A: I get this question all.the.time. And to be perfectly honest, unless I'm lugging around bulky professional gear, I typically reply on my iPhone for quick images to upload to Twitter or Facebook. But if you have a little peanut in your family's future or perhaps just want to make some nice images from your honeymoon, purchasing a digital SLR is the way to go. You won't regret it.
SLR, by the way, stands for single-lens reflex. The biggest difference between a digital SLR and a point & shoot (hereafter referred to as p&s) is you can change the lens. And unlike a p&s camera that uses an LCD display, SLR cameras use a mirror to show the image that will be captured in a viewfinder (more thorough geek tech explanation found here). By manipulating the digital SLR's camera settings, you'll be able to capture action, photograph in low light, zoom in tight on those precious baby toes, and print frame-worthy quality enlargements as you see them in your camera's viewfinder.
In my humble opinion, there are only two brands of cameras worth looking into: Canon and Nikon. I learned how to shoot on a manual SLR Nikon in high school and switched to Canon in 2005 when they seemed to be leapfrogging Nikon on offering the best professional cameras and lenses. At this point, they're still neck & neck, both producing a consistently reliable quality product. You can't go wrong with either.
You can get a decent p&s camera for under $400. You'll need to invest a bit more to upgrade to a digital SLR, however, so don't let the prices shock you. According to Consumer Reports, these are the top rated consumer models for according to image quality, useful features, battery life and weight (listed in order of price):
Canon EOS Rebel XSi: $585 with 18-55mm lens ($520 body only)
Nikon D5000: $668 with 18-55mm lens ($599 body only)
Canon EOS Rebel T1i: $729 with 18-55mm lens ($634 body only)
Nikon D90: $979 with 18-105mm lens ($689 body only)
Canon EOS 40D: $1799 with 28-135mm lens ($1197 body only)
Nikon D300s: $2430 with 18-200mm lens ($1574 body only)
All of the above are quite comparable, so not sure what model to choose? My advice? Head to a local camera shop near you (Ritz, Hunts, etc) and ask to hold them. Play with the dials and buttons. Note how it feels in your hands- too bulky? Too small? Too heavy? Too light? We test drive cars before purchasing one, so why not do the same with your camera body? And if you want to go so far as to rent the body before deciding which to invest in, check out the rental company LensProToGo. I have two Canon EOS 1Ds MkII.
If you choose to purchase a camera body with a basic lens, remember that's exactly what it is- basic. Keep in mind the smaller the number of the aperture (f/1.2, 1.4, 2.0, 2.8) the more light the camera can read in darker situations (indoors, dusk). The basic lenses are cheaper, but typically have an aperture of f/3.5- 5.6 which can mean blurry photos and frustration. These are the Canon lenses I have, those with an * are my current favorites (before purchasing find out if your DSLR can accept these professional L series lenses):
14mm fisheye f/2.8
*100mm macro f/2.8
14mm fisheye f/2.8
*100mm macro f/2.8
I polled a few friends and new moms I know who recently purchased a digital SLR to see what their experience has been. Below are some of their replies:
What's the biggest difference you notice between your digital SLR and a point & shoot?
"Well, better image quality, obviously, but the shutter lag in most point-and-shoots made me crazy, and I think I appreciate the lack of that in the SLR even more since the kids got mobile!" -RS
"The clarity of the pictures and the ability to take photos in less light without using the flash. Also, the ability to alter the focus to better emphasize your subject." -SG
"Much quicker. I missed a lot of good pictures with my point & shoot due to the delay. No/very little red eye with the SLR." - DC
How often do you use it?
"I use it every day. I'm worried we're wearing it out." -RS
"Everyday - we have a newborn. :)" -SG
"5-6 times per month" -DC
What lenses do you have?
"We have the kit lens (which we don't use anymore, but served us well for a long time), a Canon 50mm fixed lens (LOVE it, and it's cheap -- I recommend it to amateur enthusiast who wants to get good portraits), and a Tamron 17-50 (an upgrade to our kit lens -- faster)." -RS
"So far just the 18-55 mm lens that came with it. Plan to get a 55mm-200mm soon." -DC
What is your biggest complaint about your camera?
"We've had a couple of little issues with it, one of which required a $150 repair, but not too much to complain about, given that we've taken tens of thousands of pictures with it" -RS
"I have the Nikon D5000, the D90 was too big for me. Still it's bulkier than a point & shoot, so I don't end up having it with me all the time." -DC
"Picture quality is too high for easy e-mailing." -BC
So once you have your camera and a lens or two, there are a few other things you'll need:
Filter: Be sure to buy a basic UV filter to protect your glass. It's a lot less expensive to replace a filter rather than an entire lens should it be dropped or scratched (images below from Amazon).
Memory cards, card reader: CompactFlash (CF) and Secure Digital (SD) cards are what replaced film in the digital world of photography. When you press the shutter button, the image is recorded onto these small reusable cards in your camera. The cards come in a range of capacities, allowing you to choose a card that best suits what you are capturing (big or small image sizes = high or low quality). I would recommend 2-4GB. I use Lexar brand cards and card readers for downloading the images to my computer. Be sure to check what type of card your camera uses before purchasing (images below from Amazon).
Software: Once you have downloaded your images from your card onto your computer, you'll want to sort through them, noting favorites, tweaking color and correcting red eye, for instance. I recommend Apple's iPhoto or Adobe Photoshop Elements for editing. I use Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop CS4 (image below from Apple).
Sharing: These days it seems everyone uploads their photos to a Flickr account or Facebook photo album to share with family and friends. If you want to make prints, visit your local camera shop or upload to Shutterfly.com. I use professional labs at WHCC and Pictage (image below from Flickr and Facebook).
Backup: Now that you have a nice camera that outputs amazing imagery, you'll notice those files are eating up a lot of space on your computer's hard drive. Be sure to get an external hard drive and copy all of your files there in the event something happens to your computer. After I photograph a wedding, I copy every image onto DVDs and two matching Lacie harddrives (and use the portable orange ones, right, when I'm on the road) (images below from Amazon).
I purchase all of my photo equipment from B&H in New York or Amazon.com. I never buy photography equipment from eBay or CraigsList. Once purchased, be sure to add your new items to a rider on your homeowners insurance.
Take a peek at my recommended gear list by clicking here.