Ready to make the plunge into the next level of photography? Do you want more manual control of your camera? Want the benefits and results only specialty lenses can lend to your photography? If you are ready to own a more serious digital camera, you should be shopping for a digital single lens reflex (DLSR) camera. Don’t get lost in a sea of camera bodies, lenses and flashes—let Pronto’s Digital SLR Camera Buying Guide provide you with the basics so you can begin to build out a well-planned inventory of digital photography equipment (see also Point and Shoot Digital Camera Buying Guide).
DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex. Without going into the actual camera mechanics, all you really need to know is that the camera operates in a similar fashion to the 35mm cameras of yore. Comprised of an intricate system of mirrors and a prism, what you see in your viewfinder is exactly what the camera will shoot.
Full-framed cameras have a very similar sized dimension as the traditional 35mm film camera, and all of the lenses are interchangeable. Reduced frame DSLRs, because they’re slightly smaller in size, have their own family of lenses to choose from.
Because DSLR camera image sensors are larger than point-and-shoot cameras, a 6MP DSLR will produce higher quality images than a 6MP point and shoot. Most DSLR cameras come standard with 8-10MP which will produce superior clarity 20 x 30 printed images.
There are two file formats, RAW and JPG. RAW is becoming the de facto file format for most photographers. If you shoot RAW, you’ll need post-production software. RAW isn’t a requirement for most enthusiasts but professionals will want it. Look for models that shoot in both RAW and JPG.
Research all the lens options before you commit to a DSLR camera brand. Once you purchase the camera, you’ll be tied to the brand and its accessories for a long time to come. Look at your current needs and developing interests.
Never forget that electronic components act far differently than their old mechanical counterparts. If you plan to shoot in windstorms, blizzards, or rainy days, make sure your camera is as dirt and moisture resistant as possible.
The lesser understood variable that manipulates light entering a camera, ISO is a feature mimicking the film ‘speed’ of the past. (Remember the numbers on the canisters of film? 100, 200 or 400?) DSLRs replicate the same ‘speed’, allowing you the power to shoot in near dark environments and get creative results.
The shutter mechanism in a DSLR offers a set number of frames per second (fps). The lower ends will be 2-3 fps, whereas the higher end options are up to 10 fps. Meaning, holding your finger down on the shutter for a full second will create up to 10 consecutive images automatically.
RAW is a new file format the records all of the information taken ‘raw’, like the old film negative. There is no alteration or compression of the image performed in the camera. Thus, this work needs to be done in a post-processing environment on a computer. RAW files are extremely large and will take up room on a memory card.
No surprise, the more expensive the DSLR camera, the more likely it will be a full frame. The first DSLRs were made so that the computer chip that records the information (the digital equivalent to a film negative) were a bit smaller than that of a 35mm negative (reduced frame). The reason? The technology was expensive and production otherwise wouldn’t be cost-efficient. However, in the past few years, that technology has become more affordable and full-frame cameras have slowly become the standard. Full frame DSLR cameras contain sensors the same size as the standard frame on a roll of 35mm film.
What does full frame mean to you? First, the larger the frame, the more information will be available through the viewfinder, and ultimately, in the final image. You can play with a larger ‘canvas.’ If you’re going to be shooting for what will ultimately be large formats, this is a key consideration. Think long and hard about what you’ll be doing and don’t let the price between frame sizes dictate the decision. Yes, full-frame lenses are compatible with full and reduced frame DSLR cameras but they won’t work as well. Reduced frame DSLR camera lenses are made especially for their format size and don’t work at all on full-frame versions. The best advice is to think about what you’re shooting now, and where your developing interests might lead you. When it comes to DSLR cameras, don’t rush your research or your purchase decision: you’re going to be making a significant investment in your DSLR camera and thus you’ll be married to the lenses the brand offers you to work with.
Unlike digital point-and-shoot cameras where more mega pixels mean a better image, they’re not as critical when purchasing a DSLR. Why? DSLR camera images sensors are larger than their point-and-shoot counterparts (up to 25 x) and work at faster ISO levels. DSLR cameras, thus, produce less ‘noisy’ images than point-and-shoots. Quite simply? A DSLR with 6MPs will produce greater quality images than point-and-shoot with the same number of MPs. Most DSLRs have 8-10 MPs, which is enough to virtually crystal-clear 20x30 printed image. The highest-end models offer up to 13MP (that’s how those huge fast-food billboards are created!).
If you’re going to delve into the DSLR world, you’re probably comfortable with the JPG file format. The major criticism with a JPG file, however, is that it is ‘lossy’, meaning the process that creates the JPG will lose pixel information from the original image. This is why you get 200 low-resolution JPGs versus 80 high-resolution JPGs on the same memory card. Information is ‘lost’ when the resolution is lowered, leaving more room on the card. For the armchair photographer, this won’t be an issue; some of the loss is not negligible to the naked human eye. But for a photographer that wants every bit of information – the full color and light spectrum of the image –available, you’ll want to keep every pixel intact.
RAW is becoming the de facto file format for most photographers. So, why doesn’t every camera, including point and shoot, offer the RAW format? For one, the files are enormous. The camera does absolutely no work on altering the image, and the data is recorded in its ‘raw’ state, similar to how light was recorded on a silver gelatin negative. And so the days of 200 jpgs on a memory card may draw to an end (the same card may only fit 40 RAW files). Also, RAW makes post-production software (Adobe’s Photoshop, Apple’s Aperture) a must to finish the image and prepare it for either print or the web. But, if you want that freedom to let your creativity explode, which is where the real artwork can begin, RAW is a necessity and some cameras shoot both formats (Pronto’s Pick is the Nikon D40 that supports dual format).
One of the biggest changes you’ll encounter when moving from point-and-shoot to DSLR cameras is the availability of interchangeable lenses. Unlike lower-priced point and shoot cameras (with a ‘fixed’ lens), you now have the entire lens inventory available: from the 3.4mm (wide angle) to the 500mm (telephoto). You can create wide panoramas standing on a mountain vista (wide angle), or you can focus on the batter’s expression at a baseball game (telephoto). The real power of photography comes not from the megapixels but the optical options that various lenses offer. Your camera brand dictates your lens brand. Whichever brand you choose, you’re going to be working it and its family of accessories for a long time. Don’t forget, some cameras are sold as “body only” which means the lens is extra. Check to see if a lens is included before you purchase.
All DSLRs offer full manual control, from focus to shutter speed to aperture, allowing a true 35mm experience, but higher end models allow you to manually control even more. These models, like their 35mm film predecessors, allow you to calculate the ISO choice to offer yet another option in manipulating the amount of light entering the camera. You might also find DSLR cameras with a serious depth of field increase, allowing a ‘selective focus’ on your subject. Still others might offer you up to 30 or more custom settings, so you can set parameters for different shooting environments. However, don’t worry if you haven’t taken a class in photography or if you don’t have a 33mm background. Today’s DLSRs will come with a host of automatic features to get you up and ready quickly. In essence, you don’t need to be a pro to own a DLSR, but you will sure start shooting pictures like one.
|Cost||MPs||Full Frame||Shutter speed||ISO speed||Frames per second||LCD screen|
|<$1000||8||No||30 – 1/4000s||200 – 3200||2.5||2.5”|
|$1000-3000||10||No, Yes||30 – 1/8000s||100 – 3200||5||2.5”|
|$3000+||12+||Yes||30 – 1/8000s||50 – 3200||10||3”|