People often ask me what camera they should buy. If they want a DSLR, I tell them that Nikon and Canon both make great cameras and you can’t go wrong with either system. But personally, I shoot exclusively with Canon and have a big investment in Canon, so that is where I can give advice.
First, I buy mostly from B&H photo in NYC. I like them because they plainly mark whether an item is USA warranty or gray market, and they have never shipped me used equipment passed off as new. They are also super knowledgeable on the phone if you have a question before purchase. Friends tell me that Adorama is also excellent. I am pretty much an Amazon shopper these days, but for cameras, I still buy at B&H.
I own a 5D Mark II, but I have used the digital rebel cameras and they are all excellent, if not quite as sturdy or full featured. Today, my recommendation would be to buy the Canon EOS Rebel T1i (Body Only). Avoid the kit lens. It is not very good.
The question of which lens to buy is actually much more difficult. If you want a zoom, the one to buy is the Canon EF-S 17-55mm. I still live in the world of 35MM in my head (old habits are hard to kick). The sensor in the Rebel is smaller than a 35mm sensor. If you multiply the focal length of your lens by 1.6, you get the 35MM equivalent focal length. That puts the zoom in the range of 27.2mm to 88mm, a great range for walking around.
The 17-55 lens is also f2.8, nice and bright, which contributes both to low light performance and the ability to auto-focus.
Finally and most importantly the 17-55 takes beautiful photos. I primarily look at sharpness, vignetting and distortion personally and that lens is pretty good all around. The chromatic aberration is also under control. I have found that the ratings at Fred Miranda are pretty reliable. If you look at Canon Zoom Ratings, you will see that the 17-55 scores a 9.1 and is on the first page of zooms. Although the 17-55 is not a professional L lens, it scores higher than some L zooms in the Canon lineup. By comparison the kit lens is second from last of all the zooms rated. Avoid it.
In terms of cost, we have spent $960 on the lens and $799 on the camera, coming in at $1760.
If you really want to spend that $2000, buy a 50MM prime. The Canon 50MM primes perform beautifully. On a cropped sensor camera, that lens will provide the field of view of an 80mm lens, the perfect wedding and portrait lens.
Most primes, even fairly inexpensive primes, out perform even the best zooms in image quality in my experience. I own mostly L zooms. The big difference I have noted is auto-focus speed and build quality, which is far better on the L glass. I own a few L primes, and I can’t see that much of an image quality difference relative to my consumer primes. But the L primes are heavy and focus fast.
In terms of a 50MM prime, the two consumer choices are the f1.4 and f1.8. Both earned a 9 rating at Fred Miranda, but the f1.4 is far more popular. The 1.8 version is notable mostly in that it truly feels like a piece of junk. B&H is charging $399 for the 50mm f1.4 and $114 for the 50mm f1.8.
As you can see, the f1.4 brings us a bit over our $2000 budget, coming in at $2160. The f1.8 brings us in at $1875. You could even buy a hood for the zoom, which you really should buy. It helps increase the contrast of photos.
To be fair, the hood for 17-55mm hood is a bit of a compromise. It has to accommodate the lens in wide angle mode and hence is not as tight as it could be when zoomed in. (The ultimate hood design is the hood for the Canon 24-70mm f2.8L. The lens projects out as you go wide, so that the hood is always the perfect size for the focal length. Note that this is my ‘walking-around’ lens, but it’s darn heavy. It works best onf a full frame camera like the 5D Mark II. On a rebel, it would become a 38-112mm, which is great on the tele side but a bit not wide enough for my tastes. But I digress)
Don’t buy a front filter for the lens. Many salesmen will try to sell you a daylight or UV filter to protect your lens. The lenses are already coated for glare and most issues with white balance can be fixed after the fact. Putting a filter on a $1000 lens to me is like putting a plastic cover on your sofa. Who are you saving it for? But the hood can protect the lens if you drop the camera or hit it against a wall, so might be a nice investment regardless of whether it is well designed or not.
If you choose to step up beyond the Rebel, keep in mind that the 40D and 50D do not take video. Although the video features on my 5D Mark II are quirky, I truly love having video available and find it very useful for shooting quick clips. It works best when the subject is not moving away or toward you (no re-focusing required) like when shooting someone on stage or blowing out the candles at a birthday party.
Any modern DSLR will provide you amazing photos compared to a point and shoot. The low light performance is where its at. But don’t waste that by getting a dim zoom lens. Make sure you use a lens that is at least f2.8. If you can’t afford the nice canon zoom, buy a cheap Canon prime lens. For example, the 35mm prime lens will turn your rebel into a 56mm fixed focal length camera. For many years the 50mm was the standard lens shipped with SLRs.