Picking the Right 35mm SLR

Putting Your System Together

Dan Knight - June 2002, updated

You've had a quick introduction to 35mm SLR photography, from lenses to camera features to flash. Now it's time to pull it all together and figure out what's going to work best for you.

My first suggestion is to find a good local camera store. These tend to be stocked by people who are serious about photography and love the hobby. They also tend to be more experienced and stick around longer than employees in the national chain camera stores. (And even the chain stores are superior to what you're likely to find in the local camera department at Sears, Walmart, and the like.)

Find a store and find an employee who is willing to spend some time chatting about cameras, letting you handle the models that interest you, discussing and demonstrating various lenses, etc. And then treat the store and salesperson right by buying the camera from him/her.

Plan Ahead

If you're serious about photography, remember that these SLRs let you change lenses, so you needn't be limited to what you buy today. Plan your needs.

Everyone is different, so what works for me may not suit you. I'm a nut for fast short telephoto lenses, such as the Nikon 85/1.8. I'd also prefer a 28-105/2.8-4 zoom to the 28-200/3.8-5.6 zoom I own, but they weren't available when I first bought my Nikon N6006.

If you do a lot of scenics or architecture, you might want to look into something wide to supplement your normal zoom. Some zooms cover the 24-85 or even 24-120 range, but I've used 24mm lenses and never found that focal length to really work for me. I feel the same way about 35mm. That said, I find 28mm and very wide lenses (19-21mm) work very well for me. Your perception may be different; that's why you want to visit a camera store and check out the equipment.

If you shoot a lot of outdoor sports or wildlife, you will want a much longer lens than the 28-80. Many photographers have supplemented the "normal" zoom with an 80-200 or 75-300 zoom, but today they often consider skipping the 28-80 completely and making a 28-200 or 28-300 their all purpose lens. It's a fair bit more expensive, but it does provide a great deal of convenience. I hardly ever took the 28-200 off my camera to use the other lenses I owned.

As mentioned in the article on flash, you may also want to consider a faster "normal" zoom, such as a 28-105/2.8-4. This not only boosts your flash range, but it addresses another problem I've seen quite a bit in the past year - shooting indoor sports with fast film when flash isn't allowed. You'll probably find that a 28-80/3.5-5.6 lens combined with 800 speed film won't quite cut it. Going to 1600 helps a bit, but the better choice is a faster lens that may also focus more quickly. I would have loved a 28-105/2.8-4 when shooting basketball in college, but I had to make do with my 50mm, 400 speed b&w, and a choice of either 1/125 and f/4 or 1/250 and f/2.8 in our home gym. 800 speed plus autofocus, the ability to zoom, and an f/2.8-4 lens speed should be nearly perfect in most of these situations.

For low light work, I like to have a 50mm lens and a fast short tele/portrait lens, such as the 85/1.8. I like shooting without flash, and the speed of these lenses combined with 400, 800, or even 1600 film makes that possible in most situations. Sigma and Canon make some remarkably fast wide-angle and tele lenses as well.

The other specialty area is close-ups, so you might want to consider a macro lens. One of my favorites was the Tamron 90/2.5, which provided good speed, compact size, focus to half life size, and exceptional sharpness. The longer focal length macro lenses (85-105mm) not only provide a more comfortable working distance in the macro range, but can also be excellent portrait lenses.

Odds are you won't buy everything at once, but it's nice to have some idea where you'd like to end up. My ideal outfit would include a full-frame fisheye, a super-wide zoom (I have a Vivitar 19-35 Series I, which is remarkable for a low-cost zoom), either a 28-105/2.8-4 or 28-200/2.5-5.6 "normal" zoom, a portrait lens (my 85), a macro lens, and maybe a zoom that reaches 300mm.

I had a super-wide zoom, 28-200 Tamron zoom, 50mm and 85mm f/1.8 prime Nikkors, and a manual focus Tamron 90/2.5 macro - and I still found that I over 90% of my photography was done with the 28-200.

