Camera buying guide 2008

I get asked “what camera should I get?” all the time. And it’s worse around the holidays. First the answer in a nutshell. If you’re rich and want the best, but don’t want to fiddle doing years of research, and trial and error, get a Nikon D700. If you’re on a serious budget but still want a serious camera, get a Nikon D40. If you’re really on a shoestring budget, get a Canon A590. Before we delve into some details, three points to keep in mind:

  1. Pentax, Olympus, Panasonic/Leica, and even Sony make some interesting, and sometimes very good, products. But Canon and Nikon stuff has fewer weird quirks and ugly surprises, and more options for expansion.
  2. Megapixels don’t matter anymore. The difference between 6 and 12 is actually sort of small, and for the kind of prints you’ll be making any camera you can buy today has enough resolution. The exception is for artists*.
  3. Three things you need to pay attention to if you’re a novice using your new camera: ISO, Flash (just leave it OFF most of the time), and exposure compensation.

Pocket cameras

Canon SD880 IS

The current shining star of small, inexpensive cameras is the Canon SD880 IS, currently selling for around $250 (it’s brand new — the price will come down over the next few months). All the Canon compacts are great, but this one, an update of my beloved SD870, has a wide-angle lens and a big display. If you want even cheaper, Canon makes a zillion ever-shifting models in the SD and A series, of which the current cheapest is the aforementioned A590, which currently sells for around $115. The picture quality is the same; the difference is that the A series is bigger, doesn’t come with rechargeable batteries, and is missing some of the extra bells and whistles. (This strikes me as a great camera for kids.) For some reason, Nikon compact cameras haven’t been worth very much for the last few years.

Cheap SLRs

Nikon D40

The larger sensor on SLRs allows them to take pictures that are much much better then any compact, especially in low light. They also don’t have any shutter lag, and are more fun to use. If you enjoy taking pictures, you probably want one of these. Good news is that the Nikon D40 has been around for awhile, and you can find them for just over $400 sometimes, which is sort of amazing considering SLRs average around a thousand bucks. The downside is that there’ll probably be a new version of this camera soon with a bunch of spiffy new features, and more megapixels. On the other hand, it’ll cost hundreds of dollars more, and trust me, those features are silly. Canon has a line of inexpensive SLRs, too, and they’re worth looking at. For most people, though, the Nikon will be easier to use. (The one big issue with Nikon SLRs is lens compatibility. If you think you might want to start collecting and switching lenses, the D40 will cause you grief.)

The Camera-for-Life

Canon d5 Mark II

Just in the last six months, two interesting cameras have come out that are interesting because they arguably have “everything you’ll ever need” in a digital camera: the Nikon D700 and the Canon 5D Mark II. These cameras have three things that make them exceptional: (1) full frame sensors, meaning that old lenses are compatible, and work the same way they did on film cameras, (2) Big and high-resolution displays, and (3) lots of megapixels. They’re made out of solid metal, take fantastic photos in very low light, and are a pleasure to use and hold. They’re also big, heavy, and very expensive. Do what you will, but I’m saving up for the new 5D (it’s actually not even out yet).


The bad news is that every single model that exists has something kind of important going against it. The good news is that digital cameras have been around long enough that they’ve been refined to the point where they’re all pretty great. Let your instincts guide you, and you’re probably not going to make a bad choice. (One funny thing about the three pictures above: not to scale! The first camera is actually smaller then it looks in the photo, the middle one is about right, and the 5Dii is much much bigger. Seriously, if someone tries to take it, you can use it to clock them upside the head.)

One last note, about movie modes: the compact cameras all have a movie mode, and most SLRs do not. The two exceptions are the Canon 5D Mark II, and the not-yet-mentioned Nikon D90.

Update: Ken Rockwell’s rave review of the Canon SD880.

* If you’re most people, you’ll be looking at your pictures on the screen and ordering 5×7” or 8×10” prints, for which 6 to 12 megapixels is great. You can actually order nice 13×19” prints from these cameras, too — I’ve used to make 11×14” prints from 3 megapixel images, and they looked fine. Of course if you’re an artist, you want to be able to print big, and in this case a digital camera is not going to be much more then a toy for you. You need a medium or large format film camera.

10 thoughts on “Camera buying guide 2008

  1. The Canon 350D/400D line has certain advantages/disadvantages with respect to the D40/D40x, for example automatic dust reduction.

    Also, in the case of the 350D/400D you’re guaranteed those lenses can be used with the 5DMII, for example, or the 1DS models, if you can upgrade (and splurge) like that.

    Regarding the ease of use Nikon vs. Canon, ymmv. I feel very comfortable with my 400D. (I’ve used a Nikon D50 before and own an FM2 (fully mechanical film, this one)).

    BTW, if anyone does buy a 400D or 450D, the Canon 50mm f1.8 is the most amazing lens bargain in the photography world. The price has gone up a bit but you can get it now on Amazon for $85. At that price using it in risky conditions or messing around with it is not a big deal.

  2. The biggest disadvantage on the Canon SLRs is the lack of auto-ISO and auto-contrast (the very latest ones may have fixed this).

    The biggest disadvantage of the Nikons is the arcane lens-compatibility checklist. Although actually, not all my lenses will work on the 5Dii — my beloved 10-22mm is an EF-S, and won’t physically mount on the EF camera!

    I prefer the pictures I get from my rebel, but it’s just not as nicely made as the Nikon, lacks some of the features a beginner would want. My mileage is that automatic dust reduction is sort of pointless.

    Agree completely re the 50mm f1.8. That’s an awesome bugger of a lens, and will be even more rockin on the 5Dii.

  3. Thanks for posting this Alesh, I actually was quite curious as to how to approach this kind of decision.

    I’m wanting to take the splurge but I guess I’m just wondering how practical you guys find it to lug around a big SLR to events.

    I think a camera hanging from my neck might prevent me from properly enjoying a concert or a gallery walk (especially in Wynwood).

    How do you guys deal with it?

  4. So how do I know if I’m getting ripped off when buying one of these puppies? I just googled the Nikon D700 body and got a WIDE price range, what’s up with that?

  5. Carlos~

    You sling it over your shoulder like a ladies purse. The D40 or something similar should be no problem, the D700 you’ll probably notice after awhile. Something like the D3, forget about it.

    The safest thing to do is to head to a camera shop (or best buy) and get a little hands-on with these things. Better yet, rent one for a weekend.


    Pricegrabber. They have merchant ratings, so you can sniff out places that treat their customers like crap. Another thing that might have made a difference was whether the camera came with a lens or was “body only.” When in doubt, buy from Adorama, B&H, or Amazon.

  6. > I’m just wondering how practical you guys
    > find it to lug around a big SLR to events

    For that reason I have both a Canon 400D (the XT) and a G9. I take the G9 when the DSLR is just too much, too obtrusive. The G9 is a delightful small, fixed zoom lens point&shoot that has manual controls. It’s ain’t perfect but it’s definitely the best point&shoot I’ve ever handled.

    > So how do I know if I’m getting ripped off is another alternative. While I’m not recommending you use Amazon to buy everything or even all things DSLR, Amazon does tend to have aggressive pricing in general and is a quick easy way to check on good pricing. They won’t always have the lowest price, though.

  7. I love my Nikon D40!
    Though it lacks some features and the lens compatibility thing is a bit of a pain, it’s a great camera and it’s super light weight!

    Check my site for examples of pics taken with said camera!

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