a certain brand.
  8. Make sure that you are comfortable holding and shooting with the camera.  If you find that the camera is too big and heavy, or that the grip is too small, your likelihood of wanting to use it continuously in the future will go down. To that end, spend more time than what you think you need getting familiar with the stores test unit.
  9. Speaking of test units, be wary of stores that don't have many demo units out. This could indicate that it's a low-traffic store, meaning that the total staff experience is not as great as in a location that moves a lot of cameras. Demo units are an expense to the camera store, as they don't fetch full retail when they are finally sold. If a store doesn't do a sufficient amount of traffic then it will keep a higher percentage of its stock boxed up. However, even in this situation, a good store will bring the unit out of the box if they think you are a serious buyer.
  10. Stay within your budget. Cameras can get expensive, and as with most things, there's a good chance that you will walk out of the store paying more than you intended. Granted, there's a certain measure of upselling going on, but most responsible camera stores hate it when the customer buys more than what he/she needs, as it increases the likelihood of the item being returned.
  11. If you are buying a DSLR kit and another lens, or perhaps with accessories, you should be getting some form of discount. If you aren't, bargain for it. (Your chances of getting a discount on a single item purchase are virtually nil when the item in question is just the camera itself.) This could be on a discount for buying a camera body with multiple lenses, or perhaps a mark-down on a camera bag or memory card. In fact, your chances of getting a bundle discount are higher when you are buying a DSLR than when you are buying a compact camera.
  12. Look for all-in-one bundles during the holiday season. These come in big kits that include not only the basic kit camera, but extra like a second lens, tripod and camera bag. These uber-packages are especially designed for first-time DSLR buyers and can save you a significant amount of money over buying the items separately.
  13. Be aware of the push for protective filters. It's almost cliché that the salesperson will recommend a UV filter to protect the front element on your new camera lens. Personally, I hate this part of the camera buying experience, as it reminds me of the "You need undercoating and fabric protection" part of buying a new car. However, I have a nuanced view of filters, so bear with me... I personally don't use UV filters on my lenses because I prefer to get the maximum amount of optical quality out of them. There's no arguing, a UV filter, no matter how well made, will impend the light entering your lens. However.... the question for a lot of people is piece of mind. No matter what tier that you buy at, a DSLR is usually not a cheap purchase for most people, so spending a little extra amount of money for protection is not an unwise choice. Let's face it; if spending $1000 on a camera seems like a really big purchase to you, then spending $40 extra dollars for extra protection might not be such a bad idea. (Translation: I don't use protective filters on my current lenses, but if I ever add a Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VR, you can darn tooting bet that I'll slap a filter on it...) The problem is that form a hard numbers point of view, it's not a good bet to add a filter on a kit lens. Scratches and knicks on the front glass of a camera lens actually have a surprisingly small impact on image quality, and there are more ways for a lens to fail than just breaking the front glass element. In fact, if you drop your camera, the glass might remain intact but the internal mechanicals could get damaged nonethless. Kit lenses are in actual practice, cheap and plentiful on the used market and honestly, not worth the effort in protecting for the long haul. You are far more likely to outgrow a kit lens than to break it.
  14. Take a pass on the extended warranty. Make sure that you use your camera often within the first year; any manufacture's defects should show up within that period of time.
  15. Keep all of your receipts and warranty cards. This goes without saying.
  16. Pick up a photography book from your local library to keep learning and to keep motivated.

Once you've found the right camera at the right price, the best thing to do is to start shooting with it right away. Keep the manual nearby in case you get into trouble, but the best way to learn is by doing. And remember: there's no shame in leaving the camera on the full-AUTO mode. After all, a DSLR is a sophisticated tool that do the brain work for you while you get on with the the picture taking.

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