In this buyer’s guide, you will learn the basics of a DSLR camera and how you can pick your very first one based on your level of expertise. In recent times, using a point-and-shoot camera for long isn’t enough. Most people are looking to upgrade their familiar photography skills into something unique and provoking. I’m sure that’s why you’re here too.
Factors like shutter speed, ISO, battery life, ease of use, and intelligent shooting modes propel you forward. It can also help beginners master advanced photography skills in a short span of time.
So why do you need a DSLR camera? A DSLR is made up of high-quality components with better accessories and features. Image quality is its only major advantage over point-and-shoot cameras.
While a point-and-shoot camera is compact and lightweight to travel with, choosing a DSLR camera can offer you versatile photo shooting and video recording opportunities. You can shoot fast moving objects, control your shutter speed and ISO settings, and freeze fast-action scenes in less than a second!
For beginners, picking a professional DSLR camera isn’t as straightforward as picking a point-and-shoot camera. There are tons of factors to consider before you buy, so here’s how you can finally become a skilled shutter bug!
1. What Do You Need A DSLR Camera For?
Most people begin by asking themselves why they need a DSLR camera. Believe it or not, this is as important as determining your budget for one. After all, if you don’t precisely know why you’re buying a DSLR camera, it is a possibility that you might end up buying the wrong kind.
You have to ask yourself what you enjoy doing the most. Perhaps you need to experiment with different photography niches to find something that fits your style. Based on your location, choosing your photography niche can also be made simple.
There’s wedding, fashion, landscape, macro, fine art, and sport photography. Each genre has its own sets of camera requirements from exposure, focus, and image sensitivity settings. In our ultimate guide we list the types of photography to draw inspiration from.
So picking your genre is all a matter of preference and style. Above all, it’s important to buying a DSLR camera so you know which image sensor to buy. This brings us to the next important factor that is the type of sensor you can need for your DSLR camera.
2. Choosing Different Image Sensors
Generally, people often consider megapixels as the determining factor when picking the best DSLR camera. But you don’t have to make that mistake. Considering different image sensors is slightly more significant than megapixels. Why is that?
When I talk about different image sensors what I actually mean is image sensor sizes. You will find two main DLSR formats in the market. Full frame cameras have sensors that are a lot bigger than cropped frame cameras. This can only affect the focal length of the lenses.
To put into simple words, image sensors are responsible for letting in light to develop every image. The millions of photosites that make up the image sensor stands in between what’s out there being photographed and what is precisely seen through the lens.
Hence, the bigger the image sensor size, the better the landscape. But if you prefer using telephoto lenses for macro photography (see macro lenses for Nikon and Canon), using smaller image sensors is good enough. (2)
The advantages of using bigger image sensors is attention to detail, dynamic range, and better low-light performance. The only downside is that using bigger sensors requires bigger lenses to cope. This is because the big image sensor needs a higher-grade lens to meet the needs of the image.
On the other hand, smaller image sensors are more affordable, easy to use, and comfortable. They work well with all types of lenses, specifically those that don’t match up to big image sensors.
The possibility to using a cropped frame camera is more likely for people buying lightweight DSLRs. According to Nikon, a cropped frame cameras occupy a very small portion of the full image that’s projected on the lens. It has a 1.5x cropping measure when compared to 35mm strip of film.
So there’s more light sensitivity and gathering in full frame than cropped frame cameras. (3)
3. Do You Need An Entry-Level Or Advanced DSLR Camera?
If you’re buying a DSLR camera for the first time (which most of you are!), buying an advanced DSLR camera is not the right way to go. There are lots of features you need to get used to on an entry-level before you upgrade to an advanced one.
For starters, advanced DLSR cameras are generally bigger in build with complex controls. While entry-level cameras feature both automatic shooting modes as well as manual so you understand how each image manipulation element works. If you have not handled DSLR cameras before, there’s a learning curve even with the best DSLR camera for beginners. (4)
An entry-level DSLR comes with intelligent shooting modes and manuals you can look forward to.
