ask Emilie: what camera should I buy?


Q: Now that we're having a baby, I need to get a decent camera! I have a little point and shoot now, but I think it's time to invest in a decent SLR. I'm not a professional, of course, so it doesn't have to be fancy --it just needs to take good pictures. Any suggestions? - Michelle

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):

*16-35mm f/2.8
24-70mm f/2.8
70-200mm f/2.8
14mm fisheye f/2.8
24mm f/1.4
*35mm f/1.4
50mm f/1.2
*85mm f/1.2
*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 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 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.

Happy shooting!


  1. Thanks, Emilie! I have a DSLR (D40) that I love, but I am always looking for tips and a new lens rec. Great list!

  2. This blog post ROCKS :) I got asked this question just the other day, and now I can point them right to your blog - thank you for doing such extensive research and getting reviews from your clients :) Awesome job!

  3. Without a doubt, if you are looking for a small camera, the panasonic GF1 is the camera to get (with a 20mm 1.7 lens; 40mm 35equiv).

    It is a digital SLR in a tiny body - they dropped the mirror and optical viewfinder. Great images at 1600 ISO, a bit nasty above that but a world away in quality from the G11. Plus shoots HD video too. The 20 1.7 lens is wonderful too. Because the sensor is an SLR sized CMOS (rather than teeny tiny CCD like the G11), the out of focus areas are beautiful and the 1.7 aperture is great for low light.

    Absolutely love mine. Comes with me everywhere. Since buying it I've hardly shot ANY personal photos with my Canon 1DS2. That includes pics of our new baby boy just born last week; the image quality is that good that I feel I don't need to pick up the Canon for daily documentary. Even brought it into the delivery room and shot an HD movie when he first met his mother!

    Some sample pics:

    My feeling is that a lot of new parents go out and buy an SLR, then fail to use it because of the bulk. The GF1 with a 20 1.7 completely solves that. If you can find one, buy one. $900 inc 20 1.7 from Amazon

  4. Rob is my resident go-to tech guru. Happy he added his opinion about a cool small option. Thanks, Rob!

  5. I get asked this question all the time I'm just going to send them to your blog :)



  6. I forgot to add that even the $8000 cameras don't come with the AWESOME button... it is great for parents to get that continuos record, but it is priceless to get a professional in the door now and again to do your family justice!

    Even I'm considering getting someone like Emilie to come document us all as I'm always the one missing from the photos!

    This just taken a moment ago with the GF1:

  7. Thanks for this, Em! Sam and I need to invest in a good camera so we can snap pics around the store. Also, those pics of the baby are amazing. Great job!

  8. I love this post, it is so helpful! I am in the same boat, and now that Ava is 2, we wish we had gone with an SLR when we upgraded just before she was born...I spent almost as much. buying a p&S, as an SLR would cost, and now really need and want an SLR. Good enough just isn't good enough now, especially now that our favorite subject is in perpetual motion! Thank you for all of the information, I will re-read and educate myself to put the perfect camera on my holiday wish list!

  9. Michelle3:32 PM

    So many wonderful tips! I cannot wait to begin shopping. Thank you thank you!


Pin It button on image hover