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12 Things I Wish I Knew When I Purchased My First DSLR

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Recently, I’ve been helping a friend get started in photography. It’s fun brushing up on technique. However, it has also made me evaluate what I would have done differently when I started out. Specifically, things I wish I knew when I purchased my first DSLR. Mostly, costly mistakes a bit of research and forethought could have avoided.

As I’ve advised my friend, I’ve thought about what information I needed when starting out. If I was advising my younger self, these are the 12 pieces of advice I would give. 

Though my first (big girl) camera was a DSLR, this advice is just as relevant to those considering a mirrorless camera.

12 Things I wish I knew before I purchased my first DSLR Pinterest pin

1. Auto Controls Aren't Just For Point-and-Shoots

Believing I needed to understand manual camera controls paralyzed me from purchasing my first DSLR for a long time.

For those with the same fear, I’m happy to report all modern beginner and semi-professional DSLRs (and mirrorless) cameras have auto controls.

Actually, most even have the same “scene” presets found in point-and-shoot cameras, like Sport, Night, and Sunset modes.

2. Don't Agonize Over Brand

Most photographers stick with a camera brand for life. This is to save money by reusing lenses when they upgrade their camera bodies.

I found it so stressful to figure out which brand was right for me. However, it’s not as overwhelming as it may seem.

Only Canon and Nikon are consistently the choice of most professional photographers. You’ll find massive fan bases behind both brands, with a billion reasons why their brand is best.

I’m personally a Nikon fan, but honestly, the pros and cons between the brands are tit-for-tat.

Both make incredible cameras, phenomenal lenses, and have the biggest selection in the marketplace. So, pick the lens(es) you want and camera you feel most comfortable with, and don’t stress on brand, it will all work out.

3. Consider A Full Frame From The Get-Go

Don’t worry if you feel a little lost on what I mean by full frame. When I purchased my first DSLR, I didn’t know this was a thing, and it’s by far my biggest regret. 

All digital cameras, from cell phones to DSLRs, use an imaging sensor. It’s basically the film of the camera. Choosing between a cropped and full frame imaging sensor is the most important decision to make when purchasing a new camera. Getting this decision right for your needs will save you a lot of money.

Since it’s impossible to explain in just a paragraph or two, we’ve put together a separate post on Cropped vs Full Frame Sensors, so you can decide which is best for you.

4. Stop Worrying About Megapixels

Even the novice photographer has heard of megapixels (MP). Marketeers love to tout these numbers on everything from cell phones to professional grade cameras. More is always better, right? Well, not always.

Megapixels work hand-in-hand with the camera’s imaging sensor. It’s the camera sensor that’s most important here, and will help determine what you really get from that bazillion MP camera.

It’s also important to note, most amateur photographers don’t need more than 12 MP. You may be paying a lot more for something you are not using.

Our post on Cropped vs Full Frame Sensors also explains megapixels.

5. Don't Buy The Kits

Not a hard and fast rule, but one I’d advise my beginner self to keep in mind when purchasing my first DSLR.

Coming from a point-and-shoot camera, most customers would never consider buying only a camera body without a lens. Camera manufacturers know this, so for a bit more money, they bundle a lens with the camera body.

These bundled lenses are known as “kit lenses”. Typically, a low-grade lens, even amateur photographers quickly realize they want to switch these out for something better.

My advice, research any paired (kit) lenses before purchasing. You may get lucky with a deal on a good lens through bundling, but more often than not, it will cost you more in the long run as you upgrade.  

Nikon Camera with kit lens

6. Invest In Lenses Not Bodies

When it comes to capturing sharp images, lenses play a much bigger and more important role than camera bodies.

Most photographers trade up their camera bodies every 2-4 years as technology improves. Think of them like a car that depreciates in value.

However, good well cared for lenses can bring a lifetime of great images. Plus, they often hold their value well and sometimes even appreciate.

My advice to my beginner self, figure out the lens(es) you want. Then, find the least expensive camera body that works well with those lenses. Even if this means buying a used camera body.

7. Get A Good 50 mm

Starting out, I definitely couldn’t afford a top of the line lens. Which is probably why I thought the kit lens was a good deal.

