Q&A: What camera should I buy for my first dSLR?

Jul 14 2009

Bella & Bokeh
Canon XSi, 50mm f/1.4 lens, 1/80, f/2.0, ISO 100.

First time dSLR buyers always ask me what camera & gear they should get. I’m always hesitant to answer this question, because camera choice is so personal (Canon vs Nikon) and dependent on what you want to shoot and how much money you have.

With that being said, I know how confusing it can be choosing your first dSL with all the options out there, so I’m going to recommend what I consider the best overall and most reasonably priced dSLR for first time buyers, the Canon XSi (450D).

Why the Canon XSi (450D)?

The 12.2MP XSi is not the latest version of Canon’s wildly popular Rebel series, but it is such a solid camera that I feel it’s age is no factor in its performance. I had the opportunity to fully test this camera and I fell in love with it. At that time I had been shooting with an even older model, the Xti (400D), and I was shocked at how much better the XSi performed. If you are looking for all the technical specs, head over to dpreview. They do a pretty sweet job of breaking things down.

One of the great benefits of buying an older body, is that it is considerably cheaper. The new T1 kit is selling for $1099, while the XSi kit is selling for $699 CAN. And trust me, you’ll need that extra $400 to buy all those extra little camera bits like good lenses (which is almost more important than the body), spare batteries, camera bags, filters, etc, that inevitably end up costing $89 each. Also, I think that for a lot of beginners the XSi will be a great first camera.

Canon XSi/450D (back)

You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars buying the latest, greatest camera with all the bells and whistles, when you don’t know how to use those bells and whistles yet. I shot with a Canon Xti for 2 1/2 years before moving up to the 5DMkII. I felt like I knew my Xti backwards and forward and that I had mastered enough skills as a photographer to move up to something more professional.

The XSi does not have video, which may be a draw back for those of you who are really interested in video stuff. But unless you actually plan on creating and editing your own high quality videos, then just use your old point and shoot to capture fun video.

What other camera gear will I need to buy?

1. Camera bag. You just spent a small fortune on a camera, so protect it! i know it’s an extra $100 or so, but trust me, cameras are fragile and nothing sucks more than a broken camera. As a first time buyer, you are probably only going to have one or two lenses, so you don’t need something really big and heavy. My favourite small bags are:


Crumpler’s 5 Millon Dollar Home ($89.99 CAN)
Super trendy, lots of colours, sturdy. I lugged all my gear in this on my Australia trip. It even kept my camera dry during flash thunder storms.

Picture 78

Lowpro Stealth Reporter D300 AW ($89.99 CAN)

This was my second bag that I used to carry both my dSLR & my video camera, the Canon HV20. It is one of the most slick and streamlined bags.

Picture 80

Kata Sensitivity V ($89.99 CAN)
This is my favourite bag of all time. You will not find a better camera + laptop bag. It is so small & comfortable. It actually fits under plane seats and you can fit a lot more than you think in this bag. I can carry two camera bodies + lenses + flash + misc gear in this bag no problem. It also saves your neck from being yanked on all day by a side shoulder bag.

You will also need a spare battery. Get the Canon one. There are cheaper alternatives, but the Canon ones are better. I also recommend getting a remote control trigger if you are planning on doing any landscape or self-portraits. I use the Canon Wireless Remote Control RC1 ($50). It works well and the batteries have lasted 2 1/2 years and counting.

2. Also get a cheap camera cleaner kit with a rocket blaster, optical cleaner and those shammy things that come with everything electronic. Keep your gear clean from the get-go, it will save you a lot of grief later.

3. Get a Card reader. I have the Optex Multi-Card Reader ($50). It’s one of the cheaper ones, and therefore is quite slow. But it’s what I’ve been using for 2+ years, so it can’t be that bad. If you have lots o’ money you can get a pricier one, but this one works fine.

One of the most important thing is the lens you put in front of a camera body. I’ll do another post on my recommendations for lenses and off-camera flash gear, as I get loads of questions about that too.

Any more questions or tips, people who are mad that I didn’t choose a Nikon, leave ’em in the comments! Good luck and happy shooting!

