What to Look for in an Entry-Level DSLR

Buying Your First Camera

There are many things to consider when shopping around for an entry level DSLR. You are looking for a product that will suit your needs, and have just the right amount of features while staying within your budget. To make matters worse, technology is always changing and improving.

The straight facts…

Your first camera isn’t the camera that will make you the big money. Your first camera is the one that you will learn the in’s and out’s of shooting video on – it is where you will get your bearings. You aren’t looking for a camera with the most amount of features in it or a camera that can shoot in 4K resolution. Below are the features that should be in any first camera that will make you well-rounded in the business of shooting good videos.

Manual exposure settings

Having a camera with manual exposure settings as opposed to “auto” settings will get you comfortable with what is known as “The Exposure Triangle.” Filmmakers utilizes aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to control how much light hits the camera sensor, with the goal being “the perfect exposure.” Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO affect exposure in different ways.

The Exposure Triangle

How aperture affects exposure

Aperture is adjusted either from the camera lens by rotating the lens’ aperture wheel, or through your camera. It is also known as your “F-stop.” In addition to letting in different amounts of light, your lens’ aperture also determines what is known as depth of field or “DoF” for short. Depth of field determines what can be in focus in a “frame”.

If you’ve ever seen artsy photos of a close-up of someone’s eyeball but the rest of the photo is blurred out, the photographer used a “shallow” depth of field. With this technique, only one thing can be in focus while the rest of the frame is blurred.

Shallow Depth of Field
A photo demonstrating a shallow depth of field.

Your depth of field can be as small as an eyeball, or as wide as miles and miles of landscape. In the photo below, the photographer used a “deep” depth of field resulting in everything in frame being in focus. Everything from the tent, all the way to the mountains in the background is sharp. This is possible by being able to manually adjust your aperture.

A photo demonstrating deep depth of field.

How shutter speed affects exposure

In photography, shutter speed controls how long the camera’s shutter remains open, thus exposing the sensor to light for longer or shorter amounts of time.

Night Sky Photography

In night sky photography, photographers typically use extremely low shutter speeds. This means that the camera’s shutter remains open for a long time in order to take in as much light as possible in the dark night. Using this technique, the light from the stars and moon are exposed properly in the photo. The effect you get from using low shutter speeds like this is that you capture the movement of the stars in the night sky. The stars will appear to leave “trails” and create the illusion of spinning around.

Sports photographers on the other hand often shoot at extremely high shutter speeds in order to capture fast-moving athletes. Otherwise, the fast-moving athletes will appear to have ghost trails behind them.

Shutter speed isn’t as much of an issue for videographers although we do need to know how it works. Video people will often keep it at 1/50th or a multiple of whatever frame rate we are shooting at which most likely is 24 frames per second. If this sounds technical, it is, but don’t worry about it too much for now.

How ISO affects exposure

An electric guitar amplifier often has an option called “Gain” which changes the clean sound of the guitar to a louder, more distorted sound. This is the effect that ISO has on your camera’s footage. Never owned a guitar and don’t know what I’m talking about? Think of ISO as steroids for your camera sensor.

Bad lighting can make your footage underexposed. ISO is used to digitally “amplify” the little amount of light hitting the camera sensor to make the footage appear to be better exposed. This might seem like a good idea, but ISO must be used with caution. The downside to a high ISO is grainy or “noisy” footage that does not look good at all. You probably don’t ever want to raise your ISO above 800 or 1600 on an entry-level camera.

Interchangeable lenses

Interchangeable lensesThe ability to remove and change lenses on a camera is another feature you will want. I could write several entire articles on the different types of lenses you can use and when and how to use them, but for now, we are simply concerned with having a camera with the option to use different lenses depending on what “look” you are going for. There are two types of lenses: prime lenses and zoom (or “telephoto”) lenses.

Microphone input jack

Audio is an often overlooked component of a video, yet it is just as important if not more important than the actual visuals. People are more likely to watch a video with shakey, slightly out-of-focus footage, but if the audio is horrible, loud or disorienting for the viewer, they will hit the back button or close your video. Having a camera with a microphone input jack gives you the option to plug in an external microphone or an on-camera microphone like the Rode VideoMic GO that will pickup better audio than the built-in microphone on your camera.

Other things to know about entry-level cameras

Regardless of whether you choose to go with Canon, Sony, or Nikon for your first camera, all of the entry-level cameras have the same basic features and shortcomings. I will break down two things that will come into play as you become more familiar with entry-level cameras: crop sensors and low light performance.

