Digital SLR Buying Guide: Digital Single-Lens Reflex DSLR Cameras

Are DSLRs still the best choice if your passion is photography? You bet! Learn about the features and capabilities of Digital Single-Lens Reflex Cameras.

Are DSLRs still the best choice if your passion is photography? You bet! (Updated 9/30/13)

Digital Single-Lens Reflex cameras at a glance

Buying a Digital Single-Lens Reflex DSLR Camera

Using a Digital Single-Lens Reflex DSLR Camera for Photography

Key Features:

  • Access to wide range of interchangeable lenses
  • Prism viewfinder means you see directly through the lens
  • Ultimate control: full manual exposure, full auto, or anywhere in between
  • Very customizable
  • Fastest autofocus; can switch to manual focus
  • Add-on flash is brighter than built-in camera flashes
  • Can be used with multiple flashes or studio lights
  • Capable of shooting HD Video

10 things you can shoot much more easily with a DSLR:

  •  Sports
  •  Nature
  •  Wildlife
  •  Photojournalism/Candids
  •  Portraits/Weddings
  •  Studio photography
  •  Low-light photos
  •  Travel
  •  Astrophotography
  •  Macro photography

Most advanced DSLRs have built-in microphone and headphone jacks so you can record high-quality sound and monitor the results in the field.


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If photography is your passion, there is no doubt: You should own a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera. Digital SLRs allow you to experience photography at its best. They are the tool of choice for professional photographers around the world; remember, pros will never settle for second-best. And now, DSLRs are more affordable than ever.


The abbreviation "DSLR" stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex. That means you are looking at the subject directly through the lens, and seeing exactly what the camera's imaging sensor sees. (In truth, "exactly" isn't exactly correct—you see between 95 and 99 percent of what the camera sees.) It may seem that we could say the same thing about any digital camera because you can see a "live" image of the subject on the LCD monitor. However, non-SLR cameras work quite differently—they only show you a video version of the scene.


Digital SLRs are perfect for stop action Photography

Stop action: Sports and action photography is one of many things digital SLRs do better than any other kind of camera.



The first and most significant advantage of a digital SLR is the fact that you can remove the lens and attach a different one in its place. That means you can use long, long telephoto lenses for sports or wildlife photography, macro lenses for dramatic close-ups, fisheye lenses, and so forth. Most people purchase a DSLR with a zoom lens that covers semi-wide angle through moderate telephoto, often something in the 18-50mm or 18-70mm range. Since nearly all DSLRs borrow much of their design from film-camera SLRs, you can use many of the same lenses that were created in the analog era, especially if you use Nikon, Pentax or Sony (Minolta) cameras. This explains the wide variety of lenses that are available.



The image sensor, either CMOS or CCD type, ranges between 12 and 24 megapixels for consumer DSLRs and up to 48 megapixels for professional level cameras. Consumer cameras have APS sensors, which are somewhat smaller than traditional 35mm film images. Almost all pro and some prosumer DSLRs have full-sized sensors, which are the same size as a 35mm negative.


For many photographers, low image noise is more important than more megapixels. Image noise is a random pattern of discolored pixels that looks like specks of colorful dust. It usually appears when the ISO, or sensor sensitivity, is set at one of the higher levels.
Comparison of the Nikon D4 and the Canon SL1 Digital SLRs

David or Goliath? The pro-level Nikon D4, left, is one of the largest and most expensive DSLRs around, while the Canon SL1, right, is one of the smallest. These two cameras give you an idea of the range of sizes of digital SLRs. The price spread? A high-end DSLR can cost $3,000-$8,000, while a low-end DSLR can range from around $400 to $800...with a lens included!



The good news, when it comes to noise, is that all DSLRs will outperform compacts and most EVF cameras. That's because DSLRs have larger sensors. So, if you compare an 18-megapixel DSLR sensor to a compact camera's 18-megapixel sensor, the pixels on the DSLR sensor can be made larger. The larger the pixels, the less chance there is for there to be signal distortion, which causes noise. And that translates to cleaner, more accurate photos in low light.