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55 Responses to “Q&A: What camera should I buy for my first dSLR?”

  1. hi lisa. thanks for this cute little overview. i’m a nikon guy, and, without wanting to hijack your post, i would just like to make the nikon side recommendation… if you want to go the nikon path, start with the D5000 – if you have a bit more cash to spare, the D90. but, if the option is between spending cash on camera or lens, spend it on the LENS! all other info applies for any make/model of camera.
    great short summary for starters… and i was the first to post a comment :-)
    thanks fot the cool stuff on your amusing blog. always a great laugh, and that touch of canadian humor is great.

  2. I fully agree with Lisa’s suggestion of the XSi.

    I bought mine about a month ago and have not regretted my choice for a second. I spent about 4 months looking seriously for the “right” camera for me. I played with all of the latest Nikons, Canons, Olympus, Sony, etc and the combination of features, and usability made the XSi win hands down.

    Waiting the extra little time also allowed me to get it on the cheap since the T1 came out shortly before.

    The one recommendation that I would add would be to buy your camera at one of the local stores. Shop around if you have more than one to find the one with the best staff, because those staff will be your best friends when you are learning to use your camera and buying the gear you need.

  3. I chose the XSi as my first dSLR and I love the thing to bits. It’s a fantastic camera, so easy to use and (most importantly) it takes amazing photos. I can easily see myself using it for 2 1/2 years before moving onto whatever the 5D MkII equivalent is then.
    Nice little article, Lisa! :D

  4. This will come in handy when I get my first DSLR in a couple of months. I’ve already been eyeing up this camera for a while, can’t wait! Thank you, Lisa.

  5. Thanks for giving props to the XTi, I love mine. I’ve been shooting with it for over a year now and I love it, I don’t regret it as my 1st DSLR for a second.

  6. Good post and I’m hesitant to complain, but what the heck! :-)

    Your words “camera choice is so personal (Canon vs Nikon)” really give me the impression that you feel there are *only* those two choices. I think that beginners should consider all the entry-level dSLRs, eg: Sony, Olympus, Pentax, etc. Each of these offers features missing from the Canon & Nikon starters in the same price range. A lot of first-timers have a very restrictive budget, but may have specific desires (for shake-reduction for instance) that a Sony or Pentax budget SLR provides over the equivalent Canon/Nikon. The Olympus models are very small and light and could encourage a 1st-timer to take it with them more often that the larger and heavier dSLRs from other makes. A critical feature, no?

    I’m unconvinced that the very first dSLR necessarily means the brand that the beginner will be tethered to. It’s a get-you-foot-wet camera and may help the beginner to see that his/her requirements are actually different than first thought and mean that the second camera may be a Leica! ;-)

  7. Thanks Lisa, this is good stuff. I recently purchased a Nikon D90 and have been trying to figure out which bag to buy. That Kata Sensitivity looks nice and will probably pick order one today. The other recommendations about batteries, cleaners, etc, are great as well!

  8. I have the Canon XSi but I got it over a year ago when it first came out. Like you said, it’s a great camera, I’ve taken some great pics with it so far. Great article.

  9. Hi Lisa. Great article. I myself have used the Canon Rebel XS (1000D) for almost a year now and I feel I am ready to move up. I’m still contemplating on buying a 50D or saving some more for a 5D mark II. I looked at the bag that you recommended and, after looking at the dimensions, it seems my 15in macbook pro won’t fit in it. Could you recommend another laptop/dslr bag combination? I have three lenses, filters, a flash and other accoutrement. Thanks. :)

  10. Insurance! Call you insurance company and ask about insuring your gear. I’ve got my MacBook, Nikon D40 and 3 lenses covered and it only cost me $33 a year. If they are ever damaged, stolen or lost, all I gotta do is let my insurance co. know and I’ll be able to replace everything. Well worth it should anything ever happen.

  11. Where can I get that Kata bag for $90 CAN? Henry’s has it for $135 and Vistek $120. Not that they are indicators of typical pricing, but I cannot find other retailers that carry it.

  12. I’m quite pleased with my XSi. It’s a bit too small for me, but it would suit anyone with normal-sized hands. And the small size helps when I’m packing for a business trip where I might get some time to shoot.

