Thoughts on Purchasing an SLR Camera

(…or why I like my Olympus E-1)

There are a million and one cameras out there, and picking a camera to buy can be really exciting and a little scary. It’s hard to know what you want or need, and if you will be happy with your camera and the pictures that come out of it. So to possibly help (or possibly complicate) the process of buying a new camera, I’m going to post my ideas and experience on what makes a good camera. Since I use an SLR camera, I’m going to focus on those, but a lot of this could apply to any kind of camera. (although SLRs provide better image quality and more flexibility than most other cameras)

The camera is simply a tool to capture images, and while this is its only function, a lot of factors come into this.

  • Do you want to be seen carrying it around?

    If you don’t have your camera with you, you can’t take pictures. So how it looks is important.

  • Is is comfortable to hold and carry around?

    Weight and ergonomics are important factors, and can make a big difference when you see that animal on the trail, but your hand was cramping trying to carry the camera, so now you have to dig it out of your pack.

  • Can you get at advanced settings quickly? Do you use them?

    If you change the shutter speed often to capture silky waterfalls, or change the aperture to blur the background, can you change these easily? If you’re shooting a snowy winter scene, can you set the exposure compensation in 2 seconds before your friend skis by you? On the other hand, maybe you hate settings, maybe you always want automatic. Then you should make sure the camera has a great automatic mode (most do these days), and don’t worry too much about access to settings. But beware – you learn as you take pictures and one day you might find yourself wishing you could just change one little thing to get a better picture.

  • What about bad weather?

    Some of the best pictures are taken in bad weather. Spectacular storms, rainbows, and heavy snow can make a good picture great. Do you want to be worried about getting your camera wet or cold? Do you want to shoot from under an umbrella or with a plastic bag over your camera?

  • But I just want amazing pictures with not much effort.

    You will get some. Cameras take good quality photos these days – any camera will. There are some color differences, some capture a little more detail than others, and some have less noise at high iso settings, but most cameras will take pretty good pictures. The main challenge now is getting us to take good pictures, and that sometimes takes effort. I’m always amused when someone sees a great picture and they say, “Wow, you must have a good camera.” Honestly, that hardly matters.


The store salesperson will inform you about megapixels, ISO 1600 shots with no noise, and any other latest whiz-bang (does that date me?) technology a new camera might have. These are things that can be measured, and are easy to spout off without knowing a lot about photography. I believe these should be at the bottom of the list of things you care about when buying a camera. So what should be at the top? That all depends on how you use it.

  • Do you take landscape photos that you want make 3 foot prints of?

    Then you do want lots of megapixels. The more you have, the more detailed your print may be. I say may, because as the number of megapixels goes up, the level of detail doesn’t exactly correspond. It will generally go up to, but the sensor has many factors other than pixel count that affect the amount of detail it can capture. Don’t expect to get much more detail with a 10 megapixel point and shoot than a five megapixel SLR. Why? Because the sensor on the SLR is much larger.

  • Do you want to take pictures of sports games or birds (or your kids who never stop moving)?

    Well, you’re going to need fast autofocus, and long zoom lenses, and you might even want image stabilization. If you can’t focus on a bird before it disappears behind a tree, you’ve lost the shot. And if the bird is just a speck in the distance anyway, does it matter if you get the shot? Long lenses are expensive – can you afford one that will give you decent image quality?

  • Do you want pictures your friend’s band playing at the pub?

    Then low noise at high ISOs might be important to you so your shutter speed can be fast enough so not everything is blurred. You will also want lenses with a large aperture (or low f-stop). Lenses that let in a lot of light are much more expensive.

  • Do you want to take your camera kayaking, rock climbing, hiking, and other places it will be abused?

    This is my category. I don’t ever want to worry about if my camera is safe. I don’t want to worry about it getting wet. I just want it to be there whenever I want it, to get the shot I want. For this you want at least a water resistant camera, if not waterproof. You want something that’s not plastic, so if hits something, the most you’ll get is a ding or a scrape. You want a small camera, so you won’t get sick of carrying around.


I now have the Olympus E-1, which is an old digital SLR. No salesperson would ever try to sell it to you. Its only five megapixels, and Olympus will have a replacement for it this summer. But there are very few cameras out there right now that I would want more than this one, even if I had the money to buy anything.

The settings in the olympus are easy to change. There is a button for almost anything, and you rarely have to change any settings on the LCD. You want to change the exposure compensation – press the button and turn the wheel. You want to change the focus point – press the button and turn the wheel. The ISO – press the button and turn the wheel. Set the timer, change the bracketing settings, its all the same. This makes it very quick to set up for any situation. Now on some cameras, you don’t have to turn the wheel – you just press the button. The problem with this is that it can happen by bumping the camera, so your next few shots might be ruined until you realize you’re using the wrong settings.

