Monday, December 7, 2009

Which DSLR Camera Should I Buy?

(More prime essays and projects are available at

Digital cameras (like computers, other electronics, and cars) are one of the worst financial investments you can make. Ken Rockwell even calls them disposable cameras. However, they're also really fun to use and if you're reading this, you probably want to buy a camera (and not be talked out of buying one). This post will attempt to explain which digital SLR I think you should buy (based on my personal experience and research). The advice might also be relevant if you just want to buy a point-and-shoot camera.

First off, if you're a pro, or really rich, then go ahead and buy the most expensive camera; however, if you're like me & the majority of amateur goobers out there, you'll just be wasting your money. I'm only familiar with Nikon and Canon (which most people seem to agree are equally good), but I'm not really interested in talking about brands. Instead, I'm interested in the fractional resale value of the camera body, F, which I'll define as the ratio of the average used price on Adorama to the CPI inflation adjusted original MSRP (for more discussion on fractional resale values, see my cars article) :
Although digital SLR camera bodies are essentially disposable, the lenses maintain their value much better. For that reason, I'm only interested in F for the camera body.

Boring details (please skip this paragraph): Adorama sells used cameras under a variety of conditions. To compensate, I adjusted prices (D = no adjustment, E+ = $10, E = $20, E- = $30, etc.). Some, but not all of the used cameras come with kit lenses. Cameras with image stabilization (vibration reduction) kit lenses I adjusted by $114 (the going rate for a used kit lens on Adorama); cameras with older, non-stabilized lenses I adjusted by $94. For the models that had multiple cameras for sale, I calculated an error bar based on their standard deviation.

I calculated F for entry level (Canon Rebel/Nikon D40,50,70,80 -- cameras with MSRPs between $500 and $1000) and high end (Canon 1d/Nikon D1,D2 -- cameras with MSRPs between $4000 and $8000) cameras and came up with the following plot:
As you can see, it only takes a couple of years for a camera to lose half its value. Moreover, with the exception of the point at 10.5 years (a 2.7 megapixel Nikon D1 that retailed for $5850 (that's about $7600 when adjusted for inflation)), the data appear to fit really nicely to a line, with a x-intercept (when the camera is just about worthless) of about 8 or 9 years. The data at about 9 years are for the Nikon D1-h (2.7 megapixels, MSRP = $4500 ($5500 inflation-adjusted)) and the Nikon D1-x (5.3 megapixels, MSRP = $6130, ($7500 inflation-adjusted)). I'm sure both of those cameras were awesome for their day, but today's entry level cameras outperform them in nearly every aspect.

The graph below shows the most-loathed of camera statistics (the megapixel) for the cameras I looked at above. I'm probably going to lose a lot of credibility for showing it (read about the megapixel myth), but it really is the easiest statistic to monitor.
The above graph shows that entry-level cameras catch up to their high-end counterparts (at least in terms of megapixels) in about 4 or 5 years. The graph doesn't show the major advances that are made yearly in battery technology, digital memory, camera firmware, or any of a dozen other things that are hard to quantify or don't make dramatic improvements; however, hopefully it helps to quantify that newer cameras (in addition to being cheaper) are often better.

So Which Camera Should I Buy?
My recommendation is that you look at the cheapest entry level camera and buy the newest model (currently the Canon Rebel XS and the Nikon D3000). Whatever you buy is going to be worth just about nothing in 8 or 9 years, so why not minimize your loss? Entry-level dSLRs take really good pictures (well beyond my ability as a photographer). You can't go wrong with either of those cameras.

Copyright © 2009 Peter Dolph


Marina said...

Or... a Pentax DSLR. I have nothing but good things to say about mine, including the fact that you can use older lenses from the non-digital Pentax cameras of old. I don't know if others can make this claim. :o)

Gandolph said...

Canon certainly can't!

James said...

FYI, Ken Rockwell is NOT recommending the D3000; he says it's inferior to the previous generation Nikon low-end, the D40:

jtab said...

I think leaving out the lenses in the argument is difficult to justify because having good lenses available for a camera body makes it more valuable. Entry level DSLR's have smaller sensors that require a special line of lenses to be optimized. If the marked moves one way or another with sensor size, all of a sudden your lenses may become obsolete and with it much of the economics of buying entry level camera bodies.

