How to Choose and Buy a Tripod for a DSLR Camera

Choosing a tripod can be an overwhelming experience, given how many different types and choices we are presented with. On one hand, a tripod is a very simple tool to keep our cameras steady when we use them in challenging light conditions. On the other hand, there are so many different variables that come into play when choosing a tripod: How tall should it be? How light should it be? How stable should it be? What kind of weight can it support? How much should I spend on a tripod? These are just some of the questions that might come up as you look into buying a new tripod.

Before getting into the intricate details about tripods, I would like to go over the advantages and disadvantages of tripods and why you might need one for your DSLR.

) Why do you need a tripod?

So, what is the purpose of a tripod? You might need a tripod for some or all of the following reasons:

  1. To increase sharpness and depth of field in your images by keeping the camera still in low-light environments when using slow shutter speeds.
  2. To rest heavy camera gear such as long telephoto lenses on the tripod.
  3. To increase the quality of the images by keeping the camera ISO low.
  4. To allow more careful composition, while framing the shot exactly how you want it.
  5. To shoot HDR and panoramic shots that require exactly the same framing and precision.
  6. To photograph nighttime objects such as the Moon, planets, stars, etc. as well as painting with light or using available light for landscape and architectural photography.
  7. To do self-portraits with a camera timer.
  8. To shoot extreme close-ups/macro (flowers, insects, etc).
  9. To hold various objects such as flashes, reflectors, etc.
  10. To shoot at difficult or impossible (hand-held) angles.
  11. To shoot vibration-free videos.
  12. To defend yourself 🙂

I personally use a tripod for one main reason – landscape photography. Shooting sunrises and sunsets can be quite challenging, especially when the light conditions are far from ideal. Although with the recent introduction of ultra wide-angle lenses such as Nikon 16-35mm f/4.0 VR with vibration-reduction technology and DSLR cameras such as Nikon D3s that have very impressive high ISO performance, you are almost no longer required to use a tripod. However, I still prefer to use a tripod to keep camera ISO low (at base ISO) and to frame the shot for HDR and panoramic images. In addition, there are situations where you must use a tripod in order to slow down and blur action, such as photographing streams and waterfalls as shown in the image below. Therefore, if you are into landscape photography, a good tripod is a must and any pro will tell you the same thing.

Occasionally, I might use a tripod for wildlife photography (specifically birds), but not during long hikes, due to inconvenience and weight factors.

2) Tripod components – what is a tripod system?

A tripod system is generally comprised of the following parts:

  1. Legs – the obvious. Tripod legs are typically made of aluminum, basalt, steel or carbon fiber.
  2. Head – the part that holds a digital camera or a lens. There are many different types of heads, but the most popular types are ball-heads and pan-tilt heads.
  3. Centerpost/Center Column – a separate leg that runs through the middle, allowing to further raise the tripod head.
  4. Feet – good tripods allow changing tripod feet at the end of the legs for indoor and outdoor use.

The cheapest tripods have legs with an integrated non-replaceable head and feet and sometimes have a centerpost, while the top-of-the-line tripods have a modular tripod system that have replaceable feet and allow attaching a separate tripod head (the head is typically not included).

3) Disadvantages of using a tripod

Tripods are nice and can give you many options to get the highest quality image. However, there are also some significant disadvantages of using tripods, specifically:

  1. They are heavy. Although there are relatively lightweight carbon-fiber tripods out there, once you add a tripod head, the setup becomes quite heavy.
  2. They are inconvenient. No matter how small and collapsible your tripod is, it still occupies space and is often inconvenient to carry around or travel with.
  3. They are difficult to use in crowded environments.
  4. They can be expensive. Good tripod systems can cost over $1,000.
  5. They can take a while to set up, making you miss the best moment.
  6. You can easily damage your camera and lens if you do not know how to properly operate a tripod, or if the tripod system is cheap and unstable.

4) Factors to consider when choosing a tripod

You started your tripod shopping spree and have no idea where to start. What factors do you need to consider when purchasing a tripod? As I have pointed out above, purchasing a tripod can be an overwhelming experience, given how many different choices we are presented with from small and compact to large and heavy. Let’s go through each factor and identify your needs:

4.1) Weight Rating

The first thing I would look at is how much weight a tripod can support. Many photographers make a mistake of buying a tripod that can only support a few pounds and is not made for heavy DSLR equipment. What ends up happening is the obvious – at one point or another the whole thing collapses, destroying the DSLR and the lens. Always make sure that the tripod you want to buy can support at least 1.5 times more than the total weight of your camera and your heaviest lens. I say at least, because I prefer to keep it at around 2x more. Do not forget that you will at times apply pressure on your camera and sometimes even rest your hands on the setup if you are shooting with long lenses, which adds to the weight. You might also add a flash or a battery grip to your camera in the future, so you have to keep all of that in mind.

4.2) Tripod Height

I always recommend buying a tripod that matches your height, so that you do not have to bend to look into the viewfinder. Once you put your camera on a tripod, the viewfinder should be at your eye level. It is OK if it goes higher than your eye level, because you can always adjust the legs to be shorter. However, if it is much below your eye level, you will find yourself bending all the time, which can be a tiring experience, especially when you are waiting for some kind of action and need to constantly look through the viewfinder.