If you buy an intermediate or advanced DSLR, you get better video shooting features, accurate autofocus, and a higher frame-rate to begin with. The fact that advanced cameras come with a bigger internal storage memory and rugged processing engine makes them twice as fast and efficient than entry-level cameras.
If your first DSLR is an advanced one, you might have to sit in front of the computer for hours learning about the techniques and forms of the camera. But using an entry-level camera will give you a first-hand experience on how things usually work.
Taking control of your DSLR requires you to understand the basics first. This includes learning the versatile intelligent shooting modes, ISO, exposure, aperture priority (Av), shutter priority (Tv), and white balance.
Exploring and experimenting with these settings on your entry-level camera helps you achieve a set of photographic goals. And isn’t that the main reason why you bought a DSLR in the first place?
On an ending note, advanced DSLRs are twice (or more) as expensive than entry-level DSLRs. So if you’re working towards a practical buy, opting for an entry-level DSLR is a good choice. However, to have an advanced DSLR has its own perks including a weather-sealed body, better controls, and longer battery life.
4. Which Lens Is Best For You?
There are many types of lenses to factor in when buying a DSLR. From standard and kit lenses that often come with a DSLR to wide-angle and telephoto zoom lenses. Keep in mind that when you buy a DSLR, you are handed an entry-level lens which lacks the skills of more advanced lenses.
If you’re shooting everyday scenes, using entry-level lens is good enough. But for more advanced shots and techniques, the entry-level lens is better kept aside. (5)
That said, let’s look at the different types of lenses and their features. (6)
Standard lenses: Standard lenses fall between 35 to 85mm frame. It’s precisely what the human eyes can see through the viewfinder of the camera. People often opt for standard lenses because they capture more natural and subtle images. Using 35mm lenses might be a bit closer than expected, but it still produces natural-looking and realistic images.
For portrait photography, using an 85mm lens is more apt. Based on my research, standard lenses are generally used by beginners.
Wide-angle lenses: Wide-angle lenses fall between 18 to 30mm frame. If you’re looking for better “light gathering” capability and depth of field, go for wide-angle lenses. There’s a lot of difference between buying a cheap wide-angle lens and an expensive one. For starters, advanced wide-angle lenses correct the inward angle and distortion.
When straight lines such as walls on a landscape are curved slightly inwards on the frame, it’s called the inward angle. Most inexpensive wide-angle lenses have this problem, but that can easily be corrected using Photoshop. There are many other wide-angle photo techniques that you should know of before purchasing one.
Fisheye lenses: Fisheye lenses are 12mm or less in frame. Fisheye lenses produce images with exaggerated depth of field and detail. These are also very common among bloggers. If you want to use something practical and minimalistic, using a fisheye lens is more useful than say standard lenses.
Telephoto lenses: Telephoto lenses fall between 100 to 300mm frame. This is when you want your lens to get extremely close to the object without you moving an inch. Telephoto lenses are more expensive and bigger in size than others. It offers a flat depth of field without compromising on image quality and resolution.
Photographers, especially those who like to capture wildlife, often opt for telephoto lens. Always remember to take a tripod with you as telephoto lens can start to feel heavy and bulky after some time (see best tripod for DSLR cameras for some ideas).
5. Finding A DSLR Camera With Image Stabilization
As the name suggests, image stabilization eliminates the effects of camera shake on an image. If not eliminate, it works hard to reduce the appearance of camera shake. The two main settings that contribute to camera shake is shutter speed and focal length.
If either one of these settings is elongated beyond normal standards, it produces a distorted and blurred effect on the final image. Other reasons such as defocusing or subject movement can also cause camera. For which a built-in image stabilizer is an essential asset for most photographers.
Before buying a DSLR, knowing what type of image stabilization it offers is critical. Most DSLRs offer lens-shift type image stabilization compatibility while some feature their own built-in sensor-shift type image stabilization.
