If I Had $1000 to Spend on My First DSLR Camera…

I’ve only got $1000 to spend on a camera, lens and accessories, what should I buy and why?

This is a question that frequently pops up on popular photography forums like those found on Photo.net.  I have a soft spot in my heart for Photo.net and its members.  It’s where I renewed my interest in photography, specifically “digital photography.”  And, I’ve asked so many questions about what to buy and read countless questions of others asking the same thing.  (I’ve really asked some dumb questions.  But the crew at Photo.net were very friendly and responsive to my questions.)

Now, it may not always be the $1000 figure, it might be $800 or $1500.  Or, someone might be trying to decide between a couple of lenses and flashes.  I’ve also received plenty of questions like this from readers of Photography Bay in the form of comments, emails and our own fledgling forum.  But, for now, we’ll stick with this budget and look for a good first DSLR kit.

With the holiday shopping season ramping up, many of you may be in just this boat, with a budget in this neighborhood, give or take a few bucks.  So, here’s the advice I would give myself if I were looking to by my first DSLR today.

The Camera

A few years ago, getting a DSLR under a $1000 meant 1 camera and 1 lens.  That camera was the Canon EOS Digital Rebel, which was followed by the Rebel XT (a camera and lens combo that I paid $1000 for in 2005).

There are several newly released entry-level DSLRs that can be had for under $1000 and feature all kinds of new bells and whistles; however, just because something came out last year doesn’t mean it’s broken.  Really, a lot of the camera updating pace boils down to marketing and what kind of cameras that manufacturers can talk us into buying.  Don’t jump on the bandwagon just because it’s driving by.

Today, a much better DSLR can be had in the $500 range.  So, there are some other great tools you can get to go with your camera, or you can spend more on the camera itself.  Amazingly, the Nikon D40 can be had for $469.95.  That’s a great deal and that’s a great camera.  I bought one when it came out and passed it along to relative who still uses it on a regular basis. The big downer for me with the D40 though is that it doesn’t autofocus with some of the older Nikon lenses – the big one being the Nikon 50mm f/1.8, which I would have otherwise recommended to go with the D40.

As a result, I think I would spend a little more on a camera and lens combo and get the Canon Rebel XSi w/ 18-55mm IS lens.  Sure, the Rebel T1i is new and it has 1080p video recording and more megapixels, etc.  Those differences aren’t all they’re cracked up to be though.  And, besides, I’m giving advice to me on purchasing my first DSLR.  So, I should listen to myself and appreciate the fact that I don’t really “need” all the extra bells and whistles on the Rebel T1i.  There, I just saved $150 on the camera and lens combo.  Great decision.

Memory Cards

Now, we’ve got a camera.  What else do we need? Memory cards.  Not the fastest, but not the slowest either.  Something that’s proficient and reliable, like the 4GB Lexar 60x SDHC card.  I would pick the 4GB size because it’s a good size for the Rebel XSi, holding over 1000 JPEG files or around 300-400 RAW files.  Additionally, I’d buy two of them because they’re only $15 and you never know when you’ll be out having fun shooting and need the room for extra photos.

One Other Essential Lens

While the 18-55mm IS lens is a good lens, I think the EF 50mm f/1.8 lens will help you grow and produce more pictures that pop.  The key here is the combination of the focal length and the bright f/1.8 aperture.  The lower the f-number, the better the camera is at separating the main subject from the background (read: blurry background).  Additionally, the 50mm focal length is really great for portraits on a camera like the Rebel XSi.  There’s a bunch of theoretical mumbo jumbo that explains this; however, for now we’ll just say the smaller sensor in the Rebel XSi makes the 50mm lens work like an 80mm lens, which is great length for portraits and for those candid moments with friends or kids.

The other great thing about the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 lens – it’s only $109.95.

Don’t be enticed by the long length of the 75-300mm lenses.  You’ll find yourself cursing blurry photos and asking why photos are too dark all too often.  For now, trust me, and just buy this nice, cheap, bright lens.  You’ll thank me later.  And, if this new hobby takes, you’ll want a much better lens than the consumer-grade 75-300mm lenses, and you’ll save the extra pennies to make that happen.

A Flash That “Bounces”

An external flash is next on my list.  My pick?  The Canon 270EX, which currently runs $129.  The Canon 270EX flash is a shoemount flash that goes on top of the Rebel XSi or other Canon DSLR.  It features a “bounce” head, which means you can tilt the flash up at a variety of angles to help bounce the light down onto your subject from, say, a white ceiling.  This helps soften the light and generally makes better indoor photos.  The bounce head is the reason I pick the 270EX over the cheaper 220EX with no bounce head.

While you could spring for a flash like the Canon 430EX II, it goes well above and beyond what most people need for their first DSLR.  There’s plenty of room to grow with the 430EX II; however, it also eats up the rest of my budget.

