Best SLR: which should you buy?

27th Jun 2014 | 15:14

Best SLR: which should you buy?

Advice to help you choose the best DSLR for you

Types of SLR

Ever since the arrival of the first commercially viable digital SLRs in the 1990s, there's been a steady stream of technological breakthroughs and new releases. Sales of digital SLRs remain robust, as it's this 'quality' end of the market that is most immune from the threat of ever-improving smartphones; however good smartphones are, if a pro wedding or sports photographer turned up wielding one, they'd get shown the door.

There are SLR cameras suitable for every type of photographer, from novices to professionals, but which one is right for you?

In this guide, we will discuss the main types of SLR so you can make the right buying decision. First, a word of caution. It's not the case that maxing out your credit card to buy a pro-specification SLR will not instantly make you a pro-standard photographer.

However pricey your SLR, you won't get very creative shots if you only know how to shoot in Auto or Program modes; the quality of your lenses also has a massive impact on your photography.

SLRs: your need to know guide

Before we start covering specific types of digital SLR, let's just recap what an SLR actually is. SLR stands for Single Lens Reflex, and an SLR works by using a mirror to direct light from the lens to the viewfinder (what you usually look through before pressing the shutter button).

When you actually take a picture, a 'reflex' mirror swings up to let light directly through to the camera's sensor, so the image can be recorded. Once the shutter closes, the reflex mirror drops back and directs light back to the viewfinder again. After a lot of complicated, split-second image processing, you have your picture.

SLRs are a type of interchangeable lens camera, which is a big attraction.

What types of SLR are there?

One of the key ways of differentiating DSLRs is by sensor type – the sensor being the light-sensitive electronic device inside the camera that records the image. SLR sensors typically come in two flavours, full frame and APS-C format. Full-frame sensors are found in more expensive SLRs, and are called full frame as they are the same size as a 35mm film negative frame.

DSLR sensor

This means that their light-sensitive pixels ('photosites') can be bigger, which means more light can enter, which can mean a wider dynamic range and less digital picture interference, or noise. The result is higher quality images.

APS-C format sensors have smaller (approx 22x15mm) sensors, which means a full frame sensor has 2.5x the surface area. A full frame sensor has a 1x 'crop factor,' so a 24mm digital SLR lens, for instance, gives the same angle of view as a 24mm film SLR lens. APS-C sensors cover less of the area projected by a lens designed for full-frame.

An APS-C sensor sees a smaller angle of view, with a crop factor of 1.5 or 1.6x, so our 24mm lens gives the same angle of view as a traditional 38mm focal length. Having said all this, it's not simply the case that full-frame SLRs are 'better'.

While full frame sensors deliver large, high resolution image files, and are particularly good for capturing a wider scene in landscapes (thanks to that 1x crop factor), APS-C sensors can also produce excellent results. Some photographers also prefer the longer reach that the extra crop factor gives them. APS-C SLRs and lenses are significantly cheaper too, which is often the deciding factor for many non-professionals.

SLRs for different types of user

What SLRs are there for different types of user?

The SLR market can be divided into broad sectors, catering for novices, enthusiasts, semi-pro and full-blown professional photographers.

A typical entry-level SLR has plenty of automatic control options that 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 light on buttons and dials, and may make greater use of menus for some adjustments.

Stepping up to the next level introduces more features, perhaps a touchscreen (although these are still uncommon on an SLR) and a faster processor that enables higher continuous shooting rates. Although most enthusiast level SLRs have an APS-C format sensor, there are some, such as the Nikon D610 and Canon 6D which have full-frame sensors. You may also find that there are more complex autofocusing systems, which are particularly useful for shooting moving subjects, and addiitonal physical controls which can make changing settings quicker than using a menu.

Get into enthusiast/semi pro territory and these days you're talking about a full-frame model like the Nikon D800, Nikon D4S, Canon 5D Mark III or Canon EOS-1Dx.

Top pro models tend to have super-higher pixel counts (D800) or are can rattle off large numberds of images in next to no time.

Canon EOS 70D

Four things you need to know

Sensor type: as we've seen, the type of sensor is an important consideration, as it also affects price. Full-frame SLRs are popular with serious portrait and landscape pros as they can potentially capture more of a scene, and in more detail. For many enthusiast photographers, however, a higher-end APS-C format SLR is a good (and cheaper) compromise.

Resolution: don't obsess about 'more is better' when it comes to megapixels in SLRs. While the Nikon D800 boasts a 36Mp sensor, the downside is very large (30Mb plus) raw files, which can eat up memory cards and computing power.

Storage: If you're a heavy duty user, it's worth getting an SLR with dual memory slots to maximise your storage options. Modern SLRs now take SD/SDHC or Compact Flash cards.

Lenses: Canon and Nikon, the main SLR makers, offer a massive lens choice for every situation. Be aware that the kit lenses you get with cheaper SLRs tend to be built down to a price, so be prepared to upgrade. You can use full-frame lenses on APS-C SLRs, but they will be subject to the increased crop factor; full-frame lenses either won't work on APS-C SLRs, or will only use a small part of the sensor.

How much will I need to spend?

An entry level SLR, such as the EOS 1100D/EOS Rebel T3 costs around £240/US$350, while a good starting point for a quality enthusiast SLR such as the Nikon D7100 is £1000/US$1500. To go full frame, you'll start off around £1400/US$1900 (body only) while pro SLRs such as the Nikon D4s will set you back around £5000/US$6500.

What other things should I consider?

Don't forget that each SLR maker has its own type of lens mount – so a Canon SLR lens won't work on a Nikon SLR unless you buy an adaptor. Many older film lenses will work on digital SLRs but you might need an adaptor, and might lose some functionality – check with your SLR maker before you buy.

Other SLR jargon explained

Optical viewfinders: the typical SLR viewfinder is essentially a reversed telescope that lets you see what the camera sees.

Live view: a feature that allows the SLR's screen to be used as a viewfinder; useful for studio/candid compositions and checking sharpness when focusing manually.

Phase detection focusing: the fast, responsive autofocus system used by digital SLRs.

Focal length: the distance in mm from the optical centre of a lens to a point at which a subject at infinity appears in sharp focus.

Buying guides

Now you know a bit more about which type of SLR you need, take a look at our buying guides to find teh perfect SLR for you.

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