Buying a digital-SLR on a budget (Why choose Canon EOS)

roger-walker
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Summary

Despite what people say, with a budget of just £250, on ebay, you can get a very competent digital SLR kit.

My Background

I've been an amateur photographer for many years, shooting several thousand pictures a year on film. I work in IT, and converted to digital back in 1997, before most people knew what they were.  Since then I’ve upgraded my kit about every 18 months.
My early digital cameras were point and shoot style, then I moved onto the "Prosumer" SLR-look cameras, then eventually I moved onto digital SLRs.

Picture quality, why choose an SLR?

There are only three things that determine picture quality, the lens, the sensor, and the conversion electronics.  While other features help you get the shot that you want, they don't actually effect the technical quality of the picture. The digital conversion technology is similar for all models, obviously the quality of the lens make a big difference, but assessing the quality of the sensor is not so trivial. 
Back in the days when the resolutions were low, more pixels were better, but once you get above about 3-4Mpixels the physical size of the individual pixels has more effect on the picture quality, than the number of them. (Note: 4Mpixels is enough for a 10x7 inch print at 200dpi, or a 20x16inch print at 100dpi)
Pixel noise shows itself as the random colours/brightnesses on pixels when you zoom right in on an image.  Basically the smaller a pixel is, the less photons (light) that fall on it, giving less to convert to an electrical signal, giving a bigger error when it's converted.  For more technical details Google for “pixel size”.
The bottom line is that doubling the area of a pixel halves the noise.
A typical compact camera (a 6Mpixel with a 1/2.5" sensor) has a pixel size of about 7um2.
A typical prosumer style camera (6Mpixel with a 1/1.7" sensor) has a pixel size of about 16um2.
A entry level digital SLR (6Mpixel with APS-C sized sensor) will have pixels of about 58um2.
What this means is that in the same light, the digital SLR will have less than 1/8 of the noise, or in 1/8 of the light will have the same noise.
Of course the drawback with bigger pixels, is that you have a bigger sensor which means you need a bigger lens.  A least with an SLR you can change the lens, so you can start off with a budget lens (or two), and upgrade the lenses you use most, tailoring the overall system to your needs (and budget).

Why choose the Canon EOS system?

Many people rave about the various SLR systems, and it’s often been compared to a religious debate. I chose the Canon system over the others for one reason.  It’s been around longest, and so it has more second hand cameras, lenses and accessories for it than for the other systems.
While some older parts are sought after and fetch very good money, if you don't want (or need) the latest options there are still some very good (optically) parts out there. Also the 2nd hand prices of the Canon parts are quite stable, so if you want to experiment you can re-sell an item without losing too much (say 20%).  If you stick to Canon own brand lenses, you are guaranteed that they will work with all Canon cameras (Note: EF lenses fit all EF and EF-S camera bodies, EF-S lenses only fit EF-S camera bodies).
Of course the beauty of ebay, is that as what you want to do with the camera evolves, so your camera kit can evolve with you.  You can part exchanging some parts for others, concentrate your budget on what you actually need.

Budget

Of course it’s all down to budget, but the beauty of ebay is that is that you your money goes further. But don't get too sucked into the "ebay is the cheapest" mentality, double check the new prices on things, particularly when new versions come out.  Frequently second hand items sell for more that the new price, do your research.

These prices are based on an average of winning bids or if marked “new” are UK online prices in May 2008.

Camera

Canon 300D with 18-55mm - around £175.
Canon 350D with 18-55mm - around £225 (or £370 new)
Canon 400D with 18-55mm - around £300 (or £375 new)

Once you’ve built up a lens collection, you might want to consider upgrading to a 10D (won’t take EF-S lenses), 20D, 30D or 40D.  These offer more and easier manual override options, and bigger buffers allowing more shots in a sequence.  Or for more specialised applications the 5D or 1D range might be interesting (again, won’t take EF-S lenses).

Lenses

Don’t be tempted by any of the zooms without a distance scale, they are generally quite poor optically.  If you’re going to lug around a SLR, at least put some reasonable glass on the front of it.

The 18-55mm “Kit” lens: Although this is a cheap lens, it's not bad quality, and if you look at the price difference between buying “body only” or a “body plus the 18-55mm” it’s usually under £25, at this price it is a bargain. (Note: There is a USM version of this lens, and most people describe theirs as USM, but few actually are).

Value zoom lenses (see my other guide for how to avoid the “cheapie” lenses):

Walkabout:
24-85mm F3.5-4.5 Ring-USM around £120 (£200 new).
Short telephoto:
70-210mm F4 (non-USM) – around £55
70-210mm F3.5-4.5 (Ring-USM) – around £95
Longer telephoto:
100-300mm F5.6 (non-USM) – around £65
100-300mm F4.5-5.6 (Ring-USM) – around £100

If you want the picture quality, but can’t afford zooms, then consider a prime lenses, in particular the 50mm F1.8 – new for around £60 makes a great low light, portrait lens.

Example entry level kits

Based on the prices above, you can see that for little more than the price of a high-end point and shoot, you can test the waters with a Digital SLRs.
Canon 300D with 18-55mm + 70-210mm F4 (non-USM) total of around £225
Canon 350D with 18-55mm + 100-300mm F4.5-F5.6 (Ring-USM) total around £350
Canon 10D + 24-85mm (Ring-USM) + 70-210mm F3.5-4.5 (Ring-USM) total around £400


Please see my Len guide for more lens recomendations
 
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