Gandolph said...

@James, thanks!
@jtab, that's a great point that I hadn't considered. As I understand it, small-frame lenses can't be used on full-frame cameras, but full-frame lenses can be used on small-frame cameras (but their focal length will grow). It seems inevitable that small-frame sensors will become antiquated. I suppose as long as you invest in full-frame lenses, you'll take less of a hit.

...if canon switches lens compatibility on me again, I'll move to nikon (although I've heard good things about Pentax)!

Max said...

Interesting...this is something I wrote to Ken Rockwell about...


Always appreciate your insight and article. I was reading once again "Digita Rot" after receiving my M9 last week. After spending $7K and truly enjoying it (although I enjoy more my MP, M3 and M7 loaded with Velvia, TriX and TMax), I can't help but think...why are these camera considered rot after 1-2 years? From a monetary standpoint, I would certainly agree, since the next model will certainly turn the previous one to mush. BUT, in the end, it is all of us who turn these cameras into "rot". The camera doesn't change, we do. Will an M9 or a lowly Canon S90 of today take a different picture in two years? Should it be less appreciated because something new and "supposedly" better came along? It's US and our state of mind that these camera manufacturers play with to keep us spending for a new model.
I compare Nikon and Canon especially to pharmaceutical companies. As we all know, there is no money in CURES but there are billions to be made with "managing" diseases, to keep us coming for the drugs we need. Digital cameras are drugs that each year get that small improvement that we THINK we need to manage our disease called "consumerism" and feed our constantly confused state to accept that more and different has to be better. More megapixels, more memory, more complicated menus. At the same time, the pinnacle was always there and was achieved 50 years ago with the best film cameras. But there is no money for manufacturers in that and with Digital, they take our money every 18 months playing with our incorrect assumption that there is a better product.

So, the next M digital will have 25 megapixels and a crystal screen, improved menus and a faster firmware. Does it mean the pictures of the current M9 are instantly turned into shit? No. We simply are suckered into the wrong notion that the newer product is actually better and will help us take better pictures. It's funny that a 1959 M3 with a 50mm Summicron loaded with TMax 100 can take a kick ass picture that will run circles around any of today's digitals. or a kid can take an incredible picture with an iPhone with some thought into composition and lighting. Are we trying to re-invent the wheel here? I have also been playing and collecting guitars for 20 years. I still have a 1953 Fender Telecaster and as of this day, there is NOTHING out there that sounds like it. Surely there have been thousands of models and supposed improvement on a classic guitar but in the end, you can't re-invent the wheel and if WE could only understand that, none of these manufacturers of digital cameras, or guitars, would survive another year.

Everything we need to take a great picture is here today and was already here 50 years ago. The rest is all BS."

Anonymous said...

@Marina, actually, with Nikon you can use any lens from the last 50 years on a newer body, the only exception to this are the new "cheaper" bodies that come with a kit lens/vr, but you likely wouldn't need old primes or zooms with that new technology in your hands.

Anonymous said...

'A comparison always goes with a limp'

Craig said...

@Gandolph: "Canon certainly can't!"

This is incorrect. I'm sure you're thinking of the change from the FD to EF mount in the 1980s, but that had nothing to do (obviously) with film vs. digital, which is what Marina was talking about. You most certainly can use EF lenses originally designed for film cameras with any of Canon's DSLRs. What you can't use are the old pre-EOS lenses from the manual-focus era.

It's kind of amusing seeing Canon get slammed for this immediately following a claim that Pentax lets you use old lenses, because Pentax introduced the K mount, which was incompatible with their old system, in the 1970s, just ten years or so before Canon dropped the FD mount. Minolta also changed to a new, incompatible mount for their auto-focus cameras. Nikon has had the same basic mount since 1959, but the simple statement (above) that "with Nikon you can use any lens from the last 50 years on a newer body" is wrong -- see Ken Rockwell's Nikon lens compatibility page to see just how annoyingly complicated Nikon's compatibility really is.

Anonymous said...