The size of the imaging sensor in most DSLRs--especially in lower-priced models--is much smaller than one frame of 35mm film, and that causes the lens to magnify at a different ratio. (Note that there are DSLRs that use a full-sized sensor; the majority, however, do not.) The effect is a factor about 1.5X (1.6X in the case of some brands, including Canon). If you shoot with a 200mm lens on a DSLR it will behave like a 300mm, and make objects appear closer. That's a big plus if you want to use a telephoto. But it's an even bigger minus if you are shooting wideangle. A 24mm lens (which is a very wide angle on a standard film camera) becomes a 36mm. To regain the wide angle advantage, you would need to purchase a new, wider-angle lens. A new generation of superwide zooms, built specifically for use with DSLRs, are now available for all models.

If compact, fit-in-your-pocket form factor is an absolute must, then a DSLR is probably not for you. A typical DSLR is larger than a point-and-shoot digital camera, and you're not going to be able to stuff one in your pocket. The good news? Some lower-priced DSLR models are quite compact and very light weight, even if they're not going to fit in your pocket. If even that’s not small enough, consider going to the most popular interchangeable lens camera available today, the MILC.

Digital SLRs offer high end exposure control for professional photographersJust right: Digital SLRs offer the kind of fine exposure control pros demand. Experienced users can control a group of flashes from some DSLR to create perfect in-studio exposures, and the higher-megapixel models will give magazine- and even poster-quality resolution.





Digital SLR cameras offer various exposure modes that differ slightly from brand to brand:

  •  Fully automatic Programmed exposure mode choses the right settings for you.
  •  Shutter Priority--you choose the shutter speed (useful when trying to freeze moving subjects)
  •  Aperture Priority--you select the aperture (f/stop) to control the depth of field while the camera sets everything else
  •  Full manual operation (make all of the settings on your own).

DSLRs offer the greatest growth potential--you can grow into the camera's features even if you're just a casual snapshooter.


Digital SLR stop action hummingbird photo

Freeze far-away action: A long, fast, close-focusing zoom lens, high ISO setting, and a DSLR with a shutter release that doesn't hesitate when you press it--and, of course, the hummingbird, are all the ingredients necessary to capture a great stop-action shot like this.



Another advantage of a DSLR is that they have nearly zero "shutter lag." Shutter lag is aggravating—you press the release button but there is an annoying delay before the camera fires. Many perfect shots are missed because some cameras—including many MILCs and almost all Smart Phone cameras—do not respond fast enough. This does not occur with a DSLR.

The main reason the shutter release may be delayed is that the camera will wait until the camera has finished focusing on a subject. The good news is that most interchangeable lenses focus really fast, so lag time is still minimal. Want to eliminate lag time altogether? If your subject isn't moving from shot to shot, focus once, then switch to manual focus. That eliminates the wait for focusing.

Digital SLR photo captured with natural-density filter

A word about filters: All of the interchangeable lenses available for DSLRs have filter rings, which give you the ability to better control the image at the time of exposure. This shot was made with a neutral-density filter, which darkened the sky so it wasn't too light. Recent technology has expanded the dynamic range of some DSLRs to get a wider range of details from shadows to brightly-lit areas. Called HDR, this uses software to combine multiple images, shot at different exposures, to get shots that look almost hyper-real.



Digital SLR cameras create very large image files. Because of that they also produce tremendous, high quality images. All DSLRs offer the ability to shoot in RAW format, the ultimate format for image tweaking. In order to get the most out of a DSLR image, most people use professional-grade editing software like Adobe Photoshop or Photoshop Elements. Using Photoshop is like having a photographic darkroom right inside your computer. You'll also want to invest in a photo-quality printer. Images captured with any DSLR can easily be printed 16x20 inches or larger with excellent results.

Again, sensor size has a direct effect on image quality, and this is a place where DSLRs have a distinct advantages over compacts and most EVFs. Even the smallest sensor on a DSLR will be larger than the sensors used in compacts and EVFs, and that means bigger pixels (even if the megapixel count is identical), and since pixels are bigger, that reduces the chance of distortion, also known as digital noise. When you're shooting at high ISO settings, you'll notice the difference.

Digital SLRs provide great fisheye lens optionsSomething fisheye: Only DSLRs accept true fish-eye lenses, which can capture 180 degrees in a distinctive circular image.





There's one drawback: Size. DSLRs are bigger than compact cameras, as are DSLR lenses. But the payoff is better images, overall.

With the growing popularity of MILCs, mid-range and lower-end DSLR prices have dropped recently. What would've cost $1,500 a year ago can now be bought for under $1,000. The least expensive DSLRs are around $400 and if you are willing to buy refurbished models, the cost of entry can be even less.

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