How to choose a DSLR camera

Features James Hunt Feb 7, 2013

James gives some handy advice on how to pick a decent camera

There are two main categories of digital camera: compact and DSLR. If it's a basic compact camera you're after, check out the previous article in this series. This time, we’re taking a look at the more sophisticated professional-level DSLRs.

As ever, your choice of which type of camera to buy should depend primarily on a combination of your abilities as a photographer and your understanding of the technology inside (although the budget is certainly a major part of any DSLR purchase).

Strictly speaking, the term ‘DSLR’ refers to the fact that the image seen in the viewfinder is identical to the one captured by the sensor (something that isn’t true of compact point-and-shoot cameras). However, this extra complexity means that the feature is only found in the most expensive cameras, which also offer better optical zoom, interchangeable lenses, and various other professional-level functions.

Hence, DSLR is a shorthand way of saying that a camera is of ‘professional’ level quality. Note that these generally get the best results when operated by someone with an good technical understanding of photography; it’s important to remember that just as buying a good car won’t automatically make you a good driver, buying a good camera doesn’t mean you’ll automatically take better pictures. Indeed, if you’re not familiar with the more complicated settings and attachments, it might actually mean the opposite is true.

Of course, the delineation between compacts and DSLRs isn’t entirely clean. More expensive and sophisticated than compacts but cheaper than full DSLRs are ‘bridge’ cameras - devices that look and feel like DSLRs with a similar range of capabilities but which lack a true optical viewfinder and rarely use interchangeable lenses. We’ll also be covering these as we attempt to help you find the right high-end digital camera for you.

How much should you spend?

The cheapest professional-level cameras start around the same price as high-end compacts: around £100. Bridge cameras at this level have vastly superior technical capabilities, however. £100 can get you 21x optical zoom, which is far beyond what any compact can offer. The trade-off, of course, is that bridge cameras aren’t compact - they’re large and impractical if you’re just taking a few holiday pics.

By the time you get past £200, bridge cameras have features such as 1080p video recording and as much as 30x optical zoom, but you also approach the price of full DSLRs. For that reason, if you’re planning on buying a bridge, either as an upgraded version of a compact or because you’re actively looking to trade up to DSLRs in the long term, we wouldn’t recommend spending more than £250. Anything less is fine, with the price closely linked to the strength and capabilities of the optical zoom, rather than (as with compacts) the amount of megapixels they can capture.

In the realm of actual DSLRs, you’ll struggle to find anything beneath £250. The price of DSLRs continues practically into infinity after that, though - you can find digital SLR cameras costing more than £5000 without too much effort - and that doesn’t even account for the lenses you have to buy as well!

Assuming you’re not a photojournalist getting dropped into a war zone (in which case you probably need better advice than we can give), we’d recommend spending somewhere between £300 and £600 on an actual DSLR, keeping in mind that you’ll also have to spend a lot of money on accessories - particularly lenses!

What make/model/manufacturer should you look for?

At the highest end of the DSLR market, Canon and Nikon are pretty much the only two names in town, so that expertise arguably filters down to more affordable examples too. While there are other manufacturers you can consider, if you’re looking to get into photography long-term, it makes sense to stick with the most popular names - at least until you learn a bit more about the hardware and can make a more informed decision about what you prefer.

The Canon EOS600D is a popular mid-range DSLR that can be picked up for around £400. It’s getting on for a couple of years old now, but its mixture of excellent value and a high-quality system make it a good choice whether you’re learning the ropes or looking for something that’ll unlock your potential. However, one Nikon equivalent, the Nikon D3200, is similarly cheap and capable but also a little newer, meaning it has slightly better video capabilities.

If you’re only interested in training yourself up, though, you could get the slightly cheaper Nikon D3100, which has a built-in guide that assumes no previous knowledge of photography or cameras. Pick it up for as little as £275.

As for bridge cameras, we’ve had a look around and our path always returns to this: the Canon PowerShot SX40 HS. It costs about £250, has a 35x zoom lens, 12 megapixel sensor and does full HD 1080p video recording. There are cheaper models and there are more capable models, but this one’s sitting right on the sweet spot for its price and abilities. Definitely worth a look.

What technology should you look for?

Although it can be tempting to focus on things like the number of megapixels and the amount of zoom a digital camera can do, don’t get too hung up on them. Remember that compact cameras focus on these because they’re the only way the devices differ in any reasonable way. Bridge cameras, as essentially oversized compacts, often push similar technology, but DSLRs are far more complicated.

For example, on DSLRs, you shouldn’t pay attention to the pixel count but the pixel size. This often means looking for the largest possible sensor. If two cameras capture the same number of megapixels, the one with a larger sensor will produce a better image. It’s not always that simple, though; keep in mind that while high-megapixel cameras capture more detail in good light, lower megapixel cameras perform better in low light. Make sure you know what the camera’s likely to be used for!