Basic Tripod

There are a lot of awesome tripods that you could buy.  If I had my druthers, I’d recommend the Manfrotto 190XB and ball head combo.  But I don’t have any druthers here – I’ve only got $130 left to spend and still more to buy after a tripod.  My pick would be something like the Impact 1018 tripod with ball head at $39.95.  This makes it possible for you to take those family photos with a timer (or remote – we’ll get to that in a minute) as well as set up for landscape scenic shots or maybe try your hand at HDR photography.

Wireless Remote

I just mentioned this above.  What I’m talking about here is the Canon RC1 remote, which costs $24.95.  This is an infrared remote that lets you fire your camera even when you’re not behind the camera.  The RC1 can trigger the shutter instantly or with a 2 second delay, which is great for when you are in the photo.  It works will all the Rebel series cameras, the Canon 5D Mark II and 7D.  I’ve had the RC1 in my bag since I bought a Rebel XT in 2005 and it’s been more than worth the price.

Don’t be surprised when you buy a DSLR if your family designates you the official photographer of all family gatherings.  I remember my Uncle “Boots” used to have an old film camera with the buzzing timer, which he would release and then make a 10 second sprint to get in the family Christmas photo every year.  It was somewhat of a sport and had everyone smiling by the time he got in the frame just before the shutter released.  The first frame was great; however, by the time we got the fourth and fifth extra shots, everyone was hot and complaining about having to wait.

Uncle “Boots” is no longer with us and I have inherited the job of taking the family Christmas photo (although I’d give it back to “Boots” in a second to have him around one more Christmas).  What used to take several minutes with the set-your-timer approach, can now be over in half a minute with a dozen or so frames thanks to the Canon RC1 remote.

Camera Bag

You didn’t think I would forget a way to carry all this stuff, did you?  While I love the Think Tank Photo Streetwalker Harddrive, you don’t need anything that fancy for a basic DSLR kit.  My recommendation would be to pick a capable, but cheaper, bag in the $40 range – like the Tamrac 5371 backpack, which runs $42.50.

A Book to Learn More About Photography

All this new gear is great stuff.  But it’s useless if you don’t know how to use it.  Since we’re talking to new DSLR users here, I can’t recommend Bryan Peterson’s Understanding Exposure enough.  It runs about $16 and will be the best $16 you spend above and beyond any equipment that you can buy.

Bryan breaks down the components that go into making a great exposure and other elements of photography with an easy-to-follow approach.  In my opinion, it is the best book out there on these basic concepts.

Wrapping It Up

So, how did I do?

Rebel XSi w/ 18-55mm lens = $600

2 Lexar SD memory cards = $30

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 lens = $110

Canon 270EX flash = $129

Impact tripod & head = $40

Canon RC1 remote = $25

Tamrac backpack = $42.50

Understanding Exposure book = $16

Grand Total = $992.50

This is just my take on it, but if I had $1000 to spend on my first DSLR, knowing what I know now, this is how I would spend it.

What about you?



  1. Roderick says

    Here’s an alternative:Olympus E-620 with 14-42 and 50-150 lenses for $900 Cdn…2GB xD card for $21 Cdn.

  2. says

    Thank you for the good article and suggestions. I am currently in that predicament and am ready to move away from my Minolta DiMage Z3. I also agree that as an amateur photographer I don’t need a video camera hidden inside of my camera, but it is still something that I was struggling with. Thanks again and have a great time.

  3. says

    Last month I bought a Nikon D40 at a closeout price, since its now discontinued, a few 4 Gig SanDisk cards, a Nikon SB400 Speedlight, and a nice Crumpler camera bag. Total outlay: $640.00.

    I like the D3000 from Nikon, but if someone found a D60 or D40X at around 400.00, save the diff from a D3000 or D5000 and put it towards an extra lens like a 55-200. Perfect setup, no, but value for money.

    Hardly have put the camera down since. I came from a P&S level, using both a Canon SD1000 and Canon G6. Glad I invested the money in the Nikon, but I;m sure the Canon DSLRs are just as fun.

  4. bugoy says

    nikon d5000 + 18-55 + 55-250 = christmas super combo deal for $900 only. google.
    nissin flash = $130 maybe = (capable of wireless flash + 3rd party radio trigger.
    ———thats 1030.00 usd.

    if w/ extra funds, for low light, street shoot af-s 35 1.8, better than 50 1.8 = $200 a pop.

  5. Max says

    Another vote for Olympus. Just got an E-510 with 14-42 for $370.00. The kit glass is not fast, but better than anything in the sub $500.00 category. Noise-wise it is the same as D40x, A230 or K-m. And unlike the competition, it has usable live view. Besides, it has all possible options like exposure and flash bracketing and DOF preview.