If you are buying a tripod with an attached head, you want the tip of the head to be on your jaw level. If you are buying a modular tripod with a separate head, make sure that the legs end approximately on your shoulder level.

Another factor to consider is tripod height when it is folded for easier travel. Do you need it to fit in your carry-on luggage? Mine barely does diagonally, with feet removed, and I take it with me everywhere I go.

4.3) Tripod Weight and Construction

Weight is a significant factor when choosing a tripod. You do not want your tripod to be too heavy, because you will find yourself leaving it at home, rather than taking it with you on the road. The lightest tripods are made of carbon-fiber material, which is extremely durable, stable and does not rust. While carbon-fiber is the best material for a tripod, it unfortunately comes at a high price tag.

The next best construction material is aluminum, which is heavier than carbon fiber. Most cheaper tripods are made of aluminum today. You can also find tripods made of stainless steel, but those are generally used for video equipment and are too heavy for regular use.

In terms of total weight, try to keep the tripod legs without the head under 5 pounds. Generally, carbon fiber legs are between 3 and 4 pounds, while aluminum legs are between 5 and 6 pounds, depending on the size and how much weight they can support. Basalt lava legs are somewhere in-between both in terms of weight and cost.

4.4) Tripod Legs

Tripod legs generally come in two forms – tubular and non-tubular. All carbon-fiber legs come in tubular form and have a threaded twist-lock system to secure the legs, while aluminum, basalt and steel tripods might come in different shapes with a flip-lock. Depending on the maximum height of the tripod, there might be between 3 and 5 sections on tripod legs. The more sections, the higher the tripod and generally a little less stable.

4.5) Tripod Feet

Some advanced tripods will allow you to replace tripod feet for different conditions and situations – they just unscrew on the bottom of the tripod legs. There are different types of tripod feet for indoors (rubber or plastic) and outdoors use (metal spikes). Unless you are planning to shoot in icy, rainy/slippery conditions, the standard rubber feet that come with your tripod should work just fine.

4.6) Centerpost

Some tripods come with a centerpost – a single leg in the middle of the tripod that allows you to increase or decrease the height of the camera by simply moving the centerpost in upward or downward direction. Although some photographers find it convenient and nice to have, I strongly advice against having a centerpost on a tripod. A centerpost defeats the whole purpose of a tripod – it is essentially the same thing as having a monopod on top of the tripod. It might not be as pronounced if you are only shooting with a wide-angle lens, but once you set up a long telephoto lens, you will quickly understand that using a centerpost will cause too much vibration. If you still want to get a centerpost for whatever reason, make sure that it can fully decline to the same level as where the tripod legs meet. The centerpost should never wobble at its lowest level.

4.7) Tripod Head

A tripod head is the most essential part of the tripod system. It is responsible for securely holding camera equipment and controlling camera movement. A modular tripod system does not come with a head and you have to buy it separately. When choosing a tripod head, always make sure that it can support at least the same amount of weight your tripod legs can.

There are three types of heads commonly available:

  1. Pan-Tilt Head – either with a single handle for horizontal movement or dual handles for both horizontal and vertical movement. This is the most common type of head that is typically built into cheaper tripods.
  2. Ball-Head – compared to pan-tilt heads, ball-heads only have one control that loosens or tightens the grip. They are very flexible and allow very smooth operation while keeping the camera/lens securely tightened.
  3. Gimbal Head – a specialized head for long and heavy 300mm+ lenses. Compared to pan-tilt heads and ball-heads, gimbal heads perfectly balance the camera and heavy lens and are best suited for fast-action photography. They are extremely easy to use in any direction and do not require tightening the head every time the camera/lens moves.

I started out with a pan-tilt head and eventually switched over to a ball-head with a quick-release system (see next), due to flexibility and easiness of use.

4.8) Quick-Release System

Every modern DSLR comes with a thread on the bottom of the camera that allows you to attach it to a tripod or a monopod (heavy lenses also come with a similar thread on the tripod collar). This threaded system makes it extremely inconvenient to attach cameras and lenses on tripods, because you would have to either rotate the camera or the tripod to attach them together. To make it easier and more convenient for photographers, manufacturers came up with a great solution – to attach a small removable plate on the camera or lens, which then can be tightly secured on the tripod head.

Cheaper tripods come with a simple plastic plate that can be attached on any camera or lens, while some of the more expensive tripod heads come with a more durable plate. The best quick-release system, however, is the Arca-Swiss Quick Release System. It has more or less become a standard among manufacturers and it has proven to be a very effective solution for quick and easy operation. Compared to plastic plates, the Arca-Swiss Quick Release System is made of very strong aluminum and allows attaching the camera/lens on a tripod without the need to rotate anything. A quick-release plate is permanently attached to a camera or lens, which then easily slides into a quick-release clamp (pictured below). The locking mechanism is simple, yet super tight for a vibration-free operation.