There is a lot of life left in small format DSLR sensors! The market for them stems from the fact that they are much BIGGER than compact camera sensors ;-)


Craig said...

@Gandolph: "As I understand it, small-frame lenses can't be used on full-frame cameras, but full-frame lenses can be used on small-frame cameras (but their focal length will grow)."

Not quite. You can use full-frame lenses on crop-frame cameras; whether you can use crop-frame lenses on full-frame cameras varies. Nikon allows you to do this, but obviously you don't get a full-frame image in most cases; at least some Nikon cameras have a DX mode that automatically crops the image down for you (basically turning your 12 MP D700 into an 8 MP crop-frame camera). Canon's EF-S crop-frame lenses take advantage of the smaller reflex mirror of crop-frame cameras to implement a shorter back focus than standard EF lenses. This has advantages for lens design but also makes EF-S lenses incompatible with full-frame cameras.

The statement that "focal length grows" is misleading at best. The focal length of a lens does not change by putting it on a crop-frame camera. The only thing that changes is that the camera uses a smaller portion of the image circle. The field of view can therefore be said to be equivalent to that of a longer lens on a full-frame camera, but the focal length itself does not change.

Craig said...

As to the point of this article, I disagree that "you can't go wrong" with cheap entry-level cameras. There are so many things that such cameras cannot do, or cannot do well. Most obviously, if you want a DSLR with video capability, a Rebel XS or Nikon D40 is completely useless. If you want to do high-quality wide-angle landscape work, you really don't want a crop-frame sensor. If you want the best low-light camera with the lowest high-ISO noise levels, you don't want a low-end camera. If you want fast burst mode shooting, you won't get it from a cheap camera. If you want to use certain lenses that are at their best on full-frame, again, you don't want a crop-frame camera.

The best advice, I think, is to understand your own needs, research the available cameras with those needs in mind, and buy the cheapest camera that will do a good job at the things you want to do.

Jao said...

You would expect the value vs time data to follow a sigmoidal curve or exponential decay instead of linear as the value for an older camera should not become negative at any time. Indeed both a sigmoid and an exponential will fit this data pretty well. There is also another approach that I think people might consider if they want to keep up technically, which is buying medium or higher-end cameras and selling them before about 2 years (i.e. the value halflife) and buying a new one. This would allow one to optimize for financial loss. On the other hand, for the preponderance of folks, who don't need megapixels, 51 focus sensors, extreme low-light ISO, lens compatibility, etc., the lowest-end camera is just fine. Even the lowest end camera from a few years ago, will do just fine.

Kevin said...

Craig's comment above is a very good one. We tend to focus so much on what a camera is capable of in a technical sense, overlooking what we're capable of ourselves.

It's why I chose a D40 over a D90. I want to become a better photographer, not just an owner of a better camera. By the time I've done the work needed to become a better, more knowledgeable photographer and can really make the most of a high-end DSLR, I'd have used up most of the D90's value on work that didn't take full advantage of what the camera's capable of, and which relied too much on the camera's tech as a crutch.

A high-end camera will get nice-looking results, but how many people are really good enough to be the defining reason for their photographic success? And once you are, your equipment choice becomes secondary--Max, above, takes great photos with Leicas; I've seen work of equal quality done with a D40. No piece of equipment magically allows you to make art.

I play a Music Man bass guitar, and I stink compared to expert users of it like Louis Johnson or John Glascock, but it's the one that feels right to me. I once owned an Alembic bass worth more than three times as much, but it didn't speak to me or work with my artistic 'voice'.

That's when I realized that there's virtually no such thing as 'objectively' better. My buying choices have been much more sensible, have held up better with time, and have been largely less expensive since then.

photonut said...

Excellent article! I like the comment that one should buy the camera that best suits his/her needs, not just because it has gee-whiz bells n whistles. I personally have a Nikon D80 and two lenses. I am 49 years old and have been a photo geek since I was 16. I consider myself "decent" as a photographer. I can truthfully tell you that I am no where near tapping the potential of this camera. Truth be known, other than the flash going out, my D70 was more than enough camera for me as well. Now I am exploring an F100 with TriX and Velvia.
Have Fun!

