No, You Don't Need A DSLR Camera For Christmas

No, You Don't Need A DSLR Camera For Christmas

Ok, the average reader probably could use a new DSLR (digital single lens reflex camera) for Christmas, but I'm not writing this for them. I'm writing this for the average husband, wife, high school, or college student who wants a DSLR for Christmas to "take better pictures." You people do not need a giant digital camera for Christmas. 

I understand where you are coming from, I really do. Maybe you like gadgets, maybe you want to take better pictures of your children or a vacation. Maybe you like the idea of becoming a professional photographer and you think the first step is to buy an expensive (or bigger) camera. The bottom line is that you want to take better pictures right? Let's start there. 

DSLRs Are Not Convenient To Use

Most people outside of the photography world assume that larger cameras take better pictures and although there may be a sliver of truth to that, it's the wrong way to think. The truth is that owning a larger DSLR camera seems like a good idea until you stop using it altogether, because it's too inconvenient to travel with. I'm a professional photographer. I own 5 DSLRs. I do not ever casually walk around with my professional cameras. I pull them out for paying jobs, and I pull them out for individual images that I have already scouted, otherwise I use my cellphone camera. If you don't already carry a dedicated camera with you today, you certainly won't casually carry around a DSLR. 


You Are Paying For Features You Won't Use

DSLRs are powerful cameras because they have manual options that other cheaper cameras don't. If you aren't already using every manual feature of your current camera (even if that is a cell phone), what makes you think that you will become interested in manually controlling a much more complicated DSLR? 

Are you interested in manually choosing your White Balance with a Kelvin setting? Are you itching to choose your cameras ISO based on your current lighting conditions? Does slowing down and choosing your shutter speed and aperture before every image you take excite you? Do you know how to use Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop so that you can process the raw images that your new DSLR can produce? 

If you aren't actually interested in learning to use a DSLR in full manual, you probably don't need this type of camera. 

Your Pictures Will Not Magically Get Better When You Buy A DSLR

​Yes, a DSLR is capable of taking a great picture. Your laptop is also capable of writing a great book. Until computers are able to automatically churn out the next literary masterpiece, your camera will still require a photographer to work. If you are consistently underwhelmed with your photography, it's not your cameras fault. 

Most cameras these days, even cell phone cameras, are capable of taking amazing pictures. Don't believe me? Check out the iPhone Bikini Shoot. In this video I take professional looking images with my iPhone 6s. 

90% of the time, lighting alone makes or breaks a photograph. Why don't your landscapes look good? You were there at the wrong time of day. Why don't your portraits look good? Because you were placing your subject in unflattering light. If you spent time learning about lighting, exposure, composition, and post processing, your photography will become exponentially better, no matter what camera you own. 

What You Actually Want Costs More Than You Think

Entry level DSLRs are extremely affordable these days. For just $400 you can get a Canon Digital Rebel T5 with an 18-55mm lens. That's unbelievably cheap, and if someone has an interest in learning about photography, it's a fantastic camera to buy. But will you stop there?

Most people think they want a DSLR because they have interchangeable lenses. Having options is great but most people won't ever buy extra lenses, or if they do, they will rarely use them. You will also quickly learn that the price of camera lenses can get out of hand faster than then cameras themselves. 

The Nikon 55-200mm f/4-5.6 lens is only $160. That's a pretty amazing price of a telephoto lens. The "professional" version of this lens, the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 costs $2100. What are you getting for an extra $1940? Better build quality, better image quality, vibration reduction, and a constant aperture of "2.8" which will give you the "professional looking" shallow depth of field (when your subject is sharp and background is blurry). The professional lens actually has less zoom. 

"Professional looking" images are actually created by the lens more than the camera. Have you actually considered which lenses you want/need? 

So Then What Camera Should I Get For Christmas?

To decide which camera is right for you, you need to be completely honest with yourself. Are you actually interested in learning about photography, or do you simply want a camera that can take a better snapshot than your cellphone? 