The beauty of this system is that some manufacturers like Really Right Stuff and Kirk Enterprises offer not only plates for almost any camera and lens, but also replacement lens tripod collars, flash brackets, L-brackets and other accessories for the Arca-Swiss Quick Release System. The only downside of the Arca-Swiss Quick Release System is that it is not cheap – you also have to purchase separate plates for each camera and lens.

4.9) Stability

A heavy tripod does not always mean that it is stable. There are plenty of tripod systems out there that are heavy and durable, yet lack the much-needed stability when used in various weather conditions. When a tripod is fully set up, it has to withstand not only wind, but also occasional bumps and knocks that might happen in the field. You always need to make sure that your camera and lens balance on a tripod rather than lean towards one direction, because you might end up damaging your equipment if the head is not fully tightened or if the front outweighs the back and everything falls on the ground.

5) Which tripod should you buy?

Now that you are familiar with all the criteria for selecting the right tripod, you are probably wondering which tripod you should buy for your photography needs. Since I have numerously gone through the experience of shopping for tripods and have seen others do the same, let me tell you what many photographers end up doing. They first look for the cheapest tripod available that will be good enough to hold the first DSLR, since they have no idea if they really need it or do not know how often they would be using it. The tripod would cost between $75 and $150 for legs and head, which is a good price for a simple tool. Next, they purchase a longer and heavier lens and add more weight to the setup. All of a sudden, they find that the cheap tripod is not good enough and they need something more durable and stable. After making the first mistake, they suddenly realize that they need to do more research and they spend countless hours reading about tripods on different websites and forums. Despite all recommendations from the pros, they are not willing to invest on a top-of-the-line tripod with a good ball-head, so they end up getting a popular tripod system for $300-500 with a separate head. Seems like a great investment and the tripod seems to be much better than the previous one. After a year or two they realize that their last purchase was not that good, because the tripod is too heavy and hard to use, especially for traveling. They realize that they should have listened to the pros in the beginning and bought a good tripod system. Does this sound familiar? It certainly does for me, because I went through a similar experience and wasted too much effort and money.

Other photographers might have a different story, where they purchased an inexpensive tripod they like in the beginning and they are still happily using it today. All it says about them, is that they are not using their tripods as much and what they have is good enough for occasional use. Anybody who heavily relies on a tripod (especially landscape and architectural photographers) ends up buying two to three different tripods to eventually end up with the best.

It seems that it is hard to avoid purchasing multiple tripods, because it is often impossible to justify the cost of a good system to someone who does not heavily use a tripod. If someone told me that I would eventually spend more than $500 on a tripod system when I just got into photography, I would have never believed them – that’s too much money to spend on a darn tripod! But it all turned out to be true, because I actually ended up spending a lot more than $500 overtime, and I wish I could go back in time and buy the right stuff from the very beginning.

If I recommend someone who has just bought their first DSLR to buy the best tripod system that costs between $800 and $1,200, I will almost certainly get a “you are crazy” look, no matter how well I explain my story. Therefore, here is what I would recommend:

  • If you currently do not have a tripod and you want to buy one, get the cheapest aluminum tripod system with an integrated head for less than $150 total. Why do I recommend the cheapest tripod? Because you first need to understand how much you will be using it. Six months down the road you might end up doing other type of photography that does not require a tripod or you might find yourself on a path of becoming a good landscape or macro photographer. A cheap tripod will give you enough information to understand the real role of a tripod in your photography.
  • If you already have a cheap tripod and you want to get something better, save yourself a lot of money and frustration and get the best tripod with an arca-swiss quick release system – skip the middle. Some people buy cheaper legs and heads and either find them too heavy or unstable. One common problem with other quick-release systems, is the fact that cheaper plates do not grip well on cameras and start wiggling and rotating relative to the base, making it a nightmare for panoramic photography.

6) Best Tripods to Purchase

My tripod recommendations, based on the above, are divided into two categories: “low-budget” (under $150) and “top of the line” (over $500).

6.1) Low-budget tripods (under $150)

Here are the best low-budget tripods under $150 that I recommend:

  1. Sunpak Ultra 7000 – $79.95. Very cheap, weighs 4.1 pounds (1.9 kg) and can support up to 12.3 pounds (5.6 kg) of total weight. This is very similar to the first tripod I bought for myself from a local camera store.
  2. Slik Pro 340DX Tripod (Black) with 3-Way Pan/Tilt Head – $99.95. Although maximum height is too short at only 57.9″ (147 cm), it is very lightweight at 3.5 pounds (1.58 kg) and can support up to 8.8 lbs (4 kg) of total weight. This would be a great tripod to take on long hikes.
  3. Slik Pro 700DX Tripod with 3-Way Pan/Tilt Head – $139.95. Although it is a little heavy at 7 pounds (3.18 kg), it can support up to 15 pounds (6.8 kg) of total weight and can be extended all the way to 74.8″ (190 cm).

6.2) Top of the line tripods (over $500)

Top of the line tripod systems have separate legs and replaceable heads. Let’s start with the tripod legs. The best legs are made of carbon fiber and manufactured by such brands as Gitzo (top choice) and Really Right Stuff. I cannot really recommend a particular model, because you should choose one that fits your height and weight requirements. If you buy Gitzo, their best and most stable line is the “Systematic” 6x Carbon Fiber series without a center column. I personally have an older version of the Gitzo Systematic legs that I have been happily using for years and they have never failed me once. I highly recommend using the Gitzo Configurator to get the best legs for your gear.

