Tech:Basics of DSLR photography< Back to the Photography and Digital Imaging homepage
If you're thinking about getting your first DSLR and want some advice on what you should and shouldn't be looking for, you've come to the right place. This article is aimed at the complete beginner to DSLRs, although hopefully people with some experience will also get something from the article.
What this article is not
This article is not a review of all DSLRs currently on the market - you can look up the technical details of them elsewhere (this is a good website, and you can compare them side-by-side as well) and opinions are too subjective. Nor is it a complete guide to using a DSLR - there are entire books written on the subject, I couldn't cram it all into an article.
What this article is
This article is designed to point a newcomer to the world of DSLRs in the right direction when selecting their first DSLR. It will point out the benefits and drawbacks of a DSLR over a compact or superzoom, encouraging you to consider whether a DSLR is right for you. There are some technical features of DSLRs explained - you need some knowledge in order to understand what you're buying, but I have kept this to the minimum necessary and in terms that you don't need to be an expert to understand. Most of all, this article is about providing practical information about DSLR selecting.
A whistle-stop tour of DSLRs
Before deciding to a buy a DSLR, probably best that you understand a little bit about what a DSLR is.
SLR stands for 'single lens reflex', with a DSLR being a digital SLR ... which doesn't really tell you a whole lot! There are a lot of physics-y explanations I could give, but I won't. Instead, just know that what this translates to in practical terms is, when you look through the viewfinder, you are looking through the lens. Therefore, what you see will actually end up in your picture (unless it is a crop sensor, which we will discuss later.) This isn't the case with non-SLR cameras, where the viewfinder is above the lens and there are differences between what you see and the picture you take.
Theoretically, any camera could be an SLR. However, what most people mean when they talk about an SLR is a camera where you can change the lenses and the settings that are used for taking the photo to suit your needs better.
From here on, I will be using the term 'DSLR'. There isn't a whole heap of difference between an SLR and a DSLR, just the former uses film and the latter is digital. Some of the concepts are slightly different, but most of what I am about to say will apply to an SLR if you're going down the film route.
A magic camera?
Some people have the idea that, if they buy a big, professional-looking camera, it will act as some magical camera that suddenly makes photos they were previously unhappy with brilliant and of professional quality.
Doesn't work like that, I'm afraid. Any camera is essentially a box that captures light. Good equipment makes some difference, but ultimately it's the photographer's skill that makes a good picture. In fact, many people find their photos are worse when they first start with a DSLR, reason being they're either using an automatic mode that isn't as advanced as that on a compact or they're changing settings without fully understanding their implications. But remember: skills improve and a good picture with a DSLR is better than that of a compact.
Do I need a DSLR?
Well, only you can decide this. However, here are some things to think about to help you decide.
Advantages of a DSLR
- You have greater ability to customise: with a compact or superzoom, you have one lens and little, if any, control over the settings that are used. Not the case with a DSLR - you can buy different lenses to suit your photography and you get up to complete control over your settings. It's really something you can make your own.
- They give better pictures: as I said, DSLRs aren't magical cameras. However, they are capable of taking better pictures because of a combination of their improved technology and the increased control that you have.
- It's an entire hobby: a lot of people with DSLRs treat it as a hobby. They spend a lot of time collecting the lenses and accessories that they want or need, they go out on special trips to see things of interest, some even go on photography holidays.
- They look cool: yes, shallow as it sounds, DSLRs look good. They're quite stylish cameras and, if you take it anywhere, you can almost see people thinking, "Woah, they're a real photographer." You don't even need to know what you're doing to enjoy this benefit!
Disadvantages of a DSLR
- They are expensive: to get a starter DSLR, you're looking at £300 to £400 to buy new. Then there are extra costs of things like lenses (some of these are very expensive, over £1000) and it's an expense that you might not want.
- They are bigger and bulkier: even a small DSLR isn't going to fit in your pocket. It's going to require a special bag to both fit in and for protection, and it will take up extra room if you want to take it anywhere ... which is fine if you're going out specifically, but not what you want if you only ever take pictures of your friends at the pub.
- It's an entire hobby: I listed this as an advantage, but it can also be a disadvantage. Not everyone is that interested in photography for its own sake and, because of the effort required for DSLR photography, it just might not be worth it.
- They get peoples' backs up: a lot of the time when photographers complain about rights infringement, they were doing things that are legal but perhaps common sense should have told them not to do. But some people are genuinely very wary of these big-looking cameras and this could make you feel uncomfortable using it in public.
