The Beginner's Guide to Buying a DSLR

If you’re new to the world of DSLRs, the odds of your having followed this progression are very high:

Step 1: Decide to buy a DSLR.

Step 2: Look at several cameras- models from Nikon, from Canon, and from Sony.

Step 3: Try to understand the technical jargon surrounding DSLRs.

Step 4: Get very confused.

This post is written with the noble intention of trying to clear some of that aforementioned confusion.

A digital SLR camera gives you a significantly higher degree of control over practically every element of the image. Having said that, several entry level DSLRs offer multiple scene modes like the ones that are characteristic of point-and-shoot cameras; more advanced/ professional models don’t have these modes. If you’re new to photography, it might be a good idea to try an entry level camera and get the feel of using a DSLR before deciding whether or not to invest in a more advanced model.  It is also equally important to pick a camera that feels comfortable in your hands, make sure you’re happy with the size of the camera and the layout of the controls, because different cameras are designed differently. Additionally lenses and accessories are not usually compatible across different brands; so many photographers don’t switch brands simply to continue being able to use the accessories they already have. While most of the popular brands provide similar options in lenses and accessories, it pays to spend some time researching the relative strengths and weaknesses of these different brands, especially if you plan on moving to professional photography.

Before diving headfirst into the business of buying DSLRs, it might help to ask yourself why you want to buy one. If you want to be able to get excellent image quality even in low light- excellent ISO performance should be a priority, taking pictures of dynamic or fast-moving objects requires a high frame rate (fps), if you intend to do macro work focusing on the minutest details of an object- a ‘live view’ function is something you’ll need, and so on.

Read on to decide what features you want in a DSLR.

Sensor Size

This refers to the actual size of the sensor used to capture photographs. There are three standard sizes- Full Frame, APS-C, and Four-Thirds, with Full Frame being the largest (also bulkier and much more expensive than smaller sensor models), and Four-Thirds the smallest. Larger sensors allow you to capture a larger area of the scene than smaller sensors, produce better results in low-light conditions, and are better while experimenting with depth of field- allowing you to isolate a subject and blur the background. However, it’s also more difficult to get everything in focus with a larger sensor. However, Full Frames are usually found in more expensive, professional cameras. The APS-C (with a crop factor of 1.5x or 1.6x) is the most common sensor- used in most models from Nikon, Canon, as well Sony.

Lenses

Most SLRs come with a standard ‘kit’ lens which provides a good range of zoom and are be a great starting point. Additional lenses can be employed according to the kind of photography you become interested in. There are a few types of lenses:  the standard lens is a 50mm prime lens which can make for a good walk-around lens progressing from the kit lens. Primes lenses which are lenses that are fixed at a certain focal length are usually used for portraiture work. Telephoto zoom lenses covering a wide range of zooms are usually used for wildlife and sports. Macro lenses are used for close up detailed shots and wide angle lenses to cover a wider area usually used for landscape or architectural shots.

Image Stabilization

Image Stabilization (IS) sytems reduce or eliminate the blur caused by camera shake, allowing sharp pictures to be taken even in low-light settings  or with long focal lengths. Some cameras come with in-built IS- these cameras do not require stabilized lenses, which are more expensive than their non-stabilized equivalents. Nikon and Canon offer stabilized lenses, whereas Sony cameras come with in-body sensor stabilization.

Speed

Continuous shooting frame rate is a feature of key importance to those interested in sports or wildlife photography. Entry level cameras typically offer a continuous shooting speed of around 3 fps (frames per second), which is enough for casual photography.  Wildlife or sports photography require the use of cameras with a speed of at least 5 fps. It is also important to remember to look for a camera with a good auto-focus performance, to fully harness its continuous shooting speed.

Durability

If you're going to use your camera in damp, humid or dusty conditions, it is wise to invest in a DSLR with some kind of weatherproof sealing and a solid magnesium alloy frame. Additionally, a built in dust removal system will go a long way in keeping the sensor clean- however, your final decision on this feature should depend on the kind of photography you plan to do- it does add to the price.

Live View

A live- view option allows you to view the image you wish to capture on the camera’s LCD screen. While using live-view usually reduces auto-focus speed in a DSLR, it is a handy feature to have when shooting from odd angles, and also makes the transition from a point-and-shoot to a DSLR easier.

Movie Modes

Video recording in DSLRs is now a standard feature. While choosing your DSLR look for one that continues to autofocus while recording. If you plan on using the video function often, also look for a microphone jack, as an external mic will capture much better sound than the camera's built-in microphone.

Compact System Cameras

Also known as Hybrid cameras, Compact Interchangeable Lens cameras (CILC), or mirror-less system cameras, these cameras are designed for people who want speed and high quality images, but don’t like the bulk of a DSLR. These cameras have the same APS-C sensors found in DSLRs but lack an optical or electronic viewfinder (you'll need to use the camera’s LCD to examine your frame), making these cameras much more compact than DSLRs. However, DSLRs are still more popular, as Hybrid cameras have fewer models to choose from, fewer lenses and accessories, slower auto-focus speeds, limited continuous shooting capabilities, and relatively poor performance in low-light settings.

We hope that, having read the previous sections, you’re now closer to finding the DSLR that’s perfect for you.

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