Best SLR: which should you buy?
24th Oct 2014 | 15:45
We explain how SLRs work, what to look for and how to choose the right one
Digital SLRs are what most people would consider a 'proper' camera. Our camera reviews list every new DSLR because this is a very important sector in the digital camera market. It's the type of camera chosen by professional photographers and keen amateurs, and for three main reasons:
First, digital SLRs have much larger sensors than compact cameras. This has nothing to do with megapixels – it's about the sensor's physical dimensions. Larger sensors give sharper, smoother images and better quality in poor light.
Second, digital SLRs take interchangeable lenses. They're usually supplied with a general-purpose 'kit' lens which covers everyday needs, but you can also get specialist lenses for ultra-wideangle shots, long-range telephoto work, portraits, architecture and more.
Third, you get much more manual control. You can get different creative effects by adjusting the shutter speed, lens aperture and focus yourself rather than leaving it to the camera to do it automatically.
DSLRs vs mirrorless CSCs
All these advantages apply to the new breed of mirrorless compact system cameras too. The key difference is that DSLRs have a mirror in the body reflecting the image up into an optical viewfinder, whereas mirrorless cameras use the sensor itself to generate an image which is fed to a screen on the back of the camera and sometimes an electronic viewfinder too.
Some people prefer optical viewfinders and the size and feel of a DSLR. Others prefer the small size and 'always on' live view of a mirrorless compact system camera. It's a debate that's likely to carry on for some time.
DSLRs for beginners
Digital SLRs have a reputation for being complex and intimidating, but they can actually be as straightforward to use as a regular compact digital camera. The important thing is to choose a camera that you feel you can get to grips with.
A typical entry-level SLR has plenty of automatic control options, such as 'scene modes' for landscapes, portraits and other subjects, which allow the user to concentrate on timing and composition while the camera handles exposure and white balance etc. The more advanced exposure modes (aperture priority, shutter priority and manual) are also usually present to give 'room to grow' as you gain in experience.
Most entry-level SLRs are small, light and inexpensive. They lack the robustness and features of more expensive models, but they're still capable of taking top-quality shots.
See our list of DSLRs for beginners for our current favourite models.
DSLRs for enthusiasts
Digital SLRs designed for enthusiasts generally have more of everything – more megapixels, faster continuous shooting, more advanced features, better movie modes and other options designed for photographers who've moved beyond the basics.
These cameras will still have fully automatic modes for new users, or for situations where you don't have time to mess with manual adjustments, but when you do want to take control you'll find it easier than it is with a beginner model.
Digital SLRs for enthusiasts are generally larger, heavier and more robust. They may have metal construction and weather sealing for adverse conditions and some full-frame DSLRs now fall within the price range of keen photographers.
See our list of DSLRs for enthusiasts.
DSLRs for professionals
Professional DSLRs don't always have the highest resolution sensors. Pros look for different things in their cameras, and one of the primary factors is robustness and longevity. Pro DSLRs have strongly-made metal alloy bodies, no-fuss controls which make no concessions for novices but are built to withstand hard use in all kinds of conditions, and will usually have larger-than-usual batteries so that they can shoot for longer.
Some pro models bring state-of-the-art autofocus systems and high continuous shooting speeds that you won't get in amateur cameras. These are designed for busy sports, wildlife or press photographers. The Nikon D810 is unique in this category, too, for having a 36-megapixel sensor – 50% higher than any competing DSLR – its predecessor, the D800/E, was a favourite amongst landscape, portrait and commercial photographers.
See our list of top DSLRs for professionals.
DSLR features to look for
Brand/lens mount: Canon, Nikon and Pentax all make digital SLRs, but each one uses a different lens mount. You can't put Canon lenses on a Nikon, or Nikon lenses on a Pentax. Each of these makers offers a good range of interchangeable lenses, though Canon and Nikon offer the widest choice and availability.
Sensor size: Most DSLRs have sensors measuring around 24mm x 16mm – about the same size as old APS film.This is many times larger than the sensors in compact digital cameras, and it's why DSLRs and other cameras with big sensors offer such a quality advantage. But some DSLRs have full-frame sensors. These are the same size as 35mm film, and twice as large again. This is what the professionals choose, but the cameras are much more expensive and the lenses are bigger and bulkier.
Megapixels: Surprisingly, perhaps, there's not much to choose in terms of megapixels between cameras for beginners and those for pros.
Movies: Just about all DSLRs now shoot full HD movies, but although the specs may look the same the real differences are in the details. Top cameras will be able to shoot at higher frames rates like 60fps or 50fps for smooth slow motion. They can save uncompressed footage 'live' to external recorders for better quality and will have both microphone and headphone sockets for better audio recording. A better camera will also offer more manual control over the camera settings while filming.
Articulating display: DSLRs can also be used in 'live view' mode, where you compose the image on the screen on the back of the camera, not in the viewfinder. A tilting or fully articulating display can be helpful here for composing shots at awkward angles, and it's an advantage for shooting movies too.
Continuous shooting: A basic camera might be able to shoot continuously at three to four frames per second, but more advanced models can shoot at six to eight frames per second, while pro cameras can hit 10-12 frames per second. This might not matter much for everyday photography, but it's important for sports and action.
Construction: Beginner-orientated DSLRs are lighter and more plasticky than the pro models, but they're perfectly well made and should last for years in the hands of any reasonably careful owner. Pro cameras are heavier, with metal bodies and weather sealing around the joints and buttons. The shutter mechanisms will have a much longer life expectancy too – 200,000 shots and more, in some instances.