Getting started with a DSLR on a budget

Posted in equipment, photos at 8:39 pm by wingerz


Several of my friends/readers have been contemplating the jump from a Point & Shoot to a DSLR. A few of them are being held back by the sizable initial cost and the wide array of cameras and lenses. I definitely sat on the decision for many months before finally deciding to take the plunge. I haven’t regretted it at all; then again, it’s only been about four months.

You can get away with purchasing a body, prime lens, and external flash. On the Canon side, the low end is a Rebel XT ($500), the widely recommended 50mm f/1.8 ($70), and a 420EX or 430EX external flash ($250 for a new 430EX, you could get lucky like me and buy a used 420EX from a friend for a big discount). There are similarly-priced components from other manufacturers as well, but I am not familiar with them.

I’ve been quite happy with the Rebel XT body so far. My impression is that spending more on the body will get you better build quality, a higher continuous frames-per-second rate, and more sophisticated light metering and focusing (which are extremely helpful when you don’t have time to set up for a shot). The XT is quite small, which I like. In any case, the body is the most replaceable piece of gear; like all things silicon-based, new versions will be faster, smarter, and more power-efficient.

The 50mm is the lens that I shoot with the most. It doesn’t zoom at all, so you’ll be moving yourself around as you try to frame subjects. It feels quite cheap, is loud, and occasionally has trouble focusing on dark subjects, but the image quality is great. f/1.8 tells you the widest aperture of the lens, which is a measure of how wide the shutter is allowed to open when you take a picture. A wide aperture makes it possible to take pictures in medium/low-light situations and also with a very shallow depth of field.

This lens can guide you towards your first big lens purchase (while giving you time to save up and convince your spouse to let you get a nice L-series). Maybe you find yourself taking a lot of landscapes (suggesting a wide-angle, like 12-24mm). Or you want to take pictures of your kids playing outdoor sports (telephoto zoom, like 70-200mm). Or you like getting close-ups of flowers and insects (macro). Or you just want to get something for everyday use (regular zoom, like 24-105mm). Note that the f/1.8 will spoil you; be prepared for zoom lenses to start around f/2.8 or f/3.5 (which, at their widest, allow in 41% and 26% as much light as the f/1.8, respectively). If you’re addicted to the wide aperture, you’ll probably have to go with another prime.

The external flash is an absolute necessity; the built-in flash is small and cannot be pointed in another direction. The Canon 220EX flash can’t be redirected either, and this is bad because bouncing light off a ceiling or wall results in much more natural-looking lighting and opens a lot of doors for creativity. If you end up upgrading the flash down the road (say, to a 580EX) you can use your 420 or 430 as a slave unit, which will fire at the same time as the main flash.

Of course, it’s still quite a big investment and future purchases will probably be larger than this initial investment, so don’t try to fool yourself into thinking that it is going to be a cheap hobby. In the interest of full disclosure, you’ll want to purchase a big CompactFlash card, rechargeable batteries for the flash, and photo-processing software. But at least you’ll be able to get a good sense of how much you enjoy taking pictures with a decent setup. Even better, you can get started immediately instead of spending the next few months agonizing over what lens you want to get.


  1. Cy Chan said,

    April 4, 2007 at 9:30 pm

    Great write-up, Wing! Definitely made me think about getting a DSLR.

  2. wingerz said,

    April 4, 2007 at 10:10 pm

    If I convince you to get a DSLR, I think Jess will disown me. She doesn’t seem to like being photographed.

  3. Brian Auer said,

    April 13, 2007 at 11:04 pm

    Good point on the flash. They’re spendy, but once you get one you’ll never use the in-camera flash again — if it even has one. You get so frustrated trying to get good lighting with the built-in flash since you can’t bounce it, diffuse it, or remove it and light off-camera via wireless or cable. My flash was the best buy I made after purchasing my first lens. I ended up getting the middle of the three flashes offered for my camera — I kind of wish I would have bought the best one.

  4. Paul O' Connor said,

    May 4, 2007 at 6:32 pm

    Great article and plenty of food for thought for anyone thinking of going DSLR. Not sure if that’s the best lens to go with initially, maybe something like a 18-70mm would be better to start with.

  5. ~wingerz » Learning how to use your DSLR’s manual controls said,

    May 27, 2007 at 10:46 am

    […] So usually when I’m taking a photo I’ll set the ISO to something appropriate, Figure out my minimum shutter speed based on the focal length, figure out what aperture would be appropriate for that shutter speed (by consulting the Rule of 16 if I’m outdoors), and go from there. Having a lot of light available outside gives you a lot of flexibility; once you get indoors everything is much, much dimmer. A decent flash is pretty much a necessity. If you can’t use a flash (maybe because you don’t want to kill the ambient lighting) you may find yourself pining for new equipment and features, like lenses with extremely wide apertures, image stabilization, and camera support (monopods and tripods). You also begin to really appreciate bright, natural light. […]

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