Given that I take a lot of photos and have a dSLR with a variety of lenses, I often get asked for camera and lens advice. Having been told that it’s been helpful, I’m sharing it online in the hopes that it can assist others in their decision-making process (and something I can point people to in the future when they ask for advice). Note that the selection and prices are current as of December 2014 — and while camera prices move slowly, lens prices move even slower.
So, here’s a couple of thoughts on camera and lens selection. As I don’t know what a given person will use their camera for, I hope this covers the spectrum of everything you might want to know. If you let me know what you like to take photos of (family, flowers, food, sports, vacations, etc.), feel free to reach out to me or comment here and I can give you more specific information.
The camera is the easy choice to make. For a starter dSLR, you get a lot of performance and features out of the Canon T5i or the T3i. The T5i has a few more features and upgrades that let you take faster photos back-to-back and can take better low-light/nighttime photos but the T3i is also quite a bit cheaper and still a very good camera. There is another model called SL1 that’s nearly identical in performance to the T5i (major difference is physical): the screen doesn’t articulate (flip out), it takes pictures a little slower but it’s significantly smaller/lighter and has fewer physical buttons/controls; if you have small hands or want a lighter miniaturized/compact dSLOR, that SL1 is absolutely the way to go — if you have big hands, stick with the larger cameras. If price isn’t a big concern, you could also make the jump from the T5i to the 60D for an extra $100.
The lens is the hard choice to make. I’d make different recommendations for someone who’s interested in landscapes vs. portraits vs. action shots vs. walk-around and so on. When you buy a camera, you can get the body only or it comes as “kit” with a prepackaged lens or two. For me, I found the starter 18-55mm lens a little frustrating in how limiting it was. I exchanged it for a kit with an 18-135mm and was very happy with that lens for many years. If this is your first time learning about lenses and words like focal length and aperture aren’t in your vocabulary, see my lens notation primer before reading on.
Kits & Bodies
Here are some product links on Amazon with competitive pricing. Note that on the kits, the minimum focal length is the same for all of them (18mm).
- Canon Rebel T5i SLR Camera – $599, body only (no lens)
- Canon Rebel T5i SLR Camera and 18-55mm EF-S IS STM Lens Kit – $699
- Canon Rebel T5i SLR Camera and 18-135mm EF-S IS STM Lens Kit – $899
- Canon Rebel T3i SLR Camera – $499, body only
- Canon Rebel T3i SLR Camera with EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens – $549
- Canon Rebel T3i SLR Camera with EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens – $749
- Canon Rebel T3i SLR Camera with EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens + EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 III Lens – $599
- Canon EOS Rebel SL1 SLR Camera – $449, body only
- Canon EOS Rebel SL1 SLR Camera with EF-S 18-55mm IS STM Lens – $549
- Canon EOS 60D SLR Camera – $699, body only
- Canon EOS 60D SLR Camera with 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens – $999
- Canon EOS 60D SLR Camera with EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens $1099
Simple choices – One click and you’re done.
If I was just starting out now, I would go with the T3i and 18-135mm (T3i-Option C) kit. Great camera and a versatile lens for $750 out the door. On the other hand, if you’re fairly committed to the idea of using a dSLR (some people get it and then it just stays in the closet thanks to iPhone photos), I think the investment in a T5i/60D is worth it for an extra $150/250 respectively (T5i-Option C/60D-Option B). The T3i-Option D is a great value for $600 and two lenses. It depends if you feel comfortable carrying a camera and a spare lens; a lot of people like to walk out the door with just the camera and one attached lens.
Harder choices – Buying a lens separately
There are a lot of lenses to pick from in the Canon lineup. The ones above are your typical starter lenses that work for most people. However, since the cameras are also sold as “body only” (Option A for all cameras above), you can pick the lens that’s right for you to go with your camera. Although I’ve listed the first three lenses here below for reference, it’s always cheaper to get them as a bundle (see Kits and Bodies above) rather than separately.
Baseline kit lens
18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS – The most basic lens offered in the lineup. Great considering the price but limiting in its range and low-light capability.
Step up in range
18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS – A step up in range from the 18-55. Also, while the aperture range is the same, you’re limited to 5.6 at 55mm in the above lens whereas 55mm here will open up around f/4. With this lens you’ll only hit 5.6 at 135mm instead of 55mm.
18-200mm f3.5-5.6 IS – Same comments as 18-135 but benefits extended to 200mm. A little heavier.
Step up in focusing (I prefer range over focusing capability)
15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM – Slightly larger range and better focus
17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM – Great for low light and better focus
17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM – Great if you want to fiddle with manual focus. Not personally a fan of the minimum narrow f/4 aperture as I take a lot of indoor / night photos.
24-70mm f/2.8L USM – The lens I use all the time. I love it. No IS though.
24-70mm f/4L IS USM – Cheaper version of my lens. Narrower aperture but has IS to compensate.
24-105mm f/4L IS USM – My lens with a larger range but narrower aperture and IS to compensate; this is where personal use weighs in — this lens isn’t better or worse than my 24-70, just different. Someone may value the extra longer reach and the IS more than the lower aperture even if my habits do not.
35mm f/2 IS USM – Great for capturing wider shots. I own a 28mm f/1.8 USM because I happen to like wider shots than most but the 35mm is better quality than mine and has IS.
50mm f/1.4 USM – Extremely high image quality lens and low-light performance for a great, low price. Pretty incredible lens. No IS though.
85mm f/1.8 USM – Great for portrait style / tight framed shots
These are the majority of lenses that make sense for consideration as your first primary lens. If the long end of the 18-135 range seems unnecessary to you, I would suggest the 17-55mm because of the great 2.8 aperture. If you want some of the range, consider the 15-85mm 3.5-5.6. The high-end lenses take incredible shots but they’re admittedly pricey. The primes take beautiful, stunning shots at a fraction of the cost with much better low light performance. Case in point — You could buy all 3 primes I listed for the same as the cheapest high-end lens I listed. Personally, I like having just one versatile lens with me most of the time, although my 28mm prime gets a lot of use, too.
There are third-party manufacturers of identical lenses for around 70% of the Canon cost. I haven’t bought any but I’ve heard pretty good things from the Asian companies Sigma, Tokina, and Tamaron.
I hope that you’ve found this primer helpful on entry-level cameras. Feel free to ask if you have any questions or want recommendations about narrowing down options about any of the stuff that I brought up. If you’ve found this useful, please consider buying through one of the links on this page. This costs you no extra but does help me defray the cost of the site.