Mike said...

@Craig re: "Nikon has had the same basic mount since 1959, but the simple statement (above) that "with Nikon you can use any lens from the last 50 years on a newer body" is wrong -- see Ken Rockwell's Nikon lens compatibility page to see just how annoyingly complicated Nikon's compatibility really is."

While the statement you responded to was a gross oversimplification, I think you're grossly over complicating it for a new SLR buyer. The D200 and up work with any lens made in the last 30 years and support any feature of the lens. The mid range bodies (D50/70/80/90) work with the same lenses but lack metering with non CPU lenses, the low end D40/60/3k/5k work with any lens in F mount, but won't meter etc with non CPU lenses either. Realistically though only AF and up lenses are usable on bodies below the D200 without a lot of knowledge and effort on the users part. The real complications come when you start looking at newer lenses on older bodies, which isn't particularly applicable to this discussion.

Craig said...

@Mike: "While the statement you responded to was a gross oversimplification, I think you're grossly over complicating it for a new SLR buyer."

The original statement about Nikon being compatible back to 1959 was pretty much irrelevant to the new SLR buyer too, though. To someone who today is selecting his first SLR camera, it really doesn't matter that Nikon gives you 50 years of more-or-less compatibility. The new SLR buyer doesn't have a bunch of old lenses already and is unlikely to buy a lens that can't auto-focus, so in practice, for such a person, compatibility with existing auto-focus lenses is all that matters. By this standard, Nikon and Canon both provide compatibility back to about 1985.

Nestor said...

I agree that digital cameras are "disposable", but I agree too that they will be not less capable than they are today in the future.
What you get with newer cameras are better technology, better S/N ratios and it results in broader Dynamic range and higher isos.
But sometimes it is not reason for an amateur like myself to swicht to new cameras, I have a F2AS, 2 F3, 1 D80, 1 D200 and 2 old Sony (7MP) point and shoot. If you compare my old DSLR with the new ones I didn´t notice quite a difference in image quality, and some of the "advantages" of newer models can be obtained using a computer. As an example new Nikons provides CA correction, mine don´t, but Nikon Capture NX gives me the possibility to get this in addition to picture control and some other niceties. True, I must work raw in order to get this, but sometimes batch does it all. I am not a pro, I have time to enjoy photography and photographing instead of performing calculatios about my earnings and losses.
And although I agree that picture quality for cheaper DSLRs are similar to the more expensive (for same sensor size) I still prefer an advanced amateur or prosumer body. Cheaper ones have a pentamirror instead of a pentaprism, smaller buffers and less direct controls meaning using the menues, wich makes them more related to advanced point and shoot than to the hi-end SLR.
Of course old models have limitations, I use my D80 with CW because Matrix is not realiable, but I got used to it with my F3s, I use AFS with center bracket, I got used to it with my F601 which I sold long ago. What I mean is that a camera can have a longer life than its market resale value if you know it and know what to expect from it. I was thinking buying a full frame DSLR, but it is because they can make use of my old ultra wides, but really DX is a nice format these days.

Anonymous said...

I hav a Nikon D80 for about a 1.5 years. Its my first DSLR. I'm a self taught photographer and took about a year for me to be able to appreciate and exploit the full features of the D80. During evening parties, usually a guy holding a new dslr with kit zoom lens would approach me and ask me the model of my camera then would comment that I should get a D90 like them, etc. Its irritating how people think that they can be accomplished photographers by buying a high end equipment. Buying a Steinway doesn't make you a concert pianist. I usually tell them that with 1.5 years I had with the D80, I made close to $3000 selling pictures from it. That would shut them up. By the way, I spent all that money on a prime lens, macro lens, zoom lens and ultra wide angle lens NOT on a new D90.

Unless somebody could tell from my 24"x36" prints that the photos are from a 2 year old digital camera, I'm sticking to my D80 for a few years.

Anonymous said...

One thing the author fails to point out is that DSLR technology is quite new, and as such, changes occur quickly. As the technology matures, the rate of change will slow, as will the rate of depreciation on the cameras.