In terms of tripod heads, if you are not shooting with very long lenses, you should definitely go for a ball-head. Here are the best ball-heads available in the market today:

  1. Arca-Swiss Z1 – $389.95. I have been using this ball-head for almost two years and I really like it.
  2. Kirk BH1 – $375.00. An excellent alternative to the Arca-Swiss Z1.
  3. Really Right Stuff BH-55 Pro – $415.00. Another great ball-head that is very similar to Arca-Swiss Z1 and Kirk BH1. Top choice among many professional photographers.

There are also other cheaper brands that manufacture good ball-heads, one of which is Markins. The Markins Q3 costs around $300 and it can actually support more weight than all of the above ball-heads.

If you are shooting with long and heavy lenses, your best choice is going to be the Wimberley Gimbal (top choice) or King Cobra.

One more thing worth noting, is that the latest Gitzo Systematic 6x Carbon Fiber tripods come with a hook under the platform. I would highly recommend to get one if you can, because you can hang your backpack/sandbag for additional stability.

Remember, with tripods you often get what you pay for! Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments section below.

What is Nature Photography

What is nature photography?

Among those who practice the craft, there is certainly a great deal of debate over what constitutes “true” nature photography. A few of the most hotly contested aspects of the definition include whether an animal is “captive” or is found “in the wild,” whether a species is native to a region or was introduced by man, or whether a floral subject is cultivated or

naturally occurring. Put ten photographers in a room and ask each of them to define “nature photography” and there’s a good chance you will be given ten different interpretations. If that doesn’t make the task of nailing down a single definition difficult enough, some of those ten may be quite passionate about their own point of view on the subject.

So what is nature photography? Why is it so difficult for a group of photographers to come up with a single, well-defined answer?

Perhaps the primary stumbling block in our quest for a universal definition is our individual interpretation of mans’ place in the natural world. Some see the human race as separate from the rest of God’s creation, where the world was created for mans’ benefit and all other species are subservient. For others, the human race is viewed as a just another chapter in the evolution of life on Earth, nothing more than an inconsequential “flash in the pan” in the scope of geologic time and the incomprehensible vastness of the universe and the bounty of life it may contain. Are we Homo sapiens truly the masters of our world by divine decree, or simply temporary rulers who, like the dinosaurs, are destined to be displaced by natural processes?

For me, nature photography is the joy of viewing a beautiful flower through the viewfinder, the inspiration of a majestic scene coming into focus, the emotional connection made when the eyes of the subject make contact with mine through a telephoto lens. For those brief periods of time behind the camera, when life’s trials and tribulations give way to something more fundamentally significant, it matters not where I am or how the subject got there.

I believe the definition of “nature photography” is strictly a personal one, at least partially dependent on aspects of our existence that are difficult to comprehend and impossible to define. In the final analysis, perhaps what truly defines “nature photography” is based entirely on what we as individuals bring to it spiritually and intellectually, thus rendering the need for a universal definition pointless.

 

 

6 quick portrait retouching tips

The best portrait retouching should go almost unnoticed – a spot masked out here, a lift to the face there – while still retaining the character of the subject. We all have insecurities about how we look, however, so most subjects will want you to go to town on them.

And there are times, as with this shot, when the image straight out of camera is almost there, but not quite. When a person is moving the hair and the pose can create a lovely sense of motion, but it can be hard for them to keep a relaxed, composed expression; the jaw tightens, or the mouth clenches, or hairs fly out of place.

These little flaws are all easy to fix, though, and we can take things even further to create a flawless, stylised portrait. Here we’ll show you a complete retouching workflow.

It helps to break the face down into different areas, so we’ll start by removing spots, then we’ll subtly boost the colour in the eyes before adding a touch of blur to leave skin tones looking silky smooth.

01 Spot removal
Open the start image, create a new layer and rename it ‘Spot’. Take the Spot Healing Brush from the Tools panel, check ‘Sample All Layers’ in the Tool Options panel, then simply click on small spots and blemishes on the face, or paint over larger ones, to remove them.

02 Bin bags
Next, select the Clone Stamp tool, choose All Layers from the Sample menu, and press 2 on your keyboard to set the tool opacity to 20%. Alt-click to sample a clean area of skin on the cheek below the eye, then carefully paint over the bags under the eyes to soften them.

03 Secret smile
The mouth looks a little strained, so press Ctrl+Shift+Alt+E to create a new merged layer, then go to Filter>Liquify. Select the Forward Warp tool, and nudge the corners of the mouth up to form more of a smile. Push the right arm in slightly to make a tighter body shape too.

04 Perfect blend
Create another merged layer, then open the blending mode menu at the top of the Layers panel and choose Linear Light. Press Ctrl+I to invert the image, then reduce the layer opacity to 50%. At this point the image will appear completely grey.