    One reason to focus on Canon vs. Nikon to the exclusion of other makes is the rental market. Much easier to rent lenses for these two.

  13. I love this post! thanks for all the tips!
    I’m currently saving for a DSLr and this is going to be sooooo helpfull! :)

  14. My tip: Make sure you buy a camera which has an auto focus motor in the body. Therefore you are not totally reliant on lenses which have autofocus motors within them. Many of the entry level SLRs like the Nikon D40,D60, etc are missing the autofocus motor and this makes buying new lenses really expensive. I made this mistake :-( I am now selling my D60 and going to spend my £’s on 450D :-) yay!

  15. For the people who want Nikon; choose a Nikon D60 or D5000.
    Also its weird most people take Canon for beginners a Nikon is far more better since the menu structure is worlds better and easier than canon’s (and i used both).
    @Louisa most new lenses even cheap ones like Sigma have autofocus motors in them, new dslr owners wouldn’t have any problems with that.

  16. I currently shoot with a Canon 50D but still use my 350D a whole lot. That’s the camera I use for everyday shooting (because it’s lighter and smaller) and the one I shoot my timelapses with. I had it pretty much since 6 months after it came out and it hasn’t failed on me once. So yeah, the xxxD series is great for beginners, slap a fast 50mm lens onto one of those bodies and you’re set.

  17. Nice post! Just found out a local photographer makes a living off an XTi.

    Can’t wait for the lens/lighting post. I’ve been looking at Alien Bee stuff per your recommendation on TWiP I believe.

  18. Great tips for beginners. I have the XTi from 2007 and agree with your XSi suggestion. I also agree that a wireless remote control is very useful for self-portraits.

    The 50mm 1.8mm is a great lens to start of with ($100US on amazon.com).

  19. Very nice little write up, I’ve been hesitating on my camera purchase for about a year or more now. Collecting dust is my original Nikon F2. Hopefully I will finally make the plunge by the end of the year..?

  20. I had an XTi and loved it. Canon has great entry level cameras. I’d recommend spending money on a good lens. The kit lens is good for a starter, but you’ll want to move up at some point. The 50mm 1.8 tyfn mentions is good, but a 1.4 is gonna cost you a lot more. I’m of the opinion that glass is more important than the body, so it’s worth it to buy a good lens.

  21. Thanks for the camera bag suggestions. You are feeding my camera bag addiction!

  22. @dan: I recently purchased a Nikon SLR series D60. What’s your opinion of that particular camera?

  23. @dan: I agree that the lens is almost more important than the body. I plan on writing a post about the best lenses to get soon.

    @Jeff: buying local is always nice, but if you buy it from FutureShop or BestBuy you can finance it, which is great if you don’t have enough $$ to buy it outright.

  24. @Matt Michand: I still love my Xti. We had a lot of adventures together… Las Vegas, Jacksonhole, Wyoming, Portland, all over England, Australia…

    @Bruce M Walker: Honestly, I’ve tried the top of the line Olympus and it paled in comparison to the lowest end Canon & Nikon cameras. I’ve also tried the Sony Alpha and it was crappier than most point and shoots that I’ve tried. Also, the lenses that are available for those brands are not great. Plus, if you choose your brand early then you won’t have to replace all the lenses, flashes & other brand specific gear you bought for your first camera again when you switch teams.

  25. @Gary: the best bag for you would be the the Lowepro Fastpack 250 or the CompuTrekker AW. I have the Computrekker and it’s the best bag out there if you have a lot of gear. I use it when I need to carry both my camera & video gear.

    @unclejerry: good point. I also have home insurance that covers all my gear up to $15,000.

    @rm: try Lens and Shutter.

    @Louisa: yay! another Canon convert!
    @aradilon: i think the Canon menu makes more sense, but I am biased. I think they are both great. I just like Canon better. personal preference.