Entry Level Point And Shoots
Looking for something that's cheap, easy to carry, but still has more zooming options than your cellphone? The Canon ELPH 170 is only $139 and it has an 12x zoom which is more than you will get with most DSLR lens options. For $349 you can get a significantly better sensor and lens (with less zoom) and WiFi with the Canon S120. This S120 is my top suggestion for casual shooters. 

Zoom and Portability 
Do you want more zoom? The Canon SX710 and the Sony DSC-HX50v have a 30x zoom which is equivalent to 35-750mm. This is insane, I've personally never taken a shot over 300mm before, and I take pictures for a living. But just in case this is what you are looking for, it is an option. 

Pocketable DSLR Power
Maybe you do have an interest is the manual side of photography but you know that you don't want to carry around a DSLR with extra lenses. Mid-high level point and shoots are a great option. The Sony RX100 series is currently the leader in this market and Sony has 4 versions of this camera available.

Sony RX100
The original Sony RX100 came out in 2012 and instantly became the years most popular point and shoot camera. Normally a camera this old would be discontinued but it was such a good camera then that they have continued to sell it. It's currently $449.

Sony RX100 II
The second version of this camera is very similar to the first but it has an upgraded sensor, a tilting screen, and added WiFi to send photos to your cell phone. It currently costs $549. This version is probably the best value. 

Sony RX100 III
The third version has a better lens, better sensor, and significantly better video features. It currently costs $800.

Sony RX100 IV
The latest version of this camera has once again improved image quality and video quality. This camera can now shoot in slow motion and in 4k. It currently costs $950.

It may seem a bit strange that you can buy a new DSLR for significantly less than a 3 year old point and shoot camera but keep in mind that these Sony cameras give you all of the same manual controls that a DSLR will, plus amazing portability. These cameras will give you a significant boost in image quality over your cell phone or older point and shoot and they have enough features for you to learn more about photography if you take an interest in it. 

Larger Point and Shoot Cameras
There are larger "point and shoot cameras" that you may also want to consider. The Panasonic DMC-LX100 has a larger sensor compared to the Sony RX100 series and has more room for manual buttons and knobs that are on DSLRs. 

Smaller Interchangeable Lens Cameras

If you want interchangeable lenses like a DSLR in a slightly smaller package, you will want to check out "mirrorless" cameras. Mirrorless cameras can have equivalent or even better sensors than DSLRs, but cameras can be smaller because they lack the mirror and prism found in DSLRs. 

You may want to check out the Sony Alpha 6000, the Samsung NX500, the Fuji X-E2, or the Olympus E-P5. The problem with each of these cameras is that they each cost more than an entry level Canon or Nikon DSLR, and you aren't necessarily getting better image quality. You're paying for a slightly smaller, more convenient camera. 

When It's Time To Buy A DSLR

​You don't have to be a professional photographer to appreciate a DSLR, but if you aren't willing to learn to use them properly, your photography will never improve. 

You should buy a DSLR when you have reached the top of your current camera's potential. You should buy a DSLR because you have an interest in taking pictures your current camera cannot (long exposures, shallow depth of field, extreme low light). It's time to get a DSLR when you are ready to move your camera out of "auto" and into full manual so that you are thinking through every image you take. Until you are ready to do each of these things, a smaller point and shoot camera would be a far better choice. 

If you are ready to take your photography to the next level and you've decided a DSLR is right for you, I want to welcome you to this exciting world. I would highly suggest that you stick with Canon or Nikon DSLRs. They are currently the industry standard for DSLRs and their cameras are the easiest to find accessories for. Nikon in particular has never changed their mount so any old Nikon lens will mount to any current Nikon DSLR. 