DSLR vs. compacts, superzooms or compact system cameras
This is a common thing to have to decide: is a DSLR worth it compared to a different sort of camera?
DSLR vs. compact: compacts are great. They have very good in-camera processing that means you can download nice pictures straight from them that require little, if any, tweaking; DSLRs don't really have this, editing your pictures can be a big part of DSLR photography. The main advantage of a compact is that it is compact. If you just want to carry a camera around everywhere and take snaps, get a good compact and forget a DSLR. Even if you are interested in photography for its own sake, get a compact anyway - you won't want to lug your DSLR to everything you want to take photos of; for example, I wouldn't take my DSLR out to a friend's birthday meal, I'd take my compact.
DSLR vs. superzoom: superzooms are essentially compacts with a wider zoom range (although some can look very DSLR-like, I've had to look twice at some before) and, as a supplementary camera, perfectly fine. The reason I don't think of them as a DSLR replacement is that, if you're interested in such a zoom range, chances are you are at least semi interested in photography and I would put money on you eventually getting a DSLR anyway - best to live by the saying "buy right, buy once". You also need to consider how good that zoom will be. It covers what you'd need several DSLR lenses to do; if it was really equal in quality, wouldn't everyone be abandoning their DSLRs by now?
DSLR vs. compact system camera: a compact system camera is also known as a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera or electronic viewfinder with interchangeable lenses or (if Panasonic or Olympus) a micro four-thirds. They are the closest thing on the market to a real 'best of both worlds' between a compact and a DSLR. They take DSLR-quality pictures, although the quality of photos taken in low light is less than that of a DSLR, and have the changeable lenses. In addition, they're sturdier, smaller and lighter than a DSLR because they have less parts, and their digital viewfinders are better in the light. However, the viewfinder isn't one where you look through the lens, bringing us back to the problem that you don't take a picture of what you see. The focussing system (more on focus a bit later) is slower than than of a DSLR, which means you can miss things that happen quickly. Additionally, the range of lenses available is less developed than the range for DSLRs.
What to look for in a DSLR: the technical side
I'll assume you've decided a DSLR is the right path for you and are now wondering what you should really be looking for. There are a few different aspects to this; in my opinion, it's better to figure out what you want technically, then get some options of different cameras and decide on the best one for you. To understand what you need technical-wise from a DSLR, you first need to know a bit about the different components, the different variations they come in and how they affect the use of a DSLR and the picture, with some guidance over what you really need. This isn't a complete guide of all components, it's the things that I think are important to know and consider.
The body is the thing that actually holds all the components together.
The different variations: bodies come in a variety of different materials, from polycarbonate to magnesium. They also come with different sizes and layout of the buttons. Some have more buttons and less of a menu, whereas some have less buttons and more settings on a menu. Some bodies are weather-sealed, they can be used in rain and so forth.
How it affects the use/picture: different bodies feel comfortable to different people. If any camera feels uncomfortable, you won't use it and may as well have not bothered to get it. Some people say a polycarbonate body feels 'flimsy' and they're almost too scared to use it; personally, I can't say I've ever had one disintegrate in my hands... Some people find many buttons easier to deal with, others prefer to keep it simple and just have the important things on buttons with other settings accessed through a menu. A weather-sealed camera can be used in any conditions, which some people need.
What you really need: there's no easy way for deciding this. People with bigger hands generally get on better with bigger and heavier cameras, people with smaller hands generally prefer smaller and lighter, and more experienced people generally want more options on a button as opposed to on a menu. But none of these are hard and fast rules, you'll need to handle a few different cameras to really know what you want. The only one to really know is weather-sealing; are you going to be taking photos in all weathers?
The sensor is the part that captures the light of the photograph.
The different variations: remember I mentioned a crop sensor way back when discussing what a DSLR is? Well, this is where I'll elaborate further: a full frame sensor captures everything seen through the viewfinder because it is physically big enough to do so. A crop sensor is physically small and only captures some of the image through the viewfinder, 'cropping' the edges out.
How it affects the use/picture: generally, it doesn't. This is because a) the cropping isn't much, you'll still get about 95% or more of the image and b) the parts of an image that get cropped out are the edges and photographers generally don't position the objects of interest right on the edge of the picture. In the overwhelming majority of cases, it will crop out background and there's a good chance you'd have cropped this anyway.