05 Silky smooth
Go to Filter>Other>High Pass, and enter 9px to blur the detail. Next go to Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur and set Radius to 3. Alt-click the Add Layer Mask button to add a black mask that hides this layer, then paint with a white brush over the skin to reveal the blur effect.

06 Bright eyes
Add a Curves adjustment layer, plot a shallow S-curve to boost the contrast, then select Red from the menu and drag down to add cyan. Add another Curves layer with a more pronounced S-curve. Invert the mask (Cmd/Ctrl+I), and paint white over the eyes to reveal this contrast boost.

Which Nikon DSLR to Buy First

Even though quite a few of our readers are beginner photographers, we often talk about things that, while simple to us, are much more difficult to understand for those with less experience and knowledge. That is why we strive to share our experience as someone shared theirs with us when we were just starting. The most difficult part for us is not the writing itself, however – mind you, we aren’t holding anything back. The most difficult part is becoming the beginner again so as to remember all the questions we had when we started. Make no mistake, we’ve had plenty of those. I, too, didn’t know what aperture and shutter speed was. I, too, had a hard time getting to know my gear in such a way I would be able to get quality results from it. I remember the painful transition from being a photography theoretician, an arm-chair expert, to one who uses his technical knowledge without thinking about it for the sake of photography, not comparisons and pixel-peeping. Thank goodness that part of my life didn’t last more than a few days. But before any of these questions came to my mind, I, too, had to make what seemed like the most difficult choice of all at the time. The first one, the one that gave way to all the other questions that followed and follow to this day. Where to start? Which camera to buy first?

Your first camera is not just a piece of equipment. It’s your entry into photography world. The “buy-the-most-expensive” logic doesn’t work here even if you have the means to do so. You have to get it right. Your first camera has to be “just enough”. It will either be too difficult, too heavy, too mind-boggling with all the functions, or too dull and alien. It may turn you to another system, or from photography altogether. Or it will fit you like a glove and lead you down the path of learning everything, and then learning, again, of what’s actually important. So, lets start from the start. In this “Which Nikon DSLR to Buy First?” article, I will introduce you to several Nikon DSLRs – you will not find the best camera here, as there isn’t such a thing. But, hopefully, you will find the best camera for you as a beginner photographer, one you are going to learn with and love for years to come.

1) What is a DSLR?

DSLR (digital single lens reflex) cameras are cameras with removable lenses and mirrors used to direct light from the lens to an optical viewfinder. Typically, DSLRs are much bigger and heavier than any point-and-shoot camera, and are capable of delivering incomparably superior technical image quality under varying lighting conditions, especially in lower light. In their design, they remain virtually unchanged from old film cameras with removable lenses, which were called SLRs. The biggest difference is that film used in old cameras has been replaced with electronic sensors that capture light.

Here are the basic elements of a DSLR (image courtesy of Wikipedia):

  1. Lens
  2. Reflex mirror
  3. Shutter
  4. Image sensor
  5. Matte focusing screen
  6. Condenser lens
  7. Pentaprism
  8. Eyepiece/Viewfinder

Here lies another important difference between these expensive, large cameras and their compact, take-anywhere siblings – sensor size. The bigger the sensor, the better technical image quality is potentially possible to achieve. Nikon DSLR cameras have two sensor sizes. One, the more common and popular, is APS-C sized sensor (crop-sized), which measures approximately 23.5 x 15.6 mm in dimensions. The more expensive cameras meant for advanced users with more demanding needs have larger sensors, called full-frame (FF in short) or FX. These sensors measure approximately 36 x 24 mm and are more or less equal in size to 35mm film used in old analogue cameras (hence the “full-frame” term). Compare that to compact camera sensor size, which can measure 7.44 x 5.58 mm or even less. Large sensors are much more expensive to manufacture. Because of that, cheapest current full-frame cameras cost around $2000, while cheapest APS-C cameras may cost three or four times less.

Read our “What is a DSLR?” and “Nikon DX vs FX” articles to find out more, or see how they compare to compact cameras.

2) Why Would Someone Buy a DSLR?

This question has become much more valid over the last three years or so. If not so long ago DSLR was an obvious step forward for any aspiring point-and-shoot user, today entry-level cameras are fiercely rivaled by mirrorless cameras. But the battle is not lost. So far, many aspects of a well-established DSLR system make it much more mature in terms of lens choice in new and used markets. The wide array of lenses mean a DSLR can be used for any kind of photographic task. Also, most DSLR systems (with the exception of Pentax) have room to “grow”. In other words, they offer cameras with bigger sensors, but same lens mounts, and give the choice of upgrading to a more serious piece of gear in the future should such a need arise.

3) In Search for Your First Nikon

Further on, I will introduce you to several Nikon DSLR cameras. All of them are, to an extent, suitable for very serious work – they all employ swift autofocus systems and near state-of-the-art sensors as well as plenty of other functions, such as HD video. At the same time they are suitable as DSLR entry options because, while still entirely different to any compact camera in their complexity, are sufficiently simple to use and learn with. The question is not whether the camera is good – in general, all current DSLR cameras are good. The question is which one of these is better for you.

