The Budget SLR Gourmet

Published January 4, 2009

This is a bit of a different perspective for us: I’m writing this article at the request of a number of our rental customers about what to BUY, not what to RENT. Fairly often one of our customers, beginning to get into photography, emails me with questions about getting quality gear on a budget. They don’t want to buy junk, they want equipment they can grow into. But in these times, putting a few thousand bucks into a hobby (or even a startup photography business) isn’t something done easily. I answer these kind of questions so often that I thought I’d write some of it down for others in that situation.

First, the disclaimers: these are my opinions. They’re based on a lot of experience, both from my own photography and based on helpful positive and negative comments we’ve received from our renters. When someone makes recommendations to me though, I want to know as much as I can about where their perspective comes from, so I can see how well their opinion is going to match my wants. For the same reason, I want you to know where my opinions are coming from. For this article I’m writing from the point of view of what I’d want if I was a serious amateur or startup professional, which is a bit different from some comments I’ve made as the owner of a busy rental business. For example, as a lot of you know, we have horrible problems with the longer Sigma telephoto zooms from a business standpoint: the quality control is poor. It costs us a lot of money when we buy a lens and then can’t rent it for weeks while its in factory repair. That doesn’t necessarily apply to an individual, though. An amateur photographer might find that same lens to be a great bargain if it gives them similar quality to a lens that costs twice as much, and they may not care if it is a bit more likely to need a trip to the factory service center (especially if its under warranty). So I might recommend buying a lens in this space to you as an individual, even though we can’t carry it at LensRentals because of quality control problems.

Second I’ll be writing this looking at prices and availability of new equipment in January 2009. Things will change over time to some degree. And finally, when you read this you should know my own personal preferences and priorities. I’m an image quality fanatic with a dose of realism. When I’m going out to shoot something specific, I’ll probably grab a professional grade prime lens and a top of the line camera to do it with. I’ll shoot the image in RAW and I would no more post or print it without postprocessing it in Photoshop than my daughter would go to a party without make-up on. So best image quality for the buck is my usual point of view, I’m less interested in convenience (in other words, if given the choice between a $400 18-200mm zoom and a $400 prime lens I’ll generally pick the prime, I’d rather have a few great images than a lot of OK images). I know from previous discussions that a lot of photographers are perfectly happy with lenses I’d never shoot with, so my standards are, if anything, on the high side. With that aside, lets get started.

Bargain Digital SLRs

Canon XTi: If I had a kid, friend, or spouse who wanted a first digital SLR right now, I’d immediately send them out to buy one of the discontinued XTis that can still be found new-in-the-box for under $400 at a number of online retailers. Its a nice 10 megapixel body, can use any lens in the Canon lineup, is easy to use on autopilot (green box mode) but is still a full-featured SLR. The newer XSi is a bit better, and 50% more expensive.
Nikon D80: On the Nikon side, I consider the discontinued (but still available new-in-box) D80 to be the bargain entry level camera at around $550. I never recommend the D40x/60 cameras because the lack of autofocus motor means a large number of Nikon lenses are not available for practical use since they won’t autofocus. The number of useable lenses may never be an issue for the photographer, but you never know who is going to get into the hobby and be frustrated when they can’t use certain lenses they want to use. Full disclosure—I may be a bit prejudiced here as I talk to 2 or 3 Nikon D40 owners a week who want to shoot with a prime or the 80-400mm and are very frustrated by this limitation. It might not be as big a deal for many people.
The Olympus E-420 and Sony A100 are other options at around $400, but just aren’t delivering as much bang for he buck as the XTi, particularly because ISO performance is limited.

Bargain zooms with great IQ

Standard Range – Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8: There’s a reason they call it the Standard Range: its where most of us take most of our shots. The Tamron is probably the best bargain of any zoom lens there is: for $350 you get an f/2.8 constant aperture lens that is wickedly sharp and works on both full and crop sensor cameras. It doesn’t focus quite as fast as the manufacturer’s 24-70mm f/2.8s, and its built a lot lighter than they are. (The small size is a plus in many situations, but its a bit less sturdy, too). Basically its 90% of the lens the Canon/Nikon/Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 for about 30% of the price.

Wide Angle – Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8: For crop sensor cameras, the 17-50mm Tamron gives a wider equivalent of the 28-75mm: Still about $350, just about as sharp as the manufacturer’s lenses in this focal range, at about half to 1/3 of the price.