What you really need: for most people, I would say don't worry about whether you have a crop sensor or not - as said, it's unlikely to really affect your picture, and cameras with full frame sensors are less in number and generally more expensive. However, if you want to take photos where everything is there, get a full frame sensor.
The pixels are like dots on the sensor that can record light. They are given in megapixels - millions of pixels.
The different variations: the number of pixels a camera can have has increased dramatically over the last few years. You don't want to be shoving more pixels than a sensor can cope with on to it, but DSLR sensors these days can handle somewhere in the region of 20 megapixels quite happily.
How it affects the use/picture: more pixels means more detail. However, you're only really going to notice this if you print very large pictures. More pixels also means you can crop more and still retain detail; again, only really see to it's full benefit if you crop a lot. It used to be that megapixels was how the general public determined the quality of a camera; thankfully, that opinion appears to be changing - it makes a difference, but not an over-riding one.
What you really need: it depends on your pictures. To print massive photos or crop an awful lot, you need lots of pixels. However, for most people, I would estimate you really need about 10 megapixels - this prints decent A4 sized photos and allows you to crop quite a bit.
The focus motor will adjust the focus of the lens to bring the object of interest into focus when using the auto-focus mode.
The different variations: the vast majority of DSLRs have a focus motor built in to the body. Some do not - for example, lower end Nikon DSLRs. To compensate, some lenses for these cameras have focus motors built in to them.
How it affects the use/picture: on auto-focus mode, the camera will lock on to the object of interest and direct the focus motor to focus on the object, which makes it nice and sharp. Where you don't have a focus motor, this can't happen and you will need to manually focus a lens. Auto-focus is much quicker, easier and, especially for a beginner, more accurate.
What you really need: for a beginner, I would recommend that you don't start with manual focussing. You will want a focus motor somewhere, whether in your body or (if you like a body without a focus motor) in the lenses you will use.
The lens on a camera will direct light to the sensor, enabling it to take a photograph.
The different variations: too many to mention! Cut down to the simplest level, you get two different types of lenses: prime lenses and zoom lenses. A prime lens comes with one focal length, which will determine how close the object of your picture appears to be to the viewer. A zoom lens has a variety of focal lengths. These are given in terms of millimetres - for example, an 18-55mm lens means you can get a focal length anywhere between 18mm and 55mm. In order to work out how much zoom it has, divide the second number by the first number; our 18-55mm lens has approximately 3x zoom.
How it affects the use/picture: massively. The lens is the single biggest technical factor that affects your photographs. Different lenses are used for different purposes and even ones for the same purpose come in different qualities. Once you've set up your DSLR system, lenses will be where you spend your money.
What you really need: it sounds like a cop-out now, but you will appreciate it once you've been using a DSLR for a while - you will figure out what lenses you need. Most DSLR users don't take photos of everything, or at least they don't use their DSLR to take photos of everything. For example, I am a landscape photographer; therefore, I have a wide-angle lens to fit lots of the landscape in to my pictures ... but I have very little use of a telephoto lens, I don't really zoom in and magnify anything. Lenses are expensive, so don't buy lots you won't use.
When you start using a DSLR, you will take photos of anything; for this, get a general purpose lens, something like an 18-55mm. Many DSLRs come as a 'kit' option, the body and a general purpose lens - the lenses aren't top quality, but they're not bad either. These are often good value and cost less than buying a DSLR and separate lens, so if you don't have access to other lenses, get a kit and add lenses when you find yourself needing them.
The lens mount is the socket system that attaches the lens to the body.
The different variations: every DSLR manufacturer uses their own design of lens mount. Some even have different lens mounts for different ranges of camera.
How it affects the use/picture: the lens mount style doesn't directly affect the use of the camera or the picture. However, because they are all different, it means you can't interchange lenses and therefore, if you buy a Canon camera, you need to use lenses that fit in the Canon lens mount - Canon lenses or appropriate third-party lenses. This essentially means you lock yourself into one manufacturer.
What you really need: you're not selecting a lens mount. You just need to make sure you're happy with the DSLR you buy, that there is a decent variety of lenses in your price range that fit that camera and that there are suitable upgrade options within the same lens mount should you want to upgrade down the line.
Image stabilisation will counter-act mild shaking to produce a smoother photograph.