  • Nikon D3200

    Nikon D40, first in this segment of Nikon cameras, was a huge success. From a technical standpoint, it wasn’t a very advanced camera even when introduced in 2006. It had an old-ish 6 megapixel image sensor, when 10+ megapixel sensors were expected. Even so, many found it to be so good at what it did, there was hardly a better camera with just enough features. Keyword here’s just enough. I remember owning this camera, and I remember loving it despite also owning “better” gear. It’s newest successor, launched only a short while ago, improves on the same philosophy.

    From first glance, D3200 is an entirely different beast. It features a very well-received 24 megapixel APS-C sensor also found in several high-end cameras, has great video specifications and up to 4 frames per second shooting speed, which is plenty for any beginner. But the basic idea behind it hasn’t really changed – it’s small, lightweight and very easy to use. If you are new to DSLR photography, trust me when I say this – it is a very well accomplished piece of gear and almost certainly more than enough for your needs. Being so small, you can also be sure you will often take it with you wherever you go rather than leave it on a shelf at home. If you are after a camera that is sure to deliver all the basics and is easy to use, D3200 is very likely to be that camera, especially if you are on a budget. You will be tempted by more expensive and, on paper, more capable options, but remember – give in to such a temptation, and you may end up with a Nikon D4 and not having a clue how to use it. Yes, cameras like D7000 have weather sealing and faster frame rates. Be honest, how often do you shoot under rain? Owning a D700 I can tell you that I prefer to cover myself with an umbrella, which is usually large enough to hide my camera along with myself.

  • If you are a beginner with a limited budget and are looking for a new Nikon DSLR, look no further. This is a fun, simple, capable camera. A proper photographer will always be able to appreciate such strengths and if you run into one who thinks less of you because of your cheap Nikon, well, it’s his lack of understanding and in no way yours.

    A side note: Nikon D3200 is among several Nikon DSLRs that do not feature an internal focus motor. This means that it will not be able to autofocus with older lenses who’s autofocus is driven by the camera through a mechanical link. Do not worry, though – all recent Nikon lenses feature built-in AF motors (and are named as AF-S lenses, for example the great AF-S 85mm f/1.8G lens) and don’t require a camera to have an AF motor. Older lenses are usually cheaper and great value for money, though, so if you want autofocus (which you do), you will need to spend a little more when buying lenses. In all honesty, you’d probably choose newer lenses even if D3200 had no such limitation.

    Another downside is the lower-resolution screen, which will be less pleasant to use when reviewing images. But it doesn’t really affect your photography, does it?

    Remember – just because there’s a newer camera out there, the older one hasn’t gotten worse or less capable. Nikon D3100 is still great and not exactly old, so if it’s all you can afford, you shouldn’t feel even the slightest bit down about it. D3100 will be there to deliver stunning images as long as you do your part. Owning a newer, “better” camera will not make your photographs superior in any way. Read our review to find out what we think about it in more detail.

    Nikon D5200

    Nikon places D5200 as an upper-entry model and it slots above D3200. Most specs are very similar between the two cameras – they both share similar 24 megapixel sensors, for example. There are certain technical advantages, however. One worthy of note is a better autofocus system, borrowed from the higher-end D7000 DSLR. Instead of 11 autofocus points to choose from when framing your image, you have 39. That is a lot. This particular autofocus system proved to be very capable even in most demanding conditions and is not that far off Nikon’s best systems. On the other hand, it is also somewhat more complex. Not to say D3200 is unreliable in this department, but the 39-point AF system of D5200 will give you more flexibility if you are into sports photography, for example. Slightly faster frame rate at 5 frames per second compliments such thoughts.

    D5200 also incorporates a more advanced metering system, which may prove to be more accurate in some conditions. More importantly, there’s the versatile tilt/swivel LCD screen. It can be very useful when doing video or photographing from uncommon angles.

    Other than that and the rather hefty price of the D5200, the two cameras are very much alike. Think carefully whether additional features of this camera are important to you and your photographic needs. Be sure to read our thoughts on D3200 above – it is possible one of these cameras is all you’ll need for years to come.

    Nikon D5100

    A predecessor of the D5200, this camera, like all the other mentioned so far, builds upon the idea of a lightweight, cheap-ish, high quality DSLR for (advanced) beginners. Just as simple to use, it is not all that different from the newer D5200 or D3200, but costs a great deal less than the former and is still in stock. Nikon D5100 has a slightly older, but very, very good 16 megapixel sensor so praised in D7000 and Pentax K5 for its low ISO noise (which basically means it delivers very good quality photographs in low light environments). Read our “Understanding ISO” to learn more.

    Also, it has the 11-point autofocus system currently used in D3200, so is quite capable in that regard as well. More than that, it has a similar tilt/swivel LCD screen to that of the D5200, which is useful when doing video. A very good camera, this. At its current price (with instant savings till 2nd of March) it competes very well to the newer D3200, and its the camera you are likely to compare it to. If you don’t need 24 megapixel resolution – not many people do – this is a viable alternative to any of these DSLRs. Read our review of the Nikon D5100 and think carefully on what you need and don’t.

