If you’re a value shopper thinking about great photos with a DSLR camera at the absolute lowest cost, this report and accompanying video are for you.
July 25, 2012 FLASH- A few major online retailers, such as B&H and Adorama, are selling the D3100 with 18-55VR kit lens for under $500. Adorama sells it for under $500 and has a small allotment of Nikon refurbished D3100’s for under $400. These are absolutely best prices on a great camera. I still recommend selling the kit lens trading up to a more flexible 18-105VR. This camera will capture images that look as good as any consumer DSLR including Nikon’s D7000 or Canon’s 60D. http://www.bhphotovideo.com/bnh/controller/home?Q=&O=&A=details&is=REG&sku=730210
BIGGER SENSORS = BETTER IMAGES
Consumer DSLR cameras (APS-C or crop sensor cameras) capture dramatically better images than even the best Point & Shoot cameras because they have larger image sensors. Much larger, 8-12 times larger. Forget about Megapixels, they don’t necessarily matter. It’s the big sensors with room for larger pixels (not all pixels are the same size) and advanced processing chips inside DSLR cameras that produce brighter, deeper colors with richer gradations, greater detail and an overall superior look.
For a light weight camera with the best image at the lowest price my recommendation is the Nikon D3100. Another strong contender for best bang-for-your-buck is Canon’s T2i (aka 550D) but Nikon’s D3100 delivers the goods at a lower price. DxO Lbs, an independent testing lab, scores the D3100 a bit higher than Canon’s T2i & T3i although I don’t believe the differences are significant enough to drive a buying decision. Images from Canon appear as good as Nikon’s (http://www.dxomark.com/index.php/Cameras/Compare-Camera-Sensors/Compare-cameras-side-by-side/(appareil1)/692%7C0/(brand)/Canon/(appareil2)/664%7C0/(brand2)/Nikon).
The D3100 comes with an 18-55mm VR lens for about $550. It will cost more if you buy a kit with 2 lenses, which I don’t recommend, but more on that later. Are there better more expensive cameras? More expensive, Yes. More buttons, features and complexity, Yes. Better built Cameras, Yes. Better image quality, NO. At least not up to ISO 1600.
The technology in sensors and processors gets better with each new generation of cameras. Like computer processors from Intel and AMD, this year’s chip in an entry level DSLR can usually out perform the best available consumer models of just a few years earlier in terms of image quality. The current batch of sensors and processors from Nikon, Canon and others such as Pentax, Olympus or Sony, offer fantastic image quality.
Stick with Canon or Nikon. The two leading brands are not inherently better than Sony, Pentax or Olympus but most of the people who can help you, people who write most of the books and articles or who give seminars or post YouTube videos about photography are using these two brands. If your interest grows you will find the ease of buying and selling external flashes, lenses and cameras easier due to the larger population of Canon and Nikon users. But the most important reason is the large variety of great lenses offered by these two companies. Lenses make the difference and no one else even comes close.
There are nine current Canon & Nikon entry level to mid-level consumer models to choose from:
Canon: T3 (1100D), T2i (550D). T3i (600D), T4i (650D), 60D
Nikon: D3100, D3200, D5100, D7000
The differences among all of these cameras boils down to three things:
- Price. $500-$1600 plus.
- Size and Weight.
- Features, build, performance and complexity.
Image Quality is not one of the differences. The Image Quality is indistinguishable regardless of what camera you choose. Having said that you may have noticed I mentioned Canon’s T2i as a contender for best bang for your buck but not their lower cost T3. The T3 (not to be confused with their T3i) captures excellent images but this model falls below the D3100 and T2i in a number of areas including build, ergonomics, LCD size, video performance and sensor rating relative to what the D3100 delivers for $50 more.
More expensive higher end cameras typically may be larger & heavier, have more buttons & advanced features the seasoned enthusiast might require, they may have sturdier metal or composite bodies, may be weather sealed, may have more focus points, focus faster, may shoot more shots per second (up to 6-8 instead of 3-4), may have input for external stereo microphones, room for dual SD cards and they might operate in slightly less light (above 1600 ISO) than the lower price “entry level” DSLR’s that are made of lightweight plastic.
But in virtually all conditions more expensive cameras will NOT buy you better images and this is especially true if you are new to DSLR photography.
If you are new to DSLR photography figure on six months to a year of serious study & practice to master your camera. If you are not going to invest the time to learn how the camera works you might be better off to stick with a simpler point & shoot model.