Crop sensors and what that means for you

Just about all entry-level and some mid-range video cameras come with APS-C crop sensors with a crop factor of 1.6x. What this means is that the size of the sensor, and therefore the field of view that you are able to see and capture, is smaller than the more expensive “full frame” cameras like the Canon 5D or Nikon D750.

This graphic illustrates the size differences of the various types of sensors.

A guide to buying an entry-level DSLR camera for video

Low light performance in entry-level cameras

One common drawback to entry-level cameras is that their performance in low light situations does not produce the best images. Their sensors will struggle when you increase your ISO, producing grainy and unusable footage. Always be thinking about how to use available natural light. If you are smart and resourceful, the low light shortcomings of entry-level cameras shouldn’t be a big issue.

Canon T7i Low Light Test via Youtube

Take a look at this test footage of Canon’s T7i camera in low light:

Tip: Watch test footage from the camera you are researching

You can’t just look at a camera’s specs on paper or take someone’s word that it’s a good camera. You have to see the footage that actually comes out of the camera. Fortunately, there are a ton of people uploading test footage videos from just about every camera there is. Go to Youtube and search for the model of the camera you are thinking of buying.

The video below came up when I did a search for “Sony a6000 test footage.”

Sony A6000 video test by Wesley Cordeiro

What I like about this particular video is that the filmmaker is using the standard 16-50mm zoom lens that is often sold as a kit lens with this camera, proving that you don’t always need the best or most expensive lens to get great-looking footage.

Final Thoughts

Searching for your first camera can be overwhelming. Hopefully this article helped boil it down so you can make an informed decision that you are happy with. Your first camera is the camera that you will be learning with and playing around with. Don’t feel pressured to splurge on an expensive camera just yet.

Have any questions or need help? Let me know in the comments.


Valerie is a freelance filmmaker, video editor, and photographer based in Honolulu, Hawaii.

11 Replies to “What to Look for in an Entry-Level DSLR

  1. Lots of great information for a budding photographer. I didn’t realise that there were ways to watch test footage video of a particular camera. A great way to check them out and make sure you buy the right one.
    Thanks, Mark.

  2. I understand why my fiance uses his 35mm camera for pictures. He adjusts all those things to get a great picture. I understood some of the technical terms and some explanations, but I would need to do this on my own to figure it out. There is a lot of great information here, so I learned some new things. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Hi Sylvia. You can read a ton of stuff, but you’re right, you need to figure it out on your own terms, and more importantly, you have to get out and shoot using what you learned. I’m glad I could help you learn something new!

  3. I gleaned a lot of information from this article, the exposure triangle was very helpful. What a great recommendation using test footage for deciding which camera to use. Question, what can a person do for camera shake? I have a terrible problem with that.

    1. Hi Keith. For camera shake, I would recommend always having your camera attached to something like a tripod. If you need something more portable, you should look into the Joby GorillaPod which you can use handheld style or set it down somewhere for stabilized shots. It is a very versatile tool. Camera shake can also be fixed to a certain degree in an editing program like Adobe Premiere Pro with the Warp Stabilizer effect – a real life saver!

  4. Very cool suggestions. I see why it would be important to have interchangeable lenses and even the microphone jack – audio is SUPER important for videos, especially if you’re going to be training or self-taught to make professional video content. I feel closer to ready to buy my first nice camera!

  5. Hi Valerie, what an informative and really interesting article. I have never really been into photography, but since I have been with my boyfriend who is a professional photographer I have seen just how much goes into getting that perfect shot. You talking about shutter speed made me realize that this is a problem I have on my phone camera as I can never ever get a picture that isn’t blurry. Which isn’t good as I have a French Bulldog that I want to take pictures of and he doesn’t stop darting around for a minute!
    It was also interesting to understand what the depth of field means, making one object stand out sharply in a picture, or indeed, the whole picture. If I want my whole picture to stand out instead of one part does this detract in any way from the sharpness or does this depends on the quality of camera you have?

  6. I just started to go into photography as a hobby and an outlet for destressing and all but it helps to at least get good shots, right? I’ve only been doing mobile photography due to budget constraints but maybe if I start getting better in taking photos I can start tinkering with secondhand DSLRs and apply what I’ve just learned here. Although a lot of the pointers here can be applied to camera phones knowing how advanced the mobile phone cameras are becoming these days.

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