DSLR Cameras are increasingly becoming a type of camera that is in the reach of the average photographer as prices fall and as manufacturers develop more user friendly models.
I’ve previously discussed some of the advantages and disadvantages of moving from a point and shoot to DSLR but in this post would like to explore how to choose a DSLR.
In doing so I’ll cover:
1. 9 Reasons to Upgrade to a DSLR Camera
2. 8 Factors to Consider when Choosing a DSLR
3. My DSLR Camera Recommendations (also check out this post on the Top DSLR Models As voted by our Readers)
Firstly, a quick recap on some of the reasons why you might want to upgrade to a DSLR.
Reasons to Upgrade to a DSLR Camera
- Image Quality – Due to the larger size of image sensors in DSLRs which allows for larger pixel sizes – DSLRs are generally able to be used at a faster ISO which will lead to faster shutter speeds and less grain (ie shoot at 1600 ISO on most DSLRs will have less noise than shooting at 1600 on a Point and Shoot). DSLRs also have built in noise-reduction when genearating JPG images which also helps cut down on noise.
- Adaptability – DSLR’s ability to change lenses opens up a world of possibilities for photographers. While my point and shoot has a nice little 3x Optical Zoom (and many these days have longer ones) my DSLR can be fitted with many high quality lenses ranging from wide angle to super long focal lengths depending upon what I’m photographing (and of course my budget). Add to this a large range of other accessories (flashes, filters etc) and a DSLR can be adapted to many different situations. It should be noted that when it comes to lenses that the diversity in quality of lenses is great. Image quality is impacted greatly by the quality of the lens you use.
- Speed – DSLR’s are generally pretty fast pieces of machinery when it comes to things like start up, focusing and shutter lag.
- Optical Viewfinder – due to the reflex mirror DSLR’s are very much a what you see is what you get operation.
- Large ISO range – this varies between cameras but generally DSLRs offer a wide array of ISO settings which lends itself to their flexibility in shooting in different conditions.
- Manual Controls – while many point and shoots come with the ability to shoot in manual mode, a DSLR is designed in such a way that it is assumed that the photographer using it will want to control their own settings. While they do come with good auto modes the manual controls are generally built in in such a way that they are at the photographers finger tips as they are shooting.
- Retaining Value – some argue that a DSLR will hold it’s value longer than a point and shoot. There is probably some truth in this. DSLR models do not get updated quite as often as point and shoot models (which can be updated twice a year at times). The other factor in favor of DSLRs is that the lenses you buy for them are compatible with other camera bodies if you do choose to upgrade later on (as long as you stay with your brand). This means your investment in lenses is not a waste over the years.
- Depth of Field – one of the things I love about my DSLR is the versatility that it gives me in many areas, especially depth of field. I guess this is really an extension of it’s manual controls and ability to use a variety of lenses but a DSLR can give you depth of field that puts everything from forground to background in focus through to nice blurry backgrounds.
- Quality Optics – I hesitate to add this point as there is a large degree of difference in quality between DSLR lenses but in general the lenses that you’ll find on a DSLR are superior to a point and shoot camera. DSLR lenses are larger (more glass can add to the quality) and many of them have many hours of time put into their manufacture (especially when you get into higher end lenses). I strongly advice DSLR buyers to buy the best quality lenses that they can afford. It it’s the difference between a high end lens on a medium range camera or a medium range lens on a high end camera I’d go for quality lenses every time as they add so much to photos.
Before I tackle how to buy a DSLR keep in mind that DSLRs are not for everyone. I’ve written more on the down sides of DSLRs in a post previously which you might find helpful in deciding whether you should stick with a point and shoot or upgrade.
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How to Decide Which DSLR Camera is for You?
So how do you decide which DSLR to buy? There are an increasing array of them on the market so you have a real choice ahead of you.
Here are a few factors to consider when looking for a DSLR:
1. Price – a good place to start when thinking about buying a DSLR is obviously price. DSLRs price range in price from some quite affordable deals at the lower end to extremely high prices at the professional end. Set yourself a budget for your purchase early on but make sure that you keep in mind that you’ll need to consider other costs of owning one including:
- Lenses (some deals offer ‘kit lenses’ but you should consider upgrading – see below for more on this)
- Batteries (all models will come with one but if you are travelling you might need a spare)
- Memory Cards (some models come with one but most are inadequate in terms of size. Even if you’re lucky enough to have one included you’ll probably want to upgrade to at least a 1 gigabyte card).
