The best camera, as they say, is the one you have with you. For most these days, that camera's likely going to be baked into a smartphone. But if you're interested in upping your photographic game to the next level, you'll want to consider moving to a DSLR camera with interchangeable lenses and manual controls.
While there are scores of DSLRs out there to choose from, I feel that, based on my experience as a travel photographer and hours of research, for those new to the world of DSLR photography, Nikon's D3400 is the camera to get. It's an adaptable, easy-to-use workhorse of a camera that will keep you happy for years to come, but won't break the bank in the here and now.
What's a DSLR?
A Digital Single-Lens Reflex camera. A DSLR records images to digital media instead of to an OG roll of film. A DSLR uses a mirror inside of the body of the camera that reflects the image its lens 'sees' into the camera's viewfinder. This allows you to view exactly what the camera is going to capture—what you see is pretty much what you get.
Why buy a DSLR?
Because they're awesome. Smartphone cameras have limits. You've likely noticed that your phone's camera doesn't deal too well with lowlight photography or movement. A smartphone camera's digital zoom will turn what you're shooting into a pixelated nightmare. And, without the benefit of being able to switch lenses, lens filters or tinker with exposure, shutter speed and other photographic settings in a meaningful way, many photographers will never be able to fully realize the full quality or artistry that their photos could have if they had access to a serious, dedicated camera that supports interchangeable lenses and manual settings.
The body of the camera packs a larger image sensor that can be fit into the confined dimensions of a smartphone handset. Want to take great lowlight shots? A DSLR has your back. The wide ISO range, depth of field and other perks offered by a DSLR's provide a wide variety of tools to capture the important moments of your life with, artistically, or exactly as they appear. Then there are interchangeable lenses. With specialty optics like wide angle, fisheye, pancake, macro and telephoto lenses—you'll fill your camera bag with the hardware you need to capture images that'll delight you, no matter whether you're shooting street scenes, landscapes, sports or your family's next vacation.
Should you get a DSLR?
If any of the perks I mentioned above appeal to you, maybe. But there are a few things you might want to consider before pulling the trigger on the purchase of a new camera.
For starters, DSLRs don't come cheap. A decent one starts at around $400, and that's without a lens to use with it. Some camera shops and big box stores sell DSLRs with a kit lens, which is nice. But you'll still need to sink money into additional optics if you want the investment in a new camera to pay off.
One of the great things about using a smartphone to photograph your adventures is that they weigh next to nothing. Not so a DSLR and its lenses. Pack your camera, spare battery, a few lens filters and a couple of different lenses into padded camera bag to haul along with you on your next trip and you'll find that things get heavy, quickly. Whether or not the carrying of that weight is worth it depends on your dedication to capturing the best pictures possible. Finally, despite most coming equipped with automatic settings, learning to use a DSLR comes with a steep learning curve. This could be frustrating for some people. For others, however, the satisfaction of taming your hardware into taking an amazing photo in adverse conditions can provide a huge amount of satisfaction.
Which DSLR is right for beginners?
Until something better comes along, that would be the Nikon D3400. You can buy it new on Amazon with a DX NIKKOR 18-55mm kit lens for $497. Or, the same camera and kit lens can be had along with a70-300mm zoom lens for around $100 more. It's got a 4.6 star average rating at Amazon, with similar levels of satisfaction from shoppers at B&H Photo and Best Buy.
The D3400 is Nikon's entry level DSLR camera—but don't let this fact fool you: it was designed to make it easy and pleasurable for newcomers to DSLR photography to start using it right out of the box, but still offers more than enough photographic power, excellent battery life and features that you'll be happy to hone your skills as a shutterbug with for years before you'll feel the urge to buy a new camera. It's this blend of accessibility and a solid set of photographic must-haves that makes me comfortable with recommending it to you.
With its 24-megapixel image sensor, the D3400 is capable of taking detailed, vibrant photos that'll put most compact cameras and every smartphone out there to shame. The D3400 can capture images in both JPEG (at a number of different quality levels) and RAW formats. While shooting JPEG images, the camera's Active D-Lighting (ADL) feature will lick in if your photos are overexposed, ADL will tweak the lighting in the image to ensure that it has balanced mid-tones, rich shadows, and detailed highlights. This lends itself to taking great-looking photos that'll make an inexperienced DSLR user look like a champ. And if you'd like to turn your hand to shooting some video while you're out and about, the D3400 has your back. With 1080/60p video capture, it can, provided you have a steady hand or pony up the dough for a tripod, produce buttery-smooth footage with a ton of detail and a very respectable frame rate. Both your still photography and videography will be rendered razor-sharp, thanks to the auto-focus motor baked into the D3400's 18-55mm kit lens. The motor is, blissfully, pretty quiet. So, in most situations, you shouldn't hear it whirring away while you're recording audio with the camera's internal microphone.
