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Budget shopping tips: Digital SLRs

CNET Senior Editor Lori Grunin shares some general tips on shopping for a digital SLR on a budget.

Older models are frequently good enough. Just make sure you're not paying last year's list price.

There are a lot of good reasons to pay the extra bucks for a digital SLR over a point- and-shoot, including better photo quality (especially in low light), faster shooting, and the flexibility of interchangeable lenses. But it's also err on the side of too much or too little when buying, especially if you don't have a solid idea of what you need or want from the camera.

Define budget
Buying a dSLR is more like buying a computer than a TV or an MP3 player; you're not shopping for the cheapest model you can find, you're looking for the cheapest one that can do what you need. That's why it's critical to know exactly what you expect to be shooting before you narrow down your choices. If you want to shoot your kid playing sports, saving a couple hundred dollars by opting for a too-slow model will just leave you with a "budget" doorstop. On the other hand, video support is new enough that it adds cost to the camera that you may not feel is absolutely worth it. Be able to answer the following questions about the camera's core capabilities:

  • Will you be shooting a lot indoors?
  • Will you be shooting sports, active kids, or romping pets?
  • Will you be shooting in abnormally bad conditions: cold, wet, dusty?
  • Do you want to capture video?
  • Do you need a lot of handholding?

Every time you answer "yes" to these questions, the base amount you'll have to pay for a satisfying experience increases. Check out our dSLR buying guide to figure out what's on your essentials list. Then take a look at the cheapest models and what you get by stepping up a price class.

Look to the past
Many year-to-year changes don't fundamentally change a camera; usually, there's bump in resolution, improved noise-reduction for low-light shooting, and faster capture. For many people, as long as an older model meets their threshold needs--it's fast enough, for example--it's unnecessary to pay more for this year's shiny new one. But watch out for price gouging on older models. When a product gets discontinued and becomes scarce, some outlets actually jack up the price to beyond it's original list.

Spend money where it counts
For a fixed budget, as long as the body meets your needs, it usually makes sense to put your extra money in a decent lens rather than a more expensive body.

Kits usually save money overall
For dSLRs under $1,000, if you don't already have lenses, spending the extra $100 or so for a kit with a lens--usually an 18-55mm--is cheaper than buying a body plus a lens (unless you have special needs that would leave the 18-55mm lens collecting dust). A dual-lens kit can also save you a little money if you know that you're going to want to shoot telephoto; here are some dual-lens kits for less than $1,000. Make sure you're comparing equivalent configurations, though. Don't just go by the photo on the site--make sure you look at the box contents to ensure that the cheaper version isn't just a body only while the more expensive model includes a lens.

Choose your moment
The best time to find a bargain on a particular model is around the time it's slated to be replaced. Most low- to midrange dSLRs are on an annual replacement cycle, so if you need to plan, find the date that the model shipped. You can find it on our reviews, as well as in the price history feature of The holiday shopping season and summer back-to-school months are also a good time to check the prices.

Ignore all but instant rebates
Some retailers quote a price with a rebate factored in; unless it's an instant rebate, always assume that you'll never see that money and factor it right out of the price.