- Camera Bag (some dealers will throw one in – but once again don’t expect a high quality ‘free’ bag. Your DSLR is something worth protecting – invest in a good bag)
- Filters (at the least you’ll want to get a UV filter for each lens you purchase – but you might also want to consider other types down the track also).
- Extended Warrantees (there’s a variety of opinions on whether they’re good or not – but they’re worth considering)
2. What will You use it For? – when you head into a camera store to purchase any type of question the first thing most sales people will ask you what type of photography you want to do. It is well worth asking yourself this question up front as it will help you think through the type of features and accessories you’ll need.
Will this be a general purpose camera for recording ‘life’? Are you wanting to travel with the camera? Is it for sports photography? Macro Photography? Low Light Photography? Make a realistic list of the type of photography you will use it for (note I said ‘realistic’ – it’s easy to dream of all kinds of things you’ll photograph – but in reality most of us only do half what we think we will).
3. Size – DSLRs are all more sizeable than compact point and shoot cameras but there is a fair bit of variation in size between them also. Some photographers don’t mind carrying around weighty gear but if you’re going to use it for on the go photography (travel, bushwalking etc) then small and light models can be very handy.
4. Previous Gear – the attractive thing about DSLRs is that in many cases they are compatible with some of the gear you might already have.
- This is particularly the case for lenses. The chances are that if you have a film SLR that your lenses might well be compatible with a DSLR made by the same manufacturer. Don’t assume that all lenses will be compatible (particularly older gear) but it’s well worth asking the question as it could save you considerable money.
- If you have a point and shoot camera you might also want to look at the type of memory card that it takes as some models of DSLRs could also be compatible with them. This probably won’t be a major consideration as memory cards are considerably cheaper than they used to be but it could be a factor to consider.
5. Resolution – ‘how many megapixels does it have’ is a question that is often one of the first to be asked about a new camera. While I think ‘megapixels’ are sometimes over emphasised (more is not always best) it is a question to consider as DSLRs come with a wide range of megapixel ratings. Megapixels come into play as you consider how you’ll use your images. If you’re looking to print enlargements then more can be good – if you’re just going to print in small sizes or use them for e-mailing friends then it’s not so crucial.
6. Sensor Size – Another related question to consider is how big the image sensor is. The term ‘crop factor’ comes up when you talk about image sensor size – I’ll upack this further in a future article as it’s perhaps a little complicated for the scope of this one. In general a larger sensor has some advantages over a smaller one (although there are costs too). But I’ll unpack this in a future post (stay tuned).
7. Future Upgrades – will you be in a position to upgrade your camera again in the foreseeable future? While entry level DSLRs are attractively priced they tend to date more quickly than higher end models and you run the risk of growing out of them as your expertise grows and you thirst for more professional features. Ask yourself some questions about your current level of expertise in photography and whether you’re the type of person who learns how to master something and then wants to go to a higher model that gives you more control and features. It’s a difficult question but you might find it’s worthwhile to pay a little more in the short term for a model that you can grow into.
8. Other Features
Most DSLRs have a large array of features that will probably overwhelm and confuse you at first as you compare them with one another. All have basic features like the ability to use aperture and shutter priority, auto or manual focus etc but there’s also a lot of variation in what is or isn’t offered. Here are some of the more common features that you might want to consider:
- Burst Mode – the ability to shoot a burst of images quickly by just holding down the shutter release – great for sports and action photography. DSLRs vary both in the number of frames that they can shoot per second as well as how many images they can shoot in a single burst.
- Maximum Shutter Speed – most DSLRs will have a decent range of speeds available to you but some will have some pretty impressive top speeds which will be very useful if you’re into sports or action photography.
- ISO Ratings – Similarly, most DSLRs will offer a good range of ISO settings but some take it to the next level which is useful in low light photography.
- LCD Size – It’s amazing how much difference half an inch can make when viewing images on your cameras LCD. I noticed this recently when testing a camera with a 2.5 inch screen after using my own 1.8 inch one. While it might not change the way you shoot photos (people tend to use viewfinders at this level to frame shots) it certainly can be nice to view your shots on a larger screen.