My recommendation of Nikon’s D3100 is because it is a current model that’s small, lightweight, ergonomically easy to use and offers the features you will need to capture great images in any situation. You won’t find a “crop sensor” DSLR camera that captures better images or makes you a better photographer.
Don’t let the “experts” confuse you with test data such as ISO levels, Color Depth and Dynamic Range that suggest better images can be yours by paying more for a higher end more complex model camera. Only money spent on better lenses can improve your results.
So, you may be wondering, what is it you won’t get with the D3100 that you could get by spending $250 to $1,000 more on a higher end model:
- Slightly, and I mean ever so slightly, improved very low light sensitivity with Nikon’s D5100 and D7000. But unless you want to shoot your pictures in the dark without a flash and are up against the f/stop limit of your lens you’ll not be at a loss with the D3100. It does very well in low light.
- Noticeably quicker focusing and metering with the Nikon D7000 and Canon 60D.
- In camera HDR.
- Wireless shutter release.
- Commander mode for multiple remote Nikon flashes.
- External microphone input.
- Fold out high resolution LCD screen.
If you are new to DSLR cameras you won’t know what the eight items above are all about and you really don’t need any of these features. And if you had them they’d just add confustion to your photographic journey. A year or two out you can revisit your need for a “commander mode” and other such features.
LENSES CHOICES MAKE MORE DIFFERENCE THAN CAMERA MODEL
Spending more on a camera won’t improve your images but better lenses will. Nikon’s (and Canon’s) best lenses run between $800-$2500 and for serious sports photography the sky’s the limit. But I’d suggest the following cost effective Nikon upgrades:
- Sell the 18-55 kit lens and pick up a used 18-105VR for about $250 for use as your walk-around lens.
- Skip the 55-200 or 55-300 telephoto kit lenses and pick up a used 70-300VR for about $350.
- Pick up a 35mm f/1.8G or 50mm 1.8 G prime lens for about $200 new.
For more on the lenses mentioned see my upcoming lens review.
Your questions, comments and rebuttals are welcome.
NOTE: On April 19, 2012 Nikon announced the new D3200 to replace the D3100. However, for the time being, the D3100 is still in Nikon’s product line up. Pre-orders for the new D3200 are being taken and the product is expected to begin shipping mid May. The D3200 has a new 24 MP sensor, faster 30-60 fps video, higher resolution LCD, and audio mic input. It will retail for $700 with an 18-55VR lens. The D3100 is currently $550. The D3200 sensor will come from Sony that puts a 24 MP sensor in its $1400 (body only) A77. DXO Labs tests suggest the D3200’s 24MP sensor from Sony is comparable in performance to the sensor in the D5100 although the latter’s 16MP sensor performs better in low light- http://www.dxomark.com/index.php/Cameras/Compare-Camera-Sensors/Compare-cameras-side-by-side/(appareil1)/734%7C0/(brand)/Sony/(appareil2)/698%7C0/(brand2)/Nikon. You may find an increase of used D3100’s in the marketplace at a discount. I would consider a used D3100 “body only” a great buy at around $350. Then I’d hand select non-kit lenses for the best performance.
6-13-2012- Contrast D3100 & D5100 with D3200- Although I have not used the D3200 I have read a number of comments from Amazon users who also have experience with the D3100/D5100. The gist of what I have gleaned from the comments is that the D3200 is an excellent camera with a number of improved features but that the photos are actually sharper with the two older cameras particularly at ISO 800 and above. This is reported to be the case with video as well as images. Of course the D3200 has much higher resolution but using smaller pixels to gain file size has a cost in terms if sharpness and image blur from in camera noise processing.
7-25-2012, Canon T4i-
Assessment of new Canon T4i (650D) value- Overpriced. At $850 for the body and $850 with 18-55 kit lens I’d suggest saving $250-$300 with Canon’s T2i or T3i. Here’s why- The major features of the T4i are a touch screen and continuous focus in movie mode plus more cross-points for focusing. To optimize the video feature requires special lenses, of which there are only two: a new 18-135 that bundled with T4i body drives price up to $1200, and a new 40mm pancake lens that will push it up another few hundred. And then the value added is ONLY apparent in live view taking movies. And to add insult to injury the videos I watched on DigitalRev TV, were not quick to auto-focus in movie mode. http://www.digitalrev.com/article/canon-650d-t4i-hands-on/MjY4NjU1MDQ_A
If you are a Canon fan seeking value you would be better served with one of their two excellent lower cost models, the T2i or T3i.
Tom Irwin, Street Level Reviews.