Lens-shift type image stabilization: This type of stabilization focuses on the optics of each lens to stabilize the image. It does this by altering what’s happening inside the lens to reduce the effects of a camera shake. Since it’s lens-based, buying a DSLR that adapts to such lenses is a good choice. Most telephoto lenses come with lens-shift type image stabilization.
The best part is that you can optimize the stabilization feature as per your likings on each lens you buy.
Sensor-shift type image stabilization: Sensor-shift type image stabilization is when the image sensor is shifted inside the camera to minimize the appearance of a camera shake. Lens-shift type stabilization is more camera-specific than sensor-shift type image stabilization.
With sensor-shift type image stabilization, you can attach any type of lens you want and the lens takes control of the built-in stabilization of the camera. There’s no need to optimize or adjust the settings, as you would in lens-shift type. (7)
I found that most budget-minded photographers opted for sensor-shift type image stabilization. Buying versatile lenses based on what you like isn’t cheap. And to top it off, buying a lens with image stabilization costs a few bucks more.
6. Do You Need A Movie Mode?
Most DSLRs come with intelligent video recording features. And you will be surprised to know that HD movie recording is very common among entry-level DSLRs. More advanced DSLRs offer 4K recording, but video recording controls are almost similar on every DSLR.
Finding out the video features of your DSLR is as important as understanding its image sensor. High-definition video recording and its significant use has grown over the past few years. In simple words, all DSLRs, including entry-level and advanced, offer HD 1920 x 1080 video recording.
This frame makes to easier on photographers to edit, crop, and publish HD videos online. While some cameras allow quick HD video playback, some offer fast video transfers with a USB cable or SD card slot. If your DSLR has a bigger internal storage, you can capture more HD videos in lesser time.
If you want more control and performance, finding a DSLR with a manual focus functionality is essential. (8)
Some cameras even come with HDMI input for direct video linking. And a microphone and headphone jack allows better recording and playback. All these features dictate the video recording abilities of a DSLR.
That said, another important aspect of choosing a DSLR based on its video recording features is correcting recording and focusing issues. Taking high-definition videos in low-light conditions can cause excessive noise and distortion. Some DSLRs come with built-in features that eliminate such blunders.
More advanced DSLRs with intelligent video recording features offer settings that help you control exposure, light sensitivity, and audio while recording. With also allows a bit of audio-video manipulation with selectable frames so you get the highest quality video possible.
Using a DSLR for video recording is simpler than ever before. All you need to do is make note of all the movie mode specifications of the DSLR before purchasing.
7. Finding Out The Image Format
Which image format are you most comfortable with? Is it JPEG or RAW? Or is it both? Due to technological advancements, all DSLRs offer both RAW and JPEG formats. So it’s only a matter of preference that you choose either one.
Here’s why you need both JPEG and RAW formats in your DSLR:
JPEG: JPEG sets the standard for taking high resolution and quality images. It’s web-friendly, social network-friendly, and can easily be edited on various platforms, including Photoshop. There isn’t one platform that doesn’t support JPEG for processing images. It’s a good format for sharing, uploading, and editing on a daily basis.
JPEG images take up very little space on your memory card.
RAW: RAW images (or files) offers more professional shooting capabilities. Photo journalists and professional photographers shoot in RAW as it offers better range and image detailing. Even though JPEG images are web-friendly, they offer a comparatively lower quality than RAW.
A single RAW image is much larger in storage size than a JPEG image. Hence, editing them on certain image editing software can feel a bit difficult at first.
As discussed above, using either one of these formats has its pros and cons. Based on the level of adjustments you’d like to make on the final images can you opt for either JPEG or RAW formats. (9)
These two are the most common image formats for most photographers. Once edited, they can easily be converted into PSD, GIF, or PNG format. These formats are most often available in image editing software including Photoshop. Each format has its own set of pros and cons based on how you edit it.