No matter what you're photographing, you'll be able to frame your shots using the D3400's optical viewfinder or the 3" LCD display on the backside of the camera. Those who have never taken pictures using an optical viewfinder before, might be tempted to stick with using the camera's LCD display, which offers an experience familiar to anyone who's taken a photo with a smartphone. Seriously, give the optical viewfinder a chance. I promise that you'll love how much easier it is to frame a beautiful shot, understand where your camera is focusing and, perhaps best of all, actually see your subject in bright sunlight.
The D3400 was designed to be an affordable DSLR. As such, you don't get the fancy touchscreen found in many higher-end cameras—but that's ok! Despite its lack of a touchscreen interface, Nikon's thoughtful button and rocker-switch navigated UI ensures that the camera's various functions and menus are still easy to navigate.
The D3400 comes with a number of automatic settings that will make an easy go of taking photos until you get the hang of using the D3400's manual controls.
In addition to a fully automated mode that will call the shots on your, um... shots, there's also a number of scene-specific settings for you to work with. The portrait, landscape, action and macro modes, as well as a number of on-camera effects that you can use to create more artistic photographs, can all be found on the control knob on the top of the D3400's body. The knob is also home to a setting named 'Guide.' By flicking Guide mode on and using the rocker switch on the back of the camera's body to navigate its on-screen menus, you'll be able to tweak a wide variety of settings, including basic interactions, such as viewing/deleting your photos or setting your image size, as well as deeper camera functions like the ability for the camera to reduce motion blur, freeze the motion of a vehicle or person in a still photo or whether you'd like to keep things simple with the D3400's functions or access more complex photographic options using the camera's Advanced mode. As you work your way through the camera's setting using guide mode, the D3400 will offer up prompts that explain what each setting is for.
Feel like working without a net? Then you'll want to turn your attention to the camera's manual controls. Turn the settings knob on the top of the camera to M, and you'll be ready to start tinkering with manually adjusting your focus, ISO and aperture. The only real complaint you may have in this area is that the D3400 doesn't ship with dedicated ISO and aperture controls. In order to switch between them, you'll have to hit the exposure compensation button on the shoulder of the camera body. In doing this, you'll be able to tweak your ISO and aperture settings using the control dial on the back of the camera, just up and to the right of the LCD display. While this system might feel a little weird to anyone who's been shooting with DSLRs for a while, the balance that the D3400's controls strike between easily accessible automatic functionality and advanced manual control in a reasonably low-priced package is pretty stellar.
Oh, did I mention that the D3400 comes with a built-in flash? Because it totally does. However, a lot of folks, myself included, feel that the camera's a little too eager to let its flash fire, even in reasonably well-lit environments. Fortunately, it's possible to toggle the flash off completely to keep it from illuminating scenes that you'd rather keep dimly lit. It's also worth noting, that Nikon's engineers opted to step down the brightness of the camera's flash in the name of better battery life. Despite being dimmer than the flash on the D3400's predecessor, the D3300, the D3400 can still illuminate most scenes where you'd want to use a flash, with pleasing results. In the event that you want to outfit your D3400 with an upgraded flash, it's possible to do so thanks to its built-in hot shoe. Don't get any ideas about using the hot shoe with an external microphone to use on a video shoot, however. The D3400, as a cost-saving measure, lacks the ability to accept input from an outside audio source.
A social experience
One of the great things about taking photos with a smartphone or tablet is how easy it is, thanks to the web-connected nature of the hardware, to share your shots with the world using apps like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Editing your photos on a smart device is easy, provided you have the right apps, too. Doing either of these things with a DSLR? Not so easy—But Nikon has done what they can to make sharing and editing your photos on-the-go as easy as possible. Thanks to the D3400's SnapBridge functionality, the camera can use Bluetooth to transfer your photos to your smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth, almost immediately after you've finished taking them. Simply download the SnapBridge app to your iOS or Android device, follow the setup prompts and you're in business. The photos taken with your D3400 will appear on your smartphone, no fuss required. The app also provides access to Nikon's Image Space cloud storage service, which allows you to not only backup and share your photos online, but also see your photo's shooting data, geotagging and the ability to review style and technical usage trends in your photography. It's like Flickr for photographic data nerds.
The final word
While other economy priced cameras like the Canon EOS Rebel T6i, Pentax K-mount or the gorgeously designed hardware from Fujifilm's X series are also fine options for anyone to consider buying as their first DSLR, nothing at the time this guide was written, offers the awesome jack-of-all-trades-master-of-quite-a-few functionality and very reasonable price point that the Nikon D3400 does.
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