Good Advice on Buying Your First SLR Digital Camera

Two tripods and some ducks, black and whiteAvid photographer Dave Sifry has written what looks to be a very useful introductory article on buying your first SLR camera plus peripherals for less than $1000:

What’s funny is that most people who are deciding on what to buy think the priorities are exactly the opposite. They think that by getting the most megapixels or by buying the camera that the pros use, they’ll get great pictures. Don’t believe this. The camera companies are just trying to brainwash you into buying more camera than you need, and you’ll end up puzzled as to why your photographs end up looking, well, mediocre.

Dave recommends acquiring a card reader and not using the USB interface on your camera–he says that it’s slow and wastes your camera’s battery life. I noticed that professional photographer Kris Krug also uses a card reader. I’m not serious enough to bother, I guess. Plus, do I really need another peripheral kicking around my desk?

UPDATE: Tim Bray adds some worthy additional advice.


  1. I am always telling people to invest in a card reader — seriously! I have had one for… maybe 4 years now and I use it for exactly the reason stated, it saves battery life! The only time I use the usb interface is when I want to quickly download a shot at work.

  2. a reader’s definitely worth it. if you look long enough, you’ll be able to pick up a decent one for $20-ish, and it really does save time and battery life just being able to stick the card in and let it get sucked onto the computer. Even better when you have more than one card – don’t have to swap them out of the camera to read…

    to save even more money, you don’t need the 50mm f/1.4 lens – I LOVE my 50mm f/1.8 lens, and at only $100 I don’t even need to worry about a UV filter to protect it. Saves about $200 by cutting those down… Also, you probably don’t need a super-fast 4Gb card. I have a $30 2GB card I picked up on sale at CostCo, and a 1GB that was bundled with my XT.

    I do totally recommend picking up a LensPen to clean the lens, and a blower to blast schmutz out of the sensor. Both very cheap.

  3. Does a card reader really save time? You have to pop the card out of your camera, find the card reader, plug it into your computer (or I would, I’m using a laptop) and then do whatever software stuff you have to do to start downloading.

    In that time, I can easily plug in my camera, iPhoto auto-launches and I can download photos in the background while I’m doing something else.

    Maybe there’s just no speed advantage for me–I’m always doing something else while the photos are downloading anyway.

    Plus, like I said, I sure don’t need another peripheral on my desk.

  4. I prefer the card reader, simply because I have a lot of stuff plugged into my USB on my desktop. It is easier to take the card out of my Nikon and put it into the reader, than it is to plug into the camera and find a hub with an open port.

  5. I have not used the USB cable that came with my Nikon D40 even once. The main reason is because I use the SanDisk Ultra II Plus SD card (disclosure: Amazon affiliate link), which is very clever because the CARD ITSELF folds open to reveal a little USB connector.

    No need for a card reader (though I have one I never use either), nor for plugging in your camera. Pop the card out, plug it into your computer, and go.

    Plugging in the camera would be much slower, because you need to make sure you have the cable and plug that in — I use a laptop, so the Ultra II Plus is way faster than finding either a cable or a card reader, since there’s nothing to find.

  6. Sorry, I meant Nikon D50. Mistype.

    If you can afford an f/1.4 lens (either a 50mm from your manufacturer, or a nice digital-only 30mm from Sigma), it is often worth the extra stop if you often shoot in available light indoors or at night. Canon even has a 50mm f/1.2 lens (Nikon’s is an old non-autofocus design) that goes one further, but for rather a lot of money ($1200).

    Lenses are really the key, certainly not megapixels. They are one of the biggest advantages of DSLRs. I usually run my D50 in Medium resolution (i.e. not even the full 6 MP it has!) to save space, and the photos are still generally much better than you can get from an 8 or 10 MP point and shoot.

  7. I accept partial blame for this, but this ‘time savings’ discussion is kind of ridiculous all around. I mean, we can measure the differences of these workflows in seconds, not minutes.

    Unless you’re downloading photos from your camera several times a day, every day, the ‘fastest’ route is a pretty moot argument.

    Derek: I like that SanDisk card. That seems like the best of both worlds.

  8. You can get a USB card reader now that is basically a key fob that also doubles as a USB flash drive. I got one bundled with my SanDisk 4 gig SD card, which I bought at Costco. It’s easier and smaller than packing a cable.

  9. Darren, this is advice for anyone that uses a device that has a memory card, not just SLRs. My point is that I WAS looking forward to reading this post, until I got to the end and I realized I had been tricked! This post is about batteries and card readers.

  10. Davin: I linked to the article about cameras, and addressed a particular aspect of it. Sorry if you were confused, but the focus of this post is, in fact, that people should go read Dave Sifry’s post.

  11. Darren,

    When I go on vacation, having a full battery in my camera’s important, and downloading from the camera instead of from a card reader will eat up hat battery life.

    If you shoot raw, or take more than 50 pictures, you will find a fast card reader far superior to a camera’s USB.

    Having your camera gooked up to your computer can also take up more space on your desk or lap or hotel room table. A card reader is less breakable if you happen to move your laptop with it plugged in.

    A card reader can handle the card from multiple cameras — so you don’t need multiple cords.

    In short, there are plenty of reasons to use a card reader, and only one to connect to the camera directly (simplicity).

  12. Travis: Thanks for that. My battery charger is only a bit larger than my card reader, and I always bring the former on vacation. So that seems to mitigate bringing the latter. That appeals to me, because less is more when I pack, and I have a tendency to forget things. The card reader is one less thing to pack, and one more thing to forget.

    Everyone else seems to be over-estimating the process of downloading photos: in either case, it just doesn’t take very long and you can do other things on your computer while it’s happening.

    I also have a question: the card readers I’ve seen connected to my PC by USB. Does the speed difference occur in how fast the camera reads the card compared to the card reader? Or do other card readers use FireWire?

    And not to be a nitpicker (but let’s face it, I’m am), I’ve already cited more than one reason to connect directly. Let me summarize:

    * Convenience (i.e. simplicity)
    * Reduced desk clutter
    * Reduced packing while traveling
    * Reduced cost (I don’t have to buy the card reader)
    * Reduced consumption

    So, I remain confident that for me, the good old cord will do.

    I do like Derek’s SanDisk/USB-card fu solution. I’ll buy one of those when we have a requirement for a bigger memory card.

  13. Card readers are faster, but I mainly have one around so I can read other people’s photos for them if they are in a bind. I can usually make due with just my cable.

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