Best DSLR for an Amateur on a Budget

I get a lot of questions about a camera to really learn with, so I sat down and made a list of criteria that I thought would be good for a beginner/intermediate user who is looking for his first real DSLR, capable of advanced photography on a budget.

I came up with the following list:

  • Exceptional image quality
  • Two dials to learn shooting advanced modes
  • All the controls you need
  • A proper mirror
  • Access to a large range of accessories like lenses and flashes
  • Low price
  • The last camera I personally would ever sell

I’ve been through several iterations of buying and upgrading my cameras.  I’ve moved up to FX now, but when I think about the camera that I still shoot and love, it’s got to be the Nikon D7000.

I recommend this camera because I’ve really used it for thousands of photos, over a couple of years so, you know, I’m not talking out of my ass.  Notice that there are NO convenient links to buy any of this stuff.

Also, I’m sure that Sony, Pentax and Canon are all great, but I haven’t used them, so I can’t recommend them.  But if you take the above bullet points as a starter, you’ll be fine.

Image Quality
The D7000 is like a mini D800. Literally.


There are cases when I shoot both the D800 and D7000 side-by-side and to be honest, without zooming excessively, I can’t tell the difference.  When I switch my D800 to DX mode (where it only uses a smaller part of the sensor) there is NO difference – maybe even a slight advantage to the D7000.

Some users say that they even prefer the D7000 over the newer D7100.  I can’t say because I haven’t shot the D7100, but the images on sites like DPReview are razor sharp.

If you’re looking to take your photography to another level and want to learn how to shoot manual, and just basically know what you’re doing, the D7000 has both a command and subcommand dial so that you can set aperture and shutter speed independently.  It’s critical to have an actual dial for this without digging into a menu to find them.  It also has quick access to exposure compensation, ISO and its focusing system is still used by Nikon on much bigger and more expensive DSLRs.  If these aren’t so important to you, get a D5100.  It has the same, identical image quality but it’s smaller, cheaper and has a little bit less advanced focusing system.

Not Mirrorless
If you’re here, then you’ve probably also heard of mirrorless systems that are out there.  Maybe you’re even considering one of them.  I say don’t do it.

A mirror is a feature!
First off, mirrorless cameras use a lot of battery to keep the screen running instead of just reflecting the light through the lens up into the eyepiece.  You never have to turn a DSLR off to save battery.  NEVER.  As soon as you press the shutter button half way, it will wake up and take a shot in less than a fraction of a second – faster than the lens can focus!

Speaking of focus, mirrorless systems are slow to focus too.  I’ve used two mirrorless systems and neither performs the way I expect to shoot fast moving things.

These shots, made with my D7000, would have been basically impossible with a mirrorless system:

Bird in Flight
Sports and Fast Moving Subjects


Support for Accessories like Lenses and Flashes
I don’t necessarily recommend you get a flash right away, but you may want to. You will want to have additional lenses.  One lens does not fit all – even one of the new super zooms.

In fact, what I recommend is to find the best deal with the longest zoom lens you can find bundled to save a lot of money.

Then take it off!

Add a 35mm f/1.8G DX lens.  That lens is super cheap, awesomely sharp and lets you get those interesting effects like when you throw the background out of focus.

Save the long zoom for vacation or until you’ve learned to get great shots with the 35mm prime (non-zoom) lens.  The trick is to keep moving around to arrange things in the frame in an interesting way. If you’ve read my post on how to take better photos, you’ll understand that you have to move around to get things arranged in your viewfinder to make a great photo.

There is one other time you’ll want to use the zoom: portraits.  Step back and zoom as far as you can for portraits. Faces just look best that way. Here is another example with the D7000:

Zoom for portraits

There are a lot of accessories that you’ll want to think about getting when you start in photography like remote shutter releases, flashes and filters*.

*Don’t let the camera shop guy talk you in buying a “protective” filter.  It’s a trick to increase his margin: a scratched lens isn’t visible in the final photo and a filter does NOT protect against damage from dropping the camera.  I don’t baby my cameras; they work hard, get dirty and banged around. I rarely even use the lens cap.  You know how many scratches I have?  None.  Lenses have hard, tough, thick front elements.

Use, don’t baby your camera, and don’t buy a protective filter.

Since we’re talking about accessories, the battery grip for the D7000 series is really nice and recommended if you need that extra heft and place to put your hand when the camera is in portrait orientation.

One nice feature of the D7000 family is that it supports what Nikon calls CLS.  It means Creative Lighting System, but what it really does is allow that you to use the popup flash to control and trigger other Nikon flashes that are not on top of the camera.  This is usually the recommended way to use flash.  That’s an advanced subject, but you are looking at the D7000 to learn, right?  Check out this example below.  If you’re curious, everything you ever wanted to know on

Control flashes that are “off camera” with the D7000.

Low Price
At the time of this writing, you’ll find the D7000 with lens for around $1000 and the 35mm DX prime for under $200.  That’s all you need.

If you read this later, don’t worry, the D7x00 series is the one that you want because it’s the “lowest” in the series that has all the buttons, dials and advanced features.

Don’t feel the need to buy the latest version as you can often save a lot of cash by buying the previous generation either new or used. Basically, I say if the difference is less than $100-$200, get the newer one.

Again, if all the dials isn’t important to you because you don’t think you’ll ever want to learn shoot manual (you should!) then go with the D5x00 series.  I use A (aperture priority) mode 90% of the time but use manual and S (shutter priority) the rest of the time, but back to choosing a camera.

The Last Camera I Would Ever Sell
Yep, that’s right.  While the D7000 isn’t exactly my desert island camera (D800) if times were tough and I had to sell everything I had, it’s the camera they would pry out of my cold, dead, starved hands.

If I wasn’t dead yet, then I would have taken some of them out with me using my tripod.  Do get a tripod, you’ll need it.

The D7000 series is really something special.  I still use and love mine.

Here are some more images to attempt to convince you and because I just like showing off:

Pretty good in low light too.
Use of electronics is now allowed – but it wasn’t when I took this!
Seriously, get a good lens like the 35mm DX lens. It makes a difference. This shot was taken with the 17-55 f/2.8 (awesome, but heavy and expensive).
On the Street. The D7000 is just the right size, not too small, not too big as to be imposing.
Get close.
Mirrorless sucks
Mirrorless sucks at focusing.

4 thoughts on “Best DSLR for an Amateur on a Budget”

  1. Hi,
    Thank you for your website! I just read the comparison Sigma vs Nikon 35mm.

    But, for budget DSLR today? Get a D700 in good condition, if you can live without video. For an amateur? More than enough.
    Check my flickr page, looking for members: pierre van der vaeren.

    People should focus on getting good lenses. D700 with a AF-S 24-70, or 28, 35, 50 (and check the Ai-S 50 1.2) and 85mm is much better than a D800 or D7100 with average zooms…

    Thanks again

  2. Couldn’t agree more – I got this camera a year or so back and it still blows me away. I use it for surf photos and though the buffer fills occasionally, it’s still pretty great for the size/quality/speed triangle…all the water shots on my website ( are with that camera (mainly with the 50mm 1.8G). I am tossing up the D750 or a new water housing with more controls (only have 2 stage AF and shutter speed). Hope you’ve been enjoying your shooting!

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