    Nikon D7000

    The D7000 is a very, very capable photographic tool many amateur photographers are very happy to own. In fact it is so good, some professional APS-C camera users dumped their higher-end D300s in favor of this newer model. Even with all that in mind, however, it’s not the most difficult one to use, but will require a lot of studying and effort from the photographer to get the best out of it. This camera features all the necessary direct controls and is very good ergonomically. Otherwise an advantage, such a fact will make it rather confusing for many new users. It’s not the easiest to learn with, keep that in mind. It doesn’t even deliver the best image quality of the lot – it’s on par with each of the cameras I presented earlier.

    You may think I’m trying to discourage you from buying it. You would be right to think so. Make no mistake – I think this is a great camera (although likely to be replaced soon). More than that, I’d be happy to own one myself if I were to start now. Yet I would not suggest this wonderful DSLR to anyone who’s not serious about becoming a real photographer. There are cheaper, smaller, simpler options out there for those who just want quality images for their family, friends and travel.

    With that out-of-the-way, let’s talk a bit about what Nikon D7000 offers. It has the same 16 megapixel sensor found in Nikon D5100, and was the first one to get it. It has great video capabilities and fast frame rate at 6 frames per second, which is good enough for sports photography.

    One of the biggest strengths many advanced amateurs appreciate is the dual SD card slot. It allows two cards to be used at the same time with the option of either holding more images or having them duplicated between the cards. You may also choose to have RAW images placed in one card, and JPEG versions in the other. It has the very good 39-point AF system and a stronger build than any of the other cameras listed here, along with some weather sealing for rough conditions.

    All of this may sound tempting, but remember – Nikon D5200 has more resolution, a tilt/swivel screen, the same AF system, is lighter, smaller and costs less. Think carefully whether you really need the D7000 and if you do, be ready to do some serious studying. Hopefully our “Photography Tips for Beginners” section will hold many answers to your inevitable questions. Do not stop yourself from reading camera manual, too, if you decide to buy it. We have reviewed D7000, but be careful as you read it – you are likely to find it very tempting even if, deep inside, you know it’s too much for your needs and other options make much more sense.

    Nikon D7100

    Replacing D7000 in Nikon DSLR camera lineup, this camera is now the last in my list of recommended Nikon DSLR cameras for beginners. There’s a good reason for that, too. Just as with its predecessor, the D7100 is an extremely capable photographic tool and shares many of D7000’s features, such as dual memory card slot. As of today, it takes place as the high-end DX camera in Nikon lineup, at least until successor to the now ageing D300s is announced. And, because of these and more reasons, I can only recommend D7100 to beginner photographers with huge reservations.

      • D7100 has fast frame rates, great video capabilities, it is very well build, much bigger than lower-end cameras listed above (except the D7000, of course), has great weather sealing and a very advanced autofocus system, similar to that found in professional cameras, such as Nikon D800 and D4. 24 megapixel APS-C sensor is at the heart of the camera responsible for high resolution, low-noise images, which you can preview through 3.2″ high-resolution LCD screen. Tempting as it all may be, however, in its strengths lies D7100’s complexity. It will most likely overwhelm most beginner photographers with all the direct controls and advanced AF and metering systems. The sheer number of buttons will likely be very confusing. $1200 is a lot of money for something you may not be able to fully appreciate, in which case any of the lower-end cameras above make more sense for beginners. Choose carefully and prepare to spend a decent amount of time learning your camera and all the functions and features it has to offer..

    4) Final Words

    With so many different cameras on offer, even those more experienced can often find themselves lost. Deciding which one to buy as the first one is even more difficult. I see a first DSLR much like I would see a first car – you don’t want to get started behind the wheel of a Bentley. What you need is a car that’s just right, just enough for you to learn and improve your skills. But afterwards, if you like the experience and even wonder whether you should take up photography on a professional level, Nikon has plenty of worthy tools for you. In this article, I did my best to introduce you to current beginner-friendly DSLR cameras Nikon has to offer. Hopefully my words were of some use and will ease your decision or calm your mind in case such has already been made.

    In the future, we will cover other DSLR brands as well. As for now, have fun using your new gear!

  • Nikon D3100

    This camera is the predecessor of D3200 and, as it’s newer sibling, shares the same core priorities. It is small, lightweight and easy to use. Better yet, it’s even slightly cheaper new or second-hand. There aren’t many downsides to this camera, and none of them are all that relevant for a beginner photographer. D3100 has lower resolution sensor at 14.2 megapixels. Don’t be fooled by the numbers, they don’t tell the whole story. It is a high quality sensor none the less and offers plenty of resolution for daily needs. You will still be able to print big should you decide so. At the same time, your JPEG images won’t be as “heavy” as those of Nikon D3200.

Why You Should Only Buy from Authorized Dealers

There is a lesson here for all, especially when purchasing expensive gear. Expensive is a relative term with a value that varies per individual and can’t be generalized, the stuff being said here applies to all values of items. It comes down to how much value the item has to you and whether you are willing to risk that value versus the warranty programs being offered. Obviously the bigger the expense, the higher the risk.

I usually always buy my all of my camera gear right here in the US of A, because that is where I live and I like to go buy the expensive stuff in person at a Hunts Photo and Video store to make sure it arrives safely.