Entry DSLRs
Canon T5  kit $399
Nikon D3300 kit  $446

Mid Level DSLRS
Canon 70D body only $899
Nikon D7100 body only $799

The first lens you should buy
The first lens that every DSLR owner should buy is the 50mm 1.8 lens. It's a "fixed" or "prime" lens, meaning that it doesn't zoom but that is ok. You can learn to "zoom with your feet" (walking towards or away from your subject). This lens has an extremely wide aperture and you will be able to take professional looking shallow depth of field images. It's also one of the cheapest lenses you can buy at just $110. 


Hopefully this article has helped you figure out which camera is right for you this Christmas. No matter which camera you decide to buy, I would challenge you to learn about your camera and learn about photography in general. Your vision and your knowledge, will take your work to the next level. Your camera, like a paint brush, is only a tool. Learn to paint first and upgrade your gear when you can fully appreciate it. 


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Ariel Martini's picture

when people ask i always recommend getting a cheap mirrorless (samsung NX, sony nex, etc). anything else is iphone quality or more expensive.

I can't help but share this again. One of the guys that writes for my website used the expression "better megapixels" to describe the difference between his phone and aging digital camera.

Everyone knows that the more megapixels, the better the photo, right? ;)

Spy Black's picture

Nah, m' megapixelz be betta...

Rob Mynard's picture

I always thought the real difference was in those mega pickles... tasty tasty mega pickles...

Tim Foster's picture

If you don't insist on zoom lenses you don't have to pay $2100 for F2.8. DSLRs and high-end mirrorless cameras really aren't that complicated, either.

Brian Stricker's picture

I was asked this very question today by a friend of my wife....."should I get the T5 kit with 2 lenses to shoot my kids sports and do video?".

Spy Black's picture

My friend asked me the same thing. I steered him towards a Pana GM5 or Nikon D5200 (the T5 is nasty). I was suggesting the GM5 more, but he decided on the D5200.

So asking for a Leica for Christmas should be out of the question? (Just kidding)

Spy Black's picture

I just recommended between a Panasonic GM5 and a D5200 to a friend, leaning towards the GM5, but he always wanted a Nikon, so he's getting a D5200.

Nick Viton's picture

The D5500 is available now.

Spy Black's picture

He had a price limit of $500, the D5200 squeaked right in.

Robin Lendrum's picture

50mm effective focal length?? On a APC-S sensor camera that would be a 35mm lens (approximately).

Justin Haugen's picture

I'm constantly referring new shooters to the Sony RX cameras or mirrorless cameras. So many people in over their heads with cameras they'll barely use.

You see them on Craigslist ever day. Low mileage bodies and lenses representing failed photography hobbies.

Spy Black's picture

I thought the RX was great until I bought an RX100 III. Overall it's a very cool camera, and it fits in a pocket, but autofocus on it is total crap. Start-up time is agonizingly long too. I recently got a Nikon 1 J4 with an underwater housing for $350 for scuba diving, and although the sensor is weak compared to the Sony, it dusts the Sony in AF and is almost instant on. I can whip the J4 out, grab a shot, and turn it off in the time it takes the RX to turn on and be ready to shoot! After reviewing a Panny GM5 for a friend, I think I may consider dumping the RX and getting one of those. Not truly pocket-able (neither is the J4), but nearly as small (virtually identical to the J4), so I'll have to deal with not having a truly pocket-able camera, but one with great IQ that works, and works when I need it.

I need to play with more NIKON point and shoots. I always assumed they were still behind canon and Sony.

Spy Black's picture

Not sure the Nikon 1 series purely a "point & shoot", although they can indeed be used just that way by someone who isn't photographically savvy. Up until the J5, the sensor was a rather weak point, the forthcoming V4 will hopefully be a "complete" camera. Nikon has taken a rather deliberate "crippleware" design approach to the Nikon 1 system, apparently out of fear it will eat into their DSLR sales.