Instead, take a look at the 50 mm prime lens (or 35 mm for cropped sensors). Normally, these are among the best everyday lenses you can buy for a relatively inexpensive price tag.

Lightweight, amazingly sharp, and with a great depth of field, they make fantastic everyday lenses, and for portraiture. I have both lenses for my Nikon cameras and love them, but I’m positive Canon has an equivalent.

If you’re confused on which of these lenses is right for your camera, please read our article on cropped vs full frame sensors

8. You Won't Get The Same Zoom And That's Okay

Before I purchased my first DSLR, I had a tiny point-and-shoot with a pretty big zoom. I was so upset when my expensive, big, and heavy DSLR didn’t have half the zoom of my old cheap camera.

Two primary reasons point-and-shoots can have incredible zoom capability:

  1. Point-and-shoot cameras use digital zoom (aka fake zoom) to digitally extend the reach of the lens.
  2. Smaller imaging sensors require smaller lenses to achieve a further optical zoom (true zoom).   

At first glance, this may seem disappointing to new DSLR users. However, digital zoom is destructive, and smaller sensors don’t do well in low light.

The trade off of a DSLR’s bigger lenses and a bigger sensor is image quality.

Our article on Digital vs Optical Zoom provides an easy to understand review of the key differences.

9. Plan To Extend Your Family

If you were planning to have kids, would you buy a studio apartment? Or purchase a two-seater sports car? Probably not.

A camera bag is the same, always buy bigger than you need. Even that free camera bag which came with your purchase will quickly become useless. It won’t be long until you want to expand your photography family with new lenses, a tripod, a flash unit, etc., etc. 

Until I finally caught on, I probably wasted a few hundreds dollars upgrading bags every time I bought a new piece of camera gear.

10. Photography Is An Addicting And Expensive Hobby

Probably obvious from my last point, but it’s worth specifically calling out how addicting and expensive photography is as a hobby.

You may think you’ll be happy with just a camera, a lens and a memory card, but that’s rarely true.

Not only do I feel I wasted money on useless bags and kit lenses when I purchased my first DSLR, but I also wish I budgeted better for the things that mattered.

It only took me a couple of months to realize how useless the built in flash was, so of course I needed a speedlight.  But, how could I take steady shots without a tripod? Next, I needed filters to get the long exposures I wanted. Don’t get me started on the lenses I needed!

The list went on and on. Problem is, it still does. From camera straps to editing software, there’s a whole world of photography gear to feed the photographers addiction. Budget well!

Full Camera Gear, Camera, Lenses, filters

11. You're Paying For RAW, Use It!

Honestly, I didn’t understand RAW when I purchased my first DSLR. It boggled my brain why I’d want files that take up so much space on my memory cards. Sadly, I took some of my favorite photos that first year with my new DSLR, all in JPG. I know you can’t hear me sobbing, but I am.

This is another subject that deserves its own post, but here’s the short version.

Surprisingly, your camera adds edits to JPG image files. This is why JPGs look sharper, and brighter than RAW files. It also discards a lot of the captured data to compress the image. This is great for immediate sharing, but not for quality.

RAW files are unprocessed and uncompressed, this means you get all the
data your expensive camera captures. RAW is a lossless format, so you also don’t loose any of that precious data when you are editing. Though RAW files are bigger, and need editing before sharing, it is worth it if you want high quality images where you control the final edited result.  

12. Most Important Rule Of Photography

You may have heard the most important rule of photography is the rule of thirds, but there a much more critical rule.

Imagine you’re on a hike, as you turn the corner, up-ahead a baby bear cub sits on the path, illuminated by a rainbow. Here’s a once in a lifetime shot, and you don’t have your camera.

So there you have it, the cardinal rule of photography. The best camera, is the one you have with you.  

Mentally, I wasn’t ready for the size of my first DSLR. I missed a lot of great photos because I was too lazy to lug around my camera and lens.

Know yourself. Having good camera gear is a game changer, but if you won’t carry it around, then it’s worth having something you will. Consider putting the money into a good phone camera, or a smaller point-and-shoot.

I hope my lessons learned helps you make the right decisions for yourself.

For more articles on photography, see our photography archives page.

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