Picking out a digital camera used to be simple. After all, there were fewer choices. You could buy a pocket-sized, easy-to-use compact camera, or an intimidating and expensive professional digital single-lens reflex model.
But the market has changed. Now there are pocket-sized cameras with sensors plucked out of dSLRs that take fabulous pictures, and there are dSLRs that are just as easy to use as those pocket models. There are serious cameras designed for pocket cam graduates that incorporate all the same features as compact cameras in the manufacturer’s lineup, but add the benefit of interchangeable lenses and excellent image quality.
The allure of a serious camera draws plenty of potential buyers toward a dSLR, but it's a big investment and deserves some careful consideration before you make the leap.
Is A dSLR Right For You?
- You want the highest-quality images. Most dSLRs have enough resolution to print large posters. Besides leading the megapixel race, dSLRs generally shoot better in low light, capture details more clearly, snap more frames per second, and have hardly any shutter lag when compared to the average compact digital camera.
- You want options. Lots of them. All dSLRs have a range of manual controls including aperture priority, shutter speed priority, full manual, and program modes that allow you to tweak just about every setting imaginable. And if you’re not in the mood, there are usually automatic and scene modes to save the day. dSLRs also give you flexibility to add accessories like flash units, microphones, and remote controls that you don't usually find on compact cameras.
- You shoot a variety of subjects such as landscapes, sporting events, and portraits. The ability to switch lenses will allow you to use a wide-angle lens for those sunsets on the beach or a telephoto lens for sharp shots of soccer players on the pitch. Generally, the optics are better too.
- You’ve inherited a set of nice lenses and all you need is a great body to make them work. Most dSLRs are compatible with old lenses from the same manufacturer, even if the lenses were built in the film days.
- You want to look like a serious photographer. If you want to look the part, having a chunky dSLR hanging around your neck like a medal of honor is the way to go. And if you want to feel the part, just wrap your right hand around that faux leather grip. Oh yeah.
Why Should You Not Buy a dSLR?
A dSLR isn’t for everyone, and there are reasons for that too. You might want to think twice about getting a dSLR if:
- You already carry too much around. dSLRs are bulkier and heavier than the typical pocketable camera. Too many new parents rush out and buy a dSLR because they want the highest quality pictures of their little bumpkin. Only later do they realize that they really don’t want to carry around 20 pounds of camera equipment. And when they stop carrying the camera around, they either miss photo ops or settle for crappy camera phone pictures. If the size and bulk of a dSLR scares you, try a mirrorless camera. The Sony NEX-3 and NEX-5 are the world’s smallest and lightest interchangeable-lens cameras at about 1.5 inches thick and only 8 oz heavy. You lose the optical viewfinder, but the picture quality is still very sharp and the flexibility of interchangeable lenses is unbeatable. The retro-cool Olympus PEN E-PL1 and lightweight Panasonic G10 are also excellent mirrorless options.
- You’re on a tight budget. dSLRs have higher-quality components and often require more research and development before heading to market, making them more expensive than their compact counterparts. Add in the lenses, camera bags, flash units, UV filters, memory cards, custom neck strap, and other accessories and you’re talking big money, easily north of $1,000. If you’re on a budget and aren’t completely sold on a dSLR, a superzoom digital camera such as the Olympus SP-800UZ, the Canon SX30, or Panasonic FZ100 might satisfy your craving for higher quality photography. These cameras have versatile lenses and are ready to shoot as soon as you take it out of the box.
Before You Buy
If you've decided on a dSLR, here are a few matters to consider while you're looking for your dream camera.
- Camera Class dSLRs range from $499 entry-level models through $8,000 professional full-frame monsters. If this is your first dSLR, there's no need to spend more than $1,000 on your camera – it's still going to be a serious shooter. Go for an entry-level or consumer model. It'll take some time to master the camera, and by that point, you will have a good sense whether you really need something more powerful.
- Body vs. Kit Most dSLRs, especially entry-level ones, are offered in packages that include either just the body or the body plus a lens or two. Unless you already have lenses, it often makes sense to get the kit lens because you can save a few dollars as opposed to purchasing one separately. For instance, the Canon EOS Digital Rebel T2i retails for $899 as a kit that includes the body and an 18-55mm lens. When purchased separately, the T2i retails for $799 and the 18-55mm lens for $199. That kit lens (and most kit lenses from most manufactures) is an average-quality 3x zoom lens and is enough to get you started.
- Feel Before making the big purchase, be sure to go to a camera store and handle the cameras before buying one. There's a lot to be said for a camera that just feels like it fits naturally in your hands. A dSLR is a big investment and you want it to produce gorgeous pictures for years to come. If you love your camera, you will take more pictures and get a priceless return on that investment.
- HD Video Movie modes on dSLRs used to be nonexistent, but now almost all dSLRs shoot video – in high definition, no less. The Canon Rebel T2i, Nikon D3100, and Pentax K-r are just a few good options of dSLRs that are consumer-friendly and come with high-quality HD video capabilities.
- System The brand you buy now is the brand you'll likely stick with in the long run. Once you start buying expensive lenses and accessories for your Canon system, the prospect of starting over again with Nikon doesn't seem too appealing. Any manufacturer will have something to offer, but it may help to consider how deep the accessory and lens support runs.
- Lenses Each manufacturer makes its own brand of lenses. For instance, Nikon makes Nikkor lenses and Olympus makes Zuiko lenses. Generally, dSLRs are compatible within their own brand of lenses, although many third-party manufacturers such as Sigma and Tamron build lenses for specific camera bodies. Sony’s alpha series of digital SLRs accept Sony A-mount lenses, but also accept Konica Minolta lenses. It's worthwhile to check lens compatibility and overall availability before you buy.