Buying Digital SLR Cameras

I’ve been shooting photography for about 5 months now. I’m not an expert, but I’m learning. I bought a 3 year old Canon Rebel XT on Craigslist from a fine arts student at University of Baltimore. She had taken good care of it and was looking to upgrade to a Canon 5D.

So I bought the camera and started playing around with it. I realized quickly that I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea what RAW format was, and had no clue about techniques. Shutter was the only thing I understood. Aperture was sort of vague, and ISO I remembered from the good old days of point and shoot film cameras. I didn’t know how it all played together, and I’m honestly still learning. Good photographers never perfect their craft. They just keep tinkering until they know the art enough to make very educated guesses about angles, settings, white balance, etc.

I take my camera everywhere I go now. Out of every 100 photos, I toss 90. I insist on using pure manual settings, because there’s no better way, in my mind, to learn than to trial and error it. When I say manual, I mean manual. I manually focus. I usually keep my ISO around 200, but I can change that. Shutter and aperture settings are all adjusted on every shot.

Recently, I’ve had a number of people mention that they plan to buy their first DSLR camera. Some of these usually follow this up by mentioning really high-end cameras like the Canon 5D or the Nikon D700 as cameras they want.

My response is always the same… Why?

As rookie photographers, they don’t know why. They just know it’s better. Which is true, but that’s not the point.

Here’s what rookie photographers need to focus on when picking up a brand new DSLR camera.

It’s all about technique

During the early part of the camera career, the photographer should be learning about lighting. If you can’t shoot completely manual, you shouldn’t own a high end camera. That’s not to say that owning a high end camera should mean that you can’t use shutter-priority or aperture-priority settings. But, there are principles to shooting and understanding the balance between Aperture and Shutter is critical to taking great photos.

Here’s a primer. Shutter speed is, very simply, how quickly the lens shutter opens and closes. It is measured in “thousandths of a second”. My Canon lists a 1/16 second shutter speed simply as 16. Do the math. The quicker the shutter opens and closes (the higher the number), the less light that can enter the lens. On bright sunny days, you’ll use a high shutter speed. In a dark pub, you;ll use a low shutter speed.

But wait, then there’s aperture. The problem with slow shutter speeds (in a bar, for instance) is that since the shutter is open longer, the camera is more susceptible to camera shake. Long shutter speeds usually need tripods to ensure that no shake appears in the photo. Aperture is defined as “how wide open” the lens is. The higher the aperture number (actually, it’s a lower number as “the aperture is higher”), the more wide open the lens is, allowing for more light. In a dark room, a lower aperture will open the lens up more, to allow more light in allowing a photographer to use a faster shutter.

But then there’s focal length, which affects aperture. Confused yet?

My point is there is technique that needs to be learned and should be learned on a cheaper, lower end camera.

Here’s an example of some photos I’ve taken on my Rebel XT.

Nationals Park

  • Aperture: f/8
  • Shutter: 1/50 second
  • ISO: 200
  • Lens: Canon 50mm Prime (fixed) f/1.8

  • Aperture: f/5
  • Shutter: 1/800 second
  • ISO: 800
  • Lens: Canon 55-18 Zoom

Admittedly, this was altered because I shot in the RAW, a format that captures all data about a picture allowing for manipulation of the photo qualities after the fact. I used Apple’s Aperture 2.0. The photo was taken in broad daylight.

End of the day, rookie photographers can go and buy top of the line equipment but without a firm understanding of the techniques, it will not help them take great shots.

In Vegas, I went photowalking with about 80 bloggers and photographers. Jared Kohlmann of Pro Photo Rental brought high end gear and allowed me to shoot with a Canon 5D, a 24mm prime f/1.4 and a Fisheye lens. Here are some of the results:


  • Aperture: f/2.8
  • Shutter: 1/50 second
  • ISO: 200
  • Lens: Canon 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye

Las Vegas at Night

  • Aperture: f/10
  • Shutter: 7 seconds
  • ISO: 100
  • Lens: Canon 24mm prime f/1.4

As a power user, after you’ve learned technique, you’ll definitely want a higher end camera because of the full frame. Lower end cameras, such as my Rebel XT, actually don’t capture all of what the lens can capture and crops the photo. Using lenses like the fisheye actually will not work on crop frame cameras, but you pay top dollar for full frame. As a rookie, these are things you just can’t worry about.

Enjoy your shooting!

Published by

Aaron Brazell

Aaron Brazell is a Baltimore, MD-based WordPress developer, a co-founder at WP Engine, WordPress core contributor and author. He wrote the book WordPress Bible and has been publishing on the web since 2000. You can follow him on Twitter, on his personal blog and view his photography at The Aperture Filter.

15 thoughts on “Buying Digital SLR Cameras”

  1. Nice post, and I agree, though my eyesight sucks enough that I let the nikon do the focusing for me. I control the lighting manually, however. Some really good tips in there.

  2. Not personally, but very likely that readers might. Chime in, folks,on recommendatins for books. Also, PaS cameras are light and portable,but not great for advanced photography. There are some nice hybridsthough.

  3. My personal opinion is that every new parent, as a gift to their child, should take a course in composition. Forget all this stuff about F stops and shutter speed–if you can't frame the picture you're missing the point.I think I've told you that I'm holding out on buying a DSLR (even though I long used an SLR before) until AwayFind launches. (An exercise in restraint.) But in the mean time, it's all about the composition.