Well, 4 years and 9 months ago I broke that personal rule to buy a Nikkor 600mm F4 VR lens from Canada. The reason I did so was because the lens had been unavailable in the USA for over six months and I was tired of waiting. So one week when we were on vacation we drove up to Montreal Canada and purchased the 600mm there. We made sure it was an ‘Authorized Nikon’ dealer before purchasing and once all the paperwork was finalized we happily drove back to the US of A with our new lens. Note: after tariffs and Canadian taxes it wasn’t any cheaper than buying from the USA.

Lets move forward 4 years and 9 months to today and the VR on my prized 600mm decided to play up. Nikon Canada has a 5 year warranty on lenses from authorized Canadian dealers so we are in good hands right?

Well the answer is not so simple.

I know we have a global community, so what I want to recommend to everybody is buy local, not just local but from ‘Authorized Local Dealer’ for anything expensive in the camera department. At the very least check cross border warranty coverage before making overseas purchases.

Here’s my experience in bullet points:

  • Bought the lens from Canada – live in the USA ($10,000 lens).
  • Bought from an authorized seller (Canadian).
  • Kept all my receipts and store information.
  • Have my warranty card.
  • Have problem with VR and the lens definitely needs servicing.
  • Contact Nikon USA to repair
  • Nikon USA doesn’t honor Canadian Warranty, no sure reciprocal system of warranty
  • Maybe can get special treatment, but really up to Nikon USA repair center
  • OK – no problem, Canada not too far away, send to Canada for repair.
  • Run into problems at staples (UPS Shipping Center) – spend an hour there with them trying to figure out shipping options
  • After all that, they run into a snag and can only insure for $5,000, remember the lens cost $10,000 to replace
  • What to do now, turns out only a company label or UPS store can insure higher (up to $50,000)
  • Call a UPS store, turns out they have different insurance rates – $200 just for insurance, let alone boxing and shipping.
  • To be sure your insurance will have maximum chance of being paid it really needs to be packed by the UPS store.
  • OH, and there may be customs tariffs involved because of shipping overseas (international)
  • So my hair turns gray and I decide to ship from local UPS Staples at their $106 price, versus $350 plus from UPS store.

Now the waiting game begins, wait for arrival at Nikon Toronto repair center and wait for news of repair status, then safe return of lens. Some items like shipping would still apply if I had made the purchase local, but I have definitely made my life infinitely harder by purchasing such an expensive item across country borders. I will worry every day until that lens returns safely or I will be crying if something happens and there is not enough insurance to cover the item. Had I bought it at my favorite store like usual, I would just have driven it there and avoided all these little roadblocks.

EDIT (below updated/added) 4/17/2014

  • Lens arrives in Toronto service center – UPS sends delivery confirmation (my $5000 insurance risk OK – phew)
  • 24hrs since Nikon received my lens – no contact from Nikon to confirm from they the received it
  • I call them, they say I have not included any paperwork which is why they didn’t contact me
  • 36hrs since delivery – I contact them again (international call rates) – They find my paperwork after I tell them its in the steel Nikon camera box the lens is in.
  • LoL – they have had it for over 36hrs and not even opened the case to find the paperwork (on a 10 grand lens)
  • 54hrs since Nikon received my lens – No official email or phone contact from Nikon to confirm delivery or receipt of the lens yet 🙁

The lesson for everybody here in a nutshell is, unless you don’t care about warranty and repairs to your gear, you should buy from your country’s authorized dealer.

For Example:

  • In Australia, buy from an Australian authorized dealer
  • In USA, buy from a USA Authorized dealer
  • In Canada, buy from a Canadian authorized dealer etc…

Buying from another country is easy to do, but getting stuff repaired under warranty or even without warranty across borders can be another matter.

Quite simply, you want warranty or repairs to your equipment without fear of problems, buy within your countries border and make sure they are authorized before you buy, make sure you keep your receipts. There are some cross border warranty that will be honored, some are worldwide, but not always and the time periods of the warranty coverage can vary dramatically. For example my lens has a 5 year warranty in Canada but to get it repaired in the USA the warranty period is much less than 5 years. Nikon is very strict about cross border warranties.

On a special note, what I did was not a gray market purchase, that is a whole different matter. Big camera companies usually have subsidiaries in different regions of the world to import, price and repair the manufacturers product. Gray market is defined as a product not imported by the subsidiary. In USA the official subsidiary would be Nikon USA Inc. and Canada it would be Nikon Canada Inc. etc. Because each subsidiary is responsible for warranties, they set and make the rules.

So a gray market Nikon camera item in the USA would for example be a camera that was imported by someone other than Nikon USA. The chances of any warranty being honored by the manufacturer on gray market items are slim to none or only that offered by the original seller who imported it. I used Nikon here in this example, but it could be Canon, Sony, Sigma or any other camera / lens manufacturer.  It probably gets even worse when purchasing from places like eBay.

In closing, be careful and thoughtful before you buy your expensive gear. I did not buy my lens from Canada to save money, it was because of availability, but if you are buying from another country you better understand how it will affect future repairs and warranties. Good Luck.