The Budget Outfit

You can't go wrong with a $300-400 entry level SLR and 28-80 zoom. These aren't the most robust cameras, so you'll want to be a bit more careful with them than a pro might be with his workhorses, but they should provide years and years of picture taking. The inexpensive 28-80 zooms aren't the world's greatest optics, but they'll do just fine for snapshots, and thanks to computer aided design most will also produce excellent 8x10s.

The built-in flash is adequate, and with today's film quality, I recommend 400 speed film when you know you'll be using the flash. If 12-15' isn't going to be enough distance, today's 800 films are very good (especially Fujifilm), and 1600 is quite acceptable, but you do pay more for the faster film, so I recommend using it only as necessary.

Growing Your Budget Outfit

Personally, I'd add a powerful flash first. Ignore the expensive ones with zooming heads - just more things to go wrong. Get something with a guide number (GN) of 100 or higher with ISO 100 film. Not only will this provide more reach than the internal flash, but the increased distance between the lens and the flash tube will reduce the likelihood of redeye.

Your second lens depends on your needs. Because I started with a 28-200, my second was a 19-35 super-wide. That was because I needed to do some architectural shots on narrow streets. Your choice should fit your needs, and most people buy a long zoom (80-200 or 75-300) as their second lens.

The Better Outfit

If your budget is $600-800, you can either stick with an entry level camera and add a flash and second lens immediately, or you can move up to the next level of camera, such as the Maxxum 7 or EOS Elan 7. I'd find that a hard call to make, but that's probably because I cut my teeth on metal cameras built like tanks back in the 1970s. You might feel better about today's lightweight entry level SLRs than an old timer does.

Looking at this budget, though, I think I'd buy a nice entry level body (Nikon N65 or Minolta Maxxum 5) along with a Tamron 28-200 and a Sunpak 433AF. In fact, that's almost exactly what I did about five years ago when I sold my manual focus equipment and went autofocus. I still appreciate my Nikon N6006, my Sunpak flash, and my Tamron 28-200.

The $1,000 Mark

If I could budget $1,000 for new equipment, I'd skip right past the entry level bodies and look at the Elan 7, Maxxum 7, and Nikon N80. I'm a huge fan of the Maxxum, very impressed with the Canon, and not as impressed with the Nikon as I'd like to be. But those are my biases; you need to figure out which camera meets your needs and fits your style.

You'd be somewhere in the $1,000 ballpark with one of these camera bodies, a nice 28-200 zoom, and a good flash.

What About the Rest?

Why not buy a cheaper, er, less costly body and more lenses immediately? First off, so you can become familiar with your new equipment before you add even more. Get to know your camera and lens. Learn from experience where they limit you. That will let you know where to expand your system next. And if you've done it right, the camera and lens you bought will cover 80-95% of your photographic needs, so there's probably no need to rush right in and buy another lens.

Don't overlook the used case at your local camera shop. You can sometimes find some spectacular deals on cameras, lenses, and flash units that have been traded in - or sold to pay tuition. And if you've developed a good working relationship with your local camera shop and salesperson, they'll be straight with you as to whether the gear in question of top quality or not.

And the Case?

I almost forgot one of the most important accessories: a good case to hold your camera, lens(es), flash, film, filters, batteries, and other supplies. There are so many cases on the market today, one or more should be nearly perfect for the equipment you buy and the way you shoot. I strongly suggest testing the most promising cases with your own equipment before you buy. Most camera shops are more than happy to help.

Think about buying something a bit bigger, so there's room for your next lens or a second camera body. (Or even a digital or film point-and-shoot camera.) Cases are relatively inexpensive and provide good protection for your equipment.


I hope you've found this helpful. It's personal and biased, but I've been a "camera geek" for almost 30 years. The key isn't my expertise or credentials, though, it's your needs. Find a good local camera shop if you can, talk with the sales reps and find one or more that you're comfortable working with. Talk cameras. Talk photography. A good salesman will even sell you the brand he doesn't own if he believes it's what best suits you.

You're not making a lifelong relationship with a camera, but I hope you'll build a lifelong relationship with photography. Instead of just taking pictures, with a 35mm SLR you'll learn to make pictures - and that's the whole point of this hobby.

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