8. How Fast Is Your DSLR Camera?
This is where the DSLR’s shutter speed setting comes into focus. In simple words, the camera shutter remains open for a specific amount of time, which is measured as the shutter speed. It’s measured only in seconds or fractions of seconds.
The most common shutter speed is 1/60 as it allows the camera’s sensor to capture the scene perfectly before shutting. That said, there are versatile shutter speeds to look forward to in a DSLR. They are 1/500, 1/250, 1/125, 1/60, 1/30, and so on. Some DSLRs also feature 1 second, 2 seconds, or 10 seconds shutter speed for low-light conditions. (10)
With the correct shutter speed, you should be able to tell your story without the blurry effects. Even if there’s movement or distractions in the scene, knowing the correct shutter speed setting is essential. (11)
Entry-level DSLRs offer features that automatically set the shutter speed based on the shooting environment. But you can always make manual shutter speed adjustments if you wish to experiment with movements.
Here’s what you need to know to pick the right shutter speed:
Movement: If you’re capturing fast-moving trains or streams, you know the amount of movement you will be capturing through the lens. Now is when you need to decide whether you should “freeze” the movement in the image or somehow portray the movement. This usually results in a blurry projection of the train or river. This is called a motion blur.
Only after practicing on a DSLR a couple of times can you master the art of motion blur at certain shutter speeds. This won’t be possible if your DSLR lacks automatic and manual shutter speed control.
Focal length: The focal length of any DSLR functions according to the shutter speed settings. If you’re setting fast shutter speeds, a longer focal length with proper image stabilization will result in a fantastic shot. But without image stabilization, opting for a higher shutter speed than focal length is essential.
9. Find Out About The Burst Mode
Most DSLRs have a burst mode, also known as continuous mode. This mode freezes fast moving objects and takes multiple images for as long as you press down on the shutter button. The common name for this mode on entry-level DSLRs is the “Sports” mode.
This will help you take multiple fast-action shots in seconds. The ability to take fast-action shots is an important asset for most sports and nature photographers. The camera sets the shutter speed to the lowest measure to capture multiple images. (12)
So what are the specific settings inside the burst mode?
Self-timer: Sometimes pressing the shutter button can cause a slight camera shake that may result in a blurry photograph. So using the self-timer mode for fast-action shots is a good way to avoid camera shake. Especially when you do not want to miss an opportunity.
With the help of a tripod you can set your DSLR on the burst mode and have a 2-second or 10-second timer to go. This way, the camera captures the image 2 or 10 seconds after you press down the shutter button.
Some DSLRs come with a distinctive self-time continuous feature that allows you to take multiple shots 10 seconds after you press the shutter button. You can set the number of images to take, varying from 2 to more than 10. (13)
The importance of using the burst mode for beginners gives them an idea about how shutter speed works. It also allows motion-free and shake-free images in less than a second!
10. Using Viewfinder or Live View
Current DSLRs offer both a Live View monitor and a viewfinder. The Live View monitor allows other extensive functions such as video playback, image preview, and manual controls. For people who want eye-level compatibility, using the viewfinder is a good option. (14)
Viewfinder: The optical viewfinder system of any DSLR can either be a pentaprism or a pentamirror type. The former one is most commonly found in advanced DSLRs with a single-lens, glass construction. The glass surface offers better “light gathering” abilities and focus.
The pentamirror viewfinder are common among entry-level cameras. They’re more lightweight and compact compared to pentaprism. Plus, pentamirror viewfinders are generally darker since they feature series of mirrors to produce a clear, viewable image.
The next thing to consider when looking at viewfinders is frame coverage. The most ideal frame coverage for most viewfinders is 100%, but some do fall at 95%. Frame coverage of 95% is not bad unless you want to be able to every detail during capturing. This depends on the design and build of the DSLR, so most with a compact build are always in-between 95 to 100%.