Despite that, they have some unique traits, like the ability to shoot at 20 fps while continuously focusing, or 60 fps focusing on the first frame only (albeit the buffer in my J4 fills up at 20 frames, not sure about the V series). They also have the FT1 adapter that allows standard Nikkors to be mounted, with AF. Standard optics have a 2.7x crop factor on the 1-inch Nikon 1 series, which has made them very popular with wildlife guys. Below is an uncropped image taken with my old 300mm f/4.5 Ai Nikkor on my J4, which is an 810mm equivalent on full frame body.

Justin Haugen's picture

I guess I never looked to my camera for snappy AF and instant on performance. I use it mainly for travel photography and keep it with me all the time should any cool photographic opportunities arise. My expectations were pretty tapered. But I find it great for all my static photography needs. I have the RX100 mk2.

Adam Ottke's picture

Yes, you do! ;-)


You bring up some valid points, but I'm rationalizing this as if this is my last camera.

My wife bought me a DSLR for Christmas 2013 because she wanted me to quit shooting film; in 2012, I shot 63 rolls of B&W film. Well, I haven't quit shooting film, but I've slowed down my use of film.

1) DSLRs Are Not Convenient To Use
Agree: they are not convenient to use. They are heavier, have more controls, and have a back LCD screen that is difficult to read in direct sunlight to change settings. My Canon EF 24-105 f4L lens doesn't have settable aperture clicks like my Canon FD lenses. My Canon 5D Mk III has more controls than my Canon A-1 and F-1N combined! Both my A-1 and F-1N have manual shutter speed controls; on the 5D, I have to use a menu.

2) You Are Paying For Features You Won't Use
Agree: I haven't mastered all the controls on my 5D Mk III. I generally set my 5D up as if I were shooting film by specifying the white balance to daylight; I'll adjust the exposure compensation also. I also turned off auto review on my 5D; sure, it was a fun feature when I first got the camera. But I haven't used it since. I will only use Auto White Balance when under fluorescent light (when I remember).

3) Your Pictures Will Not Magically Get Better When You Buy A DSLR
Agree: No they won't.

4) So Then What Camera Should I Get For Christmas?
No, I don't want a Point and Shoot; my wife has a few and I don't like them since they don't work like an SLR. When I want to take a picture, I want it taken then, not sometime later after it hunted and found the focus. I'm comfortable with manual focus since that's all I've used for 35 years. If it autofocuses, I want it then, not later. That's why I don't consider my smartphone a camera. Regarding MILC, I think in 2013, they weren't full-frame. I've used a full-frame 35mm camera for 35 years and continue to use that Canon A-1. Okay, call me prejudiced towards full-frame capture.

Okay, Christmas 2011, Paula wanted to buy me a DSLR. When she said her budget was a Canon T3i, I talked her out of it. My rational for doing that was because the T3i "would be my last DSLR". As a consolation, she bought me a used FD 28mm f2.8 lens. In 1979-1980, I researched film SLR cameras; the Canon A-1 was "state of the art" with aperture-priority, shutter-priority, and program. I thought the A-1 would be my last SLR camera, but I was wrong. Even though the A-1 continues to work, in 2013, I saw a great deal on KEH for an F-1N and a few accessories for $400. I mentioned it to my wife and she asked "That's their flagship camera?" I answered "Yes, for the 80's" and she said "Buy it."

I researched Canon DSLR models and I wanted full-frame; I wanted 28mm to be 28mm and not 45mm. Sure, being able to cheat on the telephoto side was a bonus, but I would be cheated on the wide angle side. I wanted 6 frames per second like my A-1 and F-1N with their respective motor drives.

December 2013, she was surfing Amazon and asked "What do you think this?" Me: "Seriously? You're going to buy me a 5D?" "Yes." "Great, but let me check B&H." I found a similar package, minus the cheapy tripod, for $500 less. My wife, I think I'll keep her.