  26. Interesting post with good advice. I recently upgraded from a bridge camera (Panasonic DMC-FZ30) to the Panasonic DMC-G1. While it’s not a DSLR per se (micro four thirds format, so no mirror box) it still offers the advantage of interchangeable lenses. It has a decent size sensor (crop factor of 2 compared to 3t mm) and in particular the 14-45 mm (28-90 mm in 35 mm) is excellent. What I most love about my new G1? First it is a really small camera (no mirror box!) and it motivates me shooting more pictures and trying out new ideas. So I can really recommend this camera to anybody interested in stepping up from a point-and-shot.

  27. Ballheads and tripod rundown too, please!

  28. Haha interesting opinions in your little post. Nice effort

  29. I wouldn’t ever suggest that you don’t consider Oly or Pentax, Sony, etc, but going with a camera body from one of the two giants has it’s advantages. The main one being the truckloads of used lenses on the market.

    I’d recommend researching all of them and also having a list of what you expect from your camera. Are you shooting mostly indoors? Low light? Is this strictly a hobby or are you working towards doing this professionally? I did a lot of digging through the DP Review archives and other sources before I made the final decision to go with Canon for my first DSLR.

    This is a big step up from a P&S. Once you invest in the body and a few lenses, a flash, a spare battery or two, etc you will be into this for a few grand. I ended up dropping about $3000 for the XTi, 430EX flash, 50mm, 70-300mm, 17-85mm, 10-22mm, battery grip, spare batteries. And I bought everything well below retail. If you suddenly decide you want to switch from Olympus to Pentax or Canon to Nikon, you’re going to be starting all over again. And with the rare exceptions for high end gear, most of your equipment isn’t going to sell used for anything near what you paid for it new. Lenses maybe, bodies, not likely.

    And don’t turn up your nose at used gear. Check KEH.com, B&H’s used section, Craigslist, and eBay for used lenses and bodies.

    When I made the decision to go digital (as in beyond the point & shoot pocket cameras I used when i wasn’t lugging around film bodies and lenses) I started cheap and small. I picked up an XTi and bought a few low end lenses. I figured out fairly quick that I liked low light photography, so I started researching faster lenses and ended up purchasing used L glass from KEH and eBay. Then I decided I wanted more frames per second and better weatherproofing.

    Well, a new 1D MK3 was out of my reach at $4500, so I sold some more stuff I never use on eBay and combined it with my tax return and purchased a used 1d MK2n and later I picked up a 1D for a backup body, both through KEH. They’re not the newest and bestest, but they do what I need them to do and they’re good enough for magazine and newspaper work.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is this:

    Know what you want from your camera and lenses.

    RESEARCH what’s out there.

    ASK questions.

    Make an educated decision before you buy.

  30. But all you shoot is magic hour- backlit portraits. Have you really experimented with other types of photography?

    I think you’ll find that the body and lens combination severely depends on the type of photography.

    Nice article from one beginner to introduce others though – thumbs up

  31. Hi Lisa – Thanks for this interesting post (i really enjoy your blog!)

    “Honestly, I’ve tried the top of the line Olympus and it paled in comparison to the lowest end Canon & Nikon cameras.”

    I’m thinking about getting the Oly E 620. Do you feel like expanding on your comment above?


  32. I love how I immediately disagree with your first point. The Rebel XSi instead of… well instead of saying pick the Nikon/Canon around $700 and deciding on the brand that most of your friends shoot with so that sharing lenses is an option.

    But then I hit the next page, only to see that you recommend my TWO bags, the Crumpler that I purchased a month ago and the Kata that I’ve been using for a year now.

  33. @ Simon

    he E-620 is a great little camera. Granted, it does not have movie mode like the Canon or Nikon eqv. but it does an excellent job keeping up with the feature set. It has image stabilization on body, has a twist out LCD display and has pop art filter. And the variety zuiko lenses are some of the best in the market. Your Best bet would be to go to the store and to try out the cameras you’re thinking of buying. I myself have an Olympus Camera and it has never failed me. Buy the camera you feel has the best bang for the buck, offers you the features you want, offers a comprehensive tech support and a variety of lenses.

  34. @Spike:

    get the battery grip if its small … and it will increase your battery life.