For viewfinders, there are two main types: the cheaper pentamirror and the brighter pentaprism. The latter type is better, making it easier to frame and focus images, but it’s only found on higher-end cameras. On pentaprism viewfinders, pay attention to the coverage numbers; higher means a bigger viewfinder and/or the ability to see more of the image as it’ll be captured.

The big advantage of DSLRs (besides their viewfinder, of course) is their speed: there’s very little shutter lag between pressing the button and capturing the image, and recycle time (the length of time you have to wait between taking two consecutive images) is almost imperceptibly tiny in both cases, unlike compacts. Continuous shooting is given in a value of frames-per-second. Higher is better, but you want at least 3fps. Remember, too, that fast continuous shooting requires good autofocus capabilities, otherwise you can end up with multiple blurry images, which is no good to anyone.

Although most DSLRs have an internal flash, it’s quite common to buy a more powerful external one. A bigger flash means more light and can often be repositioned to give a more natural reflected look on the subject of the photo. It costs extra for a good one (£80 or more), but it’s certainly as worthwhile an investment as any extra lenses would be.

Is now the right time to buy?

On a long timeline, DSLRs and bridge cameras are getting consistently cheaper as the technology they’re based on improves. However, the improvements are measured and consistent, and so the price drops are too. There aren’t any big leaps expected that’ll drastically drop the price of digital cameras, so in that sense, you can buy whenever you want.

On a slightly closer scale, pay attention to when Canon and Nikon release their new models, because both of them tend to stick close to the other, and the release of a new model obviously makes the earlier ones slightly cheaper, allowing you to either pick up a discount or get a better camera for the same money.

However, the market is mature, SLRs are priced on parity with DSLRs, so there’s nowhere for the high-end digital market to go except down the path it’s already on. Prices will drop steadily as new models are released. The upshot of this is that if you’re ready to buy a camera, there’s no particular reason to hesitate.

That said, you’ve probably just missed the January sales, so if you can wait until there’s a good reason for retailers to offer some discounts, maybe that’s worth doing. However, that’s hardly advice that’s specific to digital cameras!

What are the technical constraints?

ridge and DSLR cameras suffer many of the same technical constraints as compact cameras (problems with storage and sensors that struggle in low light), but there are issues directly associated with high-end cameras as well.

One of the biggest constraints for working with DSLRs is actually more of a financial constraint than a technical one. The cost of using DSLRs can quickly skyrocket as soon as you start using them, because lenses are expensive to buy, and it’s always tempting to buy another new one for some reason or another.

DSLR lenses and cameras are also heavier and more fragile than their compact alternatives, so you’ll need to buy things like cases, cameras and tripods. If you scrimp and save to buy a DSLR, you might be disappointed; it’s difficult to get the most out of them without paying a lot more than the initial price. You’re not just buying a camera, you’re buying an entire system. Even beginners will probably want to buy a telezoom lens to complement the included kit, which could cost as much as £200-£300 on top of the camera itself. And that doesn’t even account for an external flash.

In terms of the camera, there are other, non-technical limitations you might want to consider before you actually buy it, and that’s the physicality of the device. Compacts are cheap and small, so you expect them to be a bit fiddly and lightweight. DSLRs, though, are heavy. You’ll need a solid, comfortable grip of the kind you can only get a good sense of by going into a shop and holding the camera first. If it’s too big or heavy or laid out in a way that confuses you, choose a different model. Above all else, when you’re spending this much money on a camera, you need to get one that you’re going to actually enjoy using!

What’s the alternative?

If you don’t want to buy a DSLR because they’re too sophisticated, and you don’t want to buy a bridge camera because they’re too expensive, the obvious alternative is a compact (or ‘point and shoot’) digital camera.

Again, these were covered in more detail last time, but compact digital cameras are worth considering if you want to upgrade from an old non-digital camera, or even whatever measly digital camera your smartphone has squeezed inside it. They have reasonably good zoom functions (around 4x optical) and you can pick up a very good one for under £100. Certainly good enough to take on holiday, and it’ll last you a few years.

Digital compacts tend to be cheap, simple to use and very easy to figure out, but as a trade-off, they have (relatively) limited capabilities. Even so, you can expect them to capture images of up to 16 megapixels (far in excess of the maximum resolution of your monitor) and have support for expandable memory card storage. One benefit of compact cameras is that they’re essentially all-in-one devices, meaning you don’t have to buy a detachable flash or additional lenses, and this also makes them ideal for people who are want to take a few snaps as mementos rather than pursue professional-quality or artistic photography.

Another alternative is to buy a non-digital SLR camera. However, non-digital SLRs are no cheaper than DSLRs, so if you choose to do so you’re essentially aligning yourselves with the kind of format snobs who think vinyl sounds better than CDs or that books are inherently superior to e-readers, so be careful. You might have a new camera, but you’ll probably lose a few friends along the way!