The different variations: some manufacturers put image stabilisation into the body, whereas other put it in to some of their lenses. Where it is in the lenses, not all lenses will come with imagine stabilisation and some lenses don't have an image stabilished version - there is no image stabilised Canon wide-angle lens, for example. Image stabilisation can also be called vibration reduction.
How it affects the use/picture: if you can fill a glass up with water and shake it all out of the glass before you get out of the kitchen, image stabilisation won't save you. However, for mild shaking, image stabilisation can produce an image free of blur from shaking.
What you really need: decide whether you need image stabilisation. If you're going to be taking pictures only on a steady surface (like a tripod) or with very quick shutter speeds (see the next section), you don't need it. If you're going to be using it all the time, consider whether image stabilised lenses would be in your price range, because they are more expensive. If they are not but you still want image stabilisation, look for manufacturers with body-based image stabilisation.
Important image settings: aperture, shutter speed, ISO
There are many different settings that control an image, but these are the three main ones. Aperture - how big the hole that lets light in is. Shutter speed - the length of time the aperture is open and the picture is being taken. ISO - how well the camera can handle taking photographs in low light. They all come together to produce exposure - the amount of light that hits the sensor. Correct exposure means your settings worked well together, you got the right amount of light to the sensor.
The different variations: all of these can be changed. Different aperture sizes depends on the lens, different shutter speeds and ISO is camera-dependent. They can all be automatically selected by the camera, you can control one or two and have the camera select an appropriate value for the other(s) or you can fully control all of them.
How it affects the use/picture: along with lenses, these settings make the photo. A large aperture gives you a shallow depth of field (things blur behind and in front of the object of focus) and lets in lots of light, which means you need a faster shutter speed; a small aperture gives you a deep depth of field (things stay in focus behind and in front of the object of focus) and doesn't let in much light, which means you need a slower shutter speed. A fast shutter speed 'freezes' motion and needs a larger aperture; a slow shutter speed blurs motion and needs a smaller aperture. High ISO means you can take photos in darker conditions, but as a compromise it can add 'noise' to the photograph; however, cameras are getting increasingly better at handling high ISO.
What you really need: as the exact values will vary from photo to photo, you need to be able to cope with a wide range of different values for all of these settings. Apertures are lens-determined and shutter speeds range from bulb (infinitely long, you manually cut it off) to about 1/4000 of a second on all current DSLRs, which is fine. You want a DSLR to comfortably handle up to ISO 800 for more daylight situation, with good handling of higher values if you want to take night-time photos.
File settings: JPEG and RAW
These are the two different formats that a DSLR can save your photo in.
The different variations: JPEG files come in different qualities - the better the quality, the more memory space it takes up. To make a JPEG, the camera does some processing and discards un-needed information to produce a picture you can see. A RAW file is like the digital version of a negative; it retains all of that information, but you have to process everything to get a picture.
How it affects the use/picture: you can immediately view a JPEG, but you have less ability to edit it in something like Photoshop. You need to have special software to edit RAW photos and they often don't end up much different to the JPEG unless you didn't get the settings quite right, in which case you can change them and save your photo - handy if you'll only have one chance to take the picture.
What you really need: you really need to be able to do both. As a beginner, you'll be better off using JPEG - it gives you something to see, plus it teaches you more about what settings do and don't work together, which you won't learn if you can just edit over your mistakes. However, as you progress, RAW photos will become more increasingly more interesting and you'll probably want that freedom. A lot of newer models allow you to take RAW and high quality JPEG together, which is very useful.
How to decide what you do and don't need or want
The easiest way to do this is to answer a few simple yes or no questions about some the elements discussed above:
- Do I need to take photos in all weathers? Yes = weather-sealed body (however, bear in mind there are waterproof cases you can get to put a DSLR in if you only need rain protection sometimes.)
- Do I need to get everything I see through a viewfinder into a photo? Yes = full frame sensor.
- Do I need to print large photographs or crop dramatically? Yes = large number of megapixels.
- Do I always need image stabilisation and can I not afford image stabilised lenses? Yes = image stabilisation in the body.
If you answer yes to any of these, they are the things that are absolute necessities. If you answered no, consider whether you would like it as an option. A lot of the other key elements are very similar across the different manufacturers and models ... apart from the body design, which we are coming on to.
Where to best research and draw up a potential list
Go on to something like the DSLR section of the Jessops website and just look at everthing. See if it has your requirements and reject it if it does not. Of the ones that do, see how many of your desired features each one has. Keep a list of any you're interested in, because until you have a hold of them all, you don't really know which one you'll prefer.