  35. Great write up, but i’m an unrepentant Nikon user, i will pass this along to my wife who uses only Canon. Very interesting about you section, you have managed to cram a lot in and was that an Aliens reference?

  36. @Stefan: I’ve also got a G1. I like it a lot, but I find that a lot of the photos are coming out a touch blurry/not sharp. Any tips or recommended sites for info on getting sharp pics with the G1?

  37. Hey thanks lisa for this guide. I wanted to get an dSLR for sometime and decided to take the plunge. I ended getting the T1i instead of the XSi because I’m very interested in the video. I also bought the kata bag. I’m going to take a trip to San Fransisco, while taking a detour to the twit cottage to see a taping of TWIT. I can’t wait to learn how to use the camera. I’m looking forward to teh article about the lenses/flash gear.

  38. HI Lisa, thanks for this post. I think I might buy that Kata bag you suggest. I just hope my D90 will fit with the 18-200 lens attached.


  39. ok Lisa, this bag is awesome!

    I went ahead and got the Kata based mainly on your recommendation.

    Here’s what I have in it:

    Nikon D90 with 18-200 lens attached
    little 50mm 1.8 lens
    SB-600 flash in it’s case
    Lite Panels Micro Pro
    2 circular ploraizers
    hood for lens
    Nikon D90 battery charger
    little bitty tripod
    Zoom H4N audio recorder
    remote shutter release
    CF reader
    13″ Macbook and charger

    I just got it tonight, so I don’t know how it is to live with yet, but I’m happy so far.

    Thanks Lisa!


  40. It is very good camera. It gives very clear photos.

  41. OK I’m in both camps (Nikon D70, and Canon SXi) been using Nikon for 25 years so when I needed to get a DSLR I looked around and made my decision based on the $5,000 worth of glass I had for Nikon most of it 20+ years old and Manual focus. Big mistake as non of my lenses would work properly with the D70 and even my flash had to be replaced. So when it came time to upgrade I went with what I thought was the better image sensor, and this has proven to be true. The one caveat I have on the Canon SXi is the build quality. 3 months after I purchased the SXi I was shooting an evet for my kids school when the camera started doing strange things, then it worked fine again. In march of this year the strange things came back but this time didn’t fix themselves, so I took the camera to Canon (Drove from Oshawa to Mississauga) to have it fixed. Turns out the shutter button was getting stuck in the down position, so Canon kept the camera fixed it and sent it back to me. The problem came back almost immediately, I am living with it now as the camera is out of warranty, all I have to do is wiggle the button so it pops up. So if you get this camera and it suddenly stops working try wiggling the shutter button.

    Also, photos taken with the SXi and Speedlite 430EX II exhibit motion blur and are over exposed as if the Camera doesn’t know the flash is there and is using slow shutter speed to compensate. The funny thing is the flash is aware of the camera as it shows the focal length of the zoom when I change it.

  42. I’ll one-up you when you say “the lens is almost more important than the body” and go with “the lens is ABSOLUTELY more important than the body.” I encourage people on a budget to go with a used body that’s a couple generations old so they can spend their money on the lens. A great lens will last you many body upgrades, and will do far more to improve the quality of your images than a few extra pixels.

  43. Gavin, you are almost correct, the problem is the first few generations of DSLR the SXi included used small sensors and had lenses designed for them, these lenses will cause vignetting on newer full frame sensors like in the 5D MKII so you will need to replace all your lenses unless you have some really good recent Film camera Lenses that work on your new camera.

  44. Jeff, you too are almost right. Canon makes 3 basic lens families: the EF-S, EF, and TS-E. The EF-S line of lenses are specifically designed for APS-C and APS-H sensors. EF-S lenses are not compatible with my 5D MkII or 1Ds MkIII. If you buy a DSLR from canon, the solution is simple: buy EF and TS-E glass. yeah, you have to deal with the crop factor on APS-C (the 20D I still use and love, 1.6x focal length conversion,) and APS-H (my old reliable 1D MkII, 1.3x conversion factor) sensor cameras, but it is a small price to pay for a good lens that will stay with you if you ever make the jump to a full frame sensor. Also, most DSLR’s still have APS-C and APS-H sensors. Canon and Nikon both offer two full frame models, Sony offers one, as does Fuji (which is just a rebadged Nikon.)