Early DSLR had 2 MP sensors, compared to 12 MP being common today. 10 years, 6X MP change. Will DSLR cameras have 72 MP (6 x 12 MP) capability in 10 years? Will we need it? Can lenses make use of it?

Compare cameras to computers. Early PC's (Commodore 64's, Apple II's, etc.) are completely obsolete today, but the rate of change has slowed-effective processor speed no longer changes at the rate it once did.

Rev. Biggles said...

I understand your point, and it might work for many. As others have stated, the lower rung of DSLR's just won't work for me. I bought in to the Nikon system in the early 80's and have amassed quite a collection of lenses, all of which work fine on my old D200. I can grab a 35mm body, my D200, a few lenses and head out the door.

Good luck and enjoy whatever you decide on.

xo, Biggles

Derek said...

I'd also consider how heavily you're likely to use your camera. I used my Nikon D50 for about three years before getting a D90, and took many thousands of photos. I had hit some of the limits of what the D50 could do for me (especially burst mode speed, and a lack of depth-of-field preview), so the D90 made sense, for me.

But higher-end models like the D300, D700, or D3 were too much for me, both in features and expense. In the end, Peter is right about lenses, though. I still have and use lenses I bought more than 15 years ago, and I've also purchased and use lenses a couple of decades old (such as my 1987-era macro). They'll last me far longer than any DSLR I have now, with the added bonus of working just fine on my F4 film camera, which I found on eBay last year for 1/10th the $2000 list price it had when it was new.

(Incidentally, it looks like the half-life of film cameras is considerably longer than that of DSLRs, because whenever you buy a new roll of film, you're basically buying yourself a "new sensor.")

Yiming said...

Great analysis. However, such trend may be curving soon if not already. The only dramatic changes that I can think of that would absolutely outdate current consumer-grade DSLRs would be either a sudden total shift towards full-frame sensors, or a sudden popularity of the full-color sensor technology that doesn't use bayer curve to "fake" the full color. Things like megapixel count don't make much difference now (just like after Pentium 4, CPU clock cycles only make marginal differences).

Looking at the recent "advancements" in DSLRs - things like "Live View" and "HD video capabilities" - it seems to me that the industries are in a slump and are unable to come up with good things, so they turn to new features that seem to be a bit gimmicky to me. Serious photographers probably care little about such features (Live view may be good for hard to reach situations, but still, most don't shoot in such situations), so the half-life of current DSLRs will probably be a little longer. Just my 2 cents, and I'd love to hear what others think.

Anonymous said...

excellent point Yming,

you spared me typing in the exact same thoughts.
Yes the "digital rot" of the early "D"SLRs was to be expected in part. On the other hand now that the technology has matured to film-like quality (as seen from the amateur point-of-view) things are going to come back to sanity I feel.

About "full frame"(35mm): That was what has been keeping me from getting out there and try something new (like a digital camera). Only after taking a bite of Ken Rockwell's web-page last fall/winter I realised what kind of fool I am, thinking: "It's not full-frame - time for me yet" (too expensive still)."
FF was great for anybody with photo-work to do slowly moving over to digital as it got going. Using the same lenses for the same kind of shots on film&digital sure has benefits for pros.

I myself am no pro. Had a Canon EOS50e as my first slr but never got into the subject of photography too deep. With the rise of digital I still thought: let's wait until affordable (read: cheap) 'full-frame'
I really was a fool!
My relatively new Pentax K20 now gives me the power to enjoy my voyage into photography as a re-beginner in the "digital age". And now I shoot film on the side, again. Digital crop-frame has brought me back to where I set off half-hartedly years ago and makes me dive further into "photography" as we speak.
Ken Rockwell is to blame abit thanks to his fabulous web-page. Thanks for sharing Ken, I am hooked!

I'm still at an early stage in my journey. That said I'm going to pick up my first "professional-grade" lens - together with some processed rolls of film - tomorrow: a copy of Pentax' 55mm/1,4. Strictly crop-frame! Why? Simple: Actually using Crop-Frame-digital has taught me a lot more about the craft of taking a photo (read: not meant as photography as a whole) than all my half-witted time with film. Simply Because the results pop up instantly after pressing the shutter release - if I want it.