Ultra-Wide – There are no clear bargains here for crop sensor cameras. The Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6 is the least expensive, but not dramatically cheaper than the Tamron, Tokina or manufacturer’s own lenses in this range. All of them seem to be good lenses with their plusses and minuses, not dramatically better or worse than the others.

Medium Telephoto – Probably no focal length provides more garbage and confusion than the 70-300mm range. There are literally dozens of horrid 3rd party 70-300mm zooms out there and walking through this area looking for a bargain is likely to get you some cheap garbage if you don’t do a little research. Here’s one rule of thumb: there is absolutely no decent 70-300mm zoom selling for less than $225. Promise.

In almost every case, the manufacturer’s own 70-300mm zoom is the best choice for a small, lightweight zoom – The Canon and Nikon 70-300mm stabilized lenses are excellent and at $450 aren’t much higher than the decent 3rd party lenses (Note – Canon 75-300mm IS lenses, still available some places, are a discontinued model that is far inferior to the 70-300mm.) Sony and Olympus also make lenses in this range that are not quite as good, but are less expensive (about $300).They are certainly as good as any of the third party offerings.

In the 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom range, both Tamron and Sigma have good offerings Both the Tamron and Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 zooms are very sharp, and at about $700 are 1/2 to 2/3 the price of the manufacturer’s f/2.8 zooms in this range. The Sigma autofocuses faster than the Tamron, which will be important for sports and action shooters. Both are known to have quality control problems out of the box, so be sure to buy from a reputable store that will exchange a bad copy at no cost. Nobody wants to send their brand new lens back to the factory and wait weeks for it to be repaired.

Super Telephoto Beam me up Scotty, there’s no intelligent life-forms here on the planet of “I want a cheap supertelephoto lens”. By far the most common waste of $500 we hear about at LensRentals is the person trying to get a $500 supertelephoto lens—after they find out its not useable, they find out nobody else will buy it from them. And while I’m on my soapbox, a sharp picture from a supertelephoto zoom with a teleconverter mounted isn’t happening either. There. I feel better now.

The only reasonable candidates for (reasonably) low-priced supretelephotos are the Sigma 120-400mm f/4.5-5.6 OS ($750), the Sigma 150-500mm f/4-6.3 OS ($880) and the Tamron 200-500mm f/5-6.3 ($800). The Sigmas both have image stabilization but are quite large and heavy, the Tamron does not have IS, and is very small and lightweight. The Tamron is the sharpest of the 3 at the long end and we recommend it on Sony and Olympus bodies that have in-body image stabilization; and for other brands if you know you’ll be shooting in bright light or mounted on a tripod. The Sigmas are pretty good lenses when you get a good copy, but that may take a couple of exchanges. One note here: Avoid the Sigma 135-400mm f/4.5 – 5.6 (see waste of $500 above), its image quality isn’t acceptable although the price seems very attractive.

For a couple of hundred dollars more you can get a Sigma 50-500mm (Bigma) which while not image stabilized is a sharp and reliable lens, and for a bit more than that the Canon or Nikon supertelephoto zooms (100-400mm and 80-400mm respectively).

Bargain Prime lenses

Most people these days forget there’s a really cheap way to great image quality: prime lenses. A ‘consumer’ grade prime lens gives a wider aperture (usually f/2.0 or f/1.8) than a professional level zoom, and stopped down to f/2.8 or so it gives a sharper image than the professional zoom does. They just don’t (GASP!) zoom so you have to use your feet or change lenses to frame the shot the way you want. But they’re so small and cheap that if you don’t mind changing lenses you can ‘collect the whole set’ for often no more than a single pro level zoom would cost. Some of the best bargains (in order).

  1. Canon 50mm f/1.8 – cheaply made and prone to break, but sharp as a tack, and at $85 its basically a disposable.
  2. Nikon 50mm f/1.8 – as above but better built and $110 or so (but won’t work on D40/60 bodies).
  3. Sony 28mm f/2.8 – A very nice, well made prime, but at f/2.8 not so ultra fast. Still, its a bargain at $200.
  4. Olympus 25mm f/2.8 – As above, but its also a tiny ‘pancake’ lens that fits easily in your pocket for $200.
  5. Sigma 30mm f/1.4 – Available in all mounts for crop sensor camera, its the fastest wide angle prime available and a bargain at $375.
  6. Canon 85 f/1.8 – Very sharp, very quick to focus, well built. A great indoor sports lens at $325.
  7. Nikon 85 f/1.8 – Very sharp and a good lens at $350 (but won’t work on D40/60 bodies).