We went to a practice round of 2015 The Masters Golf Tournament (cameras are allowed for practice). I rented the new Canon EOS 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 Mk II lens for the 5D. I also brought my F-1N with the 28mm f2.8 loaded with Fuji Velvia slide film; I didn't want to be swapping lenses. I used a shoulder harness to carry the 5D on the left and the F-1N on the right. I also removed the AE Motor Drive FN from the F-1N and the battery grip from the 5D to save weight.

I don't know if the 5D will be my "last DSLR"; only time will tell. I hope it last as long as my A-1.

Spy Black's picture

"...and have a back LCD screen that is difficult to read in direct sunlight to change settings."

Considering you've been shooting film all this time, I'm surprised you're looking at that screen. All the info you need is in the viewfinder. ;-)

"My Canon EF 24-105 f4L lens doesn't have settable aperture clicks like my Canon FD lenses."

Advantage: Nikon. I can still use all my legacy lenses (with aperture rings) on my digital bodies.

"My Canon 5D Mk III has more controls than my Canon A-1 and F-1N combined!"

There's always the RTFM approach. :-)

"Both my A-1 and F-1N have manual shutter speed controls; on the 5D, I have to use a menu."

The viewfinder is your friend. Or you can buy a Nikon Df. ;-)

"Your Pictures Will Not Magically Get Better When You Buy A DSLR. Agree: No they won't."

You haven't chanted SHAZAM!!! after you take a picture. :-)

"I don't like them since they don't work like an SLR. When I want to take a picture, I want it taken then, not sometime later after it hunted and found the focus. I'm comfortable with manual focus since that's all I've used for 35 years."

You REALLY need a Nikon Df. :-)

Fritz Asuro's picture

Now I understand why Nikon made the Df!

Spy Black's picture

Exactly! It was made for geezers like us.

There's a song in there somewhere...

Tim Foster's picture

28mm is always 28mm, no matter what camera it's on. You do not need a menu to change shutter speed on your 5D; there's two dials that you can assign to shutter speed and aperture as you prefer.

Elias Hardt's picture

You're used to film but now you're shooting digital. This is like the difference between a stick shift and an automatic. You're going to HATE it right now, but eventually you'll realize that there's just certain things film just can't do. To help you out:
- use your viewfinder. Settings/focus are available there, plus you're using a traditional DSLR, not mirrorless, so there's no delay there.
- Check your dials. You're describing having to go into menus a lot. 90% of the settings you need are either tied to a dial or a button.
- Read the manual. Just once. It'll help. I promise.

Fritz Asuro's picture

Totally agree on this. I don't know who said that DSLR will provide a user with a magical jaw dropping image.

Michael Kormos's picture

Another good example. Someone interested in bird or wildlife, or sports photography, even as a hobby, would run into a dead end fairly quickly with their iPhone or POS. And lens variety for mirrorless is still fairly limited, not to mention the unreliable focus that long telephotos on mirrorless continue to suffer from. One needs to really examine the wide genres in photography, which, I'm sorry to say Lee, you did not do, to fully understand what camera system is best suited for it.

Obviously this was geared towards the average casual shooter. Casual sports could be shot with a super zoom point and shoot. Wildlife also. If you are serious about either of those things you're not going to spend $500 on photo gear. You'll spend more than $500 on the bag to carry your gear.

Elias Hardt's picture

What bag are you buying!? Even Pelicans (usually) aren't that much.

Being "the photographer" in my family/circle of friends, I've already been asked like 12 times what camera to buy, "that looks professional" (sic). Only once I've recommended a DSLR until now. I know too many Rebels or Nikon equivalents collecting dust.

Rob Mynard's picture

Good advice but I probably wouldn't recommend the Samsung if they're not going to be around much longer :-)
I work in a major Australian camera shop and we're constantly talking people down from the DSLR ledge towards the Olympus, Fuji and Lumix or even the RX100 series... and before you ask, no no-one in our store works on commission so we can tend to give more honest advice instead of go for the cash grab and hopefully foster a bit of customer loyalty :-P

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