How important is the manufacturer?
Not very - all DSLRs are fit for purpose and are good technically. However, different manufacturers have the edge in different ways; for example, Nikon are slightly better at handling ISO, whereas Canon have more affordable lenses for wildlife photography. Some research should allow you to find out the advantages and disadvantages of each one.
Generally, non-Canon and Nikon DSLRs are better value for money ... but you pay for it in having less of a range and less availability of parts. If your Nikon failed whilst you were on a photography holiday, you could get a new body for your lenses to go on and not ruin the holiday. You may or may not get a new Sony body. Similarly, the second hand market for Canon and Nikon is larger than that for the other DSLR manufacturers.
How important is the price?
Well, to you it may be very important - make a budget and stick to it.
However, price doesn't indicate the quality; it's not that a £350 DSLR is awful where an £800 DSLR from the same manufacturer is that much better. A lot of the time, they'll have the same components (same sized sensor, same ISO capability) or very similar ones. What the extra money buys you is: more settings on buttons than on the menu, a bigger and stronger body, weather sealing - that sort of thing, not an infinitely better DSLR.
Narrowing down the potentials
Once you have a list of DSLRs that will serve your purposes, it's time for the single most important factor in choosing a DSLR: are you comfortable with it?
There's no way around this, you have to go to a shop that has plenty of DSLRs in the shop for you to handle and figure out which ones do and don't feel comfortable. They can be surprising; there are some general rules, but they don't always apply - people with big hands can sometimes prefer smaller cameras. Also consider the practicality of carrying it around; it might be all right to hold, but is it of a weight you'd want to carry around with you?
Just try them all and see what you like. You don't have to buy in shop, but it is best to have a handle to know which one you like the most.
Where to buy your DSLR from
There are plenty of options, and I won't pretend that I know the ins and outs of every single DSLR supplier in the country. However, here is some general guidance to help you decide.
New or second hand?
The second hand market for DSLRs is good. There are some very good, well cared for, second hand lenses - you can really get more for your money this way; for example, I have a lens that costs £900-odd new that I bought for under £400 second hand. Once you're more experienced with DSLRs and want to upgrade, well cared for second hand bodies are a good idea.
However, I generally recommend new for a DSLR beginner (as long as they can afford it) for one reason: whilst you can get bad new DSLRs, you're more likely to get a bad second hand one. As a beginner to DSLR photography, your photos won't be great to begin with and, if they stay like that after you've been reading and tried out things that should have improved the quality of your photos, you wouldn't know whether you weren't getting it or whether the camera was bad. If it is the camera, it can lead to you thinking you're not capable of improving and giving up on photography, which would be a shame.
Online or in-shop?
There are benefits and drawbacks to each one.
Online: You can often get good prices online and find voucher codes as well. In addition, you are covered by distance selling regulations, which give you seven days to send your DSLR back if you change your mind. However, you can experience delays in receiving your DSLR and support for any problems with it is less. They also don't often add free extras, so any additions will cost you and may make up what you'd save.
In-shop: You can physically check the DSLR before you buy it and receive it immediately, plus some shops throw in extras like a memory card or camera strap free of charge or greatly reduced. However, in-shop prices are often more expensive than online and any taking it back is at the discretion of the shop or company, unless it is actually broken.
Remember the golden rules of buying expensive items with either of these methods: walk away if you feel uncomfortable for any reason because our instincts tend to be right, and anything that looks too good to be true probably is.
What else will I need, beside the camera?
There's no point in buying everything to begin with. You're much better off buying the basics and then finding out what you will and won't use. However, there are a few items that are necessary in addition to your DSLR and general purpose lens for you to start:
- suitable memory card (unless you're desperate to get out with the camera, buy online - they are much cheaper);
- small DSLR bag;
- neck strap for protection;
- spare battery (third party batteries are much cheaper than brand batteries);
- lens cleaning pen.
If you have some money left over, I would recommend a lens hood - it protects the end of the camera against knocks and also eliminates glare in your pictures.
- Figure out what you do and don't need/want from a DSLR.
- Draw up a list of suitable DSLRs from different manufacturers.
- Go and handle them before deciding which one to buy.
- Start simply and build up - no one goes into DSLR photography knowing exactly what they need or will use.
- Most of all, have fun. Photography is a very enjoyable hobby if you put the effort in.