  45. […] to work with and I booked four for the next week. A Canon Canada Rep was nice enough to send a XSi (450D) loaner to me, so I had an extra body on […]

  46. Loved the article Lisa. A couple of years ago, I bought a Nikon D50 on clearance, 18-55mm lens included, and an other lens, a 55-200mm. I’m guilty of thereafter using it pretty much as a great big point n’ shoot, with everything on auto. I took your pledge, to not auto anything anymore, and finally start getting serious about good pictures.

    My question is, now that I’m getting serious, would I be better off upgrading to a better Nikon body, like a D60, or switching entirely and getting the XSi? I’d really hate to start over having the stuff I have already, and I don’t plan to ever make a living at it…I just want to get a tad creative, and everything I’ve read about the XSi has been very good to great.

  47. I seem to have misplaced my last comment…or, I posted it wrong. I’m such a noob at some things.

    Anyway, forget my “go with the XSi or upgrade my Nikon stuff” question; if the question even posted, that is. Amazon.com has the XSi kit at a super deal. It will be here Thursday. :)

    Then I can just decide for m’self.

  48. Canon XSi (450D) is so good digital camera.It’s clearity and resolution is superb no need to say anymore about this camera.I decided to buy this camera.

  49. you have to talk about what you know so it’s perfect. Honestly, any Canon, Nikon, Pentax or Olympus theses days are so freaking good to 80% of all of the peps out there!

    I chose Nikon because of the most important factor for me, the way it stands in my hands. That’s all, IQ is so good on all those brands. Unless your a pixel pooper, nobody will really see the differences.. :)

  50. Thank you for posting this article! It really helped me decide on what starter DSLR camera to purchase. My last Canon wasn’t much to write home about (Powershot A95) but I’m looking forward to stepping up to the XSi.

  51. Memory sure is becoming cheaper these days. I wonder when we will eventually reach the ratio of $0.01 to 1 Gigabyte.I’m eagerly anticipating the day when I will finally be able to afford a 20 terabyte drive, hahaha. But for now I will be happy with having a 32 gig Micro SD Card in my R4i.(Posted using FPost for R4i Nintendo DS.)

  52. Hi lisa,
    I like your post, and I’m a big fan of Canon. I think it fulfills the needs of the majority of people and it’s sells like candy’s on my site.

  53. This is one excellent camera, even with the relatively low megapixels resolution the overall quality of features for this price makes one of the bests (if not the best) machines of the category.

  54. Hi Lisa, I agree. Getting a cheap DSLR means you can buy other equipment. Buying 2nd hand kit means you can get even more for your money. But xsi/450D images are limited.

    A friend’s 1st DSLR was a 450D with an 18-55 kit lens. Not surprisingly, the pictures weren’t that great. To fix this she bought a Canon 17-40 F4L & the landscape shots were OK. Later she borrowed a Sigma 120-400 for an air display, but the shots were disappointing. At the next airshow she used a Canon 100-400 F4L & the pics were only OK. We proved the 450D was the problem as I was there with the same lenses taking the same pictures using a Canon 5D.

    The 450D images had more noise than you’d expect above ISO100 at shutter speeds above 1/60s, or in low light. In short sports/action, indoor, & sunrise or sunset shots were grainy & only good lighting would allow the 450D to capture good images. This wouldn’t be encouraging for 1st time DSLR owners who’ll be wanting to improve their images.

    Interestingly, a few years back a girlfriend had similar problems with a 300D. I borrowed it a few times & wasn’t that impressed so my 1st DSLR was full frame rather than one with a cropped sensor. Now, the 2nd hand Canon 5D MK1 are the same price as a new 500D. So I’d say buy that or the Canon 1DS MKII. Then image quality will be down to the photographer rather than the camera!

    PS. My friend on the expensive airshow learning curve last year, bought a cheap 5D on ebay just before Christmas & is a much happier bunny now…

  55. Q&A: What camera should I buy for my first dSLR? | MostlyLisa.com | Photography tips & inspiration That is really interesting. Good Article.

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