The E-1 is water-resistant (and has lots of water resistant lenses for it). People have dropped their E-1s in puddles, they’ve washed them off under the sink when they get dirty. Of course Olympus doesn’t recommend this, but the camera seems to be able to handle a lot. I have taken it through everything from afternoon drizzles to all day jungle downpours. It just always works, and I don’t have to worry about it. It has a metal body, which is really durable. I haven’t exactly dropped it on rocks yet, but I’ve knocked it around a lot, and I’m fully expecting to abuse it more in the future. I want my camera to be able to handle that.

It is also easy to carry around. The E-1 has a large grip which my hand fits into very well. I can carry it in my hand all day and not get tired of holding it. I’m not scared of dropping it because of the rubber grip and the contours of the body that naturally keep it in my hand.

One part I haven’t touched on much yet, which is one of the most important parts is lenses. This will only apply to SLRs. If you buy a camera body, you will probably want to replace it in a year or two. Lenses rarely get outdated like this. Usually, you build up a collection of lenses for one brand, and replace your camera body with the same brand, so it fits all your lenses. So half of your decision to buy a camera should be based on whether that system has lenses you like or not. Generally, spending money on lenses is more important than spending money on your camera. They are much more of a sound investment, and will have a huge effect on the quality of the pictures you take. So I like Olympus in this regard because they have weather-sealed lenses, I can get a zoom range of 28mm to 400mm with only two (very good quality) lenses, both f2.8-3.5 over their zoom range, which is very good. These are also not massive lenses, so they are easy to take on hikes. I don’t want a massive camera bag to lug around with me everywhere.

Size is the one area where I’m not totally happy with the E-1 – it’s pretty big. Now the lenses more than make up for that (compared to other SLR lenses), but I do wish the E-1 was a little smaller. However, I’m not willing to give up good ergonomics for a smaller, lighter body (which would be the case for the Canon Digital Rebel). Olympus does have the E-410, which is a really good, and very small SLR. However, I’m not willing to give up the E-1’s weather-sealed body.

So we finally come to megapixels. The E-1 has only five. That’s old, outdated, and not up to industry standard (which makes it really inexpensive, especially on ebay). But wait a minute. I can print 16″ x 20″ prints that look great. The full size photos are larger than your computer monitor. Why do I need more megapixels? There are possible answers to that question. If I want to print larger or sell photos to stock photo agencies I may need more megapixels. But 5 megapixel images have graced full page spreads in National Geographic. More than likely, you won’t be limited by five megapixels. Sure, I’d take more if all things were equal, but they’re not equal and frankly megapixels are not that important.


Although you need to be comfortable working with your camera body, you need a lot more than a camera body to get good pictures. You need a tripod, you need the right lenses, and most of all you need skill and creativity. Honestly, you will probably be happy with whatever camera you buy, and no matter what you get, it will probably take great pictures. I just want to counteract the salespitch you will likely get at the store, and which has almost nothing to do with taking pictures.

One thought on “Thoughts on Purchasing an SLR Camera”

  1. Hi Joel,

    I found your blog, and specifically this post, as a result of a Google search on Nikon D80. Thank you SO much for writing the above post, you really helped clarify what all the technical stuff about cameras boils down to in practice. My husband and I have a basic digital camera (can’t even tell you how many pixels right now 😉 and it’s worn out so we are looking for a replacement, probably a digital SLR. I read one lady’s blog who had said Nikon and she was taking amazing shots, from a distance too, of animals, people, scenery. We also have an older 35mm Pentax which functions great, it’s just expensive buying the film, developing it and finding some less-than-stellar shots. I guess what I would really like your thoughts/ recs on would be, what type of digital SLR camera should we buy? We are not photographers, but we would like to get beautiful, clear shots of our children, still and in motion :-), and also something that would allow us to shoot scenery and close-up nature shots and perhaps some distant shots but not that many. We don’t a weatherproof/ waterproof body so much, just something we can grab quick, find the right settings and get a great picture. Right now we have no camera and we are missing a lot of valuable ‘milestones’ as far as our kids go, so what is your best advice, if you have the time and inclination to share? What should/ can we do with our Pentax? We paid close to $900 for it about 8 years ago; is it saleable, or could we trade it in at all? Thank you so much in advance for writing this, I would have e-mailed you but could not find a way to do so. Plus I also wanted to thank you for your post; I know what it’s like to blog and not see a comment, and you certainly deserve one. 🙂 Really, really nice website as well, you are very gifted at photography – thanks for sharing it with the world. I’ll check back to see if you were able to comment; thanks again!

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