- Anti Shake – in the past few weeks a range of new DSLRs have been announced by manufacturers in the lead up to the Christmas rush. One of the features that is featuring more and more in them is anti shake technology. While it’s been common to get ‘image stabilisation’ technology in lenses the idea of it being built into camera bodies is something that is attractive.
- Dust Protection – another feature that has started appearing in the latest round of cameras is image sensor dust protection (and in some cases self cleaning for image sensors) – something that will help alleviate a lot of frustration that many DSLR photographers have. To this point this is a feature that is mainly on lower end DSLRs but it’s bound to appear on new professional models also.
- Connectivity – Getting photos out of your DSLR and into a computer or printer generally happens these days via USB but some people like FireWire and/or Wireless.
- Semi-Auto Modes – As with point and shoot cameras – many DSLRs (especially lower end ones) come with an array of shooting modes. These generally include ‘portrait’, ‘sports’, ‘night’ etc. If you rely upon these modes on your point and shoot you may well use them on your DSLR too. Higher end DSLRs often don’t have them.
- Flash – Generally professional grade DSLRs don’t offer built in flash and just have a hotshoe while entry level DSLRs include a built in flash.
Which DSLR camera is right for you?
At the time of writing this post there are a large range of DSLRs currently on the market (with a fresh batch of them set to be announced in the new year).
I’m a Canon user so my recommendations will reflect this below. Here are three that you might like to consider.
Canon EOS 400D (Digital Rebel XTi) – I had the opportunity to play with this camera last week for a day and while I was a little skeptical at first as it’s fairly much an entry level DSLR I came away from testing it quite impressed. It has a 10.1 megapixel sensor, 2.5 inch LCD and all the features you’ll need to switch into manual (and semi manual) modes.
It is a camera with a lighter feel than the 30D (below) which will leave some feeling as though it might be a little light on – however this adds to it’s portability.
This is a good camera if you’re a little nervous about stepping out of point and shoot land and want something that is easy to use. Compare prices on the Canon EOS 400D from around the web.
Canon EOS 30D – if there’s one DSLR that I’ve recommended more than any other it is the 30D. I’ve owned it’s predecessor for a few years now (the 20D) and have loved it but the 30D has a few nice extra features that make it worth the upgrade.
The 30D is has an 8.2 megapixel sensor and nice large 2.5 inch LCD as well as an array of other features that give you plenty of opportunity to explore your photographic ability (as well as a good Auto mode for when you hand it over to a digital camera novice). This is a more serious camera than the 400D (it’s more solid in your hands too) but it is very user friendly also.
It is positioned nicely between the entry level and Professional models going around and produces wonderful images. Compare prices on the Canon EOS 30D from around the web.
Canon EOS 5D – this camera will be out of reach of most of us (although I’m saving up) but I wanted to include it as it’s the best camera I’ve had the privilege of testing so far (in fact I’ve had it for the last 3 weeks and I just don’t want to send it back).
The 5D is not at the very top of the Canon DSLR range but it is not cheap and is aimed at the higher end amateur digital photographer who knows what they are doing. It doesn’t have a built in flash and there are no semi-auto modes on the dial (at this level you wouldn’t need them). It has a 12.8MP full frame sensor, 2.5 inch LCD, weighty magnesium body and a list of features longer than my arm.
This camera has great reviews from around the web and is high on my own personal wish list. Compare prices on the Canon EOS 5D from around the web.
Of course there are more options than just Canon DSLRs.
While I’ve not extensively tested them I have friends with the Nikon D200 and the Nikon D70s who are more than satisfied with their cameras also. Nikon’s DSLRs get highly recommended in reviews around the web and you’ll not go wrong in going with them either.
Feel free to add your own recommendations below in comments. As I say – I’m a Canon guy and am pretty much won over by the quality of camera that they make (their image sensors go beyond what I’ve seen in other cameras) however there are many more great DSLRs out there (particularly from Nikon) and I’d love to include the recommendations of others – simply leave a comment below with your own recommendation and I’ll include some of them in the main post as an update over the next day or two.
Update: A few readers have asked me for recommendations for DSLR lenses via email after reading this post. You might like to start with some introductory posts that I’ve written on the topic at:
Top 20 DSLR Models among Our Readers
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