  4. Hi Eric-One of the best “must-have” books for getting the most out of your photography is titled “Understanding Exposure” by Bryan Peterson.In it, you will learn exactly how shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and focal length combine to create the very foundation upon which photography is built. I can't recommend it enough.Good luck, and enjoy your photography!

  5. “You take great pictures, I wish I had the same camera” is the rough equivalent of “I love your paintings, where do you get your brushes and paint?” The lenses have a larger effect on the image than the camera anyway. I'm not a good artistic photographer, but I've worked to become pretty solid technically. I'd recommend Peterson's 'Understanding Exposure' for anybody switching over to DSLR. Regarding using manual focus, some of my favorite shots are motorsport, there's no way I could manual focus fact enough to catch a motorcycle rip by at 200+ MPH. I get where you're going though, buying a DSLR and leaving it on full auto is a waste of a thousand dollars and six pounds that you have to lug around.Jeremy

  6. Wow, this was a really good post Aaron. I'm impressed. I've always wanted to play with photography but never really had the time to really get into it. “My point is there is technique that needs to be learned and should be learned on a cheaper, lower end camera.”I just got a couple new toys. So I won't be going DSLR real soon, but I think you just saved me some bucks for when I do…

  7. The good telephoto lenses have a switch for close / long range that helps a lot. For quick shots I also lock the focus to the center point so it doesn't have to hunt for a point. A bonus is that in many cameras the center point is more sensitive than the other focus points.Jeremy

  8. Aaron -Having been a professional photographer for years, I hope I have a little authority on the subject.Your post was very good advice, but there was ONE little technical error.F-stops are the same across lenses.Let's assume you are taking a picture of scenery with consistent lighting across (no hotspots looking INTO light). If you use a wide angle lens (24mm) to get the whole scene and your meter tells you 1/125th @ f/5.6, and then you switch to a long lens the get the one tree by itself in the photo, the exposure will be the same. You could also crop the wide photo to just the tree, but it won't look “quite” the same. (long lens tends to flatten things)Another little trick I learned when I first started to help understand the relationship between shutter (time open) and aperture (size of opening)….The following are the “same” exposure:1/30 @ f/161/60 @ f/111/125 @ f/81/250 @ f/5.61/500 @ f/4Now think of the film speed (ISO – in both film and digital) as a bucket of water that needs to be filled, and your aperture is the faucet and how much water you let pass.if you use a small faucet (aperture), you must let the water (shutter speed) run LONGER to fill that same bucket. Turn the water on full blast, and it fills quickly. (short shutter speed).Those are the basics of the equation, but there are 2 other factors that come into play.1) Shutter speed – If you have a still object, you obviously don't need a “fast” shutter, and vice versa for action.2) Aperture – Controls depth of field (how much is in focus from front to back). The small the opening (f/16,22) the more will be in focus. As a person that shoots a lot of concerts, I DON'T want much depth as the background becomes distracting. I prefer the focus to be WAY out of focus.I hope this didn't sound preachy, and it helps anybody trying to improve their photography.mark

  9. oh, auto focus is such a deceiver, such a duplicitous friend, a fake phony flashing a wad of cash and broke at the same time … the illusion of substance … how many photos lost by depending on it … yet where is the viewfinder with enough pixels to tell when manual focus is really sharp? … at the high end of dslr's … sharpness, a cheap slr, with a cheap lens, the print scanned, has more resolution than the highest priced dslr … so, like any mistress, photography beguiles and eludes …nice writing from techsailor, thanks

  10. Interesting post and a lot of valid points, but I feel slightly in error. While I would agree photographers should understand about the relationship between F-stops, depth of field, ISO's and focal lengths and shutter speeds and how they interrelate (as already explained by Mark Mindlin's comments earlier), there is much to be said about letting the camera decide how to combine these elements. A little background I've been shooting using a Film SRL for a while and switched to using a Canon 300D (the original Rebel) in 2005 and now looking to upgrade.. but more about that later. The 300D is a little clunky and without many of the advantages the current 450D. I normally shoot in programme mode which on the 300D gives me the ability to choose to shoot in RAW (far better/essential for post-photo editing) its ISO and also more control over the camera's focus point. Now this is simply because I never found the 300D's 9 point autofocus quite upto the job and often (often enough for me) selecting the wrong object to be in focus. I also use manual focus when lighting conditions are too low for the autofocus to be effective or some other prevailing factor (eg plain surfaces/backgrounds can confuse it), but autofocus has its own value in a number of situations. I do sometimes shoot in full manual but generally quite happy for the camera to take some of the leg work in organising the settings while I alter other, eg shutter priority or aperture priority. So why the upgrade? To respond to your statement “End of the day, rookie photographers can go and buy top of the line equipment but without a firm understanding of the techniques, it will not help them take great shots.” I would state that if you took exactly the same shot using the two different camera's and the same settings, a camera like the 5D with an EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM zoom lens (which it typically comes with) will produce the better photo. And that's from experience when I had the opportunity to compare the shots my 300D took against the 5D's. I also tried using the different lenses on both camera's and found that the better lens had a lot to do with it, but also the camera itself (when comparing shots taken on both cameras using the same lens). So at some point when I've saved up enough I'll purchase the Canon 5D II when its available and if the image quality is as good or better than the original 5D. So to summarise an answer your original post, I would be inclined to state that if anybody wants to purchase an expensive high end DSLR, its worth taking a bit of time appreciating just what it can do and get practising. For me the art of photography is not just knowing the mechanics, its also knowing what works as a good shot and how to use the camera to bring out and capture in a photo the composition of what the mind see's. What we see with our eye in 3D is not necessarily the same as what gets captured in 2D.

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