Live view monitor: The live view monitor, due to advanced technological changes, has seen some drastic improvements in design. Now, you will see monitors have increased in size and capacity for intricate menu navigation and playback. Standard DSLRs come with a 3-inch monitor with sharper and better resolution. Some are touchscreen while some can be disconnected from the camera for better viewing angles.
The best feature about live view monitors is the ability to focus on sharper objects. With the touch of a button you can zoom in on an object in view to enhance focusing ability. It even offers advanced metering options for more professional photographers.
11. Considering The Battery Life
Lots of factors affect the battery life of a DSLR. Even though there aren’t any special features that let you know how durable your camera is, cameras with a long battery life are hard to find. Cold weathers, consistent shooting, and using advanced settings can drain the battery faster than usual.
The advantage of using a DSLR over any other camera, especially a mirrorless one, is better battery life. The fact that you can charge your battery at the end of the day and use it for an entire day even is great. Looking for a weather-sealed DSLR with durable housing can save you from cold weather troubles.
According to one research, the battery starts to deplete as soon as the temperature goes beyond 20 degrees. So having a 14-hour battery life can reduce it 10 times faster in cold weather temperatures. (15,16)
The general consensus around buying a durable DSLR with a long battery life is that needs to be recharged for more than 24 hours for it to withstand extreme temperatures. Professional photographers often carry additional batteries for emergencies.
In conclusion, looking at the battery life of a DSLR is a good way to prevent unexpected shut-downs in the middle of an important shoot. It will help you make your shooting experience less daunting and inconvenient.
12. Find Out About ISO Settings
Having extensive ISO settings in your DSLR is important for taking excellent, high-definition pictures. ISO is the light sensitivity level of your DSLR. It helps change levels of sensitivity to the light for a perfectly bright and clear image.
With a higher ISO setting, you can take clear low-light shots without the use of a flash. The lower the ISO setting during day-time, the less grain and noise in the final image.
To demonstrate the importance of ISO settings in DSLR, I looked at how you can take a better photograph in low-light conditions. Based on this research, I found out that ISO helps increase shutter speed to prevent blur and distortion. It also helps reduce grain and sensitivity with less light sources in the “scene”.
That said, with multiple ISO settings starting from 50 to 6400, you can experiment the best measure with less light. Modern DSLRs come with such ISO settings to produce the highest quality image. The various ISO speeds depend on how fast the shutter speed can take the shot.
For example, ISO 100 is twice more sensitive to light than ISO 50. And ISO settings are only measured in the following sequence - 50, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400, and so on. So if you have your ISO settings set to ISO 400, it’s 4 times more sensitive to light than ISO 100. This means your DSLR takes 4 times less time to capture a high-definition image. (17)
On an ending note, a high ISO speed takes only fractions of seconds to capture a scene. This prevents camera shake, motion blur, and distortion.
That’s why ISO is of great significance for most photographers.
Before I end my post here, I just want to jot down some basics of a DSLR camera. Most of you might want to know how a DSLR is different from a point-and-shoot camera. So here is a brief rundown of the many advantages of a DSLR over point-and-shoot cameras:
Accurate visual and audio controls.
Excellent image quality.
Ability to attach versatile lenses.
Flexible shutter and focus speeds.
Better light sensitivity for night photography.
Choosing the ideal DSLR camera for you takes both effort and patience. You have to understand the basic concepts of a DSLR camera, how it works, and the ways to maintain it. But the end result is always worth it.
There will always be reasons for you to delay your DSLR camera buying process. You might feel you don’t know enough about the world of photography to buy a professional DSLR camera. Or you’re waiting for a new model to come out next month.
Instead of waiting for months for the next upgraded release, why not buy the ones that are already popular and efficient? Getting some new, upgraded features is no excuse to miss out on real-life photo shooting opportunities.
If you search hard enough, you will find brands with excellent camera models of professional range. Choosing your first DSLR camera with your current level of expertise helps you learn new techniques and tricks.
Finally, this post on how to choose a DSLR camera with expert suggestions can bring you closer to the kind of photography you’d be most interested in.