Shop Carefully

One thing I can’t mention too much – if you aren’t an experienced online shopper, then get a guide before you go off in the wild. There are a lot of scam artists and crooks selling camera gear online. I can list the names of dozens of them with but it wouldn’t help a lot—they change their names and put up a new sites every few months. Most of the scammers operate out of one sweatshop but may have a dozen online ‘fronts’ each complete with a different looking website and an address that’s usually just a mail drop-box. The bigger ones pay to be listed on ‘pricefinder’ websites (some of those are scams too) just like the big boys.

Generally if you stick with reputable sites like B&H, Adorama, Samy’s, Calumet, Buydig and Beach Camera (the latter two are actually the same company, I don’t know why they keep two different sites) you’ll be fine. If you buy from somewhere that the price is much lower than those places, its likely to be a scammer. Oh, and one more thing: of course you’ll look up their ratings on but check not only the numeric rating, but how long they’ve been getting ratings: the first thing a scammer does when he opens a new site is to get a few dozen positive ratings posted so they look legit for a few months. Make sure the place you buy from has ratings going back at least 6 months or more.

Here’s one example: all of the following online camera vendors are the same place, they all are really:
1938 McDonald Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11223
George Sabato, President

But as word about Best Price being a scam site has gotten out they’ve added all these additional websites that you’d never know were Best Price without a lot of digging:

Best Stop Camera
Crystal International Services Inc.
Digital EBuys
Enterprise Photo
Hello Camera
Infiniti Cameras
Infiniti Photo
Infinity Cameras
J&K Cameras, Inc.
Mr. Accessory
Razz Photo
Regency Camera
Regency Photo & Video, Inc.

And if you want to get a little queasy, visit the wonderful site Don Wiss created with pictures of the actual stores that are behind some of those fancy web pages HERE.

Happy shopping!

Roger Cicala

Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

Posted in Recommendations
  • Sloan

    This was fun, of course the cameras I’m recommending these days aren’t on there. I’d love an update!
    My current recommendations:

    if a viewfinder is not required:
    NEX-3? (the old models going for cheap)
    olympus pen (whatever is going for really cheap)

    Punch line: real cameras real cheap and you can put lots of strange lenses on them. I’m also a fan of people learning on MF

    With Viewfinder:
    One of the sony alpha cameras, preferably last season: the cheap and friendly primes are finally available and they are all stabilised!
    Nikon d3200: cool sensor from what I’ve seen and there are reasonable primes to be had!
    Canon 5D mk1: Its cheap now! it is full frame!

    Lenses: Kit zoom if you must, 35mm and 50mm primes 85mm if there is one cheap. For long lenses on canon: old OM lenses, Nikon: old mf nikons, for Sony: something new and very expensive…

  • Dave


    Thanks for the quick reply. I’m considering the Canon EOS Rebel XSi / 450D as my first venture into DSLR. I assume this is a crop sensor. How does focal length differ between crop sensor & full frame? W/ all the choices would the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens be a good start?

    Thanks for your time.

  • Roger Cicala

    A full frame has a sensor the size of 35mm photo film. A crop sensor is smaller, about 2/3 the size of a full frame. A 4/3 sensor is smaller still, about half the size of full frame. Point and shoot cameras have much smaller sensors, about 1/8 the size of a full frame sensor.

  • Dave

    As a person still heavy in film & considering moving into digital SLR, yeh, I have a couple digital point & shoots. Can you explain crop sensor compared to full frame?

  • Julie

    Hi, Roger.

    Have you redone this type of article recently?

  • Peter

    I’d actually recommend a cheap Sony for the lower end over Canon or Nikon. Why? In-body IS. With Sony, you can pick up an 18-200mm lens for $240. For Canon and Nikon, if you want IS (and the lens is almost useless without), you’re looking at over $500. With Sony, you can get a cheap 50mm or 35mm f/1.8 prime, which with IS gives the ultimate in low-light performance. Maxxum used lenses are also a bargain, and again, the used lens market becomes much more useful with IS in the body.

    The older Sony cameras — a100, a700, 5D, 7D, etc. also had user-interfaces that provided a much smoother learning curve than Canon or Nikon. Sony had a usable automatic mode with control over exposure time, ISO, etc., which was as good for point-and-click as Canon and Nikon, but let the beginner play with more advanced features too. Sadly, newer Sonys did away with this.

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