So my conclusion: The best camera to get as a beginner is the one that lets you play with all its capabilities without draining your wallet. If you dream about a costly camera but do not know -yet- how to put it to good use or even half the way through its "functions" - maybe the next lower-priced / smaller-sensor model is the one for you.
I went for pentax because I had
-> a chance to inherit a nice solid manual telephoto zoom lens & I really, really liked the handling of my K20D (much more so over what canon had to offer in the same price-range) - plus looking back a few months, it was very affordable back then).
Second reason: Pentax just makes a set of great affordable lenses for that "smaller" sensor that will last me a long time to be able to afford them all and to outgrow them.
Still -just think about it:
(d)SLRs are about capturing moments fast and with maximum control over the technical settings of an image.
"Crop-Frame" in a current dslr has the power to perform up to most expectations in this regard.
Just don't fall for any brand-related religion. All the currrent beginner-grade models share roughly the same features - and lack of "direct controls", as well. Only buy "better" when you know what you'd be missing!

Sure, for everything else there are many alternatives - one more equal than the other. Film (with all its affordable formats and camera-types and -sizes) is one of them.

Anonymous said...

I own a Contax RTSII and recently purchased a Nikon D700. In both cases I bought the best camera & lens combination I could afford.

So, 25 years on my 28 mm & 85 mm Zeiss lenses are serving me well along with the RTSII; have not felt a desire to buy another film SLR in that time as the camera is a pleasure to use, fits me like glove and makes all the right noises and has needed minimal maintenance.

The D700 is taking some time to understand fully but I feel no great desire to buy the latest DSLR of any incarnation; I'm satisfied with this camera and the 50 mm D lens.

I think the satisfaction of using reliable, good quality equipment, being able to 'unlock' the camera's potential over time, and constantly improve the images I produce are motivation enough for me not to feel the need to upgrade.

Andrew said...

I don't agree with your recommendation but I think it is completely appropriate. :)

Basically, if you need to read an article about "which DSLR should i buy" to make a purchasing decision, you're likely a new DSLR user and an entry level is the correct choice.

I've noticed some stabilization in prices recently, especially for popular models. For example, the Nikon D90, released 15 months ago, still sells for the same price today. Prices on the older D40 haven't gone down in the past 18 months.

Yiming said...

@Anonymous just below my previous post: thank you for agreeing with me.

I am very much a newbie, can't even call myself a photographer yet. Purchased a Rebel XSi after doing some homework by reading various DSLR purchase guides and specs and made a comparison matrix. I considered only Canons and Nikons because other brands don't offer the same abundance of lens choices, and also are still having problems with noisier high ISOs.

Finally I went for Canon because its lens system seem to be simpler: EF and EF-S, where as Nikkor lenses are more complex in terms of compatibility (G, D, DX, AI-P, AF-S, AF-I, IX...) . Rebel XSi is just incredible in terms of pixel count and features for its price. For roughly an extra $100, it has 2 million more pixels and 2 more AF points than an XS, and also a better image sensor (DIGIC III vs DIGIC II, but I could be wrong).

I was also debating whether I should go for just a body and buy the 50mm f/1.8 prime or go for the kit, but finally decided for the kit because of its convenience.

Now I have been craving for another lens, and was hoping to get a decent used one on eBay for a fraction of its price. But after seeing so many bids end with prices as high as new ones listed on amazon, I will just buy a new one from amazon. Don't understand these bidders...

Anonymous said...

@ Yming
...anonymous-me again :P

To put everything in a nutshell: Once you have overcome all the doubt about picture-processor this and quality of high-ISO that...
...and start taking pictures and getting to know the capabilities of your camera (that shiny new tool) as it is functioning in your hands everything gets more productive.
Keep in mind there is always still "RAW" to fall back to if the internal camera-processing fails to deliver.

Everyone should just check out these guys at (I guess it was)

And yes: lenses are most important. The camera comes a strong, but less pronounced second.
At the end ov the day every manufacturer likes to milk their "cows'tomers". That includes deliberately prolonging technical progress by selectively timing the release of better gear. We all know - after a while, at least - what could have been achieved with better firmware with the exact piece of hardware in our hands.